March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Isaiah 58:1-12, Luke 24:1-12
To Live Through This Day
If we mean to come and worship the LORD, isn’t this what God seeks? Is it not to loose the bonds of injustice, and undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly… (Isaiah 58:7-8). Hear the promise from the prophet.
Brothers and sisters, something I love about this promise: it is so unapologetically practical. On this day of glorious trumpets, and dressing up, and the miracle of miracles, I need to remember. God is praised in the giving of bread to those who are hungry, in the welcoming home of those who are strangers.
God’s love so luminous and transcendent is the power that creates the world. And this love is how the church will bring over a casserole when the baby is born and how the church will serve the casseroles when somebody dies. Love so luminous and practical, love already here, even on this day.
Years ago, I volunteered at an organization in Chicago that helped people who were coming out of prison with the task of obtaining state identification. Turns out, if a person has been incarcerated for a long time, they won’t have a current driver’s license upon being released, and you can’t apply for a job or benefits without a valid ID. This meant that we were one of the first places people would come.
Now the whole operation happened in a small suite of three rooms above a clinic. You had to walk through the clinic waiting room and up the back staircase to find us. On one of my first days, I greeted a man who came through the door at the top of the steps. I said to him, “You must be so happy to be out of prison!” He just looked at me with the look that said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said to me, “I’m not happy. I’m scared.”
This year, our Lenten sermon series was called Faith Locked Up: Letters and Stories from Behind Bars. Now our sermon series for the Easter season is called Faith Set Free: Stories and Songs of Liberation. There is a beautiful singing swinging from one side to the other: from prison to freedom, from death to life, from darkness to light. Because prison isn’t our purpose, and death doesn’t last, and darkness always turns into light one day. This turning into is the resounding miracle of our faith!
And yet, the danger in holding up these pairs of opposites, and proclaiming the defeat of one and the victory of the other, is that we could rush right past the place in between. This is what I learned from that man coming out of prison on a Tuesday so many years ago. After prison, but before the happiness of release, he is scared. Right now he needs a form to get his birth certificate, and a bus pass, and a few dollars for a sandwich. The Hallelujah of liberation will have to wait a little longer. We’ve got stuff to do, and this is the day to live through.
You know this place in between, even if you have never come out of prison. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been to this place after the shock of the news and before the hope, after the death and before the miracle. In some ways, it’s hard to believe this is an actual place — like being a little bit pregnant, like you can’t tell whether you’re surrounded by strangers or angels. Here are two things I have come to believe about this strange in-between. One, this is the place where God’s love is already present. Two, this is the day to live through.
Today our scripture comes from the Gospel of Luke. Early in the morning before the light had come, the women went to the tomb with spices so they could prepare Jesus’ body. After the one they loved failed to lead the winning revolution that would liberate the oppressed… After he was tortured and executed in front of his mother… After they lived through that day, and the next one, and lived through a whole night heavy with grief, they show up here to do the practical work that has to get done.
It begins when they see the stone has already been rolled away, which is a good thing, because nobody figured out what they were going to do about that. But then they see what happened: Jesus is missing. I don’t know how long they stood there, whether it was two minutes, or twenty minutes, or two minutes that felt like twenty hours. But while they were standing in that place, suddenly two angels came and stood next to them and told them what they already had known. Jesus isn’t here. He is risen, just like he told you.
Later the women run from the tomb. They tell the others what happened, but the others don’t believe them. They think they’re delirious! Later they will rejoice in the promise of the resurrection; their own Hallelujahs will come back to life. One day they will sing the hymn of joy.
But before all this, the women are standing together in the empty tomb. And I think they could teach us something… Like even this day is survivable. Like this is the day to turn toward each other and be together. Like this is the day already fully charged with love. Even this day is the day the LORD has made.
Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for law enforcement in Maine, and her work leads her to the strange in-between, after the worst news of your life and before any hint of hope. She’s the one who shows up to stand next to the people living through this day. She knows how to do this, in part, because her husband died in the line of duty leaving her with four small children.
Back in December of two-thousand twelve, she talked with NPR’s Krista Tippet, and she described what she has learned from accompanying officers to issue death notifications. This is what she says:
“What I find is people know how to do this. They know how to absorb the impact of that blow. It knocks them down. And all I do is I go down with them, and sit on the floor, and be there with them, and hold them if they want to be held.
After about twenty minutes — and… it’s almost never more than twenty minutes — they will come up. They will come back to themselves, and they will ask a very sensible question, which is usually, ‘Where is he? When can I see him?’
I mean, to me there’s something miraculous just about that. Like a little resurrection. Like how can you do that? And we’re talking about women who’ve lost a child, which is one of the ones where I just think, ‘Oh, I’d lose my mind.’ They don’t, and they somehow manage to continue to be loving, meaningful beings in the world. And that’s amazing.”
I have come to believe two things about this place in-between. One: God’s love is already here. Two: this is the day to live through. And really, this is the day to live through together —even if that means we’re surrounded by angels who seem like strangers or strangers who might be angels.
The love that makes it possible for us to live through this day, the love that makes the casserole and changes the sheets on the bed, the love that gives bread to the hungry and brings the homeless poor into our home, this is the same love that makes it possible to get up from the dead. This love is the miracle, and it is ours for the sharing.
A few weeks ago there was an article going around Facebook; it was an open letter to the strangers who helped a woman at the grocery store. What struck me about this letter was how ordinary the day was. It could’ve been any of us at that grocery store.
What happened was that a woman had a cart full of groceries when she got a phone call from her brother telling her that their father had just died from suicide. Right there in the store, she fell apart. She went down on the floor sobbing, like we do. Later she wrote this letter to thank the strangers who approached her and surrounded her with compassion.
Somebody found her cell phone and sifted through her contacts to call her husband. Somebody found her friend who worked at the store to take her to the back where she could sit down. Somebody prayed for her and for her father. When she was sitting in the back of the store waiting for her husband, somebody sent back a gift card to pay for her groceries. These people didn’t know each other; they were just being human, doing what needed to be done.
Sisters and brothers, when we meet each other in this place between life and death —standing with the angels in the open tomb, kneeling on the floor of the grocery store for twenty minutes— what happens is we embody the love that is already there, love so luminous and practical. This is the love that undoes every chain and proclaims release to the captives; it raises up our savior from the grave. This is the love that makes it possible for us to live through this day; it makes possible our someday rejoicing.
Hear the promise of the prophet: “When you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” Isaiah 58:10.
The love of this day will turn death into life. And our prayers pleading “Why…” will give way and we will hear our Hallelujah come back to life: Oh to live through this day! Hallelujah we’ll remember, Hallelujah we will sing again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.