Easter Magic

The First Parish of Watertown

April 1, 2018

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

 Opening Words:by Dick Gilbert

A tomb is no place to stay,
Be it a cave in the Judean hills
Or the dark cave of the spirit.
A tomb is no place to stay
When the fresh grass rolls away the stone of winter cold,
And valiant flowers burst their way to warmth and light.
A tomb is no place to stay
When each morning announces our reprieve,
And we know we are granted yet another day of living.
A tomb is no place to stay
When life laughs a welcome
To hearts that have been away too long.

Reading    adapted by Michael McGee from a story by Jim Wallace.

A group of clergy were discussing the true meaning of Easter one day when the Baptist said: “I believe we place too much emphasis on chocolate bunnies, flowers and colored Easter eggs instead of the spiritual aspects of this day,” said the Baptist. “Me too,” said the Methodist. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. “Me too,” said the Catholic. “Me too,” said the Nazarene. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.

Things went on like this – the Methodist said that he believed the real meaning of Easter is that Christ died on the Cross for our sins, and the Nazarene, Baptist, Catholic and Lutheran all agreed, but the Unitarian Universalist was silent.

When the Lutheran said that “the real meaning of Easter is the triumph of Jesus over the Grave,” four colleagues agreed, and again the Unitarian Universalist was silent.

“I believe the real meaning of Easter is not only what each of you have said, but also that all people who believe in the sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus are cleansed of original sin through baptism and are restored to the favor of God and many share in His eternal Life,” said the Catholic. “Me too,” said the Nazarene. “Me too,” said the Baptist. “Me too,” said the Methodist. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.

The Nazarene said, “In addition to what has already been said, Easter symbolizes that the bodies of all people will be resurrected and joined to their souls to share their final fate. That’s what I believe.”  “Me too,” said all of the colleagues, except for the Unitarian Universalist, who continued to sit silently.

The group then turned to the minister who had been so quiet, and said, “Your silence is a mystery to us. You never chimed in.  Just what do you believe?”

And the Unitarian Universalist said: “I believe the real meaning of Easter is the appreciation of life’s renewing cycles and, truly believing that for all things there is a season – pain and suffering as well as joy and hope. I believe the real meaning of Easter is the unbelievably sad acknowledgment of a very human Jesus who was forced to die on the cross because of his religious views and his actions on behalf of the poor; and our amazement at the power of his message, which we can keep alive with our own deeds. But most importantly, I believe Easter is a celebration of the sacred that is always with us — in the birds that sing; in the flowers which sway and the grasses which rustle in the gentle breezes of spring. This, to me, is the real meaning of Easter,” said the Unitarian Universalist.

“Me too,” sang the birds. “Me too,” waved the flowers. “Me too,” rustled the grasses. “Me too,” sighed the wind. — And all the rest were silent.


Sermon    Easter Magic

What do you do when Easter is on April Fool’s Day?  It doesn’t happen often.  (The last time the two coincided was 1956.)  For some reason, all I could think of when I looked at the date was a member here who has since gone to the great beyond.  A woman who seemed older than she really was, with very set ideas of How Things Should Be, this person felt duty-bound to school me early on in my days in Watertown.  She was quite vigilant, and I never did learn precisely why, but one of the things I loved about her was that she always told me exactly what scared her.  She shared with me the time my predecessor had strode down the aisle, robe flapping, climbed behind the pulpit and commenced reading, and then literally pulled live rabbits from his sleeve on Easter Sunday. Although I found this kind of delightful, her purpose in telling me was quite the opposite.  She said her heart nearly stopped, and the goal was to make sure I did not ever attempt such a stunt. 

Recalling all this seemed a bit pointless; part of the long process of figuring out what to say this morning, when it occurred to me:  This is a resurrection of a sort – remembering; bringing the past back into the light.   This woman was also the person who called me at home on a Tuesday morning in September more than sixteen years ago.  “Turn on your tv, turn on your tv,” she kept saying; unable to explain.  Planes were flying directly into buildings; people were leaping into the sky.

Are we ever afraid of the right things? 

My original plan for a story this morning, before Jesus came to me, involved a woman who brought her chicken to church.  Baffled by Sunday school students who somehow had the idea that eggs came from bunnies, she thought that if children could see a mother hen and her chicks, they would be moved and curious and inspired.  Imagine seeing an ordinary, beige egg turn into a live chick with bright little BB-pellet eyes, downy feathers and tiny feet, peeping away! Knowing how many days were needed for the eggs to hatch, and wanting the chicks to appear on Easter, she removed the eggs from under her hen for a day, and nervously brought her cardboard box to church, hoping and praying that at least one egg would comply.

