“Moving Stones” by Andrea Greenwood – April 12, 2009

Moving Stones
Easter Service
The First Parish of Watertown
April 12, 2009
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

OPENING WORDS
from E E Cummings, my father moved through dooms of Love

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if (so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who, his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots….

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

Story Beatrix Potter, The tale of the flopsy bunnies 1904

It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is “soporific.” I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit. They certainly had a very soporific effect upon the Flopsy Bunnies!

When Benjamin Bunny grew up, he married his Cousin Flopsy. They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful. I do not remember the separate names of their children; they were generally called the “Flopsy Bunnies.” As there was not always quite enough to eat,–Benjamin used to borrow cabbages from Flopsy’s brother, Peter Rabbit, who kept a nursery garden.

Sometimes Peter Rabbit had no cabbages to spare. When this happened, the Flopsy
Bunnies went across the field to a rubbish heap, in the ditch outside Mr. McGregor’s garden. Mr. McGregor’s rubbish heap was a mixture. There were jam pots and paper bags, and mountains of chopped grass from the mowing machine (which always tasted oily), and some rotten vegetable marrows and an old boot
or two. One day–oh joy!–there were a quantity of overgrown lettuces, which had “shot” into flower.

The Flopsy Bunnies simply stuffed lettuces. By degrees, one after another, they were overcome with slumber, and lay down in the mown grass. Benjamin was not so much overcome as his children. Before going to sleep he was sufficiently wide awake to put a paper bag over his head to keep off the flies.

The little Flopsy Bunnies slept delightfully in the warm sun. From the lawn beyond the garden came the distant clacketty sound of the mowing machine. The blue-bottles buzzed about the wall, and a little old mouse picked over the rubbish among the jam pots. (I can tell you her name, she was called Thomasina Tittle-mouse, a woodmouse with a long tail.) She rustled across the paper bag, and awakened Benjamin Bunny.

The mouse apologized profusely, and said that she knew Peter Rabbit.

While she and Benjamin were talking, close under the wall, they heard a heavy tread above their heads; and suddenly Mr. McGregor emptied out a sackful of lawn mowings right upon the top of the sleeping Flopsy Bunnies! Benjamin shrank down under his paper bag. The mouse hid in a jam pot.

The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific. They dreamt that their mother Flopsy was tucking them up in a hay bed.

Mr. McGregor looked down after emptying his sack. He saw some funny little brown tips of ears sticking up through the lawn mowings. He stared at them for some time.

Presently a fly settled on one of them and it moved. Mr. McGregor climbed down onto the rubbish heap– “One, two, three, four! five! six leetle rabbits!” said he as he dropped them into his sack. The Flopsy Bunnies dreamt that their mother was turning them over in bed. They stirred a little in their sleep, but still they did not wake up.

Mr. McGregor tied up the sack and left it on the wall. He went to put away the mowing machine. While he was gone, Mrs. Flopsy Bunny (who had remained at
home) came across the field. She looked suspiciously at the sack and wondered where everybody was?

Then the mouse came out of her jam pot, and Benjamin took the paper bag off his head, and they told the doleful tale. Benjamin and Flopsy were in despair, they could not undo the string. But Mrs. Tittlemouse was a resourceful person. She nibbled a hole in the bottom corner of the sack.

The little rabbits were pulled out and pinched to wake them. Their parents stuffed the empty sack with three rotten vegetable marrows, an old blackingbrush and two decayed turnips. Then they all hid under a bush and watched for Mr. McGregor. Mr. McGregor came back and picked up the sack, and carried it off. He carried it hanging down, as if it were rather heavy.

The Flopsy Bunnies followed at a safe distance. They watched him go into his house.
And then they crept up to the window to listen. Mr. McGregor threw down the
sack on the stone floor in a way that would have been extremely painful to the Flopsy Bunnies, if they had happened to have been inside it. They could hear him drag his chair on the flags, and chuckle– “One, two, three, four, five, six
leetle rabbits!” said Mr. McGregor.

“Eh? What’s that? What have they been spoiling now?” enquired Mrs. McGregor.

“One, two, three, four, five, six leetle fat rabbits!” repeated Mr. McGregor, counting on his fingers –“one, two, three–“

“Don’t you be silly: what do you mean, you silly old man?”

