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Staying Behind

At early dawn, before there is full light, before the path ahead of them is illumined, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared… At early dawn, before they could see, before there is any kind of clarity, the women came…

Now just hours before, these women had witnessed the worst- staying on the hill of hell until the bitter end. They saw life leave Jesus’ body. They stayed behind, to see the tomb and the very place where the story would end. And when it was done- in the darkness, the women left to get ointments and spices for the burial of the body. At early dawn, before there is full light, they return to find an empty tomb…

And it seems that for many people, this empty tomb is the heart of the entire Christian spiritual path, this darkness before the dawn is seen as the only the doorway. Believe this and the door will open; the path will be paved.

Perhaps you already know that the Christian sacred texts- the Gospels actually have very different accounts of what happened after Jesus’ time on the cross. The Gospel of John is thorough and poetic, making sure to include not just appearances of a resurrected Jesus but his post-tomb presence convinces people at every turn that he is God. Thomas even asks to put his fingers in the wounds on Jesus’ hands, in order to take away his doubts.

The Gospel of Matthew primarily focuses on the ministry ahead for Jesus’ followers after he is gone. The Gospel of Luke has the longest Easter narrative because it includes the Road to Emmaus where two of Jesus’ followers meet him on the path and don’t recognize him. The Gospel of Mark dedicates only eight verses to the Easter story and the stories that include Jesus appearing to Mary and the disciples in the flesh after death aren’t found in the earliest Greek manuscripts and are believed to have been added later. So as people who take contextual biblical scholarship seriously, as people who believe in science and also in the power of love, what are to make of this resurrection story?

As you might imagine, being a minister means that often people commence conversation with all of the many things they don’t believe. And because we are particular kind of church, a boulder kind of church, shall we say, one that welcomes traditional believers, agnostics, progressive Christians, spiritual independents, questioners, doubters and beyond, what is Easter to us?

Over two thousand years ago, crowds of privileged and powerful cheered the brutal beating of a marginalized Palestinian Jew, while the State put him to death.

But that isn’t where the story ended. That pain and heartbreak, that injustice and suffering, that moment when men where put to death by fear and hate, that victory of the Empire- that was not the final word… Because the women made it so. With their presence, they let something else be known.

The women came. Mary is the only who gets the credit for being at the tomb, in all four Gospels. It started with the ones with little status, a lot to risk and a lot at stake, and still they remained. Even when they had no clue what it would mean or how it would turn out, they were there to bear witness. They stayed behind.

And something happened that made it so that the darkness of the tomb wouldn’t forever take their light. And because of the way history has been told, because of the way Christian churches have been structured and the way Christian politicians have governed, we might miss this truth: this movement grounded in radical love was started by those on the underside. It was started by the ones on the margins. It was some Mary’s and a Johanna and likely more. It was the women who were in it when it was only joyous Hosannas, but later when there was blood and there were tears. And there was nothing more to do but stay, they did. They stayed even when they were afraid. They stayed and they were held by hope. Staying behind was an act of devotion, an act of kindness, and an act of truth. They took a bet on bold faith in something beyond what they could understand right then. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on your futures, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.” And at early dawn those women, knew their call was for all, to live fully and freely, so to follow, was to risk.

What are to make of this resurrection story? Let us not discount anything and not just because the tomb was empty and the teachings carried on beyond that dark night on Calvary, but because this movement was started, by the ones on the margins, by the ones who were willing to remain, by the ones who stayed behind. So maybe the question for those of us who long to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth is not first whether we believe that the body of Jesus was revived, but whether we believe it is our call to follow, to risk, to stay behind?

Are we are willing to remain at the foot of the crosses of our time? When it seems no one cares? Are we willing to show up to all of the places where Empire has long left as empty tombs and keep waiting “in the spaciousness of uncertainty” making room for the tomb to not be the end, but maybe a beginning? Are we willing to bear witness to state sanctioned violence and not let that be the final thing?

This Easter, at this moment in history on planet Earth where it feels like our big hopes of peace and equity might be dashed, where it feels like empty tombs abound, where it feels like there is simply no way for us to defeat corporate greed and institutionalized violence, we must never forget what can happen with just one. This Easter let us look to the ones who stayed behind. Let us not forget the ones who came; the women who remained. Even when they had no clue what it would mean or how it would turn out, they stayed behind. They were there to bear witness. Because if “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action…” then our hope can be the kindling for the spark of the struggle for more connection and more compassion.

The women knew another way was not a guarantee, but that their presence mattered, there staying was the call.

It wasn’t about what they could understand with their minds or their hearts, what mattered was that they stayed behind. And let us not miss this, these women, this, is where it all begins. It starts with the ones who remained, the ones who were covered in ashes and rain, covered in slashes and stains. The ones who stayed behind.

(Our own Lee Hamre sang part of Mary by Patti Griffin here…)

We are living in a time that glorifies white saviors and rich heroes, winners at all costs, but the foundation of our faith, the ones who have led us from the start are the ones on the underside, the ones who got no glory. It was the ones who stayed behind.

So don’t give up on the empty tombs you find in your life. Remain! Through the sun and rain! Even before there is full light, at early dawn, hold on.

Don’t worry about being in front, or being noticed in real time, the movement begins with the ones who remain, the ones who are covered in ashes and rain, covered in slashes and stains. Let us look to the ones who stayed behind…

Let us stay behind. Amen.

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