Delivered at Claremont UCC on April 5, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
Beloved by many and followed by crowds, Jesus was zealous about building God’s kin-dom in opposition to the Roman Empire. As a result, he made people angry, both local people in league with the Empire and the representatives of the Empire itself.
In Jesus’ insistence on equality among all ages, all ethnicities, all genders, all social classes, Jesus even scared his own followers at times, so much so that one gave him up to the centurions for arrest. Jesus was tried, found guilty of sedition, and executed with pain and humiliation.
In his final hours, Jesus was abandoned by all but his mother and the female disciples. On his death, they spirited him away to a tomb. The women prepared his broken body and laid it to rest.
For those women, in that moment, there was no hope. No feeling of hope for any of those who had been drawn to Jesus’ life of walking, talking, healing, feeding, praying, resting, and resisting. The Empire had done what Empires do: quashed rebellion, terrorized the occupied nation. The Imperial power that Jesus mocked on Palm Sunday? It won.
For the followers of Jesus, their voice, their inspiration, the one they thought powerful enough, God-enriched enough to actually see them through to freedom proved as fragile as any human being.
They had no hope….but then there was a revelation.
When I was in seminary I took a course on revelation. Not the book, but the phenomenon.
Neither of the traditions I came up in, Lutheran or Episcopalian, or the one that I have made my final home, the United Church of Christ, seemed to place much emphasis on revelation as a part of individual faith life. I’d had a religious experience of my own, though, and the course fit my schedule, so I signed up.
The guiding works were by William James, the early 20th century physician and philosopher, and the early 21st century religious studies professor Ann Taves. James argues that religious experience is beyond scientific study, a phenomenon that cannot be characterized by third party observation. Taves, in contradiction, does apply scientific methodologies to the study of religion. She codified a pattern for describing how activities or behaviors come to be recognized and accepted as religious, as opposed to biological or psychological.
We applied these two lenses to an assortment of revelations: a memoir on the experience of Quaker testimony; a memoir about touring the sites where Mary has appeared in Europe; a reporter’s dive into his own family’s historical roots in Appalachian Holy Ghost snake handling; and the seminal work of 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Each week we asked ourselves if the authors had “really” had revelations of the divine. What were our criteria for accepting their experiences as revelation? If their descriptions of divine encounter seemed to match all too well their contemporary cultures’ definitions of revelation, did that make them any less valid or more?
Intellectually, it was a fun exercise. Spiritually, it was exhausting.
One of the only reasons I was in seminary was because of my own direct encounter with God, my own small revelation. But looking at that experience through the lens of my course, I had to ask if I’d simply had an emotional moment born of need, my childhood, and religious training. What if my entire sense of call to Christian ministry was a product of culture and psychology? What if all of this, this religion that my wife and I had made such big sacrifices for, really was just a bunch of unevolved jibber-jabber?
Today’s service celebrates the pinnacle of the Christian story, the point at which we decisively separate from our Jewish roots and cross the line between Jesus the first century doo-gooder reformer to Jesus the eternal Christ.
After his death and burial, Sabbath rest was upon Jewish Jerusalem, including the shattered disciples. Only after the sun rises on a new day does anyone return to the grave: Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James.
We don’t know why. Did they want to make sure the site hadn’t been vandalized, despite the presence of guards? Did they just need to be near to what was left of their most precious friend? Whatever the reason, they arrived as survivors of trauma, expecting nothing.
But on arrival, they experienced an earthquake brought on by an angel. The angel sent them out as emissaries of the good news that Jesus was still among them. Filled with joy, the Marys ran to tell the others only to then encounter the living Christ themselves.
When I compare the stories from my course on revelation with this one, I find a striking difference: Unlike the authors I read, the Marys were not looking for a revelation.
(Obviously I am setting aside the question of whether the events described actually happened, be it the resurrection itself or even them returning to the tomb. We can ask the “What really happened?” question about every part of our scripture and be none the richer.)
So just take the story as it is: Crushed souls go to the place where they buried their hope only to find their hope alive.
Jesus’ body may have been fragile, but their hope was not. Hope is not. That was the revelation Easter morning: The hope the Marys and the other disciples knew in Jesus could not be killed.
We are the living proof of that undying hope. Despite being more often guilty of acting as Empire rather than suffering under one, we have chosen to be resisters of oppression in Jesus’ name and builders of his beloved community.
And so we ARE hope. We ARE hope that our fellow neighbors will get enough to eat. We ARE hope that not another queer teenager will die from suicide. We ARE that hope because, just like the disciples, we have given hope legs.
Hope it still walking around. THROUGH US, hope is still walking and talking and eating and feeding and healing and praying and resting and resisting.
HOPE IS ALIVE
Yes, religion is crammed full of jibber-jabber. Absolutely, our religions train us to describe God in certain ways, to seek God in particular kinds of places. It is no surprise, then, that we feel God in the places we expect, and our descriptions then meet those expectations.
Thank God! Thank God for some predictable holy presence in this most predictably unholy world.
But have faith, seekers, that when in darkest doubt, when despite our faithfulness to the way of Jesus Christ the familiar voice of God has gone silent and all we can do it sob, the earth WILL shake, a voice WILL cry out
GREETINGS! HOPE IS ALIVE! HOPE IS ALIVE!