Opening Words: Why it was wonderful – Archibald MacLeish
Why it was wonderful: Why, all
At once there were leaves,
Leaves at the end of a dry
Stick, small, alive
Leaves out of wood. It was
You can’t imagine. They came
By the wood path
And the earth loosened, the
Relaxed, there were
Out of the earth! Think of it!
And oak trees
Oozing new green at the tips of
Them and flowers
Squeezed out of clay, soft
Stalks flowering. Well, it was like
It happened so quickly, all of a
Sermon: Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant
This year Easter is too early for the daffodils, but this is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox—the date for Easter is determined by the lunar calendar of the Hebrew people, the grandparents of Christianity.
In any of our lifetimes will it never come this early again, and only those older than 95 have seen it this early before—the last time was 1913; the next time it will be this early will be the year 2228, 220 years from now.
It is possible to have it even earlier – March 22; and that will happen 277 years from now.
The sermon title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
She says that Truth is ‘too bright for our infirm Delight,’ but has a ‘superb surprise’ that must ‘dazzle gradually.’ The Easter story contains such powerful Truth that we must ‘tell it slant.’ It must ‘dazzle gradually – or every man be blind.’ We all put our own slant on it, and the ‘slant’ we put today may change tomorrow.
What are the deep Truths (capital T) in the Easter story?
The Easter story is filled with marvelous mythologies. Its very name comes from the Roman goddess of spring, Estre. The deep Truths in the Easter story are about you; and me – about Life; about the possibility of resurrection, not in the literal, bodily sense of that word, but in the day-to-day practice of living life fully; it’s about the ways we work and play, the ways we connect with one another, especially after some time of distancing, and the ways in which we re-connect to an ever-changing, aging, failing self.
The Easter story is about liberation, but not political or economic liberation – it’s about a deeper kind of freedom; it’s about our human ability to change in ways that enhance our personal growth and ways that enhance the quality of our relationships; it’s about living out the affirmation we hold before ourselves and one another – where love is the spirit and service the law of our lives; it’s about finding and holding on to inner peace; it’s about simple acts of kindness and compassion in our everyday lives; it’s about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and it’s about believing in justice and equality of opportunity for all.
Life on earth is its own miracle, but it’s so obviously a miracle that we can easily fail to notice, to realize.
Then along comes a poet (Archibald MacLeish) and dazzles us gradually with a spring chant about green leaves coming out of the end of a dry stick; leaves moving through ‘the wood path;’ and flowers emerging out of the earth, and oak trees ‘oozing new green at the tips of them.’
The Truth of the Easter story is about the miracle of Life on earth; and part of that truth is that all living things on earth die, and sometimes that truth is ‘too bright’ for us to look at directly, so we have to ‘slant it.’ Death is the hard-to-take truth. The Easter story tells it ‘slant.’ Oblique — not direct. Telling the truth without sensitivity can be hurtful.
I was thinking of the idea behind Emily Dickinson’s use of the word slant. It reminded me of the mezuzah that Lory attached to our doorpost when we moved into our house.
The mezuzah is a prayer wrapped in a container, and the prayer is from the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one; and you shall love the your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up…and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Some Jews (Ashkenazi) attach the container of the mezuzah on a slant to accommodate the differing opinions of two medieval rabbis (Rash and Tam) one of whom said it should be attached vertically and the other said it should be attached horizontally. (Most Sephardic Jews affix the mezuzah vertically.)
We Unitarian Universalists attach Easter to the church calendar ‘slant,’ to acknowledge that there are various opinions about the meanings in the story; about the resurrection of Jesus – some believe it was a physical resurrection of his body; others think of it as a different kind of resurrection, or another kind of immortality – the influence that remains beyond the grave – anyone who has lost a loved one knows about this kind of immortality!
Like all Christian stories, the Easter story is a retelling of Hebrew stories in the collection we call the Old Testament. You remember the Passover story in the book of Exodus: Moses was trying to convince the Pharaoh to ‘let my people go,’ and he got assistance from God by sending the angel of death to take the firstborn son in every family, telling the Hebrew people to kill a lamb and smear blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorpost as a sign for the angel of death to pass over that house.
The Easter story says that God took human form in the person of Jesus who is given as a sacrifice to save the people from their sins, to free them from the bondage of sin.
Jesus becomes the sacrificial lamb – a retelling of the Passover story. Some find it comforting to believe that he rose from the dead physically, others affirm the poetic truth in the story.
The basic truth in the ancient story is that our influence lives after we have died; but it’s also a reminder that we have an important influence on one another while we live. This is nicely illustrated in the 24th chapter of the book of Luke with the story of two of Jesus’ followers walking to Emmaus and talking to one another about all the things that had happened.
The story says that ‘Jesus himself drew near and went with them.’ They didn’t recognize him; he asked why they were looking so sad, and they told this stranger the whole story about the arrest, the trial and crucifixion, and said, ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’
Luke has Jesus say, ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe…was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’
Then, interestingly enough, he reviewed what Moses had done in freeing the enslaved Hebrews. Luke says, “Then he interpreted to them the things in scriptures concerning himself,’ the prediction of a messiah; the liberation from bondage, etc.
