Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Natural and supernatural disasters occur with Jesus’ death and resurrection:
Eclipse (Mt 27:45)
Two earthquakes (Mt 27:51, 28:2)
Tombs opened, raising bodies of the dead (Mt 27:52-53)—like a zombie apocalypse
We have our own disasters to deal with in these days:
Coronavirus/COVID-19 killing thousands and sickening over a million, shutting things down worldwide.
Concomitant economic nosedive as many businesses have been forced to close, schools close. No more restaurants, no more theaters, you can’t even get your hair cut. As people have been thrown out of work in these “non-essential” industries, over 17 million have filed for unemployment just in the past three weeks.
Medical equipment shortages: medical staff having to work without proper protective gear, not enough ventilators. Extra temporary hospitals are being set up. Freezer trucks were brought into New York City to serve as temporary morgues because the morgues were too full.
Political turmoil at the top, lots of finger pointing, confusion, and mixed messages.
In Ecuador, bodies are piling up in the streets because no one will pick them up.
This is new territory for us. None of us was around during the flu pandemic of 1918-19. We may have heard stories and seen photos of people wearing face masks, but we weren’t actually there. Same with the Plague in Europe back in the 14th century. We’ve heard about it, may have Monty Python images running through our heads, but we don’t actually know what that was like. We’ve been through other crises in recent years—AIDS, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy come to mind—but they were different. And we’re still trying to wrap our minds around the crisis that is climate change, but it hasn’t yet shut down the human population of this planet in nearly the way this virus is doing. So quick, so drastic, so immediate. So scary.
On Maundy Thursday we talked about how God is with us even in the loneliness of self-isolation, even in the uncertainty, even in sickness, even in death. Yes, God is in the light. And God is in all the darkness.
This resurrection narrative isn’t about happy-ever-after. The disciples didn’t magically find themselves released from Roman oppression and poverty and fear. Rather, what they experienced is that Jesus’ presence endures. Love endures and even prevails over all the forces that try to extinguish it. And as Cornell West says, Love in public is what justice looks like.
Christ’s resurrection doesn’t wait until it’s convenient or all danger has passed. The resurrection happens when the disciples are grieving and terrified, huddled in their own self-isolation in an upper room. Christ appears to them in their time of greatest distress, terror, and confusion. They are completely lost and overwhelmed. That’s when Jesus shows up.
The two Marys come to the tomb at dawn. What did they hope to see? Perhaps they just planned to sit at the tomb, to pay their respects. And then this terrifying thing happens, according to this gospel story: there is an earthquake, and an angel of God descends from heaven and rolls back the stone from the mouth of the tomb. The guards pass out with fear. Brave women, they remain standing. The angel begins talking with them the way any divine presence begins most conversations: “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid. Easy enough to say. Do not be afraid. It’s not a message of happy-ever-after. It’s not a promise that everything is going to be all right. It is a call to continue to love boldly. It is a message that Jesus’ story doesn’t end with his crucifixion. The religious leaders wanted him silenced because he kept talking about radical love and justice, inclusion of the sick, the poor, the marginalized, and an upending of the temple authority and power. Jesus was dangerous and had to be gotten rid of. The authorities thought that crucifying him would do it. Everything could go back to normal then. Oppressive and corrupt systems could remain in place. No one would dare to continue to preach and teach and heal with such a crazy message of God’s love.
Well, the authorities were wrong. Jesus continues to act in the world through all who follow his teachings, who welcome the poor, who care for the sick, who comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The resurrection continues to take place today. Marcus Borg calls it “God’s yes to Jesus and God’s no to the powers that be” (cited in Kathryn Matthews, https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_12_2020).
I don’t know about you, but I am heartened hearing about all the kindnesses that total strangers or bare acquaintances are doing for each other. People picking up groceries and dropping them off on a porch. People waiving rent for their tenants, as one landlord did in New York. Athletes donating to food banks. I have heard of examples here in our congregation:
It’s not the same as sitting beside someone and letting them cry on your shoulder. Not the same as hugging each other in greeting. Not the same as sharing conversation in the fellowship hall during coffee hour. And yet. Love endures, even at a six-foot distance, even as a wave through the window, even across a computer screen. Love endures in the blue lights beaming from downtown Seattle and in the pots and pans and whooping and hollering in support of our medical workers. Love endures in shut-down Italian cities where people gather on their balconies and sing together. Love endures in the car parade of teachers through neighborhoods in a central Washington city to let their students know how much they are loved and missed. You cannot crucify love. It will not stay down.
The disciples were not the same after Jesus’ crucifixion. Even his resurrection, as joyful and unexpected as that was, didn’t undo the events leading up to it. There was no going back to the old normal.
There is no going back to the old normal for us, either. When we emerge from this COVID-19 crisis, we will be changed by this experience.
Mike Denton referenced Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell, in which she studied how people around the world responded in the face of natural disasters. She found that the old power structures often were forced to change. At their best, people learned to see everyone as fellow human beings, and the old categories and prejudices sometimes fell away. When people unite across these divides, they have new power, and they can rise up and change the world.
This was the power of Jesus’ message that made the religious authorities of his day so nervous that they had to take him out. But there is no crucifying the Word. There is no suppressing God’s abundant love and yearning for justice. The disciples were already steeped in Jesus’ presence, even after his death. There was no stopping them. There is no stopping God.
Here’s Mike Denton again:
[W]ithout question, there is going to be grieving. Without question there is going to be pain. Without question there is going to be loss. And without question there will likely be a loss of some of our churches and some of our institutions, and without a doubt, some of the members of our congregations. We are going to face loss in the coming days. And I’m also convinced that there will be a recovery on the other side.…
These connections that we’re making and growing—these are the connections that we’ve needed for such a long time.…
If we can figure this out, there’s a lot we can figure out.…
I think this is changing us. This is changing who we are, and who we can be, and who we might be. And that makes me supremely hopeful even on those days that I’m afraid and lonely and worried. On those days there’s also that hope that something else can emerge from this and will emerge from this, and we’re proving it every single day.
We are in our own moment. As the angel said to the women disciples, so I say to you: Do not be afraid. Jesus is not in the tomb. We will come through this. Together. Keep looking for God’s love surrounding you, calling you, bringing out the best in you, even and especially in the most challenging of times. Keep looking for the hope. Keep looking for the joy. Keep looking for the love.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.