A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 12 April 2020 [Easter Sunday]:

Jeremiah 31:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

Getting Back to “Normal”

 My sleep is not restful.  My dreams cause me to struggle.  I wake up in the morning with a moment of relief, thinking now – awakened – my life will follow my own chosen familiarities; but in another instant, I realize that what I was wrestling with in sleep does not end in my waking.

Our lives amidst the Covid-19 pandemic do feel like one, long, bad dream, but we all realize that it is no dream at all.  It is, rather, the wrenching reality of where we are right now.  The separation, the unavoidable confrontation with limits – both those demanded by the virus and even more painfully the limits that belong to us as individuals – the confrontation with these limits have changed everything about our experience of life, to the extent that we long for the word that this threat will let up, if not end, so that some sense of normality can return.

Returning to what is “normal”: that is our common desire, the one that resonates, if not in explicit words, then in every troubled heart.  Who can be blamed for desiring a return to that time when we can go to work, go to school, and gather socially?  I think it is safe to say that the more intensely we crave a return to “normal” is a direct barometer of how fearful we are about what in our lives is to change.

Earlier this week I came across the response that the Director of the Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases made about what he saw as the virus’s impact on our future behavior.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, with his usual direct and fact-based tone, mused that he hoped two things would change in our post-virus life.  One was that we would heretofore wash our hands more frequently and thoroughly.  (I can hear my mother’s voice now!)  The other adjustment the good doctor hoped for was that we would stop shaking hands.

Coming from the one, central, and reliable figure in this pandemic time, Dr. Fauci’s statement shook me.  If this is part of the “new” and “necessary” “normal”, what will be lost?  What will be gained?

For the last twenty-or-so years, I have consciously used a handshake as a way to express my presence to the one being met.  I have tried to discipline myself to move beyond a mere social grace, toward a mindfulness that a handshake could be one way I might honor my baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being”.  My handshake was (on the one hand) a statement of my willingness to be present and (on the other hand) an invitation to the other to reciprocate.  In this manner, the handshake had the capacity to be a visible bridge between “I and Thou” (to use the phrase from the great 20th century rabbi and scholar, Martin Buber).  This is to say that a handshake holds the capacity to represent the “God-between-us”, the hope for the possibility of mutual connection in the life that is larger than any of us can manage.

The historically verifiable origins of handshaking evidently stem from the Greeks at the time of the 5th century BCE.   These ancients regarded it as a sign of peace, to show that no weapon was in hand.  That the subsequent ancient Roman custom was to grasp the other’s right forearm literally to feel that there was no hidden weapon reflects something of Jesus’ gospel advice: namely, to be “wise as serpents yet innocent as doves”.

The point of all this is to ask about what is “normal” and to what extent and on what basis returning to “normal” is helpful.  Moreover, to what extent is such a return faithful?

I especially ask these questions of those of us who gather – in a virtual capacity, the new norm of our day – to honor this Easter Sunday and to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.  Specifically, in the clamor to return to “normal”, I wonder: What is “normal” about resurrection?  What does this sacred and revealing day say to us about where our lives are anchored and upon what we truly do depend? And in any event, if Jesus’ resurrection speaks of the God-life exploding among us like a second big-bang, then what changes confront us, if we are to deal with Easter’s reality?  To what extent is this Easter reality “normal” –or not — for us?

It was still dark.  Alone, Mary Magdalene made her way to Jesus’ tomb.  What did she think she was going to do?  The hasty burial preparations had been applied and the tomb was sealed shut, as was the normal practice.  Why, in the dark, was she making her way to his grave?  I don’t think that Mary Magdalene knew, but neither could she stay at home.

In the faint celestial light, she walked as carefully as she could, not wanting to stumble and fall.  Upon entering the burial garden and amidst the reflected shadows, she saw to her great horror that the tomb had been opened.  The huge, sealing stone had been rolled aside like some ungainly barn door.  Instinctively, the Magdalene turned on her heels and ran.  With terror coursing through her veins, she ran back to the covey of frightened disciples, where she told Peter and the Beloved Disciple what she saw and what she thought she knew: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (20:2b) “They”?!  “We”?!

This heartfelt, heart-broken assessment was reasonable, given all that had happened to Jesus and his followers in the last days.

After all, Jesus had pushed the envelope of normality — certainly prudence — and antagonized his opponents to the point of no return.  They had killed the one whom Mary and the other followers had pinned their hopes and dreams on; and even now, the deepest insult has been added to injury: Stealing the body; not only despicably robbing the grave and but also heartlessly robbing them of their last dignities of honoring the burial site.

