John 20:1-18; Jeremiah 31:1-6
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Prayer of Invocation
God of life, we praise you for the miracle of Easter. We pray for great joy for
ourselves and for all who come to worship today to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.
We pray especially for those who will join us for worship and whose lives are
filled with pain, loss, or deep sadness. May they sense how the resurrection is a
source of great hope. Amen.
Call to Confession
Prayer of Confession
Almighty God, in raising Jesus from the grave, you shattered the power of sin and
death. We confess that we remain captive to doubt and fear, bound by the ways
that lead to death. We overlook the poor and the hungry and pass by those who
mourn; we are deaf to the cries of the oppressed and indifferent to calls for peace;
we despise the weak and abuse the earth you made. Forgive us, God of mercy.
Help us to trust your power to change our lives and make us new, that we may
know the joy of life abundant given in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For
since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also
come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in
Prayer for Illumination
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. From
everlasting to everlasting you are God. Speak to us now as you have spoken to us
throughout the ages. On this glorious Easter, reveal yourself and your will for our
lives, that we might live as your Easter people. We seek your face, O Lord; hear
our prayer through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: “Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.”
Sermon Interesting Times
Good morning! He is risen! He is risen, indeed!
I am so glad to be celebrating this Easter Sunday with you, even if it is in such a strange and interesting way to connect with all of you. The title of my sermon today is Interesting Times. I’ve heard that there’s a curse in Chinese: May you live in interesting times.
I first heard it in a movie. I don’t remember which movie, but I hear Donald Sutherland’s voice when I think of it, so maybe that’s a clue. Of course, I don’t know if it’s actually a Chinese curse—it may have been the invention of a Hollywood screenwriter. I don’t know, but I understand the sentiment.
The idea behind the curse is that it’s much better to live in times when things are stable and predictable. But we are living in interesting times. We have to adapt. Some people respond to interesting times by trying to make reality conform to the way things used to be. My response is to lean into the interesting times.
Honestly, I think we’ve been living in interesting times for quite a while now, especially in the Church—and I don’t just mean this congregation. I mean the Church, writ large. The world outside of our walls has been changing for some time, and churches have been changing, too.
We’ve seen attendance decline across the board—even large congregations are smaller than they used to be. Smaller congregations cling to the idea that if they just get a new, young pastor, who will then attract some young families to the church, then the congregation will rebound; things will be just like they were in the 1990s. Or 70s. Or 60s. Or 50s.
We’ve been waiting for people to straggle in and see how wonderful we are inside. And yes, you are wonderful. And we’ve even had a few unicorns wander into our sanctuary. We want the Easter story, especially if we hear vague promises of rebirth in the ways that we used to be. We want rebirth without labor pains; we want the resurrection without the crucifixion.
Beloved, I would love to preach a sermon on the familiar Easter story that we all know and love. But these are interesting times. So, I want to direct your attention to the text from the prophet Jeremiah, because it’s a word for people who are living in interesting times!
Jeremiah is one of the most important prophets of the Old Testament. He began his ministry as a prophet many years before the Babylonians attacked the kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah alternates between pronouncing God’s judgment on the kingdom of Judah and the promises of what the world might look like if the people—especially the religious and political leaders—return to true covenant faithfulness. One time, Jeremiah’s words so upset King Zedekiah that Jeremiah was cast into a cistern to die. Eventually, he was rescued from the cistern, but Jeremiah was known for saying the kinds of things that kings and other leaders didn’t want to hear.
Today’s reading is Jeremiah reminding the people that God still loves them, even though they are cut off from the world as they knew it. These words may have been preached during a time when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem. It’s a reminder to a people who are struggling to find faith in difficult times.
I don’t want to overdramatize our challenges. The Kingdom of Judah was eventually conquered by the Babylonians. The city of Jerusalem was besieged and sacked, more than once. The Temple was destroyed. The religious and political leaders were taken hostage. The period of exile lasted some sixty years.
By comparison, here in New Jersey, we’ve been asked to shelter in place for about four weeks now. That’s not as severe as what Jeremiah witnessed, but I don’t want to minimize the situation, either. For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic is all too real. What we have is a major challenge, though the burdens of that challenge are not shared evenly.
