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Sun, Apr 12, 2020

Joy In The Morning

Duration:14 mins 1 sec

“Joy in the Morning”

Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10 (Psalm 30, 1 Cor. 15:51-54)

Resurrection of the Lord, Year A

                “All is changed, changed utterly,” wrote William Butler Yeats about a century ago, in a poem mourning the men and women who had died in the 1916 Irish “Easter Rising” against English rule. This verse was quoted recently by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post, and it has run through my mind ever since.[i] All is changed – the world is different from the world we knew even two months ago. For many of us in this area, around the middle of the second week in March is when it all began to change to the world we know now: the world of working at home (if we are lucky enough to still be employed); Skype calls and Zoom meetings; disinfectant, toilet paper and face masks as the most desirable, precious commodities; and a constant undercurrent of anxiety, low for some, off-the-charts high for others. Early in March, few of us thought of a hug or a handshake as a dangerous, forbidden pleasure. We are changed, changed utterly, by the scourge of COVID-19.

            The statistics we are most likely to read in the newspaper nowadays, aside from unemployment figures, are death statistics. Somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 Americans are projected to die of COVID-19 by August. The sheer number of dead is mind-boggling, and every one of them is someone’s spouse, child, parent or grandparent, friend, neighbor, or colleague. Some of their stories get told in the media, and they are heartbreaking. I was brought to tears the other day by the story of Leilani, a grocery store worker who took special care of the elderly ladies who came in to shop early in the morning, before regular store hours. Leilani died of covid at the age of 27.

            The sobering thing about an epidemic is that it cuts right through our illusions about ourselves: that we are powerful, self-sufficient, and can always keep ourselves safe. All our optimism about science and technology eventually defeating disease and death has been cruelly mocked by this virus. Human history is marked by epidemics that waste and destroy thousands or millions of people in a few months. In many ways, we are connecting now with the experience of past generations of Americans, as well as present-day people the world over who are used to not having the protections we normally do against disease and death. Now we are more aware of our common humanity.

            This epidemic has also revealed to us how dependent we are on the people who bring us goods and services: medical professionals and support workers, certainly, but also the people who supply and bag our groceries or take away our garbage, mail carriers, warehouse workers, delivery people, and first responders of various kinds.

            The whole experience of this pandemic and our nationwide quarantine has reminded us that what we call “normal” life cannot be taken for granted, that nothing is permanent, and nothing is truly safe. The only aspect of the human experience we can be sure of is death.  As Emily Dickinson wrote, “All but Death, can be Adjusted. Death…is exempt from Change.” Death is more present to us than usual in this painful, frightening time in our history. In a way most of us have never experienced in our lifetimes, we are coming to terms with the proximity of death, the daily reminders of its wide and inclusive reach.

            In some important ways, this is new for us. But less than a century ago, before the advent of commercial funeral homes and hospitals for civilians, death was a persistent feature of most people’s personal landscape. Before the discovery of antibiotics, something as simple as a cold was a cause for great concern. Women had lots of children, because of the strong chance that not all of them would survive childhood. The funeral procession, with its horse-drawn hearse followed by black-clad mourners on foot, was a common sight in every town. Since our deceased loved ones have moved out of the living room and into funeral homes, we have lived more at a remove from death than our 19th and early-20th century ancestors did.

            Death itself doesn’t change, though. It is the enemy that stalks through the pages of the Bible, “the shroud that is cast over all peoples,” as Isaiah described it. In ancient Israel, the domain of the dead and the dying was called Sheol, a shadowy realm of non-existence in which the once-living are cut off completely from the living.

            Death is the enemy that God conquers by means of resurrection.

            The women who went to the tomb early in the morning the Sunday after Jesus was executed went with no expectations. There was nothing they could see or do at the tomb: it had been sealed shut with a boulder. The women went just to “look at” it, Matthew says, as if to confirm what they already knew: that Jesus was gone forever, that goodness and righteousness had been defeated, that death, as usual, had the last word. What else would they expect? “All but Death, can be Adjusted.” Death does not adjust – we are the ones who have to adjust to it.

               But then the women, to their combined terror and joy, see that there has been an “adjustment.” The Lord is not there – and as they run from the tomb, he shows up and greets them as if nothing unusual has happened. The word Jesus spoke to them, translated “Greetings,” was a perfectly common, all-purpose sort of greeting in New Testament times, like “shalom” or “aloha.” It can also mean “Rejoice.” “Rejoice,” the Lord says -- joy has come with the morning.

            How did it happen? We have no idea. None of the Gospel writers try to narrate the Resurrection. What they do narrate is the way the women reacted to what they experienced at the tomb, and the way they behaved afterwards. They “left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples” what they had seen, and when Jesus appears to them they worship him.

            Let’s listen to some familiar words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!...we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Resurrection is about God overcoming death with life, so that all will be changed, changed utterly. The resurrection of Christ says something about the future of all humanity. Because Jesus lives, we may be assured that beyond all the struggles and losses and sorrows of life, beyond even death itself, there is a presence and power that holds us and will not abandon us.  

            This knowledge calls us to be people of the resurrection, people who behave in a certain way because of what happened at that tomb in Jerusalem.

We see people of the resurrection all the time. I think of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, that has converted its enormous nave into a 400-bed field hospital for covid patients. Other churches, with smaller and less strategically-located facilities, are inventing new ministries to respond to the epidemic, such as converting food pantries into grocery delivery services and soup kitchens into meal deliveries. Some are providing lunch and coffee to medical workers. A church in rural Maine has offered to host and stream funerals for local funeral homes that don’t have the means to do that themselves. One church sent out cards to the neighborhood offering a checklist of things the church could do for their self-isolating neighbors: pick up groceries or urgent supplies, make a friendly phone call, or pray. One man sent a card back, saying “Hi there, my family received your card offering help in our mailbox. I just wanted to say thank you for doing this for our community. Lately, I have lost my faith in God, but this was a nice reminder that he is still there.”[ii]

We will get through this pandemic. There is much weeping, and we should not avoid it, over those who have been lost, and there is much weeping still to be done before all this is over. Weeping will linger for a time, but joy will come with the morning.

            Christ himself has gone to the realm of death, and has broken its powerful hold. Because Christ lives, we will live also. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

April 12, 2020

 

[i] “Let’s hope for a ‘terrible beauty’,” March 22, 2020, A27.

[ii] Ed Stetzer, “Ways Churches Are Stepping Up During the COVID-19 Crisis,” at The Exchange, an online blog of Christianity Today, March 24, 2020, www.christianitytoday.com

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