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Easter Vigil - April 20, 2019 - The Rev. Julia Matallana Freedman

Bruce Springsteen: “We’ve been traveling over Rocky ground, rocky ground, We’ve been traveling over rocky ground rocky ground.”

I have always found it interesting that the same earthy, and ordinary material--rock--can be taken as both a metaphor for burden or a metaphor of transformation, a symbol of new life, after Christ’s resurrection, after a new day. I have a young daughter who is just beginning to speak and I find it no coincidence that earlier this week she said the phrase, “big rock” with such impressive clarity. Yes, it is a big rock! Big rocks can be a sturdy foundation, a step up in order to increase our visibility, to change or expand our perspective. For instance, in genesis Jacob uses a rock as his pillow, which can’t have been comfortable. After his divine dream he then uses this rock to build an altar of praise to God. The Psalms speak of the cornerstone, the critical piece at the center of a stone archway representing God’s faithfulness and salvation to a people who are often wandering away. In the gospels a fasting Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, his steadfastness, a sign of Christ’s divine ability to defeat evil and overcome death.

It is easier for us to see the promise of a new day on this side of the resurrection story. Holy Saturday is the in-between day. And I hope you might relish the inbetween-blueish-purplish-brownish - hues of the color grey. Because, friends, so much can be captured in the texture and the nuance of the “inbetween.”

Big rocks can also obscure our vision. It can be rolled over a tomb entry way separating us from a resurrected Christ and deflating our hope. For the three days of rocky ground, of mourning, the women wept, people prayed and cried out to God. There was the loss of a son, the loss of a friend. Beyond the personal and relational loss there was also a political and religious sense of loss because Christ had promised to inaugurate a new reign in heaven and on earth, he was now dead. This stone marked the loss of a spiritual leader, and the loss of a radical revolutionary.  A big rock was rolled over the tomb entrance, marking the death of a supposed saviour? Let us consider the felt loss by those who loved and believed Christ. They believed he had come to bring about a different Kingdom. Which had more political insinuation than we might be comfortable with. For instance, The Lukan gospel account begins with the Angel visiting Mary and says, the Lord God will give the child the throne of his father David,33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Else where, Old Testament writings indicate a Savior’s ability to abolish the injust acts of the kingly leaders. And instead Jesus does not go down as a typical imperial force. Instead he dies as a criminal. Mary, mother of Jesus, Joseph, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, they traveled the three days of “rocky ground,” which I suspect might have felt more like an avalanche at the time--it's the kind of pain that runs so deep, you believe it is never going to end.  

Yes it is a big rock! Clearly, the dual function of this ordinary material is plenty throughout scripture. It’s uses, metaphor, and symbolism can be both dark and weighty and supportive and glorious.

Jazz, spirituals, and the blues all occupy a genre that embraces “The Inbetween”, it inherently captures both deep human suffering and an abiding faith in God, regardless of one’s own felt pain. In fact, it is no accident that our own Holy Saturday liturgy is imbued with the genre.

W.e.b DeBois explains that the classic “Spiritual songs tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” Liberation theologian, Dr. James Cone, goes on to explain that “DuBois perceived something else in the beauty of the spirituals - an affirmation of life. Through hope --a faith in the ultimate justice of things.....DeBois was fascinated by the tension in the spirituals between hope and despair, joy and sorrow, death and life, and by the ability of black slaves to embrace such polarities in their music….” (The Spirituals and the Blues, Cone).

Like the classic slave spirituals, jazz and blues help to convey the tensions of Holy Saturday. tensions between death and life, between an entombed Christ, and a risen Christ. The tension between a Kingdom both here and not yet. The tension between a big rock that deters, blocks, and impedes, and holds us back, but also a big rock that is rolled away to offer us life in the resurrection. Truthfully, I probably could have just read Dr. James Cone’s entire book up here because he formulates this relationship between Blues and Jazz music with Black religion so insightfully. I am hardly able to do his thinking justice here, but if you would allow me to share one last quotation from him:

“Blacks found hope in the music itself--a collective self-transcendent meaning in the singing, dancing, loving, and laughing. They found hope in the stoic determination not to be defeated by the pain and suffering in their lives. James Baldwin called this hope an “Ironic Tenacity!” “I’ve got the Blues and I’m too mean to cry.” “The blues,” as Ralph Ellison Put it, “is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near tragic, near comic lyricism.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone).

If your faith in the resurrected Christ does not bring forth any tensions then you might actually be doing it wrong. During the liturgy, we pray, every week for, “God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and yet, even on this side of the resurrection story, there is still injustice, death and evil. On this Holy Saturday, perhaps you find yourself leaning toward one side of The Inbetween or the other. Perhaps this day you are leaning toward the sorrow, mourning, and entombed-ness of the Risen Christ. Or perhaps you find yourself on the joyous, celebratory side of The Inbetween. In either case, tomorrow we will sing the St. James-ian hymn, based on Psalm 118, we will sing that the “stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone.”

“Stars have faded, the sky is still, suns in the heavens and a new day is rising….A new day is coming, a New day is coming. We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground….” - Bruce Springsteen