I know that several members of this congregation have been laid off from their jobs. And I know that many of you have loved ones in nursing homes or in hospitals and you cannot visit them. My heart breaks for everyone who cannot visit sick or isolated loves ones. Also, my heart breaks for those who cannot hold funerals or visitations. Grieving alone is a terrible burden.
Whether we’re grieving the loss of a loved one; whether we’ve been furloughed from a job, or we’re just sick of being on one Zoom meeting after another; we’re all waiting for a time when we can move freely, spend time with friends and family, eat in restaurants, and even watch live sports. We don’t know how long this time of social distancing will last.
It’s not the same as an invasion by the Babylonian Empire, but the uncertainty is excruciating. And trying to pretend that everything will be just fine—at some unspecified point in the future—is exhausting. Trying to be strong for someone else is also exhausting.
That’s why this text from Jeremiah speaks to me so clearly right now. While our situation is not as dire as it was for the people of Jerusalem some two thousand and six hundred years ago, I think we can appreciate the challenge of remaining faithful in these uncertain times.
To put it another way, we’re still in the tomb. We’re in that in-between time, in which Jesus is crucified, dead, and buried, but has not yet been resurrected. We need to lean into this. We need to support those who are struggling the most, and at the same time, we need to admit that we’re getting exhausted—and we’re only going to get through this if we find new ways to support one another.
This is a message of hope for a people living in interesting times. This is a reminder that God did not abandon the people of Judah and also that God has not abandoned us, either.
In the very next chapter, the prophet Jeremiah does something astounding, something amazingly hopeful. In the midst of the siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah goes out and buys a deed for a piece of land. He buys a field in a place called Anathoth, in the land of the tribe of Benjamin. He was preparing for a time after the end of the occupation by the Babylonians.
We don’t know what happened to Jeremiah; there is no account of his death, though he was not killed by the Babylonians. His words of hope and his act of faithfulness are a reminder to us that these challenges won’t last forever.
Eventually the exile ended. The exiles came back and they continued to live in interesting times. They tried to make things like they were before. It didn’t work. The divisions persisted until Jesus came into the world—the world that Jesus came to heal. Through his life, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection, Jesus opened the way to that healing. He handed the work off to the disciples, and by extension, to us.
We live in interesting times. And we will continue to live in interesting times after this period of social distancing is over.
We are called to be the Church in new and exciting ways. We are called to reimagine what church might look like. We are called to the work of reconciliation within this congregation and we are called to heal the divisions in our community and in our world. This is what it means to be the Church in interesting times.
Won’t you join with me in dreaming what this can be? Won’t you join me in the work of remaking the Church? If we live into this calling, we, too, will live into the promise of the resurrection. If we live into this calling, we will truly show the world that Christ is alive! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Christ’s Invitation and the Words of Institution
Prayer of Thanksgiving
We give our thanks through our talents, our time, and our treasure.
Thanks be to God; whose love creates us!
Thanks be to God; whose mercy redeems us!
Thanks be to God; whose grace leads us into the future! Amen.
Prayers of the People
Prayers for the members of St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in New Kensington, PA. The steeple of this church was blown off during the storms in the early morning on Wednesday.
Prayers for Marge Freeman. Marge is a member of the church in Pittsburgh where I served my seminary internship. Marge fell last week and broke her hip. She had surgery and is recovering well, but she is also recovering alone, because no visitors are allowed.
Darrell Parks—this is Trena’s brother—is in the ICU. He tested negative for COVID-19, but he’s very sick and, of course, no one can visit him.
Prayers of healing and wholeness for a couple named Mark and Mitzi. They’re members of a church in Pittsburgh and my friend Charissa is their pastor. Mark is in the ICU with COVID-19; Mitzi has tested positive for COVID-19, but is not hospitalized. Of course, neither one can visit the other.
Prayers for all who are separated from loved ones at this time, especially those whose loved ones are in hospitals and nursing homes. And also, prayers for all of the clergy members who are struggling to provide pastoral care from a distance, and feeling helpless in the process.
The Lord’s Prayer