The sermon begins with silence: simply connecting, person to person.
We’re here in this special place, this house of worship, to be reminded that we are part of a community; to be reminded that we are capable of making meaningful connections; to be encouraged to take the risk of caring, of loving. We need one another.
We don’t need agreement as much as we need honesty. We don’t need to be reinforced in our old beliefs as much as we need to be challenged to dig deeper, and to get at ourselves, to get over being so defensive; to get rid of old resentments; to cleanse ourselves of that nagging sense of guilt or failure.
We’ve done things we ought not to have done. We have left undone things we ought to have done. So be it.
We’ve said things we wish we hadn’t said. We’ve failed to say things when we wish, in retrospect, that we had said them. So be it.
We need to free ourselves of whatever weighs us down and holds us back out of fear that we won’t be accepted if we’re really honest, that we won’t be loved if we’re truly ourselves, that we’re really not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough, not rich enough.
That’s what the Passover-Easter story is about: it’s about liberation. It’s about the need to move from the bondage of old ideas and old habits; it’s about moving across some Red Sea of suspicion that keeps us in bondage to cynicism-when cynicism sinks in it leads us to a desert of despair, parched and dry. Spiritual growth is suddenly and abruptly interrupted.
We’re here, in this place, on this day, because we need one another. We need help in our spiritual lived, the inner work we have to do for ourselves, but can’t do by ourselves.
The story of spring and the season of renewal is a reminder of our own story and our own need for a season of renewal. We’re here because we need help to hold onto hope!
New Meanings Emerge
The Passover Easter message may be the same every year, but it takes on new meaning, depending on what’s been happening in your life, and what’s been happening in our nation and the world.
The typical Unitarian Universalist message for Passover – Easter is about the return of the flowers, the leaves, the song birds who flew away and have returned. It’s about Nature-what’s going on out there, but also what’s going on inside–human nature. It’s about learning to live fully, to laugh freely, and to weep openly.
My hope is that this service and sermon might be of help, wherever you are-that it may help each of us face the challenges life brings; to discover the new meanings that keep emerging; that it may help each of us to be in touch with our feelings and to dig into the depth of those feelings. If there’s a stone that has been locking you into a winter of cynicism and despair, let’s see if we can roll it away today.
I know that’s a lot to ask, but why not? Why not ask a lot of ourselves? Why not ask a lot of one another? Isn’t that why we’re here, together? And can we distinguish between asking a lot and demanding everything?
It’s unreasonable to demand everything. I don’t know any more than you know about the big, imponderable questions. But I’ve been ruminating, and I have a few things to say on this special Passover-Easter day.
First, I want to talk about the flowers. Last Fall, before the long winter (which we hope has finally passed) Jean and Neil Coleman bought 3,000 daffodil bulbs to plant in honor of their sons, Keith and Scott, and the other 3,000 victims of the September 11 attack. We’ve been watching and waiting for those daffodils to bloom, and it’s happening just in time for Easter!
I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD, William Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed and gazed but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
So, today, on this Easter day, in the midst of the eight-day Passover season, we acknowledge the flowers, the daffodils, the yellow forsythia, the crocus that comes out first to announce the coming of spring, the end of a long, cold winter.
Somehow I had the idea that all of a sudden those three thousand daffodils would burst forth at once to ‘toss their heads in sprightly dance.’ I hoped they would dazzle us with their brilliance on this Easter morning.
But I’ve learned some things about daffodil bulbs. Like the children we raise, they bloom in their own time. Bulbs that are planted deeper in the ground may be more secure, but they take longer to bloom. The bulbs need one another for procreation, and there’s a certain proximity that maximizes this multiplying process. The time of blooming has, to some extent, been pre-determined by the person who did the planting. You can stretch the metaphor as far as the eye can see.
Herb’s Easter Un-Sermon
I asked my friend, colleague and mentor Herb Adams, recently retired after fifty years of ministry, what he would say from a pulpit on this Easter day. After thinking about my question for a couple of days he wrote, in part:
“What would happen if the minister, duly garbed, stood at the pulpit on Easter Sunday morning, looked over the congregation, and said nothing? Instead of saying words, he/she looked into each set of eyes, beginning with the left front aisle, and stopping for each face across the sanctuary; then, on to the next row, until he/she could no longer make out the features of those far back.
“After the fifth or sixth connection, the minister’s eyes begin to moisten, noticeably; then would flow the tears, continuing, dropping onto his robe, and lining his face with a glistening stream that all could see by the reflection of the lights.
“Some would squirm; and others would begin themselves to tear up. It would become a room full of human beings, pained and anguishing beside each other, in the presence of anger, emotion.
“There would be no words nor sounds of music.