“In the sack! one, two, three, four, five, six!” replied Mr. McGregor. (The youngest Flopsy Bunny got upon the windowsill.) Mrs. McGregor took hold of the sack and felt it. She said she could feel six, but they must be old rabbits, because they were so hard and all different shapes.

“Not fit to eat; but the skins will do fine to line my old cloak.”

“Line your old cloak?” shouted Mr. McGregor–“I shall sell them and buy myself baccy!”

“Rabbit tobacco! I shall skin them and cut off their heads.” Mrs. McGregor untied the sack and put her hand inside. When she felt the vegetables she became very very angry. She said that Mr. McGregor had “done it a purpose.”

And Mr. McGregor was very angry too. One of the rotten marrows came flying through the kitchen window, and hit the youngest Flopsy Bunny. It was rather hurt.

Then Benjamin and Flopsy thought that it was time to go home.

So Mr. McGregor did not get his tobacco, and Mrs. McGregor did not get her rabbit skins.

But next Christmas Thomasina Tittlemouse got a present of enough rabbit wool to make herself a cloak and a hood, and a handsome muff and a pair of warm mittens.

Spoken Meditation
Easter is a time of new beginnings, which are traditionally prepared for by confession. So we begin this time of meditation and prayer mindful of all lies within our own hearts. On this wondrous day, we acknowledge that we have sometimes failed to see and to respect what we see. We are sometimes unfair, and judging — of others, and of ourselves. Reminded of the sanctities of life, we are ashamed of our disrespects and indignities; of our failure to revere this creation. We make these confessions in order to create room in our hearts to do better; to seek the gifts of the spirit; to be devoted to life and its possibilities.
So let us enter into silence, and cast off that which needs to be laid to rest. And let us say goodbye to those things that we must let go.

And cleansed, open, with room in our hearts, strengthened not only by letting go of old struggles and failures, but by acknowledging that we all need to do this; that we are all the same in our need to begin again, in love. Love for yourself — for who you are, not just who you might become — and love for one another. Not perfect love. Not easy love. But love that lets us live, now; on this new day.

Amen

Reading Sisyphus

The reading this morning is more of a “telling.” I want to talk a little about Sisyphus. I am sure that many of you know him through the story made popular by Camus in the mid-2oth century, which emphasizes how Sisyphus had to work forever on the exact same task. As soon as he rolled his boulder to the top of a hill, it went back down and he had to begin again. Long ago, before there were existentialist philosophers like Camus, people believed that this story was was used to explain the rising and setting of the sun; that is, that constant work represented not a story about an individual, but the work of nature. In this interpretation of Sisyphus, his rock represents the sun, rising just to the top of the sky every day only to sink back down again and submit to darkness before rising once again. Camus’ telling changed it from a cosmological story, which explained how the universe works; to a humanist story; the story of a man who would rather work honestly on his own terms than be ruled by silly gods.

But there is more to Sisyphus’ story than the endless ending, where he moves the stone up; watches it fall back, and moves it up again. His story is first told in Homer’s Odyssey, where we learn that his father was King Aeoleus, the ruler of Thessaly and founder of Corinth. Sisyphus himself became King of Corinth, an ancient Greek city which we are perhaps more familiar with as the recipient of so many letters from the disciple Paul, who tried valiantly to get that community to behave in the ways he thought they should. Knowing that they had once been ruled by Sisyphus, we might have an idea about why getting them to embrace love and faith was such a challenge. Sisyphus was notorious for being cunning and clever, but not for having a lot of respect for the gods.

Fairly early in his reign, Sisyphus learned how to use knowledge for gain. A young girl named Egina was carried off by Jupiter, who had a way of doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The girl’s father was traumatized by this. Some people were excited and flattered when the gods mingled with their families; and maybe this man would have been, too, if he had known what had happened; who had taken Egina, and where she was. But he didn’t. However, Sisyphus did; he had seen Jupiter take the girl. But he wouldn’t tell what he knew until he got the father to promise that he would build aqueducts to bring water to the citadel of Corinth. This was not a very compassionate act at all, if you are thinking about the girl, or the father. But it did help the community, and it also showed interesting values. There were not many people who would risk the wrath of the gods, especially the major gods, by tattling on them to mortals. Sisyphus did it, and not so much for personal gain as to help the city. He was known as someone whose kingdom flourished.

It was towards the end of his life that Sisyphus really became the stuff of legends. Hades left his reign in the Underworld to fetch Sisyphus and bring him to the Kingdom of the Dead. Knowing the King’s capacity for tricks, Hades brought along handcuffs. They were a new invention, and Hades was excited, and thought they would help him keep Sisyphus controlled. But Sisyphus new that Hades was as excited by his new toy as we all are when we get something new. He pretended to be entranced by the silver bracelets; fascinated and curious about how they would be used and how they worked. He persuaded Hades to show him, and of course when Hades demonstrated, he did it on his own hands. Sisyphus then threw the lord of the Underworld in a closet, where he remained for days.

Now, this was a problem, and not just for Hades. The whole world went mad. Without Hades, no one could die. Soldiers were killed in battle, yet they did not die; and in fact still showed up at camp for dinner. A king could order a beheading, but the body could not help but live on. Eventually the chaos in his own kingdom convinced Sysiphus to let Hades out, and he lost no time in giving Sisyphus his marching orders. He was to report to the Underworld for his eternal assignment.

But Sisyphus, as I said, was smart. His strategy was ingenius. He told his wife not to bury him when he died. She left his body in the public square, and he woke up in the Underworld; where naturally, all sorts of problems emerged. Unburied corpses could not be on the far side of the River Styx in the first place, but since his wife had not put the gold coin under his tongue — which was the payment for Charon, the ferry man — Sisyphus could not be brought to Hades anyway! Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, spoke to Sisyphus, who explained that he really wanted the proper burial and the honors attendant with it. Persephone let Sisyphus go back to the land of the living, where he would have a word with his wife. This time, he promised, she would do it right.

Well, once he was back in the sunshine and with his wife, Sisyphus forgot all about what he owed to Hades. He managed to stay alive for quite a while longer, avoiding and ignoring all the angry threats before being summoned below ground again in a way he could not escape. He was treated not only as a criminal, but as one whose crimes were against the gods, and so he was sentenced to eternity at hard labor. And that is where the boulder, and the hill come into the story, and stay. The stone is still being rolled up, rolling away, and being moved again.

Sermon Moving Stones

Everyone knows the story of Easter Sunday, right? It is that moment when mourning turns into joy; when specific absence becomes overwhelming presence. It doesn’t happen all at once, though. Before there is gladness, there is confusion, disorientation, and a lot of disbelief. The happiness takes its time in coming. We might forget this, because for us the expectations have all changed. We wake up knowing the outcome of the story; hearing “He is risen; he is risen indeed”; ready to wear white, to have a parade of fancy hats; to find treasures hiding under the shrubs and in the grass. But the original Easter wasn’t like that. No one was expecting it to be a good day. It was the first day of the work week. Mary, Salome, and Mary have gone to the cave where Jesus’s body has been unceremoniously tossed, wondering how they will get in so they can anoint him with myrrh and show the respect that was denied him when he died. They didn’t believe in working on the sabbath, so they have left the body just for two nights and one day, and first thing at the new week, they are walking to him, carrying spices and oils. Their hands are full, and they know there is stone blocking the entrance to the cave, and it is really big, and they are problem solving about how to move that stone, when suddenly they are confronted with the knowledge that they do not have to. The stone is gone.

Is this a good thing? It is true that they were wondering how they would move that stone. Somehow, they are saved from having to do it. But it is not a relief. In a way, it is a further loss. Being responsible for opening that cave connected them to Jesus. Moving the stone themselves would have extended their time with him, and given them a way to process what had happened. What the women had wanted to do; what they had planned to do; was give Jesus a proper burial. That is really the only comfort they have left, now that Jesus is dead: burial in accordance with their tradition. They can prepare the body, eulogize the man; remember him and feel the comfort we feel when we do what our traditions and our communities ritually do. We accept this loss. We commemorate this life, and mark it in time, and in a place. But the stone has been moved, and that changes the whole story.

The first thought is that Jesus’s body has been stolen; that he is being persecuted even in death; and that his followers are still in danger even though at the time of his death, he really had no disciples. Judas had given him over to the Romans; Peter had pretended not to know him, and each did what he needed to do in order to stay safe. Salome, who was Jesus’ aunt as well as the mother of two of the disciples, had good reason to flee from the cave and go find James and John. She did not go proclaiming the good news. She went to warn them; to plan. The world had turned upside down, and even though Jesus had been crucified, and his body sealed in a tomb, this drama was not finished. Nothing is as it was expected to be. But no one believes her. How did this get to be a happy ending?

