“What’s Good About Good Friday?” Mark W. Harris
Easter 2016 – March 27, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “spring song” by Lucille Clifton
the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible
Reading – “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
(with thanks to colleagues Carl Scovil and John Nichols)
I am hoping people will sing “Morning has Broken” at my funeral. I think about such things all the time even as I plan services for other people. If you fill out one of our First Parish End of Life Planning Forms, it asks: Do you have special music, hymns or writings you want included in the service?. Charlyn emailed me just this week asking for a friend about appropriate hymns for a memorial service. Are there any typical ones?, she wondered. There are a few that fit that category like “Abide With Me,” but there are also those that may be particular favorites that we hope people will sing to remember us by. “Morning has Broken” has always been one of my favorites, partly because it was a popular hit in my youth when Cat Stevens turned it into a gold record. A few years hence, he converted to Islam, changed his name, and stopped performing for a while, but he is still there for me singing away in the memory of my youth. This hymn had been present in UU hymnal since 1937 but was virtually unknown, but after Cat Stevens it became the most popular hymn of them all. So there it is rising in our voices, or “lilting” about as Dylan Thomas says, in our youth, in our faith, and with its theme of the beauty and glory of life in the spring, too. Welcome to Easter.
This hymn praises new life. For us Easter may mean the conquering of winter and the return of spring. But for Christians, lets face it, Easter is about conquering death. It is rising from the tomb, and offering the promise of eternal life. As most of you know, many UUs are suspect of this theology. We generally don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and by and large don’t accept that anyone does, as it defies natural law. Those things that are born must die, including us. Some UUs leave the idea of an afterlife as an open question. We prefer to wait and see, and we may have our hopes. Easter then becomes a religious dilemma for us. Easter may become a celebration of spring, or it may be a reinterpretation of the resurrection theme, finding new life after a devastating loss, or freedom after being the victim of oppression, or even when some kind of burden is lifted from our lives, and we feel some sense of starting fresh.
Religiously speaking we UUs have not done a good job of ritualizing this resurrection story. We go straight from the beautiful but humble birth of Christmas to the joy of new life in spring, but there are no trials or tribulations in between, and no Passion narrative. Good Friday has never had a lot of traction among UUs. Yet if you look at our beliefs, this is really where we leave Jesus. We have the triumphant entry to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, and finally the empty tomb. He’s dead. Our story is pretty much like the one told in the original version of the Gospel of Mark, which did not include resurrection appearances. The writer of Mark, may have been the first UU. What’s so “good” about Jesus’ violent and seemingly failed end of life? To me it is a worthy lesson in how to understand our personal fate, and how to face death. Could this be our Easter message?
The poem “Fern Hill” has some powerful messages about life and death. Dylan Thomas describes how good things are when you are young and green. You have energy, you have strength, you have get up and go. He remembers the beauty of the farm. But who’s got the real power in this life? It is time. Time’s got the power because time is fleeting. But Thomas also refers to “once below a time.” There is something deeper at play here. Then the poet realizes that he has lived with an illusion of an eternity of happiness and joy when things would always be green and golden. It is just not true, and now he feels cheated. Yet what is below time is the understanding that the whole time he was young and green, he was also dying. Dying is part of living, and some of it is happening each day, and if we are aware of that, then the big dying will not be so horrific, and we will not feel so cheated. “Time,” Thomas says, “held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” Can we sing, in this chain of time?
This year has been a time of goodbyes as Andrea and I careen towards eventually being empty nesters. Our son Dana’s absence at college did not really affect me too much, because we continued to have two boys at home, plus there was a moment or two when we could have the television for our own use, and didn’t have to listen to his sports talk shows which are incessantly loud and annoying. More recently Levi has moved to a condominium in Lowell. This is an experiment of sorts to see how he does on his own, but it is also an experiment of sorts for us, too. He was often out at night finding a poetry slam or going to a club, and as some Dads are wont to do, I liked to know when he was home safe and warm. Now I keep waiting for him at night, only to realize that he won’t be back. What to do about dinner when your best eater is gone? I walk by his room, now literally empty of furniture and him. As annoyed as I sometimes was by the daily conversations about computers, or the echo of maudlin Japanese music for anime television shows, I miss him; I miss them. It is a rehearsal for my own time to feel sadness over all that I will miss when I have to say goodbye.
So we must move on in life, and say our goodbyes to what was. Perhaps it begins with our parents reading Goodnight Moon, and we practice saying goodbye to all those things in our bedroom that give us comfort and pleasure, and make it home. The night brings sleep. Many more of these little dyings are then forthcoming in due time – day care, school, and moving out of the house, and each one changes us and changes the other person, too. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was martyred by the Nazis wrote about the first Christmas he spent away from home. “Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try and find anything. . . . That sounds very hard at first . . . but . .. leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us.” He says there is pain because of the emptiness, but it keeps the communion alive. So we don’t replace what was lost, even as we move on to something different and new. With grief, there are no replacement parts, there is instead a sadness that will always be present. Levi is not one for hugging much, but when he first moved to Lowell, Andrea and I said goodbye to him, and we stopped to hug. He will never be replaced in our lives, but we now can believe that he has a place where he can have a life of his own without us. It is painful in one way, but also a little dying that gently reminds us of the larger course of life.
