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Many of us come to Easter with heavy hearts this year. Whether it is because of the unthinkable cruelty of the world, the relentlessness of bad news, the stress and strain of the struggle for justice, a daunting awareness of all we’re up against, or a more personal experience of loss, many of us come to the tomb newly marked by suffering, more deeply acquainted with grief.
It’s okay: We can admit it. It’s okay: We don’t have to pretend to be fine when we’re not.
It’s okay to come to church hoping for something to make us feel better, and it’s healthy to acknowledge that true joy is not something we can order up like a Happy Meal. It is, in fact, quite fitting to bring God our disappointments and doubts, to belt out “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” even when we have no idea what we think about Christ or resurrection.
God loves a humble heart, and authenticity is good for the soul. If the road is made by walking, surely faith is made by wrestling with the angels—again and again and again.
Truth is, many of us tend to be too glib about Easter, too smug about resurrection.
Truth is, some of us approach Easter as a day out of time—a make-believe exercise in which good triumphs over evil and love conquers death—an opportunity to imagine how things will be some day. Or perhaps we think of Easter as a little shot of hope that will take the edge off our pain, some sort of talisman that will protect us from suffering, loss, grief, even death.
All those things are guaranteed, of course; all those things come standard with this land-of-the-living territory.
But Easter comes not to protect us but to change us.
The resurrection reminds us of what we so often forget: that the cycle of violence and death can be broken, that truth will defeat alternative facts and justice overcome oppression, that we are not the sum-total of our mistakes, that forgiveness and reconciliation do happen, and that, yes, as sure as death and taxes, new life is also guaranteed.
Friends, Easter is not a mini-vacation from reality, a temporary respite from “real” life. Easter is a divine summons to see the Risen Christ in our midst, a holy invitation to participate in the every-day creation of a new reality, “the assurance that what we cannot do for ourselves is given us” 1 as pure gift. We experience resurrection not when we are good enough, not when we have gotten our act together, not when we have earned it, but when we, like Jesus, turn away from the love of power and, instead, surrender to the power of love.
Easter represents the glorious work of a Re-Creator God who is always and forever bringing life out of death.
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, grief-stricken Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. She was surprised to see that the stone had been rolled away, but she thought she knew exactly what that meant. When Peter and the other disciple arrived, they went inside and reached the same conclusion: Someone had stolen their beloved savior’s body. And so they went home.
Thank God Mary did not . Thank God she was strong enough to stay with her grief. Thank God that even through her tears, she chose to look death in the face. Angels looked back .
“Why are you crying?” they asked.
Because she still didn’t understand what had happened. She still didn’t understand that death had been defeated.
She was still crying when the Risen Christ appeared behind her. She was so confused by what she thought was happening, so blinded by what she thought had happened, that she didn’t recognize him.
Until he called her name.
Then, she knew she had seen the Lord. Then, she was changed. Then, she went running to tell the others.
Later that day, Jesus appeared to the disciples-in-hiding. He showed them his wounds and gave them his Spirit. He offered them peace and forgiveness. And they were filled with joy!
We have heard the story—again and again and again. We want it to be true. We long for a resurrection experience.
But what do we do when the tomb is not empty? What do we do when the world is littered with tombs, when our Facebook feeds are clotted with pictures of death, when our hearts are filled with the fear of what fresh hell will be unleashed today?
It’s hard, isn’t it—to be Easter people in a Good Friday world?
To consistently resist the forces of death, which take so many forms, requires vigilance, intention, and persistence. It can be exhausting.
It is so much easier not to question the way things are, not to love, not to pour our lives out for others. Because if we are not careful, if we do not guard our hearts, our spirits can be broken by injustice and crushed by all the suffering—ours and the world’s.
But who wants to live like that? Who wants to muddle through life huddled behind locked doors? Who wants to spend precious time and energy building walls around our hearts?
If we are honest, we have to admit that there are times when it is all we can do to show up for another meeting, make another phone call, go to another march, sign another petition, consider all the facts and, then, still get out of bed—again. If we are honest, we have to admit that there are days when it is all we can do to stand at death’s door, weeping.
But friends, that is a good place to be—because that is where the Risen Christ is:
In the homeless man who waits in his wheelchair, one leg amputated, for the church doors to open so he can help cook the meal at Not Bread Alone.
In the hundreds of people—hundreds—who show up at meeting after meeting to learn what they can do to protect their neighbors from deportation.
In the middle-aged woman attending her first-ever protest march.
In the Muslim dude (that’s how he signs the card) who sends flowers and support to a Jewish synagogue that’s received death threats.
In a friend who almost succumbs to death-by-divorce and then, out of nowhere, is raised to new life by a totally unexpected job of, oddly enough, ministering to the dying.
In a heartbroken, beaten-down woman whose very existence is transformed when she meets the love of her life.
In the grieving parents who honor the life of their shining 16-year-old son by riding their bicycles across the country to raise money for epilepsy research.
In the trans person, who despite being bullied and threatened and legislated against, stands on the street with a sign inviting people to come get a free hug.
In conservative towns that open their hearts and their doors to refugees.
In the groundswell of opposition to the post-Easter execution of eight men on death row in Arkansas.
In online communities that raise more than a million dollars to send to college the children of African American men who were killed by police.
In the runners and spectators who return every year to the Boston Marathon, determined to prove that Love will have the last word.
In a church where people are welcomed, loved, supported, and celebrated for being exactly who they are.
Yes, we are wounded people trying to live into the hard-to-believe truth of healing, hope, and new life.
And, yes, like Mary, we sometimes have a hard time recognizing who or what is standing right in front of us.
But we are also like the Risen Christ, able to walk into places of fear and injustice unashamed of our wounds, emboldened by our suffering, dispensing peace and forgiveness and power.
We are also like the angels, hanging out in all the wrong places with all the wrong people, just waiting for a chance to share the good news, to tell others that we have seen the Lord, that we have found new life.
There is an Easter basket sitting on my kitchen table, a gift long ago from someone who loved me, someone who went on to break my heart. I bring it out every year to remember that I am alive. Oh, that resurrection took years, but God brought new life out of that death.
In my flower beds, the tender shoots of peonies are beginning to poke their heads up out of the hard ground. Those peonies were given to me years ago, dug up from the garden of Ann Floyd—dear Ann—who left us in an instant, last October, on her birthday, no less. I see the plants rising up, and I remember how God created new life in Ann.
On my little pseudo-mantel is a collection of five glass candle holders, each one with a letter on it. Put together in the proper order, they spell PEACE. They once belonged to Ginny Kendall—amazing Ginny—who gifted them to me one afternoon last August, from her death bed. It was the last time I would see her in this life, but when I look at those candle holders I feel gratitude and peace. And when I look out this morning and see Nick and Ginny’s daughter Cyn and grandson Noah, I know God has brought life out of death.
Beloveds, with every green blade that rises, every broken heart that loves again, every glimmer of justice and solidarity, the Risen Christ is calling us from death to life. In every reconciled relationship, each unexpected turnaround, every time we summon the courage to get out of bed again, the Risen Christ is calling us by name, saying, “It’s me, Life. It’s me, Restoration. It’s me, Another Chance. It’s me, God’s Love With Skin On. It’s me, Love Poured Out for You.
So let us run to tell the news: Christ is Risen! God has brought life out of death—again! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!