Still I Rise
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Easter Sunday/B • April 1, 2018
Click below to hear the sermon preached
Christmas begins with lights. On Christmas Eve, we gather here to look for the Lord, to celebrate his coming. The last thing we do is to light the candles. It’s a wonderful moment: celebrating the one who came as the light of the world, we pass the light, candle to handle, one to another until the whole room sparkles and we sing. But Easter begins in darkness. The last thing we do is on Maundy Thursday is to extinguish the candles, remembering the darkness to come on Good Friday. So we come to Easter from the darkness.
Like a stage cleared in the final act of a play, Mark tells us the crowds have cleared out, first shouting, “Hosanna” for Jesus come as king, later demanding, “Crucify him!” when the Romans and the city authorities arrest him and put him on trial as a terrorist. Peter denies him in the courtyard of the jail. Killed on a cross in the hours before the Sabbath, his followers fade away. Finally, it’s left to a sympathetic rich man to provide for his burial and the body is stashed in a cave tomb, too late for preparation before Shabbat, which starts at darkness, begins and night takes over. Only now, in the darkness of the dawn, does someone, a few women, venture to the tomb. They buy spices to prepare the body, to make the final arrangements and give some dignity to the dead. They are going to the grave and they’re worried that the stone closing it off will be too much to roll away; they’re worried they won’t be able to get into where Jesus lies dead in the darkness.
The burial caves of Jerusalem are on a cliff wall. Imagine walking along the Indian Ladder escarpment as the darkness turns into dawn, slowly, carefully negotiating the turns in the path, watching just the steps ahead, not the whole path, unable to see around the next turn. Carefully, quietly, the women walk the path, perhaps stumbling here or there, clutching each other to keep from falling, arms full of the precious spices. They know a large stone blocks the entrance to the tomb and they are already trying to think of a way to move it. You see how like us they are? They have a problem: they’ve brought the things they will need to do their job and they are discussing how to deal with the biggest obstacle of all. Isn’t that what we do?
Now they come around the last curve. Are they still talking about the stone or has the nearness of the grave silenced them? Now they pass it and look toward the grave, discovering the problem they worried so much about isn’t there: the stone is moved. Who moved it? How did they do it? The women don’t know or seem to care. The grave is open; they walk slowly toward it, silent now I’m sure, they come to the entrance and, they enter the cave and suddenly the darkness lightens and in the light there is a person sitting, dressed in white, shining with it. They’re afraid: who wouldn’t be, they came to deal with a dead man, not a live angel.
He says what angels always say: “Don’t be afraid.” He shows them where Jesus had lain, they see the grave clothes they had intended to anoint with their spices which won’t be needed after all. And he tells them what to do. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women run. Of course, they run: wouldn’t you? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What about you? What about me? What are we to make of this story?
Most importantly, that Easter is not only for Easter Sunday. The gospel of Mark starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” All that follows all the stories of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, the story of the cross, this story of Easter is a prelude, just a beginning. The good news is that it’s not the end. In the failure of the worldly events, there is a space made by faith. In the vulnerability of the cross and the tomb, there is an empty place and God works in that wilderness, God is present in that wilderness, raising Jesus. The Pharisees cannot understand him, the Romans cannot kill him, his own followers cannot follow him but God’s grace is so powerful it can overcome all of them. Go home, the angel says: go back to Galilee. He’s not gone, he’s still here: “there you will see him.” Easter is a summons to see.
Maya Angelou is a poet who has seen in the long history of oppression of black people a reason for hope, an image of resurrection. She says, in part,
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod 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 backyard.
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.
There he is: rising in the sweep of history, bending history to the love of God, the justice of God a little bit every day. See him there: see his power there. See his resurrection there. To the violence of the Empire, of all empires, he says: “Still I rise.”
But it’s not only in the big things that Jesus can be seen. Terry Marquardt wrote about grieving for her grandmother and remembered,
My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.
“Mom, let’s have a party.”
“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.
“Let’s try,” my aunt said.
And she started to sing.
My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.
“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.
[Read the whole post here: https://medium.com/@Tanya.Marquardt/grieving-our-dead-online-3416e1918a25]
We thought the problem was how to give Jesus a decent burial, how to roll the stone away. But it turns out that the stone we worried about is already rolled away; Jesus is gone ahead. The empty tomb is God’s message to the Emperor, to the soldiers, to the world, to the followers who have scattered that in the midst of death, still I rise. This is God saying, in the midst of betrayal, whether Judas and his double crossing kiss or Peter in his fearful denial, still I rise. This is God saying to the torturers and the prison guards and the judges and the crucifiers just following orders, still I rise. This is God saying that even when I feel abandoned on a cross and cry out asking why I’m forsaken, still I rise. This is God saying, even from a tomb closed up tight, still I rise.
This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It starts with fearful followers running away. In the days that followed, every one of them had to decide what to do about the news that he had risen; every one had to decide how to live when the tomb was empty and despite the plain sense of his death, there was this amazing experience where it was clear that he was saying, “Still I rise”. Every one of them had to decide whether to keep running or to rise with him, to go to Galilee, to look for him, follow him.
Where is Galilee? It’s where they came from, where they started. Jesus is going back to the beginning and starting over: that’s where they will see him. Their lives are about to start over because these lives are lived beyond the fear of death. The great question about the Christian movement of the first century is what powered it, what allowed it to change history. The answer is the people Jesus changed; the answer is the people who saw him rise and took his resurrection as the pattern for their own lives. Jesus was risen and they were able to say with him, still I rise.
It’s the same with us. We are prepared to go to the grave; we are good at raising the money to buy spices, we can discuss how to move the stone. But are we ready to leave the grave and go to Galilee? Can we take Easter home, can we take it wherever we go? Still I rise, he says: despite what we thought, he calls us, invites us, forgives us, commands us. Come see me: come follow me.
He’s gone ahead and when we see that, we’re ready to take the next step, to let go of our fears, accept his forgiveness and follow him. Easter isn’t a day, it’s an invitation: come see me. The gospels tell us how he appeared over and over to people, and his message is always the same: love one another, see me, follow me, because still, I rise: even when you don’t believe it, even when you don’t understand it, still I rise.
Peter denied him but it’s Peter he calls back to tend his sheep.
Mary ran in fear but it’s Mary who first meets him on the way.
Thomas won’t believe him but it’s Thomas who feels his wounds.
To the powerful who prey on the poor, his presence says: still I rise. To the hopeless who cannot find the way out of darkness, he says, “I am the light of the world”—still I rise. To us, to all of us, who come here, wondering, he says: still I rise. Come follow me. Come: because on your way, on your journey, you will see me: for still I rise.