This piece is an excerpt of a sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Sidney Fowler at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013.
Very early last Tuesday morning, several hundred folks gathered from around the US at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation here in DC.
An Interfaith Prayer Service was held there just several hundred yards from the Supreme Court. On that day and on Wednesday that followed, the Supreme Court justices considered two cases regarding the right of same-gender folk to marry. One of the clergy who led a prayer in that service, I should say sang a prayer, was Yvette Flunder, bishop of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco.
She sang over and over:
“There’s love rising up, and it is here to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.
There’s love rising up and it is here to break every chain."
Pretty soon her voice was joined by the choir, and then all rose from their pews singing: “There’s love rising up and it is here to break every chain.”
Loud, strong, deep was the sung prayer – as if they believed it was so.
Yet, why should we be singing? Didn’t we know that lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks are denied federal recognition of their marriages?
Didn’t we know that marriage between a woman and man is the tradition for thousands of years?
Why should we be singing?
Didn’t we know that sexual orientation isn’t in the same category as other civil rights? Doesn’t the murders and persecution of our lesbian and gay ancestors teach us a lesson? Doesn’t the bullying of our children – those who might appear gay – tell us that we are wrong?
Don’t we know that it’s almost impossible to change things? Don’t we know the familiar smell of death?
How could we sing “There’s love rising up and it is here to break every chain?”
But wait a minute, this is Easter Sunday. This is not an opportunity for this gay United Church of Christ pastor to give you my political perspective. We are here to declare the resurrection of Christ. We are here to proclaim “Christ is risen” "Christ is risen indeed” and to hear the trumpet blast “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
We are here to proclaim that out of death there is life. We are here to sing.
But don’t we also know the familiar smell of death? How can we sing “Christ the Lord is risen today?” or “There’s love rising up and it’s here to break every chain?”
Honestly, it’s not easy to sing or believe or live in our world with the kind of profound hope and love that the resurrection of Christ calls from us.
It wasn’t easy for those women to sing in today’s Easter story either. Just a couple days before on that tragic Friday, the women had seen violence, they had seen death. They witnessed Jesus, the one they loved, nailed to a cross and watched him die. They followed along with Joseph of Arimathea as he took Jesus’ body down, wrapped it in linen cloth, and laid it in the cold, hard tomb.
Death had done its job. And on this morning, after the Sabbath, the women came to finish up the burial job – to anoint the body of Jesus with fragrances to cover up the stench of death that would only intensify over time.
The women came in devotion, but not in expectation that anything would be different than the typical death. They came in silence with no song to be sung except perhaps the weeping for the loved-one they grieved.
Yet, what they found changed their weeping song. The stone that had sealed the tomb was rolled away. Jesus’ body was not to be found.
Instead they were met by two people full of light with dazzling clothes. They stood beside the women and asked a question that would shatter all of the women’s ordinary assumptions about the ways of death.
The brilliant strangers asked the women: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here, but has risen.” The shining strangers speak as if the women should have expected it – that Jesus wouldn’t be at the tomb.
But then again, perhaps the women surely should have expected it. They should have remembered Jesus.
They forgot. They forgot that Jesus was never one to let death have the final word – for any of those who suffered.
And Jesus would not let the economic, political, or even religious systems that dealt out death, violence, injustice have the final victory.
Jesus was never at home sealed in death.
But then women remembered: Jesus, healing those who suffered – a bent over woman or a boy with a seizure; Jesus, feeding the 5000; Jesus, honoring the poor woman’s gifts and challenging a rich man and Zacchaeus to give more; blessing the children, the little ones who others disregarded; Jesus, confronting the powers, religious and political, that abused the vulnerable, meeting trials and even death straight on; Jesus telling them he would suffer, he would die, he would rise.
Jesus, love, rising up – there to break every chain.
All the women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James – all of them, stepped out of the tomb, that place of death, and they remembered Jesus. They remembered the past, the days in Galilee, the past few days in Jerusalem, and they had to get the good news out about the present: “Jesus is not here, but has risen.”
Then the women began to sing — even if only with a whisper.
Even though we will learn in this version, Luke’s version, of the Easter story that the male disciples would not base their faith on testimony of the women – calling their song an idle tale sung by crazy women. Even though the women would never have a face-to-face encounter with the Risen Christ as the men disciples would have.
How could they sing with the death of Jesus so fresh in their minds, the judgment of men belittling their faith, without any physical proof of resurrection?
The women had come expecting little – only to complete the burial of the dead one. Yet out of death, recalling God’s Living One, God’s eternal care and compassion for all they began to sing: “Jesus, love, is rising up and is here to break every chain.”
This Easter morning, the words of those shining angelic strangers challenge us as surely as they did the women that morning. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
The theologian, Nancy Claire Pittman, tells us: “We too want to tend to corpses.” Too often we cling to what we know is dead. Perhaps it’s safe or we just assume things must stay as they are.
Yet so many of us go to the tomb and settle for life there.
We know tombs of unjust systems and laws that are failing and denying life to others. We can live in a tomb of relationships that refuse to change or grow or deepen in love.
We can too easily find home in tombs of tolerance for violence, tolerance for cruelty, tolerance for disregard and hatred, because of our pride or that the fear of retribution is too great. We even visit our own tombs of past visions of ourselves while our health, our strength, and our gifts change and God calls something new from us.
It is difficult to sing in death’s tomb.
I’ve known that to be true. There are days when I thought I would never sing again. Perhaps you’ve known such days when the powers of death, disappointment, and injustice seemed to be the victor.
There are days when it seems the tomb has been sealed with an immense stone, never, ever to be opened. We, never to sing again.
Yet, our God does not settle for tombs.
Remember the song we sing:
“Our God, love, is rising up and is here to
break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.”
God shatters the chains of injustice, pride, fear, violence, change, bigotry, grief, and death itself. Jesus is not there in all those tombs. Jesus is risen.
Can we sing? Can we live such faith?
Perhaps we are similar to those women. We haven’t seen Jesus face-to-face in some physical resurrection experience. And this Easter faith, of course, can be judged an “idle tale” we sing about. It will never be proved by any photo flash on some shroud of Turin.
An empty tomb can mean just that - an empty tomb – not the resurrection. And death can get the best of us.
Yet by God’s good grace, there is a song that is sung:
“There’s love rising up..”
“Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia.”
Do you hear it being sung?
We heard that song this morning in the bidding song that began this service. We heard that song last Monday, as folks sang “Happy Birthday” to Claricia Cummings on her 105th birthday.
We heard that song sung last Tuesday morning, not only in church, but out of the church, as folks marched to the steps of the Supreme Court. We heard the voices of so many people of faith, so many young people, so many elders who had been committed and struggled for so long. The moment was about marriage equality, but about so much more.
It was also about the centuries of oppression beginning to turn around in a way that LGBT people believed it.
Sure it matters what the courts say, but we sang knowing nothing now could keep us down.
We are coming not only out of the closet, but, by God’s good grace jumping out of death’s tomb and singing:
“There’s a love rising up and it’s here to break every chain, break every chain.”
Let us not seek the living among the dead. Step away from the tomb and out into the world where the Risen Christ is alive.
You who grieve, you who are fearful, you who weep, you who are weary of the struggle for justice, you who are sick, hungry, and hopeless, we who long for God’s eternal realm of compassion and peace.
God is with us. We are not alone.
Sing. Sing. Dare to sing with joy, sing with our lives:
“There’s a love rising up. There’s a love rising up. And it’s here to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.”
Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Photo by Andrew Snow