Living in the Shadow of Hope
A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
During Lent this year at St. John’s, we’ve made it a point to explore with care and deep intention the reality of death and dying. As we did so, I told the story of returning this past summer for the first time in the ten years since my father’s death, to visit his grave in my hometown in Alaska. The grave sits near the entrance of the town cemetery, and one must pass by it on a popular trail for walkers and runners. One morning, in the cool moments before the sun had burned away the dew and the shadows were still long at the edge of the woods and the trail under the hemlocks still shaded enough that one needed to wear an extra layer, I spooked, on my morning run, some four or five deer, browsing on the damp grass. I was as surprised as they were, though I guess I shouldn’t have been. Here was a quiet space with food aplenty for the deer. It was a natural place for them to be. And, it was a natural place for me to be as well. I was drawn to this spot as a son is drawn toward his father, seeking meaning and connection. After all, the grave is a place of remembrance, a place to call to mind the good and the bad, the pain and the joy that we have known and lost when someone we love has died.
And, this is how we find the women in Luke’s gospel this morning. The shadows still linger between the graves as Mary Magdalene, Joana, and Mary the mother of James come, weighed down with packages of spices and the freshest of grief. Clearly they’ve come to anoint the body and complete a proper burial. They come to draw near to and say one final farewell to the one they have known and loved. So it is that they are startled when they find the stone at the entrance of the tomb rolled back, and the body of their friend gone. They have every right to be startled – frightened even. Graves and places of burial are familiar places to us and would have been to these women. They are places where the dead stay dead — quiet spaces full of memory and a link backward in time to story and tradition. And, they do not, as a rule, lose their occupants. The women are shocked, as they discover the tomb is no longer a space of repose and remembrance, but rather of disruption and disturbance. There, they encounter an angelic messenger who inquires of them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Why indeed? This is the trouble with preaching on Easter. It is disruptive and disturbing when the tomb is empty and the dead don’t stay dead. This is wholly unfamiliar territory, resurrection. We are far more acquainted with the way the world is supposed to work – we are far more familiar with death. Following the Maundy Thursday evening service, just as many in our community were gathering with Christians around the world to keep vigil with the body and blood of Jesus, in repose in our chapel, I was called to the bedside of the father of a member in our community, Jim, who had in those very moments passed from life to death, and we together kept vigil with his body, as we were given a painful if poignant reminder that even in life, we are in death. In our world too, the shadows are still long, and we return once more to the tomb. From Columbine to Virginia Tech, just this week we were provided with painful reminders of this reality, as we returned again to the grave to remember and retell of our loss. The shadows are still long.
The news cycle this week has also been dominated by the terrible fire in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the tragic and accidental destruction of vast portions of a symbol of hope and beauty for so many in our world. Our hearts have been touched by not only the grief of loss, but the sincere outpouring of love and hope as already the rebuilding process begins. Yet, the shadows are still long this morning. A story that we’ve heard less about is the burning of three historically black churches, not more than a week ago, in a single parish in Louisiana — St. Mary, Mt. Pleasant, and Greater Union Baptist churches all burned within a matter of hours. These places too were symbols of hope and healing, places where faith was lived and strengthened, where beautiful music was made and hearts lifted, where marriages were blessed and the dead remembered. Sadly these fires appear to have been racially motivated, acts of hate committed in a long line of hatred that has ever been visited on our African American communities. The shadows are still long this morning.
In her heartbreaking and much needed word to the churches, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown writes of the difficulty of keeping the faith, of holding onto a Christian hope as a black person in the midst of this long legacy of oppression and hatred. She lays out a litany of pain from police brutality and the gutting of the voting rights act, to the daily indignities of those who just want to touch her hair, and concludes, every time a friend is not an ally, every time institutions and organizations give lip service to change but never act, every time she hears the story of Tamir or Travon or Philando, hope dies just a little bit. The shadows are still very long in the world for our black and brown brothers and sisters. The shadows are long for our LGBT brothers and sisters. The shadows are long for women whose witness is often disregarded as an “idle tale!” The shadows are long for the hungry and the homeless, the depressed and the addicted, the dying and those who grieve.
