Sermon for Easter, April 12, 2020
By The Rev. Dr. Steve Danzey
Good Samaritan Episcopal Church
You may or may not remember the television series The New Normal, which aired for one season back in 2012–13. The storyline follows a wealthy Los Angeles gay couple, Bryan and David, who want to have a baby. They meet Goldie Clemmons, a waitress and single mother, who decides to become their surrogate, and she and her 9-year-old daughter move in with Bryan and David, forming a family outside what is considered the “norm.” This show, much like the TV series, Modern Family, satirized and critiqued what our culture considered “normal.”
In case you haven’t noticed, in recent days the word “normal” has probably become the most overused word in our national and personal conversations. “When will things get back to normal?” We ask. Or, in light of the pandemic, “What is the new normal?”
Mostly, I’ve heard, and I’ve said it and longed for it myself, “When can we just get back to normal?” “When can things get back to the way they were before all of this COVID-19 pandemic?”
I wonder, however, if the events through which we are now living and the event we celebrate this day offer us the opportunity to envision something more than getting back to normal, perhaps a new normal that has the potential to make the world a better place—more in tune with God’s dream for the creation. But because of something in our human psyche, the impulse to return and stay with what is familiar, predictable is strong; especially for those of us who are control freaks, which I am not. I’m a “control enthusiast!”
In John’s version of the first Easter, Jesus has not been dead for more than a few hours and the disciples are trying to adjust to life without Jesus and gain some sense of control over their own destiny. Mary Magdalene, however, ignores the stay at home order and ventures out to find the tomb empty. She does what any one of us would do, attempts to find an explanation that is reasonable and what anybody with any sense would conclude:
“Someone has taken Jesus’ body away. I know it was in there, because I was here on Friday when Joseph and Nicodemus helped us bury the body. I know—the officials who wanted him dead have delivered yet another blow—they’ve stolen his body. What other explanation could there be?”
Then Mary tells Peter and presumably John, who race to the tomb to verify what Mary has told them. What happens next is almost comical. John believes—Scripture doesn’t even tell us what he believed, but it couldn’t have been earth shattering, because the final sentence in that part of the story tells as that they went back to their homes. What on earth did they do when they got home? Cook breakfast, surf the internet? I get the sense they were dealing with their grief, fear, and shattered dreams and just wanted to go home and return to some sense of normality, or at least a place where they felt in control.
Bless Mary’s heart, she is struggling and troubled because she senses that something is not quite right. While the men skulk back home to check the stock market reports, Mary bravely returns to the tomb. Was the cause of here weeping a mixture of grief over her loss and frustration with a system that would not only kill a good man but desecrate his body.
And then it happens. The old normal is shattered, and though there is a sense of continuity with what was before, something happens that changes everything. The gardener says her name. “How did he know my name?,” Mary wonders, and then the old normal is gone forever and the new normal has begun. “It’s the Teacher; it’s Jesus!” She does what any one of us would have done, and, oh, how we long to do it in these days of social distancing. She reaches out to wrap her arms around him.
“Don’t hold on to me,” Jesus says, “I’ve got people to see, things to do, and places to be, and so do you!” It’s okay to grieve the loss of what was, Mary, but now it’s time to let go and embrace the new normal—the Resurrection normal.”
What does this current crisis and Easter Day 2020 say to us who are grieving the loss of what was normal and wondering what the new normal might be? What about the old normal should we let go? What are the possibilities for transformation wrapped in the caccoon of our current crisis that will enable us, if we are open to them, to live more fully into God’s intention for the human race and all of creation?
The book of Acts, which we’ll hear in church for the next few weeks, sets forth distinction between a world that wants to back to normal, back to a world without Jesus, and this growing group of Jesus-followers who have tasted the new normal of Resurrection life and refuse to go back to the way things were before.