In the course of human and political events, while it was ruthless, what happened to Jesus was all “normal”.  Power: Crucifying Jesus was a demonstration of who had the power.  Stealing his body was, in the last analysis, a merciless and final demonstration of who was in control.  Sad but true, it was all “normal”.

In turn, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb to see for themselves.  John’s gospel speaks in curious detail about the fact that the younger disciple arrived first, that Peter’s pace was slower.  Was this the result of the weight of Peter’s shame in denying his Lord?  Would this investigation of Mary Magdalene’s discovery simply add more salt to Peter’s wounds, to the extent that he unwittingly dragged a bit behind?

Both men arrived to see that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb.  Moreover, the linens, the shrouds were lying in place; the head cloth neatly rolled up and placed separately.  The thought had to cross the two male disciples’ minds: Why would grave robbers unwrap the corpse and leave the burial linens behind?  Why would thieves act like a distracted altar guild?  And yet, in despair wrapped in confusion, Peter and the Beloved Disciple returned to their homes.  It was the “normal” thing to do.

Yet, the Magdalene stayed.  By herself once again, she stood at the entrance of the tomb and wept with resignation at her powerlessness.  That, too, was “normal”.  As if to take one last look at the defeating scene, Mary stooped to look into the tomb; and this time what she saw was not “normal”.  Two angels in white were seated on the burial shelf: one where Jesus’ head had lain; and the other where his feet had been.

It was fortunate for her that she was frozen with fear at this sight.  Otherwise, she would have followed her instincts once again and ran. But in that moment of stunned presence, Mary heard the angels ask her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Her answer was obvious: Someone has stolen her Lord’s body, and she has no idea where he might be.  At which point she turned to see a man, whom she thought was the gardener.  He, too, asked the same question; and Mary repeated her lament and pleaded for his help.

Not realizing that the one who was speaking to her was Jesus, the Risen One tenderly spoke her name: “Mary”.  At that familiar and knowing sound, Mary Magdalene’s heart leaped with sheer and joyful relief, as her voice cried out: “Rabboni!” –  respectful and normal acknowledgement of Jesus as her “teacher” and leader.  And if she had her wits about her, the Magdalene would have noted that none of this was “normal”.

What was normal were her instincts to hold onto the resurrected Jesus; but he would not let her.  Jesus would not let her hold him because she was grasping at what was “normal”, familiar; and this Jesus and what he represented were new.  Consequently, being with the Risen One was not — it could not be — a simple matter of returning to what had been.  Jesus, risen from the dead, is not a matter of restoring what is “normal”.  Rather, resurrection goes well-beyond our sense of normality – at times frighteningly so – because resurrection brings forth what is “normal” for God.

There is so much more to say about this day and its reality, its “new norm” for us.  It is one reason that I am grateful for our spiritual and liturgical tradition that specifically keeps Easter, not simply as a day, but as a season of 50 days.  This means that for the next seven weeks, you and I will continue to pay particular attention to Easter’s reality and God’s “new normal” for us, given to us in and through Jesus’ resurrection.

So, I will close for now with some questions that I hope and trust we will work on in the next 50 days.  (I suppose our work will be virtually accomplished. So be it.).

Here’s the first question.  It is as basic as it is important: What is resurrection?  What does it mean?

If the word “resurrection” means “to awaken to”, (and it does! – as in “awaken to” what life with God is like; “awaken to” what life is like on God’s terms), then what does it take for us to adjust to and live in life on God’s terms?  What does it take to live what is “normal” in God’s eyes?  Or do we give Easter a usual polite nod and a wink and then continue desperately to return to our “normal”?

A second question: As we face death – in all its forms – and as we confront our own physical, emotional, and spiritual limitations (many of which have been inconveniently and embarrassingly uncovered by Covid-19), to what extent can we trust resurrection life, not in terms of going to heaven when we die or being reassured that there is life after death, but as the template for real life now?

Christ is risen!  And while it feels dishonest this year to wish one another a “happy” Easter, as we normally do, in the midst of this experience of Easter in the wilderness of a pandemic, we can, nonetheless, still have a “joyful” Easter.  We can still have a joyful Easter because joy (unlike happiness) is rooted in gratitude; and Easter gratitude resides in the recognition that God is faithful – no matter what!

Thanks be to God.  Alleluia!  Amen