Easter, the Wildness of God’s Mercy

What are you looking forward to?

This morning, the disciples find themselves on the other side of dread. Early on the first day of the week, John tells us, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. The other Gospel writers tell us that she wasn’t alone. She was among a group of women who had gone to anoint Jesus’ body. The sabbath was over. Work was permitted. It was time do what they couldn’t just after the crucifixion. It was time to anoint Jesus’ body.

This morning I want to sit with the disciples in this moment, just a moment, before the world-shaking verses that follow. Early on that first Easter morning, before the proclamation we’ve just made. Before they knew Jesus was risen. Before they dared to hope anew. I think we find ourselves in a somewhat similar place. We are coming to the end of our dread, but we haven’t yet really figured out what is next. Speaking for myself, I’m not entirely sure yet what I’m looking forward to.

The Dread that comes with Jesus

For the disciples, the dread had been coming in waves for awhile. They laughed as Jesus outwitted his challengers, sure. They reveled when he talked about the coming reign of God, the relationships turned upside down, the poor uplifted, the mighty out of their seats. Their imaginations ignited around his dinner table, where everyone, everyone was welcome. But the disciples also knew his message challenged a precarious status quo. The Romans and their clients were not kind to challengers. There was the dread. Jesus would tell his disciples he was going to Jerusalem to die. He lamented over the city, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.” Heading into Jerusalem made the disciples nervous. They kept their eyes open.

The dread built over that fateful week. Gosh it was fun to dance in the streets, to sing hosanna, wave those branches. There was delight in seeing Jesus turn over the tables of the money changers, setting in motion the economy of God, stopping the exploitation of the poor, opening wide the doors of faith. Jesus was enacting the message he preached. They knew word would get around. They also knew a reaction could come from those in charge.

The worst happened. Jesus was betrayed by one of their own, met by a company of soldiers, hauled away for a so-called trial. He didn’t have a chance. Pilate was one of the cruelest governors the region had known. He liked to make an example of would-be revolutionaries.

Pilate didn’t care that Jesus’ revolution wasn’t supposed to involve a sword, that he preached nonviolence. Okay, so Jesus proclaimed a “revolution” of love. Jesus still claimed there was a king other than the emperor. It was reason enough. Pilate mocked him, abused him, and killed him publicly, shamefully. It was everything they dreaded. Well, almost, there was still the possibility the authorities would come for his followers. But still, a calm settled over them. Some of the dread was gone.

What they thought they knew

There is a certain calm that comes when you know the worst has happened. The world slows down. It turns out dread takes a lot of energy to maintain. When you don’t have to wonder how things are going to end anymore, there is a sort of awful relief.

There were just a few final steps. Mary and a group of the women woke early to go care for Jesus’ body. It’s good to have rituals which help you grieve. It is important to honor the traditions, they help you get your mind around what has happened.

Well, that was the thought anyway. The disciples thought they knew what came next, some prayers at the graveside. Beyond the anointing, things were a little fuzzy. Once they were sure there wasn’t a price on their head, after they knew the authorities weren’t coming for Jesus’ followers, what next? Would they go back to life before this all happened? Maybe they’d go back to fishing. Maybe they’d check in on the oxen, the fields, the family they’d left behind.

The fuzzy place we find ourselves and the spiritual possibility

This morning, I want to pause with these disciples, early on the first day of that fateful week, while it is still dark. I find myself in a fuzzy place as well. I can imagine a bit what my work will be like in a few months time, maybe, but the lines on the picture aren’t exactly clear. I can sort of imagine getting on an airplane again, going somewhere just because I want to lay on a beach or visit the mountains. But I’ve spent a year learning that I didn’t take nearly enough science classes. I never know what will come next with the pandemic, so I’m leaving plans a little bit sketchy. It’s easier to change a sketched plan.

I want to spend a little time with the disciples in this moment, before they know what comes next, because there is spiritual value in this space. There is. The Zen Buddhists talk about the importance of “Beginners Mind.” We spend so much of our lives pretending we are experts, showing what we know, that we forget the beauty and the freedom that comes from being a beginner, when everything is new. There is an openness to not-knowing, a fullness of possibility. The Zen masters say: Stay a beginner. Stay open to the possibilities.

