April 3, 2021: Easter Vigil
We meet Mary, like we do every year, at the tomb of Jesus. She’s there after the tragic and difficult events of the last few days. This rock of Jesus’ ministry, the patroness who supported her teacher and his disciples for three years while he preached and healed, had seen just how wrong everything had gone. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem had soured. The crowd had been whipped into a frenzy against him. The governor had chosen fear over justice. Her teacher, her lord, her friend, was crucified—the most shameful death imaginable. And because of the Sabbath, she had to wait before she could go to his tomb to grieve.
And things just kept getting worse. After the world rapidly collapsed around her over the last few days, the one thing that should have been stable and reliable wasn’t. Jesus’ body was missing from his own tomb! Someone, some enemy of Jesus’ mission, had plundered his grave and was taking away the one thing she had left of her teacher—a place to grieve. I think we can feel that grief pretty well this year, in ways that we were only just starting to understand a year ago.
Because a year ago, y’all remember, we celebrated Easter in our homes. We were in the midst of the unknowing early days of the pandemic, when we just didn’t know how best to keep each other safe. We were told not to go out, to consolidate trips to the grocery store, to avoid any unnecessary travel, to avoid meeting with anybody who wasn’t part of our household. And then, when the rest of the world collapsed around us, like Mary, the one place we thought would be stable and reliable changed. The church building stayed empty for months. And we all grieved that. We felt the emptiness of this sanctuary as much as Mary felt the emptiness of the tomb. What were we going to do?
There was an easy temptation that laid at hand over the past year. If we couldn’t meet in the church building, could we really be the church? What could our mission be if we couldn’t be together? How could God possibly be at work when everything was so suddenly upended around us? We could have given into that despair, demanded that nothing change, met in person in spite of the warnings. We could have seen this empty sanctuary as a thing to defy—but we didn’t.
My beloveds, we didn’t despair. We grieved, sure, but we saw in this empty sanctuary an echo of the empty tomb. Just as Jesus not being in the empty tomb wasn’t a sign that Jesus wasn’t at work, we recognized that the empty sanctuary meant that Jesus was beckoning us to follow him out into the world! Just as Jesus’ body left the tomb, this body of Christ, this congregation, left the church building. We adapted and embraced the new thing that God was doing, fearful but trusting that even if we didn’t understand just where God was leading us, God knew where we were going.
So we got online. We worshipped in our pajamas in our living rooms and on our porches. We embraced the things we could do—doing God’s Work Our Hands projects outside where we knew it was safer. We gathered for fireworks because we knew we could watch that from our cars, knowing our siblings in Christ were beside us. We grabbed hold of the new ways that God was showing us that we could still serve God’s mission when we took pies to the Farmer’s Market, and put our Lutefisk menu online. We trusted in God’s holy presence when we sent Sunday School care kits home so our kids could keep learning about God even when they couldn’t attend Sunday School at church.
Oh, and as things got clearer and we learned what was safe to do, we inched forward into God’s future as we made quilts with dear friends, and made soup for the cold winter months, and wrote cards to the grieving and lonely, and navigated technological miracles that let us see each other despite not being in the same room. We kept up our Bible studies in our homes and listened to multiple preachers show us different angles of how to hear the Word of God in one passage of scripture. We offered up our voices in song, trusting a sometimes foolhardy pastor to take those voices and put them together so our worship would be lifted up. We packed bags with sandwiches and milk and bars with notes of thanks for our farmers who did what they always do, feeding us all through their hard work.
And it didn’t stop there. We trusted that God was going to keep working through this congregation, this body of Christ in the world, and we stepped up in our generous giving. We donated our time and volunteered to help do things that we weren’t sure we could do—livestreaming and video making and recording voices for scripture readings and songs. We adapted things we knew how to do but in totally new ways when we found creative ways to pool our community’s generosity, giving away more than $6,000 to local organizations that help the hardest-hit among us, from the Food Shelf to the Women’s Shelter. We shared God’s love in the food we gave, in the coats we donated, in the pillow dresses we sewed, in the Christmas boxes we sent, in the boots and mittens and hats and pencils and binders we donated to the school.
Mary grieved at the empty tomb, and she could have been given to despair. She could have left before the angels arrived, asking her who she was looking for. She could have ignored the man that she thought was the gardener. But she didn’t. She encountered Jesus, and when he called her name, her eyes opened! The empty tomb wasn’t something to mourn—it was something to celebrate! That it was empty meant that Jesus was alive, and loose in the world! His mission, his work, continues because he left the confines of where death laid him, and opened up the world to the possibility that life—real, abundant, whole life—can be had in the face of what the world thinks is the end.
So let’s keep our eyes open, because we’ve heard Jesus call our name this year. Let’s hear his good news that he is ascending, drawing all people to himself, and making the world right. Let’s keep trusting that he’s gone ahead of us, out into the world, preparing the way for us to enter into his work. Because when the tomb was empty, it meant he was on the loose. And when the sanctuary is empty, it means we are too. Let’s take all the ways that God has shown us the mission over the past year and trust God to keep guiding us toward a fuller vision of his kingdom.
Because the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!