Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Easter Sunday, 12 April, 2020
I have to admit: It is a somewhat emotionally complicated Easter experience, preaching the Good News of an empty grave to an empty sanctuary! Like all of you, I miss being together as we celebrate our Christian faith, hope, and love. I miss the physical act of re-membering, as each vessel of Christ’s Holy Spirit converges in this meetinghouse to proclaim and demonstrate the truth of the resurrected Body of Christ Jesus in the world today, even in 2020.
Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians seem especially appropriate in this season of COVID-19. He wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
And isn’t that life so very evident in the testimony of our flowering cross, and in the amazing work of our choir and very talented Minister of Christian Music, Julie Oliver, who managed from many individual homes to produce a stunning choral expression of our Easter joy?!
I want to just give a quick shout-out of thanks to Rick Guay and his team of helpers for building and setting up the cross. This year, he added a very impressive crown of thorns to the top—if you haven’t seen it, there are pictures posted on the church’s private Facebook page, and I’m sure Cindy will put them into the electronic Chimes in May as well.
And thanks also to Kimber Harmon and Wendy Longland for organizing all of the flowers. As I said to the children, all of these flowers are expressions of divine love—our love and gratitude to God, and God’s gift to us: symbols of new life. Death is at work in the world, but Christ’s even more vibrant life is at work in and through you all!
Who doesn’t love a garden? Happily, I’m married to someone who loves to nurture things in the soil. If it depended on me, we’d probably have a lot of mulch and brown grass; I’m not much good with plants and dirt. But I’ve heard some of you noting that your garden has never looked better than this year—that’s certainly one silver lining of an enforced stay-at-home policy!
Our Christian faith narrative begins with a garden story. It says that God placed the first man and first woman in a Garden called Eden. It was an idyllic place. In Genesis Chapter 2, it says that the man and woman felt very close to God in the garden; they talked and communed with God regularly; they loved spending time together in the Garden. But then, their experience in the Garden was ruined. They disobeyed God which, as they discovered, made them feel ashamed to talk to God; they even avoided God. And it broke God’s heart. They left the garden, and life became very hard for them. God’s intended design for community and mutual love and respect had become corrupted. And they all suffered as a result: the people missed God. And God grieved over missing them, and tried in countless ways to reconnect and re-establish the sacred covenant relationship they had shared.
And so it continued, generation after generation. The people just couldn’t understand how much they were loved as they kept trying to run away from God. But God unveiled a plan to help us all be in communion again. God delivered Jesus—God’s own son—to earth in order to convey just how much we are loved; how earnestly God wants us to know and experience that love. Jesus showed us that the best way to love God is by loving others, especially those who are vulnerable, suffering and hurting, those who feel forgotten or pushed out or hated by others. God themself is willing to suffer greatly in order to be truly known and loved in return.
This past week, during Holy Week, we heard stories about Jesus’ last days. On his final night in community before he was crucified, Jesus celebrated a very special Passover meal with his friends. And after that supper, he invited them all to go out to a garden with him—the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked them all to pray with him; he knew things were about to get really hard and really scary.
Among the many anguish-inducing realities of the corona virus is the fact that afflicted individuals are often forced to die alone, isolated and cut off from those who love them. It’s an unimaginable experience not just for the one struggling for life and breath, but also for those whose instinct is to draw near to them, to comfort them by being present and close. And, it’s excruciating for the healthcare providers who must shield themselves with personal protective equipment, and can only offer plastic-shrouded telephones through which the sick one can hear loved ones’ voices, and synthetic glove-encased hands as final expressions of comfort and reassurance.
For all of us who, in the pain of imposed self-isolating and social distancing, wonder whether God understands our pain and suffering, we have Jesus’ experience to reassure us. It’s quite possible that the only thing more painful than feeling isolated in a hospital ward with only the humming and beeping of machines to accompany you, is the feeling of being isolated, misunderstood, or forgotten while surrounded by people who profess to care.
Jesus was afraid and felt quite isolated that night in Gethsemane’s garden as he prayed, surrounded by his friends but completely alone. Mark’s account tells us that he was “distressed and agitated.” Throwing himself on the ground, he prayed, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me…” But his prayer didn’t end there—and that made all the difference. He continued, “… yet not my will, but yours be done.” 
In his fretful moments, Jesus was wrestling with that human part of us that hopes in the words and actions of false gods and selfish human power-brokers, this-worldly smooth-talkers and fear-mongers, as well as the predictable human impulse to avoid suffering. It’s so fully human to want to hope or trust in the powers and individuals we can see and hear in this world to deliver us, more readily than we trust the invisible God whose voice is often more quiet than our breath. And yet, it’s not until we place our trust completely in the sovereign power of God above all others, that we will feel at ease about the struggles and crises that will inevitably confront us in this world. And that’s what Jesus did.
