They left the tomb quickly, with fear and great joy.
Have you ever heard of a “Christmas and Easter” Christian? I’ve never myself called someone that, but I’ve had a number of folks self-identify to me. Neighbors, friends of friends, when they learn that I am a priest they will ask about the church where I work. When they can tell I’m enthusiastic about Holy Communion as a congregation, and especially if they get the sense that I might invite them to join us sometimes, that’s when I’ll hear it, “I’m really a Christmas and Easter kind of person.”
Someday I’m going to say to that, “me too.” Because honestly, I love Christmas and Easter. I love the pageantry. I love seeing a packed church. I love the special vestments, the spectacular music, the extra trumpets and tubas. All of it. I love Christmas and Easter, and today feels like a let down. I’ll say, for the past several years we have put on a really good show at Holy Communion. We’ve done Easter joy justice, and this morning, as I stand in my living room, knowing the lights are off at the church, not knowing who is watching, who is listening, I’m missing the trumpets. I love Easter. This doesn’t feel like any Easter I have known.
But as I read the Gospel for this morning, the description Mary Magdalene, and the other woman who have gone to anoint Jesus’ body, of the emotions they balance when they find the stone rolled away, that description caught me. “They left the tomb with fear and great joy.” The great joy, I have known. I’ve always associated Easter with great joy. This is the first Easter I have had to really think about the fear.
All of us know about fear these days. We know fears large and small. Will we run out of toilet paper? There’s the small kind of fear. Then there’s a whole other category of fear. My parents were in New Zealand when the virus started shutting everything down. They didn’t listen to their children when we asked them to just rent a nice little beach cottage and hunker down. They came home. A little over a week later, they both came down with fevers. I tried to keep the fear out of my voice when we talked on the phone. My parents are relatively healthy, but they are over 65. We had no way of knowing if they had the virus. The tests were too scarce.
Thankfully my parents’ fevers passed. They are healthy. Our family was lucky. I know of several families in the congregation who have not been so lucky. Folks have lost cousins, aunts, good friends. We don’t know if it is safe to go to the grocery store, to walk down the street. And so business owners are losing more than revenue. Folks are losing jobs they loved, dreams for which they worked. The loss right now is real. The fear is real.
These days have found me anxious. I’m having trouble staying asleep. And I am a relatively emotionally stable person. The constant news isn’t helpful, because we don’t know enough. We’re waiting for the science to catch up. And we get conflicting reports about how to act. And that is an emotionally difficult place.
I am having a hard time navigating the emotions. And I know Folks who fight for stable emotions in the best of times are having a really difficult time in these days. And I just want to name that. And if you are there, know that two of Jesus’ most trusted disciples, both named Mary, struggled with the balance of emotions as well.
That early morning, when those two brave women went to claim Jesus’ body. When they went, at no small risk, to give him a proper burial, they were scared. Even when they are told not to be afraid, the fear is still there, mixed with joy. Emotions aren’t easy.
I found it a little surprising, honestly, when I re-read this Easter story and I saw the word “fear” so many times. I am not used to an Easter where fear was part of the equation.
Not having known an Easter where fear was part of the story has a name, it’s this: privilege.
I said a few weeks ago, this virus is being called a “great equalizer” because no one is immune. But as the infections have spread, we have realized “great equalizer” is a misnomer. This virus is instead becoming a great revealer. The virus is revealing disparities in access to healthcare. This virus is revealing disparities in income security. This virus is revealing a whole set of systems in our society that are broken.
Every single person who has died of COVID-19 in the city of St. Louis has been African American. Every single one. In New York City, now the world’s epicenter of infections, the disparities are just as clear. People of color, black and latino, are dying at unconscionably high rates. And there is no quick fix to this disparity. The outcomes were set in motion years ago, generations ago, because for too long health has been tied to wealth in this country, and wealth has been hoarded and defended.
A buddy of mine from college got in his car on Good Friday. Marc Adams and I went to school together in San Diego. We were conversation partners in a Spanish class designed for non-native speakers and spent a whole semester having broken conversations centered on random vocabulary words. Marx made that class fun. We laughed a lot as he came up with silly things to tell me about zapatos (shoes) or albóndigas (meatballs). Marc still lives in San Diego. On Good Friday, He took a drive with this huge blue tooth speaker.
