In the name of our Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I want to begin by saying yet again that it really is a pleasure and a delight to see the church so full this morning—so full of people, so full of flowers, so full of fancy outfits, so full of abundant, vibrant, new life. You know what, it feels a lot like Easter in here. Just like it should.
Easter really is a wonderful day—devoted to the celebration of new life—and it’s especially wonderful and welcome this year, coming as it does after our long, seemingly endless winter. You know that unlike Christmas or the Fourth of July, Easter is not always on the same date, nor is it just that it falls on the first Sunday in April or whatever. The day is actually determined by a rather complicated computation, decided by a group of bishops all the way back in the year 325: it’s the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. And, it can’t fall before March 21 or after April 25. So this year, being April 24, Easter is just about as late as it possibly can be. And it is nice, for a change, to be able to celebrate it without winter coats or the fear of an inopportune “resurrection” blizzard, with long awaited flowers beginning to rise from the ground, and the promise of another beautiful spring not long off.
I remember three years ago, when I was still living in Canada, in Toronto, Easter fell just about as early as it can in March, and we still had lots and lots of snow on the ground. It was an endlessly long winter, not unlike this last one. I had accepted Emmanuel’s call to be your rector a few days before—the Tuesday of Holy Week, I think. But I wasn’t here yet. You and I both had to wait a while, for the school year to finish and for me to move back to the U.S., and in fact for the congregation to vote to accept me. So I was celebrating what I figured would be my last Easter in Canada. And what I remember most especially about it was that my parish up there—Christ Church Deer Park—had this especially unique tradition: planting “an Easter garden” outside on the church grounds on Holy Saturday, right after the Easter Vigil.
The idea of the Easter garden was that when people came on Easter morning, or just passed by (the church is on the busiest street in Canada), they would see this wild and unexpected burst of flowers and new life, that seemingly grew up over night. Sounds really nice, right? Only, remember, it was winter still and there was lots and lots of snow, so it wasn’t real flowers that we planted, but these crazy tall plastic flowers--tulips and daffodils and daisies--made out of plastic cups and plates, of all things. They were totally fanciful, all red, blue, purple, and yellow. And, here’s the really wacky part (as if the plastic flowers weren’t wacky enough), since there was no unfrozen ground to be found, we planted the flowers in the snow banks. So, you can picture it, there we were, children and adults all together, after the Easter Vigil running around on a cold, dark wintry night, planting plastic flowers in four or five foot snow drifts, and then, for good measure, writing Easter messages, and drawing Easter eggs and bunnies on the sidewalks in pastel colored chalk.
I’ll always remember that night, because when I went to the parking lot to plant some purple flowers in a particularly massive snow bank, I discovered that my car had been hit—the tail lights were all smashed and the rear bumper was just sort of hanging on for dear life. Luckily, the woman who hit it, a parishioner as it happens, was standing there, trying to figure out what to do. You know, there’s nothing like a smashed car to dampen your Easter mood—both hers and mine. Thankfully, I was able to drive it home, but I took the bus to church the next day, since I was afraid the car wouldn’t make it in one piece.
And I have to confess, I was in an especially bad mood that morning—here it was Easter Day, I had a smashed up car, and I was waiting outside in the dark and cold for the bus at 6:00 in the morning. Not very Eastery. But eventually the bus came, and as it approached the church, I looked out the window, and what did I see? Three and four foot high mounds of snow, sprouting bright red, blue, purple, and yellow flowers. It was a sight so silly, and also delightful. Ridiculous and hopeful. Most especially, it was a sign of new, joyful life right there on a cold wintry morning. Even in my grumpy, not very Easter-like mood, I couldn’t help but be cheered and uplifted. The resurrection hit me just when I least expected it.
