The Russian Orthodox have a wonderful Easter tradition. After the church service (which is far longer than this one), they gather for dinner and every person who comes to the dinner has to tell a joke. That is because Easter is a great and joyful event. Jesus has triumphed over evil. Laughter is a sign of his victory and the Russian Orthodox believe laughter drives the devil out of the house. So let’s borrow from that tradition and begin this sermon with an Easter joke – one that is also a true story.
One Easter morning at another church the priest invited the children to gather around him and he asked this question: “What is Easter?” Hands shot up. The first child said, “Easter is when we get chocolate bunnies.” The priest said, “True, but that is not what Easter is really all about.” The next child said, “Easter is when the bunny leaves us eggs.” The priest acknowledged her but was getting frustrated. He called on another child who said, “Easter is when Jesus died on the cross for us.” “No,” said the priest, “But thank you, we are headed in the right direction.” Finally a child said, “Easter is when Jesus came out of the tomb!” The priest was so happy someone got it. But then she added, “And if he sees his shadow and goes back in the tomb, we get six more weeks of winter.”O
The devil has just left the church.
Let’s reflect on Easter. I’ll base these reflections on Scripture but let’s put them in the context of what Franciscan Richard Rohr calls the “first source of revelation” which is nature itself.
You all know I spend a lot of time on the Mass Pike – a lot of time. For my first four years as bishop, I spent most of that time doing one of four things: taking phone meetings, listening to NPR, listening to the music of Bruce Springsteen, or thinking about the next place I was going to and what I needed to do there. But then one day, a few months ago, I noticed the sky. This is easy to do on the Pike since there is nothing blocking it in front of you as you drive along.
Cloud formations are amazing! They are moving. They have layers upon layers, depth upon depth. And, they are of infinite variety, as the time of day or the weather changes. As I look at that sky, I am filled with a sense of wonder – wonder at God’s creation. Now don’t worry. I can still see the road while seeing the sky. And I still do one of the four things mentioned above. But more and more, I just want to check in on God’s sky, and wonder with it. What do you see in creation that captures your imagination? What leads your soul to awe and wonder?
Now, we go to the second source of revelation – Scripture. The readings for Holy Week take us on a journey from weeping….to wonder. Ponder that with me.
The weeping begins before we ever get to the cross. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus himself weeps over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. After the arrest of Jesus, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times; when the cock grows, he weeps. As Simon Cyrene carries the cross, behind Jesus, women follow him “wailing.” And in John’s Gospel, when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early Sunday morning, the body of Jesus is not there, and she weeps.
The Holy Week story begins in weeping but it does not end there. The discovery of the empty tomb by grieving women turns to wonder. It is a wonder that is both exciting and frightening. Mark’s Gospel is so clear about this. A young man in a white robe at the empty tomb tells the women that Jesus is not here. He has been raised. They are given instructions to, “go tell, he will see you in Galilee.” The women “fled, for terror and amazement had seized them. And they said nothing to nobody, because they were afraid.” Mark’s Gospel ends with that sense of wonder.
But the other gospels take the wonder further. Let’s look at John’s gospel. Mary Magdalene knows the tomb is empty but still she weeps because she fears the body has been stolen. A gardener asks her why she is crying. When she verbalizes her fear, the gardener says her name, “Mary!” She knows at that moment that the gardener is the risen Lord. Mary embraces him; but he won’t let her cling. Jesus has to move on – throughout all the world.
The late theologian, Marcus Borg, puts it so well:
“The tomb could not hold him. He is loose in the world. He is still here. He is still recruiting for the kingdom of God.”
I invite you to wonder about this during these holiest of days. The Risen Savior is on the loose and he knows all our names.
Now, I know this video message is getting long, and you have so much to do to prepare for these Holy Days. But let me bring out one more dimension of weeping and wondering. Don’t worry; I’m bringing this reflection home.
In John’s Gospel, the weeping and the wondering all happen in a garden. In the opening of John’s Gospel, he invites us to reflect on what happened “in the beginning,” in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve – you know the story. Why do they leave the garden? They are banished in shame and tears after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit.
Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise, c.1427 (fresco) (detail) Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy
Another garden – Gethsemane – is where Jesus prays on the last night of his life, as the disciples sleep, according to Mathew, Mark and Luke. Why does Jesus leave that Garden? He was “seized” and bound by the Temple police as the disciples deserted him in their fear.
Now to the last garden – the garden that contained the tomb which could not hold Jesus. If the Garden of Eden was the beginning of Creation, this garden is the beginning of the New Creation. If the Garden of Gethsemane was a place where the disciples slept and deserted Jesus, the Garden of the New Creation finds Mary awake – she recognizes the presence of the Risen Christ in the gardener. Jesus does not leave this Garden “seized” and in the hands of the violent – but free to appear anywhere and anytime bringing God’s imagination. Mary does not desert Jesus – she wants to cling to him. She leaves the garden not in shame and fear but with wonder and a mission.
May we leave this Easter with wonder and a mission. May we leave ready to go to those who weep – the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the refugees, the addicted, and the people in our everyday lives who are weighed down in burdens – ready to wonder what God’s New Creation might look like for them and for us. May we go forth committed to the New Creation in which our endangered earth demands respect and care. May we go forth waking ourselves up to the wonder of cloud formations and to all the grace that comes into our lives everyday if we but look.
I can’t end this sermon without quoting St. Paul about the difference the Resurrection of Jesus makes in our lives. I know this sermon is getting long but I promise you I’m bringing it home.
All preachers have a “go to” line. After all these years, you know mine is “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope.” St. Paul had a “go to” phrase. It was …”but now.” As in Ephesians – “For once you were in darkness, BUT NOW in the Lord you ARE light.” Later in Ephesians: “Before you were far from God, BUT NOW you have been brought near by Christ.” Paul writes “but now” 27 times in his epistles.
The Risen Jesus changes things. He transforms weeping to wonder. You have met Jesus. What is your “but now?” How is your life different in Christ?
Let me offer you some possibilities:
- I was anxiety ridden. BUT NOW I keep hearing Jesus with his “go to” line: Be Not Afraid. I am with you.
- I was addicted to (fill in the blank). BUT NOW I have been set free.
- I used to think of people in stereotypes. BUT NOW I recognize the dignity of every human being.
- I used to keep whatever I earned. BUT NOW I live generously.
- I used to complain a lot. BUT NOW I am grateful.
- I used to be cynical BUT NOW I live in hope.
Easter tells us that Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope is unkillable. Commit to the Jesus Movement that is out to change the weeping of this world into the wonderful dream God has for it.