Scott Black Johnston: Empty

Today is our High Holy Day. Easter is Christianity’s big celebration. It is flashing trumpets. It is an embarrassment of flowers. It is robust singing. It is a packed house for a pull-out-all-the-stops shindig!

Every year, as people file out of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s lily-scented services, shaking my hand and stepping toward the funky embrace of the Easter Day parade, there is always some eager soul who says to me, “Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this every Sunday?” I smile a weary, end-of-Holy-Week smile. I nod.

Today, I want to let you in on something. That nod is a lie. I do not want every Sunday to be like Easter the same way I do not want every meal to be blueberry pie - and I really enjoy blueberry pie. You might call me (as my wife does) “an Easter curmudgeon.” And you would be right. It’s not that I dislike Easter. My faith is grounded in this day, wrestles with the meaning of this day, yearns for the truth of this day like no other day. I cherish Easter.

So, what’s the source of my grumpiness? Well, I worry… I worry that in our rush to make a big deal about Easter, we sidestep the deep places this day wants to take us. During the height of the pandemic, when public figures claimed that Easter would be “sad” because sanctuaries would be empty, I scratched my head. When The Today Show runs a story entitled “11 Tips on How to Make Easter Special,” I cringe. I know, I know. These people are trying to keep our spirits up; but seriously, big crowds and Rice Crispy bunnies are not what makes Easter special.

According to the Good Book, the first Easter was not a runway for displaying new outfits, pastel bowties, and glorious hats. It was two women walking through a cemetery dressed in black – dressed in the clothes you wear when your heart is torn up by grief.

The first Easter was not a chorus of angelic voices, it was (according to the Gospel of Matthew) an earthquake – a cataclysm that cracked stones and opened graves. It was an angel descending on the wings of a storm – an angel that looked, Scripture says, like lightning!

The first Easter was not photos of a cozy brunch posted to Instagram. The disciples did not toast their good fortune with flutes of mimosas. On the first Easter, Christ’s followers were in hiding. They were sheltering in place. They were shaking in terror – worried, if they stuck their heads out-of-doors, that they too would end up nailed to a cross.

The first Easter wasn’t a victory lap. It wasn’t confetti and applause. It wasn’t a celebration at all. The first Easter dawned on a world saturated with fear, haunted by death, shaken by God, and blessed by the loving actions of a few brave souls.

All of which is to say, the first Easter was a lot like this Easter. There is hope to be found in this comparison. Sturdy hope. Stick-to-your-ribs hope. Hope strong enough to lift even a curmudgeon’s heart.

Let’s see if we can spot it. Let’s start by looking at fear. The first Easter was soaked in fear. The Good Book makes this crystal clear. It is a refrain. The soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus fall to the ground in fear. On seeing Mary Magdalene and the other Mary standing at the entrance to the tomb, the very first words out of the angel’s mouth are, “Do not fear.” When the women flee the garden cemetery, they run in fear.

Fear was in the air that first Easter. We can identify. Miroslav Volf, theologian at Yale Divinity School, recently observed: “Fear is like a virus. Fear is infectious.” When we come in contact with others who are afraid, we become afraid, too. We pass anxiety along from one person to another.

What is the source of all this fear? Our anxiety comes from so many places. The brutal war in Ukraine makes us fearful, fearful for those whose lives are being shredded by that terrible conflict – fearful for humanity itself. We worry that the fabric of our own society has been torn beyond repair by angry politics. We fear for ourselves, too. We fear getting test results back from the doctor. We worry over children who struggle. We worry over our place in this world.

All of this anxiety is rooted in the granddaddy of all fears – the fear of death. Nothing knocks our knees together like the Grim Reaper. Nothing pumps fear through our veins like picturing an empty grave waiting to claim us.

Easter leans into this. Easter ushers anxious hearts right out to the cemetery. The two Marys are afraid. Who wouldn’t be? They fear for their safety. They fear for their fading faith, their tattered hopes. They fear the forces of darkness have won and will always win. They fear the world is an irredeemably violent and malicious place, devoid of good, and full of tombs that hold all that is dear to us.

Death and fear perfume Easter.

