We have never experienced Easter in quite this way before, being physically apart from one another. We are unfolding our service to capture this unique circumstance, allowing the familiar stories of the resurrection narratives to root us in these challenging times.
Our gathering in community highlighted how women came to the tomb, and were instructed to go to Galilee where they would encounter the Rising Jesus. Here is a story of what happened in Galilee.
Simon Peter and Thomas who is called the twin and Nathanael from Cana along with the two sons of Zebedee and two more were all together, maybe the two were some of the women who went to the tomb. As the storyteller in John narrates, the five named disciples already knew some of what the women spoke experienced. Previously we have the story of a Rising Jesus mysteriously appearing behind locked doors, an appearance that began the process of taking away fear and doubt. Jesus breathed the Spirit of Life upon them, such that they risked leaving their locked rooms to return home.
Once home, Simon Peter, who was a fisher tradesperson, said, I’m going fishing”. Again, the storyteller intends us to make a connection, a connection to that time when Simon Peter first met Jesus. That first meeting occurred after a night of not catching any fish. In the morning, while Peter and others were mending nets, Jesus approached and suggested they fish in a different spot. They did and the nets were filled with fish. This attracted them to the teachings of Jesus and Jesus invited them to follow, to follow because of their good spirits and Jesus was calling them into a movement of justice where they would be fishers for the good of the people.
So this first meeting looms large as Peter says “let’s go fishing”. The others agree. They all got into the boat, went out onto the sea, but like before, they fished all night but caught nothing. The storyteller invites us to imagine the feelings of that moment, to imagine the mix of emotion. On the one hand, there was the ease and comfort of the familiar. They were home, home doing what they always had done. Even catching no fish was kind of comforting in its own strange way way.
Yet being home wasn’t quite the same. They were still working through the crisis and trauma of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Their life of supporting the healing and life-giving ministry of Jesus was in transition. There was a mix of emotions, wondering about how it would unfold, uncertainty about the future, and the empty nets mirrored the emptiness of missing Jesus.
They were waiting, waiting in an in-between time, but in their waiting, they were together, they were there for one another. They were not alone. And the experience of the women and their own experience reminded them that the holy, that God was there too.
In this strange Easter of 2020, we too have a mix of emotions, yet in the strangeness of physical distancing, we know that we are here for one another, we know we are not alone in this in-between time. While this season of COVID-19 is hard and filled with uncertainty, there is an okayness because we know it is necessary. We also know that just as with the seven on the boat, the holy is present, as close as our breathing.
The storyteller continues:
As a dawning sun began to peak over the horizon, a stranger appeared on the shore line. The face was shadowed but the voice was clear and friendly. The morning greeting simply asked “friends have you caught anything?” The seven replied no. Then the stranger, looking about the sea, called back and said, “throw you nets out the other side”. The seven dropped their nets and in an instance the nets were filled with fish, so many fish they could not haul the nets back into the boat.
In that instance, Peter, who was practically naked, recognized that this stranger was the One they loved, recognized the stranger as the mystery of the rising Jesus, so he wrapped his cloak around him and jumped in the water, and swam to the shore. The others, came afterward, towing the fish-filled nets.
On the shore was a charcoal fire with bread warming and some fish cooking. The Stranger said, “come and have breakfast and bring some of the fish you’ve just caught.” The storyteller with intrigue indicates that “none of them were bold enough to ask the stranger “who are you”, but the netfull of fish and a breakfast of loaves and fishes told them all they needed to know. It was the rising Jesus, the living Christ, albeit, very different from before.
After, retrieving the fish, the stranger took the bread and fish and fed them.
As they ate this intimate breakfast, this rising Jesus who is familiar and different at the same time, asks Peter, asks the one who had denied three times, now asks three times whether Peter loved him. Peter did not deny, saying yes three times. Peter was bathed in sacred love, a love that reached back to the beginning of time and a love which flooded the now moment.
This is the love that dances in our Christian faith, and so the love which danced at a breakfast on a beach is the same love which enters our homes and hearts on this Easter Sunday, because this ancient love lives and rises within us again and again.
Peter was bathed in an ancient love that is a now love, a now love where Peter and all those gathered and all who read the story are called to nurture and feed love to the world, to live the love that Jesus taught and to make the circles of that love wider and wider and wider. Our Easter Story reminds us that the love of an intimate shoreline breakfast is stronger than the violence of an empire. Love rises again, and love makes the circles wider and wider and wider.
****We gather around the Table for a Feast of Love****
In this feast we are reminded of how the Spirit of Life has breathed the breathe of resurrection before.
The Spirit of Life came to the prophet Ezekiel who was carried by the Spirit and set down in the middle of a valley full of dried bones. In this visionary encounter with the Holy, Ezekiel was compelled to walk among the bones, bones that filled a whole valley.
