Sermon: Don’t Knock (Just Walk On In)
If you live in a house or small apartment building, you may use those big 30-gallon clear plastic recycling bags for your recycling. Now, clear plastic recycling bags usually come in a cardboard box. And eventually that cardboard box, since it’s recyclable, winds up inside a clear plastic recycling bag. I always get a little thrill when I take the last clear plastic bag out of its box and then immediately open it up and put the box inside the bag. (Maybe I need to get a life, I don’t know.) But it eats its own box. What was once contained becomes the container. Instantaneous reversal. Spontaneous inversion of the power dynamic between the bag and the box. The bag can say to the box, “You once created the environment and the context in which I lived; now I create the environment and context in which you live.”
This is what Easter is all about. Jesus was a poor and struggling rabbi, bereft at the failure of every attempt at rebellion against the Roman occupiers, heartbroken at the corruption of his religion by the wealthy and powerful (this is what we were talking about last week). The Roman occupation completely contained Judaism. It was the Romans who decided to what extent the Jews would be able to practice their religion. It was the Romans who placed their own people in the temple, they chose the priests and collected the taxes that went to the state. It was the Romans who set the terms by which Jewish peasants would be able to come and pray. Everyone knew they were only allowed to practice their religion at all by the good graces of the Roman authorities.
And when Jesus came along and rebelled against this; when he overturned the tables of the money changers; when he called out the corporate rabbis who had sold out their tradition to curry favor with the Roman authorities; when he instigated violent rebellion, telling poor Jews to take up their swords and follow him, he caused the Romans so much trouble that they killed him. The ultimate containment. They contained him with finality in the physical container of the stone tomb with a giant rock rolled across the entrance. And normally that would have been the end of the story. Except that in this case, as the story goes, a miracle happened: the stone had been rolled away and the container was found empty.
In this powerful, mythic story, Jesus transcended the container of an imperial power and he transcended the container of death. And in a flash, he became literally larger than life. In a flash he burst out of any possible limitations and his teachings began a slow spread that eventually reached every corner of the world. Rather than being judged by the Roman authorities, Jesus’ teachings became the standard by which secular authority could be judged. Three hundred years later, Christianity (the religion unwittingly founded by Jesus) became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Arguably no more radical reversal has ever been effected.
It’s this explosive moment of reversal – when reality is upended – that makes the Easter myth so breathtaking (and I use the word “myth” here in the best possible way). Because this is an archetype. It’s not just something you have to wait around for a miracle to make happen. It’s something we’ve all experienced in our own lives. We recognize it. And, more importantly, it’s something that we humans can manifest in our lives. At the very least, each of us has experienced this reversal at the moment of our birth – where we were once contained in our mother’s womb, we emerged, driven by the life force, and (as any parent knows) we then proceeded to take over our parent’s lives and completely contain them within the world of our needs. Where they first created the context in which we lived, we suddenly created the context in which they lived. That is nature at work – and it’s beautiful and awe-inspiring but also entirely ordinary.
But where it gets really exciting is when a human being can consciously manifest this kind of breaking out of our containers through sheer chutzpah. I’m thinking today, because it’s Passover and because it’s Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C., of the story of Harriet Tubman, affectionately called “Moses.” Tubman was born a slave in 1822 in Maryland. Like many slaves, she was abused throughout her youth, beaten and whipped, and once got a head injury that gave her health problems that lasted her whole life. When she was just 27, she escaped. This was the first stage of breaking out of her container. She physically escaped slavery.
But she didn’t just save herself and try to build a new life, although she would have been absolutely justified in doing so. Once she escaped and realized that it could be done, she immediately went back to rescue her family. She brought all her relatives up north, safely. She could have stopped there and would have been absolutely justified in doing that. But she kept going back. Risking her own life over and over, she helped dozens of people escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed and the north was no longer safe, she helped them get all the way to Canada. She proudly recounted that “she never lost a passenger.” They called her “Moses” because she liberated so many people from slavery. She could have stopped there, but she didn’t. When the Civil War began, she joined the Union army and eventually became an armed scout and spy. She became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war: she led a raid that liberated another 700 slaves. In her later years, she became an activist in the Women’s Suffrage movement, fighting to break out of yet another container, with a clear commitment to what we now call intersectionality.