“Let this cup be removed from me,” Jesus prayed, “yet, not my will, but yours be done.” Three times, Jesus prayed this way—and three times, he went to his disciples for support, but found them sleeping. Mark’s gospel says the disciples felt badly—they didn’t know what to say about why they kept drifting off when their beloved teacher was so distressed. Luke, the medical doctor, wrote in his gospel that they fell asleep “because of the grief.” A very human reaction to trauma and grief, to the combination of sorrow and fear, is an inability to remain alert or to process information like we normally do. There’s this overwhelming urge to just bury our head beneath the covers and sleep. And then, we toss and turn in our restless avoidance. Pandemic or not, we’re masterful at averting and distracting ourselves from the things about life and death that make us uncomfortable; and that should make us question the fear that underlies those impulses.
But Jesus, having persisted in his prayer, had turned a corner; his full faith and confidence were in the only One whose power would prevail. He had not gotten the answer he wanted in prayer, but he finished his prayer transformed. He realized that there was no other way to fulfill the objective of divine-human reconciliation than for him to continue resolutely on the path before him.
“Get up,” he says to his disciples, “Let us be going.” That announcement was not to imply that all fear was gone. But it does make clear that the power of fear had been broken. “After the prayer,” writes theologian Miroslav Volf, “Jesus emerged victorious from the experience of being engulfed by fear and almost lost to fear.” Jesus knew he was heading straight into the path of extreme suffering; he knew there would be mockery and derision by his enemies for what they thought was misplaced trust in God. He still had to experience God’s silence, and feel that God had abandoned him. He still had to die. “But,” Volf points out, “his victory over fear in [the garden that night] was a little resurrection before the crucifixion—it made him able to walk into suffering and death with the dignity of one who was ‘afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.’”
What fears about suffering, what fears about death, do you wrestle with? What are the things that afflict you and threaten to crush you? What perplexes you to the point of despair?
“Jesus’ victory in the Garden of Gethsemane over the fear of suffering and victory over the fear of deathanticipated the victory over suffering and death themselves that came on Easter morning”, when the risen Christ appeared in still another garden.
As we heard in the reading from John’s gospel, Jesus asked the traumatized, grieving, confused Mary Magdalen why she was weeping. Thinking he must be the gardener, she responded, “Sir, if you have taken his body somewhere else, tell me and I will go and…” “Mary,” Jesus interrupted her.
There are few things more grounding and reassuring than hearing your name spoken with love by one who knows and loves you for who you are. This was Jesus, also known as God-with-us/Immanuel, pronouncing Mary’s name—and in so doing, he cut through her fears, her anxieties, her regrets and accusations, and embraced her with a single word. She was called back to her center, and to the God in whom Jesus had taught her to trust.
Somehow, the fact that Jesus cautioned her not to hold on to him seems strangely appropriate this Easter. Sometimes, the realities of this world and God’s plans for fresh life, call upon us to do things that cut against our habits, to sacrifice comfortable ways of relating for the sake of love and new ways of being.
Friends, beloved children of God and beneficiaries of Resurrection life, there are so many things that seem wrong with the world today, starting with the fact that we are experiencing enforced isolation on the holiest day of the Christian year, when it only seems right that the Body of Christ should re-member itself by the constituent parts of our sacred community gathering in one place for joyful worship.
And yet, let’s notice this witness to Resurrection life, and to the ironic mystery of faith: Here we are, all of us together, worshiping as a gathered body yet spread across many miles! We are inhabiting separate spaces for the sake of love, safety, and the health of the most vulnerable among us. Although we are geographically more distant than we’d prefer, the one God whose Spirit abides/ is with each and all of us at once.
Among our church’s membership are individuals working tirelessly to provide health care to the sick and hospitalized, some are first-responders, others provide caring help to those who cannot leave home. Some are caring for the pets who minister to our spirits. Still others are offering spiritual nurture by their prayers and phone calls. Some are sewing facemasks and other personal protective equipment, others are engineering valves that go into life-saving ventilators and other medical equipment. We have members who serve the public in grocery stores, and those who grow the crops and livestock we purchase at the markets. We have educators who have had to completely re-tool how they teach, and parents who are learning how to be teachers, some of them while also trying to work other full-time jobs. We have talented musicians and communicators through technology who are helping us to stay connected and growingtogether as a community. All of this, and more, is the ongoing, active work of the Risen Christ Jesus through us! We are like a prolific garden, where God’s resurrection energy is tirelessly at work, pushing up new buds, bringing to light and to life a new creation, a new reality charged with healing, faith, hope, and love. Hallelujah! Amen.
 2 Corinthians 4:7-12
 Mark 14:33
 (Mark 14:36)
 (Luke 22:45)
 Paraphrasing Miroslav Volf, as quoted by Molly Phinney Baskette.
 Ibid., italics/emphasis mine.