Princeton University Religious Life

While It Was Still Dark

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 27, 2016
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

            The heartbreaking thing is that the week we’ve just been through is really so ordinary.  People were blown up as they checked in at their airline or as they took the subway to school.  An army raided a town and took more girls as sex slaves.  A family watched their beloved child waste away and die because even basic medical care is not permitted by those who have forced them into an internment camp.  Someone walking down their street from the grocery was hit by a stray bullet.  Someone else – many people, indeed – got beaten up at home.  Many more began treatments for a disease, treatments that seem more debilitating than the disease itself.  Countless others live in terror of having a relapse.  Our country is in the midst of what’s possibly the most rancorous presidential contest ever, one that is exposing some sentiments in some of our population that leave others to be truly worried for their well-being.  Whether, like me, you woke up this morning before dawn, or whether you woke up 45 minutes ago and ran to this chapel, we all woke up today while it was still dark.

            So did the disciples on the first Easter morning.  Yes, it was before dawn and they stumbled down Jerusalem alleys and over tree roots to get to their friend’s tomb.  Because the sabbath was over they could now anoint his mutilated body, and show him even the smallest respect after the public humiliations and execution.  They had no expectation of resurrection.  Christ had foretold it to them, but the particularly hideous way he had been killed wiped away any thought of possible triumph.  He was really, really dead, and they had been very, very wrong about who he was and what God was doing.  They had staked everything on a project that had failed completely.  So much for the power of God – so much for hope, for liberation, for holy love that conquers all.   So much for the end of death and the opening of heaven.  So much for a new age of peace with justice.  So much for an end to the brutal power of occupying Rome.  Jesus had stood up to that power and been crushed like a bug.  Message received, to any other Jews who might get a similar notion in their heads.  The disciples didn’t just arise before dawn, they were living the whole of their lives while it was still very dark.

            Mary gets to the tomb first and sees that it has been opened.  She’s a smart person, like us, and full of common sense, like us, so she understands immediately that the grave must have been robbed.  She alerts the other disciples to this fact.  They see the linen cloths, which had covered Jesus’ face and body, put neatly to the side.  Almost 1700 years ago St. John Chrysostom noted that these cloths, described as being in such exact places, means that no robber grabbed them and threw them away.  They were folded neatly and meticulously by their wearer, who did not need them anymore, and carefully put to the side.  One of the disciples, seeing this, believes immediately that Christ has been raised from death.  The other, Simon Peter, sees and remains uncertain.  Mary, the third disciple, can’t fathom the possibility.  She’s not going to be anyone’s fool ever again.  By the time she looks into the tomb those white linen cloths have turned into angels.  She’s still not buying it.  She turns and sees Jesus himself, her dearest friend, and in her grief and disappointment she writes him off as the gardener.  It’s only when she hears him say her name that she will let herself believe. 

            Yes, it was very dark then, and we can’t blame Mary for trying to make a devastating loss into a good “life’s lesson.”  We do it too.  We want to find some redemption in the things that break our hearts, and thus to keep them from breaking our spirits.  But this isn’t just any loss – not just any apparent victory by the darkness that surrounds us.  In fact, the redemption we truly yearn for is the crux of this story.  As we, like Mary, continue to live in the dark, with no choice about that, let us remember what God and Christ have been doing, and are doing, while it is still dark.

            Remember the first passages in the whole of the Bible about God’s works in the primordial darkness to create all that is.  Creation begins, and is completed, in this soupy darkness – turgid, roiling, boiling, churning, burning.  Evolving into the physical landscapes that so move us and the human loves that anchor our lives.  Darkness is a time of generating power, creativity, even of Creation itself.   We live in that time now.

            And as we read in the beginning verses of John’s gospel, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  That light is the light of Christ – there is no darkness, night, evil, suffering, meanness, callousness, cruelty or oppression, no hopelessness, depression or illness, no loss, disappointment, injustice, crime, or personal failure that can dim Christ’s light.  Yes, it is still dark, but the true light that enlightens everyone is in the world, and it will be victorious.

            And let’s remember, too, that the deepest darkness always precedes the new dawn.  That’s when the morning stars are so bright, catching the light of the rising sun before it is ever on the horizon, before the golds and pinks of morning show themselves to us.   The most generative work of God and Christ - Creation, Resurrection – these happen while it is still very dark.  In whatever darkness surrounds us, there is so much we can do.

            Living in the dark makes so many people lose hope.  Let’s not join them, and better yet – let’s tell them another story.  We do not blithely deny the challenges of our times – we are, in fact, grounded in the very real world – but we understand our lives, our world, our universe to be on a very particular and holy trajectory, one that moves always towards the time when God will be all in all, when God’s justice will finally prevail over all our human attempts at evil or goodness, and everything in between.   A friend of mine, a Princeton alum named Chuck Henderson has written, “We don’t need to spend our days grasping and grubbing for all we can get, when all we can ever desire is God’s free gift of grace.”  If you, or anyone you care for, ever needed permission to be liberated from the ethics of a self-aggrandizing world, hear that permission now from the empty tomb – you don’t need to spend your days in hot pursuit of all you can get, when you already have received God’s free gift of grace.  That’s all we truly need!

            And what are we to do with that grace?  Christ’s instructions, during his earthly life and after his resurrection, are so clear – we are to practice the radicality (and simplicity) of loving our neighbor, ending poverty (not just being nice and charitable to the poor), forgiving those who wrong us, and proactively serving all who are in distress, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve their suffering or not.  How simple and how challenging!  It is a life’s work for all of us.

            Last week I went to New York for a meeting held in a seminary in Manhattan, and the words that were left on the blackboard from whatever previous session was held in that room said this:  “Be free where you are.”  Be free where you are.  I don’t know the original context of these words but I know that they are our inheritance from the resurrection: freedom!  Freedom to be!  To love!  To serve!  No matter how dark it is, we are free.  Christ tells Mary by the tomb, “Do not hold on to me.”  Don’t be tethered to the past, he says, but live into the freedom of the future made possible by my resurrection.  Let go of what chains you to the darkness of your time.  The light of God is triumphing – live into that!  Be free where you are, even in the dark, because whenever you live into the freedom of God’s love you make the light break ever more into the darkness.  We do that!  We do it when we love our neighbors, reverse wrongs and injustices, when we forgive.  We do it when we tell the truth, through words or deeds, to those who make their living off of the darkness – peddling hate, or greed, or violence, or boredom, or apathy – whose power is exacerbated by growing the darkness.  On this resurrection Sunday we are reminded that the light is triumphing, and no darkness can ever overcome it.

            Friends, today Christ is raised from the dead.  All of our hopes for redemption through him are not squashed by human evil but vindicated in his liberation from the grave.  In that, we know that we, too, are so liberated; that death is not the end; that we, too, will take the linens from our face and limbs, fold them and place them aside, as we take our place among those who will witness to holy love and justice even now – yes!  While it is still dark.  And even into eternity!

            For Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!

            Alleluia!  Amen.

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