And I think that’s often the way the resurrection hits us, just when we least expect it. Certainly that was true of those who first discovered the empty tomb—Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene. Of course, when Mary Magdalene went to the garden on that first Easter morning, she didn’t see plastic flowers sprouting up from snow banks, and she wasn’t lamenting a smashed car or having to wait for a bus. Her grief was far more real, far more painful, beyond words. The pain of Jesus’ death cut through her heart like the soldier’s spear that had pieced Jesus side. And now, it was made all the worse by his missing body. She cried, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Who would do such a horrible thing? Who would steal a body? It’s the kind of thing you might see investigated on 60 Minutes or Dateline NBC. But, of course, Jesus wasn’t really stolen. He was alive. He was transformed. He was right there, with her still.
But we read that Mary didn’t recognize Jesus at first. She thought he was the gardener. Maybe she just couldn’t see well from the tears in her eyes, or perhaps from lack of sleep after the horrific events of the days before—replaying the image of Jesus nailed to the cross over and over again. It would be hard any of us to sleep after watching helplessly as that horror happens to someone you love so much. But then again, maybe, that wasn’t it. Maybe, it wasn’t because of her grief that she didn’t recognize Jesus. Maybe, I would even say probably, it’s because Jesus had changed. Maybe, probably, in his new, resurrected state he was beyond recognition, comprehension, and certainly beyond explanation.
Whatever the resurrection was, whatever God did to bring Jesus back to life, he was transformed that morning. In their various ways all four of the gospels tell us that the Jesus that Mary and the disciples encountered on that first Easter morning was somehow different from the Jesus they knew before Good Friday.
Now, the gospels really aren’t very good at describing this change. And I suspect that’s because whatever happened in the garden on that Easter morning is far beyond anything that can be put into words or images. It’s something that can be witnessed, experienced even, but not described. Certainly it’s not enough to simply say that Jesus just woke up on the third day. That would be hard to believe, of course—especially for those who were there on Good Friday and saw his life and soul torn from his body—but we could probably, sort of, understand it; we might even be able to describe it. But Easter is more than that. It’s more profound, more meaningful, more transformative than that. For 2,000 years people have been trying to make sense of it, and for 2,000 years we have always come up short.
Some of you know how much I like to talk about Star Wars, especially it seems on days like Christmas and Easter. I don’t want to disappoint you today, so I’ll add that what happened on that first Easter morning is beyond even what the best science fiction writers like George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry could dream up. It was more amazing than anything we might read about in Harry Potter novels, or see on TV on Dr. Who or Merlin. And that’s because it’s so fantastic, it’s so amazing, so transformative, that only God could dream it up. And certainly only God could make it happen. Because only God can take death and transform it into life. Only God can take grief and transform it into joy. Only God can take fear and transform it into hope.
And as transformative as Easter was for Jesus, as amazing to behold as it was Mary Magdalene and Peter and the other disciples, it can be just as amazing and just as transformative for us. If Jesus’ resurrection in that beautiful Easter garden 2000 years ago is to have any meaning for us now, if the light of that first Easter Day so long ago is to shine as brightly today as it did then, we have to live it, too. We have to be transformed by it. We have to know and believe and trust that new life, abundant life, resurrection life, is as much a possibility for us here, today, as it was for Jesus, and for Mary Magdalene, and for Peter so very long ago.
Easter teaches us to believe in things that seem impossible. It tells us that what we see is not all that there is. It holds before us the hope of new life, abundant life, spring life, where before all we could see was winter, fear, and death. Most especially, and most importantly, the transformation of Easter encourages us, in fact it compels us, to roll the stone away and step out of the tombs of our lives, so that we can embrace new possibilities. So that we can be filled with hope. So that we can live the resurrection.
And you know what? We can start living that fantastic, amazing, dazzlingly bright Easter life right now. We don’t have to wait for some future time. We don’t need soldiers or angels to roll the stones away for us. We can do it ourselves, today, right here, right now. We can step, run, or even leap, out of the tombs of our lives, and we can live: freely, fully, abundantly. We can even plant crazy plastic flowers in snow banks if we want to. Because that’s God’s hope for us. That’s God’s dream for us. That’s God’s promise for us. Jesus was raised, so that we, too, will be raised.
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” May we, with Mary, with the disciples, also see the Lord alive, then, may we live the life of resurrection ourselves, today, tomorrow, and always.
Happy Easter, my friends. Happy Easter. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell