“WWJD and You” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – Easter Sunday – April 8, 2012
Call to Worship
Returning by Wendell Berry
I was walking in a dark valley
and above me the tops of the hills
had caught the morning light.
I heard the light singing as it went
among the grassblades and the leaves.
I waded upward through the shadow
until my head emerged,
my shoulders were mantled with the light,
and my whole body came up
out of the darkness, and stood
on the new shore of the day.
Where I had come was home,
for my own house stood white
where the dark river wore the earth.
The sheen of bounty was on the grass,
and the spring of the year had come.
Then you shall take some of the blood, and put it on the door posts and the lintels of the houses . . . and when I see the blood, I shall pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.
—Exodus 12: 7 & 13
They thought they were safe
that spring night; when they daubed
the doorways with sacrificial blood.
To be sure, the angel of death
passed them over, but for what?
Forty years in the desert
without a home, without a bed,
following new laws to an unknown land.
Easier to have died in Egypt
or stayed there a slave, pretending
there was safety in the old familiar.
But the promise, from those first
naked days outside the garden,
is that there is no safety,
only the terrible blessing
of the journey. You were born
through a doorway marked in blood.
We are, all of us, passed over,
brushed in the night by terrible wings.
Ask that fierce presence,
whose imagination you hold.
God did not promise that we shall live,
but that we might, at last, glimpse the stars,
brilliant in the desert sky.
The absolute, worst prediction of all time must have been Thomas Jefferson’s statement that Unitarianism would sweep the nation and be adopted by everyone, becoming “the general religion” because Unitarian Christianity is the truest to the original form of the faith and the teachings of the man, Jesus. Where is everyone? I keep reading in blogs and elsewhere that Christianity is in crisis, and has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get rich evangelists, and if we would only ignore them, and embrace the man we would save Christianity. I always feel a little frustrated because I am thinking, why don’t they know about us? Why isn’t everybody a UU? The whole (WWJD) What Would Jesus Do movement, so popular a generation ago, may have been an evangelical thing, but they got the idea from us. We are the ones who show devotion by acting as Jesus did rather than reciting creeds or espousing beliefs.
So what does Easter mean to us? We certainly can’t rely on Jesus for this one. The man did not get a chance to speak on the subject. And yet I do believe that he gave us what we need. If we follow Jesus, we really can be the most faithful of them all, but the irony is most Christians would not include us.
Today’s sermon is the fourth in a series on the five points of Unitarian theology that dominated liberal religious thinking a little more than century ago. James Freeman Clarke believed in the spiritual leadership of Jesus. He said, as so many do today, that the simplest definition of Christian is one who follows Jesus – who acts as he did, as opposed to believing in him, or the doctrines about him. Back in the 1880s, Clarke had already diagnosed the problem that today’s evangelicals want to solve. And yet sadly. as is true in 2012 or as it was in 1912 or even 1712, the name Christian, is not what Jesus teaches, but what the church says he teaches. This test of fellowship means we take the author of the creed as the leader, and not Jesus himself. Clarke says these truths are all narrow and unspiritual, and foster bigotry and sectarianism, instead of charity or generosity. Clarke believed in the resurrection as a metaphor to show that all would have eternal life. He knew that you and I can still experience those we have loved and lost in this life, too. Jesus, he said, wanted his followers to see and know the truth, with him as their guide in all things. Jesus was an ever-present friend. A relationship with Jesus gave you the personal strength to go on when you were rejected, to forgive others, to extend a hand of welcome to those who might feel shunned. In other words he reached out to everybody in unexpected ways. Clarke liked the metaphor of the sheep, “I know my sheep,” Jesus said, “and am known of mine.” So one could come to know God, he said, through the intimacy of friendship. In our every day relations we would be less anxious about tomorrow, and see the beauty in our midst, and we would be and eat together, so that the altar of our faith became the times we spend building community. Our table, our social hour of friendship would be where we would know a true meeting of longing souls.
Nearly two years ago Adam Gopnik wrote an article in the New Yorker called “What Did Jesus Do?” He asked what was new or startling about the preaching of Jesus; how he was different from what came before. It’s helpful to think about, because even those of us who emphasize the human Jesus, whom we follow as our spiritual advisor and moral guide, have a one sided image. Jesus is that wise teacher who wants us to love one another and forgive all. With Jesus, we forget that he could be nasty, perplexing and rather unwilling to suffer fools gladly. We political liberals like to emphasize how we welcomed the stranger, ministered with women, or fed the hungry, but he also cursed the Scribes and Pharisees and even the fig tree, too. Can you picture him turning over tables of moneychangers in the temple? Jesus was not just nice, he was irascible, too.
