REV. ASHLEY LYTLE CARR
Wow, what an Easter! This year we forego choir anthems and big hats, we miss the smell of lilies in the sanctuary, and we sacrifice the joyful Easter morning hugs with our friends that help pull us out of the depths of a long Lent. This year, things are different. We Easter in our new normal—this solitary togetherness. We Easter in our PJs with a cup of coffee in hand and the glow of screen on our faces. Perhaps you’re even a man wearing a hat while you video worship and Barbara Jamison isn’t watching to tell you to remove it!
You see, everything is topsy turvey.
And there’s a piece of me this Easter morning that’s almost grateful for the disruption.
I’m not saying that Easter needed a software upgrade, and I’m not thrilled to be preaching to my computer, nor am I glad about the pandemic wreaking havoc on this globe. But, I’m somewhat grateful because there’s a chance that this forced departure from Easter traditions past might help us remember exactly what Easter actually is all about.
I know, you know what Easter is. It’s the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from the confines of mortal death. After judgement and death upon the cross, God raises the lifeless body of his only begotten Son in the tomb and sends him back out into the world alive again with the wounds still in his hands.
But Easter is about more than the resuscitation of a human life. It’s got rich theological meaning that defines the Christian faith. It’s an event that grounds that which we believe in. It’s the foundation upon which our doctrine is built. Easter is a big deal. But, it seems that we’ve gotten a bit confused about what Easter is since that first one 2000 years ago.
Here’s what Easter isn’t:
Easter is not a fashion show.
Easter is not a choir concert.
Easter is not a photo shoot.
Easter is not a bunny.
We know these things…
What’s more, though, during this global pandemic, amidst the fear, anxiety and uncertainty, it’s important to remember that:
Easter is not a vaccine.
Easter is not an eraser of sorrow.
Easter is not a return to normalcy.
Easter is not going to fix everything.
If you woke up this Easter morning and still couldn’t take a deep breath, or you still felt that pit in your stomach, or you’re still holding the anxiety of this pandemic reality, that’s okay. The resurrection of Jesus Christ does not take away our experience of grief and sorrow. After watching Jesus die on the cross, Mary Magdalene probably wasn’t instantly freed from her sorrow when she encountered the living Christ outside of the tomb. Human hearts and souls and minds just don’t work that way, we can’t immediately snap out of our pain—even when we get the outcome we’ve been hoping for. There’s still the heaviness of what we’ve been through weighing on us.
And yet, here we are. ”Pandemic-ed,” broken, and human as we are, this is still Easter Sunday. We are still Christians. This is still one of the most joyful and wonderful celebrations that we share in our tradition. The Lord is still risen indeed, and we still cry “Alleluia!”
In anticipation of this Easter Sunday, many of us have been wondering what we’re supposed to do with the resurrection this year. How does Easter fit in to our current reality where that sorrow and heaviness remain in the midst of the joyful resurrection? Well, it seems that this year Easter has to mean something deeper and truer than ever before. We have to let go of those things that aren’t Easter, the secular implications, the distractions, and even the hope that Jesus will bring us some magical fix to make us feel better.
When we do that, when we let all of that fade away and sit in our stillness with the resurrected Lord, we remember that Easter is our assurance that God really is quite powerful.
The first Easter was not without its own sorrow. There were a myriad of enemies and complications and grief-stricken moments that lead to the cross. But, in Easter, God flexes that powerful muscle, sacrifices His only begotten son, defeats death by raising him from the dead, and in doing so, promises us eternal salvation. And what’s more, in the Easter event we are given the comfort and knowledge that that powerful God shows up and makes good on promises and restores our hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s some powerful stuff. God is something powerful. Does that change the harsh realities of our mortal life? No. But if we allow ourselves to believe in the power of God working in our lives, if, in the midst of our darkness and despair, we let our hearts and minds rest in the truth that God is powerful, it will, it will, sustain us.
That’s what we need from Easter this year. Sustaining Truth. Sustaining understanding of God. Sustaining peace and comfort and hope that only God can bring us.
Easter teaches us that God is big enough and strong enough and powerful enough to hold our everything along with us. If we can find it in our faithful hearts to rest our fears and anxieties in the hollow of God’s powerful hand, we might just be able to get out of bed in the morning and move into this uncertain world. If we can breathe in the hope of the resurrection, we might just find our anxieties quelled, if even for a fleeting moment. If we can let that mysterious and holy peace wash over us, we might find a clearer vision for a new day.