But here’s the thing; and yes, this sentiment comes straight from my curmudgeon’s heart. I take comfort in the fact that Easter starts this way. The backdrop to our holiest of days is dire, but this, my friends, this is what makes Easter “special.” This is why Easter matters. We celebrate that first, fear-soaked Easter over and over, because it was there, in the trenches of Holy Week, that we learned who God really is.

God, it turns out, does not do distancing. God steps into places where death lurks and fear unspools us. God stands with us – always with us. And when our hopes teeter, God does what only God can do. The Almighty declares that Jesus - this wise teacher, this caring healer, this gracious friend, this beloved child of heaven – is not dead.

Jesus is not finished – not now, not ever. The tomb is empty; and this changes everything.

Matthew puts it like this: “The two women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Did you catch the shift? Fear hasn’t been vanquished, not yet, but when Easter dawns, fear is joined by a companion: Joy. Great joy.

Every Easter, at some point during the day, my phone rings. When I pick it up, a voice – with no introduction, no pleasantries of any kind – declares, “Jesus is on the loose.” The next sound I hear is the click of the connection ending. I know who it is. It’s my roommate from seminary. It’s his quirky way of saying, “Christ is risen.”

Over the years, other friends have joined in. Now, I get all sorts of texts and emails declaring, “Jesus is on the loose.” It wouldn’t be Easter without this wild, joyful chorus.

This rambunctious joy has its roots in the actions of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. The two women race to tell the disciples. The tomb is empty. He’s out there. Death could not stop the goodness of God. The love of Christ persists. The promise endures, his outlandish promise, “I am with you always.” It’s true.

Listen again to how Matthew describes it: Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

He’s out there. He’s on the loose. You can find him in Galilee. You can find him in New York. You can find him in New Orleans. You can find him wherever fear and death haunt this mean old world.

Is that true?

Beth and Joe are members of a Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Beth has given me permission to tell this story to you. During the pandemic, Beth and Joe lived in the hottest of hotspots in the Big Easy – a place called Lambeth House. Lambeth House is a multiphase retirement and care facility that lost over three dozen residents to Covid. It was a particularly challenging time for Beth and Joe – two retired professors from Tulane.

Beth, you see, lived in an apartment on one side of Lambeth House, while Joe, her husband, who suffered a severe stroke a few years ago, was locked down in the Memory Care section of the facility. Before Covid, Beth went every day to Joe’s room and wheeled him back to her apartment. There they would listen to books on tape, talk and sing together. They always sang the same German hymn: Geh _aus _mein _Herz und suche Freud “Go Out, My Heart, and Seek Joy.” And, being professors, they sang their own translation. In fact, Beth and Joe re-translated this same hymn from German into English every single day. And every day, for Joe, as a consequence of his strokes, was a little like starting over from scratch.

When the Memory Care wing locked down, Beth could no longer wheel Joe back to her apartment to begin their daily translation. Finally, after three weeks of painful isolation, the facility set up a video chat for the couple. Once each day, for twenty minutes, they were able to talk. What did they talk about? Well, twenty minutes was enough time, Beth reports, to translate a single stanza of their favorite hymn. When they finished translating and singing, Beth would repeat three phrases that Joe came to call her litany:

“I love you. I miss you. I have not abandoned you.”

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to the women. “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Fear and loss mark the start of our most sacred story, but then our anxiety comes face to face with history’s most famous vacancy. On Easter we cheer an empty tomb. The source of hope and joy for all humanity is not here. Our resurrected Lord is out there. In Galilee… binding the forces of chaos and death with a simple litany:

“I love you. I miss you. I will not abandon you.”

This, my friends, is the heart of Easter. Even in the hardest of times – especially in the hardest of times – God will not abandon us. Christ will find us. This is the truth that makes the women run, the faithful sing, and over which, even curmudgeons cannot suppress their joy.

What do you know? Jesus is on the loose.

Friends, please hear the Easter proclamation as expressed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians:

This is the good news we have received,

in which we stand,

and by which we are saved.

God has given us a living hope:

Christ is risen from the dead!

Alleluia. Amen.