Wishing You a Woke Easter
Holy Saturday Sermon at Metropolitan Community Church New York
March 31, 2018, 7 PM
Mary E. Hunt
Mary recently spoke at the Metropolitan Community Church in New York. A video recording of this sermon can be found here. The text of her sermon can be read below.
Thank you for the honor of sharing this service with you. Special thanks for sharing your Heart Award with me. That award, and receiving it with Cedric Harmon and Gays Against Guns, and Moshay Moses is something I will always cherish. I can only hope to live in ways that merit your confidence.
Thanks to Rev. Pat Bumgardner for inviting me to join you for this service. Pat, I bow to your thirty plus years of faithful, creative, may I say ‘woke,’ ministry in this church. You are widely respected for your leadership in the Global Justice Network of the MCC. I thrill to hearing you on Welton Gaddy’s radio show “State of Belief” to which you always bring a word of insight and compassion. Your Palm Sunday sermon gave me inspiration as to what the Good News means. Thank you.
I bring special greetings from the Rev. Nancy Wilson, former Moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. She shared with me how much she has enjoyed being with you on past Easters. She will be celebrating with the MCC in Venice, Florida. I will convey our love and respect to her.
Tonight I follow in big shoes–Cedric Harmon’s from last night’s Good Friday service, and Don Eastman’s who preached at this Holy Saturday service last year. As a Catholic who comes from a tradition of short and usually not very sweet homilies, I stretch to approach my colleagues’ powerful sermons.
Tonight I wish you a Woke Easter.
Holy Saturday is perhaps the most peculiar day in the church year. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is neither that time leading up to the grand climax of Jesus’ life that was, paradoxically, his death. Nor is it the new order of things after his resurrection, his various appearances according to the scriptures, and his ascension after which all of the responsibility for his mission and ethics shifted to us, the disciples.
Holy Saturday is none of the above. Some congregations do not celebrate a service tonight at all. They let the story of Good Friday end on its own tragic note, and they pick up the thread on Easter Sunday celebrating the Resurrection in all of its splendor. They leave it to people to make sense of this gap in the story, this odd, extraordinary time, and to fill the day as they will.
However, I think this day and this night play a special role in our faith community. This in between time has its own value. It reminds us that life does not usually flow from one point to another, from point A to point B without hiatus. Rather, life meanders, or so I find, with stops along the way that provide a cushion when we need it most. Your choice of this day for your annual Easter Awards Banquet is inspired because it is a day when we need to be together more than ever because we are betwixt and between.
This hybrid day—so full of sorrow at the loss of a good person’s life well before their time, and equally full of joy in the hope that there is more than meets the eye—this day is the pause we need to reignite our spirits and reset our souls. That is what we do tonight—the Pascal candle, the light growing and growing to fullness reignites our spirits; celebration and sharing of communion reset our souls for the year ahead, as we inch toward alleluias. This day is, oddly, the day our God has made.
We call this the Holy Saturday Vigil for a reason. A vigil is the night before a feast. Tonight we vigil. To vigil is to keep awake when we would normally be asleep. To vigil is to keep watch and/or to pray. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vigil). Tonight it is a time out from the NCAA Final Four games that many of us might be watching if we were not here. (How about that nun from Loyola with the bobble head!) People have kept vigil like this for millennia. Tonight it is our turn to stay awake, to watch. But why?
A new way to capture what we are doing in this old ritual is in the urban slang term about being “woke”. Tonight we are trying to “stay woke” as the term rooted in the Black community of struggle would have it. To be woke is to understand the imperative of social justice for all of creation, and to be committed to bringing it about whether by eradicating racism, ending gun violence, stopping sexual assaults, making our economic system more equitable, protecting our planet, or the countless ways we do justice. At this vigil, we practice being woke, literally, and as reminder to be woke all year long. Stephon Clark—we vigil for you; Trayvon Martin—we vigil for you. Yolanda Renee King, nine year old granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. —we vigil for your safety.
