“Hallelujah Anyway”
Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

Before turning to hear God’s Word in Holy Scripture, let us turn to God in prayer. Let us pray…
God of new life and new beginnings, meet us right where we are, enter the strangeness of these days,
and grant us peace, once again, through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.

Mark 16:1-8
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This is a weird Easter Sunday.
There are other words I can think of…unusual, strange, extraordinary.
You are watching Easter Sunday worship on a television or a computer screens.
Your pastors have filmed this service from our backyards or our homes.
We would all normally be at the corner of Church and Sycamore this morning,
decorating that big cross with beautiful flowers
and singing our Alleluia’s with the organ and the choir.
And yet, here we are, trying to make the best of an extraordinary situation.

It should be said that these days have been unusual in some very good ways:
Traffic in Atlanta is gone, Gas is affordable, Filing of taxes has been extended.
Kids are at home with their families.
The Carpool is not running around all over town, from school to practice to whatever.
Hectic schedules have been replaced by the opportunity to get bored, and then to get creative.
Parents are teaching their own children, which has been a challenge for many, but also a blessing.
Fast food has been mostly replaced by Home Cooked Meals.
The Air is cleaner; the Streets are quieter.
We are all more aware of our Hygiene and Health.
The World does not seem to be revolving so much around Money.
Many have been given some measure of Time, finally, to Slow down and smell the Roses.
And we all have the opportunity, in these different days, to spend more time
noticing and giving thanks for the everyday wonder of our human lives.
And, perhaps, you have taken this opportunity to grow closer to the people around you
and too seek to grow closer to GOD. (paraphrased from a public post on Facebook, April 5, 2020)

Yes, there are many “silver linings” to these strange days, but even so these days are weird.
I confess to having unsettling dreams three nights in a row this past week.
I do not usually remember my dreams, but I remember these.
In the first dream, I was enjoying a swimming pool with friends and family,
and suddenly, out of nowhere, came an overwhelming flood we could not escape.
I don’t remember much else, but I remember being caught up in flowing floodwaters
and experiencing, before I woke up, an obvious lack of control over the situation.
The second night I dreamed that I was hiking with a friend across a mountain ridge,
similar to the trail I grew up hiking over Kennesaw Mountain.
In the middle of the hike, deep in the woods, we realized that a forest fire was coming our way.
I remember distinctly wanting to continue the hike,
to keep going in the direction we had been planning to go,
but this great fire was coming towards our path and we were forced to halt our progression.
A firefighting crew encountered us, stopped us,
and gave us clear instruction to hunker down and stay right where we were.
In the third dream, I had been given a small, but significant part in a play.
The practices for the play went fine, I remember that, but on the night of the performance,
I was sitting in an aisle seat in the midst of the packed theater, afraid.
Soon, I was supposed to stand up and emerge from the audience at just the right moment,
and offer some important turn to the plot, and there I sat, terrified.
I was afraid that I had forgotten my lines, and I was not at all sure I would remember my cue!
Alone in a crowded theater, with something important I was supposed to say at the right time –
it was a fearful and strange dream. I have never had that dream before.
I have never had any of those dreams before,
but each of these dreams clearly revealed some underlying emotions.

Over the last weeks, I have been relatively calm on the surface as I have been going about my daily tasks,
but inside, I obviously am harboring some unresolved feelings, feelings of dread, of concern, of fear.
I imagine that I am not the only one who has had unusual dreams or disconcerting thoughts late at night.
This is a weird time, after all. This is a weird Easter Sunday.

But we are aware from the gospel narratives that the first Easter was fairly weird as well.
That first Easter day was unusual, strange, extraordinary…
The three women, after their experience at the empty tomb, went out and fled…
for terror and amazement had seized them;
and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The eleven disciples were hiding out off some back street in Jerusalem, in a locked room, afraid.

As Professor Bill Brown of Columbia Seminary wrote:
“Christ’s Resurrection did not begin with large gatherings of (the faithful)
accompanied by choirs and organ blasts (and Easter lilies).
It began with an ‘empty tomb’ and three fearful women…”
It began with disciples huddled together, afraid to go outside.
Of all the years, this is perhaps the best Easter to reflect on that first Easter.
When a white-robed messenger proclaimed to the women: “He is not here!”,
surely they wondered, “If not here, then where? Where is he?”
According to John’s Gospel, the “where” was right where the disciples were,
in their fearful social isolation.
In John’s narrative, Jesus made his first resurrection appearance behind those closed doors.
He showed up, right where they were, in the midst of their fear and anxiety,
and offered them “Shalom”, “Peace.”

