“A New Normal”

This is not a normal Easter. Here I am, preaching from my front porch with the camera tilted so that you can’t see the heaps of stuffed animals, the undressed dolls, the litter of random plastic toy parts, or the tangle of bikes and scooters. Yesterday, Brad hung the white and gold Easter banners in our beloved, and empty sanctuary. Thank you, Brad for holding vigil in our sacred space.

Oh, to meet you all at Stone Arch Bridge with baskets of rose petals and feast together on egg bake and jellybeans! Oh, to hear the choir’s softest chords linger in the air and feel the organ’s vibrations shake the floor! Our hearts soar when we sing together , “Soar we now where Christ has led.” And yet today, we hear only the imperfections of our own faltering voices.

This is not a normal Easter. These are not normal times. On this Easter, we cannot ignore the sadness that grips our children. We cannot plaster over our fears with platitudes or fancy clothes. Even the most hearty “Alleluias” will not drown out the groans of a planet filled with sickness and death. And yet, perhaps it is revelatory to celebrate an Easter that is pared down to its essence in isolation, an Easter that cannot pretend to be triumphal.

Yesterday, I gathered for a check-in with our First Church families. I read the Easter story and asked, “How do you think it felt to be there on that first Easter?” “Confusing,” one person said.  Yes – Jesus was dead and then he was alive. No one knew whether to be sad or happy. And those first witnesses to resurrection were clearly terrified since they had to be told so many times not to be afraid.

The Gospel writer, Matthew, describes how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. This seeing was not a quick visit out of curiosity or duty. These two brought their lawn chairs. They sat. They watched. They waited. Sunday’s dawn was not the beginning of their vigil, but the end. They were there on Friday when Jesus breathed his last, after the other disciples scattered. They were there, Matthew says, sitting across from the tomb, as Jesus was buried, as his body was sealed away with a great stone.

Everyone else left. Still, they stayed. They made space and time for their own grief and that of their community. They meditated on the pain. They kept a wary eye on those who had been sent to keep an eye on them – the soldiers guarding the tomb. Probably, they laughed, too, through their tears, as they told stories about Jesus, honoring and remembering the one they had loved.

What if this is our time to keep vigil at the tomb? What if our faithful waiting and watching is essential work? What if it’s essential to God’s resurrection work? Some of us are doing our part by staying home. Others stock groceries, deliver mail, tend the sick and dying. At times, the pain we feel, the pain we witness, moves us to prayer. At other times, panic overtakes us, depression immobilizes us, rage fills us. Perhaps it is our willingness to sit with death in all these forms that gives God a chance to birth new life in us.

This is not a normal Easter. But maybe it is the Easter we need. After all, Easter never was about a return to the way things were before the crucifixion. In the sudden earthquake, the lightening-like appearance of the angel, in the rumble of the stone rolling back, we feel and see and hear that resurrection is a dramatic change, a break with reality as we know it. The reversal that happens in the resurrection centers around fear.

When the angel appeared, the soldiers at Jesus’ tomb shook and became like dead men. Their reaction exposes the truth, which is that those who rule by fear are themselves ruled by fear. The angel turned to the women and spoke only to them: “Don’t be afraid.” There’s a part of me that cringes at that line. It’s not healthy to repress our emotions. Fear is a normal reaction, one that often protects us. I think what the angel means to say is not really about feelings. It’s about power. “Fear no longer rules the world.” The power of God’s love is stronger than the power of anything we fear.

The women who sat in vigil at the tomb did not go back to their normal lives. God’s resurrection work in them gave them a new role, a new identity. “This is my message for you,” the angel said to them. With these words, the angel not only shares the good news with them – that the tomb is empty, that Jesus is alive, that fear no longer rules. He passes the torch to them. He makes them angels. He appoints them apostles. He gives them the joyful, awesome responsibility of spreading the news that everything is changed. Things are no longer normal. When they meet Jesus himself, he too, calls them into their new life: “Go and tell.”

These are not normal times. We are walking and biking instead of driving and flying. Our air is clearing. The warming of our planet is slowing. Neighbors are checking on each other. We’re talking to strangers. Under these extraordinary circumstances, the MN state legislature is doing something that has seemed impossible in recent years—they are working together across political differences. House majority leader, Representative Ryan Winkler, joined our weekly call with ISAIAH faith leaders. He described how he and his colleagues have spent long hours on the phone, painstakingly building consensus in order to pass the COVID-19 relief bill, which will offer support to some of those who are most vulnerable in this time of crisis. We are all seeing people and seeing the value of their work differently. Convenience store clerks, grocery stockers, delivery drivers, custodians, undocumented workers who harvest our food, childcare providers—we recognize these folks as our heroes, along with teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, public health officials and governors.

Church isn’t normal either, and maybe that’s clarifying. A meme going around says, “The church is not empty. It is deployed.” This pandemic is hastening the death of church that is insular and irrelevant, church that is married to empire, church that is more interested in worshiping Jesus than in walking his path. These times are making space for God’s creativity to blossom. They are literally forcing us to learn new ways to be angels and apostles, to proclaim and live resurrection in our daily lives. Livestreaming worship. Online prayer gatherings. Calls to everyone in the congregation to check in, heeding more deeply than ever before Christ’s call into mutual vulnerability and care. Considering how we can adapt our little free library to be a little free food shelf. Continuing to organize ourselves to influence public life with the love that is greater than fear.

The women, Matthew says, went forth on Easter bearing their message “with fear and great joy.” That sounds about right to me. Do you feel it too? The mixed-up confusion of this time? Joy rises up in me as I kick the soccer block around the block with Alice; as I watch Eliza cook and bake and create art; as I savor daily time to walk and talk with Jen. Beauty strikes me in the awakening Spring, in the ways people find to encourage each other from a distance. I believe with all my heart that the halting of our normal lives can be a gift, prying open a space in us for our God of resurrection to work.

And yet, though fear need not rule us, it is, truth be told, always with us. Jellybeans and Peeps and spring flowers cannot take away the weight of this vigil. As we sit at the tomb, I feel smothered and lonely at the same time. The thought of continuing to juggle work and parenting through an entire spring and summer without school or childcare is honestly filling me with dread. How are you in these days? What new joys are you welcoming? What new fears are you carrying? What are you grieving and how do you sense new life emerging?

My friends, I pray that we will look back on this trying time and mark it as the birth pangs of a new normal. Let this season of distance be an earthquake that reveals the cracks in our facades of care and connection. Let it be lightening that kindles the fires of justice and wholeness. Let it be a rumbling stone that awakens us so that we no longer live as if fear rules the world, but instead we come alive in love.