When the stone is in place, the story is over; the cave is closed. Jesus is dead, and his body will join those we have loved and lost. It is a story we are familiar with, even if we do not like it very much. In a way, it is a story we live with every day: knives behind locked doors in a nice Milton home, or in Weston; guns in an immigration center in Binghamton; in quiet neighborhoods in Pittsburgh; in a sleeping household in California. A scientist predicts an earthquake in Italy and is hushed; told he is scaring people; and the earthquake comes and a city crumbles. Every day the news brings us these stories and they end the way tragedies end: with death, and mourning, and a piece of us that dies with the loss, and there is burial and we continue; diminished but alive. And this is what Mary, Salome and Mary expected on that day a couple hundred centuries ago. But it isn’t what happened. And at first they were afraid, and then probably angry, too — they were cheated out of the ending they knew was coming; the one they were prepared for. But then, instead of the story ending, it suddenly starts all over, and takes us to some unexpected places. The stone moves, and everything opens up. You think you know what happened, but you don’t. Even in death, Jesus has forced the mourners to reimagine everything, especially what matters. The things the women were most concerned with become irrelevant. It turns out that there is some work we do not need to do. It was not necessary to worry about moving that stone. It is not necessary to prepare a body with oils. It is not necessary to think up the exact right words to sum up a life. But we do have to think differently. And that is where the joy begins.

In Sisyphus’ story, the rock didn’t block a space, but it does trap him; it governs his whole existence. His stone does not move mysteriously, either. We know it is pushed up with great effort, and then rolls down because of natural law. Camus says that the rock is grief, and the weight of our sorrow and anguish is boundless. We can bear it only for a little while, and then must stop; and the stone falls, and we rest, and then take up the task again. Camus wrote of that pause; of that decision to turn at the top of the hill and follow the stone down to the bottom: “These are our nights in Gethsemane.” He gives us a picture of a lone man, at the top of the hill, with the massive weight of grief at the bottom, who goes and joins the burden; puts his shoulder to it, and moves the grief back up the hill. This image can feel true. We are so often lonely, and we do live through unbearable sorrows, and we think we have to triumph over pain. So Sisyphus uses all his strength to roll that ball of grief up the hill, and has one moment of relief, before he succumbs again, and is stuck with the same task. Moving the stone.

The women did not have to move the stone at all. It was done for them. Which story feels more like your life? Which feels more true? Life can be hard. It crushes us; and we keep on. But even though it it is the same task over and over — finding a seat on the same crowded bus; sitting in the same traffic; facing the same keyboard or the same colleagues; standing in the same unemployment line; cooking the same meal; teaching your child the same thing; folding the same laundry — even though our tasks remain largely the same, it is not the sameness of our days that tells us who we are. Think of Sisyphus’s life! He challenged the gods. He tried to outsmart death and it was a disaster — all order was lost. He decided natural law was necessary. But he still kept negotiating: What if I am not buried correctly? What if there is no coin under my tongue; then what? Just how much do these traditions rule us? What are we in charge of, and what is in charge of us? Maybe he was an indulgent man who loved to linger in the sun; maybe he enjoyed having powers that let him stave off natural disaster; maybe it was fun for him to outsmart gods. Maybe he really loved his wife and his life and he just didn’t want anything to end. But under his leadership, people rethought the laws that governed them. And in the process, a community was built. A father whose daughter was gone worked alongside others, who shared his labor and his pain. With the truth of his loss exposed, the community grew. It was a public works project which would not would have happened if his grief had stayed private.

The women go quietly to anoint the body of Jesus, and find it is gone. Suddenly, the task they had for themselves is completely changed: instead of burying Jesus, they rush off to save others; to warn them; and that is what gets them together as a community again. The scattered disciples were brought together because the stone has been moved. What if the stone was blocking the entrance to the cave; if the women had worked all morning to move it, had entered the cave, prepared the body, sealed the tomb, and then gone home, exhausted and alone, knowing that they had done all that needed to be done? Then everyone would have known where he was buried, and no one would have learned to see in new ways. No one would have had a reason to think about what endures, and what does not. The story would have been over.

