“Making a New Name” – Mark W. Harris
Easter Sunday – April 24, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship (unison) #624 “Hope Again” by Clarke Dewey Wells
God of Easter and infrequent Spring:
Announce the large covenant to deceitful lands,
Drive the sweet liquor through our parched veins,
Lure us to fresh schemes of life.
Rouse us from tiredness, self-pity,
Whet us for use,
Fire us with good passion.
Restore in us the love of living,
Bind us to fear and hope again.
Time for All Ages – The Bunny Who Found Easter by Charlotte Zolotow – Mark Harris
Reading – from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
This parlor looked gloomy; a neglected handful of fire burned low in the grate, and, leaning over it, with his head supported against the high, old-fashioned mantle-piece, appeared the blind tenant of the room. His old dog, Pilot, lay on one side, removed out of the way, and coiled up as if afraid of being inadvertently trodden on. Pilot pricked up his ears when I came in, then he jumped up with a yelp and a whine, and bounded toward me; he almost knocked the tray from my hands. I set it on the table, then patted him, and said, softly, ” Lie down!” Mr. Rochester turned mechanically to see what the commotion was; but as he saw nothing, he returned and sighed.
“Give me the water, Mary,” he said.
I approached him with the now only half-filled glass; Pilot followed me, still excited.
“What is the matter?” he inquired.
“Down, Pilot!” I again said. He checked the water on its way to his lips, and seemed to listen; he drank, and put the glass down.
“This is you, Mary, is it not?”
“Mary is in the kitchen,” I answered.
He put out his hand with a quick gesture, but not seeing where I stood, he did not touch me. “Who is this? who is this ?” he demanded, trying, as it seemed, to see with those sightless eyes —unavailing and distressing attempt! “Answer me—speak again !” he ordered, imperiously and aloud.
“Will you have a little more water, sir? I spilled half of what was in the glass,” I said.
“Who is it? What is it? Who speaks?”
“Pilot knows me, and John and Mary know I am here; I came only this evening,” I answered.
“Great God! — what delusion has come over me? What sweet madness has seized me?”
“No delusion — no madness; your mind, sir, is too strong for delusion — your health too sound for frenzy.”
“And where is this speaker? Is it only a voice? Oh! I cannot see, but I must feel, or my heart will stop, and my brain burst. Whatever — whoever you are — be perceptible to the touch, or I cannot live.”
He groped; I arrested his wandering hand, and prisoned it in both mine.
“Her very ringers !” he cried; “her small slight fingers! If so, there must be more of her.”
The muscular hand broke from my custody; my arm was seized, my shoulder — neck—waist—I was entwined and gathered to him.
“Is it Jane? What is it? This is her shape — this is her size”
“And this is her voice,” I added. “She is all here; her heart, too. God bless you, sir! I am glad to be so near you again.”
“Jane Eyre! Jane Eyre!” was all he said.
“My dear master,” I answered, “I am Jane Eyre; 1 have found you out — I am come back to you.”
“In truth? In the flesh? My living Jane?”
“You touch me, sir — you hold me, and fast enough; I am not cold like a corpse, nor vacant like air, am I?”
My living darling! These are certainly her limbs, and these her features; but I cannot be so blessed after all my misery. It is a dream • such dreams as I have had at night, when I had clasped her once more to my heart, as I do now; and kissed her, as thus—and felt that she loved me, and trusted she would not leave me.”
“Which I never will, sir, from this day.”
“Never will, says the vision! But I always woke and found it an empty mockery; and I was desolate and abandoned— my life, dark, lonely, hopeless — my soul athirst and forbidden to drink — my heart famished and never to be fed. Gentle, soft dream, nestling in my arms now, you will fly, too, as your sisters have all fled before you; but kiss me before you go — embrace me, Jane.”
“There, sir — and there!”
I pressed my lips to his once brilliant and now rayless eyes—I swept his hair from his brow, and kissed that, too. He suddenly seemed to rouse himself; the conviction of the reality of all this seized him.
“It is you — is it Jane? You are come back to me, then?”
“And you do not lie dead in some ditch, under some stream? And you are not a pining outcast among strangers?”
“No, sir; I am an independent woman now.”
Sermon – “Making a New Name” – Mark W. Harris
Most everyone is heavily reliant on computers these days. We search the web for information, and to order things. We communicate at church through emails and sharing of minutes and agendas. We all wonder what life would be like without these electronic devices that fill up much of our day. We have all accommodated to this new life style, some more enthusiastically than others. One of my favorite parts of the changeover is the use of email. It has become my preferred way to communicate. But a very odd thing happened with my email address. Most of us have email address books, or at least when we are about to email someone we have emailed before, an address pops up for the intended recipient in the box marked “To.” Probably the most frequent recipient of emails from our home computer is my church computer. For years my address at church has been: email@example.com, and in our home address book it always popped up as Mark Harris. Suddenly, one Saturday I was forwarding my finished sermon to church, put in the standard address, and the name Mark Greenwood popped up. I may have thought I was imagining it, but then the next time and the time after that, there it was: Mark Greenwood. My wife Andrea swore up and down she was not conspiring to change my name to her last name, but she took no responsibility for what the computer might do on its own.
