This has to be the most challenging Easter sermon most clergy will ever preach. How can we proclaim resurrection, joy and hope in the time of pandemic when we are in lockdown–confused, anxious, despondent, dying? It seems more appropriate to stay in Holy Saturday, that grey, in-between time when the disciples were exhausted by grief and paralyzed with fear. Right now we think we have experienced the worst, but we can’t be sure what comes next. It’s far too risky to proclaim that danger is passed and we can all come out of hiding to sing our Alleluia’s and declare the victory of life over death.
It’s made more difficult by the fact that I cannot see your faces. I don’t know who is out there on the other side of this camera. We don’t get to greet one another with the traditional Easter greeting, “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!” There will be no passing of the peace “with a handshake or even a hug.” We will not celebrate the Eucharist as we fast from this sacrament until we can be together as “One body in Christ.” There will be no baptisms. All of this fills me with grief and dis-ease. It seems more appropriate to remain in Holy Saturday, that time of limbo, that day when his body was in the tomb and there was darkness over the face of the earth.
For the first time ever this year, I left out the reading from the Acts of the Apostles and instead included the one from Jeremiah. That was hard to do. The reading from Acts 10 is a standard bearer for many people of faith, particularly in the African American church. I can always hear the thunderous voice of those who proclaim in the midst of racism and hatred, “God is no respecter of persons!” In other words God shows no partiality. In Christ all are one, all are included, all are beloved. That has preached and will preach, but this year there is a different word for God’s people.
Jeremiah, that bitter, weeping, beleaguered prophet speaks hope and promise into this present darkness. After 30 chapters of woes and warnings to a broken people, he proclaims “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. God proclaims, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. I will build you and you shall be built. The planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”
Grace in the wilderness. Planters planting. I’ve been thinking about this for the past few weeks. The last thing I did before the governor’s shelter in place order went into effect was to get myself to the nursery. I purchased that expensive dogwood tree I had been thinking about for over a year. When I planted it a few days later, my Lutheran husband reminded me of Martin Luther’s saying,
“If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Luther lived through the plague. He found ways to minister to his people and the neediest during a time of death and despair. He knew a thing or two about grace in the wilderness.
The other items I purchased at the nursery were seeds and compost. The compost is actually more like manure, at least it smells an awful lot like it. You may have another word for it. The compost was needed because the project I had in mind was to dig up a portion of our backyard that was partially covered by grass and partially covered by fill. The fill included 37 buried bricks from a demolished fireplace, rocks that had been dumped on the site and the natural rock and sand that our yard is composed of, the remains of a former riverbed. This may not be the most gracious place to plant but it does have the best sunlight.
During the weeks of our confinement I have been chipping away at that plot, removing as many of the stones as possible, digging up and cleaning off the bricks for a future patio project, pulling up the sod and pulling out the weeds and roots. It has been Lenten work. I’ve been angry and frustrated at how difficult it all is. The deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve thought about my own rocky, imperfect soil and the work it takes to examine and amend it. It’s been a discipline. It’s been lonely. It’s been hard.
During Holy Week I broke out the compost. It was pretty pungent after a few weeks in the bag. I spread it all around and then began the arduous task of double digging, the process of bringing up the soil from the bottom and mixing in the rich, life-giving manure that enables life and growth. By now the weather had warmed and I was really sweating, getting down on my knees and churning the soil with my hands. It was like digging a grave, piling up the mounds of dirt, going deep. It was grief work, tangible mourning amidst the stink of sweat and compost.
At last the bed was ready for planting and the weather favorable. On Good Friday after the service of the passion of the Christ, the solemn collects and the adoration of the cross, I came home, through off my clericals and put on my muddy clothes for the final act. I mounded up the soil in rows and hills, opened the seed packets and carefully placed them at the correct depth and patted them safely in. I finished just as the sun was going down. In front of me was a bare, brown patch of ground, seemingly lifeless, fragile, easily disturbed by squirrels, crows and the big black lab that lives with us.
The seed had entered its own Holy Saturday, in darkness, longing for light, striving for new life out of death.
I had no idea that there is a long tradition of country people, particularly from the South, planting their seed on Good Friday. As I learned from the Rev. Dr. Stacy Smith:
“This tradition is a way of demonstrating that in the midst of death—even death on a cross—we continue to have hope. On a day of darkness and death, we testify that the hope we have in Christ is one that will bear fruit—and vegetables. And even if those seeds of hope are buried deep in the earth, in the darkness of the soil when a hard frost can still threaten the crop, the good earth of Good Friday reminds us that death does not have the final word. Planting a garden on this day means that we trust that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, and that the spring is stronger than the winter we are leaving behind.”
Today we proclaim the hope and promise of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We are and have always been an Easter people, no matter the circumstances. Like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the empty tomb, we are those who hear and see with both fear and great joy the resurrected Jesus. We respond first with worship and disbelief and then with action as we go ahead to proclaim the good news to a grieving and despairing people.
Following the sermon, we will renew our promises to live as those baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We will have the opportunity to sprinkle ourselves and one another with water. These are the waters of life that nourish and bring the seeds of faith to life. These are the vows that enable us to “walk wet” in the world, living out our Christian commitments in every circumstance, no matter the difficulty or risk.
It may feel like Holy Saturday but Easter is already present, the seed of God’s love that lives inside each of us and is brought to life by the presence of Jesus, watered by the life of faith. Ivar sang his favorite Easter hymn today. Here is the final verse:
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again.
Fields of our hearts, that dead and bare have been.
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!