I had the privilege on Easter to visit the worship services of several of our churches online. It was impressive and moving how each of them stepped up to share the good news that Christ is risen. Many observed that like the empty tomb, our empty sanctuaries can be a harbinger of new life as well.
Katja Gruening even included a parody of Dr. Seuss, “How the Virus Stole Easter.” Though the world expected the church to mourn the loss of our usual Easter, it said, “It came just the same…it came without bonnets, it came without bunnies / it came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money. / Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before, / ‘Maybe Easter,’ it thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. / Maybe Easter,’ it thought, ‘means a little bit more.’”
One of the most provocative sermons I watched was preached by my friend Scott Phillips of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. His texts were the women at the tomb in Mark 16:1-8 and, as a last-minute change, the vision of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 11.
He began with the Mark text, noting how the description that the women “were amazed” might more accurately be translated today as “their minds were blown.” The women couldn’t wrap their heads around this unbelievable miracle God had done and was doing, bringing new life out of what was rotten and decaying.
Then he moved to the Ezekiel passage. It is a sad story about how in a vision Ezekiel watched the glory of the Lord leave the Temple in Jerusalem. But it was not without hope. For God promised Israel, “Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.”
Scott noted that this passage was a watershed moment not only in Judaism, but in the history of religion. Because this was the moment, in exile, where the people of Israel suddenly heard from a prophet – from God – that the Temple wasn’t necessary! God was not confined to one place but went with them in exile. God promised that when they were gathered again to the land, things would not just be like they always were, they would be changed, even improved.
If I’m not careful I spend my days here, now, worried about how to get things just the way they were when we left, when we come back. And Ezekiel tells us “Don’t even think you can do that and don’t shoot for that. Hopefully in the middle of exile, hopefully in the middle of this whole new world, you will change.”
God willing, we will all change, and we will come back to this place not the same as when we left, but better. That’s the proclamation of Easter. All of us – all we are thinking about right now is what’s going to be
when we get back. So “the same” is our best-case scenario. No! No! No! No! No! That is not Easter, friends. Easter is looking this new change in the eye and saying, “Alright -- Am I grieving? Yes. Is life different? Yes. Are there possibilities? Yes! But… Is there growth? Yes! Is he risen? YES!”
What if God is using this experience of mini-exile from our places of worship, this experience of separation, of worship-by-Facebook, as a way of teaching us that we should not be looking back to the way things were, but eagerly anticipating God’s new thing? What if the word we hear when we go back to our church sanctuaries is “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here – he is risen! He goes before you into the world, and you will find him there.”
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter