Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020 – John 20: 1-18

The calendar indicates that April 12, 2020, is Easter Sunday.  And here it is!  The Church building is not open, a public gathering at Riverside wasn’t allowable, a few of you are still providing essential services and we thank you profusely for that, but most of us are pretty much spending our days at home. Yet even with the strangeness of these necessary restrictions, Easter Sunday is here and the message and power of Easter are not diminished, regardless of how different it is this year.   And the reason for this, is that Easter is Easter, the day when we celebrate the rising of the Christ above any and all forces that try to subdue life.

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As expressed in the Easter narrative in the gospel of John, it first appeared that the forces attempting to subdue life had won, at least in the case of this rabble-rouser, Jesus of Nazareth, and all his ridiculous words about the peacemakers being blessed and the meek inheriting the earth.  Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb was to mourn, perhaps to tend to the lifeless body of her friend… yet the message gently revealed to her on that morning, spoke the truth that even in the grim circumstances of an excruciating, humiliating death on a cross, life prevails.

That message keeps getting delivered, year after year, place after place. Easter is Easter for everyone, no matter what their circumstance.  Each year this festival expresses our confidence in the new life that unfolds in the unstoppable love of Jesus Crucified and risen, new life that continues to unfold as we welcome that love into our attitudes and our actions and the structures of our societies.  Within some understandings of Christian worship, each Sunday is a “little Easter”, a time when no matter what other topic we’re covering, we celebrate the life, abundant and everlasting, that we have together in Christ Jesus.  Every Easter, every Sunday, every time we get together with others in Christ’s name, every time I say a silent prayer for someone or seek God’s presence in the next thing I am going to say or do, the boundless, life-affirming, game-changing love of God meets me – and holds me – and reminds me that I am in Christ and of Christ, and that is never contingent upon the space I am in.

That is profoundly good news.  Over the years, the embodied news of God’s love comes to us, regardless of whether we are happy or sad, prosperous or destitute, healthy or struggling, connected or isolated.   It comes to us in our joy and in our need. And the good news of a universal love that expresses God’s intended goodness of life, reaches beyond all the ways that humans use to label, categorize or exclude:  no matter what our age, or ethnicity, or education or income level, no matter what physical or sensory or cognitive challenges we may face, no matter what our gender or gender expression or sexual orientation, God finds us and holds us and loves us.  As the Apostle Paul put it in the Book of Romans (8:38-39), “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   Or as Father Richard Rohr put it in his book, The Universal Christ, “I have never been separate from God, nor can I be, except in my mind.” (p.44)  That loving heart-beat of the universe, heard in the drum-beat that we heard at Riverside this morning, is there always, everywhere, loving us and opening us to life in all its fullness with every breath we take.

Each of us has a history with this love – points high and low in our lives, when the love of God in Christ Jesus has been particularly pivotal or memorable.  And at this point in our lives – April 2020 – that history includes social distancing. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a hymn writer and Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, has written a hymn entitled “This Easter Celebration” and its first stanza encompasses the “differentness” of this year’s Easter, in many parts of the world:

“This Easter celebration is not like ones we’ve known.
We pray in isolation, we sing the hymns alone.
We’re distant from our neighbors — from worship leaders, too.
No flowers grace the chancel to set a festive mood.”

Indeed, as this worship service was recorded in many places and is being watched in many households, in at least three continents, we are distant from one another.  As one internet meme puts it, we need to view our circumstances as being “safe at home” rather than “stuck at home” but no matter how we put it, this Easter we’re not all together in one room. In a way, however, that’s how it is every Sunday. When seventy or so of us pile into the little white Church on Main Street, we know that we are only one of seven Canmore Churches gathering to worship, not to mention others in the Bow Valley who are gathering in house churches, or prayer groups, or distance-worshipping with a beloved congregation back home, wherever “back home” is.   We also know that on a typical Sunday, our United Church gathering, is one of about 100 United Church gatherings in our Chinook Winds region, one of 2500 United Church gatherings across Canada, one of an estimated 37 million Christian congregations world-wide.  If you look at it from a global vantage point, every Sunday (not to mention those who worship on Saturday, or for daily weekday eucharist) is a time when  worshippers scattered around the globe gather in these smaller household groupings we call Churches, around one common unifier: the gracious, hope-bearing, reconciling love of Jesus Christ. So on this morning, when I say, Alleluia, Christ is risen!  And you say… well, go ahead, say it out loud…”Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia” – we join with people of at least 2,200 languages who are exchanging those words of joy in their own tongues.  Yes, in our local setting we are separated from those we would love to be gathering with, and I don’t want to downplay how odd it is to not be together in that physical sense; but I also want to reframe the context, reminding us that in the big sense of who we are as the body of Christ in the world, we always live with this apart-ness and that’s OK.  In fact, it’s more than OK;  it’s astonishing to think of how many people are drawn to celebration and gratitude.

Some of you will recognize the wall hanging behind me.  Usually it adorns the east wall of my office at the Church, but a couple of weeks ago I brought it home.  Made by a village craftswoman in Laos, it reminds me of the global context of life and Ministry: the very different shape of life in different parts of the world and, by extension, the fullness of God’s family.  That is always the context of our lives: we live each moment with a holy presence of love that is not confined by any boundary, reaching around the world to all people, all nations, God’s loving intention expressed to all plants and animals and rivers and soils and skies, to people of all religions and all spiritual inclinations and to those who frame their lives in totally different ways.   These days we spend more and more time with ourselves, but that does not change the global context of our lives, or the global concern of a loving God who wants us to use these days to learn deep lessons about what matters: what goes into a fulfilling life, how we can live that life in a way that doesn’t rely on the subjugation of one group of people to another, what we need to do and not do, in order to help this planet regain its health.

In her Easter hymn, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette resolves the strangeness of this Easter with these words from verses 3 and 5:

“[verse 3] Our joy won’t come from worship that’s in a crowded room
but from the news of women who saw the empty tomb….
“[verse5] We thank you that on Easter, your church is blessed to be
a scattered, faithful body that’s doing ministry.”

Connected to the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, one with those in many Churches and many lands whose lives are shaped by love, we celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ which is so familiar at reaching beyond all these things that we perceive as boundaries.  In hope, in gratitude, in yearning, we proclaim these words of life: Alleluia, Christ is risen!  (Christ is Risen indeed, Alleluia).  Amen.

References cited:

Quora.com https://www.quora.com/How-many-Christian-churches-are-there-in-the-world

Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ.  NYC: Convergent Books, 2019.

Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations

Winfrey Gillette, Carolyn.  “This Easter Celebration” © 2020.  Posted at https://www.umc.org/en/content/new-easter-hymn-written-for-coronavirus-era?fbclid=IwAR2CyEFDQI92zFVCstjkIvHlG4NGyK5jIkSxKz6p7AUVwckQwinohu3yoXw and shared on the RCMUC Facebook page.

© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.