April 1, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Easter // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “While It Was Still Dark”: John 20:1-10; John 20:11-18
While it was still dark… On the first day of the week, we are told that while it was still dark, Mary set out for the tomb. The week she’s just been through had been gory enough. Misunderstanding, betrayal, abandonment, abuse, suffering. It can be hard to imagine on a beautiful morning like this one, that what she’s just been through is some of the worst human beings can endure. It all ends with her teacher humiliated, publicly executed on a cross while most of his small company has scattered. A spear makes the final piercing, and the life drains from her teacher. They’d taken him down, anointed and wrapped him, and lain him in a fresh garden tomb, to prepare for the festival to come. But when Mary sets out, death had not yet passed over. It was still dark. (Pause)
While it was still dark… and no one really yet believed her, Rachael Denhollander began telling her story. She began telling fellow gymnastic coaches that Larry Nassar, doctor to Olympic gymnasts for decades, abused little girls. She spoke up to keep what happened to her at 15 from happening to others. She spoke up because the people who should have held him accountable would not act. While it was still dark, in 2004, and then later in 2016 and 2017, Denhollander set out to open a tomb of violence and pain in her own trauma. Her testimony to investigative reporters first, and then these past months in court, opened a door that enabled 160 women eventually to speak up. On the day of sentencing, she stood in the court room and asked the court, and all of us listening, “How much is a little girl worth?” During her victim statement. Denhollander mentioned in passing that speaking up about sexual abuse, filing the police report, cost her her closest friends… and her church.(1) Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison. But when Denhollander first set out to tell her #metoo story, there was no guarantee that would happen. When she started to speak, it was still dark. (Pause)
We set out this week, while it was still dark, to tell a story of shared suffering, both from 2,000 ago and from now, in 2018. This Passion story is a big chunk of what matters to the Gospel storytellers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the story they want to tell us about Jesus. They devote more time and space to this one week of Jesus’ life, and agree on more points among the four of them than on any other part of the story. There are at least 7 theories about how all of this works, how Jesus “saves” us. Since it’s Easter morning, I’m not going to inflict them all on you. But, for a long time, I’ve emphasized that this cross business in large part is God uniting with us in our suffering, enduring the worst humans can dish out and showing us we are not alone. This is God in the black, female flesh of Tarana Burke, wanting to encourage other women victimized by sexual abuse. This is God in 11-year-old Naomi Wadler speaking on the National Mall in the March for Our Lives. This is God in the pierced body of Stephon Clark, bleeding out in his own back yard. This is God saying #metoo. (Pause)
But as we were journeying this past week through all of this shared suffering, what became clear is that if the final word of our Christian story is that Jesus was a human just like me, we’ve stopped short of the surprise ending. We’ve shortchanged the punch line. To the victim telling her #metoo story, “Jesus suffers with me” comforts but falls short of help. (Pause)
It’s hard to hear Resurrection good news in a week when it feels like “it was still dark.” When the news has been so bad for so long,(2) it’s hard to hear good news finally. It’s disorienting to actually experience something good. It can feel like a little bit like a cruel joke. Some of the ancients saw the empty tomb as the best divine prank: God pulling one over on the Devil, the “Divine Laugh.” And I was tempted, given that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day, to really “do it up big,” offer a Holy Humor Sunday today, the church joke show. But I changed my mind. We are living now through a relentless ticker tape of bad news, and as my colleague in London, Jennifer Mills-Knudsen, observes, “daily our faith is made laughable by people claiming to represent Christianity yet practicing a level of hypocrisy and self-dealing that makes everyone who sees it laugh with derision.”(3) The joy of this day is something else. “Against those who have rendered [Christianity] shallow, self-serving and weak in the face of true evil, death and suffering,” I want to speak a different word, to tell a story that makes a difference. (Pause)
The Good News story we have to tell is no joke in a year of #metoo. For weeks, we’ve plumbed the depth of what it means that God joins us in our humanity, that the dust and ashes of our mortality, the suffering of mortal life is shared by the eternal I AM. We knew from the beginning of John’s story about Jesus that this Word Made Flesh would enable all to become Children of God. In Jesus we’ve seen a Human One so united with God, with Divine Presence, with Holy Love, that they are One. When those soldiers come looking in the garden in the middle of the night, and Jesus asks, “For whom are you looking?” and they reply “Jesus of Nazareth,” all he says in response is I AM, and they fall to the ground. “Whatever else the Christian faith is,” a preacher reminded me this week, “It is the proclamation that what God has done in Christ, God has done in us.”(4)
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?(5)
That’s the Easter surprise that Chrysostom experienced. So, it is no joke that Rachael Denhollander is now leading an effort to end the systemic silencing of abuse victims in her former church’s network, that she is one of many women telling the truth of #churchtoo, and
demanding that the theology of power and privilege be permanently traded in for a theology of shared suffering and resurrection.(6)
It is no joke that some of you are even here this morning, inside a church, no less, when religion wielded as weapon so deeply harmed you in the past.
It is no joke that I stand here preaching, first baptized into a church that denied women’s power to proclaim the Gospel, despite Jesus himself sending Mary to do just that on Easter morning.
It is no joke that what the Empire tried to crush 2,000 years ago rose again and still rises today, raising us from death, too.
“Against those who have rendered this faith shallow, self-serving and weak in the face of true evil, death and suffering,” I say, this empty tomb is no joke. Surprise, yes. Joy, yes. But while it was still dark, Mary set out. And the resurrection she experienced is no joke.
This Gospel saves people’s lives. It’s not the only spiritual path that can, but repeatedly and reliably, the Risen Christ is the power to save, to be so united with us in our suffering, that the union doesn’t break at the grave, but that we, too, rise… and are raised from death to life. On this rare calendar conjoining of April Fools and Resurrection, we may be tempted to make light… (and we will during the postlude)… but this story we tell has life and death stakes. Mary set out while it was still dark. Tarana Burke said #metoo. Rachael Denhollander kept speaking her truth. Naomi Wadler stood on the National Mall. And the the power of God to raise us is no joke.
(1) Rachael Denhollander, full victim impact statement, cnn.com, January 24, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/us/rachael-denhollander-full-statement/index.html
(2) Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale, p. 70-71.
(3) Jennifer Mills-Knudsen, Facebook comment on Mary Luti’s FB page.
(4) Sandra Hack Polaski, “Colossians 3:1-4,” Lectionary for April 24, 2011, www.workingpreacher.org
(5) The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom
(6) I am indebted to conversation with Dr. Karen McClintock for this language.