Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 4, 2021
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
Today we sing . . . together. Today we not only say the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, we will sing as a congregation, “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” It’s been so very long since we’ve done that. Sitting here on the lawn of the church by these beautiful live oaks, we’re surrounded by the noise of the city, surrounded by a cacophony of sounds from across the street at the the largest medical center in the world.
Those sirens rushing into the Texas Medical Center, pleading for mercy or wailing in grief, remind us daily of life and death. And there’s been so much death, so much loss, over the past year in this and other countries.
So whether we’ve come to this service with hearts filled with confidence or genuine joy or the heaviness of grief or hope that’s more than a wish or a thousand disappointments or a longing for the rumor of death’s destruction to be true or doubts overflowing in every direction, we can sing together once again as we bear one another’s burdens. And our words sung today beneath the canopy of a clear sky can be our own prayers — our own conversation with God that surrounds all of the noise, everything going on around us and also everything going on within us, with the love of Jesus.
And if you can’t think of that as prayer because you’re not sure about prayer or you wonder if anyone’s listening or the empty tomb seems empty of meaning, know that others are praying for you today, holding themselves and you, holding this church and the world, in a love stronger than death.
Regardless of what brings us here for Easter, each of us needs love, each of us needs mercy. We need these things in our own lives, and we hope for them in the lives of those closest to us, because we’re human. Religious or not, one way or another, we all seek these gifts that come from outside of ourselves and, hopefully, we share them with others as we are able.
Even when love and mercy appear like a life raft while in solitude, many of us here on this Easter morning would say that they come to us as divine gifts, that they really and truly and freely come to us from the risen Christ.
Maybe the physical distance we have endured for so long over these past months has made us at least a little more aware of our need for love and mercy. I hope that’s true and that we’ll remember, as things slowly return to a new normal, the wonder of how these divine gifts are experienced in community. If we share them as much as we so desperately want to receive them, that will surely be a blessing to ourselves, our church, and our city.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve unexpectedly found myself paying attention to things in ways I never could’ve imagined a year ago. When taking our dogs on a walk through the neighborhood with my family, or while walking around by myself, I’ve seen more than a few street blocks for the first time because they’re usually out of the way if just driving from point A to point B. I’ve greeted “new” neighbors and noticed a lot of details on different houses — houses that I’m seeing for the first time or others that I’ve passed by dozens of times in the past while focused on an errand or something here at the church or “things . . . left undone,” a phrase we say so often but sometimes unreflectively in our prayer of confession in worship.
On this Easter Day, the Fourth Gospel — the beautiful and poetic Gospel of John — offers us an even more remarkable new perspective on the world, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it pays attention to a lot of details. For example, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea petitioned the Roman governor for the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helped him remove the lifeless body and brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” They wrapped his body “with the spices in linen cloths.” Then, in a garden near the place where he had died, they placed Jesus in “a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.”
Sunlight was swallowed up by the horizon at the end of that Good Friday, marking the beginning of the Sabbath — a day of rest for the body of Jesus, for the women who had stood near his cross, for the disciples who had fled from his sufferings, and for those who had condemned him in the name of God. Perhaps it was also a day of rest for his Roman executioners, a brief interlude between stamping out rebellion at the edge of the empire.
The writer of the Fourth Gospel draws us into this holy rest through silence in the text itself, but not before reminding us of something important. He hints that we should use this time reflecting on the meaning of the Jewish Passover. It was a time to retell the stories of Moses and the Exodus. It was a time to remember that God is greater than the pharaohs of this world and that the grip of oppression is weaker than the hand of deliverance. It was a time to remember that God makes a way where there is no way, as he did at the Red Sea. And it was a time to hear with the ears of the imagination the distant sound of Miriam’s tambourine. Her words of rejoicing still ring out:
Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
Perhaps the distance between Miriam’s song of victory, which is closer to the beginning of the Bible, and Mary Magdalene’s grief, which is closer to the end of the Bible, seems like an unbridgeable gap to you. If that diminishment of hope, that incongruity between God’s promise and your present is real for you this morning, whether from something happening in your own life or in the world, know this: Mary Magdalene weeps with you.
Today we heard that she came to the place where Jesus had been buried “while it was still dark.” And in the darkness, she discovered that the stone no longer sealed the tomb and the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found. It must have been terrifying. Later that same morning, she stood there again, outside the tomb, weeping in solitude.
And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, divine love fills the emptiness within Mary Magdalene’s heart, opening her heart to see the world differently, to see herself differently, as the risen Christ calls her by name. This is the detail that matters, that causes her to recognize who it is that stands before her. And one of the great mysteries of Easter is for you and me, for all of us, to stand before God fully known and yet, miraculously, fully loved. And that love will never let go of you, even in death.
In that moment Mary Magdalene becomes the first witness to God’s gracious rejection of the world’s dreadful rejection. In that moment she knew the power of God was bound neither by the stone in front of the tomb nor by the linen wrappings which had embraced the body of Jesus. “He arose from the kingdom of Death and carried away its spoils.”
If that’s true — if Hell is indeed vanquished and Death has been destroyed — the world isn’t the same as it was. As one believer describes it,
In a world where everything seems to be going wrong, God has put something very right.
Here’s more good news: You don’t have to wait until you’re standing in the middle of a pandemic or until things become a lot more normal to start looking at yourself or the world around you differently, to notice things, little things, small details, as if for the first time. You can do that after you leave today, walking away from this beautiful service in the light of the Resurrection. You can do it sooner, too, as we join our voices with Angels and Archangels, with Miriam’s tambourine and all the company of heaven.
And then you’ll be invited to receive love and mercy and forgiveness in your own hands — these divine gifts that fill all the hidden, wounded places in our hearts and make them overflow with the joy of Easter. And this year, this Easter Day, we get to burst into song about that great mystery . . . together.
“Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!”
1 BACK TO POST John 19:39.
2 BACK TO POST John 19:40.
3 BACK TO POST John 19:41.
4 BACK TO POST Exodus 15:21.
5 BACK TO POST John 20:1.
6 BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 237.
7 BACK TO POST Joanna Adams as quoted by John M. Buchanan, “Easter Revolution” in The Christian Century (April 5, 2003) 3.