When the Tomb is Really a Womb
Faith is both a private matter and a communal enterprise. But to be able to see the darkness not as the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb needs a faith that is comes to life within a community.
"When the Tomb is Really a Womb"
A sermon given on April 16, 2017 at First Parish Dorchester
by Rev. Tricia Brennan
As you may well know, there are four different gospels, or stories, in the Christian New Testaments. They are commonly known as the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, though it is likely that each was written by not one, but several people. These gospels are similar is some ways, but have different approaches or emphasis. When it comes to the accounts of the Resurrection, the gospel of Mark, which I read a moment ago, stands alone for its starkness. The other three accounts tell of the risen Jesus appearing to friends, family and followers, sharing meals, encouraging the spread of his message of love and justice. Those accounts have a sense of joy about them- he who was dead is now alive- to the wonder of all, a sense of bounty- as Jesus breaks bread with his loved ones in homes, and outdoor spaces- always the sharing of food and drink, always enough, and a sense of hope- that perhaps the message of love and justice would carry the day, would triumph, would sustain. Joy, Bounty, Hope. Those are Easter words.
But Mark’s gospel ends with these words- “Trembling and bewildered, the women fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” That’s it, the End. They were afraid. The story ends in silence and fear. Hardly an account that would fortify followers, offer meaning, deepen faith. Not a rousing call to service, not a song of triumph, not a prayer of thanksgiving. No, just a tomb empty of the one they sought, occupied only by a stranger with a puzzling message, and an overriding feeling of confusion, apprehension, and fear.
Now I have to ask myself- why did I choose that particular reading for us this Easter Sunday? I mean- I get to choose- it’s not like we are a church that has a lectionary and you must use the reading prescribed for the day. I knew I wanted a gospel reading but it could have been one of the stories like when Jesus is walking along the road to village Emmaus and he meets up with two of his disciples and they talk about how discouraged they are about what happened and don’t recognize him- until they go into a home and they break bread together- all those themes of not seeing and seeing, or I could have chosen the story of Jesus feeding his friends fresh fish cooked over a campfire at the edge of Lake Tibernius as the sun comes up- beautiful scene of abundance and sharing and friendship, or I could have chosen the magical story of Jesus walking across the water to meet his friends who’ve been out all night fishing and haven’t caught a thing. Great stories, so rich and wonderful the sermon would have written itself! But no, I go for the one with none of that. Just an empty tomb and frightened women. Why?
Well I think for two reasons. One is that experience of these three women is so very real and human. They are tired and traumatized and hurting from all that has happened. And when more things happen that don’t make sense to them- the big stone rolled away, the body gone, and stranger with a strange story- well it’s just too much. They are speechless-without speech- a very hard place to be.
Now mind you, these were brave women. They were at the cross when Jesus had died- brave enough to witness the suffering and death of a beloved, and brave enough to be seen by the soldiers of a brutal regime who would associate them as friends of one crucified as an enemy of the state. They were loyal too- they were intent on fulfilling the Jewish custom that the body was to be washed and anointed with fragrant spices shortly after death. They left their home in the dark, they didn’t know how they’d move the stone- but they were determined. Whatever the risk, whatever the challenge, they would fulfill this final act of love to wash the broken body of their friend and teacher.
They were brave women, strong women, determined women. Yet they flee from the tomb in terror and bewilderment, speechless with fear. In a sense they are a stand-in for all brave women and men over time who have been rendered speechless by what the day can bring.
And I guess I wanted a story that honored that truth. The truth sometimes life gives you too much to bear. And you just can’t take any more, and you’ve got nothing left in you, nothing more you can say, nothing more you can do, nothing more you can believe, nothing more. But I don’t want to stay there, I don’t want/we don’t want to give fear and speechlessness the last word. And we don’t have to.
A few weeks ago, I saw a short powerful six-minute video that stays with me, and is the second reason I chose this reading for today, the reason I can.
Sikh activist lawyer and filmmaker Valarie Kaur was speaking at an interfaith Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve in Washington, DC at a Metropolitan AME church. Many of you probably know that Watch Night services in black churches harken back to the year 1862, when blacks watched and waited the long night as 1862 became 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect that first day of 1863.
So when Valarie Kaur spoke of her grandfather’s flight from colonial India, and his subsequent imprisonment upon entry to the US, because as a brown man with a turban he looked suspect, it resonated that night. And she spoke of rise of hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs after 9/11 and after the election of Donald trump, and all the ways that people of color, and LGBTQ people and women are seen as less than, it was well understood that night and it is now too by us. And then she said this: “The mother in me asks what if? What if the darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave?” What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? “
These times we are in- in our country and perhaps in our personal lives too- and like one long watch night where we wait in hope that good will come. And as we wait, how we see the world and life matters- do we see a tomb or do we see a womb? Can we see the womb within the tomb? Now sometimes the tomb and the womb look alike and feel alike- they are dark and constraining, and you don’t know where the light is or if it will come again. But they are not the same, for one is for death and the other is for life. I have begun to think that faith means being able to see the womb of life even when the tomb of death seems so apparent. Perhaps the Easter question is how do we develop the sight to see life emerging from the dark places of loss.
Two days ago I and some others from First Parish joined a couple hundred people for the Annual Stations of the Cross walk through this neighborhood. The custom is to stop at 14 places- or stations- where there has been death. To name the names of those who were killed, to honor their lives and mourn their deaths, to witness to the power of a community that remembers together and prays for peace. The third stop was in front of First Parish, where we named and remembered Derek Matalino, the 15 year old son of Deirdre Murphy, who grew up in this church and was killed six years ago this May.
Now I am not going to tell you that this walk is a light-hearted thing. It is serious, even somber at times. And yet, there was a powerful feeling of strength and resilience as we walked together. Some people were friends who’d known each other for years, others were meeting for the first time. Between stations as we walked, stories were exchanged- some memories of those who had died, some stories of healing and growth, some simple sharing of news. The day was a gorgeous spring day, with life evident in every new bud on the trees. If something can contain both tomb and womb, it was, for me, that walk together.
Now faith is both a private matter and a communal enterprise. But to be able to see the darkness not as the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb needs a faith that is comes to life within a community, I think.
One other difference between tomb and womb is that you don’t leave a tomb and you must leave the womb. The womb is about life, yes, and about life going forward. Valarie Kaur also said that New Year’s Eve night- “What does the midwife tell us to do. Breathe. And then? Push. Because is we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love and our revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.” Our faith, our UU faith, puts love into action. It is not just words, or sentiment, but day in and day out showing up for one another in countless large and small ways, day in and day out showing up for all people, all life on our planet. That is how we will birth a new world, with a thousand miracles of love in action.
I know that most Easter sermons don’t talk about Good Friday stuff that much. But I want us to be a faith that sees the tomb and lives out of the womb. And if ever there was a congregation that could do that, it is this one. I hope we are a faith that does not shy away from the reality of the tomb, that understands the feelings of fear and confusion felt by the three women who run from the empty tomb. For there is a power like no other that arises out of loss and grief. And I pray that we are a faith community that see life emerging all around, that nourishes life all around us. We breathe together, we push together, we forgive together, we worship together, we eat together, we laugh together, we sing together. Happy Easter, all.
© Tricia Brennan, 2017