Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
April 12, 2020

Easter Day, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 28:1-10 

There are four writers in the Bible who tell the story of Easter morning.  None of them are the same.  I’m not sure we know what really happened that morning.  The only things in common are that it was women who went at dawn on the third day. Someone was already there who informed them that he is not here but risen and gone ahead.  They rush away filled with an equal mixture of fear and joy.

This year we read Matthew’s account of the resurrection. He wins the Cecil B. DeMille Award for dramatic story telling.  He wants to communicate the earth-shattering power of this announcement.  So he adds an earthquake. The angel descends from heaven, rolls away the stone herself, sits down on it and giggles while the all-powerful imperial Roman guards quiver on the ground like dogs who just heard thunder.

Matthew adds an appearance of Jesus to underscore that everything Jesus stood for isn’t finished. His mission to love without condition, to practice compassion and mercy, to gather everyone who had been shoved aside by the oppressive power of entitlement and wealth, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and care for those who can’t quite manage for themselves.  His tenderness for the children or for women or for the foreigner didn’t die on the cross with him.  All of it was still alive and was moving to new horizons, wider than they could ever imagine.

We get the desire to communicate the meaning.  We try every year on Easter morning.  Flowers arrive on Saturday and get built into a gorgeous garden.  Pastors and acolytes practice their liturgical moves.  The choirs start rehearsing weeks before.  We assemble brass players and one fantastic saxophone player.  Paul pulls out some stringed instrument we’ve never seen before, and Tim sets the organ so that he can push a button and pull all the stops out at once.  It’s loud.  It’s grand.  It’s the Easter that we know and count on to arrive year after year, no matter how long it’s been since we showed up.

Yet this year seems more like the original Easter experience:  the trauma of loss, grief, betrayal, death–uncertainty about what’s going to happen next– very real in their hearts, yet the body is gone, the tomb is empty, and there’s a dawning realization that something has radically shifted.  Rather than closing a chapter, a new one has been started, only it won’t be written through the body of Jesus but through their own.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been wavering back and forth on that line between despair and hope, between death and life, uncertainty and confidence.  For some of us, our livelihood has already irrevocably changed. We won’t know for years to come what impact this season of pandemic will have on our culture, our economy, our personal or emotional lives, or even on the church.  You may show up when we’re back together in your jammies with coffee and cinnamon roll, which would be totally fine with me.  I get to wear a robe on Sundays.  Why not you?

I heard a heartrending on NPR’s Story Corp.  (I’ll put a link in the chat window.)  Andrea St. John and Thomas Broderick remember her fiancé and his brother who died of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that often affects young people.  Andrea remembers a morning, after making her husband tea, when she says, “I need your opinion. I want to wear this dress to your wake.” She puts it on and stands on the bed. “What do you think?” He immediately begins to cry, so she says, “I’m so sorry, I’ll take it off.” “No, “he says,” it’s just that you look so beautiful, and I’m glad I got to see you in that dress.”  Through his tears, he goes on, “I woke up this morning and I felt more ready.”  She asked what that was like, and he said, “Probably the same thing you felt when you put the dress on this morning.”[1]

I wanted to say, “Christ is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!”

There was no illusion that the loss, the suffering, the pain wasn’t real.  Yet somehow, mysteriously, miraculously they saw beyond it.  She told him that her life would go on, yet in a garment that he had seen and lovingly approved. “You look beautiful.”  And he saw her beauty, her life after him, and he reached into the future and took it into his heart to know and treasure now.  On that line between death and life, they knew they could be ready for what was yet unknown.  It’s as if their tears were a baptism of sorts.

Easter morning is that dawn when we reach into the future and take God’s beauty, God’s ever-flowing love, God’s mercy, God’s very life that flowed so brightly in Jesus, and we take it in as a storyline, as a conversation partner.  A life that cannot die. Easter may not take away our loss, our grief, our sadness about losing the chance to make the bunny cake with grandma, or the sting of death from a father’s loss to coronavirus, but it does give us a way of telling our story framed in the larger cosmic movement of death and resurrection, dying and rising.

At every hinge of our life, even when staring into tombs, God is promising to create something new.

My house and my office have merged into one uncomfortable mix, and I’m not always sure one stops and the other begins.  So I’ve taken a lot of walks lately.  In one front yard, there was a sign that said, “20 is plenty.”  I had no idea what it meant.  Of course, I didn’t read the fine print. It took about three blocks for it to dawn on me that is was about the speed limit.  Just before our physical distancing, just before we were required to shelter in place, Minneapolis and St. Paul reduced the speed limit by five miles an hour in most areas.  Twenty-miles an hour is plenty. The irony is that I was walking by the sign, way slower than twenty miles an hour.

Maybe that’s the Easter we get this year.

Life is going to be about five miles an hour less than we’re used to, or for a lot of us, at the pace we can put one step in front of the other.  Maybe that’s not so bad. We live lives every day that are focused on going faster, making the pie bigger, moving up the ladder, signing up for enough activities so that it looks good on our college applications.  We’re terrified at recession, shrinking back, getting smaller; yet maybe you’ve already sensed a new story emerging–a growing awareness that, perhaps, all this frenzied striving to fill some bottomless pit inside ourselves needs to slow; needs to stop; needs to die.

I’ve been reading Gloria Dei member Ruth Halvorson’s book, “When the Heart is Stirred:  The transforming Power of Silence.”  It’s the story of God’s persistent and nudging voice out of silence for Ruth and her husband, Loren, to build a retreat center, which they did. It’s a story of faithfulness, prophetic wisdom, and gentle tenacity.  At one point, shortly after opening the retreat center, the garage burned down.  Inside were all the tools and materials that the retreat center needed to keep functioning, several cars, and, in particular, one community member’s possessions.  A writer, who was moving from one apartment to a new place, had stored all her worldly belongings, including the book she had almost finished.  Of course, it was destroyed in the fire, a devastating and heartbreaking loss.

Later she writes:  The fire speaks to me boldly.  It mandates that I love what I’m given, grieve what I’ve lost, and invest all I’ve got in creating more of it.  Tragedy’s best gift is the story it writes into your life, not because you then possess something you didn’t previously, but because you’ve become someone more than you were.[2]

I suspect we’re already becoming more than we were.  Perhaps you’ve seen it—these little encounters with a living Christ. Chalk on a sidewalk:  You matter.  Be kind. A glimpse into a window, someone sewing masks.  A Facebook post, the vice president of bank makes bread for his children.  The arrival on the front step of a hand mixer.  The dawning realization that a cleared schedule actually feels a tad more human.  And, of course, the hand of God in every green blade rising from Minnesota soil.

Perhaps this year Easter is quieter, more reserved, more emerging than realized, yet no less powerful, life changing, even cataclysmic.  But when this is done—this pandemic or this life–we will not be the same.  We will be raised into more than we are today.  The truth of that deserves all the brass and all the flowers.  But, for today, let it be sufficient to trust:

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.

Christ is risen, indeed, Alleluia!

[1] NPR Story Corp, Andrea St. John and Thomas Broderick, October 3, 2008, Morning Edition:

[2] Ruth Halvorson, “When the Heart is Stirred:  The Transforming Power of Silence,” Wise Ink, Minneapolis, 2020, p. 124.