In the Middle of the Night, Easter Arrives

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 17, 2022

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

Have you ever stumbled onto something that was completely unexpected, and only later realized there was more going on than what you could see? Photographers do this when they spot something which makes them stop and ponder what’s right in front of them, perhaps moving a little or a lot to change their perspective, then capturing in one picture an extraordinary moment that didn’t seem to exist in the world a few seconds earlier.

Sometimes you walk into a crowded room and hear on the other side of that threshold one of many conversations already in progress. And then maybe you cringe internally — or externally — once you realize the person whose voice you hear going on and on about this or that isn’t aware of other nearby realities in the same room — a struggling spouse in recovery from alcohol addiction, a mother whose heart is overflowing with joy over her gay son’s upcoming wedding, a friend who’s just lost a job but only told a handful of people about it. If the person holding court knew of these or any number of other realities in that same room, the conversation might be different.

There are a lot of hidden realities this morning in this room. Some of you don’t want to be here, having been dragged along by a significant other or a grandparent. I see you, and also have sympathy for you. (Know that your grandmother loves you very much, and I love you too!) Others sitting in the pews today have hearts weighed down by grief over the death of a loved one, perhaps over the past year, or perhaps from long, long ago. Many are still trying to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle that is the small part of the world in which we live fit together on this side of the pandemic. You might be worried about that but afraid to say anything about it to anyone else.

Imagine yourself as Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb of Jesus “while it was still dark,” or the unnamed “other disciple” running with Simon Peter to that same tomb on the first Easter morning.[1] As they encountered the room that is the empty tomb, a sense of joy, a sense of wonder, a sense of divine majesty, wasn’t part of the experience. Something was very wrong. That’s why Mary ran back to tell the others that the body of Jesus had been stolen. What she had seen just compounded the trauma that had followed the events of Good Friday and the silence on the sabbath day.

Only when Mary, while overwhelmed and weeping outside the tomb, heard herself being addressed by name did she recognize Jesus standing in front of her. She had mistaken him for the gardener. Yet it was Jesus, who had died, and who now was alive — alive but also somehow very different, and known but only because he had made himself known.

“I have seen the Lord,” she would later say.[2]

For Mary, being called by her name changed everything in an instant — the identity of the person in front of her, whom she had already seen with her own eyes, the meaning of the empty tomb, and the movie playing over and over in her head about what had happened in the middle of the night.

Something terrifying had indeed happened, but not in the way Mary had first imagined. It was instead terrifying in the sense that the voice of the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon, and in the darkness that same voice brought Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, over from death to life, setting free all those imprisoned by sin and death, and giving to us a glimpse of our own resurrection in the world to come — in the world beyond our fears and our failures — a new creation that transforms tears of sorrow into tears of joy and, yes, tears of laughter.[3] How could there not be laughter with God?

Is it possible — just possible — that even this very small part of the world in which we live is much larger than we have imagined it to be? Is it possible there’s a lot more going on around us and within us than we can see?

Right outside the front doors of Palmer, on the other side of Main Street, is the campus of Rice University. (The church building in which you’re sitting, by the way, was built in 1927 to be a chapel for the Rice Institute before becoming the home of an Episcopal congregation in 1929.) This whole area is one of the most beautiful parts of the City of Houston — the live oaks, the azaleas, and the wildlife — squirrels, of course, and rabbits, an occasional possum, and lots of birds — grackles, mockingbirds, bluejays, and owls, which seems appropriate for Rice. (I’m even wearing owl cufflinks today!)

But even if you take time for a walk around the Rice campus, even if you pause to notice, with a sense of awe and wonder, all the other forms of life that surround you, including, of course, the students too — even then you’re only seeing a small fraction of what’s really happening there.

Houston is on what’s called the Central Flyway, and the Rice campus is essentially like a Buc-ee’s for many birds on their way to and from the tropics. But mostly they’re flying overhead, while you’re either sleeping soundly in your own bed or wide-awake and worried, staring up at the ceiling. And we know a lot about them thanks to a man named Cin-Ty Lee. He’s a professor of geology at Rice University, but he’s passionate about birds and has been observing them on Rice’s campus for 20 years.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Cin-Ty and a few others thought that might be a good time to try to record the sound of birds at night.[4] Ambient noise, because of reduced traffic, had gone down significantly. So they set up a microphone, initially in a lemon tree but now on a 20-foot pole, and waited to find out what exactly was going on during the night.

Well, that turned out to be a big ol’ disappointment.

In the beginning, in March of 2020, they heard nothing. And they actually thought they were doing something wrong. It was like their own experience of Holy Saturday, waiting and wondering what had happened. But then everything exploded in late April, when there were suddenly thousands — thousands — of birds passing overhead each night.

They weren’t even hearing all of the birds because some fly too high to be heard and others don’t call out to each other while they’re flying. But they heard thousands of them nevertheless. And those recordings added about 30 new species to the list of birds already known to be present at different times of the year on the Rice campus. That total is now at least 262 species.

Have you seen them all? Do they exist even if you haven’t seen them?

To be clear, I don’t think the meaning of the empty tomb should be reduced to springtime observations in the Northern Hemisphere. But nature does give us hints that there is more to this world than meets the eye. There is so much that we don’t see at all, that we see only partly, or that we see dimly, whether off in the furthest reaches of the universe or — perhaps even more amazingly — right here, right across the street, in this small part of the world in which we live and work, in which we love and grieve those we’ve lost, in which we learn and become curious about the things God has made.

What I want to suggest to you is that you’re only experiencing a small fraction of what’s really happening in the world around you. There are mysteries here that are visible but unseen, and there are mysteries here that are invisible too. What happened last night, so to speak, what happened in the darkness before the first Easter morning, was a mystery.

But Mary Magdalene and the rest of those closest to Jesus believed they had seen him raised from the dead. Perhaps the most mysterious thing of all was that the risen Christ, the one who called Mary by name and revealed himself to her, showed them, and shows us too, that God is for us, not against us.

And just as the risen Christ saw Mary weeping and had compassion on her, “God shall [one day] wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”[5] They are passed away because of what happened in the middle of the night. And one day, having fallen asleep in Jesus, we shall awake in the light of his resurrection.

My friends, there’s more going on in this world, more going on in this very room, more going on in your own life, right now, than what you can see.


BACK TO POST John 20:1-10.

BACK TO POST John 20:18.

BACK TO POST Psalm 29:5.

4 BACK TO POST Cin-Ty Lee in an interview on the podcast City Cast Houston, “Recording the Night Skies of Houston,” April 11,2022.

BACK TO POST Revelation 21:4. I quoted this familiar verse from the Book of Revelation using the King James Version, which can be heard in composer Eleanor Daley’s powerful anthem “And God shall wipe away all tears.”