The Last Word

April 21, 2019
Luke 24:1-12; Isaiah 65:17-23

So much wrong and so much injustice, as you shouldered a wooden cross.
Now like you, my best dreams are shattered;
all I know is the weight of loss.
My beloved, my beloved, tell me where can you be found?
You drank deep of the cup of suffering and your death is our holy ground.

Sing the Story 84: John Bell, French folk tune

Whose words are these? I think I know. Mary Magdalene? One of the other women? Maybe it is your voice, giving word to the mixture of grief and love, confusion and clarity that can occur when death shows up. But the death in this song is no ordinary death. It is, as Hillary Jerome Scarsella describes it, “gratuitously violent, state-sanctioned murder that caused enormous and lasting suffering.” And it “does not define the shape that love ought to take on. Love is not measured by one’s willingness to suffer violence.” We must always remember that. Violence does not have the last word. Suffering and death are not the last word, even when improperly framed by centuries of Christianity.

This acknowledgment that death can be holy ground, as the song says, gives us a hint that death does not have the last word; indeed, that is what we declare today. Death does not have the last word.

Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.)

Throughout the season of lent we have been hearing about powerful words at children’s time and writing words on paper, words that capture our attention and resonate deeply. Each week we have seen the powerful words, and some of our own words, appear on the banner. Today Michelle has transformed what was at first just a shadow, a whisper, into a joyous shout of beauty. For Easter we have all the words.

Each week during lent we have recited together:
For the word of God in scripture
For the word of God among us
For the word of God within us
Thanks be to God.

This has been a season of expanding and deepening our understanding of words, the Word, the Word made flesh, the word among us and within us. Today we focus once more on the beauty of a word.

We read the story of injustice in government and corruption in religion throughout the bible. We see variations of that story of injustice, corruption, cruel suffering and death play out every day in our communities and around the world. In response, the gospel writers give us four different versions of the resurrection. Each telling is unique; the details do not align. And yet they all have the audacity to say that death is not the last word.

At that crucifixion, which the song calls “holy ground,” the sometimes raucous, sometimes hushed crowd watches, almost eagerly. Do they see this cruel suffering as entertainment? Or are they just grateful the empire did not choose them this time? When Jesus breathes his last, most of the disciples disperse. They depart grief stricken, weeping and wailing. They know what they have seen. It is finished. Jesus is gone. Jesus is dead.

But the women who have traveled with Jesus don’t leave. They wait and watch as Joseph of Arimethea takes the body. The women stay as long as possible, and then they trail behind Joseph. Do they help, gently wrapping the body in linen as it is laid in the tomb? They know “it is finished” and yet they also know that their own work is not over. They still have to, they want to, tend to Jesus’ body. Ever faithful, they go home to observe the Sabbath and make plans to show their love and care when Sabbath is over.

My beloved, my beloved, tell me where can you be found?
You drank deep of the cup of suffering and your death is our holy ground.

As Luke tells it, Sunday morning, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, are up early and ready to resume their duties. Death has taken Jesus from them but they will accompany him as long as they are able, as long as it is permissible. They have lovingly prepared spices to anoint his body, and someone has even opened the tomb for them – but it is empty. As their grief turns to indignation, they realize they are not alone. Two figures, who are almost glowing, have joined them. And like the shepherds, at the beginning of Luke who see unexpected angels, the women are “sore afraid.”

So often in scripture the preamble is “do not be afraid.” Not this time. This time the angels get right to the point. “Why are you looking for life in a place of death? Jesus is not here. Christ has risen.” And then the dazzling visitors remind the women what Jesus said, even while they were still in Galilee – “the Chosen One must be delivered into the hands of sinners and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” This reminder from the phenomenal beings brings back the words of Jesus. He did say that. He had given his word.

What can the women do but share their joy, share their memory of Jesus’ words. They run to tell the other disciples – who are gathered in grief and wondering what to do now that Jesus is gone. Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James burst in with their news of an empty tomb and glowing angels. They remind everyone what Jesus said about the third day.

As so often happens, still today, when the word comes through women it is not believed or accepted. The other women gathered are quite ready to listen, to believe; with the Marys and Joanna they remember what Jesus said. But the men think these are idle words, women’s chatter. If it is like other times when women are disbelieved, the men ridicule and laugh; they are snide and cynical. They do not remember or believe this word about life.

