April 5, 2015 Easter Sunday
First Lutheran (sunrise) and Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Breath Before the Hallelujah
Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Hallelujah!
This is the day we proclaim the promise of our faith. We already know the words. It’s not somebody else saying it for us. Our own voices join the angels in announcing the truth. Hear our Hallelujahs climb up out of their graves, and roll away the stone, and rise up from the depths of the earth to the heights of heaven. Reverberating through the twittersphere and filling our facebook feeds, Hallelujahs unsilenced by sorrow or shame! You can’t miss it. This is the day to quick find all the stops and pull them out. We’ll have trumpet fanfares and resplendent lilies, glittering parties and glorious praise.
It’s enough to make you wonder, where does this praise come from? How do we human people manage to pull it off? It’s not like one of those great tupperware bins of decorations we could just haul down from the attic. Shake off the dust and hope it still looks right. Our praise is new today; I want to know how we do it.
It could be because we are absolutely ready to be finished with Lent. Who hasn’t had enough of the wilderness, and the winter, and death.
Or maybe our rejoicing comes from what we remember. We learn to access our praise from the generations of Christians who have gone before, from all the people who stood right here half a century ago singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”.
Or is it possible that this praise is how we are made. Our love comes from the love of God. Our creativity comes from the creative power of God. Just like sunflowers turn toward the sun, our lives worship God, like we can’t even help it. Like praising God is our birthright. It is how we are human, how we let the Hallelujah rise out of our being so soaring, and hopeful and right. As long as everything is soaring, and hopeful, and right.
Then what about when it’s not…
Today our [first] scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. You’ll notice the reading from the word of God does not really fit the flavor of our worship today. There are no trumpets, or earthquakes, no glad Hallelujahs. Instead, this is the day our story features a clumsy sequence of events and an obnoxiously botched ending.
To begin with, the women went and bought spices after the sabbath was over. So the market is open, the sun is already shining, when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome set out to anoint Jesus’ body. Notice the sequence of events. They had a plan to buy the spices; they knew what they needed to bring with them. But it wasn’t until they were well on their way, when one of them remembered the stone. They left early in the morning, but not in the dark. They made some preparation for their work, but not enough. It’s like the writer of this Gospel is tripping over his own feet in describing what happened.
This confusing sequence continues. Turns out, when the women get to the tomb, the giant stone is not a problem. It has already been rolled away. As they walk into the tomb, a young man greets them, as though he knew they were coming. The Bible says the women were alarmed. Yeah, no kidding! It does not say whether Salome screamed, or whether Mary Magdalene dropped the bottle of spices making it shatter and spill on the ground. Of course, they are flipping out! Who is this guy anyway? We don’t know.
What we know is that he is not phased by their reaction. He proceeds to pass along their instructions, as though the thing most needed is a calm and sensible explanation.
“Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He was raised. He is not here… But go, tell his disciples -even Peter- that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will find him there, as he told you.”
But these women who have come to the place of death, to do the work of faith, they will not be told what to do by this man. The Bible says they fled from the tomb, probably in tears, probably leaving broken pottery and spices covering the floor. Terror and amazement had seized them. They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid, and the Gospel cuts off mid-sentence, leaving hearers holding their breath.
No wonder the Bible includes a few other endings to Mark! The second half of verse eight was added some three hundred years later. Verses nine through twenty came along in the late second century; this section includes some of the classic elements from the other Gospels’ resurrection stories. You can understand the clamor to try to fix this original ending.
Because what if it really went down this way? What if our Christian faith takes root on this day when the women seek Jesus and he is not here, when they run away in fear, and nobody says any Hallelujah…
Of course, you know those women weren’t wrong. I am pretty sure everyone here knows what it is to live through the worst day. Can you remember waking up on the next day, or even the day after that? There’s a moment before you’re all the way awake, when you wonder whether what happened was all a nightmare. Of course, as sure as the sun comes up, and the sleep falls away from your eyes, you see that it wasn’t. All that horror is real and right here. And nobody could blame you for going back to bed and giving up.
The thing is, sometimes we don’t. Somehow we get up and pull ourselves together, we go out right to the place of death aching for closure, maybe a sign of peace. Only to find, there is no closure. There is no peace, only terror. There’s not even a prayer to say; the tears pour out in the deep sigh of silence.
During Lent, we’ve been reading The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. Desmond Tutu describes visiting a town in Rwanda in nineteen ninety-five, just a year after the genocide. He walked into a church sanctuary where Tutsi children had sought refuge, only they were not safe. This house of God became their tomb. He describes seeing their skulls shattered on the floor, and the stench that still hung in the air. The archbishop writes, “I tried to pray, but I could not, I could only cry.”
The thing is, we don’t have to go to a church in Rwanda to have this happen to us. We can’t live in this world and not see its horror. It is not wrong to stand in the place of death and find yourself seized by terror. You hear the threat rise up in your conscience, This is not over! That couldn’t be more true. This is not over, because I think this might be the moment before. Take a breath, all the world is about to turn over.
A few years ago, my brother-in-law took Chris and me to an art center outside of Washington DC. It has a performance space for plays and concerts. There are studios for painting, and pottery, and yoga. The studios all start out looking the same, brick-walled rooms painted white with sunshine sneaking in through an up-high window. As we visited, what struck me was that this was not a quiet gallery with a few visitors wandering through.
A number of artists were there working, and you could talk with them about their process and see what they were making. We watched a few guys climb up on ladders to assemble a contraption on the wall for displaying their work. Here creation wasn’t just polished and put on display. Here creation was in progress, the space being transformed before our eyes. Not like a museum.
Except, this art center happened to have a museum. A few rooms were dedicated to displaying photographs and items that showed what the place used to be. What it used to be was Lorton Prison. Lorton Prison was created in the early twentieth century as a work house where prisoners helped with the building and the farming. (It is famous for being the place where some of the suffragettes were incarcerated and tortured through force-feeding.)
Decades later, Lorton closed down. It re-opened as a medium security prison in the nineteen eighties. With the drug war, it became overcrowded and violent, and it was shut down again. Then in the early two thousands, the Lorton Arts Foundation renovated it into an arts center.
What I want to know is how. How do you walk into a shut down prison, haunted by death, crawling with the silent ghosts of overcrowding and torture… How do you stand in that stench and take a long look around, and say, “I know! Those cells would be perfect for art studios!” Hallelujah.
Sisters and brothers, when it’s us, when we are the ones who walk into the place of terror and death. We might be seized by silence, we might even lose our prayer, but please do this. Please take a deep breath, then take a picture, and caption it “Before.” See this place of sorrow, these are the before pictures.
God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. A prison turns into an art center, an execution turns into resurrection, death turns into life. But first there are no words. First, the breath of the Holy Spirit moves over the waters of the deep and calls the earth to life. The holy breath is summoned to the valley of the dry bones, and it come and makes those bodies get up, those dry bones live. This breath fills a fourteen year old peasant girl and lets her say to the LORD, “Here I am…let it be with me according to your word.” Then she sang. And all the world turns over.
Before any praise erupts, before anybody tells the truth, before any loud soaring Hallelujah, there is silence that does the seizing. In the silence, there’s the very breath of God.
So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid, and then
 Tutu, Desmond and Mpho Tutu. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, Harper One: New York, 2014, page 215.