Easter doesn’t undo life. Easter sustains God’s children for life.
A truly powerful God who is bigger than anything that afflicts us shows us at Easter just how capable of a God He is. I am convinced more than ever this Easter Sunday of the power of God. We can see it at work. The power of God brought you here to this screen. The power of God keeps you at home for the good of the whole. The power of God feeds our community in personal care homes The power of God is the hand on the back of the medical professionals hard at work. The power of God is the innocence of a newborn child. The power of God is our sustenance. That’s Easter.
So, as we continue to sit in this uncertain season, I compel you to let your mind rest outside of the news, outside of the food inventory, outside of the statistics, and outside of the fear. Let your mind rest in Easter. Let your mind rest in the trustworthy power of God. Because when you take everything else away, when the trial ends, when the crowd dissipates, when the bodies are removed from the cross, when the hour is silent and thick with grief, what we’re left with is the power of God who promises to show up in those moments. We’re left with an almighty God who defeats death, unites people, and restores our hope for a brighter tomorrow indeed.
And joyfully from the mountain tops, or sorrowfully from our knees, we cry Alleluia alleluia!
Artwork by John Swanson, The Deposition
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 / Psalm 22 / Hebrews 10:16-25 / John 18:1-19:42
It seems to me that there is often a rush to celebrate Easter. Certainly in our modern society overall, but even in the church there is often a sense of rushing through Holy Week to get to the good part where we celebrate the resurrected Christ without dwelling on his death.
I get it. Death is one of those subjects we tend to avoid. We engage in activities that distract us from our own death and we are inclined to focus on more positive things. Even rituals and practices around death have been designed to provide some distance between us and the tangible reality of lifelessness.
But the gospel for today certainly doesn’t avoid the subject of death.
The gospel text from John that is typically read in full during a Good Friday service is long and it details the arrest of Jesus in the garden, his questioning by the high priest, his torture at the hands of Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion, suffering, and death. There is no doubt that in John’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus, our Lord endured much suffering before his death. Jesus, both fully God and fully human, suffered and died so that salvation might be offered to humanity.
The portion of John’s account that I was drawn to in this season of uncertainty and fear due to global pandemic, is the account of Jesus’ friends and disciples taking his lifeless body, preparing it according to Jewish customs, and laying it in the tomb. Jesus’ disciples have an intimate relationship with death in this moment. I am struck when reading this text that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and the others that prepared Jesus’ body for burial must have been overcome with grief. They had no sense of rushing towards the celebration of resurrection because they didn’t know what was to come. They only knew that their teacher and friend and loved one had been killed, and their response was to take intimate care of his lifeless body.
I think we are in a time in our country and all throughout the world when our lives are more oriented towards suffering and death than usual. Every day we are turning on the news to a larger death toll due to Covid-19. We have been forced to quarantine ourselves to save our bodies and others’ bodies from sickness and death. Some of us may be experiencing some suffering due to lost loved ones, suffering due to depression that is increased by being forced to stay at home, suffering due to an overwhelming amount of fear or anxiety, suffering due to grief over cancelled plans and events and celebrations, suffering due to lost jobs and an uncertain future. I know for our friends in personal care homes who must deal with their mental illnesses or addictions or lack of resources in isolation, their suffering may be increased.
The facts on the ground are that we are experiencing a global trauma and that many of us will experiencing suffering and some of us may experience death. I find comfort, not in an answer to “why is all this happening?” but in the knowledge that the God I am praying to gave himself over to suffering and death. God knows suffering and death intimately. So that when I cry out to him amidst suffering, I know he is present with me there and for that I am grateful.
So, on this Good Friday, where there isn’t much in the world that seems good, I am asking myself how I can tend to the reality of the lifeless body of Jesus that has been tortured and crucified. How can I pause in this part of Jesus’ story, not rushing to celebrate the resurrection, but grieve as if one of his closest friends preparing his body for burial? For it is only in suffering that we come to know the fullness of love and redemption offered to the world. It is only through darkness that we come to know light.
