Unity Lutheran Church
11 April 2020 + Great Vigil of Easter
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Before I started seminary, I knew I needed to join an ELCA congregation if I wanted to pursue ordination in the ELCA. I had grown up in another Lutheran church body and, at the time, was attending a United Methodist congregation. I had visited ELCA congregations before, and had lived in Chicago for almost six years by this point – but the ELCA world in Chicago was still largely unknown to me. I knew I was still deeply, at my core, Lutheran, and I knew the ELCA was a place where I could live into my Lutheran identity – and all my other identities as well – being my full, authentic self in a denomination that didn’t necessarily claim to have all the answers but was nonetheless open to taking risks for the sake of the gospel.
So, all of that is one long setup to the question I posed to my fellow “Seminary Sampler” prospective students who were also living in the Chicago area: “I like high church liturgy. Where should I go?” “Holy Trinity!” was the first answer. It wasn’t the only answer, but it’s the only one I remember.
Some of you have heard me speak of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago before. A few of you have actually been there for my ordination two Decembers ago. This is the place where it felt like, in many ways, I was home. My journey had brought me to a place that joined my Lutheran identity to the progressive faith values I had come to discover and experience in the few years before.
I started coming to Holy Trinity at some point during Lent 2013, and it was at Holy Trinity that I experienced my first Easter Vigil. I didn’t even know what the Easter Vigil was before Holy Trinity – my congregation growing up never did one – but wow, was I in for something special that night. Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago, the first Puerto Rican to be beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, says of the Easter Vigil, “We live for this night.” That might as well be Holy Trinity’s motto, too. If Holy Trinity is known for one, it’s the Vigil. From gathering outside the sanctuary, just two blocks west of Wrigley Field, around a fire, to hearing the stories as we’ve heard tonight, and finally to the moment – the moment when the lights come up, the organ swells, the streamer banners come out, the procession circles the sanctuary, the first “Alleluias” of Easter are sung – it’s a moment of unbridled, exuberant joy – ending, of course, with a festive champagne reception (how else?).
We live for this night. Clearly I love the Easter Vigil, and I’m so excited to be able to share it creatively with you this night – and I hope you love it too.
In a moment, our liturgy will come to “the moment” when our quiet waiting gives way to the light and hope and unbridled joy of Easter. We will hear our Unity kids sing that good news – then it will be our turn to sing and to welcome the gospel – to hear the good news of the resurrection according to John.
Of all the gospel accounts of the resurrection, I love John’s the most. I love it because it’s Mary Magdalene – a woman – to whom Jesus chooses to appear first. I love it because of that tender, poignant moment where Jesus calls Mary by name, and she knows – instantly – this is her teacher and friend. I love it because Mary – again, a woman – gets to be the first preacher of the gospel as she shares the good news of Jesus’s resurrection with the other disciples.
This year, though, I also love this text because I think it captures our present circumstances so well. Mary comes to the tomb while it’s still dark. Once there, she stands weeping outside the tomb. I love that because it’s so honest and so relevant for us. Yes, we celebrate the joy of Easter. But it still feels dark under the shadow of COVID-19, and many are left weeping at the tombs of loved ones lost to this virus, or jobs lost, or financial security uncertain. The resurrection doesn’t mean we can’t still grieve in the waiting and the shadow of Holy Saturday. But we don’t grieve without hope. For we know, as one hymn text says: “We know that Christ is raised and dies no more. Embraced by death, he broke its fearful hold, and our despair he turned to blazing joy. Hallelujah!” (ELW #449)
One preacher puts it this way:
“While it is still dark, the resurrection happens. A new day has not yet dawned. The realities of death and grief and confusion and pain still linger. And yet, in the midst of all of this—uncertainty, doubt, even death itself—the resurrection happens. In the ultimate act of resistance, God’s life-giving power looks death in the eye and refuses to be told what to do. When nobody was watching, before anyone but Mary Magdalene was even awake, God offered the ultimate “YES” in defiance of every assault of “NO” of Good Friday.”
One last addition to our Lenten theme: We are Created for Resurrection. Okay, so it’s not a “C” word, but I think we’ve had enough of at least one “C” word in our world lately. You know the one (coronavirus). It’s the “C” word that has resulted in many diagnoses, even deaths, social isolation and separation from loved ones, disrupting the pattern of our lives and business as usual, even disrupting our Holy Week and Easter celebrations together.
So enough of that. It’s time for a change: We are created for resurrection. We don’t – indeed, we can’t – deny the suffering and death of our world. But we can and we do bear witness to God’s defiant and persistent life-giving power – that while it is still dark, resurrection happens.
Resurrection happens when Unity members are able to sew and deliver nearly 200 masks for Froedtert and Children’s Hospitals and provide greatly-needed supplies to our medical professionals on the frontlines of this pandemic. Resurrection happens when we’re able to help provide and deliver enough baby formula for all 28 families in Hephatha’s Safe Baby Sanctuary program. Resurrection happens in each one of the 355 cards you have sent to shut-in and homebound members. Resurrection happens in all of the ways the people of God show up to bear witness to life in the midst of suffering and death.
Even while it is still dark, resurrection happens – and nothing can get in its way.
Photo by Denis Kirichenko on Unsplash