What a Resurrection!

A sermon by Rev. Rachael Hayes

We don’t talk much about Jesus here. Christmas and Easter and maybe another service sometime during the year. This congregation sometimes operates as a refuge from dominant culture, where a lot of people who don’t seem very connected to Jesus’ message say his name a whole lot and speak for him in ways that contradict the Bible they’re trying to sell. But the Jesus stories, those collected by his earliest followers and transmitted by word of mouth until they were written down generations after his death, still speak for themselves in some wild and compelling ways. There’s a reason that people keep reading and telling these stories.

Stories of radical poverty, of sharing, of second chances, or of restoration to community. Stories of civil disobedience and moral obedience. Stories of love that are bigger than death and bigger than the Roman empire. So what if they were written to make sense to people who lived almost two thousand years ago, who did not have the same modern notions of empirical fact that we have today.

Historians agree that there was a man, a Jew in Roman Palestine, called Jesus of Nazareth. It is generally accepted that this Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the Roman empire by the order of Pontius Pilate, who was prefect of Judea in years 26-36 of the common era. The rest of it, the biography, the teachings, the miracles, that’s impossible to prove or disprove by historical record. What we do know is that people have passed these stories down for almost two thousand years and used them to make meaning in their lives.

In a way, though, the Easter story as we heard it today is not really a story about Jesus. It’s a story about two of his followers, Mary Magdalene, and another Mary. They go to the tomb, and there’s an earthquake, and an angel or messenger rolls the stone away that is blocking the entrance to the tomb. But the angel talks to the women. It tells them that Jesus isn’t there. That he has been raised from the dead. That he will see them in Galilee, and that they should tell the disciples. They go to do that, and then they see Jesus himself, who tells them that the disciples will see him when they get to Galilee.

So, never forget that women were the first ones to proclaim the resurrection, in all the gospels.

But the thing I love about Matthew’s gospel is the feelings. First, we have these women in mourning, who have watched their friend and teacher suffer a gruesome public death. And they’re probably afraid too, given that they’ll need to confront guards to give their beloved and politically unsafe leader burial rites. But the earthquake and angel frighten the guards, essentially rendering them out of the scene. The angel tells them Fear not, which it wouldn’t do if they were not visibly afraid. By the time they finish talking to the angel, which is probably pretty confusing, to go looking for a dead body that’s not there, even when you are given a miraculous explanation, they have both fear and great joy. And then I can only imagine that it increases when they see Jesus himself, who tells them again, fear not.

The Marys are having an emotional day, and it’s still early morning.

The human experience of the resurrection is sad, and scary, and confusing, and joyful. And that sounds about right to me. Any given day, I might be mourning the news and afraid for what comes next, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all and the fact that I’m supposed to still be able to do my work and laundry and grocery shopping while the world feels like it’s ending all the time, and did you notice that the sun came out and the crocuses have too? 

I find this Easter narrative so tender, so relatable, not for what it says about Jesus as much as for what it says about the rest of us. It’s okay if resurrection is a lot, if we must be told more than once to chill out. I also find it relatable that the Marys get told not to be afraid even though no one makes any promises that things are going to be okay or the same.

The Marys are up against the world’s most powerful military empire, that killed their friend and teacher, and nothing can change that it happened. But still, Empire doesn’t get the last word. Love doesn’t erase death, even though love is stronger than death. Resurrection can’t be easy on anyone involved.

This narrative is perennial. The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, and yes, the United States Empire. It keeps going, trickling through one era of history into the next.

This week brings us the news that the US didn’t veto a UN ceasefire resolution in Gaza, which some took as hopeful until the administration also agreed to send billions more dollars’ worth of bombs and warplanes to Israel.

For all my faith that peace in Palestine and Israel will come from Palestinians and Israelis and not from the opinions of a heartbroken minister in the Pioneer Valley, I can’t ignore this. I have something to say here, because it’s our government, our empire egging on the carnage in Gaza, our empire defunding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency but making a show of ineffective aid drops, our empire complicit in these more than thirty thousand deaths.

And it is how our empire works. How Gaza before October resembled our internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war, resembled our forced relocation of our native population into reservations. It’s how our empire works, after all. The way Israel encourages settlements on Palestinian land looks devastatingly like the way our own valley was settled by the English, by civilian pioneers holding land. This is how empire works.

For nearly two thousand years, people have told this story of resurrection to remember that Empire doesn’t triumph over love. That doesn’t mean everything’s going to be okay, just that Empire doesn’t win in the end. 

In addition to Easter, today is also the International Transgender Day of Visibility. For the last fifteen years, Trans Day of Visibility has taken place on March 31st. It is a day to celebrate the life and work of trans people and raise awareness of the issues trans people face in our culture. Unlike Trans Day of Remembrance, which takes place in November, Trans Day of Visibility centers living trans people.

For Trans Day of Visibility, reflect that visible doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Empire is still Empire. The ACLU is currently tracking 479 anti-LGBTQ bills for this legislative year. Bills that make bathrooms inaccessible. Bills that outlaw gender-affirming medical care. Bills that prevent people from having accurate IDs, that censor curricula, that force schools to “out” children to parents. Just so you don’t think we’re talking about somewhere else, there are two in Massachusetts: one that would make sexual education an elective, and one that among other things would strike down any privacy a student might have from their parents at school.

We know in Amherst how important it is for students to know that their schools respect their gender identity. We know this, not because we’ve got it all worked out but because we were wrestling with transphobia and harassment of trans students in the middle school last year. And we know that not everyone can be visible, that it’s not safe for everyone to be visible.

But wow is visibility glorious. Everyone deserves to be known and loved as themselves. To be called by the name their heart answers to. Discussed with their accurate pronouns. To be themselves, as feels good and true, in appearance, expression, language. To be loved as themselves.

Really, all of us deserve to be known and loved as ourselves. This is not a thing that is new for trans people. It’s for all people, and it’s especially crucial to make sure trans people are not shut out of it.

This is the thing about collective liberation. It’s about all of us getting free together. I know that when a trans person is free to be fully themself, my identity as a cisgender woman is also more expansive and beautiful, wide open to possibility. 

One doesn’t have to be a religious person to believe in collective liberation, of course, but it helps to have a collective to do some collective imagination. The religious imagination has sustained people and communities since prehistory. Jesus was steeped in the Judaism of his time and used that context to inspire those around him to imagine a better world, a beloved community, a reign of Heaven in their midst rather than the Roman occupation. People have used the Easter story to tell us that love is stronger than death and empire for almost two thousand years. What is resurrection but opening to the possibility that things, by our intention and care, might become radically better. Never erasing the pain that has come before but against all reason launching a new reality.

If we use them well, if we don’t surrender these stories to those who would use them for a conservative individualism, these stories can be seeds to pass the hope of a better world down through the generations, seeds of a world where all of us are free.  It’s never happened. And yet I believe. What a resurrection that will be.

Photo by Anuja Tilj on Unsplash

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