Easter Sermon: Journey into Joy

[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunday) at St. Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN].

John 20:1-18

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Last week when we marked the Sunday of the Passion here at St. Paul’s, I remarked that “Holy Week is messy” and that there is no way to make it all make sense.

I believe the same is true for Easter.

There are some who will talk about Easter as if it were a mathematic equation, arguing theological minutia using insider church speak. For some people, that’s what Easter is – a problem to be solved.

But for me Easter is an altogether different experience. It isn’t prose to be explained. It is poetry to be experienced in light and sound, fire and water, bread and wine. It is Aretha’s “Sweet morning dew,” Stevie Wonder’s “overjoyed,” Coldplay’s “Yellow,” Chance the Rappers “…promised lands / soil as soft as mama’s hands / running water, standing still / endless fields of daffodils and chamomile.” To me, Easter is a poetic invitation to journey into joy.

When you think about joy, what comes to your mind? Happiness? Pleasure? Bliss?

Joy is hard to describe. Joy is retrospective rather than prescriptive. It’s one of those things that we are certain about after we experience it, but it is often hard to name exactly what it was about a particular experience that was “joyous.”

A few weeks ago, I told you about the first time I visited an Episcopal church and was invited to share in Holy Communion. I am absolutely clear that I experienced joy in that moment, but I am not 100% clear as to what it was that was specifically joy-filled. There was the welcome and gracious hospitality of a complete stranger, there was the simple beauty of the worship, and there was a specific invitation from the priest for my tired and weary soul to “come away and rest awhile,” but the joy I experienced was more than the sum of these parts. It was joy that transcended my experience and yet brought my experience into clearer focus.

If Easter is a poetic invitation to journey into joy, and joy, among other things, transcends our current experiences by helping to see more clearly, then I wonder what it is that God is trying to get us to see through the lens of the Resurrection?

For wisdom in this, we might ask Sister Mary Magdalene. She was a close disciple of Jesus (even though she never gets the credit she deserves). She approaches the tomb early Sunday morning and expects to find it sealed. I think Mary, still overcome with grief, was going to the tomb to mourn. She was expecting grief.

But as she approached the tomb, she saw something that she didn’t expect. The stone she expected to be rolled across the door to the tomb was rolled away. Her mind instantly goes to the worst-case scenario; she suspects that some enemies of Jesus’ movement of compassion and justice have decided to compound the anguish of his followers by removing the body.

When she returns to the tomb after alerting the other disciples, she returns having consigned herself to her grief. When she bends down to look into the tomb, it appears as though her worst fear is confirmed because she sees the body missing and she sees two strangers – two angels. Her mind is still so clouded in grief that even when she sees the Risen Lord face-to-face, she accuses him of being a part of this nefarious plot. It isn’t until he names her that she sees, rather hears, the invitation. This is not a morning for grief, but one for joy. It is as if Jesus is saying “beloved, it is not your deepest fear that has been confirmed, but your wildest dream.”

We might be tempted to give Sister Mary Magdalene a hard time for her inability to see what was happening. But the truth be told: Mary is all of us. An inability to see goodness and grace in the world is a part of what it means to live in exile from our true home with God. Pain, or grief, or anguish, or anxiety, or fear, or fatigue, or callousness can prevent us from seeing the hand of God at work in the world around us. In those moments, our wiring can cause us to miss God’s invitation to journey into joy.

And that’s why Easter matters: because the joy of God that entered the world in the smallness of a manger could not be destroyed on harshness of the cross. God’s joy, God’s dream, God’s Word destroyed evil, and hatred, and sin by entering it, passing through the threshold of death, and in rising from the dead, God blows the roof off our wildest dreams. It is through Jesus Christ that the most impossible realities become possible. He lives that through him all living might be redeemed and because that is true, joy – joy, unspeakable joy – is always possible. Situated among the complexity of our lives, Easter may not feel all that important, but in case you don’t know: joy lives in close proximity to possibility.

English poet and painter William Blake says this about joy:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.[1]

Perhaps what God is trying to get us to see more clearly in Easter is the context of our lives. Sure, our lives may be messy and out of sorts, but that makes them all the more suitable to be containers of God’s joy. Peter Gomes says it this way, “joy… is not an invitation to mere merrymaking and mindless happiness, a distraction from earth’s gloomy night. Not at all. It means that because the Lord has come to fulfill the promises of God, all that was separated and disparate is now united and whole. Suffering is the context for joy, even as darkness is the context for light and silence for hearing.”[2]

Easter is about a shift in perspective, the resurrection of an awareness that just as a little light can dispel a lot of darkness and a little sound disrupt a lot of silence, so too can a little joy transform a lot of suffering if we just lift our eyes.

Archbishop Rowan Williams says this, “[t]he resurrection is a moment in which human beings are reintroduced to one another across the gulf of mutual resentment and blame; a new human community becomes possible.”[3] The Son of God comes to destroy the wall that evil and estrangement had built between us and he pioneers the way into the joy that only exists in the presence of God. It is a joy rooted in community and sweet communion, in bread and wine, in fire and light, in water and spirit. It is joy rooted in the simple things transformed by the power of God to be for us signs of God abiding presence in our lives.

“Glimpses of holiness… remind us that we are neither our own nor on our own.”[4] Beloved in Christ, you are never alone. You are part of the saving community of Christ, called into this movement of justice and compassion, to leaven the loaf of the world’s suffering with the yeast of God’s joy.

And if you know anything about bread, a little yeast goes a mighty long way.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.


[1] William Blake, “Eternity” in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, Peter Gomes, 244.

[2] Peter Gomes. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, 243-244.

[3] Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ, 31

[4] Gomes, The Good Book, 254.

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