Easter is not about an easy happiness that frees us from pain. Instead, it asks us to understand what must die, and what can live in spite of the terms of our existence. And it is a day that asks us not to be too sure. We don’t know the ending. Things change. Sometimes our culture skips over this part, and goes straight to the part where Jesus is in heaven, and all who can see him enthroned there are saved; and everything is new and we are all happy and life is eternal and maybe we are all even wealthy, too. But this ending is just like taking Sisyphus’s story and only remembering the end; skipping all he did in Corinth and only talking about his days in Hades. And this is not what the story says; not even in the New Testament. It is actually the opposite of the story: as closed and predictable an ending as if the stone had never been moved. And one of the worst things about that ending; the one so many people seem to embrace; is that it isolates us in our grief. By controlling the ending, having the happy new life forced upon us, we do not get to share our pain, our anger, our confusion. We do not get to come together and say “The story I am living is not the one I expected.” This holiday is a profound recognition of both the natural cycle of living and dying, AND of our human power to refuse to live within the same old story — about ourselves, about our world, about our ideals. It is the sun which rises and sets of its own accord with no effort on our part; and the life we live under that pattern. There are laws we must live with, and there are traditions, customs, habits that we let govern us. We need to know which is which. New life comes not miraculously, from outside ourselves; but naturally, when we can be humble enough to see the ways in which we have been slaves to our pasts; slaves to our own expectations.

This is not a throwing off of the old; or an abandoning of tradition. It is about deeper truths — physical death and its relationship to spiritual death; the life of an individual versus the life of a people. It was Jesus’s love of the Passover tradition that brought him to Jerusalem, even though he knew what would happen there. At the time Jesus lived, this holiday was already a thousand years old. It commemorates the Hebrew’s escape from slavery in Egypt; an escape which happened when the final plague was sent. This was to cause the death of all the first born sons in the land, but the Hebrew community sacrificed a lamb, and marked the doorways of their homes with its blood. The angel of death passed over the marked houses, and their children were spared. So Jesus spent his time in Gethsemane praying about Passover. He was not alone; the disciples were there, and they knew what he was thinking about. Should he hide with fear, which will let him stay alive, or should he go and celebrate the holiday which thanks God for letting his tribe live? He chooses to keep the tradition, to keep faith with his ideals; to go to Jerusalem and face the Roman rulers, and all of his disciples scatter. His actions remind us that we can be in bondage in all sorts of ways; especially when we think we already know how the story ends. Even when we cannot choose what happens, we can choose our response. Mourning, or praise. Despair, or joy. Passivity, or action. Neither choice is supernatural, but joy, praise and action do not just happen naturally, either. It is disorienting, takes effort, and exposes us in all of our pain and fear.

It is Easter. But sometimes we do not feel joy, and then we feel worse for not feeling it as we believe we should. The world is a scary place, and there is not peace. Not yet. Sometimes not even in our own hearts. It isn’t just the world that hurts us; we sabotage ourselves too, by thinking that the future will follow inevitably from what has already been. We live among the dead when we think this way. And here is the real message of Easter: It is not true that we must bear grief alone, and NOTHING is inevitable. So we can let our burdens fall away. If you have pushed your ball of grief as long and as hard as you can, step aside and let it roll away. You do not need to follow it. And you do not need to behave the way you always have. And this is true no matter what you carry — sadness, perhaps; but also perfectionism or self-loathing or hyper-responsibility or dependency. There are many ways we bury ourselves.

Sometimes laying our burdens down is actually harder than carrying them. It can be easier not to change. It might have been easier to find the stone unmoved, still blocking the cave. But when we tear down the barriers that have been ruling us, and those stones fall, we do create a new foundation. And it is stronger one, because we can see it. It is natural, governed by gravity. And it is shared — everybody else’s stones are falling as well, until they begin rising up; building something new together. The weight that crushes us when we are alone becomes something solid, holding us up, when we share it. It is not just Jesus who rises up from the grave. It is us, too — rising from our own expectations; changing our own stories; coming to life again in ways that hurt, as they move us to places we cannot yet believe in. There is some work we must do for ourselves, and there are also things we worry about needlessly. There are some burdens that are taken from us, and we don’t always know how, and we don’t get to choose when. But it will happen. Things shift and move and even disappear with no effort of our own, and then — we are alive again, and it is Easter, and there is joy.
So may it be.

Closing Words from Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth 1798

Wordsworth is talking about what he can see near the abbey, and specifies the forms of nature: cliffs, trees, a cave:

I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, —
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

E E Cummings my father moved through dooms of Love

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if(so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who, his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead he called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly (over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is

proudly and (by octobering flame
beckoned) as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine, passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear, to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit, all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why man breathe—
because my father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all