It was not an easy walk because these bones represented the heartaches of his own people and even the heartache of his own life. Wars against his nation had decimated his homeland, his own wife died, and his life was uprooted. As Ezekiel walked, he walked among displacement and disconnectedness, grief and loneliness.
As Ezekiel walked, the Holy whispered within the heart "O mortal one, can these bones live". Ezekiel's spirit could only groan a response, "O Holy One, only you know". The dialogue did awaken stirrings in the depth of the soul, a daring prospect, and Ezekiel heard the Holy say "speak to the bones, say I am going to make breath enter you and you will live". Ezekiel was willing, he dared to speak, and in an instance, before his visionary senses. Ezekiel heard a great noise, the sound of clattering as bones joined together and flesh returned, but there remained a stillness
Again the Holy spoke in the depth of the being instructing the prophet to command breath from the four winds, from the four corners of the earth, from the four directions, command breath to enter these beings. Ezekiel spoke and a great throng of people rose up.
History has proven that this vision was not about an army coming back to life in order to fight old battles, but rather it was a vision of a an exiled people whose spirits felt like wasted bones, but an exiled people who rose up with renewed hearts, rose up having planted within a renewed spirit that transformed hearts of hardened stone into humane compassionate hearts.
Ezekiel’s vision of renewal dances with the breakfast story on the shoreline as Jesus renewed the wearied bones of seven intimates. There is an empowerment of a people
This vision and this story, remind us of the spirit and soul of Easter. Easter even in 2020 when our Easter is so different as global pandemic keeps us from gathering, where global pandemic dictates that at this juncture we really don't know exactly how long our physical distancing will go on for, just as the people of Ezekiel did not know how much longer was their exile. Like is vision, Easter day is happening in the middle of a “not-yet-over” experience.
Given that, let us embrace two reminders of the spirit and soul of Easter.
First, Easter is more than a day on a calendar, Easter is a life-giving vision of an on-going story. While Easter is annually woven into our church year, it is woven in as a reminder that there are seasons in the cycles of life, seasons of birth, seasons of life, seasons of death, seasons of rebirth. No season is the only season and no season lasts forever. They are part of the circles and cycles of life.
Our ancestors in the faith understood that hard times happen, and testified that hard times pass.
Equally, while no season lasts forever, every day holds a little bit of each season. The cycle of life is woven daily, so even in hard times, there are Easter moments.
As I have conversed with many of you in these past days, I have marveled at the testimonies of Easter moments. While there is a raw honesty about how hard this season of COVID-19 is, honesty about dry wearied bones, both for yourselves but often more so in consideration of the sufferings of many in our world, yet I hear named, moments of new life, little and big resurrections, possibilities happening in the now. Easter moments happen every day.
The second reminder Easter brings in this time of “net yet over” is to invite us to consider what the Spirit of Life is rising within us. Easter rightly asks the question that when this season passes, what kind of world do we wish to rise to, rise to personally and collectively.
Both Jesus and Ezekiel spoke to a peoples living the “not-yet-over” experiences of exile and foreign occupation, a people not free to live as they always had. Both prophets were caught in the crosscurrents of history, painfully aware of the tragedy their people experienced, and both were called to be a breath to renew life, to breathe life into wearied and dried bones.
The holy in Jesus went behind locked doors and breathes renewing life into fearful followers. The Holy in Ezekiel’s vision insists that the prophet speak the breath. As prophets, both Jesus and Ezekiel were truth-tellers. In significant times, we are invited to listen to truth-tellers so that we can rise to the occasion.
In this season of COVID-19, there is a pause, a time for heart-searching not only for our own souls but for souls of nations. It is also a time for truth-telling, for truth-telling brings life and this pandemic is awakening us. Personally and collectively, we are constrained to ask “what must we let go of”. The people of Ezekiel’s time learned much about what they had to let go of, especially those ways of being that were not life giving. Sobering questions, important questions.
Alongside these questions, we discover in experiences like COVID-19 what we truly value and when the days of returning happen, what values will we embrace more dearly. How will these values loom larger? And, in the midst of experiences like COVID-19, there are new discoveries and practices embraced that we would be wise to keep and carry forward.
This Easter, in our “not-yet-over” experience of Covid-19, we are reminded to see the Easter moments even as we hear the Holy speaking in vision and speaking through the story of an intimate breakfast on a shoreline.
For a minute or three, I invite us to consider the passion story. We will tell the whole story as we walk through Holy Week but for now, I invite you to consider one little snippet. The snippet is the moment when Pilate washes his hands. Pilate was the Roman ruler who oversaw the unjust trial of Jesus. In the story, Pilate personally questions Jesus and after the interrogation, on more than one occasion, Pilate publicly concludes that Jesus had done nothing wrong and that Jesus is innocent.
