The Gospel of Mark tells it this way: “And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.
And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?”
Looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back.”
It’s Easter…the retelling of the Passover story…and both the Easter and Passover stories are ways of telling the human story…all the religious stories are, in their own ways, a retelling of the human story…what it’s like to live in this world.
We make the stories ours not because of what we believe but because of what we’ve experienced.
We make them our stories when we see ourselves in them; when we’ve spent time in some tomb, a dark time, a difficult time, until the stone is rolled back: ‘who will roll away the stone for us,’ they asked in the Easter story.
When the stone is rolled away we can come out from the darkness and sing ‘lo the earth awakes again, alleluia!
Sermon: In Praise of Sunrise
To praise is to acknowledge that there’s something going on that’s beyond my capacity to comprehend, and there’s a natural tendency to attribute the whole thing to a Creator God to whom our admiration and appreciation can be addressed and expressed.
The word praise is from the Latin verb ‘to prize, to value.’
John Ciardi puts praise into a wonderful poem, appropriate for an Easter:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
Like all religious holidays, holy days and festivals, Easter is the story of what it means to be a human being.
So, what does it mean…to be human? What does it mean to be you…a unique person…a spiritual person having your own experience?
The essential quality or characteristic that makes us human, that distinguishes us from the other animals, plants and sea creatures with whom we share the planet, is to have certain kinds of knowledge, as the myth of Adam and Eve tells.
It is the knowledge of good and evil that distinguishes us as a collectively; what we do with that knowledge determines who we become individually.
In the Garden of Eden myth the first persons who walked the face of the earth disobeyed their Creator — they tasted the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, which is to say, they realized that they were capable of life-giving creativity and at the same time we are capable of destroying life.
That’s why we like the golden rule – it’s about individual ethics: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I prefer the version of the golden rule that says; do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.
We humans tend to over-emphasize ‘doing.’ Do unto others, or do not do unto others.
Eastern religion gives a different twist: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
I would suggest another little twist on the golden rule: instead of doing or not doing unto others, Be unto others as you would have others be.
And how do we wish others to be? We wish them to be at peace with themselves, so they don’t take away our own peace of mind, knowing how fragile it is! We wish others to be kind, to be real, to be honest and trustworthy – and to be on time. It’s really simple, every-day stuff we want.
We hope that their honesty is sensitive – not cruel or blunt, like a doctor telling her patient about a terminal illness in a way that’s too blunt, blurting it out too quickly.
Yes, we wish for honesty, but we want it to be delivered with sensitivity.
So a subset of the golden rule is, “Be tactful unto others as you would have them be tactful unto you.”
Be fully honest when it matters – for example when you meet a friend while standing in line at the Post Office and who says, “Hello, how are you?” you don’t have to tell the details about your concern about the federal income tax you are over nighting to the IRS, or your latest root canal, or a disagreement at home. You know what I mean.
Now what does that have to do with Easter? The initial point is that the Easter story is our story because it’s the human story; it’s about life and death and everything in between those two events in which our individual life is contained.
The word Easter is from the Eostre, the pre-Christian pagan goddess of spring. (“The modern English term Easter developed from the Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre which name refers to Eostur-monath Old English “Ēostre month”, a month of the Germanic calendar, named after Eostre the goddess of Spring.)
The Easter story is a retelling of the Passover story – the lamb that was sacrificed so that the angel of death would pass over the houses on which the blood of the lamb was smeared, forcing the Pharaoh to ‘let the people go.’ In the Easter story the sacrificial lamb is Jesus, the lamb of God, sacrificed, the story says, so that the angel of death would pass over the believers, thus rewarding them for their belief with everlasting life.
Christian Scripture, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”
It’s the human story about ‘overcoming death,’ and it’s the story of Nature itself, of life on earth: all life forms have a beginning, middle and end; it’s about life earth.
The date for celebrating Easter is referred to as ‘a movable feast,’ because the date is set by the relation of the sun to the earth’s tilting on its axis: the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere.
Easter is the spring festival, told in song and poetry. “Lo, the earth awakes again…”
The life story of Jesus begins in the darkness of winter, on December 25, which, at the time the date of his birth was decided, was the winter solstice…birth, or new life, comes out of the darkness.
The story says his birth was a miracle – his mother, Mary, was a Virgin, ‘conceived of the Holy Spirit, before she married Joseph, who followed God’s instructions and married her as he had promised.
The birth narrative tells a story about a new star that miraculously appeared in the heavens so that those who wanted to bear witness to the miracle of the birth of God simply had to ‘follow the star which came to rest over the place where Jesus lay,’ in a manger, in a stable.
The point is that the basic stories rely heavily on Nature – on the natural phenomenon of the relation of earth to the sun and moon and reference to the stars; they’re about life on earth – the natural world, including our ‘human nature.’
The story says that when Jesus was 12 years old his parents brought him to the Temple to prepare for his bar mitzvah, which is why he stayed behind after they left, so that he could talk to the elders and ask questions, which a bar mitzvah boy is supposed to do, which is why questions are a central feature of the Seder meal celebrated at Passover.
The next time we hear about Jesus in the Biblical story is when he is baptized by John the Baptist at age 30.
John the Baptist was also Jewish, from the tribe of Levi, and possibly cousin to Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, tells the story of Jesus being baptized by John. Mark says, “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.”
That’s music to the ears of any son or daughter – to have a parent’s approval, to feel unconditional love.
This story is about the interior life of Jesus – it’s about this thing we loosely call ‘spirituality,’ the inner life of the spirit…or ‘how it feels to be alive and to dig down into the deeper recesses where the spirit meets the bone.’
The Gospel of Mark says, “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”
After being there alone for forty days, he came out of the wilderness a changed person, or, as we say, ‘a new person.’
He survived the ordeal. The story says he had been tempted by Satan, he had been with the wild beasts – a poetic way of talking about his interior struggle with the forces of good and evil – Satan is a metaphor in this story, and the wild beasts symbolize that in us which is not yet tamed, not completely civilized, if you will.
The story says that he endured because he was ministered unto by the ‘better angels of his nature,’ as Lincoln put it.
He emerged from his time in the wilderness with a plan to go around and find ‘twelve good men’ to work with him, telling them to leave their fishing nets and leave their families and become ‘fishers of men.’
The story says that he taught in parables, telling stories about simple, basic everyday things meant to encourage people to endure difficult times and telling them what it means to be a good person.
We call it, ‘the religion of Jesus,’ to distinguish it from the religion about Jesus.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a case study about a roadside robbery and mugging, ending with the question, “Who was the victim’s neighbor?”
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a case study about the challenges of parenting – how much should parents give the kids? It’s about forgiveness as opposed to disowning a child because they have embarrassed you or disappointed you. It’s a human story.
The story says that Jesus performed miracles – feeding five thousand with a few loaves and a few fishes – it’s about the miracle of sharing, on which the upcoming presidential election will focus.
The story says that Jesus brought the dead back to life, which we have to do every time we lose a loved one – we have to keep their spirit alive in our own hearts. The miracle is that we survive those deep, painful losses.
The story says that he stood on the side of a mountain and summarized his wisdom in a single sermon, the sermon on the mount, which we clergy are warned not to try to do, as one of my professor’s in seminary said: “Don’t try to tell them all you know in one sermon, you might just succeed!”
You know the story. But have you absorbed it? Do you see that every word is about you, and me, and our ancestors and our children and grandchildren who will inherit the earth we leave to them?
Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday, when he fulfills the Hebrew Scripture’s predictions that a Messiah will ride into Jerusalem triumphantly to celebrate Passover while people lay palms and clothing in his path and shout, ‘Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
He goes to the Temple and tips over the tables, he gathers his twelve disciples for a Passover meal, and he says that one of them will betray him, and another will deny him.
He washes their feet – Maundy Thursday, from maundatum, a new commandment or ‘mandate,’ to wash the feet of those who serve. “A new commandment I give to you.”
It’s the story of the servant leader…a new idea, still. A good leader is supposed to lead, not follow. Right?
The religious message in the Jesus story is a challenge to turn old thinking into new insights; to turn old ideas upside down and inside out so new understandings emerge – new understandings that give direction to our days, that shed light on our problems as individuals, as families, as a congregation, and as a nation among the nations of the world.
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” In other words, pay attention and notice that all creation is One, God is One and we’re all part of God.
To praise the sunrise is to express the sense of wonder we feel from day to day; it’s an expression of approval or admiration, silent or spoken, or sung or danced.
Walt Whitman puts it this way (from Song of Myself)
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God; (No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God, and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least…
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then;
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;
I find letters from God dropt in the street—and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come forever and ever…
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.
…And as to you Life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths; (No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)
…There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me…I do not know it—it is without name—it is a word unsaid;It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol…
…Do you see, O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is HAPPINESS.”
And E. E. Cummings offers his Easter prayer-praise-poem:
i thank You God for most this amazingday:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)