Easter Sunday Year A 2017 at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul, Burlington, Vermont
By the Rt. Rev. Thomas C. Ely
On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)
On Palm Sunday, this year, Holy Week began with the tragic report of terrorism in Egypt. Nearly 50 people were killed when suicide bombs were detonated at two Coptic churches. This detestable incident of hatred and violence targeted at religious minorities was not the first, and likely not the last.
The next day we were shocked to learn news of yet another heartbreaking incident of domestic violence and gun violence, this time in a San Bernardino classroom. In the United States, domestic violence statistics are alarming, claiming at least 2,000 lives each year. Seventy percent of the victims are women. More than half of the time, the weapon used to carry out an “intimate partner” homicide is a gun.
These are just two recent incidents of the sort of hatred and violence that infects our lives, our communities and our world today. To those, we could add many others, including the proliferation of hate speech over social media, racially motivated violence and the harsh words and actions often directed at refugees and immigrants these days. For me, all these incidents are expressions of human dignity violations and they disturb me greatly. In fact, they often make me weep, not unlike Mary at the tomb that first Easter morning.
On this Easter morning, I suspect that many of you, like me, bring your sorrow and confusion, anger and frustration at such things with you before the cross of Christ and the light of the Paschal Candle. We come, offering all that we are thinking and feeling about these and other such incidents of hatred and violence, before the heart of God.
Many of you know the work of artist Janet McKenzie. Her stunning work has been displayed in this Cathedral several times and now, thanks to the generosity of David McCord and Stephen Hendrickson’s family foundation, we have the permanent gift of one of her paintings at Saint Paul’s entitled, “Mary and Jesus with the Papel Picado.”
This morning I have the privilege of displaying her newest creation, which she has titled Embrace Hope – Give Love a Chance. About this painting, she wrote this on her Facebook page: “I created this painting in response to worldwide hate and violence. I was raised with an immigrant mentality and I believe many of you were too. I would like this image to be used for good especially as we approach the sacredness of Holy Week.”
When I saw a photo of this painting on Facebook this week, I immediately knew that she must have been looking over my shoulder, or I over hers, because the title of this painting captured well the essence of the Easter message stirring in my heart. I immediately got in touch with her and one thing led to another until she offered to let me borrow the painting for today.
I’ve prepared an Easter prayer card for each of you with a photo of this painting and a prayer I wrote in response, and hope that you will take it home with you and include it in your Easter Season devotions.
In the reading from Jeremiah this morning we heard words of prophecy proclaiming that God will not desert Israel, that her exile in Babylon will end, and the return from exile will be like a new exodus:
Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love:
Therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
I believe it was this same everlasting love of God that greeted Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning, and offered her grace in the wilderness of her life, as she stood weeping outside the empty tomb. In John’s account of that first Easter morning, we read, “Woman, why are you weeping?” We know why. She was grieving because of the hatred and violence that had taken the life of Jesus, the one who had deeply touched her life with love and filled her heart with faith. Now, he was dead and the stone that sealed his tomb had been removed, but the body was nowhere to be found. Mary’s weeping is both a physical and metaphorical indication that this is a wilderness experience for her.
It is a time of sorrow and loss, a time of uncertainty and perplexity, a time when belief has been challenged, and the arid expanse of questioning and doubt is playing its seductive game with her fragile faith. But, this is Easter! God’s everlasting love was not dead. Love’s hard work was not yet finished and Mary Magdalene became the first apostle to tell this Good News to others: “I have seen the Lord.”
Embrace Hope – Give Love a Chance becomes her Easter word, just as it is for Janet McKenzie, and for me, and I hope for you.
I like what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said about this love in his Easter message several years ago: God has, from all eternity, loved us: and, when we realize that fact, nothing else can finally shape our minds and hearts. We are anchored in that love: it does not protect us from harm, or from hard decisions, or from emotional turmoil and profound grief, or anger at the pain of the world. It simply assures us that there is finally no contest between God's love and the forces of disintegration in the world and in the human spirit. When this unqualified love is denied and abused, even when it is pushed away with the utmost arbitrary violence, it proves itself indestructible. The Crucified is raised to life.
The story of Easter, indeed God’s story from the very beginning is a story of grace in the wilderness. Whether it is the promise of land and descendants to the wandering Abraham and Sarah and their offspring forever, or the life-sustaining gifts of God’s presence in the wilderness of the Exodus, or the gift of the Sinai Covenant to a rebellious people, or the capacity to sing the Lord’s song in the midst of Exile, or the promise of new flesh on dead, dry bones, - today’s word from the prophet Jeremiah rings true: There is grace to be found in the wilderness, because our God is a God who loves us with an everlasting love.
On this Easter morning, do you long, like me, like Mary Magdalene, for your weeping, whatever its cause, to somehow be transformed? (pause) If so, hear God’s answer to your prayer. It is found in Mary’s voice: “I have seen the Lord.” It is found in Janet’s painting: Embrace Hope – Give Love a Chance. God’s answer is resurrection, and in the words of Fred Buechner, “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” God’s answer is not that all will somehow magically be made well, but that a voice we know is calling out our name amid our tears. And, recognizing that voice as the one who loves us with an everlasting love, we can rise from our weeping and enter the work of reconciling transformation for which God, in our baptism, has ordained us.
Indeed, Love’s hard work is not finished, and so, here is my Easter prayer:
On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
On this day the Lord has acted. Will we rejoice and be glad in it?
On this day the Lord has acted. Go, rejoice and be glad in it!
©The Right Reverend Thomas C. Ely