When Easter Dawns
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
When I think of Easter, I think of exactly what it looks like right now outside Cove Presbyterian Church, just south of Charlottesville, Virginia – redbuds in full bloom, daffodils decorating the lawn, an orchestra of bees pollenating almost every flowering tree or plant. Lifelong southerners, like me, are tempted to think that Easter is as natural as the inevitable onset of spring. Whether Easter arrives in mid-March with a chill still in the air or in mid-April like this morning, this holiday has always seemed to be the glad sidekick of nature. Easter joins the colorful spring parade of flowers, celebrating that that the death of winter was only a temporary illusion; winter was just life on hold.
These days you and I know more than we ever wanted to know about life on hold. Some of us are fortunate enough to shelter in place today with plenty of food, books, cable subscriptions, even safe places to walk outside. Many of us have learned the fine art of making do with what is already available to us, including the new trade of sewing incredibly ingenuous masks. All of us are more than ready to visit face-to-face with friends again, for children and grandchildren to return to school, for it to be safe to travel, to go to work, to go to a restaurant, a concert, to volunteer at a Habitat worksite, to read to wiggly kids at the Red Hill Elementary School, to sit in our sanctuary and to share our most heartfelt joys and our most heart wrenching concerns. Today, in particular, I am ready to sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” in the Cove sanctuary and watch you adorn the barren cross with flowers, creating an explosion of color. Spring has arrived right on schedule, but this year, no matter how beautiful it looks outside, Easter is way out of sync with spring.
Matthew would argue that Easter is always out of sync with spring. Read Matthew’s story and you will see that there is nothing natural about Easter. The story begins at dawn when darkness still cloaks the earth and not a soul is stirring, save two grieving women. Soon the quiet dawn of yet another day of human grief gives way to the violent disruption of the earth quaking and Roman guards shaking with fear. The women arrive at the grave on death duty and are met by an angel on life patrol: “He is not here; for he has been raised . . . from the dead,” says the angel, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”
For the past four years, I have walked around the Cove cemetery for the past and over forty years of ministry, I have visited lots of other cemeteries in lots of places. I have yet to meet any other resident there than death and those grieving a death. At the cemetery, it always seems to be perpetual winter no matter how many flowers we put by a grave and the Good Friday killing world seems to be devastatingly, excruciatingly in place.
As a boy, our family would gather around the TV whenever the comedian and entertainer, Bob Hope would appear. He ended each appearance by singing, “Thanks for the Memory.” For those of us still living in the Good Friday, pre-Easter, Covid-19 world, “Thanks for the Memory” is the best hope we can muster at the grave. So, we post pictures of our beloved, throw a party, grab a beer, dance a jig, and do our level best to remember our beloved departed, hoping that someone will do the same for us, will remember us when we are gone.
The cemetery seems like such a natural location for looking back, a place to sort through all our memories, to begin to put our grieving hearts to rest. Not so for Matthew. At the grave, women are told that God is doing so much more than honoring memories of the crucified Jesus. At the cemetery, women learn that God has resurrected Jesus. His life was not on hold, in hibernation for winter. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried.
What the women learn at his tomb is that God has resurrected Jesus to new life, abundant life, everlasting life. They are invited to join the parade of life even in the location of death, to follow a life that will lead us into a future far beyond the coronavirus, far beyond our fondest memories, far beyond our wildest hopes and craziest dreams.
Matthew’s “Easter message says that all the tenderness and strength which on Good Friday we saw scourged, buffeted, stretched out on a cross,” writes William Sloane Coffin, “all that beauty and goodness is alive . . . with us now not as a memory that inevitably fades, but as an undying presence in the life of every single one of us. . . Christ is risen to convert us, not from life to something more than life, but from something less than life to the possibility of full life itself” (The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, Vol. 1 p. 29).
For Matthew, when Easter dawns, the Good Friday killing world does not disappear like a bad dream in the morning, setting us free from all our fears. When Easter dawns, the world does not suddenly transform into the beauty of the South in springtime. On the contrary, when Easter dawns, Good Friday shelters in place, gets all the more vehement and all the more vocal. When Easter dawns, Good Friday shouts even louder because it fears it will lose its grip on us.
The grip of Good Friday is fierce and it is deadly. That is why a cross or a crucifix hangs in every church worthy of its name. When Easter dawns, though, the Good Friday, cross and corona killing, world is met by a more powerful world, a world where baptismal waters wash away absolutely everything that attempts to divide us from God and each other, even death; a world where bread and wine are more than a daily staple, but are the food and drink that end all hunger and quench all thirst, a world where you and I dare to act with compassion and generosity, forgiveness and grace, because that is the nature of the Risen One who leads us.
“When Jesus says, ‘Fear not’, it is not the assurance that nothing can go wrong, because often things do go wrong. It is not the assurance that everything turns out for the best, because, if we are honest about it, it seldom does. Rather,” says Martin Copenhaver, “it is the assurance that, whatever may happen to us, whatever a day may hold, God has the power to strengthen us and uphold us; that whatever we must face, we do not face it alone; that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, pp. 349-350).
When Easter dawns, fear persists but it no longer pervades; we no longer are silenced by fear or enslaved by it. When Easter dawns, you and I are finally unshackled from the sheltering in place Good Friday killing world and can become the church of the Risen Christ in a new world being born. When Easter dawns, resurrection breathes new life into the world, the Spirit of the Living God sends us out to learn new steps of the Lord of the Dance, and the Risen Jesus breathes into us the Spirit of peace that cannot be denied.
So, on this morning when we long to be together but must stay where we are, my prayer for each of us, for all of us, not only on this day but on every day to come: may Easter dawn.