Harriett Tubman, through her own explosive courage and faith, went from being a slave, contained within a cruel and racist system, to being a powerful force to upend and eventually contain that very system. She went from being just an economic unit with an erased identity to being an American hero, buried with full military honors, with a national monument and countless schools and even an asteroid named after her. And in the ultimate ironic reversal, the Treasury Department last year decided to put Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson, whose wealth was generated by slaves. Money was the value that had kept Harriett Tubman enslaved; and now her face will grace a physical symbol of money that many Americans use every single day. That inversion of meaning is absolutely thrilling.
To me, at least. As you can imagine, our current president is not so thrilled about it. Or at least he wasn’t during the campaign when he called the decision to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriett Tubman “pure political correctness.” But actually, Harriett Tubman’s chutzpah is something that Trump should admire. Because in a strange way, Trump’s victory is the privileged version of that same chutzpah. He did all the things that you just can’t do. He said all the things that you just can’t say. Every other news story calls his actions “unprecedented,” which is usually intended as a criticism but which he and his followers undoubtedly take as a compliment. And the liberal intellectual culture that he felt so unjustly contained by… well, now he contains us. And we are struggling to break out. The central metaphor of the People’s Climate March on April 29th in Washington, D.C. will be one of containment. We will be marching to the White House and completely encircling it. Through this march and the movement that continues after it, we will work to reverse the tide yet again, so that corporations will someday serve the people and the earth instead of the other way around.
So as we’ve seen, this ability to break out of our containers – this brash, unapologetic chutzpah – is, in and of itself, value neutral. It’s a kind of superpower. And as we all know, any superpower can be used for good or for evil. But it is available to us. Things that seem impossible do happen. Things in our own lives that feel like they will never change, do change. Our spiritual challenge, once we find this power within us, is to use it for good. Like Harriett Tubman, once we’ve liberated ourselves to go back and liberate others. To see oppression in the broadest possible view, as both personal and universal and work to overturn and reverse it in every dimension of life.
Now of course, it’s not just a matter of chutzpah. There are some containers, like being very poor or being physically sick, or, worse yet, being poor and physically sick, that are real and external and cannot be willed away. But so often what stops us from breaking free is not that kind of thing. We so often stop ourselves miles before we hit one of those big barriers.
We stop at: “not allowed.”
We stop at “not polite.”
We stop at: “too disruptive.”
We stop at: “never been done before.”
We stop at: “never been done in my family before.”
We stop at: “might hurt someone’s feelings.”
We stop at: “might fail.”
We stop at: “too weak.”
We stop at: “scared.”
We stop at: “get all your ducks in a row first.”
We stop at: “ask permission first.”
We stop at: “knock on the door first.”
If there is one message we can take away from the Easter story, it’s that when we are fighting to break out of our container, whether it’s for personal liberation or the liberation of thousands, don’t knock. Like it says in the spiritual we heard today, “Don’t knock. Just walk on in.”
You should have each received a little square of paper when you arrived this morning – if you don’t have one, you can get one in a minute from an usher. This is flash paper, which, if you’ve been here on Easter before, is a kind of magician’s paper that combusts immediately when you touch it to a flame. We’re going to come up to the three stations, just like we usually do during candle lighting, but this time we’re going to touch our piece of flash paper to the flame, lift it up, and let it go. Kevin will demonstrate…
On this Easter Sunday, we remember the life of Jesus as a teacher, as a healer, as the leader of a movement, and, for some of us, as a doer of miracles. We can take away many lessons from the example of his life. This morning, I invite you to focus on the hard lesson of his chutzpah, his uncontainability. And let us also refuse to be limited by our own containers. And let us, like Jesus or Harriet Tubman, use our chutzpah to break free, break others free, and to be a blessing to the world.
I’d like us to take a minute and holding this paper, think of some way in which you feel contained. Some way your spirit is inhibited or your lives is stalled. Some way in which you may be living small. It can be very personal or very political. Pick a door that is closed to you and set the intention to not knock but walk on in. Let the flash paper you are holding in your hand represent that barrier. Let it represent the thing that contains you, that you want to break free of. Take a moment to reflect on what it means to you and then come on up when you’re ready.