A colleague once posted this challenge on her Facebook page: Can you summarize the Easter story in just five words? Naturally, a few wiseacres weighed in right away with: “He is not here. Duh.” And “He's gone, Baby. Real gone” And “Ain’t in da grave, yo!”
Then the more serious responses began to flow in, and I noticed that they were falling into two categories. The first one was an emphasis on the actual resurrection of 2000-some years ago, most of them variations on “Christ is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia!” And “I have seen the Lord.” And “Jesus, crucified, died, buried, risen.”
The phrases in the second category were not as specifically related to that first Easter, but made it a broader message: “Jesus loves you - for sure.” And “Redemption. Grace. Liberation. Reconciliation. Peace.” And “Death does not win. Period.”
So I decided to take the challenge. I tried to come up with my own five words. I’ve been taken lately with this quote from author Mary Gordon in her book Reading Jesus. She says: For me the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps. Perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story.
Well, that’s 29 words. Way too long. How could I summarize that great definition of Easter in just 5 words? The best I could come up with was “Be not afraid. Possibilities abound!” Although now that I think about it, I think I'll change my answer to “Easter opens up your story.”
See, I’m not too concerned about what happened on that first Easter. The gospels all tell different versions, giving some people reason to reject the whole thing as totally implausible and causing great confusion among others – which one is the one that’s true?
But the existence of multiple stories is not a problem – in fact it’s a bonus - because they were never meant to be historical accounts. Each tells in its own way a version of something amazing that had happened, an experience of cosmic wonder that defied understanding in human reasoning or explanation in human language.
I have no doubt that “in fact” something happened to create such an outpouring of stories and faith. But I don’t think we can ever know the “factual” details of what that was. Nor do we have to. In fact, it might be better if we could move off the first Easter and claim the wider implications of what resurrection has to do with us - and our stories. And I’m not talking just about when we die – although that is a key part of what we mean by the hope of resurrection.
But let’s keep taking it out wider and consider that resurrection is something that can happen at any time in our lives. Any time there’s a Good Friday, that is, a time of hardship, suffering, death, loss of any kind – a job, a home, a relationship, a dream; and any time there’s a Holy Saturday - a time of sitting in the dark, as if in a tomb, feeling hopeless and helpless –still there is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story. Your story. My story.
There’s a song written by one of my favorite folk musicians, the late Stan Rogers, that I’ve always thought of as an Easter song (sometimes secular songs can be just as inspirational as intentionally religious music). It’s called "The Mary Ellen Carter" and it tells the story of a heroic endeavor to raise a sunken ship by members of her former crew. Each verse tells of their efforts to “make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.”
Now, why would a landlubber like me find meaning in a song about salvaging a ship? Mostly because the final chorus widens the message out to us all: Rise again, rise again; though your heart it be broken, And life about to end. No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend, Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Who among us can’t relate to loss? Perhaps you’re thinking of a time when your heart has been broken. Or when someone’s life was about to end. We all experience loss: be it a home, a love, a friend. Into each life comes Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But there is also the great perhaps, the possibility of possibility: Easter.
And it might not be today. For some, the pain of today still feels like Good Friday. Or the numbness of grief still feels like Holy Saturday. But the beauty of widening out the scope of resurrection is that Easter is never about just today. It can happen any time. Today is about celebrating the “possibility of possibility. The great perhaps.”
The tomb is open. And so is your story. And it helps to hear the stories of others - one told in an old folk song or the ones we share among ourselves. One of our greatest stories, which we inherit from our Jewish siblings, is the story from Exodus of the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Matthew’s gospel in particular portrays Jesus as the new Moses and the resurrection as our story of liberation. One story does not supersede the other. Exodus – the word is Greek (ex 'out of' + hodos 'way' = a way out). In other words, liberation. Any story of deliverance – from fear, from addiction, from despair, from violence, from abuse of any kind, from hopelessness – is an exodus, is a resurrection.
Both Passover and Easter are about remembering all these stories, especially the ones we remember from our own lives, of times when impossible possibilities came to pass. Resurrection stories.
And as the women left the empty tomb and ran to tell the others about it, so too we need to tell our stories. Not just the good stuff, what we share when we want to be seen as having it all together. Not just the hard stuff, either – although it is important to find empathetic listeners in those challenging times. I’m talking about sharing our Easter moments – when something unexpected opens up your story and the “great perhaps” becomes a wondrous reality.
So today – and throughout this Easter season – I’m encouraging you to think about your story. What have been the Good Friday times? When have been the long Holy Saturday stretches? And when have you experienced Easter breaking in and opening you up to new life, new hope, new possibilities?
And then, can you summarize your Easter story in five words? If you have your five now (and I’m going to declare a state of grace and say I won’t take points off if you have more or less than 5), you can write it on one of these slips of paper today. Or any time during the Easter season. We’ll see how many we get over the next six weeks.
Actually, now that I’ve finished the “Easter opens up your story” sermon, I’m going to stick with my original five: “Be not afraid. Possibilities abound!”
That's my story and I’m sticking to it.