A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson on Easter Sunday, April 17th, 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
There came a point, some time back in the pandemic, staring out at an empty room, at yet another live streamed service, when I was certain I could not remember what it was like to have the nave full of beaming faces, and I could not imagine when it would be like that again. Yet, here you are – neither a memory nor imagined, but alive, here, in the flesh! Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I’ve been thinking about memory and imagination a lot lately! A couple of nights ago at our Good Friday Family Service, I had the privilege of sitting in the back of the church, a fly on the wall, really, to the experience of our youngest members and their parents in worship. As the service was concluding our Coordinator of Children’s Ministry, Katie Madsen, and our Associate Rector, Craig Lemming, were asking the kids what sorts of questions the Good Friday story raised in them. One of our littlest members wondered, was Jesus alive at the same time as Alexander Hamilton? Good question! Where the text is silent, and on this matter it does not say whether Hamilton and Jesus were contemporaries, we are left to fill in the spaces as creatively as we can. In fact, the text is silent about a lot of the questions we might ask of it, and in those spaces, our imaginations are all we have. And let’s admit it, children have the best imaginations! Craig and Katie also asked the children on Good Friday to look around the darkened church. What was missing, they asked? If you attended services on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday at Saint John’s (or any church, for that matter), then you know the church is stripped of all its visible ornamentation. There are no flowers, no pictures, no beautiful hangings, or icons, the crosses are veiled, the brass candlesticks are stowed away, and all becomes empty and as vacant as a house on moving day. It is stark. And the kids had to use their memory and imagination to fill in the spaces, to see where things had been, and to forecast outward to today, to what might be there again.
This can be a struggle for all of us, relying on memory and imagination to get a handle on what is right in front of us. Our social and communal imaginations are shaped and often corrupted, by powerful forces, market economies, traumas both global, local, and deeply, intimately, personal, so that breaking free of the ways our hearts and minds have been conditioned and constrained to think and to act, is nothing short of a miracle. Our bodies yearn for intimacy and connection, for safety and healing, and yet the world insists we are made for productivity, domination, and ownership. We crave a sense of place, to be seen and known, to belong somewhere, to people and land and animals, and yet we have been conditioned to imagine ourselves as somehow over the land, separate from it, and from the peoples and animals who live on it. We long to have a life that is really life, in our bodies, feeling, and sensing the world and each other, and yet, we have been shaped by a world that is irrevocably, and often inexorably, drawn into the cold realities of death. So it is that we often can imagine nothing but these things for which our hearts and minds have been shaped.
The women who came to the tomb on that first Easter morning were products of just such a broken imagination. They came to apply the spices used to prepare bodies after death. They came to the tomb, a place itself marked and defined by memory, and they came, understandably, obviously, expecting death. So it was that as they encountered the empty tomb, as the evangelist tells us, they were perplexed. Not immediately afraid that something nefarious was afoot, nor heartbroken that the body of Jesus might have been stolen. But, the evidence did not match their expectations. The empty space implied something dangerous, the transgressing of the expected ways of the world. The vacant tomb suggested, intimated, dare they even countenance such a thought, something hopeful, possibly joy?!? Their imaginations, conditioned as they were, could not quite bridge the gap between the empty tomb, and the possibility of new life. Yet, it was the great Lucille Clifton, poet and activist, herself speaking out of and to the trauma’s and experiences of Black Americans who once said, “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.” Which is to say, the world we need to build, to live in, the world we crave, is only as possible as our imaginations. But, this was not where the women were on Easter morning.
In truth, can any of us blame them? There are certain irrefutable truths to the universe, one of which is that all things end, that death is inevitable for creatures, planets, stars, and even the universe. That something could reverse this truth stands outside of what is known, outside of norms and expectations that shape all we can see and comprehend. Yet, two figures in dazzling raiment appear alongside the women in the tomb and challenge them “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is as if they are asking, why do you lack imagination? Why do you resign yourself to the same old outcomes? You can’t be content with a world like this, you can’t be ready to accept the same death-dealing, broken, unjust, world on its own terms? Can’t you imagine what is possible if God were to act with power and justice and love in this world? Don’t you remember all that Jesus said? And, then they remembered, and their imaginations were sparked to recall that Jesus had told them about God’s power to redeem and save, about how he must die and how God would raise him. Their imaginations were kindled to see the world, as our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying, not as the nightmare it so often is, but into God’s dream of a world restored, redeemed, renewed. Their imaginations were drawn to conceive of a world where resurrection was possible – healing, life, and reconciliation in our bodies and minds!
Again, I am struck by how often children do not need this reminder, often come as yet unformed and unburdened by the traumas of the world, who accept freely in their bodies that the world is a good place, and can imagine that anything is possible. Last night at our Easter Vigil service we baptized two infants and one little guy, James, who was an infant the last time I saw him, before the pandemic. But, last night James led his parents and godparents and little brother over to the font, marched right up to the angel, high-fiving all of us as he went. This was where he was meant to be! This was who he was meant to be! And, then after I had poured water over his head, after that symbol of God’s grace and love, the promise of a resurrected world, and him with it, had dribbled down his forehead and onto his baptismal seersucker jumper, I handed him his baptism shell and reminded him that just as God’s grace is forever, so too this shell was his, to keep, as a reminder. He turned and looking at his parents said – “This shell is mine and I can keep it…forever.” As we processed with the newly baptized through the church, his parents back in their pew, James led the way by himself, tottering slightly at moments on unsteady legs, but always confident that this was where he was meant to be. As I flung the heavy branchfuls of water, asperging the congregation, every now and again, James would lean his head back, mouth open, as if he were trying to catch raindrops on his tongue.
In that space, with James and Remi and Lyra, I was reminded of the possibility of Resurrection, a world inaugurated in the body of Jesus raised from the dead, and my mind was kindled to imagine a world where we could live as though it were possible in our bodies too. This is the world I want – where justice flows down like water, where love is the currency we share, where all have enough, and where grace drips into everything like the spring rain that refreshes the ground. Such a world is possible, for as the angelic messengers proclaimed and we with them, Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
Do you remember? Can you imagine?