When they finished their seven-mile walk to Emmaus the invited the stranger to dinner and when they ate together – breaking bread, as Luke puts it – ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him.’
My interpretation of this story is simple and basic: they recognized the ongoing influence of their teacher – the influence within themselves – the effect he had on them, which was still alive within them – it was alive in their hospitality, in their companionship, in their sympathies and their compassion to a stranger. That’s the sensitive symbolism of the Christian communion service: when the bread is broken the words at the last Passover Jesus shared with his friends: “This is my body broken for you,” and when the wine is served, “This is my blood shed for you…take it in remembrance of me.”
The two followers of Jesus went back to Jerusalem and told the eleven disciples about their new understanding – how his influence was made known to them in the breaking of the bread with a stranger: ‘when you understand the concept of the Christ you’ll see it in those you meet on the road.’ This is the basic message in all of Jesus’ teaching.
For some, Christianity is about the person of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ. For them the Easter story is literally truth. For others it is about the deep truths in the teachings of Jesus, the life of Jesus carpenter’s son, born of woman, fully human. It’s about the need to remember the basic lessons he wrapped in the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.
Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears said that Christianity had become a religion about Jesus, rather the religion of Jesus, which is summarized in the words hung on those doorposts: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ That was his answer to the question put to him by the lawyer: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
To tell the truth in the Easter story, but to tell it slant, requires mythology – symbolic stories, and poetry, and an ongoing willingness to change one’s views. As Paul said, “When I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I stopped being childish.”
The Easter story is can continue to unfold as we grow in wisdom; it’s about disappointment, betrayal and death, and death is a difficult truth. All living things on earth will die. It’s God’s plan, we could say, or, if you prefer, it’s Nature’s plan…or, if you don’t like the idea of a master plan, it just ‘is.’ What is, is. Period. ‘Tell it slant!’
William Sloan Coffin said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will surprise your friends and confound your enemies.”
Al Gore wrote his book about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, in which he told the truth, but he told it slant, softening the blow, suggesting that it’s not too late for us to change our destructive ways…hopefully! Hope is the slant we put on hard truth.
Beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus, and of loved ones, and of our self, have to do with faith; they have to do with a kind of hope. Our Universalist forebears preached a religion of hope, promising that ‘all souls are saved.’
I’m a Universalist because I believe that whatever happens to anyone after death happens to everyone; I cannot accept the idea of a God who would create hell; it’s an abhorrent idea. Heaven and hell are, first and foremost, states of mind…human inventions to describe the heights and the depths we experience as we move through the days and years of our lives.
I’m a Universalist because I believe that we’re all capable of finding ways to improve ourselves, and by so doing, we’re involved in Creation, we’re not simply that which has been created; we’re co-creators with God, working on the eighth day of Creation.
The need to contribute to the improvement of our world was Barack Obama’s central point in his speech in Philadelphia about race and racism in America this week. He told the truth as he sees it and as he has lived it. He was forced to respond to his former minister’s rant about America’s racist past and racist present, in which he asked God to damn American. So Obama had to refute Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s wrongs, and in so doing he told the truth about the ‘original sin’ of slavery and about insidious forms of racism that persist to this day. He told the truth, which surprised all the pundits who think politicians should tell only what they want to hear, which is why they should take a poll, first.
Rev. Wright was not wrong to acknowledge and condemn America’s racist past; the deep, open wound that slavery inflicted on generations, and the insidious aspects of ongoing racism in America.
Rev. Wright was not wrong to acknowledge the corruptions that led us into a war – deceit, outright lies, causing a moral and economic earthquake. He was not wrong to demand more from America.
He was wrong to ask God to damn America; he was wrong to allow his passion to trump his compassion; and the critiques were wrong to use sound bites out of context – but, then, that’s the nature of the political beast we’ve created.
Barack Obama said: “Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
“The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
“Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
That’s the key phrase: ‘a union that could be and should be perfected over time.’ That’s the essential belief of religious liberalism, or of freedom and responsibility in all forms. The Preamble to our Constitution says: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
As inheritors of the gift our forebears gave we have a responsibility to continue to ‘form a more perfect union.’ Perfecting the flaws and failures. Continuing to work for justice; working to promote the general welfare – the children who are underfed, ill-housed and without adequate health care.
Obama said, “Working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that, in fact we have no choice, if we are to continue on the pasth of a more perfect union…and that means embracing the past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.”
We don’t have to believe that we can make the world perfect, but that we can help in some ways to make the world better; believe that it is perfectible…that it can be made better; that humankind is not doomed – indeed, we need to believe with our Christian companions that the human world can be improved; we need to believe with our Jewish friends that it is our responsibility to help repair the brokenness in the world: Tikkun Olam; we need to believe with people in every faith, and with people outside of all the traditional faith systems, that we can and should help to make the world a better, safer, and saner place for ourselves and our children and grandchildren – for those who will be here in the year 2285, when Easter will be celebrated on March 22! This earth of ours is not the waiting room to some imagined place to come, it’s our ‘eternal home.’ That’s the essence of the Easter story as see it, now.
Easter at the Unitarian Church in Westport wouldn’t be complete without that wonderful poem/prayer from e e cummings:
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)