This Easter, can you hold out the possibility that you DON’T know the meaning of the resurrection? I ask that question mostly of myself, but of you as well. Can you find yourself like Peter, confused at the missing body? Can you find yourself like Mary, convinced the gardener must have the answer. Can you hold open space for Easter to surprise you?

Christ is risen (whatever that means)

Incidentally, Tertullian, the early church father, tells a story that Mary thought the gardener moved the body because he was worried Jesus’ place of burial would become a major tourist destination. He moved the body because he didn’t want people to trample his cabbages. Makes a certain sense.

But that’s not the Gospel. Jesus’ body hasn’t been stolen. Christ is risen, whatever that means. (I say that not with doubt, but with a hope that I still am a beginner at understanding resurrection).

Mary talked to this poor this worker. Remember, Mary was one of the wealthiest disciples. She was funding a lot of Jesus’ operation. Mary probably spent a lot of time talking to gardeners, having them answer her. Instead this working class guy says her name. And she realizes, “My teacher!”

There’s a Wildness in God’s Mercy

I once mis-heard the words to a hymn, and I’ve never been able to hear it the same way. The line I misheard was the first one, instead of “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” I heard, “There’s a wildness” in God’s mercy. A wildness. That’s certainly true.

Those of you who have worshipped with Holy Communion in person know something of the wildness. There’s a reason they call this place Holy Commotion. We are often teetering right on the edge of chaos. The kids in the back, laughing aren’t the only ones at our church that probably would get hushed in other churches: opinionated women, queer folks, others who don’t behave. We are a wildly diverse bunch. Our first reader from this morning has been known to wear a shirt that says “sassy black woman” as she quotes scripture. I miss that shirt. When only us clergy come to film on Sunday there’s a risk we look too presentable. You’re missing out on the best part of Holy Communion. There is a certain wildness, a holy wildness, that comes only from gathering a group of people who are committed to loving across difference and working together for equity.

The resurrection is a deep wildness in God’s mercy. It takes Mary some time. In the weeks ahead, we’ll hear, it takes the boys time too, longer actually for most of them. For Mary, it’s just a quick moment. She tries to grab ahold of Jesus. She tries to take Jesus right back to Maundy Thursday. She tries to start back up where they left off. But Jesus says, “don’t cling.” And Jesus gives her a job. Go and tell the boys. You thought the revolution was over, but that was just the beginning. She goes and announces, “I have seen the Lord.”

Easter tells us Jesus’ revolution of love won’t happen on our terms. Jesus’ resurrection asks you to hope, and to hold your hope in a direction you can’t control. Jesus’ resurrection asks you to look forward. Jesus isn’t taking anyone backward.

Easter teaches us Christians aren’t about going “backward.” People keep asking, “when do we get to go ‘back’ to church?” I have two answers: One, “when the doctors tell me it is safe, which I hope is soon.” And Two: “we’re never going BACK. Too much has changed. Too much has shifted. We have learned too much about online ways to gather. We have had too many people join us in new and different ways.” I can’t tell you what is ahead, exactly, and when I’m at my best I find the unfinished nature of what is ahead exciting (at least as much as I find it daunting).

I know, I am in danger of engaging in cliché. I know we’ve all been reading articles about how we’re never going back to the way things were. And I know many of us are looking forward to being back to things we love, vacations, movies in an independent theater, good restaurants, grandkids…babysitters, maybe even our church pew. But on Easter, I want you to hold out the spiritual possibility that comes with not knowing exactly what is next.

Easter asks us not to color in the lines of our hope to fervently. God knows, if we are in charge, something or someone critical is bound to be left out. This Easter can you hold open the possibility that what is ahead is bigger, deeper, better, more just and more equitable, more loving than you can imagine? The resurrection tells us that our world, our life, can be more than returned. Life can be re-made. Can we make room for the wildness of God’s mercy to take us places we never knew we could go, for the sake of love? Christ is Risen. What are you looking forward to?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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