Although the children had seen Henny-Penny and her eggs for two Sundays in a row, the woman had avoided telling any adults about the project, tensing up at the thought of the perfectly dressed church lady who always seemed serious and critical, assuming that she would not approve of a lesson that involved a hen, some straw and pretty much nothing but waiting for nature to take its course.

But Easter morning she found herself peppered with curious parishioners, all wanting to know about Henny-Penny’s chicks.  The minister heard, and said, “what a great sermon illustration – bring her into church!” And this poor woman was terrified, worried she was going to disappoint her class in front of everyone.  Keeping her head down, she removed the lid to Henny’s box, only to hear a gasp going up around her.  There were three chicks, dried and fluffy like dandelion fuzz, and three wobbly wet ones.  Two more eggs were nearly cracked in half, the babies just emerging.  And four shells had tiny holes where miniature beaks were emerging.

Isabel Torrey wrote “When I looked up, I saw everyone – young and old –gathered around, silent and amazed, witnesses to the magic of new life beginning.  Tears were slipping down the cheeks of that woman I had worried about as she watched the chick break out of its shell.”

So this is an argument for the simple power of new life; the miracle of birth and beginnings. Sometimes we Unitarian Universalists get criticized for the bunnies and flowers approach to Easter; for our inability to proclaim the miracles and our failure to acknowledge life’s tragic potential. But really, our message is precisely the opposite – We know all too well that there is terrible pain and injustice in this world.  We are often too much with it; with all the mother Marys who have to watch their children suffer and die because of indifference or a lack of will on the part of those in power.  We understand calamity, and are unable to pawn it off as God’s will.  We feel duty bound to make things better, and we also despair at times.  And we also believe that there is magic in this world, if we open our eyes.  We know that miracles abound.

I think of a wonderful passage E.B. White wrote about watching his wife, Katharine, in the garden of their coastal Maine home.  “The only moment in the year when she actually got herself up for gardening was on the day in fall that she had selected, in advance, for the laying out of the spring bulb garden — a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft. The morning often turned out to be raw and overcast, with a searching wind off the water–an easterly that finds its way quickly to your bones. The bad weather did not deter Katharine: the hour had struck, the strategy of spring must be worked out according to plan….

Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, …she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, with her basketful of bulbs, ready for the intricate interment.

“As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion–the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

A book of Katharine White’s essays, called Onward and Upward in the Garden, appeared after her death, with a forward written by her husband, who said assembling the book saved his life – that it gave him her words, her voice, her spirit.  She was gone, but not gone, and her presence revived him.

So what is salvation, then? What is miraculous? 

We can anticipate that flowers will emerge in the spring if bulbs were dropped in the ground months earlier.  The hatching of chickens is somewhat of a foregone conclusion, too – given the right number of days and the right temperature and conditions, we can predict when the beaks will start pecking at the shell, emerging into the world.  And yet witnessing a completely natural event can transform us; move us in unpredictable ways.  A tear slips down the cheek.  We feel suddenly alive and found just at the moment when it seemed loss would overtake us.  This is the communion of Easter and Spring – the merging of our spiritual lives with the world we live in.  As Emerson preached, in church we must be made sensible of the fact that we are infinite souls; that God pours forth and fills us with the earth and heavens and all of life.  Sap rises in the trees that have been dormant; bunnies hop out from under the bushes, crocuses pop up and the squirrels eat them like Easter candy; and we all feel reassured that the creative forces in the universe are alive and worthy of our faith.  Spring tells us that no matter what has happened to us or what is going on in the world around us, all we have to do is wait a little longer.

But resurrection is a miracle of another order. It is not just nature, playing on infinite loop.  It can’t be anticipated or planned for, by knowing how many days an egg requires to become a chick, or how many months a bulb needs to lie in the dark before bursting through the earth.  There is no continuity with life as we know it. Which is exactly why it is such a hard thing to believe.  No one has ever seen such a thing – even in the Bible, no one sees Jesus come back to life. After the crucifixion when Mary Magdalene is at Jesus’s tomb, crying, he appears and asks her, “why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”  She mistakes the figure that speaks to her for a gardener, which is an amazing detail to include in such a sparse book.  Is it a joke? 

The Gospel seems to be making fun of Mary Magdalene’s failure to see Jesus – and maybe of ours, too. She is looking directly at Jesus, saying “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where to find him!”  Then, not only does she not recognize the man she is desperately searching for, she assumes he is the gardener! I love this, and want to believe it is a clue.  Fra Angelico painted the scene with a white-robed Jesus, a hoe resting on his left shoulder, while wildflowers bloom around his feet — a lovely, small moment of peace captured between moments of high drama and pain.  But when Mary reaches out, confused and wondering if he is real, Jesus the gardener says, “Do not touch me or try to cling to me, I am ascending to heaven.”  Go tell everyone what you have seen; don’t hold on to me.  We can’t keep all that we have loved; it can’t be grasped in our hands – but we can live, and we can keep love alive.

