Sunday, April 9, 2023

EASTER HOMILY: "Love Will Rise Again!"

A Meditation on Mark 16
Sunday, April 9, 2023
Community Church of Durham


Gullah Baptism (John W. Jones)
Long ago, on a bright Easter Sunday, a lot like today, I went to a riverside baptism. With a diverse, but predominantly Black congregation. Gathered on the banks of a frosty, frothy river in New Jersey. And don’t let anyone ever fool you. Some really cool things happen in New Jersey.

And when the time came for the young baptismal candidate, the young woman, to step forward for her baptism, when the time came for her to offer some kind of witness to her faith, she took a deep, deep breath. I remember that. And then she announced to the church there, and to the wind, the trees and the river there: “I have been seized by the power of a great affection!” I’ll never forget it. That was her confession. “I have been seized by the power of a great affection!” And then, splash! Into the river. Tears all around. Hymns and harmony. Laughter, too. And then, from that same river, she emerged: a thoroughly soaked, wonderfully loved and powerful disciple of Christ. Surrounded by her friends. Toweled dry by her parents. A shining witness to all that God can do.

I’ve been thinking about that young woman, and about her confession, a lot this week. In part because we’ve been preparing for a baptism of our own, one we celebrated yesterday on the banks of the Oyster River. And in part because I’ve been so moved by the courage of those two Black legislators expelled from the Tennessee House on Thursday. (Expelled, we note, because they dared to speak up for children and teachers in their districts, and everyone else in America who’s fed up with the violence and the guns out there.) They’re angry, to be sure, those two young leaders in Tennessee; but their anger was tempered this week, maybe even transfigured—that’s a better word—transfigured by their faith.

I hope you heard Justin Pearson, in particular, talking about the persevering power he draws on, the grace he relies on, the hope he finds in Jesus. He’s a child of the church, Justin Pearson, and that faith shapes his personal devotion and his public life as well. Yes, he said, racism is entrenched in American systems and institutions. Yes, he said, those institutions will try to silence voices of compassion and grief, leaders crying out for justice and change. But the resurrection is a promise, he said, that love will rise again; the resurrection is a promise, he said, that love will redeem our pain.

It was a stunning moment, really; as a young Black legislator looked white America in the eye and said, in effect, you will not take my faith from me. You may think you can, but you will not take my faith from me, my love from me, my Jesus from me. Because. He didn’t use these words, but he might have said: “Because I have been seized by the power of a great affection.” So he stands up to the racists in the Tennessee house with love. And he speaks up for children in his district, in his state, with love. Because he believes what he was taught in the church: that love will rise again, that love will redeem all this pain.

And that, my friends, is the message, the gift and the vocation of an “Easter People.” We have been “seized by the power of a great affection”—and that power will see us through.


Justin Pearson, Tennessee House
It was a hard week, on a lot of fronts, but I found that Justin Pearson was a stunning witness to the good news of the resurrection, a stunning witness to the power of Love. In the midst of it all. His is the kind of voice we simply must take to heart. His is the kind of commitment, the kind of resolve that points forward. Justin Pearson might have been that young martyr in the tomb: the one in the story we’ve just read. I think of him that way. He might have been the young man looking his beleaguered sisters in the eye and saying, “Don’t be afraid, my sisters. Don’t be afraid. Jesus isn’t here. You’re not going to find him here. But go, tell the others that Jesus is in the streets again. Tell the others that Jesus is speaking truth again. Jesus is preaching love again. Jesus is finding the lost again. Jesus is healing broken hearts again.”

You know, for all the questions raised by Easter and the resurrection of Jesus from the grave, and there are a bunch; and for all the mystery of this notion of life after death, and it is a mystery; and for all the vulnerability we understandably feel in the face of all we don’t know—I wonder if the promise of Easter, the radically renewing promise of Easter is the love that persists in human hearts. I wonder if the promise of Easter is the love that refuses to yield when hate comes calling. I wonder if it’s the faith that sees beauty and wonder, and even possibility, in a fragile and broken world.

Don’t look for Jesus is the graveyard. Don’t look for Jesus in the tombs and crypts. Jesus is preaching love again. Jesus is finding the lost again. Jesus is healing broken hearts again.

