Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (via online platform) for First Congregational Church, Williamstown, MA
Arise to new life: Easter for Earth and for all
What a blessing to be with you! I’ve been looking forward to seeing your faces and joining in worship with you on this Easter morning. I was invited to preach because I’m your conference’s Missioner for Creation Care. I know that many of you are deeply concerned about addressing climate change and protecting the web of life that God entrusted to our care. As you know, we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and surely the pandemic we are now enduring has made it clear that we belong to one connected family on Earth. We share a single planet, drink from the same water, breathe the same air, and face the same dangers.
The coronavirus is communicating very swiftly and without words the same message that climate scientists have been trying urgently to convey for many years: science matters; how we treat the natural world affects our well-being; the sooner we mobilize for action, the less suffering will take place; and if we are sufficiently motivated, we have the capacity to make drastic changes very quickly and to suspend business as usual. That’s a good thing, because business as usual is wrecking the planet. We simply can’t keep burning fossil fuels or keep destroying biodiversity and wild habitats and expect to survive.
But what I want to speak about today is our inner lives. How is it with your soul? How are you doing? These weeks have been so hard, so full of uncertainty, loss, and fear. Our lives have been turned upside down, and as individuals and a global community, we are deeply aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death.
In the old days – that is, before the pandemic – we Christians could skip Holy Week and Good Friday, if we wanted to, and just show up at church on Easter morning. When we skip Holy Week and Good Friday, it’s easy to imagine that Easter is a stand-alone miracle, just a feel-good event that gives us a chance to dress up, get together with family and friends, maybe hold an Easter egg hunt and enjoy a nice meal.
Well, I confess that right now that sounds pretty good. But here’s the thing: this year, maybe more than any other, we’re being asked to experience the full meaning and power of the Easter miracle. Because this year we can’t skip Good Friday. It’s not a choice this time: we are undergoing a collective trauma and we can’t pretend, even for a day, that suffering and death aren’t real. To have any meaning – much less the power to transform lives – the miracle of Easter must speak to our actual condition.
Thanks be to God, Easter is not like the miracles we’re most familiar with, the kind that are nice and small and safe. The “miracles” that our society generally accepts are the ones that make life pleasant and don’t give anyone any trouble. We water our plants with Miracle-Gro. We mix our tuna-fish with MiracleWhip. We listen to ads that boast the latest “miracle” in computer software or laundry detergent or hair replacement. Society tells us that the only miracles that are real are the ones you buy in your local store. Miracles are trivial things, consumer items, commodities: buy one, buy several. Stock your shelves. Either miracles aren’t real, society tells us, or if they are real, they’re not very important and they don’t matter much.
But this year, unlike other years, we’ve taken a deep dive into Good Friday and we know, perhaps more acutely than ever, that the first Easter did not arrive in soft pastel tones, shrink-wrapped in plastic. Jesus truly despaired and groaned and bled on the Cross. His suffering was real; his death was real. Our faith has nothing to do with fantasy, with gazing fondly into space and ignoring the suffering or brutality of the world. No, as Christians we look squarely into suffering and death, and we glimpse the Easter miracle when we discover that even here, right here in our grief, confusion, and fear, we are met by a divine love that weeps with us and grieves with us and embraces us and empowers us, a love that will never let us go, a love that will never die.
The Gospel story of the first Easter gives us many images: a great earthquake – an angel, bright as lightning, who rolls back the stone and sits on it – an empty tomb – the discovery that Jesus is alive – and two women overcome with fear and great joy. This is not a petty miracle, a trifling little story that makes you gape or shrug and then turn away. This miracle is so potentially transformative that it scares the powers that be, and they try to deny it and suppress news of it.
After Jesus is buried, a squad of Roman soldiers, following Pilate’s orders, seals up the tomb, and stands guard before it. But human efforts to prevent the Resurrection are impossible. God’s life, God’s power burst forth. The guards, who are there to guarantee the finality of Christ’s death, become themselves, in Matthew’s ironic words, “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4), terrified of the new life bursting forth before their very eyes. The miracle has taken place. Nothing can stop it. The religious and civic authorities are shocked, and, as Matthew tells it, they rush to set up an elaborate scheme of lies to hide the news as best they can – for the Resurrection is a miracle that makes a difference.
If Christ is alive, then there has been unleashed into our world a power that is greater than death, a source of love and energy and hope that nothing and no one can destroy.
If Christ is alive, then there is no suffering we can endure, no anguish we can bear, no loss or disappointment we can undergo that Christ himself does not suffer with us.
If Christ is alive, then we are, every one of us, cherished by God, and drawn to create a new kind of society that welcome everyone and that dismantles the systems of unjust privilege and domination that have separated us from each other and from the Earth on which all life depends.
If Christ is alive, then there is no need to settle for a life undergirded and overshadowed by the nagging fear of death, for whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
The first followers of Jesus were filled with a wave of Easter hope. Nothing, not even death, could separate them from the love of God. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.”1
Their prayer and witness got them into all kinds of trouble. The early Christians were accused of “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Many of them apparently spent as much time inside as outside the walls of a jail. Their witness to a transcendent, all-embracing Love shook the foundations of their society.
That same wave of Easter hope fills Christians today and it will sustain us now. Even now, as we walk together through the valley of the shadow of death, acknowledging our fears and grieving what – and whom – we’ve lost, we know that the Lord of life is with us. The day will come, once this pandemic is behind us, when we can return very actively and publicly to building a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with the Earth. What would it look like if we emerged from this pandemic with a fierce new commitment to take care of each other and the whole of God’s Creation?
My friends, even from inside our homes, we hear the sound that rings out as Easter dawns – not only here in Massachusetts, but across the United States and around the world. An Alleluia! is springing forth from the depths of the human spirit – in homes and hospitals, in villages and cities, in Mexico and Russia, in Germany and France, in Greece and Korea, Japan and Zimbawe.
Alleluia! Cristo ha resucitado! (Spanish)
Alleluia! Xristos voskrese! Vo istinu voskrese! (Russian)
Alleluia! Christ ist erstanden! (German)
Alleluia! Christ est ressuscite! (French)
Alleluia! Xristos aneste! Aleethos aneste! (Greek)
Alleluia! Yesunimi puhall hahshatoda! (Korean)
Alleluia! Kristoa fkatzu seri! (Japanese)
Alleluia! Kreestu amuka! Xristu amuka zvechokwadi! (Shona)
On this holy morning we are united with God’s people everywhere – with those who are far off and those who are near, with those who live and those who have died, with our ancestors, with our descendants, and with the whole Creation. God’s love is forever.
O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed! Alleluia!
1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993; originally published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982), p. 107.