When I was in Divinity School, I had a New Testament professor who was completely sold on the idea that Jesus was a magician. He really meant it – he was a serious scholar, and he explained that magic in the ancient world was not what it is today.  It was not about sleight of hand or illusions.  It was real, a way of accomplishing amazing things – not by deception, but through understanding how to use power to make things happen.  Spectacular, seemingly impossible things that seemed to violate the ordinary course of nature could be accomplished.  And one of the points this teacher was trying to make was that Jesus was not a complete oddity; a singular figure who performed miracles.  He was part of a tradition of people who understood that they could, at times, harness unbelievable forces and accomplish what others believed was impossible – that it was not always enough to simply wait for nature to take its course.

What can the resurrection possibly mean if it is not about the transformation of our lives and our world right now?   What are the miracles we need today?  What is it that everyone thinks is impossible, and yet must happen if we are ever to be saved?  To borrow a phrase from a Catholic theologian, Easter means that “The Great Clean Up of a world grown evil in injustice and violence has begun, and we are called to participate in it.”   I think of Emma Gonzales, one of the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who refuses to hear that nothing can be done about mass shootings in our schools; or of Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee to remind us of the unarmed black men shot by police; of Tarana Burke, atoning for her initial silence when a camper reported sexual abuse by starting the #MeToo campaign for survivors; of William Barber, resurrecting Martin Luther King’s Poor Peoples Campaign.  

These are a few big names among the many thousands who go unrecognized; the miracle workers who spin a thread of hope out into the universe, reminding us all that an entirely different world is not only possible, it is called for.  They point us towards that which we should fear: complacency; resignation; the idea that the way things are is only natural. And I don’t mean to imply that all the things that pain us and burden our days are external – causes out there in the world.  There is sadness aplenty in just living – in the diagnoses that number our days; the losses that overwhelm; the time that slips away before we are ready; all the burdens in the saddle which ride us.

There is a famous line, reported in both Matthew and Luke, in which Jesus says, almost lamenting “Oh Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you– how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  This passage, with its notion of Jesus himself as a mother hen, collecting her little ones, is what helps convince the Sunday School teacher that it is okay to bring her own hen to church.  If a hen and chicks is good enough for Jesus, she reasons, she should be all right even among the upright and holy.  But what she tells the children is that they can each have one of Henny-Penny’s eggs, and that it is up to them to decide what to do – take it home and eat it, or leave the egg with the hen and wait for it to turn into a baby.  She lifts up the hen to reveal the eggs, and one boy poked a shell and asked, “How can she sit on them?  They’re so hard!”

“Penny wants her babies very much,” was the answer.  “She’s willing to go through hard things, just like your mother did before you were born.”  This is a nice message, perhaps.  It is that extremely rare Biblical thing, a female image of God; God as mother rather than father.  But I struggled with it. Henny Penny is depicted as passive; waiting for new life to arrive at her feet.  She submits to her eggs being removed for a day, so they would hatch at the right time; she goes along with being lifted up so people can poke at her eggs; she sits in a box and gets carried around.  It is an image of self-sacrifice, but I am not sure it is what Jesus meant.  The hen gathering her chicks was not a tender story of nurture; of a mother providing comfort while we wait for the world to unfold. 

Mother hens are fierce.  They charge at those who try to steal their children; they beat their wings and peck at the hands of those who reach into their nests.  Jesus was criticizing the leaders in Jerusalem; attacking them for their failures to protect their own citizens.  He recognized that the people were being preyed upon, that the innocent were vulnerable because those in power were not doing their jobs.  He wanted to carry those chicks away from the danger; to provide refuge – but he could not protect them under the system that existed.  He decides not to endure, but to force change.  So he made the sad, slow walk into Jerusalem, knowing what would happen. It makes me think of so many women across the globe who pray to the Virgin Mary, gathering strength, because she, too, too, lived in a world where she was compelled to watch her miraculous son suffer and die, and that it didn’t have to be that way.

The Easter story does not say Alleluia, we are all going to heaven.  And it does not tell us Jesus will do the work for us.  The message is, Jesus is raised – he has left the scene; therefore, a new creation has begun and we have got a job to do.  Like Mary Magdalene, who was crying and lost, we need to run from the tomb and tell everyone what we have seen; what is possible.  The joy is that we can see beyond what seems natural in this broken world, and begin bridging the gap between how things are and how they should be.  Nothing is dead once it has been let loose in the world.

Closing Words    from Feeling Good, by Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse 

(sung by Nina Simone)

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
For me
And I’m feeling good
I’m feeling good