This is a useful perspective to have on both Jesus and the celebration of Spring and Passover, too. Our call to worship today reminded us of some of the usual feelings we have about spring. The light has returned, the green grass sprouts, and we think of life returning with joy and wonder. This is like a modern version of the Song of Songs – “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come.” This year it is a little hard to proclaim liberty from the pain of winter because there really wasn’t one. It is a little like celebrating Easter without the pain and trauma of Good Friday. We go directly to new life without really experiencing death on the cross. We loved that 85 degrees in March, but what are the implications of it? It’s nice, but doesn’t it point toward a deeper issue?
Some of you may have heard my peonies story, but it bears repeating in the context of Easter. When I moved into the parsonage at my first church in Palmer, Massachusetts, I welcomed spring there in 1979, the year my son Joel was born. Next to the house in a small garden were several large plants, which someone told me were peonies. As the plants grew that spring, they soon became taller and taller and then buds began to appear. There were dozens of buds, and I predicted flowers galore would soon beautify our garden. Then suddenly one day there were ants crawling all over the buds. First there were a few, and then what seemed like hundreds. I saw this as a carnivorous attack on the flowers, and expected that these ants would destroy all my flowers in a feast of gluttony. Thinking I had to save my flowers I ran to the hardware store to purchase some kind of poison to thwart these ants. I thought I had to kill them off or else I would never be able to enjoy my flowers. I dusted the ants over and over again, with this white powder. Little did I know that peonies can’t bloom without the ants. Finally, a parishioner told me to stop. They eat the nectar that forms on the outside of the flower buds, releasing the petals. I thought my job was to kill the ants to save the flowers, but it turned out that the bud had to be consumed in order to be released, or lose your life to find it. The ants knew more than I did.
In the case of the peonies, blooming requires the teeth of nature. Philip Simmons in his book Learning to Fall, writes about how he learned to cope with the disease ALS. He says we always seem to celebrate the wonder of spring in the spirit of the e.e. cummings poem “the leaping greenly spirit of trees, and a true blue dream of sky.” It is a time of rejoicing. Yet Simmons reminds us that spring is a darkening time, too. He recalls Robert Frost writing that trees darken nature and become summer woods. Simmons is concerned that we not welcome spring’s happy resurrection quite so quickly. He wants us to see the paradox. Spring is a time of unrest and movement. The flowers may suddenly burst forth, but so too, do our allergies, with runny noses and weepy eyes. Then the yellow film will soon descend upon the windshields and lawns. Have you looked around your kitchen? There they are behind the butter, and under the sugar, it is the annual attack of the ants, swarming the counters and floors. Yes, it is the resurrection of the bugs, too. Don’t you wish you could live in Maine to welcome the black fly season? Simmons says if people from northern New England are tight lipped, it is because they have learned the lesson of what happens when you open your mouth. Spring is here, and all things spring to life. Lions and tigers, and yes, there really are bears, too. My neighbor saw the local den of coyotes inching down Marshall Street. They will be coming to a neighborhood near you.
Simmons says it is clear that all nature clamors for our blood. This is not a divine plan though, but simply the way things are. This conflicts with a traditional religious interpretation that our suffering is related to some larger purpose. This is difficult to say – I want to believe, too. But our suffering is not for a reason. Jesus’ on the cross was not part of some divine plan in which his suffering leads to our redemption, that’s what they said later. Rather, it is human to suffer. We may be the unlucky ones who have been afflicted by cancer or mental illness or suffered a stroke, but it is not part of some divine plan. Jesus was put on a cross because he was threat to a power structure. He said and did things to offend those in authority. Maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe he wanted things to change. He probably felt there should be more equality, and less power over others, and more power with others. He was trouble, and so the authorities conspired to kill him, and did. And the gospel song implores us still, Were You There?” Can you still experience him? But God didn’t make him part of some perverse plan. It isn’t Jesus’ death that mattered, it was decisions he made about living, even as he faced betrayal and death. In fact, Jesus had seen and known suffering. He had tried to heal the illnesses and feed the hungry. He had befriended hated tax collectors and challenged those who would try to trick him into throwing a stone at an adulteress by saying let the one who is sinless among you throw the first stone. No one stepped forward. He had no use for the righteous and the smug.