Tonight we connect with the religious roots that ground our lives, namely the history and trajectory from creation to eternal life as the readings demonstrate. We go way back to the myths of origin—the creation of light and fire. We retell the story of a special bond or covenant between God and humanity, a call to mutual responsibility that we often honor in the breach. How moving it was to join this community in affirming and celebrating “the freedom and responsibility of God’s love in our lives, in our community, and in the world.” Proof of this community’s upholding its part of the contract is support of the Sylvia Rivera food pantry, Sylvia’s Place for youth services, Rev. Pat’s Finishing School, and Q Clinic for the community’s medical needs. In this age of greed and disregard for those who are poor and importantly, and why and how they got that way, this community lives a woke Easter, a woke Pentecost, a woke life. I feel at home here, and I feel challenged to stay awake another year.
Being woke is neither easy nor cheap, and sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. So it makes sense to reconnect with the religious reasons that keep us woke—to review them as we have done in our readings and prayers tonight in order to fortify ourselves for what is ahead. Some colleagues in woke work have other religious roots or perhaps no religious roots whatsoever. But for those of us who come from the Christian tradition it is helpful to get an annual infusion of insight and energy because God knows things have gone from bad to worse.
Think back a year to what we were facing last Easter. It looks like child’s play compared with what is on the national plate tonight. Now North Korea and Stormy flood the airwaves, trans people are dissed in the military again, Facebook is in meltdown, more school children are dead, police gun down more Black and Brown people every day. Names and atrocities we never dreamed of a year ago confront us. We need our wits about us to survive and to help others survive as well. One way we gather those wits is by digging into our rich history and seeing our place in it.
In Catholic circles we often joke if a mass gets a bit long saying, “It is longer than the service on Holy Saturday!” But tonight we take the time we need to engage in worship that simultaneously connects us to Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus who, according to the Gospel of Mark that we just read, left the tomb terrified. This story connects us to our own deaths and fears. We review all of this for a reason—to recommit to preventing such a tragic event from ever happening to any parent’s child again.
Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel captures this connection unforgettably in her poem, “Threatened with Resurrection” (THREATENED WITH RESURRECTION: PRAYERS AND POEMS FROM AN EXILED GUATEMALAN, Elgin, IL: The Brethren Press, 1982, pp. 59-63). She wrote the poem from exile in Geneva, Switzerland, March 8, 1980 at the age of 50. It was during the civil war in Guatemala that lasted from 1960-1996 when thousands were killed, including many indigenous Mayan people.
Julia Esquivel wrote:
“What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!…
They have threatened us with Resurrection
because we have felt their inert bodies
and their souls penetrated ours
Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal
which lies beyond death.”
We, too, are threatened with resurrection. Being woke, we noticed that Easter came early this year. In Washington, DC, experts set a date and plan a parade for the cherry blossoms. But you know what, the blossoms, like babies, come when they get here. This year, capricious weather forced experts to change their predicted date of peak cherry blossoms several times. Easter is like that; it has a date, but sometimes it gets here early, or if you are having a spiritually arid year, sometimes it gets here late, or sometimes we don’t feel like Easter at all.
But this year, I think for many of us, Easter came early because we needed it so badly. We needed it not just because of the 4 Nor’easters that hit the East Coast, and the scandalous, tawdry doings in Washington that make our country the laughing stock of the world. We needed it because we are so close to global danger and so mired in violence that we crave every hint and glimpse of resurrection that we can find.
For me, Easter came early in the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo movement, shaking this country at its foundations from Hollywood to the White House, from locker rooms to board rooms. Women follow in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, a first century Jewish woman who accompanied Jesus through his ministry and beyond his crucifixion, anointed his body and was the first to see him risen. Women were woke first. Yet Mary Magdalene was defamed. Her sisters step forward, just as petrified as she was according to Mark’ Gospel, to report abuse and to speak out when others are too afraid to peep. No wonder she was asked by Jesus to announce his resurrection and she is called the “Apostle to the Apostles.” They needed her the way we need our whistle blowers and brave souls. They threaten us with resurrection.