He had heard that the Otay Mesa Immigration Detention Center, where undocumented folks are being held in overcrowded conditions, has seen more than a dozen confirmed cases of Covid-19. He couldn’t gather a group to go protest. So he took his big speaker, parked outside the detention center and rolled down a window. And he blasted the old Spiritual into the fences: “Go Down Moses, way down in Egypt Land, Tell Old Pharaoh, Let My People Go.”
Marc posted a video of the escapade on Instagram. And watching filled me with fear, because who knows what federal code he was violating there outside a detention center. Fear because my friend, who happens to be black, could be detained even just for violating California’s stay at home order. And at the same time his action filled me with joy, joy because Marc found a creative way to make his voice heard. Joy because, in the music of the Fisk Jubilee singers, truth was being proclaimed in the face of injustice.
The preacher William Sloane Coffin once said, “the world is too dangerous for anything less than truth, and too small for anything less than love.” The same preacher celebrated Easter as the “Triumph of powerless love over loveless power.”
Maybe this virus has uncovered something for you, maybe it has unveiled something for you. Maybe you have seen clearly the loveless and inhumane way our government treats immigrants and prisoners. Maybe you have glimpsed in our cleaner skies and rivers the possibility for our planet if we actually cut back on carbon emissions or pollution. Maybe you’ve understood clearly the need to guarantee healthcare for all for the sake of all of our health. Or you’ve understood the need to ensure that the wealthiest nation the world has ever known leaves no one behind. Whatever this virus has uncovered for you, I hope you face the days ahead with great joy and with a little bit of healthy fear.
Healthy fear, because a lot is at stake. Easter is an invitation to do more than simply survive. More than just your survival is at stake in the days ahead.
As we begin to imagine what “coming back” looks like, as a city, as a country, as a planet, we have to think about more than survival. Christians don’t proclaim that Jesus “survived” the crucifixion. The distinction is important. Jesus didn’t simply survive. Jesus was not a heroic strongman who withstood the cross. Easter isn’t the celebration of a common kind of victory. We say Jesus’ weakness is what gives this story its meaning. Jesus lost. The death-dealing power he faced was real. Death is always part of the story. Fear is part of the story. The suffering was real. The death was real. We can afford nothing less than the whole truth.
Jesus conquered death. Jesus overcame death. The resurrection is more than survival, it is God’s judgement. New life, fuller life, reconciled life comes on the other side.
I say I hope you face the days ahead with some healthy fear because working for lasting change won’t be easy. Figuring out how to fight for democratic change, figuring out how our democracy will stay functioning, stay a democracy won’t be easy. If you’re nervous, I think you’re right to be. There is challenging work ahead to assure we have a chance for something better than survival. But I hope you face the days ahead with some healthy measure of joy as well. Because we have a chance at new life.
The truth is, the first Easter didn’t come with trumpets and fresh cut lilies. The first Easter wasn’t proclaimed in packed churches with loud organs. The first Easter was a confusing mess. But that is our faith. Our faith is a mix of emotions, a faith of simultaneous fear and of great joy. Easter comes with both, this year and every year. Because every time we proclaim Alleluia Christ is Risen!, we defiantly announce a joyful and frightening message. God has undone the sinful powers that estrange us from one another. God has come back to untie us from our death-dealing ways. God has set us free for joy. God has set us free for a new life, a new way of life. God has set us free to love one another, to take that love public by treating one another with justice.
I love our Christmas and Easter faith. I love our faith that is full enough, wise enough, complete enough to know joy often comes alongside fear. New life comes in and through the dark.
We will meet again. In the words of the prophet this morning, we will return. We will stand together again in our sanctuary. We will hear that long-promised organ in person. We will break bread together, and I will stand behind that altar and say, “it is right, and it is good, and it is joyful, always and everywhere to give You thanks and praise.” I have faith we will stand together again. I have faith we will face this moment and bring new life. Because with those faithful women, with fear and great joy, I believe: Christ has already overcome the powers of death. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.