From Rev. Ashley Harness, on Easter 2016.
Welcome to Easter morning. You are a beautiful sight to behold. Even though there are no men wearing Easter bonnets, my favorite mark of Easter morning from my childhood at what I lovingly call my Little Gay Church on the Prairie, it still feels like Easter here.
I have wrestled with myself in writing this sermon. It’s my first Easter sermon. And frankly, that’s a little intimidating. I could preach about 10 sermons on what I don’t believe about Easter, slashing through theology that has been used to abuse with my light saber of academic prowess and progressive politics. But nobody really comes to church to hear their pastor talk about what they don’t believe.
So here goes. Easter. If it is in the inhale of God that lures the waters and chaos in the beginning of time into creativity and creation, Easter is a long Divine exhale that breathes that same life-force into our bodies today. Easter is what turns me, re-orients me, calls me by name, until like Mary Magdalene in our scripture this morning, I too can recognize the Love of God standing right in front of me that persists in this world through all the crucifixions we perpetrate and endure. And that persistent love, like the smattering of green poking up among last year’s dead lawn detritus, is enough to remind me that this morning and every morning we are rising together.
But let’s back up a bit from the poetry and the punchline. For the last six weeks, our Lenten theme here at Lyndale has been, “Practicing Resilience.” We’ve grappled with the starting point of resilience – our own and our collective places of brokenness. We’ve struggled to resist Netflix-induced numbness and choose instead the raw space of vulnerability that is like fertilizer for soul growth. We’ve tried to be a balm to each other, sharing our healing practices with one another each Wednesday night. We’ve sought out rebellious joy like Maya Angelou’s image of herself dancing in her poem we just read – refusing the stay cowed into the corner of depression and oppression.
Then we moved into Holy Week and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. We remembered that crucifixion was the mechanism of the state of Rome to kill dissent and build a culture of complicity with the imperial regime. It can feel abstract to us today or fade in the realm of the sanitized and spiritualized. But think of it like capital punishment. Think of it like police killing our black and brown and trans* brothers and sisters in cold blood out of “self-defense.” Think of it like the structures of oppression that kill us over lifetimes and across generations – hetero-patriarchy, rape culture, colonization, poverty, greed, white supremacy, climate change denial – to name a few. These are our modern crosses. But let me be clear: God did not create them. Instead, She weeps with us, like Mary Magdalene, as we live with and resist them.
Only after all that journeying through Lent and Holy Week do we come to Easter morning and meet Mary at the empty tomb. Mary has been with Jesus through the horror of betrayal, terror and violent death. She is racked by what must be unimaginable exhaustion and sobs that just won’t stop. When she arrives at the tomb, she is not excited by what she finds. Instead, she is afraid. Not only has her beloved teacher of revolutionary Love been murdered by the state, but now it appears his body has been stolen. I imagine her in a panic as she searches and encounters a man she thinks is the gardener. Adrenaline sours her mouth and clouds her instincts so that she doesn’t truly hear him when he first speaks. But then something shifts. He calls her by name:
And she turns.
In the call of her name, an exhale.
A pause long enough for her to catch her breath and truly hear and see the trace of her beloved that persists beyond death.
“Rabbouni!” she exclaims, a word for which we don’t have a clear translation but means something like beloved divine teacher.
She must have moved to embrace Jesus because the next thing we know is that he tells her not to hold onto him. This is not a moment of triumphant joy and reunion. This is a moment of longing, of enduring the closeness of Love beyond her reach but slowing down enough to listen:
“Do not hold on to me,” says Jesus. “But go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, “I am ascending to my Parent and your Parent, to my God and your God.”
I imagine that Mary plays these words on repeat in her head over and over again the rest of her life. But in this moment, I hope she hears them not as an admonishment but as an invitation. As she faces Jesus and these words wash over her, perhaps her heartbeat slows and her breathing finds a regular rhythm again. Perhaps something shifts inside her soul when she hears him say, “I am ascending to my Parent and your Parent, my God and your God.” There is the key to the mystery, she realizes. She and Jesus share a divine parent, a divine source we call God. They are made of the same stuff – a perfect blend of the infinite divine and the finite flesh. And they are both called to ascend, to rise. In this moment, Jesus is already on his way. But she is called upon to make sure the rest of the community follows.
So she goes. She gathers herself, still foggy brained with grief, to tell her community what has happened, to turn them towards the love that persists after Jesus’ death, to orient them toward the fullness of the divine within them and beyond them, to rise together in this life and beyond.
At this point in the story, time collapses in my mind. Mary becomes Maya. Both women were born on the margins, called the worst of the worst of names, both claimed a voice more powerful than allowed. Maya speaks the truth of the ages, channeling all the Marys of history. This is what I imagine her saying to the disciples, to her community when she tells them of what she saw at the tomb:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This Easter morning, we rise with Jesus, with Mary, with Maya. We tremble, but we still rise. We weep, but we still rise. We come from histories and realities of slavery, of rape, of anxiety and depression, of addiction, of colonization, of poverty, of police brutality, of gender or sexuality policed, of theological abuse, but still we rise.
We will sing the triumphant anthems and let joy rip loose. But we also remember that on the morning we honor today, resurrection was not a parade. Resurrection was the love that remained with us through all the crucifixions of the world, unshakable and unstoppable, as close to us as our own breath, a divine exhale.
Then, together we rise.
May it be so.
 “Persistent love” is a phrase from theologian Shelly Rambo, from her stunning book that inspired this sermon called Trauma and Spirit: A Theology of Remaining.