“Free At Last”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 16, 2017
University Baptist Church
I chose the title for this sermon way back in August. The Worship Planning Team had decided to focus the year on the prison system and the longings of those behind bars to receive not just justice, but mercy. Dare we say a just mercy. And I imagined back in August that we might celebrate release from prison on Easter. “Free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last,” says the old Gospel hymn.
Release from prison feels like Easter for folks. Free at last, but free to a world that has changed while they have been behind bars. Just think of the technology change in just a year. As soon as old people like me get comfortable with the technology of eight years ago (I’m talking Facebook here), it’s supplanted by Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. How will we keep up with this when our last teenager goes off to college in the fall? Imagine you went to prison at a time when we used flip phones, or God forbid phones with cords, and now you are released and everyone and everything is on video cameras we hold in our pockets? Wouldn’t that have provided helpful evidence to be presented in court? For some, it doesn’t feel like freedom when all you know has changed.
This is how the first Easter must have been. The Disciples heard the news of Jesus’ rising from the dead, but they had no earthly idea about what to do with it. Jesus rose, but was not going to be around forever. Jesus rose, but it didn’t stop the threats on their lives. Jesus rose, but that didn’t stop the church from being persecuted. But Jesus rose and people embraced that there are some things worth living for and some things worth dying for. And that’s what the church is all about. MLK said that you haven’t truly lived until you have discovered something worth dying for.
Easter Sunday. We know the story so well. We rehearse it every year. And every year it comes. Just like Christmas and New Years and the fishing opener (not so much like tax day, but you get the picture). We can count on it as a signpost. We’ve made it through another year. How will this year be different? For good or ill, what will surprise us this year?
At the risk of being a bit self-indulgent, I feel I need to speak a bit about my year, because it clouds and influences how I look at these stories. And as happy as I am with Easter, I know that it is tempered by life. Many of you have had similar challenges and I bet that you can relate to how I feel on this Easter Sunday.
This year has been a memorable year full for our family. I took a wonderful sabbatical, filled with hiking and singing and family time: Things that restore my soul and make my heart sing. After our annual pilgrimage to the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s summer conference, we took the family to New York City and I showed them my old Seminary stompin’ grounds. A friend who worked for the Rockettes gave us a free tour and then counseled Becca on life in the theater. It was a good few months.
Then as I was making my transition back to you, the bottom dropped out. Kim discovered a lump. A few days later the cancer was confirmed. We caught it early and two surgeries later she’s doing well. But we all feel the mortality.
At the end of November, as she was just getting her post-radiation mojo back, Kim then got the news that the hospital she worked at was going to eliminate half of her department including her. For thirteen years she had her dream job. Now she joins the ranks of those looking for work at a certain age—too much experience and not enough pre-retirement years to look attractive to potential employers.
Like always, we held onto each other. And the church was wonderful to us. You gave us space and comfort and wisdom and presence. You put up with our messy lives.
And if this was not enough, our creative, inquisitive, impulsive, funny nephew Lewis took his own life at the age of 16 in December. Merry Christmas. I admit to walking through a good bit of my life in a daze. I realize that this has been going on for many months now. Things that used to make sense don’t. Laughter doesn’t come as easy—but it is still the best medicine for me. Time has stood still. And every time I see a picture of Lewis or see the anguish on the faces of my family, a part of me experiences the grief all over again. It’s like a post-traumatic stress reaction.
I can relate to the disciples not believing that Jesus was raised. They were deep in grief. And it had only been a few days. Of course they doubted. Of course they didn’t believe the stories. Of course they thought the risen Jesus was a gardener. The thunder and lightening helped, but it made it all still seem surreal.
But they told the story over and over again. They remembered the pain of death and the betrayal and the anguish. And then they sang their tentative hallelujahs.
It was through retrospect that they made sense of the story. Given a couple of months’ or years’ perspective, they understood what the resurrection meant. But there in the moment, in the first days, let alone the first year, they could not possibly know. The first year is getting through it all. It’s just muddling through. It’s going through the motions sometimes.
Amidst all of the gloom and doom and lies and betrayals and even death, the message of Easter is that life and love have the final word, not death and hatred. Let me say that again (repeat the previous sentence)
“Resurrection starts with resistance”, says the Rev. Jim Mitulski, a former colleague of mine from San Francisco. “Jesus resisted. He resisted prejudice within himself when he spoke to women in public and to Samaritans, people of a different culture and religion. He resisted privilege when he challenged his own family and the religious authorities he had grown up with. He resisted antiquated customs and he ultimately resisted death. When we celebrate Easter and resurrection, we celebrate resistance.”