Have the men forgotten their own experiences with Jesus? They might not remember everything but they sure remember that Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Was that the moment they held themselves back? Decided they couldn’t quite go all in? Decided that reason (maybe even violence) had to prevail?

Or are they afraid to let themselves feel, grief as well as joy? Is there no room in their hearts for this word from the women?

Maybe their hearts are so full of words from the empire there is no space for this sudden grace. Cruelty and suffering and misery and death, you will always have with you. Have they have fallen for the temptation that death is the last word?

My beloved, my beloved, tell me where can you be found?
You drank deep of the cup of suffering and your death is our holy ground.
STS 84 (congregation join in)

It is not that death is unreal or doesn’t happen. This gruesome murder that ends Jesus’ life is real. The onlookers see it. His disciples and friends see it. His mother sees it. Death is all too real. And mysteriously this death is holy ground.

Not all death feels like holy ground. The death of children in detention, death by starvation in Yemen and Syria, bombings in Sri Lanka, the death of innocent African Americans by lynching or shootings by police. Death driven by apathy, by hate, by violence; this does not feel like holy ground.

Yet some of us have walked the holy ground of death with our own beloveds. We have experienced the cruelty, as well as the wonder, that surrounds that last breath. Holy ground.

And where there is ground, there is life. Where there is ground, it is not the end but the beginning of something new. Death does not have the last word. There is always something more; life will out. This is the ridiculous hope that we proclaim today. Something is alive in that holy ground; something is growing in that holy ground and we will not give up on it. We will grieve, we will mourn  – and when it is time, we will do what we can to nurture and care for that life. Death does not have the last word. We hold onto hope that life and love and presence and nurture and so many other words have more power.

Our presence here today is one way of saying that we want to be part of life. We refute the empire when it tells us that death is the last word. We hear Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, we hear these improbable messengers, and we want to be part of spreading the word that Christ is risen.

AND – We can not blithely say that death is holy ground without stepping onto that ground, without stepping in and stepping up to help find the life buried in that ground. Yes, life will come from death, life is stronger than death. And we must not shrink from that holy ground. Life grows more quickly if we who believe in life, are willing to step onto that ground and dig around to allow life to emerge. We, who proclaim that death does not have the last word, have a responsibility to get ourselves at least a little dirty in that holy ground as life comes forth.

Leidy Ballestra Rios was born into civil war that raged in Colombia for over four decades. Violence and death have been all around for her 29 years. With the psalmist, Leidy might say, Tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3) Instead Leidy has improbably chosen to reach for life with a response more like the passage from Isaiah – I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress. (from Isaiah 65)

Leidy works with Sembrando Paz, (translated “planting peace.”) She digs deep into her own painful experiences with machismo and inequality, to empower other rural women who have lived amongst damaging patriarchy and violence. Leidy digs in holy ground with the women as she shares her respect and love for nature, her own knowledge about medicinal plants, her love of music and poetry. New life and new empowerment are beginning to grow in places, in people, that looked desolate.

Your generous Lent offerings help amplify the voices of women who are too often not heard, voices too often set aside or worse, violently suppressed. Leidy’s work gives voice to the good news of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, empowering women in rural Colombia to say that death does not have the last word. Holy Ground.

I wonder what holy ground you are digging in these days, what we as a congregation are digging together.

The women in Luke’s gospel embrace this amazing reality of the risen Christ. The male disciples are perhaps too proud or too afraid to accept this word from the women, that life is stronger than death.

And then there is Peter, who Luke says, hears the women. Peter marvels at the strange word from the women and he runs to see for himself. He doesn’t see the dazzling messengers. He doesn’t see Jesus. But Peter sees the empty tomb. He sees that something has happened and he is ready to be transformed. He goes away filled with wonder and amazement amazed at the power of holy ground.

The paradox of Lent and Easter is that we draw close to death, we sit with death, in order to understand in a new way the power of life. We draw close to death but if we stop there, if we allow death to have the last word then we have missed the word of God in scripture and the word of God among us and the word of God within us.

And that word is life, life is the last word. Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.)

Thanks be to God.