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 / Psalm 116:1, 10-17 / 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 / John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The scriptures today give us these beautiful scenes of Jesus’s last moments with his disciples. These are special moments because Jesus loved his disciples. Like any good full circle moment, a meal is shared. In this we hear the familiar words from our Eucharistic prayers. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And then, as his last “hurrah”, Jesus gets up from the table, grabs a towel, pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. Even the feet of the one who was to betray him. Before he leaves, he says one final thing, he tells them to love one another for “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Maundy Thursday is one of my favorite days in the church calendar. I cannot think of a more intimate and close ritual that we participate in to remind ourselves and each other that we are to love one another. Yet, here we are, more apart from one another than ever. This year we will not be washing each other’s feet and receiving Eucharist together.
This service ends with the stripping of the altar. Somehow that feels like the only thing I can truly resonate with now. Eucharist, the foot washing, the linens, crosses — gone. Stripped away. The sanctuary is empty, and we all know it is literally empty because we have not gathered there in several weeks. All that is left is a bare altar and the memory of Christ. Where is Christ now? Where is his presence?
Do this in remembrance of me.
Do you remember? Do you remember the first time you entered the doors of Holy Comforter? Do you remember a time you felt Christ’s pretense while receiving Eucharist? Have you felt the love of Christ through the love of a friend?
If Eucharist is a place where space and time come together, when we join with the great cloud of witness of those who have gone before us, than perhaps we are always celebrating it. Perhaps there is a place where we will always be together, sharing a meal and laughing together that can never be thwarted by this virus.
Of course, we may know where this classic story is going, but until then, it is okay to feel that emptiness. To wonder where Christ is. To be frustrated about how much this pandemic season has disrupted our rhythms and separated us from the people we love. To see nothing but a stripped altar.
Let our memory be a sacrament and the strength we draw upon to love our neighbor. This virus has not taken away our ability to love one another.
The incarnate Christ, made known by our love.
Isaiah 50:4-9a / Psalm 70 / Hebrews 12:1-3 / John 13:21-32
At the end of the Psalm in today’s lectionary readings, a voice calls out, “…Come to me speedily, O God. You are my helper and my deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry.” It reminds me of a prayer I heard my preacher Granny say many times. She’d fold her hands sweetly and say, “Dear Lord…give me patience…and give it to me RIGHT NOW!”
Most of us have been cooped up at home waiting for answers and help and relief for weeks now. These do feel like unprecedented times, which can feel scary. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Or maybe we think we know what comes next—maybe we’re listening to the predictions, the closures, the limited hospital beds, the death rates, the unemployment numbers—and we’re bracing ourselves for the weeks ahead. Hurry, Lord!
There must have been a sense of tense anticipation at this moment in the story of Holy Week, too. Jesus is “troubled in spirit” in today’s Gospel text. “One of you will betray me,” he says to his disciples.
What do we know about betrayal on this Wednesday in 2020? Maybe some of us still carry the hurt of someone we trusted who disappointed us. (Maybe someone who took all the toilet paper, or maybe something more.) Maybe we are feeling betrayed by our systems as they buckle under the strain of this pandemic. Maybe we are familiar with a part of ourselves that seems to go off and sell us out. Or, in moments of despair and uncertainty, maybe we feel betrayed by the way bad things happen to good people. Maybe we…well, not us surely, but maybe people we know…maybe those people feel betrayed by God. Hurry, Lord! Don’t delay any longer!
In the Gospel text, Jesus turns to Judas and says, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” What must Jesus have been feeling in that moment? He knows what’s going to happen, and here he sets the events in motion anyway.
Meanwhile, the rest of Jesus’ crew is trying to wrap their heads around what’s going on, and they are totally missing the point. They think maybe Jesus is telling Judas to get some supplies or maybe go give away some money to the poor. These aren’t bad interpretations, they’re just interpretations based on the old reality, the times when Judas was the friend who carried around the money and did stuff like that. They don’t know what’s coming next. They don’t know what will happen.
But Jesus has his eye on more of the story—the bigger story. As Judas leaves to betray him, he says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”
It’s very tempting to get hasty in our search for meaning when the world is changing and anxieties are high. But when we rush, we are more likely to just see what’s in front of us and miss the point...We don’t know what’s coming next.
How might we slow down and surrender to the bigger story our Helper and Deliverer has in view? How do we practice the trust our great teacher Jesus showed us? May these days in Holy Week offer you space to slow down, breathe, and listen deeper in a way that brings you to peace and joy.