Offering Sanctuary is an act of resistance. Gathering here in person rather than on line is an act of resistance. Singing Hallelujah when all hell is breaking loose is an act of resistance. Praying together is an act of resistance. Attending the “Muslim is my neighbor” class is an act of resistance. Do you know that we had 26 people at the first class of this series during holy week?
Rev. Mitulski says,
Easter is the story of a constantly renewing miracle of resistance, rebirth, rebellion, renewal, revolution. And this year, resurrection is about reclaiming the past victories in order to inspire new miracles in the present. The ancient Easter liturgy calls on us to affirm that "that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new."
Make Easter real for you. Find some place to proclaim out loud – in a church or somewhere spiritual for you – your gratitude for the gift of your life. And join the Resistance that leads to Resurrection. We need you! Because "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding!" (1 Corinthians 15:54-58.)
Because love and life have the final word.
(Bay Area Reporter, April 13, 2017)
And so we bathe the church in color and butterflies. It’s springtime after all. For seven winter Lenten weeks we have had this sanctuary bereft of banners. We were introspective. We grieved. And today, we proclaim that death is not the final word. Grief is not the final experience. Even loneliness will not always be the modus operandi. And maybe we can’t even feel it yet, but the colors help don’t they? The music helps doesn’t it? The chocolate, the marshmallow peeps, even the jellybeans help. It’s all here to remind us that God is not done with us. There is a new reality around. No, it won’t bring our loved ones back to earth. But it reminds us that there is something greater and more powerful than even death itself. And it is that we live. We live. My brother and his family now say they have made it through 100% of their very worst days.
And we are not alone.
We have friends and family who surround us. We have a church family that is wise and compassionate and helpful. We see others who have gone through similar things and have made it through. And though we are bruised, we are also wiser. We are much more intentional about how we spend our precious time and energy. And we take our power back. And we join with others who seek renewal. When we do that, we are living a bit of Easter.
Way back in 1987, Italian-born sculptor Arturo Di Modica spent two years creating a 7,000 pound bronze bull designed to capture the resilience of the American people. Under the cover of night and without a permit, he installed his massive “Charging Bull” directly in front of the New York Stock Exchange. We saw it when we visited New York this summer. Children climb on it. It’s menacing and huge and it seems that nothing can stop it.
But then last month, on International Women’s Day, a new statue emerged in the dead of night right in front of the Charging Bull. It’s a diminutive statue of a young girl, complete with pig tails, hands on her hips and a smirk on her face staring down the bull. Sculptor Kristen Visbal calls it “Fearless Girl.” And it is gaining international attention. Imagine a small girl standing up to a raging bull. It reminds me of the lone student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square a generation ago. The project is about “girl power,” she said, a message to corporate boards on Wall Street with a dearth of women members “that we are here, that we are heard, that we are permanent.” An inscription at the base reads, "Know the power of women in leadership. She makes a difference."
(Article by Kate Mettler-Washington Post April 12)
Young David slew the unstoppable Goliath with five smooth stones and a slingshot. Outsider Jesus took down the establishment with his snubbing of crucifixion—the great fear-inducing symbol of totalitarian rule. There is something stronger than the worst brutality, more powerful than the worst words or weapons, more sustainable than hatred. Imagine what believers can do in the face of the current warring mentality. Thank God people are finding their voices, are mobilizing, are resisting. It feels a little bit like Easter is on their minds.
So on this Easter Sunday, I am going to look at the flowers. I am going to sing the Hallelujahs. I am going to celebrate communities that give us hope and stand by us in our grief. And I’m going to remember all those who have left this earthly plane and I am going to trust that they are looking down on us. And I imagine them saying that there is something bigger and better going on. We just need to find it. When we do, then the resurrection has truly begun.
My friends, sometimes it feels like we are staring down at a menacing, raging bull. But then someone stands by us with resurrection power. She represents, resistance, confidence, not blind optimism but a deep knowledge that a greater power has our back. Easter says that God has our back. Death is not the final word. The final word is resurrection. Or maybe that’s the first word. Either way, this Easter, I am going to do my level best to embrace it.
And so, as we remember, as we resist, as we embrace the revolutionary movement begun 2000 years ago, we repeat the words said so many times before. “Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed.”