The political and religious powers of the day did everything in their power to go back to the old normal, which at its heart was the attempt to maintain their control of the economy, politics, and religion. The followers of Jesus, however, energized by the Spirit of the Risen Jesus, choose to live in the new normal—the Easter normal. They make bold decisions to be inclusive; they sacrifice their reputation and their very lives; they give generously so that everyone in the community shares in the abundance of God.
Sisters and brothers, there are things about life the way it was before this crisis that are worth grieving over. I grieve with high school and college seniors who won’t be able to finish out their senior year. I weep with families who cannot hold the hands of their dying loved ones. I mourn that we could not celebrate Holy Week and Easter gathered in one place as a community of faith.
But there are some things about the old normal over which I will not grieve if we choose to let them go.
I will not grieve if we choose to put in the past the growing disparity between the rich and the poor that has become the norm for this nation. I will not grieve if we choose to let go of a broken healthcare system, where people cannot get quick treatment and die because they do not have health insurance. I will not grieve if Christians in our nation choose to let go of our obsession with political power, prosperity and celebrity so that we cannot do what Jesus told us to do: love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbors as ourselves.
I do not want to go back to the old normal of politics as usual, the disparaging of people and minorities in the public forum, and the disregard for truth and justice that has become all too common. Please, let us not go back to the old normal of over-scheduling ourselves and our children to the point that we can barely find time to breathe. Let us not go back to the old normal of taking our relationships, our vocations, and our faith for granted. Let us grieve over some things that we have lost during this time in history, but let us, for God’s sake and our own, choose to let go of things we know are dividing us, degrading our humanity, killing us and reeking havoc on God’s creation.
Thanks be to God, there are signs all around us that cracks are appearing the edifice of the old normal.
Did you read the news reports that folks living in northern India can see the Himalayas again because of the drop in emissions? Wildlife is returning the the canals of Venice. We are learning the names of next door neighbors. I see the Easter normal at work right here in our own faith community—people checking on one another, offering help, giving generously, worshiping faithfully.
Families have the time to work on puzzles and play board games. We have time to read novels, and take long walks, and check to see if the widow up the street needs Kleenex or toilet paper. Folks are returning to faith, or at least open to deepening their spiritual life, and realizing that their relationship to God is actually an essential part of their well-being.
Alan Lightman, a physicist who teaches at MIT, wrote in The Atlantic last week:
…there is something more to be regained [in this crisis], something more subtle, more delicate, almost impossible even to name. That is the restoration of our inner selves. By inner self, I mean that part of me that imagines, that dreams, that explores, that is constantly questioning who I am and what is important to me. My inner self is my true freedom. My inner self roots me to me, and to the ground beneath me. …perhaps the slower lifestyle in these months can help put the pieces [of our broken selves] back together. And perhaps a more contemplative, deliberate way of living can become permanent.
(“The Virus Is A Reminder of Something We Lost Long Ago,” The Atlantic, April 1, 2020)
The late poet John O’Donohue writes:
“You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.”
(Excerpt from the blessing, ‘For One Who is Exhausted’ from To Bless The Space Between Us)
That Easter falls right smack dab in the middle of this pandemic is worth pondering. If God can bring new life and new creation out of the death, disappointment, and disaster of the Passion Week of Jesus, what might happen if we choose to live in the new normal that is possible on the other side or our own Passion experience? What new thing might God be up to? What new and wonderful things could be birthed in our own lives, our families, our church, our nation?
I love how the Easter story ends. Mary runs back to where the disciples are hunkered down in their old normal. The text tells us she announces, she declares “I have seen the Lord!” She is the first apostle of the new normal—Easter, Resurrection normal.
The good news of this particular Easter Day is that even in our grieving and weeping God is with us, not chiding us because of our tears but calling us—each one of us, by name—to see through our tears the vision of a new normal that started 2000 years ago in a garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem. And not just to see it, but to embrace it and let it take root in our hearts so that we, too, like Mary, can shout to the world this day: “I have seen the Lord!”
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!