Where Life Is – Easter Sermon, 2015

4963210One more touch, one more real moment with him, or at least, with his body.  One more look at his face, his hair, his skin.  It would barely be him anymore, but it didn’t matter.  Three days had passed since he had died, three dark, lonely days, they needed just one more act of tender care, intimate and quiet, amongst friends.  It would not change what had happened, but it would be – one more moment to remember.

These women who had loved him – Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome; these women who had watched him die, terribly,  watched him be tortured, this man they loved, whom they called friend and teacher, this man who had told them that their lives were mattered, that all lives were mattered, this man who had taught them about forgiveness, and freedom.

They knew he was gone, but they just wanted one more moment of life, with him.  And still – they came carrying spices and their not-dried tears, because they knew, what they would find, could only be confirmation of his death.

No one here today does not know this kind of longing.  No one here today is unfamiliar with this distance these women were living in.  This distance between what they felt should be true, and what they knew actually was.

Each of us knows, too well, that distance between abundant life, and the finality of death; between love, and loss; between living hope, and overwhelming grief.

In this distance, bitterness is always nearby, and defensiveness a common strategy.  In this distance we practice habits of make-believe -everything’s fine, I can handle it; in this space we try on costumes of survival, and avoidance, In this space between our ideals and our reality, we are always in danger of giving up, always teetering between our hearts breaking apart, and our hearts breaking wide open.

In seminary I spent a semester studying the book of Exodus -which tells the story of the liberation of a long enslaved people through the power and promise of their God.  It is the story at the heart of the Jewish holy day celebrated this week, Passover.

When African American slaves were first exposed to Christianity and the Bible, they went right for Exodus, seeing themselves as those enslaved and then freed Israelites.  You can hear Exodus in many of the traditional spirituals –  those songs that slaves sang to themselves and to one another both in worship settings and in the cotton field, and along their path to freedom. These same stories populated the civil rights movement, and it’s hard to find a speech of Martin Luther King Jr that doesn’t include some reference to Egypt, or the Red Sea, or the promised land.

It used to bother me – that the religion of the oppressed seemed to me so heavily dependent on a power located outside the people themselves, and that the underlying promise of Exodus seemed to be about waiting on a God that was sleeping for generations while God’s people had been enslaved for 400 years.  As my professor used to say when I’d furrow my brow, and ask my troubled questions about the text – I think you have a problem with this God.  I guess I do, I’d say.

But then one of my gracious friends, an African American scholar specializing in the dynamics of the black church, gingerly responded to my critique with a simple observation: when there’s nothing in this world that seems like it can make things better, you better hope there’s something beyond this world that can.

As soon as he said it, my face burned with embarrassment, and I felt my privilege rise up in my throat.  It’s not like I didn’t know what he was talking about – I know what it means to feel powerless. I know what it means to live in that distance between what we long for, and how things actually are, and to know no way to bridge that distance.

And yet my social-cultural location – white, middle class, liberal arts education – It does not equip me with language or tools to express or live with that powerlessness – my own, or anyone else’s.   For the most part, I have been taught to imagine I can fix what doesn’t work, that I can make things right, that – we can make things right – that justice is an achievable end and that we’re all on a track towards building it together – through hard work and consistent effort, as our Unitarian Universalist hymn goes – we will build a land where we bind up the broken – we will.

But Exodus is a story for when we can’t. Exodus is a story for – when no matter what we do, we won’t.  It is a story meant to give hope in the midst of hopelessness, a story that creates a way out of no way. A story that bridges the distance between our ideals and our reality when we can’t build that bridge on our own.  It is the affirmative answer to the prophet Jeremiah’s question when he asks it many generations later, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  Exodus says yes.  Yes – there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the world weary, sin-sick soul.

When I was here with the choir earlier this week, and they reached that place in the song where they sing “sin sick,” our usually boisterous choir was suddenly somewhat hesitant, and I could just guess what they might be feeling.

The dominant Christian narrative has so obscured the definition of sin to be personal moral failure – or worse, some original and inescapable blight upon our inner most selves – that the most automatic way that many people will hear the words “sin sick,” will be about the weight of their personal sins upon their souls, which in turn leads many to imagine that balm as necessarily a personal savior and his atoning, individual sacrifice.

There are – of course – personal, individual ills in this world, deep injuries perpetrated from individual to individual.  I confess regularly that I do not live up to all of my promises, that I fall short of my own ideals. And sometimes these broken promises – my own or others’ – overwhelm me, discourage me, make me feel what we might call – sin sick.

But when I hear that term now, when we sing that song now, when we feel it, together here – it seems to me, a lot more powerful, a lot more meaningful, to point to a weariness born of forces less personal and individual, and more- collective, systemic, and generational – and to ask, with all sincerity – where is the balm for that, what will save that, heal that?

For example.

As many of you know, our congregation partners with about 30 other faith communities in Fort Collins to host families experiencing homelessness as a part of the Faith Family Hospitality program.  We finished up one of our hosting weeks just today.  Families, with little kids, sometimes with lots of little kids, with one or two parents, often parents who have jobs, and yet also parents who just can’t find and keep affordable housing. These families stay here – in the religious education building, and have meals in our social hall.  40 or so of our members, and some from our hosting partner, Congregation Har Shalom – stay the night, bring meals, set up and take down – all of the tasks required of a good host.