Doesn’t mean we don’t have doubts. Because we do. Doesn’t mean we don’t get lost sometimes, really lost. Because we do. But maybe the promise of Easter is the love that endures through all of that darkness. Because it’s God’s love and it’s God’s promise and it can never be taken from you. Not from Justin Pearson, not from Hailey Bromley, not from grieving families in Nashville, not from Antony’s family in Cameroon, and not from me and you. God’s love can never, ever be taken from you. I wonder, then, if the promise of Easter is indeed the “great affection” with which God claims our lives and Jesus anoints our spirits and the Spirit sends us into the world.

To live in that “great affection,” to be seized by it, to be awakened to it every day—this is the promise, this is the gift, this is the vocation of an Easter people. Of Jesus’ disciples. This is the calling of our beloved community.


He Qi, "Women Arriving at the Tomb"
I think it’s important to note that the Easter story begins, at least it does today, when three disciples, three women, three sisters embrace their grief and approach the tomb where Jesus had been laid, just two days before. Their grief reminds us today of the urgency, the necessity of grief in our own lives, and in our own families, and in our own communities. It’s because these three go to the tomb, it’s because they prepare the traditional spices to anoint his crucified body, it’s because they embrace their grief—that they are vulnerable and open, spiritually open, radically open, to both the pain and then the possibility this story offers them and us.

I hope you see this. Mary, Mary, Salome. They are not bystanders in this story, mere accessories to a bigger story. No, their willingness to weep, their vulnerability to loss, their courage in grieving Jesus’ death and the terrible injustice around it—this is the first step into the strange and liberating promise of this Easter story. Again, it’s like those brave legislators in Tennessee insisting on resistance, insisting on lamentation in the well of their House chamber. It’s like the students at Oyster River High School (and so many other high schools this week) walking out of class and demanding that the rest of us take seriously their pain, and their worry, and their determination to build a different world.

So our story doesn’t bypass grief. Our story doesn’t reconcile the contradictions in our lives; and it doesn’t free us from the pain we bear and the uncertainties we feel and the sadness we carry through seasons of loss and despair. The three sisters in our story go to the tomb because they loved Jesus and trusted him. They go to the tomb because they love one another and need to bear witness to that love together. In such love, in such devotion, in such sisterhood is hidden the sweet and holy seed of hope and resurrection.

Instead of Jesus’ body, of course, instead of Jesus’ crucified body, they meet in that tomb a strange witness, a kind of messenger, an unexpected collaborator. And he tells the three of them—this witness—he insists that Jesus is not to be found in the tomb, but that he is going ahead of them to Galilee, that he is walking the same streets with the same friends, opening the same doors, risking the same love, in partnership with the same God.

Again, I kind of imagine Justin Pearson as the young witness in the tomb, as the young prophet showing us a way forward this week. “Don’t be afraid, my sisters. Jesus isn’t here. You’re not going to find him here. Don’t be afraid. But go, tell the others that Jesus is in the streets again. Tell the others that Jesus is speaking truth again. Jesus is preaching love again. Jesus is finding the lost again. Jesus is in the streets again.” Think about it. What’s he saying in there? He’s saying, Love will rise again. He’s saying, Love will redeem all this pain. He’s saying, Trust in God’s promise.


Family and Resistance!
The resurrection, then, in Mark’s story is revealed not in some esoteric theory, or in some theological treatise, or in some preacher’s long-winded bluster. The resurrection is out there waiting for us. In the world. In our world. Where our hearts break. Where our dreams dance. The resurrection is the prayer you say when you catch the sun rising in the east, and the explosion of color takes your breath away. The resurrection is a cup of coffee with a lifelong friend and the freedom to speak your mind. All of it. The resurrection is the song you sing on your way to serve dinner at the Dover Friendly Kitchen. Or maybe the choir whose music fills your heart with determination and joy. The resurrection is an immigration ministry team, meeting on a Thursday afternoon, sorting through strategies for keeping dear ones safe and defying xenophobia and broken systems. The resurrection is 35 church friends standing outside the corporate offices of a major weapons manufacturer. Saying “NO MORE MADNESS!” The resurrection is a heart to heart you have with a friend in crisis, and the hug that says to her, to him: “You will never, ever be alone.”

Friends, I believe that Jesus is risen, that he is risen for you, and for me, and for every broken and breaking heart on this planet. I believe that his resurrection has planted in my soul—and in your soul—a “great affection.” And I believe that this “great affection” is the purpose for which God has brought us together. As a church. As a planet. So let us dance and sing. Let us weep and work. Let us lean into the grace and glory of God. Whose “great affection” for you, whose “great affection” for me, whose “great affection” for life is the way and the path and the future. 

 Amen and Ashe.