This Easter, we can allow “our sanctuaries and chancels, our narthexes and choir lofts,
to remain utterly empty, not out of despair, but in testimony” that he is truly present wherever we are.
Jesus is present not only in the memories of the Church,
certainly not only in the buildings of the Church,
but Jesus is alive and at work among us, right there, with you, wherever you are.
(adapted from Professor Bill Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary, Alumni Email, April 7, 2020)
Jesus lives far beyond the empty tomb, far beyond the hallowed halls of Church buildings,
and he shows up right where we are, when we need him the most.

Anne Lamott, who wrote Traveling Mercies and Two Birds, has a new book.
Her new book is titled Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy.
Lamott writes, “There are times in our lives – scary, unsettling times –
when we know that we need help or answers but we’re not sure what kind,
or even what the problem or question is.
We look and look, tearing apart our lives like we’re searching for car keys in our couch…”

Mercy is an approach “we might consider taking (in these days) when facing a great big mess,
especially the great big mess of ourselves –
our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice.”
Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms, she writes, and they can encompass
“everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away…”
They can encompass “the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway…”
They can encompass “the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer…”

“In spite of it all,” Lamott writes, “there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, (and yes) mercy…
Mercy is radical kindness,” she writes.
“Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits…
Mercy means that we soften ever so slightly, so that we don’t have to condemn others…
Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable.
Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted,
to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten….”
Just to hear the words ‘mercy’ or ‘merciful’ can transform the whole day…”, says Lamott.
(from chapter 1 of Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott)

Easter Sunday is a good day to talk about mercy and unconditional love,
a good day to talk about grace and compassion.
Easter Sunday is a good day to sing “Hallelujah”, “Hallelujah anyway”,
regardless of our circumstances,
because Easter is not just something that happened “once upon a time” long ago.
Easter continues to happen whenever and wherever we are met by the love and compassion,
by the grace and mercy, of our risen Lord Jesus Christ.

That strange first Easter day did not end with the women fleeing away from the tomb in silence and fear.
That extraordinary first Easter day did not end with the disbelief of the eleven hiding out in fear.
The unusual day continued because Jesus showed up right where they were,
and through them began to proclaim the wonder and mystery of the good news.
The amazing story continued because Jesus showed up for the Church through all the ages,
proclaiming through generation after generation the good news of his undeserved love and forgiveness.
And the extraordinary narrative continues today, even in and through you and me,
even when the church building sits empty,
even when we are filming Easter worship in our homes and yards,
because Jesus still shows up, right where we are.

Instead of remaining stuck with the description of this Easter as weird or unusual or strange….
let’s change our vocabulary.
Let’s go with words like hopeful – hopeful that we’re making a difference and even saving lives
by staying at home and looking for Jesus right where we live.
Let’s go with words like mercy, as we show Christ-like mercy
to the ones with whom we live and work in tight quarters.
Let’s go with words like celebration, as we sing “Hallelujah” anyway,
and dance with Easter joy, perhaps with even some Instagram or Tik-Tok worthy dancing.

Have you seen the recent Youtube videos created Jon Krasinski?
Krasinski was made famous as one of the actors on the television show, “The Office”.
In response to all the unsettling news, Krasinski is offering a brief weekly video.
Working out of his home and with graphics consisting of a poster created by his young daughters,
he’s calling his show “SGN” – “Some Good News”.
And I promise, his SGN is far better entertainment than some documentary about a Tiger King.
In the first episode, Krasinski includes a beautiful story about a whole street welcoming home
a teenager recovering from cancer and then another story about an older gentleman
singing Amazing Grace through a closed window to his wife in a hospital bed.
In the second episode, there are numerous images of coronavirus helpers at work,
and then a nine year old enjoying a very special online visit with some unexpected friends.
Krasinski is encouraging us all with these videos and I appreciate the words with which he ended them:
“No matter how dark it gets out there, no matter how frightening,” he said,
“there is always good in the world.”

Friends, there is always good in the world.
Jesus Christ embodied for us the goodness of God.
Jesus lived God’s goodness; Jesus died for the sake of goodness;
and Jesus was raised by a good God so that we may forever know
that God’s goodness cannot be defeated, not even by death.

Friends, Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
And he will continue to show up for us,
right where we are, just when we need him the most. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia