Easter Sermon: Signs of New Life

Note: During this sermon, I will be using the Hebrew names for Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

John 20: 1-18

Easter begins while it is still dark. Before the sun came up, Miryam of Magdala sets off on foot. There’s no light yet — not enough, anyway, to know if you’re on the right path. Not enough to avoid the stones or roots you might trip on as you walk. Not enough to know if there might be danger just ahead. And in this version of the Easter story, she’s alone. A socially distanced woman, walking in the dark. That’s dangerous in any time and place. She’s probably walking fast, to avoid that danger, and to ward off the morning chill. Her feet crunch on the ground as she walks.

Her destination is the tomb of her beloved teacher, Yeshua. She goes there, now that the Sabbath has ended, to anoint his body with oils and spices, a common burial practice of the time. But as she arrives, she sees that the stone has been rolled away from the opening to the tomb. When she sees this, she does not have resurrection on her mind. She has desecration on her mind. She sees one more reason to mourn — not only has her beloved teacher been murdered by the Roman Empire, but now his body has been stolen. Graverobbing was also a common practice at the time. Without looking into the tomb to investigate, she turns around and runs back home to let Yeshua’s other students know what had happened. In short order, the three students run to the tomb — it’s dawn now — look in, see the grave clothes lying around, notice there’s no body, and go back home.

Miryam is left alone, again, weeping. And I want you to hear her weeping. She’s not crying silently. There’s another Greek word for that kind of crying. The Greek word used in the text for what she’s doing means to weep aloud, to express uncontainable, audible grief. It’s the same verb used in Scripture for mothers who weep for their dead children. It is a grief we should pray to never experience. 

But we are, aren’t we, experiencing grief? Maybe, for some of us, it’s not the uncontainable, loud grief of Miryam. Maybe, for some of us, it’s more the silent weeping, the hidden tears. Even if you haven’t cried yet during this corona crisis, even if it has not yet stolen a loved one from you, some part of you is grieving. Some part of you reads the statistic — 110,835 dead as of this morning — and knows that each death represents the loss of a world to someone. Some part of you weeps for the elderly parent, dying alone in a hospital bed. Some part of you weeps for the people most vulnerable in this virus, the ones who have always been vulnerable — the poor and working-class people who are much more likely to both lose their jobs and be the ones unable to shelter in place because they have to deliver our packages and check out our groceries and clean our hospital rooms; the undocumented workers not eligible for unemployment, who must risk going to their job at the taqueria to make our take-out burritos or to pick our food; the Black and Latino communities in New York City whose people are dying at twice the rate of white people or the people of the Navajo Nation, whose death rate is higher than that of some states.  We weep because, frankly, if this virus weren’t making people like Boris Johnson and Lindsay Graham physically and economically vulnerable, and was “only” affecting poor people or black or brown people or — as in the AIDS crisis of the 80s, gay people — no one would be stopping the economy to stop people from dying. We weep because even before this corona plague, there was so much for which to weep. And we weep because if we had been doing the right things as a society all along, there would not need to be so much weeping now.  

So here we are, while it is still dark, and the sounds of loud weeping fill the air. The sounds of silent weeping fill our hearts. 

Miryam stands outside the tomb, weeping. Eventually, she dips her head to peer into the tomb. She sees the same thing her friends had seen  — the linen wrappings that had covered Jesus’ body now lying on the ground. And she sees some things her friends didn’t see — two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying. Indeed, Miryam eventually sees the risen Yeshua standing before her. And still, she is weeping. 

Miryam can be forgiven for not seeing the signs of new life all around her — the grave clothes lying at her feet, the risen Christ himself. When you are caught in the kind of grief she is experiencing, you can’t see very clearly. Your vision is obscured by tears. Miryam can also be forgiven for not being able to imagine that something completely unimaginable might be happening. When your imagination has been formed by living under the heel of the Roman Empire your entire life, your idea of what is possible becomes stunted.

At the beginning of this pandemic, our family began a contagion-themed film series. First, we watched the obvious movie “Contagion,” then “Outbreak,” then “Flu.” But we quickly moved into zombie movies — don’t judge us — because they are, in fact, about contagion and about the end of the world as we know it. They present a grim imagination about the apocalypse and about humanity. They’re all the same. Once you catch the zombie contagion, you become a mindless automaton with only one goal: to feed, to eat, to consume. You no longer see other humans as beloveds or sacred. They are only food because you are ravenous. Why wouldn’t an economic system that needs year-over-year growth to survive, that needs us to consume more and more, even if that mindless consumption means the death of people and the death of our very planet — why wouldn’t such a society imagine the apocalypse in this way? Imagine humans in this way?

And yet here we are. An apocalypse has happened. I’m using that word in both of its meanings — the more common one of “damage on a catastrophic scale” and the Biblical meaning of a revelation, an unveiling of things not previously seen.  So, here we are in the apocalypse, and what do we see? 

We see a flowering of mutual aid and creativity and solidarity. In India, young people self-organized on a massive scale to provide aid packages for “daily wagers,” people without savings or income or even access to stores. In Wuhan, China, as soon as public transport was suspended, volunteer drivers created a community fleet, transporting medical workers between their homes and hospitals. In Norway, a group of people who have recovered from COVID-19 provide service that would be dangerous for non-immune people to offer. (These examples come directly from this article.) Students in Prague and Cambridge, Massachusetts — like Leland Kusmer and his partner, Brynn — are babysitting the children of health-care workers, people they don’t even know. Luke Yoder, Steve and Karen’s son, scaled back his robotics business and, began, with Levi, a free grocery delivery service to older and immuno-compromised people. We raised $12,000 for our Sharing Fund in a week and have come around Maria Elena — a Mennonite Colombian woman living in South San Francisco who was suddenly deprived of her livelihood — with a support committee and financial assistance to get her through this crisis.  I feel like we have become more the Body of Christ in the past three weeks than in the past three years. This crisis is revealing who we are. It turns out that, when the apocalypse comes, we’re not flesh-eating zombies after all. We’re good neighbors. We’re followers of Jesus.

What else do we see? We see things that would have been politically impossible three weeks ago suddenly become possible. This disruptive pandemic, which some have compared to World War II in its scale, has opened up a political space in which formerly unthinkable things are happening. A moratorium on evictions. Leasing hotels to provide shelter for unhoused people. Releasing prisoners from jail. Republican politicians talking about universal basic income. And what about having a healthcare system accessible to everyone? That doesn’t seem so crazy anymore, now that we have viscerally experienced how the health of each is essential to the health of all. What about re-localizing or re-regionalizing economies so that we are not so dependent on fragile global supply chains? What about having a toilet-paper making factory in Oakland, say? What about limiting our destruction of ecosystems, “lest we unleash even greater planetary destabilization through viruses, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem decline”? Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of dangerous things that could happen — and that are happening — in this window of political opportunity, in addition to a lot of good things. We could see a frightening loss of civil liberties, increasing authoritarianism, a strengthening of the surveillance society, growing chasms between the haves and have-nots. We must be vigilant that these things don’t happen.

What else do we see? We see the earth breathing again. Many of you have told me of the delight you are taking in seeing sparkling, smog-free skies, in hearing the sound of birds over the sound of the BART train or traffic. This pandemic has already slowed down carbon emissions more than all of those commitments to carbon reduction countries have made (and generally not kept). One scientist calculated that 20 times as many Chinese lives have been saved by reduced air pollution than lost directly to coronavirus. And no more will environmental activists accept the excuse that we cannot slow our economy down to halt climate change. We just shut it down in two weeks in the face of another planet-wide emergency.

And what about us and our personal lives? What do we see there? Maybe some of us are confronting our fear of stillness, our fear of never being alone with our thoughts. Maybe some of us are noticing what our bodies are telling us, as we slow down. Maybe some of us are learning simple pleasures, like gardening. Maybe, as poet Adrie Kusserow writes, some of us are unlearning what capitalism has taught us: “That you are nothing if not productive. That consumption equals happiness. That the most important unit is the single self. That you are at your best when you resemble an efficient machine.” Maybe, we are seeing that simpler lives, lived close to home, without the frenetic round of activity and consumption and movement, are happier lives.

After Miryam’s initial inability to see the new life around her, her eyes eventually dried of tears and she saw the Risen Christ. She jubilantly cried, “I have seen the Lord!” I’m not sure we’re there… yet. Collectively, we may still be standing with her, weeping. Or maybe we’re walking with her along the path, tripping as we walk. It’s still pretty dark out there, and there may very well be danger ahead. But I believe that we, like Miryam, can begin to see the signs of new life all around us. I believe that our imaginations, stunted by Empire, like Miryam’s, can come alive and blossom like buds on trees. I believe that, like Miryam, we can see stones being rolled away, new openings where the Spirit of God can enter and begin to do a new thing. 

Now is the time for us to open our eyes and see these signs of new life. Now is the time for us to imagine the new world that is coming and cooperate with the Spirit of God in bringing it about. The choices we make over the next weeks and months will collectively determine the shape of the new life that is emerging in our personal lives, in our cities, in our world. Now is the time for to cooperate with new life. Now is the time for us to cooperate with Resurrection so that we can all together, one day, say, “We have seen the Risen One!” People of God, arise! Amen.

Thanks to Jeremy Lent, whose article “Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era: What’s Next?” brought together many of the ideas I had been working with for this sermon into one coherent essay, including his idea that the choices we make in the near future are going to determine what kind of world emerges from this crisis.