I have no objections to the name Greenwood. In fact all of my children have it as a middle name, and Andrea has sometimes said she wished I had adopted it, too. Then we could all be Greenwood Harris. I am not going to get into the issue of name change after marriage. Some people do, and some don’t. Sometimes a couple leave their respective names as is, sometimes they hyphenate, and sometimes they create an entirely new name, and both change. Any name change requires some logistical hassles because we each have so many personal identifiers, from drivers licenses to credit cards to social security (we hope on that last one). Seeing ourselves with a new name, either as a result of marriage, or even suddenly appearing in a computer, implies that a change of life has taken place, even if only in name. In my case, there was no substantial change in my life situation, but I still reacted with some bemusement. What is life trying to tell me?
A week ago, I performed a wedding ceremony for FPW member Michael McCarthy’s sister. It is always inspiring to see two people in love, committing to one another for life in faith, hope and love. Marriage experts often tell us that it is a terrible mistake to enter a marriage thinking that you can change the other person. It is just not going to happen, and will lead to years of frustration and failure. Changing a name is much easier than changing a person. Some people want to change their names. It may represent the creation of one family, or they want to give up a name that is impossibly long or too hard for anyone to pronounce. I had a friend in seminary who had survived an unhappy and abusive marriage and wanted to leave her husband’s name behind. She didn’t want to resume her father’s name either, as that also symbolized an oppressive situation to her. So one day she simply skimmed through the phone book, and randomly placed her index finger on a new name. A new name may represent a change of circumstance or a hope for a changed life.
Marriage is what happens to the most unlikely of couples, Rochester and Jane Eyre in the novel by Charlotte Bronte of that same name. Andrea and I recently saw a wonderful new film version of this classic tale. When the movie shifts to Rochester’s home, Thornfield, I was excited to see that they had done the filming at a medieval manor house called Haddon Hall, which is situated near the city of Sheffield in the midlands of England, where I have twice been a minister. The dark, forbidding mansion certainly symbolizes the difficult life Jane Eyre endured before she landed at Rochester’s house to be a governess. But we soon learn of even more forbidding secrets that exist behind the closed doors of the upper floors which yield odd noises and mysterious fires.
I normally do not cry out at movies when I see a disturbing scene, but when the orphan Jane is slapped in the head with a book by her cousin, I felt her pain and let my adjacent moviegoers know of my distress. Things only get worse for Jane when she lands at a school which closely resembles prison. Those who cannot conform are forced to stand on a chair without food, drink or human contact. We see that life is brutish, unfair, and often young girls are misunderstood and powerless. When she finally arrives at her new job at Thornfeld, we hope she will experience some relative peace and calm. That is hardly the case. Rochester is rude and brooding. Despite the fact that Jane is not his social equal, her consistent aplomb, unflagging spirit and independence intrigue him. He listens to her, and somehow they become relational equals even though by position and class they clearly are not. He falls in love with her, and she with him, but she eventually learns of his violent, mentally ill wife who resides behind those locked doors in the upper chambers. She then leaves Thornfeld sadly proclaiming how painful it is to do so, knowing of both of her love for him and the unfairness of the situation. After living with missionaries, and rebuffing the marriage proposal of another man, she returns to Thornfeld, and, as we heard in the reading, she finds Rochester has lost his eyesight in a terrible fire, but the passion in their hearts is not lost.
While Jane Eyre is not exactly a Christ figure, what struck me as I watched this movie unfold, and heard this story again, is how the Easter story, and Jane Eyre are both stark reminders that a rational universe that we can plan out, and watch unfold in an orderly fashion simply does not exist. One of the problems with Easter for Unitarian Universalists is that it tells a story that is at once tragic and depressing. The man who enters Jerusalem in triumph is mocked, condemned and then crucified. Furthermore, because we rationally cannot believe in supernatural resurrections, our story seemingly ends with Good Friday, which is not so good, especially if you need a happy ending. We like to go straight to Easter without the Good Friday. Yet whose life is rational and planned? Surely both Jesus and Jane Eye live in extreme situations, but think of my friend from seminary. She had a husband who wanted to control her, and threatened her with her very life if she did not conform to his demands. Even escaping from his efforts to make her do exactly as he wishes, does not win her any kind of life of ease. She must raise two children on her own, and see them through any illnesses or trials with little help. This allows her to gain inner strength she never knew she had. And so she confronts every institution, medical and educational and social, that would deny them what they need. She finds mentors in books and classes and ultimately through friendships and a community that helps her. And finally, she becomes, as a result of these relationships, and her own inner fortitude, a strong, new person. And that phone book moment, when she chose the name, was the resurrection moment. Life will be different now. I am going to seize my own power and move forward.