In the Gospel of Luke, the writer describes a scene not long after Jesus was crucified and taken to the tomb. The two Marys go there, and find an empty tomb. They were perplexed at first, and then met two men who terrified them. The men said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” When someone we love dies, they go away from us and out of our lives forever, and it would be foolish to look for them. But here in the case of Jesus, the men tell the women look for him among the living. They went to prepare his body, but they couldn’t, because he rose from the dead. And the truth of the matter is that we do find the dead among the living. Think of the power of a wake where the litany of stories evokes the presence of the person we loved. Word pictures bring them back to life, and its true for each of us as we go through the movements of our days that we act out many of the motions of our parents, or meet them again in our dreams, or invoke their presence when we literally taste that favorite stew they made, or saw their face peering out the window as we drove off to school, or delivered that moral invective to treat our partners with the utmost respect and understanding. They still live because those who made a lasting impact upon us are never dead to us. They are not in the tomb, but are still with us, and just as Levi’s moving away changes my relationship to him, so a death changes my relationship to that person, and yet that relationship is never lost, and they continue to influence my life. Jesus knew this at the Last Supper when he suggests they remember him in word and deed. Any time there is such love, or such influence, the person remains with us in waking thoughts and actions, and as I said, in dreams. Just last night my ex-in-laws appeared in my dream. I was very close to them, and the divorce was hard on everyone. In the dream I got a chance to be with them, seeming so alive, as I preached in their church.
Maybe the experience of the living with the dead is the one of time below time. We think of time in different ways. Last weekend we sprung ahead with clock time, counting the hour we lost. We do the same with time zones and jet lag. We mostly live by clocks, but we also use time in the sense of talking about a state of being. Like when I say I am going through a tough time. In the Passion story, there is some clock time, where Jesus hangs on the cross, dies, and then lies buried in the tomb for three days. But sometimes time is no longer one day or hour after another. Most ambitions or goals in life belong to what Thomas called the green time. Usually as we get older our achievements lessen, and we accept that either we achieved this goal or else it will never be. Not always, but mostly that’s true. We no longer measure in years things like education and jobs. The future is no longer a ladder that you are climbing, but instead you live in more of a perpetual present, where depth of feeling, or action must happen now. Jesus said the kingdom of God is now. We might say embrace each day. The other night in the End of Life class one of the people depicted in the Frontline PBS special spoke about how his last days of life were some of the best days of his life. That is because he stopped thinking about what he could achieve in time, and lived instead in deeper relationship to those people who were most important to him. He also said as his world became smaller, his life became bigger. We strive toward intimacy in anticipation of loss.
This means we become alive to the present. Think about your favorite authors. Many of them are dead, some for centuries, but this does not diminish their power in your life. I don’t need to have Emerson walking around his house in Concord to be moved by the Divinity School address and wonder whether our worship is too cold, or Hawthorne does not need to be brooding about the House of the Seven Gables to help me contemplate how mean we can be to one another, or Emily Dickinson telling us she’s a nobody, too, and we feel a sense of humility with all humanity. They are alive to us still. These favorites give birth to a new power in us to discover meaning in life and truths about ourselves. They nourish us in the green days of youth even though they are dead.
We have to be alive to the present not only of the dead living in us, but also of those who are still alive. If we were to live forever we would lose the poignancy and power of living, and the immediate need to be present to each other. We would put the need for love, forgiveness and affirmation off until another day. Moreover if our kids stayed little forever, we would lose the ability to see how cute they are in those fleeting moments. Ten years of their being two might lead to mayhem, or even worse, can you imagine ten years of teenagers who never mature? Ten years of sports talk would make me permanently insane. We need them to grow up, we need maturity, we need to see the green time end, and embrace that life is short and temporal. We need to talk about it with those we love. We need our own last suppers, where we tell our loved ones we do indeed love and forgive them, and we ask that they do the same for us. Do this in memory of me. This is the goodness of Good Friday. We can live with love and passion and forgiveness and hope in the very few days we have. In the poem Late Fragment, Raymond Carver writes:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
On August 11, 1841, Frederick Douglass made his first public speech at a convention in Nantucket. The idea of addressing white people was what he called a severe cross to him, because he said he would still feel a slave. Yet the act of speaking itself was liberating for Douglass, and he wrote, “I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom.” Furthermore the effect on others was profound. William Lloyd Garrison responded to the experience, “I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment..” He had a deeply personal opportunity to feel what this experience inflicted on others. The godlike nature of its victims was “rendered far more clear than ever.” Douglass was no longer a slave, but he made Garrison feel present to this terror in the moment. Dying on the cross, slavery, and our own death are three very different things, but there is a parallel. We must become alive to the sufferings of life, some terrible beyond belief, and never forget that when we live with passion for one another in this very moment, we will find new life. We will know how Jesus was treated when he tried to preach love one another. We will know what Frederick Douglass experienced, when he just wanted to be free. We will know empathy for one another when all we ever wanted was to feel ourselves beloved. In a few weeks we will have a banner hanging on our church, which says the same words you can now see in our Wayside Pulpit, “Blacks Lives Matter.”
An Episcopal church in New York City asked, what does it mean for a church to hang this banner? One member of that congregation said: “This is not a political statement. This is the same as hanging a crucifix on our outside wall.” Perhaps it means that Jesus death on the cross, and Frederick Douglass’ human degradation still call out to our souls that all lives do indeed matter. It’s not about merely embracing the fate that awaits us, it is an invitation to remember that the deaths of others, and our own finitude are always with us calling us to live with passion and empathy now, and live for justice now, knowing ‘I Can’t Breathe'” until we do.
Closing Words – A Tomb is No Place to Stay: An Easter Meditation”
by Richard S. Gilbert
A tomb is no place to stay,
Be it a cave in the Judaean hills
Or the dark cavern of the spirit.
A tomb is no place to stay
When 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.
From his book In the Holy Quiet: Meditations by Richard S. Gilbert