Okay, just to warn you, this sermon doesn’t start out particularly Easter-y. But trust me. We’ll get there! So…
It’s no secret that throughout history, Christianity hasn’t always been exactly friendly to women. By a long shot. They’ve been treated as second-class citizens, at best. And, to be honest, it’s not just history that’s fostered this chauvinism. The Bible itself is full of scriptures the church has happily pointed to throughout the centuries to back up their second-class status.
Which shouldn’t surprise us, after all, since the Bible was written in cultural contexts that were absolutely patriarchal, where women were – literally – the property of their fathers and husbands.
But what is surprising – despite this cultural worldview – is how many significant snippets found their way into the Bible that totally undermined this otherwise pervasive gender bias. Not least of which, happens right at the start, when God is first creating the human species. “God created humankind in his image” it says, “in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”
There was no precedence in the Ancient Near East for this kind of gender equality – that women and men, together and equally – share the image of God. And yet, there it is! – in the beginning – the first word on what it means to be human. And at all sorts of key junctures throughout the Bible, this keeps happening, this little reversal, or (what you might say) these little sparks – anticipations – of a value yet to be realized.
And nowhere is this more noteworthy than in the Easter story, this story we just heard read, this story that called you and millions of people throughout the world into church today.
Now, the different gospel writers vary in how they tell the story, but on this they all agree: The first people to receive the good news of Jesus’ resurrection were women. And the first people to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection were women. And why? Because it was the women who stayed with Jesus throughout his passion, his death, and his burial.
Now, it may be standard fodder on Easter to hear sermons on how “all the disciples abandoned Jesus at the cross.” But it’s not true. Most of the men abandoned Jesus, notably Judas and Peter. Not one woman did.
And on Easter morning, they returned: to mourn him, to love him, and to care for his now lifeless body. That’s the moment that’s been captured in the artwork on your bulletin cover. It depicts Matthew’s telling of the story (the one we just heard), where two women came – Mary Magdalene and another. They’re still in the dark (literally and figuratively), still in that last moment of anguish and grief before they see the angel, and everything changes, for them and for the world. And it is they who are first dignified with the privilege and duty to bear this good news (to the male disciples)!
As it had been throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. He may have had those twelve male apostles, but there were women disciples as well who accompanied him and supported him throughout his ministry. And not only that, every major breakthrough of actually understanding who Jesus was and what he was about, was first entrusted to and received by a woman.
Who was the first to hear and believe the news of the incarnation itself, that God would be wed to humankind? It was Mary, his mother. And she gave herself to it, completely and sacrificially: “Let it be with me, according to your word.”
Who was the first to hear and believe the news that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the long-awaited Messiah? It was the Samaritan woman at the well: “We know the Messiah is coming,” she said. And his reply: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And it was her testimony that began a whole movement of faith.
And now, in that lineage of trust and faith, it is the women who hear and believe and declare, “Jesus is raised from the dead.” They are, unequivocally, the church’s first evangelists, the first preachers of the gospel.
All of this has been embedded in holy scripture as long as the church existed. But only in our generation has the church (at least some of the church!) begun to recover and honor what has always been true. True for God, at least, even if society and culture has been in the dark.
And as I consider these things, not only is it extraordinarily dignifying of women, it reveals a divine principle of how God works in this world, how God works with us: God meets us where we are – no matter how messed up our lives may be – and as God trudges along through the mud with us, God also embeds within us, flashes of hope – signs of a truer, purer reality that is yet to be. Or, perhaps to say it more accurately, a reality that already is, even if we cannot yet believe it.
I do not believe God was endorsing the subjugation of women in the Bible. But the lineage of our redemption story with God began in a particular place and time: the Ancient Near East. And from that place came the call to begin our walk with God and towards God – a journey that has yet to reach its destination. But embedded in that story, from the beginning, were signs – flashes of hope – of a nobler reality, eternally true in God, already alive within us, God’s image bearers.
It’s like the Ruby Crowned Kinglet. Kinglets are these tiny little gray birds. There’s nothing remarkable about them (other than being kind of cute). But if you’re out bird watching, you just might see them flitting from branch to branch (eating bugs I guess. I’m not really sure). But if you keep watching, and if you’re close enough, and if you get lucky, and if the sun is shining at just the right angle, the male kinglet might flip up this little tuft of feathers on his head – and for just a second – show off his brilliant ruby crown. It’s a flash of glory. And I love them for that! His crown is always there, but rarely seen.
Just as it is with us.
We’re all messed up in our own way – or “ways” as the case may be! We’re impatient. We’re grumpy. We’re lazy. We’re snooty. We’re racist. We have histories and addictions we’re ashamed of. We have no faith or the faith we have is strange. We’re not great parents or grandparents. There’s no end to the crusty, scabby issues that fill this room. Because we’re human. Because we’re all just doing the best we can to make our way in this life.
And God says, “Okay. I can work with that,” and meets us where we are.
It’s not to say that God endorses our messed-up-ness, but that God loves us in the midst of our messed-up-ness, and that God is very patient with us – as individuals, as societies, as a species – God is very patient with us as we make our slow journey towards God and the ways of God. What’s asked of us, is to accept God’s patient grace, and simply to take the next step that’s before us. And if we can, to extend that same patient grace to others, whose next steps may look different than our own. And even here – in our sorry, unremarkable state – there are flashes of glory, moments of splendor, a promise of what already is true of us all, the beloved of God.
It’s like an old woman, whose bitterness from some great offense took root a long time ago. She’s now estranged from her children and grandchildren with little hope of reconciliation. And yet, every month, without fail, she sends support to an orphanage in India. This flash of glory, that her brokenness is not the final word.
It’s as if that future reality of our total redemption and glory has already been embedded in us today – this little ruby crown of our own.
And, you know? it’s all true.
That future hope of glory has embedded itself in us and in this whole human race. When, at the incarnation, when Mary said “yes,” and God joined Godself to our humanity, it was the sign of a union that would not be broken. God, one with us in Christ, takes on the whole scope of our human sorrow, even unto the cross and the grave. But the grave could not hold him. Christ had a crown of his own, and it wasn’t the crown of thorns, but one that flashed like lighting in that lightless sepulcher. So now
Christ is risen, and death is cast down!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead!
As Christ is one with us in our sorrow, so we are one with Christ in his victory. His crown is now our crown.
That is what we celebrate at Easter. That is what we celebrate at every baptism: we are joined with Christ in his resurrection, marked as Christ’s own forever. Yes, there will be a death yet to come, for each of us. But the future is already embedded in us and in the human race – our resurrection begun – because Christ is risen. And we with him.
At St. John’s, as a funeral is reaching its end, we carry the ashes of our loved ones through the church and through those doors to be buried in the Memorial Garden. And on the way, we pass by that baptismal font, pausing to hear its audacious whisper, “Don’t worry, this death is just a passing thing. Your new life has already begun, because Christ is risen, and you with him.”
And do you know, the first person whose ashes we carried though those doors to be buried in our new Memorial Garden was Mike Broun. And throughout his funeral, there was a bird that had found its way into the church, and was flying back and forth over our heads, trying to find its way out. I don’t know if anyone heard a word I said; they were just watching the bird! And when it was all over, and everyone had gone home, and that bird had exhausted itself from its constant flight, I caught it in my hands to set it free. It was a Ruby Crowned Kinglet. A sacrament of its own. Mike’s resurrection had begun. As it has for us all. For Christ is risen and death has already lost the battle. Alleluia.
 Genesis 1:26-27
 from the Easter homily by John Chrysostom, circa 400 ad.