My friend was not the easiest person to be around sometimes, as she carried a certain amount of anger and bitterness. One can also readily see that Jane is not easy either. And neither are we. We know this to be true in our deepest relationships as well. Life may make us tough, but love can soften some of those edges. When we know ultimately that we can trust each other, and be safe with each other, and respect each other, then those edges are not as sharp, even as they still exist. In fact the love exists between Jane and Rochester because they do not fundamentally change who they are, they simply find a way to be together where their passion is empowered and lived out. So the Easter message is not that we need to become new people, but that we take on a new name, when we affirm and live by our deepest integrity, and resolve to go deeper into relationship with one another. I have thought about this quite a bit this spring as I resolve to reinvent my ministry here after fifteen years. It is much easier to have positional or personal authority, and simply live by your own agenda and try to have everyone respond to that. Who wouldn’t want that? In the annual report this year I wrote “It is not easy to teach an old dog, who likes to be in charge of everything, some new tricks.” Collaboration is not an either/or, but a back and forth. How are we going to be together? It is not my taking authority from you, or you taking authority from me. It is about sharing it in relationship. It may be more work, or more time, or even more frustration, but it will take us deeper into understanding ourselves and human relationships.
This sense of relationship is at the heart of the Easter story. Everyone over time has invented countless names for Jesus. He has been the messiah, the son of God, the good shepherd, the healer, the magician, even the Lord of the universe. To Christians he is Lord and savior, and to most of us, he is the great teacher. We all have a name for him. Scholars say he never called himself the messiah, but preferred son of God, even as we are all children of the divine. The Romans seem to have mockingly called him the King of the Jews, and ironically the kind of Judaism he proclaimed has survived. We have all tried to name him the Jesus we want. Even we UUs have made him the social reformer of love and equality for all, or our own ethical standard bearer. His deepest relationships were with the disciples. Many of them showed their personal failings in Jesus’ waning moments. They denied him and abandoned him, even as the women were there to bear witness unto the very end. This shows the all too present human failings we often find in one another, and yet there remains hope and trust in the women who remain at his side, and even the thief who affirms him on the cross. It is us affirming, and it is us denying him. It is us helping to keep watch. We are all parts of the story, holding forgiveness as a possibility, even after we have failed one another. My grade school teacher always said, no name calling, meaning the derogatory words we used to put down another person. On the other hand, to know someone’s name is to have deeper knowledge of them We each have these many names, just as we are caring and supportive, we have also denied and abandoned. Can we recognize ourselves in each other?
How can we go deeper into ourselves to discover transformation that is both self-affirming, yet not swallowed up in denial of our own failings? How can we continue to strive to reinvent ourselves? Malcolm X, the great Black Muslim leader, once told Alex Haley, “My whole life has been a chronology of changes.” In his case you could chronicle those changes by the names he took. He was Malcolm Little at first, but later he became the numbers runner, Detroit Red, and in prison took on the name of Satan. Then he was the charismatic leader Malcolm X, and finally when he converted to be a Sunni Muslim, he changed one last time. His names reflected who he was, or perhaps they reflected an ever evolving person. Those who became Black Muslims then were seeking freedom from historical slave names, and it was one way to say I am black and I am proud. We perhaps remember it best with Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali. Fundamentally, the name was a sign of integrity, and an invitation to be in relationship with a person who was not a slave, but free to be listened to, and to be spoken to with care. Together we would hope to honor our differences, and assume a kind of trust for respectful relationships with others. It was difficult for Malcolm X because he had a history of being a black man in America, and that history made him suspicious and mistrustful of everyone.
Yet we are all complex beings, full of contradictions, resentments and ultimately hopes. We want to be understood. We want to be loved and valued and listened to. Jane Eyre found that, and she pursued it. Her relationship was damaged along the way, but she returned to it. Even if only for an hour, a day, a week or a year, we want to realize a greater love. The Easter story says we can do that, but it is not easy. We have to open our heart into a change of living. It requires a more open heart from us, and that is what makes it so difficult. I will live, not by changing who I am, but by opening up more of who I am capable of being. My names are not merely husband, father, brother, son, minister, or the evolving Markie, Mark or Rev. Mark, they are the voices in me calling me to wake to you, to truly hear you, that you might listen to me, and I to you, that together we would truly call each others names, and know the pain and longing that each possesses, that our hearts would open, so that we hear each other’s crosses that we have hung from, and that we would hang together, and say yes, with common gratitude for this moment in life we share. Yes, this life has given us some pain. Now let us rejoice in this day, for this fleeting time of life, and for the love which is possible, and for everything, which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.
Closing Words from Thich Nhat Hanh (adapted)
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. . . .
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.