Matthew 27: The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day.” …Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
It’s downright comical. Pontius Pilate and his men actually think that sealing the stone and stationing guards at the door are all it will take to keep the body safely inside the tomb. Pilate’s power is considerable, as far as it goes. But he has no idea what kind of power is at work.
Some folks have convinced themselves that might makes right, that the ones with the money and the status run the show. But they’re wrong. Desmond Tutu used to say to the apartheid government, “You may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come: join the winning side.”
It was forty-six years ago this month when a bullet pierced the cheek, jaw, and spine of a man standing on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. He was pronounced dead an hour later, and in that moment, the civil rights movement lost its most visible and captivating leader. The days following Martin Luther King’s assassination were bleak. Riots broke out in a hundred cities. More militant voices urged their followers to take up arms against white America. And the Pontius Pilates of the world chuckled.
And yet here we are, decades later, and King’s words pierce our hearts as much as they ever did. His dream still endures. His vision of non-violence has deepened and expanded to guide every social movement from Cape Town to Tiananmen to Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, the powers that be continue to insist that sealing the stone will tamp things down, that a bullet will silence a voice and a movement for justice.
They honestly think that death will have the last word.
I wanted to share with my clergypals something we did yesterday in worship that I felt was simple but effective.
One of the tensions in the church is how much to emphasize the passion of Christ on Palm Sunday. It seems unfair to “cheat” Palm Sunday and insert too much Maundy Thursday/Good Friday into it, but attendance at those midweek services is usually a fraction of what it is on Sunday. So, many pastors reason, it makes sense to at least acknowledge the themes of MT/GF, otherwise most people don’t get them at all. And resurrection without a death is cheap grace. But what about starting Easter with Good Friday, and giving the Easter crowds a little taste of that theme? I’d personally never seen that done, but it makes sense.
At Tiny Church, we hit the Palm Sunday themes pretty hard two weekends ago—even sang “Joy to the World” after the sermon. We shifted to passion late in the service—really, just the last hymn. During “Go to Dark Gethsemane” we extinguished the candles, recessed out with the Bible, and draped a heavy black cloth on the communion table.
On Good Friday we did a Tenebrae service with seven candles on the communion table. These were all extinguished except for the one on the far right. It seemed right to have one remaining candle as the other lights dimmed or went out, and to have it off-center, since there is something off-kilter and out of balance about the death of Christ.
Sunday morning the black cloth was still there, and the off-center candle was lit again. The pulpit and chancel was mostly bare (although the lilies were there on the front wall because they have to be arranged ahead of time… what’re you gonna do?)
We adapted this call to worship from the book Before the Amen, which was perfect for our purposes:
Leader: Look! The dawn is breaking. Morning is on its way.
See, on the hillside the sun is beginning to rise!
People: Leave us alone and let us sleep. We doubt the good news; We see nothing but darkness.
Leader: Look! The tomb is open. A new day has begun.
People: Leave us alone and let us grieve. We have lost hope,
and all our dreams are dead.
Then we played the song “He Lives in You” from The Lion King musical. If you know the song, it starts low, with the word “Night,” but builds and builds until it ends in joyful adulation, with the words “He lives in you, he lives in me; he watches over everything we see” repeated throughout. From the moment I saw that show in Atlanta I thought “I will use that on Easter some day.” Only took 8 years…
So during the song I had people come forward and “bring Easter” into the sanctuary. First someone came up and took the candle off the table and used it to light the other candles in the chancel. Then I removed the black cloth with a nice swish at the first mention of “He lives in you.” The next section was a flurry of activity: white tablecloth on table, communion elements brought down the aisle, large bowl placed on the baptismal font, pouring of water with a big flourish, pulpit adorned with Easter parament, procession of Bible and placement in pulpit.
Then we picked up with the rest of the call to worship:
Leader: But look! The grave is empty. The stone is rolled away. The Lord is risen!
People: He is risen indeed!
The folks who participated are not dancers, including me. I’d always imagined some kind of liturgical dance to this song, but this was authentic for Tiny Church, and I think it worked well.
Sometimes, while I’m leading worship, Margaret likes to come up and stand quietly next to me. She doesn’t need acknowledgement, she just wants to be close. Yesterday she saw me coming down the aisle and came up beside me and took my hand. So she and I swished off the black cloth together. Then I had her bring in one of the loaves of bread. Very lovely… especially since Margaret likes to skip in the aisle. Yes, Easter is definitely a day for skipping.
BTW, if anyone ever does this, make sure you use the reprise, the one Rafiki sings, not the one Mustafa sings. He sings “They live in you.” Not as good for Easter… though maybe on Trinity Sunday.
BTW, a friend of mine who heard I was going to do this decided to wake her teenage kids on Easter morning by playing this song. That makes me so happy to picture it.