When I was a young man, ants reminded me that the rebirth of nature in the spring comes armed with teeth. They chew the buds to help them bloom. Frederick Douglass told us once, “you can’t have crops without ploughing up the ground.” We then have the sweet privilege of beauty all around, but it is gone in a flash. This comes back to me on a yearly basis when I contemplate the crocuses in front of our house. This year those warm temperatures brought them to life early. They were rank-by-rank, phalanxes of purple flowers, arrayed like Solomon in all his glory. Then the temperatures dropped. The brief span of beauty was gone. The crocuses died. So, too, that lovely magnolia tree in front of the church. The broad spray of white flowers was there one day for us to view and gaze in wonder upon, and then that freezing night struck, and they turned brown in an instant. Their moment of glory quickly passed, and now the buds all hang on in their demise. Perhaps it is why T. S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month.
Life comes back in its brilliance, and we love it, glory in it even, but then it is gone so quickly. Perhaps we gain the victory by living in the moment with the trauma of knowing this. In the poem “Passover,” Lynn Ungar recalls the trauma of the night when the doorways are marked with blood, and the Jews are passed over in order that they might live. Ungar relates this to our common life journeys that come with no promise of life, but that all of us are brushed in the night by terrible wings. Jesus knew this when he faced execution. He knew this when he was on the cross, and even knew this when he gathered with his friends to celebrate Passover, knowing one of his friends would betray him. His life brought betrayal, pain and death. Theology says God will save you from this. But life teaches that nothing will save us from this. Suffering happens on the cross because the ants will eat the buds. Nothing lasts forever. But if we accept the coming of the ants, and don’t try to kill them in fear, or think they will last forever, we will see what God or the spirit of life that lives in us wants us to see.
One thing we can each do is bear witness. The ground we walk upon is covered with our longings, and with the longings of those who have gone before. We remember. Just Friday I received an email from a friend who reported on a conference he had attended, of people who had gone through the trauma of the civil rights struggles. They confronted hatred and fear as they ministered and lived in the South. They fought for equality, and some few died. In the days we have, what resurrections of freedom and equality will we live for, and what will we fight for? Jesus said consider the lilies because he wanted us to see the beauty in the few moments we share, and understand that they are more gorgeous than gold or silver or anything you can buy. Jesus said consider gathering with your friends and telling them you love them, even though they may hurt you and betray you. Betrayals may hurt, but we would never have known them without the opening of our hearts.
So we look into another’s eyes, and speak our love. Jesus said consider forgiveness because even though you feel anger or regret about people and things and choices you make, and you remember each time someone rejected you, you still realize that you need to let go to be truly free. Live with a clear heart and conscience to see the beauty and speak the love. One of the stories about Jesus that most astonishes people is when he cursed the fig tree. You may not know this story – Jesus wanted something to eat, but the fig tree had no fruit, because it was not the right season. So he curses it, and prays that no one may ever eat from it. Why would he be so mean? I suspect that cursing the fig tree was Jesus’ way of saying that people had become spiritually bare. They had the forms of religion but not the reality. They did not realize how powerful they could feel and be with one another. Curses had powerful effects. And so did blessings.
We who have a heritage of following Jesus have something important to say about spiritual truths. There is no safe, easy message on Easter. Easter is an exercise in learning to let go of life by embracing it more deeply in the brief time we have. It is a reminder that life is precious and fragile, beautiful and impermanent. It does not and cannot last forever, and so we must learn how to experience eternity in the moments we are granted. We know our longings and our losses. We know how we have tried to live out the compulsions we feel to do and know what is good. We know the loveliness we have seen, and the connections we have felt. Easter is a lesson of the enduring power of love, that Jesus showed us, and we, too, can experience. But for us, it must be about living moments. This takes courage because there is struggle along the way. There is no safety. There are trials and disappointments, and the terrible blessing of the journey, and even the moments which Jesus had when he wondered if he was forsaken. But in that journey, we can reach out and know the divine quality of friendship and love. We can forgive one another, and ourselves. And we can know, like Emerson reminded us, that life is the true miracle; seeing and experiencing the beauty that is in us and around us. Despite our failings and frailties, the brilliance of life is evident, in the flowers on the earth and the stars in the sky, and all that comes to us, waiting to be seen; waiting to be shared with each other. waiting to be recognized for the miracle that all of it is, and will be.
Peonies (excerpt) by Mary Oliver
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers
and they open –
pools of lace,
white and pink –
and all day the black ants climb over them,
boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away
to their dark, underground cities –
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,
the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
their red stems holding
all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again –
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?