Harrowing Of Hell
April 9, 2023

Guardians of Hope

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning. HAPPY EASTER! I’m so glad to see you today.

There is a sense that we’re back to normal, if that’s really possible in a world where COVID is endemic. In fact, I know some of you can’t be here today because you have COVID. I’m glad you’re joining us online. I hope you’re feeling better. You are in our prayers. We miss you.

This Holy Week has reflected a return to past patterns of worship infused with the joy and robustness Epiphany is known for…punctuated by today’s service, I might add. For all of you that participated in Holy Week services, I am sure you would agree that hope has been stirred, if not invigorated and renewed. That is what Holy Week is meant to do. It is intentionally designed to tell the story of hope.

The Holy Week story of hope begins in Bethany, with a woman named Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. The scene unfolds at the house of Simon the leper, who is either the father of, or the next-door neighbor to, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Anyway, there Mary takes very expensive alabaster oil and anoints Jesus’ head. He claims her good deed is to prepare him for burial (Mt 26:6-7), which is true, but we can also see it as the moment of coronation for the King of kings and the Lord of Lords, done by Mary, a woman, one of his best friends, who by her actions, captures the moment and provokes hope.

Next, we encounter Veronica on the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus carries the cross beam past her house, beaten and bloody, not able to stand. She doesn’t know him, yet she darts out of her doorway with a handkerchief. She wipes his face. She cares for this outcast, despised, and rejected. She meets the moment and inspires hope.

Then, at the foot of the cross, when all the men have run away, save the Beloved Disciple, we find Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James and John; standing vigil. Fearlessly, with love, meeting the moment in hope.

Finally, we hear today of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb. They meet an angel, but they do not flee, they are not afraid, they hear the message,  and then head back to share it; only to encounter Jesus on the way.  They meet that moment with a hug. Jesus says: “Tell the disciples to ‘Go to Galilee and I will meet them there.’” And so, they do.

It is these women who keep hope alive…as the circumstances of Jesus’ life deteriorates, they remain to meet the moment with hope. As other people desert him, as affliction rakes over him, they stay, standing as the guardians of hope. Yes, they feel impotent; they are. Yes, they are grief stricken. Yes, they are heartbroken; but, they stay. The guardians of hope, ready to meet the moment, whatever it may be.

Their actions are actions of love. And yes, a love for a leader and a friend and a son, but, that was not the full extent of their love; that type of love was not enough to keep hope alive. Rome was quite capable of crushing that kind of hope upon the cross.

No, these women held a deeper, more secure, and vibrant hope; as actions of love expressed by anointing, and wiping, witnessing, and proclaiming which is what made these women the guardians of hope.

Hope is meeting the moment with love, trusting that God will do something with it. Trusting that God is not only capable, but God cares. Trusting that because God cares, (even if we don’t understand it, even if we can’t peek around the corners of destiny) that the bad thing is never the last thing. That’s the story of the resurrection, isn’t it?

The women meeting the moment with hope through actions of love, trusting that the bad thing will not be the last thing. Resurrection proves that point. That God is trustworthy. That God cares. That God keeps coming back, because God loves us that much.

And so, when the women return to the upper room where the disciples are hidden away, their hope proves contagious, convicting, and inspiring. They tell the men: “Go to Galilee. Jesus will meet you there. Go to Galilee.” And their hope fills the hearts of the disciples, against all reasonable odds…for who takes a seven-day walk to meet a dead man, on the authority of women, who say he is resurrected? In those days – no one, unless you were told to go by the guardians of hope, and they were, so they did.

The women’s hope fuels the trip and carries them up the side of the mountain, where they meet a man, a man of extraordinary authority, so it seems, for they all bowed down to him, even those who doubted…even those who doubted?

That is a fascinating sentence to find in Holy Scripture, that some of Jesus’ disciples, who knew him personally, intimately and over years, were uncertain if the man before them was Jesus resurrected. They doubted.

Was this an editorial oversight by the compilers of the New Testament? Quite the contrary. It is a theological insight. Doubt is an expression of freedom, and we know that God gave us freedom because God loves us. We know that there is no love, no real love, no divine love, no eternal love, no love like that expressed by the guardians of hope, if there is no freedom. That kind of love, that kind of hope, can never be taken away from us. Not by Rome. Not by the cross. Not even by death. It is that kind of hope that enables us to act against all odds, knowing the bad thing is never the last thing: That phrase is the definition of Resurrection.

Here’s an interesting postscript about the doubting disciples who Jesus met on the mountain. The tradition tells us that all eleven became world changing followers of the resurrected Jesus. So, it seems, something at some point shifted for the doubters. Something sparked their curiosity and opened their minds to the mysterious dimension of resurrection in which they came to experience the risen Jesus.  And whatever that was it inspired them to join the women and the other disciples as guardians of hope.

The invitation to doubt is an invitation to pursue, to seek, to question. Doubt without inquiry is laziness. Doubt fueled by curiosity can lead to revelation and transformation. The invitation to be guardians of hope is open to all. It’s an invitation that was made by Jesus as he stood on that mountain, for he did not differentiate between the believers and the non-believers when he invited them to go out and change the world.

He didn’t differentiate then and he doesn’t differentiate now, nor do we at Epiphany, because the world is in desperate need of people who have hope, and not the kind of hope that we can see,not the kind of hope we find in political parties or scientific insights, or computer algorithms, or interplanetary colonization, or even the next generation. But a hope that is deeper, more secure, and more vibrant than that. A hope that knows fundamentally that the bad thing is never the last thing – because of the resurrection.

The resurrection is God rejecting human rejection without denying us the freedom to doubt, because God loves us, and God knows there is no love if there is no freedom. God designed it that way.

Epiphany is a place that talks about and teaches about and seeks to experience this resurrected love, because it is this love, and only this type of love, that allows us to meet the moment, any moment, irrespective of what that moment may be, as people of hope.

And the world is in desperate need of this kind of hope; that kind of fearless hope shown by the Marys and Veronica; that kind of transformative hope shown by those disciples who doubted; that kind of hope that brings you here today.          

It is a hope we practice at Epiphany…to share with the world as we meet the moment, whatever that moment might be, with actions of love. It is our duty to do so as the guardians of hope.