Easter, Rise Up

Human beings have the capacity to remain barely alive. The Gospel wants you to know, this was not the case for Jesus. The Gospels make it painfully clear Jesus’ hands and side were pierced. He was crucified, one of most painful and most public lynchings the cruel forces of our world have ever imagined.

Human beings have the capacity to remain barely alive. This wasn’t the case for Jesus, and the Gospel wants to be sure you know because the stakes of the Resurrection have always been bigger than just Jesus coming back to life. Easter morning is about all of us.

On Easter Mary Magdalene is our guide. For Mary, Easter comes with a question: “why are you crying?” Why are you crying? Finding tears in the precise moment where we center our Christian hope may surprise us.

Mary heard the question twice. My Bible professors always warned: watch out for repetition. The first time Mary responds as we might expect: “they have taken away my Lord.” I think we know, intellectually, the followers of Jesus were in grief. I want you to take a moment though to imagine what it must have been like for Mary.

As much as anyone, Mary Magdalene knew what it was for her life to be transformed by Jesus. Now, don’t believe everything you hear about Mary. The church, about 600 years after Jesus decided to shame her around sex. My guess is that this woman was too powerful for the small-minded church leaders. The Gospels tell us exactly two things about Mary’s backstory: the Bible says 1) she became a disciple after she was healed by Jesus and 2) she was a wealthy woman who financed Jesus’ ministry.

Mary bought into Jesus’ preaching, and teaching, and healing. She believed Jesus when he said God’s love is for everyone. God’s justice is for the poor, the sick, those cast out by society. Mary knew, perhaps better than most what it was to have your life transformed by Jesus. She lived and travelled and pledged to support the Good News. Mary is crying because she they had taken the one who transformed her life. They had taken the one in whom she had invested her hope. They had taken him away, and adding insult to injury now she thought even his body had been stolen. Mary couldn’t perform the ancient ritual of washing and anointing.

I wonder if somewhere deep inside, Mary was hoping Jesus was still barely alive. I wonder if she imagined Jesus suddenly taking a shallow breath. I wonder if that was Mary’s small hope. Small hope wasn’t enough. Jesus wasn’t just barely alive.

We encounter Mary before she knows how to imagine the magnitude of what comes next. Mary is weeping because Mary knew in her bones that Jesus’ words were true, and now her hope seems to have been stolen.

That phrase, “she knew it in her bones” tells us something about the nature of faith. If you’ll permit me an interlude on bones in the Bible. They pop up a lot. To understand bones, we have to go to the prophets. This is my tenth Easter in St Louis, and after a decade you all have worn off on me because I found a St Louis connection to Jeremiah this week. Did you know the prophet Jeremiah has a “St. Louis connection?” In a reading from Thursday morning in Holy Week, Jeremiah says:

“If I say, “I will not mention God,
or speak any more in God’s name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in.”

The St Louis connection is to an opera, by Terrance Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons. The opera was the first ever by a black composer to be featured at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The first as well by a black librettist. Based on a memoir by the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, it first premiered at the Opera Theatre company of St Louis. The title: “Fire Shut Up in my Bones.” Thus even Jeremiah has a St Louis connection.

Jeremiah tell us that the people tire of hearing his preaching. They don’t want to hear any more laments. They don’t want to hear about God’s justice. But Jeremiah says, if he stops, if he tries not to talk about God, it is like a fire is shut up in his bones.

I have this sense that many of us, many of us in this know something in our bones of why Mary was weeping on Easter morning. We know what it is to have small-minded legislators try to take away hope. Many in our state are suffering as our government tries to take away protections for the LGBTQ+ community. Many in this congregation have given lives to public education and fear our schools are being undermined, made less safe. Many in this congregation are terrified that more kids will die because of our broken politics around guns. Some in this congregation have lost friends, and family, and students, and colleagues to gun violence. Many in this church have spent years in the fight for bodily autonomy, for the right to make basic healthcare decisions, and we’re watching those rights get rolled back. I have a sense many of us this morning know something about what it means to have hope taken away. Why are you crying? Just turn on the news.

