(My sermons these days are based on what’s written in these manuscripts, but since I started preaching without notes, they aren’t identical.)
Last night, all our churches that are part of the Pittsfield Campus of Downtown Churches worked together to create a Holy Saturday walk. Recognizing Holy Saturday (also known as the Great Vigil) isn’t done in many Protestant churches. It wasn’t something I ever did or knew about growing up, but it has become more important to me over the years.
Holy Saturday is a recognition of the time after the execution of Jesus on Good Friday and before Jesus’ resurrection happened. Holy Saturday recognizes that even though Jesus’ body was lying in the tomb, something was still at play.
The Holy Saturday Vigil is full of stories about our faith:
- The creation story is retold.
- The stories of those who lived, prayed and worshipped before Jesus are shared.
- There are stories of miracles, challenges, and transformational moments during the lifetime of Jesus.
We’re invited to reflect on our life in the church, too. Last night, we were invited to remember our baptisms and share in communion with one another as we told the stories behind those rituals. These stories are told in the in-between time after Jesus’ body has been placed in the grave and before Christ’s resurrection. Why?
One of the poems we used as a part of our Lenten Vespers service was from Seamus Heany’s epic poem, “The Cure at Troy.” There is one piece, in particular, that’s coming back to me at this moment:
“History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”
The Great Vigil of Holy Saturday points towards the resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate today, one of those moments when “hope and history rhyme.” We read all these stories not just because of the history they represent but because Jesus’ resurrection was a culmination moment in history. Even though it may have seemed that nothing was happening while Jesus’ body was in the tomb, the resurrection was on the way, on the cusp of a culminating moment to which all of history had been leading. The cold dead tomb of humanity and sin became a warm living womb of God and grace that birthed a resurrected Christ into the universe.
I don’t fully understand or embrace the idea that Jesus died for the world’s sins and received the world’s punishment. However, I can easily believe that Jesus died because of the world’s sins; that Jesus died because of our willingness to rationalize violence. I can easily believe that Jesus died because of our grandiosity that insists on the supremacy of one idea, culture, or group of people. I can believe that Jesus died because systems of domination and oppression are so weak that they need to try and crush any resistance. I can believe that the power of love was so threatening that hate fought back with everything it had. I can believe that those disciples who denied Jesus and those authorities who authorized killing Jesus were wrapped up in an unconscious, multi-generational system of control and power far beyond their understanding. I can believe that at the moment Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, it felt as though all these forces and ways of thinking about the world had won.
Then, God leaned over and whispered in Jesus’ ear, “Time to wake up.” She removed the burial clothes surrounding Jesus and said to Jesus, “These people still need you” God clapped their hands and said, “Come and see this beautiful world.” Jesus woke up with the words “It is finished,” still ringing in his ears but understanding in an entirely new wonderful way that nothing was finished at all.
There are days we all feel finished. I’m not talking about “finished” as in full of accomplishment and satisfaction, but I’m talking about feeling defeated and done. Negative behavior that we thought we’d beat becomes a part of our life again. We hear about one more violent incident at a school or elsewhere in the world. We feel trapped by our own minds or trapped by our life situation. We feel defeated. The forces of injustice feel too powerful, and we feel too weak. We feel done. We feel broken.
And then, God does something as only God can do, and the cold tomb starts to pulsate like a warm womb. God whispers in our ear, “Time to wake up.” She removes those things we’re all wrapped up in and says, “This world still needs you.” God claps God’s hands and says, “Come and see this beautiful world.”
And, some days, we do. All we need is that whisper to get us going. On other days, it’s harder to get up. We require a bit more, and this is where it starts to get interesting.
God has made us so that we require some things, like a plant requires sun or a fish requires water, but they may not be the things you’ve been told you need. Many of these things are what powerful forces suggest make us tired, but it’s just not true. Achieving these things gives us life. It’s fighting the forces that keep us away from these things that make us tired. Let me get more specific.
One of the things that we require for life is to do justice, to make things right. It may seem like there is an overwhelming amount of places and situations in the world that need justice, but the truth is that the seeds of justice are already there. We are needed to get up and water them, and when we do, life abounds. We get up, and life breaks out from the tomb.
Another thing that we require is to do acts of loving kindness, and it’s hard to do those lying down. There are people that need to be fed. Housing that needs to be built or shared. There are people that feel burdened by what they have and have the opportunity to be freed once they give it away. There is life in connecting those with needs to those with more than they need. The act of loving kindness isn’t simply in the giving but in connecting those who may feel the world’s injustice differently. When we get up and do acts of loving kindness, life breaks out from the tomb.
There is life in walking humbly and wisely with God. Note that this doesn’t say sitting with God, but walking with a God who is moving and living and active in this world. We walk with God to those places and people that need God’s presence, and as we do, we recognize all the life that is present when we walk with God. When we get up and pray like this, life breaks out from the tomb.
There may be moments that the words “It is finished” ring in our ears, but the fact that “It is unfinished” is closer to the truth.
There is still a life to live and share, my Siblings in Christ. It is a life full of the peace that comes from doing justice. It is a life full of relief from making things right through acts of loving-kindness. It is a life full of joy that comes from walking humbly and wisely with God every single day.
Christ is risen! (Christ is risen, indeed!) May we rise with Christ into a world that needs us all so very much. Amen.
The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!