I’ll begin with a church joke, which is close kin to a Dad joke, so, sorry. A nice, upstanding, church going episcopal couple invited their rector over for brunch after the Easter service. Of course, the table was set with the finest china, crystal, silverware, and perfectly folded linen napkins. Everything was going well, with lots of pleasant conversation about the sermon and hymns and lilies and the brass and the crowded pews.
But after the brunch, as the couple was cleaning up, the wife noticed a missing silver fork, by the rector’s neatly folded linen napkin. She knew exactly how many silver forks she had, and one was definitely missing. She felt quite sure that when the rector excused himself from the table for a minute was the very moment the fork disappeared. She was too embarrassed to call the rector and ask if he’d taken her fork, but she harbored her suspicions.
A year went by. The next Easter, the rector returned for Easter Brunch, with all the same table settings and pleasant conversation. But half-way through the lamb and after a Bloody Mary or two, the wife could not contain herself a minute longer. She turned to the rector and shouted, “Did you steal one of my silver forks last year!?” The rector calmly replied, “Why, no. I just hid it in the bible on your bedside table.”
If you are tuning in to this Easter Service this year, you may be the kind of Episcopalian who looks for God once, or maybe twice per year, if you count Christmas Eve. It doesn’t matter! I loved the Babylon Bee’s lampoon this week of the lackluster church going among Episcopalians. Below a picture of a completely empty church was the headline, “Episcopal Church Reports No Change in Attendance in Recent Weeks”. “Business as usual”, said one rector, “We didn’t even know there was a lockdown.”
Well, that’s not entirely true, if the number of views we’ve had on our previous online church services is any indicator. In fact, all kinds of people are tuning in right now, looking for some hope and comfort from God. And that’s the beauty of the good news of the gospel: God doesn’t keep count or take roll; He just does marvelous and miraculous things for us to behold and believe, with no strings attached.
The marvelous and miraculous things for us behold and believe are found in St. John’s account of the resurrection this Easter Day. But before we get to the marvelous and miraculous, let’s start at the beginning of the passage. Mary Magdalene makes her way in the dark to the tomb of Jesus, intending to anoint his body for burial.
Mary and the other disciples were grieving. Life as they had known it rapidly changed on the heels of Jesus’ arrest one day, and his mock trial and crucifixion the next. Their hope was now extinguished. Everything was taken away so quickly. They can’t imagine that life will ever be the same. Now, Mary Magdalene is just trying to keep calm and carry on in the face of this grief, just doing the next thing she know how to do. Sound familiar?
In one sense, this Easter is like the first Easter. Churches were empty, because there weren’t any churches. There were no public Easter egg hunts, no Easter Brunch gatherings, no Hallelujah Choruses. In fact, as we will see in next week’s reading, on the evening of the first Easter the disciples were all together sheltering in place, afraid to go outside.
Had Edgar Allan Poe written his famous poem “The Raven” back then, the emotion would have suited the scene. A man sits alone and grieving in his dark chamber, the love of his life, Lenore, having left him. As he’s brooding, wondering if he could ever get Lenore back, wondering if he would ever be happy again, a raven alights on his window sill. Thinking the bird might be a messenger of hope from God, he asks the raven if joy will ever return.
“On this home by Horror haunted – tell me, truly, I implore / Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore! / Quoth the Raven – ‘Nevermore’”. And that is the bird’s ominous refrain throughout the poem: Nevermore, Nevermore, Nevermore. If you have been wondering if joy will return to life, and the voices all around you or the voices in your head say “Nevermore”, you should know you are not the first to feel this way. This feeling is obviously present in, but not particular to the time of corona.
We see it in Mary Magdalene in this Easter account. She comes to the tomb and sees that the stone has been removed. She races off and gets Peter and John, who then race to the empty tomb. Once there, they discover a curious detail. The burial linens that had wrapped Jesus’ body and head were there – folded neatly. Perhaps those folded linens would have reminded them of the Jewish tradition that crumpled up linens at the dinner table meant the person was finished the meal, but a folded linen meant the person was coming back? Yes, Jesus had foretold his resurrection, but in times of threat and crisis, it’s hard to think straight, isn’t it?
Mary, at least, is still consumed with grief. The text says, “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” She sees the empty tomb – evidence of Jesus’ resurrection and interprets it as bad news – his body has been stolen. Angels show up and ask her why she’s weeping, yet she still doesn’t understand the Good News. And then – get this – Jesus Himself shows up and asks her why she’s crying, and she still doesn’t behold and believe. And, that’s where I want to pause for just a second.
Mary is caught up in her grief because she did not expect, could not expect God to do the miraculous. To comfort her a little in her grief, maybe. To help her have Jesus “live on in her heart”, maybe. To remind her of the general renewal of life through the blooming flowers, maybe. But to RAISE JESUS CHRIST BODILY FROM THE DEAD! NO WAY! But there Jesus is, alive, real, physical, fully present, turning to Mary and calling her by name.
You see, out of the jaws of death, when things seem their worst, God does the miraculous. JRR Tolkien coined a word for this: eucatastrophe. It is the “sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears – it is a sudden glimpse of Truth. He called the Resurrection the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest story.
Giving life, bringing life out of death – that’s how He worked on the first Easter, that’s how He works on this Easter, and that’s how He will work for evermore, evermore, evermore. As the psalmist says, “weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
And it is the Morning, my friends. Jesus is here, turning to you, calling you by name. Even if you are watching this in the evening, it is the Morning – the Morning of Hope and the Morning of Joy and the Morning of Promise and the Morning of Resurrection. The Morning of the Sudden Happy Turn which pierces you with a Joy that bring tears.
Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. That is our Easter glimpse of Truth. And, this Morning and all Mornings for evermore, when asked if death has the final word, we can say with one voice: Nevermore, Nevermore, Nevermore!
And when things get dark and you need a reminder of this truth – you could always watch this sermon again. Or, you could just pick up the bible on your bedside table! Happy Easter to you all! Amen.