Easter Sermon: When It Was Still Dark

Luke 24:1-12

This is how our story begins: “On the first day of the week, when it was still dark, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” When it was still dark, the women who loved Jesus set off to do the equivalent of a first-century embalming — taking spices and oils to put on Jesus’ body to slow down the decay. So, clearly, they were expecting to find a dead body. Clearly, they were not expecting resurrection. They thought they knew what had happened and what was going to happen. Jesus had died, and he would remain dead.  He would not save them; his movement would not overthrow the Roman Occupation and inaugurate the kingdom of God, that place of peace and justice and liberation and enough for all. That hope was over. Dead, just as Jesus was, killed by the very forces of injustice they thought he would overthrow. At his death, says the Gospel of Matthew, darkness fell upon the whole land.

It’s a pretty dark time for us too, isn’t it? I don’t know why, but for some reason — during the past week when I’m also writing an Easter sermon — I started reading a new book by Bill McKibben called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? He not only cites story upon story and statistic upon statistic about the reality of climate change, but he also takes on artificial intelligence — as if climate change alone weren’t enough of a downer! — and the way it may alter our very notion of what it means to be human. In the meantime, racism , anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, and inequality are on the rise. More than 200 people were killed in Sri Lanka this morning in what appears to be multiple acts of terrorism. And then we have our own personal twilights — maybe we’ve lost a job or a beloved; maybe we’ve gotten a diagnosis or lost our home to fire; maybe we’re deeply worried about our child. To quote from one of my favorite poets, William Stafford: “The darkness around us is deep.”

And yet… we often use darkness as a negative metaphor, equating it with what’s bad or evil, which is racially problemmatic. But there’s another way to look at darkness. Not as bad, not as evil but just — as a time when we can’t see. I was at a recent retreat on climate change for Mennonite pastors at Camp Menoscah in Kansas. While there, I challenged myself to walk at night in the dark to the river— because it gets dark enough there in the middle of Kansas to make that kind of night walk exciting.  Remember what that’s like to walk in the dark, when there’s no lights from human sources?  In the dark, you can only see a few feet around you. You’re trying to figure out if the shape in front of you is a bush or an electric generator, and is that a road or a ditch? You don’t really know what’s happening around you, which is why we so often find the dark scary. You’re unaware. You can’t see. You’re “in the dark.”

And so, on the first day of the week, when it was still dark, the women — who were in the dark about what was really happening in the dark — came to the tomb. And when they got there, they didn’t find what they expected, which was death. They found  — an empty tomb. No body. Two angels telling them that Jesus is alive. Unexpected, completely surprising new life. Sometime at night when they were sleeping or when they were waking up with eyes still red from crying or when they were walking to the tomb in the darkness before dawn, new life happened. While it was still dark, something happened that the women did not expect, something they did not even know to hope for.

Just like those women 2000 years ago, we also think we know what to expect, what’s going to happen. Even more so. Because we’re so smart now, right? We’ve got our algorithms, our smart phones, kale. We all know that the forces of greed and corruption are too strong, right? The death-dealing forces have got so much money and power and we have so little. We can act and organize and vigil and pray as much as we want, but we know where this train is heading, right? To a planet uninhabitable for anyone but the genetically modified cyborgs we’ll become by that point. How many movies have I seen set in that future? My hope lies in the fact that we’re actually too dumb to know what’s going to happen. We’re not so smart that we can predict the future. We’re in the dark. 

It’s true that the civil rights movement was the result of decades of organizing, and the brilliant strategies of people like Bayard Rustin and the disciplined training and courage of thousands of people, but that movement might never have happened had it not been for the boll weevil beetle. The boll weevil, for some reason, migrated from Mexico to the United States in the late 1800s and managed to infest the cotton growing regions of this country by the 1920s. Partly because of the decimation of the cotton crops — and also because of domestic terrorism — many African Americans began moving to northern and southern cities to find work. This was the Great Migration that changed the history of this country. For all sorts of reasons, the civil rights movement probably would not have happened had most African Americans still been living in spread-out rural farms. It was because they moved to cities and lived close together and began gaining social and economic and political power that the civil rights movement could take off. And this little insect that migrated north — something completely outside of human control or expectation — helped make that happen.

That’s how great social change comes about. It happens like mushrooms happen. (This metaphor and other ideas in the rest of this sermon come from Rebecca Solnit’s essay here.) Mushrooms appear to come from nowhere after a rain, but most of them are actually part of a vast underground fungus that’s been there the whole time but that we can’t see because it’s in the dark. (In fact, I read the the world’s largest organism is a fungus in Oregon.) We don’t notice its existence until the mushrooms “magically” pop up. Social and political change happens the same way. People lay the groundwork for decades without most people noticing, and then something completely unexpected and happens— like a boll weevil infestation — and it contributes to one of the greatest nonviolent social revolutions in history. Gay and lesbian and gender-nonconforming people are oppressed for centuries and are resisting that oppression for just as long. Then, one day some drag queens, trans people and homeless youth at the Stonewall Inn decide to fight back against the police raiding the club, a movement takes off and 50 years later, we have marriage equality. Do you know how fast attitudes toward LGBTQ people changed in this country in a relatively short period of time? Do you know that a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the decades-long Cold War, no one would have predicted it would happen? And then, in a couple of days, it did.

Says the activist and writer Rebecca Solnit: We don’t know what is going to happen or how or when and that very uncertainty  (that very darkness) is the space of hope. We think we know what’s going to happen in the future, but we don’t. The future is dark. And that is the source of our hope.

The future is dark, but the past is not. We don’t know what will happen in the future but we do know what has happened in the past, and that remembering can be another source of our hope. The theologian Walter Brueggerman says, “memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” The women going to the tomb on that first Easter didn’t remember what Jesus had told them  — that he was going to be killed but that he would rise again in three days. They are amnesiacs, and their despair doesn’t lift upon seeing the empty tomb or even angels. It only goes away when they remember.  “Remember how he told you,” the angels say, “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Oh yes, the women say to themselves. They remembered, and immediately went to tell the others the good news.

Likewise, we can remember that not too long ago homosexuality used to be illegal in this country; that rivers used to catch on fire when unregulated pollution peaked in the 1960s; that “sexual harrassment” wasn’t recognized as a legal concept until the 1980s. These are all things that have changed in my lifetime, and I’m not that old. This is why the Seder, which has been a Jewish resilience practice for centuries, is so revolutionary. (And why we were so blessed to experience it on Thursday.)  It’s a celebratory remembering of their salvation history, of the unexpected way that God saved them from slavery in Egypt and of the ways that God continues to liberate them from what enslaves them. When we remember our salvation history, we know that  climate change and cyborgs aren’t inevitable. We may not know exactly how they will be stopped — what boll weevil will come along to change the game — but we can have faith that while it is still dark, new life is happening.

What will it take for you to be a holder of this kind of dark hope? A carrier of it, a contagion? Can you believe that even now, there is something happening in the dark? Can you trust that the Spirit of Life is at work not in the blaring limelight of our daily news feeds and Twitter blasts, but in the dark, around the edges, where we can’t see or know what’s happening? Because to be carriers of that dark hope is our vocation as followers of the Risen One. The central act of our faith happened in the dark. We are a people formed in the darkness, where the unexpected, the unimaginable, the unknowable occurs. Where an underground mushroom fungus waits for rain. Where boll weevil pupae multiply and migrate. Where people act and organize and vigil and pray. Where Christ rises.