In the name of Christ, who was crucified and is risen. Alleluia!
While I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago, I was reading the autobiography of Cicely Tyson. I had appreciated her as an artist for a long time, but it wasn’t until I saw her perform live that I really became awed by her creative genius. The show I saw her in was “The Trip to Bountiful”. It was playing on Broadway several years ago. She played an elderly woman who lived with her daughter-in-law, who resented her, and her son, who was too weak to stand up to his wife for her. The thrust of the story is her long-held desire to leave their Houston apartment, and to return to the town where she grew up: Bountiful. Soon, she leaves and the play becomes the story of her journey and the people she meets along the way.
While the story of the play is lovely and entertaining in its own right, what really stands out in memory for me that night in the theatre is Cicely Tyson, herself. Though 89 years old at the time, she commanded that wide space and the thousand or so people who had assembled to see her like we were puppets on a string. She held us in the palm of her hand.
There was this specific moment that I’ll always remember: with the simple lift of a single eyebrow, she changed the energy of that whole space and everyone in it. She made us eager companions on her journey through the story. Even though I had cheap seats way in the back, I could feel her command and had no choice but to submit.
From that moment, I was a fan. And not just a fan, but I knew there was something important that I had to learn from her. When she died a couple of year ago, the remembrances often spoke of this autobiography that she’d left behind. I bought it then, but only just opened it for the first time while I was away on retreat.
There’s probably a lot about her story that wouldn’t surprise you. She grew up and came of age and spent most of her career in an epoch of American History when it was particularly challenging to be a black artist and cultural influencer. As she pointed out, she wasn’t the kind of activist that you’d find at the Woolworth’s lunch counters or marching with signs. But even so, she knew she had to use her choices as an actress to help make the world a better place. In her book she said, “My art had to mirror the times and propel them forward.”
Throughout this past week, as we’ve journeyed along with Jesus on this path to the Resurrection, a single thought has guided my way: You can change where you’re going, but you can’t change where you’ve come from. This defining set of stories about the end of Jesus’s life on earth, and today, the story of his Resurrection from the dead is where we’ve come from. Just as Cicely Tyson said that she had to mirror the times and propel them forward, how will this, the story of our faith – the landscape of where we’ve come from – change where we’re going? How are we being called to see the times that made us? Not just in the sense of stopping to admire them, but to actively using them in a way that propels us forward into the vision God has for us?
That’s what this week, which reaches its pinnacle today, is meant to help us know and define.
First of all, when we see challenges coming, follow the example of Jesus: gird your loins; prepare. Gather with people who can support you – the people who stay by your side, even when the going gets tough. Pray together. Thank God for each other. And nourish yourselves – strengthen yourselves for the time to come.
The thing is, every life will have hard times. We all will face obstacles from time to time, and we’ll all likely know despair at one time or another. But that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you’ve “done faith wrong” in some way. It just means that you’ve lived.
I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it a thousand times more: God never promised anyone a life without suffering. Look at the story we’ve just told and you’ll see that even Jesus wasn’t exempt. But what God does promise is that we won’t be alone in the suffering when our time comes.
The next lesson flows from there: when we see death, that’s when it’s time to look most fervently for life. Death is a reality, but God promises that it will never be the final reality. In biology, they say “life finds a way”. Even in the harshest conditions, even where it seems most unlikely, life keeps finding a way. God is the same. When we’ve counted life out – when it seems like death has finally won, God says, “not yet.” Death is never the end of the story. Life always finds a way. Life always wins.
So, since this is where we’ve come from, how should it shape where we’re going?
The short answer: Stop – being – afraid. Be bold! When life throws challenges your way, gather your friends and get ready for the fight, because God is at your back. When you see injustice in the world and the world keeps shouting at you to leave it alone, remember that God is calling you to use where you’ve come from to shape where you’re going!
And it can get scary. You might even reach the point where you feel like you’ve lost. But the God who worked through death to make like is the same God who has called you. That same God who used the tools of despair and hopelessness to sculpt impossible joy is the same God who has promised to be there for you. So don’t let fear stand in the way of acting on God’s call in your life. There’s nothing left to fear.
Now, let’s be real. If you’re in the middle of what feels like your Good Friday right now, I’m not asking you to jump up and sing praises. Easter doesn’t always come for us when it seems to be coming for everyone else. It certainly doesn’t follow the calendar. So it’s okay to feel what you feel. Remember: even from the cross, Jesus cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”.
But even if it sometimes feels foreign, hear this story and hold on to this promise. And most of all, cling to the hope. Remember that Good Friday is real, but that it won’t last forever. Let that change where we’re going. Let that propel these times forward into the dream God has for creation. Let it be the promise of God to let life win. Thanks be to God. Amen.