Grace in the Wilderness: Easter

April 10, 2020

Year A, Easter                                                                       

Jeremiah 31:1-6                                                                                         

How can we shout Alleluia and announce a risen Christ in the midst of such grief, illness and death? Many are lamenting our loss of an Easter celebration because of the recommendations to shelter in place and the order that we not gather in groups of more than 10.  But really, even if there wasn’t a fear of infecting one another and rules about staying home, would we really be able to celebrate with so much death around us?

            This past week the Surgeon General declared this week to be our Pearl Harbor and our 9-11, the week that would test the strength and endurance of Americans.  Even if we were able to gather without fear of getting sick or infecting another unknowingly, it would be hard to celebrate in the midst of such pain and anguish. While I grieve our inability to gather as a community, I have to admit that I am relieved that we don’t have to pretend that all is well when we know all is not well.

One of the things that distinguishes St. John’s in terms of our Easter celebration is the Easter Egg hunt in our cemetery.  It seems an odd tradition and the first few times you see young children weaving between tombstones carrying Easter baskets, you can’t help but recognize the bizarre juxtaposition, seeing such life and vitality in the midst of death.   Yet my friends, that is exactly what Easter is, what Easter has always been.  We can never forget that the very first Easter was in an empty tomb.  It was in the midst of grief, fear and weeping. 

Every Easter, I preach on the Gospel.  Anyone coming to Easter Sunday service wants to hear about the empty tomb and the appearance of the risen Christ.  But this isn’t your average Easter Sunday, so instead, I am going to talk about our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was such a depressing prophet, he carries the unfortunate nickname of “the weeping prophet.”  Like other Old Testament prophets, much of his book was about encouraging people to repent from their sins and turn back to the one true God.

Typically there is a shift somewhere later in the book where the prophet moves away from judgment and warning to hope and comfort.  Our reading for today depicts this very shift.  But it’s more than just comfort.  It’s not the chicken soup for the soul kind of comfort that reminds us to look for the silver lining or search for the bright side.  This is about restoration.  This is about re-creation. It is a reminder that we worship a creator God and if God can create the world, he can re-create it as well.  That is what Jeremiah means when he writes, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built.”

These are words to people who have seen their homes destroyed and seen many loved ones die.  Some have lost faith in their God.  They have questioned why God would allow so much pain, so much unnecessary loss to a people he is supposed to love. They are a people who are weary, terrified and frustrated.  (Sound familiar?) Yet Jeremiah reminds these people that they are the same people who found grace in the wilderness. He is referring to the Exodus, when the Hebrew people escaped slavery in Egypt only to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  Jeremiah reminds them that they found grace in the wilderness.

I was struck by that phrase.  I feel as though this period we are in right now is very much a wilderness period.  We are isolated, even though we are surrounded by the news and social media.  We have plenty of food as they did in the wilderness (because God provided) but we still feel the need to hoard.  We still feel anxiety for what we might lose.  We are in the wilderness.  Like others before us, we can find grace in this wilderness.  I often hear myself using the word stuck when I am talking about my current situation, which is not a good word for this situation.  We are not stuck.  We are free.  We are free because we have a God who loves us with an everlasting love. That is what Jeremiah calls it. 

One of the reasons I feel Jeremiah is so perfect for where we are now is because he uses past, present and future tense in these verses.  After reminding them of their wilderness period of the past, he writes, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built/ Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyard on the mountains of Samaria…”  Today is not the day for tambourines and the dance of merry makers.  It is not the day to plant a vineyard.  Today is not the today for countless lilies, sumptuous food and an overflowing church.  But it is still a day for Alleluia.  It is still a day when we announce the risen Lord. 

One of the things I like to remind people at funerals is that the funeral liturgy is the one time we are allowed to say Alleluia during Lent. We believe that when we die, our lives are changed, not ended.  We are people of the resurrection.  Even in the midst of death, we still embrace the hope of the resurrection.  So yes, we are in a horrible period in our world where far too many people are dying, not just in other parts of the world, but here in Virginia, even in Hampton Roads. Yet as our funeral liturgy says, “even at the grave, we make our song Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”  We sing that song with tears in our eyes and a lump in our throats, but we still sing the song.  Even in the wilderness, we find grace.

            Sometimes in church we act like Easter is the end of this long marathon and we can all relax and go back to our normal lives. But that has never been true.  Easter is not meant to be the end.  It is a new beginning.  That is why in our Gospel story, Jesus tells Mary that she cannot cling to him, because he’s not done yet.  He has more to do.  We know, that even after the peak of this virus is past us, there will be more work to do.  We will need to rebuild.  We will need to comfort those who are mourning.  We will need to take measures to keep our people safe.  Things will never be as they were before.  That’s ok.  That doesn’t mean we cannot mourn the loss of people, jobs, financial security, and experiences.  It just means that we keep going.  We discover a new normal.  And most importantly, we can’t let ourselves grow complacent and comfortable as we were before.  While people were not dying at alarming rates even a month ago, I think we can all agree that things were not ok.  It was only ok because the bad things didn’t affect many of us. 

            Now, we are all in this wilderness together. Perhaps we should stop trying to escape the wilderness and instead, find some grace in it.  Grow into our better selves.  Grow into the people God created us to be.  And then we can truly let our voices soar when we say together, “Alleluia.   Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”