Last weekend Easter got here early in a big way. Well ahead of the Easter parade on Fifth Avenue, we were all threatened with resurrection in the more than 800 Marches for Our Lives. Just as Jesus in his youth captured the imagination and the attention of people, so, too, did young people from Parkland, Florida, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and countless other places where gun violence has shattered their innocence. They found the fire in their bellies to say no to gun violence. Yes, Isaiah (11: 6), “a little child shall lead them.” This season, lots of children took the lead.
We have not seen such a massive display of youthful energy and wisdom since the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations led by college students. But in fact young people frequently lead the way in our history. Recall the young African American students who led the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, NC in 1960. They were not much older than the now iconic Emma González with her several minutes of silence more powerful than any words, and eleven year old Naomi Wadler whose eloquence on the stage in Washington last weekend belied her years. Their righteous anger and passion to eradicate gun violence are now seared into the American soul. Those young people threatened us with resurrection because they spoke about racism, sexism, economic injustice, and so much more. They embodied what a resurrected world might look like.
Easter came early just blocks from here at the Neil Simon Theatre. We have been threatened with resurrection again as Tony Kushner’s great 1993 play “Angels in America” came roaring back right when we queer people need it. We will not be erased, homogenized, tamed, or domesticated just because some of us with white privilege, education, and access to resources are allowed to blend in. No, we will share our hard won wisdom until our breath is gone so that all may live freely who they are.
As Ben Brantley said in his rave review in the New York Times (3.26.18, C1), “Sometimes, just when you need it most, a play courses into your system like a transfusion of new blood. You feel freshly awakened (Ed. note-There’s that word again) to the infinite possibilities not only of theatre but also of the teeming world beyond. And when you hit the streets afterward, everyone of your senses is singing.” That’s an early Easter in my book.
I can’t wait to see “Angels” and compare how I felt the first time around–how much has changed and how much has stayed the same–through HIV/AIDS years that remain for many of us, the Reagan years turned Trumpist with some of the same Roy Cohen types in power, the sex and heartbreak, the comedic lines and painful truths. As the reviewer put it sagely, “The sense of a world in which the center no longer holds feels freshly and frighteningly relevant to this fraught year of 2018. Such times, ‘Angels’ makes clear, are crucibles in which the moral and mortal worth are tested. God may no longer be around to judge those of bad faith, but Mr. Kushner definitely is.” Tonight, at this vigil, we are all Mr. Kushner, admitting our own bad faith at times and drawing some lines in the sand that our forbearers drew before us—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, and you know the rest. You do it here. The whole point of remembering is to equip ourselves to keep at it for another year. Faith in a resurrected world is what pushes us to create justice.
We have some clues of what it is like to be threatened with resurrection. Those clues are in this fire, in the empty tomb, and in the hearts of those in the early Jesus movement who found something life changing in the breaking of the bread. We are those people.
To be threatened with resurrection is to be woke. It is living the dream of a shared, just future when equality and joy will reign. To be threatened with resurrection is to hope that our children, with our help, will eradicate gun violence even though we have failed to do so. It is to believe that our children’s children, with our help, will consign racism to the dustbin of history though we still experience it. To be threatened with resurrection, to be woke for real, is why we receive the bread tonight, the second night of Passover, so that next year—in Jerusalem and everywhere—the fruits of justice will flourish.
So tonight I wish you a woke Easter.
Julia Esquivel puts it this way:
“Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know
how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying
and to already know oneself
“Acompáñanos en esta vigilia
y sabrás lo que es soñar!
Sábras entonces lo maravilloso que es
vivir amenazado de Resurrección!
y saberse ya
Take home tonight a reignited fire in our spirits. Go home with reset energies in our souls to do the work of justice, to live woke. Yes, this year Easter came early and we are well on our way to a woke year ahead. Let the alleluias resound and the joyous struggles continue. We are indeed threatened with resurrection!
Amen, blessed be, Happy Easter.