Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this morning, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up good will with your folks. You might need it later. Some of you are here because you heard we’re doing the Hallelujah chorus, with brass, good for you. Sing out. Some of you are here because it is Easter, and you are supposed to go to church on Easter, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. If you need help navigating this ancient liturgy, someone nearby can help. We try to make room for kids, for visitors, for folks who are just checking out church here at Holy Communion. Whatever brought you here today, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Happy Easter.
The Easter Gospel, the good news, begins in the dark. “Early on the first day of the week,” John tells us, “while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” While it was still dark. If I’m a bit of a literalist about anything in the Bible, I am about this. I think Easter morning services should begin in the dark.
Easter begins in the dark. And (at the 10:30am service) we (will) re-enact that darkness. We welcome all these visitors, and then we make them stumble around in the dark. I am sure all of the books about how to grow a church would tell me I’m wrong to do Easter this way. We are, it must be said, a strange church. If you (they) found (find) the darkness a bit disorienting this morning, well, good. That’s why we start in darkness.
Because we know that the power of Christ’s resurrection, the remaking of our world, it happened while it was still dark. We don’t get a peek inside the tomb. The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened in the time between Jesus’ burial and when that stone rolled away. Some of the deepest blessings of faith are also the deepest mysteries.
The Good News of Easter comes when all seems dark, when life seems hopeless. The Gospel wants us to sense the chaos. Mary, thank God for Mary, thank God for the women who come to mourn, the women who stay with Jesus. Thank God for the women brave enough to face the trust and speak the truth until the men listen. Mary comes to the tomb in the darkness. John tells us, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.”
Darkness has an allegorical weight in the Bible, and especially in John’s Gospel. Darkness is ominous, it tries to overcome the light John tells us in the gospel’s first chapter. Darkness is dangerous. Darkness holds mystery
Mary goes to the tomb under the cover of darkness, she walks into the danger. None of the Gospels tell us about what happened on Holy Saturday, the day after the crucifixion. Luke says simply that Jesus’ followers “rested” because it was the sabbath. We don’t get a window into the tomb, and we don’t get to see Jesus’ followers’ grief. I wonder whether Mary Magdalene needed to get away from the guys, away from the crowd. I wonder whether Mary was looking for a place to be by herself, to weep, to grieve.
Mary came to the tomb under the cover of darkness, wanting to draw close to Jesus, early, before anyone else had gotten up. And there, in the darkness, in her grief, she saw the stone rolled away. She runs for the other disciples, Peter and the beloved disciple come running, they come and see the empty tomb. Then they head home. And Mary, Mary waits. She weeps. And Mary encounters Jesus. Mary is sent by Jesus to tell the other disciples, she is sent by Jesus to announce the good news, because she was willing to stay there in the darkness, to stay and weep, she is the first to see Jesus.
On some level, maybe she should have known. While the disciples and Mary were resting on the sabbath, Jesus had work to do. Throughout his ministry, Jesus often violated the rules of shabbat. He got in trouble, but he had people to heal, parables to tell, a vision of hope, of justice and love, the reign of God to announce. The sabbath had never kept Jesus down before, maybe she should have known.
We don’t know what the Resurrection looked like, sounded like. We don’t get to see what happened in the dark, but somehow, while it was still dark, life returned, love returned, hope returned. Jesus is risen.
This has been a particularly difficult Holy Week at Holy Communion. Over the course of the past two weeks, two of our members have died: Bruce McCollister on April 7 and Ernie Last just on Maundy Thursday, April 18. Both of them were gentle and caring men. While they both faced health challenges, their deaths came as a surprise. They were both relatively young.
This has been a difficult Holy Week. Besides Ernie and Bruce, members of the clergy team and members of the congregation have also recently lost loved ones, mentors, friends. We are a church in grief. And yet, as the ancient funeral liturgy has it, “and yet, even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Those words may seem like a contradiction, but they are not. The mystery of Easter is that hope comes in the darkest hour, new life comes when all seems lost, love is stronger than death. Even at the grave our song is Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Those words feel defiant at the grave. They feel defiant this morning. Just this morning we heard news of hundreds killed at Easter worship in Sri Lanka. While our sisters, brothers, and siblings mourn around the globe Alleluia is a defiant word. 20 years after Columbine Alleluia is a defiant word. Faced with death, with grief, with intransigence, with worry, we whisper the word until we can muster the energy to shout. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
As I said, we are a strange church. Christianity is a strange faith. We say we follow a God who suffered. We say we walk with a Savior who died. But in the midst of grief, in the midst of loss, in the midst of the worst moments of life, a God who knows suffering, a God who knows rejection, a God who knows grief and loss is exactly the God I want to hear my prayers.
We are a strange church. Our wider denomination, the Episcopal Church, is having a bit of a media moment. One of the candidates who has already announced a bid for the presidency next year happens to be Episcopalian. He also happens to be gay and married. His marriage was blessed in his Episcopal parish. The Episcopal Church has been criticized in recent days, some commentators have even questioned whether we are a Christian church. If your yardstick for whether a church counts as Christian involves measuring whether that particular church excludes the right people, well, I’d tell you to get a new yardstick.
Easter provides a different measure for faith, a different way to measure. Elaine Pagels a scholar who wrote about the extra-Biblical Gospel of Thomas, begins her book not with Thomas’ word of wisdom, but with a story about visiting an Episcopal Church in New York City.
Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.
Pagels had just learned that her young son, a toddler, had a fatal disease. He wouldn’t live past age six. She did not come to the church looking for faith, but knowing the terrible diagnosis she needed a community that knew how to face death.
I would argue Pagels yardstick is a better measure for a church, especially at Easter. Do they know how to face death? Is this a faith with room for grief, room for loss, room for mourning, room for mystery? I hope the answer here is a steady yes.
We are a people who believe that death does not have the final word. Hopelessness does not have the final word. We stand together through life’s tombs. And we say alleluia.
To be an Easter people is to be a people who know grief, who know loss, who know what it is to go through the darkest of times. It isn’t to avoid the pain. Loss is part of the story. It always has been always will be. To be Christian is to follow a Savior who has figuratively, and literally, been through hell.
When you face the darkness. When you find yourself struggling for words, or for hope, know that the church can be measured by so much more than exclusion. Jesus teaches a way of love stronger than hate, a way of goodness stronger than evil, a way of life that is stronger than death.
Easter happens in the darkness. Somehow, in some mysterious way, Jesus was risen. We don’t know how. But even facing the mystery at the tomb we proclaim Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Thank God Mary was there to announce it, that she went out in that darkness to mourn. She was the first to hear, and to preach the good news. Despair does not have the final word. Injustice does not have the final word. Hate does not have the final word. Death is overcome. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.