You see, this is what makes preaching Easter, preaching hope, on mornings like this, so difficult. We are far more acquainted with death than we are with resurrection and it is hard to speak of hope when even hope can die. It is important to recall that the experience Brown speaks of is one that resonates with the experiences of Jews in First Century Palestine, of a long history of oppression and brutality. It is important to recall that the first disciples, and these women who gather this morning at the tomb, had placed all their hope, for liberation and new life, in Jesus. And they had watched him die. They and we have watched hope die, again and again.
But, again, as Austin Channing Brown writes, “The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story…And, so, instead of waiting for the bright sunshine, I have learned to rest in the shadow of hope!”
“Where is your hope, Austin?” she is asked “The answer: it is but a shadow.”
She continues “It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway…I possess not the strength of hope but its weakness, its fragility, its ability to die. Because I must demand anyway. It is my birthright…When the sun happens to shine, I bask in the rays. But I know I cannot stay there. That is not my place to stand. So I abide in the shadows, and let hope have its day and its death. It is my duty to live anyway!”
The shadows are long this morning and we cannot hope to hope. Instead, like the women who come to the tomb, we abide in the shadow of hope. Jesus is risen from the dead, and in rising, has opened for us the possibility of life, true and real life in him. He goes on ahead of us, beckoning us to show up, to stand up, to push back against the persistence of death, to live anyway in a world full of shadow and grief, oppression and hatred. Resurrection is the possibility that life, real living, is possible, that we can be renewed, revived, and sustained for the work we must do as the Body of Christ. Resurrection is the truth that we have, through baptism, been brought into the body of the Risen Christ, and galvanized for the work of proclaiming peace, seeking justice, tending to weary souls, and supporting one another in the hard work of living.
Resurrection is the dangerous and disturbing truth that death does not have the last word, that we do not need to rely on hope, on possibilities and promises – we can in fact claim life, be life, share life, in our bodies, in this moment and the next. As liberationist theologian and poet, Julia Esquivel de Velasquez wrote in the civil unrest and oppressive realities of Guatemala in her formative years, as she watched people being disappeared in the night, tortured and executed by the oppressive government, she knew that the deaths of activists, indigenous peoples, protesters, and workers was not the final word. Threats of death were to her and to the growing resistance, only a threat of resurrection, the dangerous possibility that with each indignity and injustice, more power and energy would be lent to the growing resistance, a galvanizing force for life in the face of death, the ability to live in the shadow of hope!
She writes in her poem titled They Have Threatened Us with Resurrection:
“It isn’t the noise in the streets
that keeps us from resting, my friend,
nor is it the tumult of those who pass by excitedly
on their way to the mountains.
It is something within us that doesn’t let us sleep,
that doesn’t let us rest,
that won’t stop pounding
it is the silent, warm weeping
of Indian women without their husbands,
it is the sad gaze of the children
fixed somewhere beyond memory,
precious in our eyes
which during sleep,
though closed, keep watch,
They have threatened us with Resurrection
because they will not be able to take away from us
nor even their death
and least of all their life.
Because they live
today, tomorrow, and always
in the streets baptized with their blood,
in the air that absorbed their cry,
in the jungle that hid their shadows,
in the river that gathered up their laughter,
in the ocean that holds their secrets…
it is not the noise in the streets
which does not let us sleep.
Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
My friends, this morning the shadows are still long between the graves of our life, still long in the places we feel called to return time and again, to the memory of those we’ve lost, to the old hurts to the many deaths hope has died. But, Jesus is risen. He is not here. He has gone on ahead of us, and calls us to the work of living, to heal the hurting, to serve the downtrodden, to lift up the lowly, to live in the shadow of hope, to live, even while dying, to know that Christ has been raised, and we are already resurrected!