Isaiah 49:1-7 / Psalm 71:1-14 / 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 / John 12:20-36
This passage relays the end of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of John and the beginning of the hour in which the Son of Man is to be glorified. This “hour” entails Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension in which the Johannine Jesus’ divine mission to glorify God will be completed. Jesus speaks about the significance of his impending death and appeals to crowds in public for the last time to take seriously his message. I hear Jesus speaking toward a reality counter to what we would expect, namely that our lives are not ends in and of themselves. Likewise, the judgment of this world is the judgment of a world which exists in and of itself. The salvific light which Jesus brings is one of assurance as to where we are going, not within the boundaries of our lives as we know them, but in our reality as created beings who are destined to remain with our Creator. Jesus’ messianic role is fulfilled in his revelation of our created natures, as one whose origin and destination remain the same. Jesus is not asking followers to take on the physical reality of martyrdom but is revealing that discipleship means putting to death the self which lives for itself alone. Self-denial does not equate to self-persecution; rather, it is a letting go of our attachment to self through the recognition that we are not our own. Jesus’ humanity shines forth as his hour has come and his soul is troubled, but he chooses to face his own death with the recognition that his very existence rests in his ability to glorify the one who sent him, and that kind of life cannot be extinguished by death. It is eternal.
If there is truth to these reflections, what does it mean in the context of our lives that our ends are determined with God? What does it mean for us to follow Jesus and walk with light in the midst of these dark times? To have faith in this reality is a gracious gift of freedom. We are freed to abandon our ties to the unfulfilling demands of self and world in recognition that our lives are determined by something unimaginably greater. It all sounds grand, but in practice it’s still quite terrifying. That is why it is encouraging to hear that Jesus’ own soul is troubled in the moment when his time for glorification has come. Even the Son of God could not escape the implications of the human condition, the caughtness between freedom and finitude which acts as the source of all human fear and creativity. Jesus’ experience assures us the path of light cannot be walked without our own soul-disturbances. Fear is not, on its own, the enemy of faith in God, but it must be confronted with the courageous belief in God’s faithfulness towards us revealed in the life of Christ.
Isaiah 42:1-9 / Psalm 36:5-11 / Hebrews 9:11-15 / John 12:1-11
Imagine how Jesus felt sitting at a dinner table with lively conversation flowing around him and a sense of joy pervading the air as Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus’ disciples celebrated Jesus’ recent miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. Imagine how Mary and Martha felt…Jesus has returned to spend time with them and now they could show their love and gratitude to him for bringing their brother back to life. In the midst this celebration, perhaps Jesus took a moment of introspection. He was acutely aware of the Pharisees and chief priests’ increasing efforts to arrest him. Perhaps his gaze lingers on this family he deeply loves as he knows it may be his last time to be with them before his death.
Have you ever been with a crowd of people and still felt completely alone? Lately, even though you are perhaps with family members and housemates more than usual, is there a part of you that feels no one truly understands what you are going through? Does it seem that no one really sees how afraid you are of what is coming next?
I wonder if Jesus felt a little like this, these disciples and friends understood him perhaps better than most. Yet despite his predictions about his fate, they still could not grasp the death he would face just days away. That night, only Jesus truly knew that when he departed his friends’ home it would be onto a road that would lead him to the cross.
And then, Mary approaches Jesus, kneels beside him, and begins to anoint his feet with perfume rich and deep with fragrance. As he watches Mary offer this act of devotion, I imagine Jesus is close to tears again. Someone does understand a little of what he is going through! He marvels that Mary intuitively knows his body needs anointing for its upcoming burial. When Judas complains to Jesus about the extravagance of Mary’s gift, Jesus reminds him you will “not always have me” with you.
John 12:3 tells us “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. From this we know Mary is not stingy with her gift. As the perfume pours over Jesus’ feet, its scent overpowers other aromas in the house, even those wafting up from the dishes Mary had prepared for dinner. Perhaps the perfume’s scent was so strong, Jesus, the family, and disciples could almost taste it. With what fragrance can we fill our homes during these days when we are more bound in them? Jewish tradition viewed the fragrance from incense in the temple as prayers rising to God. What prayers of petition and thanksgiving are rising in the atmosphere of our living spaces? In today’s gospel story, there was not a corner of the house which escaped the fragrance that flowed from Mary’s act of devotion to her Teacher. What acts of devotion can we do this week as a sign to Jesus that we remember him and his extravagant love for us? In what ways can our love for Jesus pour out extravagantly onto those around us?