Mary is weeping not only because she missed out on finding Jesus, barely alive. Mary is weeping because she is terrified that his death means she will have to try and stay barely alive to survive. She is scared, because in Jesus she saw real hope. She dared to believe that the sick would be healed, the poor lifted up, the hungry fed. Mary, one of Jesus’ first followers had dared to believe that a new order was coming. The outcast would be included. The prisoner would be visited. The hungry would be fed. For Mary, that hope of Christ was not simply taught, but caught. Mary is crying because she did not want to shut the fire of Christ’s hope, of God’s loving justice. She did not want to shut it all up in her bones. She wanted more for herself and more for her neighbors. Mary wanted to be more than barely alive.

We have the capacity as human beings to remain barely alive. But that isn’t the story of Easter. And Easter is always about more than what happened to Jesus.

Earlier this year at Holy Communion we installed the window in our chapel, just here to your left. This is the first stained glass window in our church designed by a black artist, the first to feature black representations of Biblical characters, and the window is this story, it’s Easter morning: Mary Magdalene and Jesus outside the tomb.

The window was created by the artist Cbabi Bayoc, and the arts committee wanted to work with Cbabi was because he was well known for his depictions of black women and girls with their fists in the air.

Just one of the things Cbabi gets right in the window is that Jesus isn’t the central figure. There is balance in the frame. Jesus isn’t the only hero in the Easter story. Because on Easter, Mary comes fully to life as well. In the window Cbabi depicts Mary Magdalene with her fist raised. Jesus tells her, “don’t cling to me. Don’t hold on to me.” This isn’t just the story about what happened to Jesus. This is the story about how hope, and love, and justice escaped the grave. This is the sorry of Mary being sent by Jesus to tell the boys, those male disciples too scared to hang around. Mary stands up and is sent out, the apostle to the apostles. Mary goes to tell them the good news from the graveyard. Mary is sent so the world may know hope is never finally dead.

If all your faith can do is keep you barely alive, it’s not enough. If you were raised in a tradition that told you to be but a shadow of your true self, allow me to say to you this Easter: I am sorry. Too often Christianity has been used to keep folks small, to keep lives shallow.

The cry of Alleluia, the Easter cry is anything but shallow. Alleluia is a word of defiance. Alleluia says, the world may believe one way, but we know better. It may appear that to survive, you have to stay small. Alleluia is the shout of those who know, we weren’t made simply to survive. Alleluia is the word of those who, in a world of exclusion, choose inclusion. Alleluia is the word of those who, in a world of death, claim life. Alleluia is a defiant word: against hate, we choose Love. Alleluia is an Easter word, it’s not shallow.

The memoirist behind the opera “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” Charles Blow, wrote the book because he had to claim his full truth. He could not live shallowly any longer. He refused to stay only partly alive for the sake of others’ comfort. Charles Blow wrote his words because he is a proud black, queer man, and a survivor of abuse. He had to claim his whole truth. He wouldn’t shut up his truth anymore.

Don’t let anyone tell you, for the sake of religion, for the sake of acceptability, that you have to be less than who you are. Don’t shrink yourself to fit someone else’s box. Don’t try and shut your fire up in your bones. The world needs the fire.

The artist Cbabi named our Easter window “Rise Up.” Rise up on Easter morning. Rise up because your life can always be deeper and fuller than what forces of cruelty in religion and government can dictate. Rise up because the Good News has to be told, has to be lived to the fullest. Rise up because your fire won’t be shut up. Let it burn. Let God’s love and justice loose. Rise up and tell the boys what you’ve always known in your bones, la lucha sigue, the movement goes on.

We have the capacity, as human beings, to remain barely alive. But that isn’t the story of Easter, thank God, not for Jesus, and crucially not for us. The Resurrection isn’t about shallow breathing. Easter tells us: be fully alive. Rise up. Tell your neighbor. Blow wide the doors for justice, for hope, for love. This Easter, will you allow your hope to grow wider? Will you Rise Up with Christ?

Alleluia Christ is Risen.
The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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