Each week of hosting is different.  But without fail, each time, one or more of those 40 volunteers – one or more of you – will tell me a story that knocks the wind out of me.  Like last fall, I had come to the church after a weekend where we had the family stomach flu.  Total mess, and I was feeling appropriately pathetic.  So, I came in and was telling one of the FFH volunteers, and she was genuinely sympathetic, and then she said – oh yeah, one of the families here had the stomach flu last night too.  4 kids.  Oh.

I thought of how much laundry we had done for our two children.  How I had thrown my son in the shower quickly, and repeatedly, all night.  And how there are no showers here, no laundry machines.  God.  I thought of the weariness that family must feel, how vulnerable.

And I felt deep in me how impossible this all was, how impossible it would be to transform our world – transform so many hearts in so many big ways- so that no family ever has to deal with the stomach flu while staying in temporary church shelter, let alone without temporary shelter, let alone something worse than the stomach flu…Oh, God.

It just – overwhelms me.  It’s so terrible.  The injustice of it just washes over me and I think, there’s just no way out of this.  We are too stuck. It’s too deep.  It would take too much.  Is there no balm for our sin sick souls? 

In those last few days of his life, nearly all of his friends and followers abandoned him, but not these women.  Scholars say that the fact that the gospel writers each place women at the scene of Jesus’ tomb makes this part of the story
quite likely to have happened just as it is recorded- after all, a newly forming religion like Christianity would not willingly make up a story where women were so central.  It would put them at too much of a disadvantage.  It has to be in one way way or another, true.

So our story goes, these women came to adorn what was no longer alive, they came to begin the slow, difficult process of letting go, all the while still living in the distance, still longing for life, just a little more life.

As they got closer, they wondered, how they would roll back the big, heavy stone that covered his tomb, in order to get to him. In their last few steps, not yet having decided on a solution, they were shocked to see it was already moved – who moved it? And when? Already the story is not what they were anticipating.

You can imagine they had all kinds of feelings rush in – joy, anticipation, but then also, fear, anxiety, confusion. They went in.  And there, in place of the dead body of their friend, there was a young man, very much alive.

Where they anticipated only death, they found life.  Where they came attempting to accept the end of a story, they found instead a new story, a changed story.   There, in the empty tomb, standing in wonder and confusion and
hope and fear, they were told that the dead had risen – risen, better translated as “awoken, like from sleep”, and to go and spread the good news.

It was for them, it still is – too much – to take in, to believe, let alone to go and share with others as the man asked them.

Again and and again, in scripture, Jesus asks his people, Who do you say that I am? Over the centuries, many have tried to codify and define the one, true, right answer.  God, or man, one part of a three part God that is really one. Political rebel, or terrorist.  Insurgent or teacher.  Savior.  Carpenter, baptizer, brother, father, friend.  My current favorite is love, pure love, with skin on.  Love, that just kept on being love, skin or no skin, transformed, and transforming.

The truth is, we don’t know.  Not for certain, not for sure.  Besides a small reference to Jesus of Nazareth in one other historical text from the time, we only have these stories written on scrolls and translated across multiple languages, sometimes badly, often edited and redacted to suit a particular agenda – and we have this persistent desire to tell, and hear these stories, to reenact them, in gathered community, 2,000 years of communities gathering at the river, and mountainsides, in homes, and in sanctuaries – each with a persistent yearning to lift up these stories, to affirm these stories and their core sense of truth, especially this story that love that just keeps on being love, transformed and transforming.  This story that there IS a balm – for all our weary, sin sick souls.

Sometimes we can get so stuck on what we know for sure, so single-focused on rooting out the provable and the knowable –  Unitarians especially can have a such a bias towards the concrete – that we can end up with a real blind spot for all that remains a mystery.

But on this day, in the celebration of this story, we attempt to turn our attention to the mystery.  We seek to acknowledge all that we do not know about life, all that goes on, has gone on, will go on, without our input, without our understanding, and without our power.  It is a day where we find language and meaning in our powerlessness.  And we say, thank you.

Easter is a story of a power and possibility we don’t totally understand, a power that is not exactly ours, but also a power we know we need, and a power that somehow, we’re connected to, and in partnership with.

It is a power that holds us in the heart-wrenching distance between our hopes for life, and life as it often is; relentlessly holds us and keeps open the possibility of bridging that gap; keeps open our hearts, luring us away from all that make-believe and survival-mode, holds us and keeps on growing a way out of no way, growing life out of no life.

So that when we come with our spices and our not-dried tears, ready to surrender, Easter offers us this healing balm of a loving, transforming power ready to greet us there, with the heavy stone already rolled back, and an empty tomb, helping us to imagine and create life once again, to turn towards that place where life is, refusing to let death have the final word, resolute that love will not, cannot die.

I understand why the women hesitated.  I understand why Mark would write this story with this as the end – these women standing there in the distance between hope, and fear.  Paralyzed there.  I get that sense of feeling stuck, not trusting, still not ready to open my heart that big.  I live in that space, we all live in that space so often.

And so on this Easter, maybe we be each other’s evidence of a love that still lives – be that concrete evidence of a love that cannot die, but transforms.  We can be for each other and for the world, the living proof of the still living love, with skin on.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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