In spite of that finding, those jealous of Jesus, those who felt their own influence and power threatened, they insisted that Jesus be crucified. Pilate tried a legal manoeuver to release Jesus, but that too was thwarted. Finding himself in a hard place, Pilate gave in, he capitulated, he chose to cooperate with the agents of death. Symbolically, he cooperated by washing his hands in an effort to deny responsibility.
However, the effort to free himself of responsibility through hand washing was futile, the effort reflecting neither the reality nor a genuine pursuit of truthfulness.
We understand, most especially in this season of COVID-19, that hand washing awakens responsibility. We wash our hands, not only to protect our own health but the health of others. Pilate’s hand-washing failed to recognize and understand that we are an inter-connected world and people. Inter-connectedness leaves all of us responsible for the earth’s care and one another’s care; whereas Pilate washed his hands only out of self-interest. We wash our hands in order to have a global-interest and see the big picture. Pilate washed his hands as a symbol of giving-in when the going got tough, whereas, we wash our hands as a constant reminder to be resolved in these difficult days.
So as we consider the Holy Week story, notice the irony that when Pilate tried to wash his hands to absolve himself of responsibility, he actually brought attention to his responsibility as one inter-connected in this world.
We are about to have a most unusual Holy Week and Easter. This season of COVID-19 invites us to hear and experience this Holy week in a deepening way, and may this deepening way heighten our appreciation of our inter-connected responsibility, a responsibility that begins with nurturing our own spirits and mental health, a responsibility to keep our community and our world healthy, and our responsibility to be a source of life to others in the particular ways we are called to be in this time, whether our work is essential or we do the essential task of staying home.
While there is a lot of negative in the passion story, there is no denying that, our Holy Week story is also a story of courage and resilience and life-giving moments.
Hear the courage and resilience has we listen to the story of the flawed yet faithful disciples who make mistakes, but ultimately survived as they sought safety in their own homes, survived to enter into the world with a renewed strength and faith and learnings and insight.
Hear the courage and resilience as we listen to the story of a foreigner stranger, Simon of Cyrene, who will share the burden, and who reminds us that the story goes beyond our own borders.
Hear the courage and resilience as we listen to the story of transformative insights by three individuals, a criminal, a soldier, and a religious leader, who in their own ways challenge conspiratorial injustice
Hear the courage and resilience as we listen to the story of women who remain present, who bear witness, who become spokespersons of truth, that truth Pilate tried to wash away but couldn’t.
Holy weeks takes us to the holiest of places. Holy week captures the deep symbolism of washing hands. Holy week helps us sing for our lives. Holy week is a song of lament and a song of possibility. Holy week is both dirge and dance.
These are difficult days, but days when we sing for our lives. In this Holy Week, may we be resolved to keep singing, singing an eternal and endless song, a song that rises above dying comforts, a song we cannot keep from singing.
(take a deep breath).
I don’t know about you, but again and again, this past week I have found myself forced to stop and take a deep breath every now and then, to simply breathe in this unchosen journey through the season of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting breath deep into the body helps create space that pushes against becoming overwhelmed, pushes against becoming energetically debilitated in these times which are in fact overwhelming.
It is overwhelming to be confronted by the suffering and death of so many in our world and it is overwhelming to process the implications of this pandemic both known and yet unknown, and it is overwhelming to figure out how to get through another day during this time of physical distancing. These are overwhelming times.
Our Scripture story for today speaks to overwhelming times.
The gospel story that is the lectionary reading for today is the story of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. I have pondered the story all week, struck by the irony of having a story about the raising of Lazarus in a time of pandemic when death numbers climb on a daily basis.
The gospel of John helps lay the foundation to the Christian faith through symbolic and metaphoric stories, and this story helps us understand what we mean by resurrection in its fullest breadth. We know people do not rise from the dead in our time and they did not rise from the dead when Jesus lived either; rather when we speak of resurrection we talk about both the journey from this life into the mystery beyond this life and we talk about resurrection in this life.
In fact, the primary focus of Jesus was teaching about resurrection in this life, by establishing the kin-dom of God in the now. We have a faith that talks about the abundance of life and invites people to live resurrection of healing and justice in this life.
Resurrection talk, then, engages with the realities of life, with life’s sufferings and travails. So take that breath again as we listen for wisdom from this symbolic and metaphoric story.
Lazarus becomes very sick and word is sent to his healer friend, Jesus, to come. Upon hearing the news, the story tells us that the holy in Jesus waits two days. The structure and words of the story indicates that this waiting is on purpose, the waiting is deliberative. In this story, the holy in Jesus embodies a practice of deliberative waiting.
