Below is the Easter Vigil sermon of The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.
As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I want to take a moment to thank all of you for your faithfulness throughout this challenging year of the pandemic. Our church buildings have been closed but the mission of the church has continued because of you.
You have fed thousands, sheltered the houseless, opened your parish halls to children needing WiFi for school, and communicated the good news of Jesus through Zoom, live streaming and liturgy in parking lots. You have stayed in touch with parishioners without computers with letters and phone calls. I am so inspired by you. History will remember the lives you saved and the grace you conveyed.
Last Easter, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached a sermon called, “It’s Easter Anyway!” We were in the worst time of the pandemic. And it didn’t feel like Easter. We are so much closer to the end of this pandemic now. But it still doesn’t feel like Easter, with full churches and glorious hymns on Easter morning. But Michael reminds us that at the first Easter nobody knew it was Easter.
Michael’s statement led me to go look once again at the first Easter morning as it is described in the four gospels. In Matthew, when the women go to the tomb to anoint the body, there is an earthquake. The guards shook and became like dead men.
An angel tells the women to enter the empty tomb and know that Jesus is no longer there because he has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee, which is where they live. The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. In Luke’s gospel, when the women return to the apostles with the message that Jesus is risen, the apostles did not believe them. Oh, that is just an idle tale.
In John’s Gospel, when Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb, she weeps because she thinks the body has been stolen. When the risen Jesus appears to her, she doesn’t recognize him. Thinking he is the gardener, she asks what he did with the body.
Mark’s gospel is the starkest. When the women go to the tomb, a young man dressed in white tells them Jesus is risen. Don’t be afraid. Go tell the disciples. In the original Greek translation, the next line is, “They told nothing to nobody, they were afraid because…” And that’s how the Gospel ends. But as Michael Curry says, in the midst of all that fear, anxiety, and confusion, Easter happens anyway. And in the midst of our anxiety and our hope this year, Easter happens anyway.
Howard Thurman was one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century. He wrote a book called “Jesus and the Disinherited.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King carried that book with him wherever he went. In that book Thurman tells a story of a time when he was growing up poor in rural Florida.
When Halley’s Comet shot across the sky, people didn’t understand what this comet was and what it meant. People were frightened, anxious, not knowing what to do. Late one night, Thurman’s mother got him out of bed to see the comet blazing in the sky. Little Howard said: “Mama, are we going to die?” And she just said, “God will take care of us.”
Later he wrote:
“O simple hearted mother of mine, in one glorious moment you put your heart on the ultimate affirmation of the human spirit. Many things have I seen since that night. Times without number. I have learned that life is hard, as hard as steel. But as the years have unfolded, the majestic power of my mother’s glowing words has come back again and again and again, beating out its rhythmic chant in my own spirit. Here are the faith and awareness that overcome fear and transform the fear into the power to strive, achieve and not to yield.”
The power of Easter, the realization that love is stronger than death and everything, is not just a comfort when we face death. It is not just something that happened to Jesus so many years ago. Father Richard Rohr writes “The Risen Christ is not a one-time miracle but the revelation of a universal pattern. Love is the energy that sustains the universe, moving us toward a future of resurrection.”
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of our humanity and resurrecting us from graves we dig for ourselves through selfishness, lies, arrogance and addiction.”
That first Easter was a time of fear, anxiety, confusion, sorrow, grief, and dashed hopes.
The women are told Jesus is alive and has gone ahead of them to Galilee – where they live. When our son Geoff was very young, he used to love to play hide and seek. He would get very excited and say to me: “OK, dad. Close your eyes and count to 10. Then start looking for me. You can look for me anywhere in this whole house except the closet in the hallway.” He told me where he was hiding.
I tell that story because the Resurrected Jesus has told us where he is hiding. He is hiding in our lives – lives that constantly have the beginnings of resurrection in them.