20 April 2019

‘God keeps reaching down
and resurrecting us from the
graves we dig for ourselves’

Patrick Comerford

Easter Eve, Saturday 20 April 2019:

8 p.m., The Easter Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity, Rathkeale;

Readings: Isaiah 65: 17-25; the Easter Anthems (sung as Hymn 286, CD 17); I Corinthians 15: 19-26; Luke 24: 1-12.

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

‘On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared … Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them’ (Luke 24: 1, 10).

Those women who slipped silently through the back streets and alleyways of Jerusalem late that Saturday night, before it was fully bright, must have been full of fear, must have worried for their safety and their lives.

Jesus was a very public figure and a man. Look at what happened to him. How much more at risk were they as women without any public profile?

Women without public profile, scurrying through the back streets late at night, risking their safety and their lives, not because they can hope for anything, not because they can have faith in anything, not because they want to gain anything. But only because they know what love is. They have come to know love unbounded, love that is unconditional, love that is – literally – God given.

They are women without status or standing, perhaps even women with what might have been called reputations.

These risk-taking women we hear about tonight, these women at the first light of Easter, come to mind when I hear the story of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran priest and public theologian in the US.

She has said, ‘As a woman preacher, I can’t help but love Saint Mary Magdalene. She was the first witness to the resurrection. When I first discerned my call to be a preacher, I got a tattoo of her on my forearm – it’s from a rare depiction in ancient Christian art – of her proclaiming the Resurrection to the apostles.’

You can imagine what sort of person, what sort of priest and pastor Nadia is, when you hear that the Lutheran church she founded in Denver, Colorado, and was the pastor of until last year [8 July 2018], is called the ‘House for All Sinners and Saints.’

Nadia grew up in a fundamentalist family. But she is heavily tattooed – since the age of 17 – she is a university drop-out, she has been an alcoholic and drug abuser, and she describes how she often felt like one of ‘society’s outsiders.’

After 10 years, Nadia became sober by 1996. Having worked as a stand-up comedian and in restaurants, she heard the call to ordained ministry when she was asked to speak at the funeral of a friend who had died by suicide.

She was ordained in 2008, and soon started the church she called the House for All Sinners and Saints. This a church that welcomes people with drug addiction, depression, people who have questions and doubts about faith … people like those women who set out with their spices in the quiet and eerie streets of Jerusalem before the sun rises that Sunday morning.

I first heard of her work through the radical American Christian magazine Sojourners. Her books have twice made her a New York Times bestselling author. One of those books, Accidental Saints, is sub-titled Finding God in all the wrong people.

She invites readers into surprising encounters with what she calls ‘a religious but not-so-spiritual life.’ She finds how God keeps showing up in the least likely of people – a church-loving agnostic, a drag queen, a felonious bishop and a gun-toting member of the NRA.

As she lives and worships alongside these ‘accidental saints,’ Nadia is swept into first-hand encounters with grace – a gift that feels to her less like being wrapped in a warm blanket and more like being hit with a blunt instrument.

But by this grace, people are transformed in ways they could not have been transformed on their own.

In a time when many people have become disillusioned with Christianity, she shows what happens when ordinary people share bread and wine, struggle with the Bible together, and tell each other the truth about their real lives.

In another book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, she talks of how God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of our humanity and the graves we dig for ourselves and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves.

In a sermon reposted by Sojourners some years ago [2011], she wondered what people think when they read the story of Jesus rising from the dead for the first time.

She wrote: ‘I imagine them reading and re-reading it, shocked that they can’t find a single mention of bunnies or rabbits or painted eggs or white sales at Macy’s.’

And she criticises many churches for reducing Easter to ‘church show off day’ – ‘when we spiffy up the building and pull out the lilies and hire a brass quintet and put on fabulous hats and do whatever we have do to impress visitors. It’s kind of like the church's version of putting out the guest towels.’

‘But this all has very little to do with the actual Gospel story because the Gospel story is not fancy; it’s downright messy … it’s a story about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion, and it’s about the way God never seems to adhere to our expectations.’

And she continues: ‘Mary Magdalene stood there at the empty tomb that morning while her expectations of what was possible collided full force with the God of Abraham and Sarah. Her certainty that she knew how this whole Jesus thing was ending slammed right up against the full force of God’s suffering and redemptive love …’

She suggests the real question is not ‘Is Jesus like God?’ but ‘What if God is like Jesus?’ ‘What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God’s self in Jesus?’

And that changes everything, she says. If what we see in Jesus is God’s own self, revealed, then what we are dealing with here is a God who is ridiculously indiscriminate about choosing friends. A God who would rather die than be in the sin accounting business anymore. A God who would not lift a finger to condemn those who crucified him, but went to the depths of Hell rather than be apart even from his betrayers. A God unafraid to get God’s hands dirty for the ones God loves. This is the God who rises to new life with dirt still under God’s nails.

She writes that ‘God isn’t about making you spiffy. God isn't about making you nicer. God is about making you new. And new doesn’t always look perfect, with a fabulous new dress, because like the Easter story itself, new can be messy.

In a video interview, Nadia says, ‘New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I’m right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness. And every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway.

‘New is the thing we never saw coming, never even hoped for but ends up being what we needed all along.’

It is an experience she had one Easter morning:

‘It happens to all of us,’ I concluded that Easter Sunday morning, she writes. ‘God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life, over and over.’

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The women at the empty tomb … the Resurrection depicted in the Foley window in Saint Mary’s Church, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 24: 1-12 (NRSVA)

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Mary Magdalene at Easter … a sculpture by Mary Grant at the west door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold).

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
you have overcome death
and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
Grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).


Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Living God,
for our redemption you gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
you have delivered us from the power of our enemy.
Grant us so to die daily unto sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:


God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

The Risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene (1899), a window by Heaton, Butler and Bayne in Saint Mary’s Church, Julianstown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


260, Christ is alive! Let Christians sing (CD 16)
258, Christ the Lord is risen again (CD 16)
255, Christ is Risen, alleluia (CD 16)

The Resurrection … a stained glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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