Deliberative waiting intentionally creates space for the holy to work in the unfolding of life’s circumstances. In the course of my life and as I have shared spirit journeys with many of you, often the wisest course has been a pathway of deliberative waiting so that the healing pathway is able to present itself. Deliberative waiting is not avoidance, but a chosen waiting in those times when immediate action is not required. Deliberative waiting combats our desire for instant gratification and keeps us from letting our “now anxieties” overtake discernment.
Deliberative waiting is taking a breath. Within deliberative waiting, there is often ample space for learning and insight, space for discoveries that can only be make known because of the waiting.
Today, I simply identify this time of physical distancing in COVID-19 as deliberative waiting. We will come back to this.
Jesus waited two days.
A brief aside: For us right now facing weeks, even months of physical distancing two days doesn’t seem very long. One of the struggles in the gospel stories, is that the stories have the appearance of a “quick fix”; however, it is important to remember that these stories are cradled in the experience of Jesus as a faithful Judean who knew the sacred stories of the Hebrew people, especially the stories of the exodus and exile. Neither of these stories were quick fixes. Exodus was a 40-year journey through a desert and Exile was a 50-year separation from the homeland. Nothing quick about either of those.
Equally, these gospel narratives were written as “good news” to a people who were also facing ongoing difficulties and uncertainty. There were living in a time when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, living in a time when some of them faced persecution that was constant and much longer than two days, and lived in a time when some faced death. The gospel stories were written as “good news”, as encouragement, to provide energy to be faithful to the vision of Christ Jesus in the now, to live faithfully when the going was very tough, and to invite the healing energies of Christ Jesus into one’s present lived experience. These narratives were “good news” not just to the first readers but to all of us subsequent generations.
We return to the story: After two day, the holy in Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus but we learn that Lazarus has died. The holy in Jesus, steeped in deliberative waiting, is unpanicked by this death because, as the structure of the story reveals, the story teller is inviting the reader to imagine life in a larger way, to see the bigger story of resurrection.
This happens through conversation.
Upon arriving, the sisters of Lazarus converse with the holy in Jesus, first Martha than Mary. The conversations allude to a resurrection after death, but within the conversation the holy in Jesus directs the attention of Martha and Mary to resurrection that also happens in this life.
To emphasize this, the drama of the story heightens.
Confronted by the sisters of Lazarus, the holy in Jesus immediately asks to be taken to the place of death. Jesus goes to the place of burial and there the holy in Jesus weeps. The holy grieves. Each day that passes, we need to be reminded that the pandemic deaths are more than a tally. They are people, loved ones, a loss to our world. While the circumstance is overwhelming and hard to bear, we cannot become numb to these losses. The holy grieves. Jesus wept.
While weeping, the holy in Jesus remains unperturbed by those who criticized the deliberative waiting. The holy in Jesus asks that the stone that covers the grave be removed. Martha, in a moment of wry humour, suggests such an action is not a good idea given that the smell of decay would be significant. Wry humour helps a lot in difficult times.
Once the stone is removed, the holy in Jesus commands Lazarus to come out, and then, in dramatic fashion, the storyteller narrates a Lazarus inching a way out of the tomb still bound in grave clothes. The storyteller ends the narrative with the holy in Jesus saying, “unbind Lazarus, let Lazarus go free”.
Remember, this is a symbolic story from which we can gain spirit wisdom.
Note that the unbinding could not have happened if Lazarus had not died and been buried in the tomb. The dying happened in the time of deliberative waiting.
Note that Jesus is teaching about the necessity of unbinding that which is killing us, unbinding that which is squeezing the life out of us as a collective community and unbinding that which is squeezing the life out of us as individuals.
Note that this is a story of liberation, liberation from social injustice and liberation from individual pain, liberation from all that binds our spirits.
Note how we can apply this story to our experience of this overwhelming season of COVID-19.
It is a season of sickness, of death, this is not good
Right now, it is only week three of physical distancing. Physical distancing is a time of deliberative waiting, a necessary time because this deliberative waiting is what will lead to restoration, lead to healing, lead to a resurrection in this life.
The physical distancing may be much longer than we want, but it is not forever, there is a time when we will inch our way out of the tomb.
In the difficulty of this time, the holy both converses with us and grieves with us. And there are many conversations going on, learnings and experiences that are impacting us and forming us. Difficult times, while never chosen, teach us, and I hear lots of whispers of possibilities about how this pandemic, tragic and overwhelming and awful as it is, can illuminate some important and necessary changes in our lives and for our world, changes that might unbind us and set us free.
It is true, it is overwhelming right now, but may the wisdom of this symbolic story ground us in this time of physical distancing.