Hope is hard to come by, but emerged in me this year from a surprising source. No, I’m not talking about the Rockies 2-day stint in first place in the National League West division—though one of you opined that die-hard Rockies fans possess more hope than a lot of Christians. (Not to mention that the team had returned to its familiar cellar position in less than a week)
No, this was different and completely unexpected.
I sat in complete confusion much of the time. I thought this was to be an inspiring immigrant story of overcoming struggles to make a good life in the land of the free, home of the brave. It started out promisingly. . . . and then the screen in front of me exploded with bizarre and bewildering plot twists: universe jumping, alternate identities, familiar characters suddenly disfigured and monstrous. Unknown but deadly dangers lurked in every corner and nothing seemed logical. And what was the giant bagel whirling in space as a dark hole destroying all that entered its gravitational pull?! You’ve probably guessed my description of what has become the most awarded film of all time, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. You may be wondering what it’s doing in an Easter sermon.
With comedic precision (and some sci fi and special effects thrown in for good measure) the film reflects our experience of life these past few years. An unknown but deadly virus shakes global foundations. An all-out war slogs on in Ukraine. Concerns about environmental degradation and burgeoning AI capabilities beg the question of human survival. Family dysfunction and mental health crises can’t fully explain the tragedy of mass shooting, yet we do not have the will to ban assault weapons. Familiar institutions have broken down to such an extent we hardly recognize them (the post office I frequent has not had any stamps for sale for two months). Societal standards and norms have shifted unnervingly—we seem to have lost a shared definition of the common good, and debate around it is weaponized. What’s going on? There’s craziness in everything, everywhere, all at once.
We have gathered here on Easter (including you who are watching online and listening by phone) because we’re searching. Oh, maybe we don’t define it that way, but we are drawn together on this day-of-days in expectation that we will hear or feel something that provides a glimmer of meaning, a word of assurance, even a bit of hope that will help us make sense of a world that is often confusing and absurd. We want to do more than merely survive (a contest we know we’re ultimately going to lose anyway). That’s worth a lot and I want to thank you for whatever impulse motivated you to make the effort to be here, call, or jump online.
The Easter text, albeit low tech—or rather, NO tech—portrays a search as confusing as our own. There’s a lot of running around, bewilderment, and weeping. Angels appear. The tomb is open, but minds remain closed. The characters cannot comprehend what they are seeing—or not seeing. A whiff of despair hangs over the beginning of the text, coming as it does just days after the state-sanctioned execution of Jesus, their teacher and friend. His vision of a rule of peace, justice and human flourishing practiced through love had animated their community with a sense of purpose and joy. Jesus’ death had smashed these hopes and left them irreparably broken. Or were they…..? A reading from the gospel of John in the twentieth chapter, verses one through 18. Listen for God’s Word and feel the foundations start to shake. [John 20:1-18]
I have seen the Lord. . . the joy in Mary’s voice is unmistakable even after all these centuries. Yes, she had. She had seen the Lord in the fullness of his life and ministry; seen him heal the sick including her own body of persistent illness. She had seen Jesus preach about a kindom of love and light; listened as he expanded its reach to women, to children, to outsiders and those deemed unacceptable by religious and moral standards. She had seen the Lord enjoy fellowship over meals with the wealthy and well-placed as well as with losers and the lowly. She had seen the Lord as she had tenderly anointed his head with oil, as he praised her for preparing him for burial. She had stood at the foot of the cross and watched as his spirit was slowly suffocated. And she had seen his broken body removed from the cross and entombed in a borrowed grave. Oh, yes, Mary had seen the Lord.
Yet she did not recognize the man standing before her. Her tears, her expectations, her concern about a body gone missing—all these perfectly reasonable reactions effectively closed off her search. Was this the end?
Mary. In the awkward silence he spoke her name. Then with eyes opened by the love they had shared and through which they were still connected, she saw him. My Teacher. Mary-the-Seeker became Mary-the-Found. Her search was over. . . . and yet it was just beginning.
Friends, we are people with questions. We’ve been searching for answers when answers are not apparent. We have lots of knowledge—the mysteries of the multiverse and the intricacies of the human genome are being revealed in ways that leave us awe-struck. But there is truth beyond scientific calculation and the considerable capacity of the human mind. We are seekers for that larger truth, for meaning, for release from fears that shadow our days and rob us of a good night’s sleep. I will not rest easily with the memory of a recent photograph etched in my mind—–a makeshift memorial at Covenant Presbyterian School—the ground covered with stuffed animals, flowers, a soccer ball. A single figure stands beside it holding a homemade sign: Why? Why? My heart aches; words catch in my throat.
When our words fail, when they can’t begin to explain what makes no more sense than an “everything bagel” greedily consuming light and hope, against the odds, Easter dawns. And here is what we can see: the Risen One comes looking for us. Jesus seeks us at the sites of mass shootings; in homeless shelters and immigrant detention centers; in the operating room, the courtroom, boardroom and bedroom; on the running trail and the golf course and the party table; even in church. Jesus finds us anywhere we may have lost ourselves and reminds us that we are beloveds of the living God. We are created for life not death. No, we are not spared death, but the power of death has been shattered; our “final resting place” is as insecure as a wide-open tomb.
Look, Jesus’ presence may not always be obvious; our own expectations and daily distractions may keep us from recognizing the risen One. But how would our lives be different if we understood that God’s love for the whole world included each of us personally? — That Jesus gave his life so that we—in all our specificity—might be found? Easter is not primarily a memorial service for an event that occurred a couple millennia ago. No, it is a promise that for our unanswered questions, our tears and perplexity, when nothing makes sense, and in the places where God seems infinitely distant, we can hear Love speak our name. Mary. I’m alive. And so are you.
The risen Jesus found Mary and she saw him. The end of her search. She’s found! Don’t hold on to me, he said, to stave off any thought she had of preserving their joyful reunion as simply a happy ending. It’s not an ending at all. The resurrected life is not a nostalgic return to the way things were. It is a calling into the future, to live with purpose, unafraid of the forces of death which have been emptied of their fearsome power. There’s plenty to laugh and cry about, and much that doesn’t make sense. But here’s the thing: there is a larger truth that overcomes the crazy absurdity. There is Love. And the risen One is searching for us to show us that Love securely holds everything, everywhere, all at once and forever. In that whirling, out-of-control film, the hero—aided by many others—saves her daughter Joy from self-annihilation, depicted as a mighty cosmic struggle. In its down-to-earth conclusion, it is a mother reuniting with her unhappy, estranged daughter with a promise that sounds curiously Christ-like: Even though I can be anywhere, I will always want to be with you, Joy. Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Christ is alive and wants to be with us. In that promise of presence lies newfound power. The power to love beyond what we might reasonably expect, for example. The power—as Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry says it so expressively—- to “practice resurrection.” Love that heals and mends and reconciles (even with enemies). Love that disarms and breaks the cycle of violence with generative possibility. Love that makes us willing to go beyond self-interest to the common good. Love that makes you do stuff like build houses to end homelessness, visit an ill person who can’t return the favor, reach across the aisle (or whatever your barrier of choice happens to be) to connect with someone who sees it differently than you. Love that gives itself away with confidence that it will be filled up again to overflowing. Love that finds us, even as we weep for our beloved dead, and insists it is not their end, nor ours.
Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Look, my friends, and see the Holy Love who accompanies us all the way. . . to life.