This is Easter number 163 for this historic congregation, and my 20th at Westminster, but none of us has ever celebrated Easter like this before. There were times over the years when Westminster didn’t have a building, or the sanctuary was under construction, or we had to borrow another church’s space, but this congregation has never not gathered in person somehow, somewhere to mark the Day of Resurrection, over all those years.
When I think of a typical Westminster Easter my memory starts with the opening hymn: the brass and kettle drums and magnificent pipe organ and pews packed and a full choir leading the procession and the joy of our voices in praise of God lifting the roof!
That was then, and it will be again someday, but this is now. We may be apart, but we are still the church, and we are still together.
Easter in the time of covid.
Some of my ministerial colleagues have joked this week, “The tomb was empty that morning – why should the church be any different?”
To which I say, the church building may be empty, but the church’s voice has never been stronger, never been so widely heard, never been so earnestly expressed as in these separated weeks of covid. The power of God’s love is as evident as it has ever been. In my 35 years of ministry I have never prayed with such intensity with so many in such a variety of ways – over the phone, on Zoom calls, with facetime, through email, even shouted from a safe distance. We have learned to be the church online Not virtual church, but actual church. We’re still teaching children, youth, and adults, still caring for one another, still serving the community and seeking justice together – we’re even still offering new member classes, by Zoom, on May 3 or 6. Let us know if you’re interested. We may be in a global health crisis, but we can still be the church.
About 20 years ago a group of us from Westminster were hosted by the Presbyterian Church in Cuba. It was at the end of a decade of devastation and crisis after the collapse of the USSR. The economy was in tatters. Hurricanes had ravaged the island. Everything was a mess. We visited the Cuban Presbyterian camp – ruined buildings, downed trees, no electricity. While walking across the grounds, stepping gingerly over the debris, I came upon a hand-lettered sign tacked to a tree: Habrá tiempos mejores, pero este es nuestro tiempo.
There will be better times, but this is our time.
That word seems especially apt in this moment in history. More than 2,000 people died of covid-19 yesterday, and the day before, in the U.S. The virus has not yet peaked. Our best defense is to stay apart now to slow the spread of the virus and give hospitals and medical science time to prepare for what is coming.
There will be better Easters, but this is our Easter. And, frankly, it’s exactly what Easter should be – a word of hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. A light shining through the shadows of grief and pain. Far from being debilitated by the current crisis, the pandemic has roused the somnolent church to life.
When the stone rolled away it released the power of love.
There was no Widor Toccatta, no Hallelujah Chorus, that day at the tomb. Only a couple of angels-in-waiting who seem as surprised by Mary peeking in at them as she was by seeing them, sitting six feet apart, where the body had been placed. Mary weeps, not for joy, but in grief. The white-clad figures, like a couple of healthcare aides at the door of the hospital, try to comfort her. “Why are you weeping?” they ask, because they know the rest of the story.
Then Mary turns and sees the gardener. He wants to help, as well. “Why are you weeping?” he says through his face mask.
Mary ignore his question and asks where the body has been taken – and then the gardener says her name. Whatever had kept her from seeing falls away and she recognizes the risen Jesus. Instinctively, she wants to embrace him, but he keeps good social distance and tells her not to touch him. Instead he says to go tell the others what she has seen.
Does he have any idea how difficult that will be for Mary – to leave him now, after all she’s been through? But she runs to share the good news. She launches the church with her proclamation – let the church note that a woman is the first to see and believe and preach resurrection, and we’re still sharing her good news all these years later.
Easter doesn’t do away with death. It renews the promise of life – fullness of life on this earth, and the hope of life eternal. Mary tells the others that good news, tells us, so that we might share that same promise wherever and whenever with whoever we can.
I have mentioned that a small Westminster group has been meeting briefly each day by Zoom with the family of a church member seriously ill in the ICU with covid-19. We end each conversation with prayer, asking that God would hold him close. After two weeks of being near death and on life support I’m happy to report that yesterday afternoon he was disconnected from the last machine and is sitting up in a chair next to his bed in the ICU.
The family has asked that I tell you his name and his story, so that we can all give thanks to God together. It’s Nachito Herrera, the well-known Cuban-American pianist and member of this congregation. I was zoomed by technology into his room with the family yesterday. We had a brief conversation with Nachito, he asked when he could have a piano, and said he’d like some ice cream. We shed tears of joy, and then offered prayers of thanksgiving.
The power of love. We should never underestimate it.
When Jesus says, “Mary,” that power bursts into the world. That’s the moment Easter begins, when eyes are opened and a new future made possible. Mary realizes then her sorrow has been relieved, her hope restored, her prayers answered.
”Let this blessing gather itself around you,” the poet Jan Richardson writes.
“Let it give you what you will need for this journey.
You will not remember the words-
they do not matter.
All you need to remember is how it sounded
when you stood in the place of death
and heard the living call your name.”
Outside the tomb that day Jesus the Gardener speaking to Mary – and to us – sounds like God speaking through the prophet Isaiah long ago:
“I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:1-2, 18-19)
On a bleak afternoon outside Jerusalem, Mary’s world and the world of Jesus’ followers had come to a sudden, crashing halt. Three days later, by the resurrection power of love they had what they needed to keep on living, but in an entirely different way. They would no longer let the fear of death control them. They would no longer stay quiet in the face of injustice. They would no longer allow some to be excluded while others enjoyed more than their fair share.
The values Jesus lived and taught and preached did not die on the cross. They were raised with him: The Beatitudes – blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, blessed are the poor for theirs ins the kingdom of God – the final Judgment – as you did it to one of these, the least of them, you did it to me – the greatest commandment – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and you neighbor as yourself.
Those values, those teachings of Jesus are at the heart of his ministry. They are given new life that first Easter morn.
The question at the empty tomb – repeated twice – “Why are you weeping?” is not merely for Mary, but is aimed at us, in the time of covid. In this time we have good reason to be weeping and we are, but here Jesus challenging us, asking us why we are hanging on to old ways, to former reality – why we are clinging to Good Friday when Easter has happened. The risen Jesus wants us to enter the new reality and embrace new possibilities.
Many are asking when things will return to “normal.” In the world of covid – as in the world of Easter – nothing will be as it was before.
I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it!
The world will have changed after the virus is under control. There will be no going back. We have learned too much about the shortcomings of our healthcare system, we have learned too much about the depth of racial disparity in our land, about global and local inequities around wealth and poverty, about poor preparation for and response to a crisis to go back to life as it once was.
Easter challenges those former ways. It challenges those old systems. They’re “threatened by Resurrection,” in the words of Guatemalan Julia Esquivel. “In this marathon of Hope,” she says, “There are always others to relieve us who carry the strength to reach the finish line which lies beyond death.” (Sojourners, March 2020, 27)
Because we are an Easter people, a resurrection community, we have a good vantage point on the covid crisis and all that it is revealing among us. We know about the importance of community, about our oneness with all on this planet, about caring for the most vulnerable, we know about working together to dismantle systems that are unjust and work for the betterment of all.
We know what it is to look death in the face – and refuse to let it have dominion over us. We have been to the empty tomb. Jesus has called us by name.
We know that all things have been made new.
We know about the power of love, because we have experienced it.
There will be better Easters, but this is our Easter – and Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Alleulia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God.