Easter in a Pandemic

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: John 20:1-18

It’s intense, the pressure of preaching an Easter sermon during a global pandemic.
How can I have the right words to say,
to point us to the divine solidarity of Jesus entering with us in our suffering,
to the existential hope of Jesus triumphing over betrayal, torture, and death,
to the future that God has for us,
doing the work of God in transforming our world to a more just and more loving place?
What are the right words for that? I don’t know that I have them, but my prayer is that the Holy Spirit would use them to encourage our hearts and show us the way.

A Reading Adapted from John 20:1-18
It was dark and cold, and I really didn’t want to be out that early. So much had happened, so much could still happen. It didn’t feel safe, but I felt I had to do it. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, I walked to the tomb to complete the anointing of the Teacher’s body.

I knew that it would be hard. Preparing a body is always hard but brings some closure. Anointing it, giving one last effort of love. I didn’t think I could have closure with something like this – I didn’t know what to think. The power of God was walking among us and now, I asked myself, “where is it? Is God gone from among us? What was the point of all that goodness, all that healing, all that love and mercy, if we are only left with pain?”

I shuffled forward in the dark to the garden and the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed on Friday, somewhat hastily before the Passover Sabbath. As I arrived, I stopped dead in my tracks, horrified at what could have happened. Instead of a stone covering the tomb entrance, the stone was pushed aside. No!

I turned and I ran to where brother Peter and brother John were staying. I told them, “They took the Teacher from the tomb and I don’t know where they put him.”
Peter and John looked at each other and took off running. I ran after them, back to the tomb. Out of breath, I stood back. Honestly, I didn’t want to go in, even if it really was empty. The weight of it all hit me again. He’s dead. He’s gone. His body’s even missing.

The brothers looked at the grave linens for a few minutes and left, bewildered. They didn’t really say anything—they just left me alone, with an empty tomb. I broke down and cried. I sat in that garden, tears streaming.

Sitting there, next to the tomb, I looked over at it and there were two people sitting right where the body should have been, in white clothing. One spoke to me, “Lady, why are you crying?” On another day, maybe I would have made some sarcastic comment about how that’s a dumb question to ask someone next to a tomb… but – not today. I just answered straightforwardly: “My Teacher was buried here, and someone took his body. I don’t know where he’s been moved to.”

At that moment, I saw another person nearby, standing close. He asked me too, “Lady, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” I wiped my eyes and said, “Sir, if you took the body, can you please tell me where it is? I just want to anoint it and care for it.”

The man replied, “Mary.”

The words hit me like a gut punch, a perplexing wave of disbelief and grief and joy – it was Jesus. “My Teacher?” I stood up. It was the Teacher. Alive. Breathing. I spoke to Jesus briefly and then went to find the others to tell them: “I have seen the Lord.”

Easter in a Pandemic
For me, I was struck by the loneliness and grief in this passage. A lonely morning walk, knowing that death and grief were waiting in a tomb. Still, Mary Magdalene goes to keep vigil, to tenderly care for the body of a trusted and loved friend and teacher. Can we laud Mary Magdalene here, who shows up after everyone has fled, to care and tend, to do immensely sad work of anointing a corpse?

Mary goes alone, finds the curious and shocking state of affairs. (grave robbers?! Something else sinister – body stealing) She runs to Peter and John, who run and look and stare – and leave. John’s gospel says that Peter and John “believed” – but some commentators think that means, they believed Mary’s words that the body was gone, since they still didn’t understand the scriptures. If Peter and John “believed” in the resurrection, they would have shared some words of comfort or explanations with Mary. Instead, they just go home. Still, Mary keeps a vigil. It’s so poignant about who gets the credit in history—male apostles typically lauded, female apostles are conveniently forgotten by many—and yet here, who is the one waiting, keeping watch? Who is the one weeping?

Mary does not look up from her vigil, even when angels appear and ask her questions. Typically, in scripture, everyone looks up when an angel appears. Apparently, angels are terrifying, because people cower in fear and the angels typically say, “Don’t be afraid.” Yet, not here. Mary is so consumed with grief that she cannot see who they are. The angels say, “Woman, why are you crying?” Mary answers them, and then looks around and sees someone else – maybe someone who can fix this missing body crisis. Though Mary “sees” Jesus, she doesn’t truly see him, not until he calls her by her name. The resurrection is so unexpected, and the grief is so deep, Mary cannot see the miracle in front of her.

At first, Jesus says, “Woman,” and Mary just assumes he’s the gardener. Maybe the gardener knows what happened, ‘Can you just tell me where the body is?” Then Jesus calls her by her name: “Mary.” In being known, loved, and called by name, Mary is able to see. Jesus is there and alive. “Teacher.”
Mary then begins her mission of sharing this unexpected and unfathomable good news with the other disciples. Jesus is risen. Jesus is risen indeed.

The resurrection is unexpected, startling, confusing, and difficult to even recognize. It doesn’t make sense; it is so far out of the schema of expectation. The resurrection is an impossible thought—until Jesus calls Mary by her name, in the early morning light of that resurrection Sunday.
The gospel, the good news, is bewildering and confusing and sometimes so difficult to see in our world—at any time, let alone during a global pandemic. But Jesus calls us by our names, giving us eyes to see that the power of God is bigger than the grave.

In the midst of global anxiety and disarray, amidst sickness, death, and grief, I believe that Jesus can give us eyes to see opportunities for healing, for change, for wholeness. Being confronted with death causes everyone to adjust their priorities. I pray that we would see the world in a new light and walk by the power of the Holy Spirit to continue the work of Jesus in this broken and grieving world.

As I said earlier, God’s story throughout scripture and throughout history is one of transforming chaos into goodness, darkness into light, and death into life. This pattern is written into the fabric of our universe, by the Creator. God is in the business of transforming despair into hope, brokenness into reconciliation, bondage into freedom, death into life.

Granted, it is a slow journey to deliverance, to hope, to freedom, to reconciliation, to life. Yet God has entered into that journey with us. The good news of the gospel is that we are not alone. God is with us, with us in our suffering. Easter demonstrates the power of God, tells us that suffering is not the end, and that death is not the most powerful force in this world. Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God’s love is more powerful than death, that death can be transformed into new life, by the power of God.

Sisters and brothers, the power of God that brought the empty tomb and the resurrected body is the same power that is at work within us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11). During our suffering and the world’s suffering, we walk with a crucified and risen Lord who knows what it is to suffer, who suffers with us, and who promises us that the breaking dawn will come. Jesus calls each of us by name for us to join him in the Sunday morning light, to continue God’s healing and resurrecting work in this world. AMEN.

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