“The stark truth would prevail and. Some would have to leave. to be alone and away from the awful pressure heaped upon them by this minister who dared to touch their souls with silence…and the evidence of his own despair and vulnerability.
“I think, if I had to “do” a sermon, I’d do it about friendship and isolation; or what “otherness” might mean today, as defining the enemy seems to be a daily exercise within our nation, and our communities.”
The Flower Sermon
A variation on Herb’s un-sermon is found in Buddhist literature. When he was ready to pass responsibility to his disciples, the story says, the Buddha gave a sermon without words. He stood before ten thousand disciples holding a flower, a lotus blossom. He didn’t say a word. They watched. They were patient, as he had encouraged them to be.
The Buddha had a purpose and a message as he stood before them holding the flower, and he waited patiently for that purpose to be revealed, without forcing it. He knew that you cannot force a flower to blossom, and you cannot force a student to understand.
Finally the face of one of his disciples blossomed-every feature on that face was glowing with animation. He woke up! The disciple smiled a most unusual smile, a knowing, peaceful smile. The connection was made-something sacred was passed from the Buddha to that disciple that day, without a word.
Immediately the Buddha realized that this was the disciple to whom he could hand the mantle of responsibility for the continuation of his teaching and the growth of understanding. He simply handed the flower, the lotus blossom, to the disciple who smiled with discernment.
Herb closed his comments about an Easter sermon for 2003 with a personal story:
“My Grandson, Calvin, Lee and Laura’s son, who is 8, stayed in the bathroom a long time one day last week. Laura looked through the crack he had left when he didn’t shut the door all the way. She saw him standing on his little step-stool, staring at his face in the mirror. Laura backed away, and a few minutes later Calvin came out of the bathroom to the (supper) table where Laura, Lee and Tucker were sitting (waiting for him.) He stood by his chair and asked them all, in a most demanding voice, “WHAT ARE
WE HERE FOR, ANYWAY?”
Calvin’s question is the fifth Seder question. At the Seder, the youngest children ask the four questions, beginning with something similar to the way we opened this sermon: “Why is this night different from every other night?”
Calvin’s question comes from a place of innocence that allows spontaneity. It’s the question the disciples of Jesus had to ask on that fateful Friday afternoon: “Why!?” It is the most daring and honest Easter question-it’s about Life in the face of death.
The Jewish answer to Calvin’s question is summarized in the concept of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. “We are here to repair the brokenness in the world; we are here to make ourselves and the world whole.”
Before the Passover story there was no such thing as ‘the Jewish religion.’ The people of Israel, descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were in bondage. Passover, liberation from bondage, is the beginning of Judaism. Without freedom there’s no such thing as real religion, for the individual, and for the community.
The Jewish answer to Calvin’s question is the task of the Jewish people, as a people, is to fix the world: Tikkun Olam.to heal the wounds of the world–to help to repair the world, and to move the human world closer to what it’s meant to be, or has the potential to be: civilized; peaceful; cooperative; caring; compassionate.
In our statement of affirmation we say ‘love is the spirit and service is its law.’ Tikkun Olam: do something that matters; leave the world a little better than you found it; improve the quality of the day.
The Christian answer to Calvin’s question is ‘to love and to serve God.’
My personal translation of this affirmation is: “To love Life and to find ways to be of service to humanity, and to live in peace with people, and to live in harmony with Nature.” For me, God and Nature are synonyms.
If God is Love, as the Bible says, and God is everywhere, as opposed to ‘elsewhere,’ then isn’t loving and serving God simply loving life and finding ways to be of service to suffering humanity? We love and serve God by learning to live in peace, including inner peace, and by living in harmony with Nature?
A Passover-Easter Question
Finally, let me ask a simple question: Who has helped you, so far, in life…who has encouraged you to be your self…to be your best self? Think for a minute about a person…focus on that person and the ways they helped you. That’s liberation. That’s the deepest kind of freedom–the freedom to be your self, your best self.
We all need a Moses in our life from time to time. It’s a long journey. Sometimes we don’t recognize a Moses when he or she comes along. We don’t realize at the time that this was just what we needed. That’s why we look back, so we can discern certain truths we might not have understood. Some things can be known only in retrospect.
That’s what Passover and Easter is about on the individual level, the deepest level. Then, when we form relationships, these understandings are the core of our ability to relate well–to love well. It’s what allows us to form communities like this one where ‘love is the spirit and service its law.’ It’s how we’re able to be in the world–to love the world, Nature, Life…one another.
May the meanings of the Passover-Easter stories be revealed to us, again and again, with or without words or music or new spring flowers.
Close: Pablo Neruda’s poem, ‘Keeping Quiet.’
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.