Just Over the Mountain, the Peaceful Valley: An Easter Homily

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Just over the mountain / The peaceful valley / Few come to know / I may never get there / Ever in this lifetime / But sooner or later / It’s there I will go.[1]

(Thanks to the UUS:E choir, Sandy Johnson and Pawel Jura for such an amazing rendition of this song!)

Friends, I’ve been reflecting on Easter, on the story of Jesus who was executed for speaking from a place of extraordinary spiritual grounding, speaking truthfully, speaking about the conditions under which his people lived, speaking about how his people ought to live in the midst of their oppression, speaking about where their true loyalties ought to lie, where their true sustenance ought to come from, how they ought to orient their lives towards the God of Israel rather than the Roman imperial authorities. For speaking in this way—and for his profound faith, and for all the miracles of healing and exorcism that seemed to flow out of his faith—and for his love for his God and for humanity, that is, for everyone: the sick and the healthy, the broken and the whole, the foolish and the wise, the taxed and the tax collector, the Jew and the Roman, the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressor—for all this speaking and healing and trusting and hoping and loving, the Roman imperial authorities and their local collaborators put him to death.

It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus’ 1st century followers whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe, in the days following his crucifixion, that he was still with them in some way. It’s not hard to imagine when we understand that these people were intimately familiar with the common, ancient near-eastern cultural-religious myth that promised a messiah would come to save the people from their oppressors, to turn the world upside down, to make the first last and the last first, to usher in a new era of peace, justice and prosperity, to establish a divine kingdom on earth. It’s not hard to imagine that in their profound grief over Jesus’ death, his followers would naturally say to themselves, “He’s the One! He’s the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, the Son of Man!” And thus it’s not hard to imagine that the people whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe—and begin to tell others—that he had risen from the dead, that the one who they believed could resurrect the dead had himself been resurrected.

I don’t believe he was resurrected. That’s not my theology. But it’s not hard to imagine that those whose lives he touched so deeply and who loved him so fiercely would come to believe it with every fiber of their being.

Why is it not hard to imagine? Because human beings yearn to be free. And the idea that Jesus had been resurrected became, for his followers, a path for them to be free—spiritually free in the midst of their oppression. This is not a typical path for most twenty-first century Unitarian Universalists. For us the resurrection is largely metaphor. But Easter continues to call to us because, at its core, it speaks out of and to that human yearning to be free. Easter bursts with movement towards freedom: movement from death to life, from dark tomb to open air, from bound to unbound, from sadness to joy, from hatred to love, from winter to spring—these are all movements towards spiritual—and physical—freedom. Easter speaks out of and to our yearning to be free from pain and illness, free from sadness and depression, free from societies that perpetuate tyranny and oppression, free from societies that perpetuate poverty and injustice, free from slavery in all its forms. “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” as our children sang earlier. Follow the north star. Look for the freedom quilt. Wade in the water. Si Se Puede. Come into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land promised to your ancestors. We want to be free to move, to gather, to speak, to express ourselves, to worship, to work, to follow our dreams. There is, in the human heart, a beautiful, compelling, urgent yearning for freedom. Easter speaks out of and to that yearning.

This morning, I want us to remember that freedom is never a given in our lives, that there are forces and powers always working to curtail freedom. Some of those forces and powers are inside us. We encounter them when we’re talking about our personal sense of being free from all the voices, all the negative messages, all the personal demons that would otherwise hold us back from becoming our full selves, our whole selves, our true selves. Some of those forces and powers are beyond us, larger than us. We encounter then when we’re talking about all the institutional and systemic structures arrayed against collective, social, political and economic freedoms. I want us to remember that those forces and powers can and do overcome us at times, that we can grow tired, that the yearning for freedom in the human heart can grow still, dormant, distant, fractured, fragmented, silent—can even appear to die. I want us to remember that so many of the great freedom fighters, the people whose lives express in word and deed the beautiful, compelling, urgent yearning for freedom, come to the mountain and climb it. They climb it with grace, dignity, passion and courage. But far too often they do not live to come into the peaceful valley. And thus Easter and this entire Holy Week are reminders of tragedy, reminders of the horror people are all too willing to visit upon people, reminders of pervasive injustice in the world. Let us remember this. Let us face full on all the challenges to freedom. And then let us resolve, each in our own way, to be reborn, to leave our tombs and breath the fresh, moist air of spring, to begin climbing again, knowing that the climbing is what gives us life, knowing that the climbing is what stirs that “hallelujah!” deep inside each of us, knowing that, in the end, the climbing is what sets us free, even if the peaceful valley eludes us again and again and again.

Happy Easter friends! There is a peaceful valley. Keep climbing.

Amen and Blessed be.

[1] Excerpt from Griffin, Patty, “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).”
See: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pattygriffin/uptothemountainmlksong.html
See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kh-DgLX4fVs&feature=related