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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on April 12, 2009

The Faith and The Love and The Hope Are All in the Waiting: Passover, Easter & the Rites of Eternal Return

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

—T. S. Eliot, Excerpt from the “East Coker” section of Four Quartets

This has been a rough week in our family. Most of you know our immediate family consists and Jan and me, but also right in our heart my mother’s sister, Julia. We moved auntie and my mom in with us nearly twenty years ago. My mom died when we lived in Arizona. But our little band of three has been going strong since.

A week ago today auntie discovered a lump in her breast. By Tuesday we were told there were in fact two masses and they looked certain to be cancer. We are facing an MRI, biopsy, and almost certainly a mastectomy. Beyond that, who knows? She, and of course, that means, I have a number of relatives who have succumbed to cancer, including her sister, my mother.

So I’ve had a strong reminder of human fragility as this week unfolded with its many rites of spring. I have to admit I barely noted Hanamatsuri, the flower festival that marks the birth of the Buddha, which rolled around on Wednesday. Truthfully, it got little more attention from me than a notice I put up on my blog, and even that entry mainly reflecting on lunar and solar calendars and how we choose to mark traditions. To be honest I missed the real possibilities contained within that particular holy day.

But sometimes we get second chances, on occasion, even third chances. Not wise to count on it, but sometimes it happens. For me the possibilities clicked this past Thursday when we celebrated a communion service here in this Meeting House, continuing a tradition that is nearly three hundred years old in this spiritual community. It was a lovely event. Two clergy colleagues and I were the celebrants of a dignified but at the same time very much Unitarian Universalist Christian communion. The deacons were in all their glory. There was some good music. And on balance the service was meditative and spoke of something that echoed for me, at least, all the good of my Christian childhood.

But in some ways what was most important for me was how some youths, probably passing by and noticing something going on here, slipped into the back of the Meeting House, watched for about three or four minutes, then stepped into the aisle, did elaborate bows, kneeling on the ground and then putting their heads to the floor, following which while snickering they departed. I noted earlier how auntie, Jan and I lived in Arizona for a half dozen years. At that time we became enamored of some indigenous religious traditions. For instance among the Hopi peoples, when they celebrated nearly any festival, as the gods, the kachinas, processed there was a special one. Mudhead, would always be along to mock the participants, divine and human, to keep them, by my lights, a little less puffed up, or distracted, and a lot more aware.

Well, our mudheads had passed through. And I realized in a genuine and visceral way, my goodness, I’m being invited into something. Maybe, this isn’t just an intellectual enterprise; maybe I should pay a little closer attention. And here’s my invitation on behalf of all our spiritual ancestors. Perhaps here today we all have been invited into a spiritual pageant, filled with possibility, if, that is, we’re willing to allow the experience to be fully engaged, head, yes, but also our hearts. Let us engage with full bodies.

Now the very next night Jan and I joined with some dear friends for a Passover Seder. There, again, with a good Unitarian Universalist wash, we recalled the story of a passage from bondage to liberation, were reminded that people are still oppressed. Right here there are hungry people, folk without adequate clothing, and many in need of shelter. Greed, and hatred and deadly certainties continue to poison our human hearts.

In the midst of this good company and good food, I began to feel my heart breaking. Perhaps that’s meant to be experienced if one really tries to open to these rites of spring. The harvest follows hard times. But it wasn’t until Saturday morning that I found myself thrown down to the ground and completely vulnerable. My habit is to try and put something up on my blog every single day. I generally succeed. One way I do this is to go to the Wikipedia list of events that occur on any given day, and see if there isn’t something at least vaguely interesting to mark.

Well, what I found was that yesterday in 1945, the allied forces liberated Buchenwald. I went to youtube to see if there were something suitable to post and I found a recording of Edward R. Murrow, the great twentieth century journalist, who was there that day and reported back to America. Murrow’s word pictures entered my heart. Particularly his description of children showing him those numbers tattooed on their arms, which evoked in my mind’s eye those photographs most all of us have seen. As sorrow washed over me, I thought first of why in Europe holocaust denial is a crime. It is. But then, I also remembered how in the Christian calendar this particular Saturday is the day God is dead.

We, of course, have different understandings of what that word God points to. For me it is the bubbling of boundless possibility. Here, it felt like there was no possibility. And I felt thrown into the pit. I felt the sadness of our human condition. I thought of my auntie and our family. I felt the tragedy and sorrow that haunts us all. And I thought about what all this might mean for us, you and me, we who must live life marked as it is by such hurt.

There are those who study these things, spiritual holy days, and report back to us what they can mean. Among these is Mircea Eliade. Eliade was an amazing thinker who flourished in this immediate past century. This is not the time or place to share an extended biography. But he was born in 1907 in Romania and therefore, as the Chinese curse goes, he lived through interesting times.

Spending nearly a decade in India, Eliade became one of the first European scholars to seriously investigate the Hindu discipline and philosophy of yoga. He would also go on to become a world authority on shamanism. He was a very, very interesting thinker. Following the war he ended up in America and teaching religion at the University of Chicago. Eliade was one of those religious scholars who spent his life in quest of a unified field theory of religion.

For today I think Eliade’s focus on what he called hierophany, the eruption of the divine into the mundane is the most important thing. Most of us have had these experiences, which can be illustrated by that moment when Moses finds the burning bush and is told by some voice, external or inner, to take off his shoes because he is treading on sacred ground. I think we all have had these experiences, where we sense the oneness or rightness of things, the power and beauty that infuses everything. We experience it, and in a moment it is gone, only the trace of a memory marking our hearts is left. I cannot say how important these moments are. These are where we discover our rootedness, how we are deeply of something holy.

I believe much of the real work of religion is in fact to notice these experiences, acknowledging them, and to sort them a bit, because there are self-serving and mistaken visions as well as those which actually are about that rootedness in the holy. And they happen in all sorts of ways. For me, for instance, when that little pack of junior mudheads bowed and snickered in the back of this Meeting House. How about for you?

Eliade gives us some tools that help along the way. His naming hierophany is one. His noticing sacred time is another. Now for Eliade this is identified as nostalgia for a mythic past. I think this instinct we share is toward something bigger than Eliade names. But, still, whether his analysis is incomplete or not, he provides pointers that I recognize from my own spiritual journey, and which I suggest might be helpful on yours.

Here I am particularly thinking of Eliade’s use of the term “eternal return.” Through myth and ritual we are given access to that rootedness, over and over again. I suggest it is here we can see what the rites of spring are really about. Hanamatsuri celebrates the possibility of breaking old patterns, Passover of moving from bondage to freedom and Easter of extending this even to include death, and in fully facing it, to find something new, new life, boundless possibility.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is not found in the recipe. And as helpful as academics are, we need to turn to our experience. So, here we are gathered together on an Easter Sunday. For me it is haunted by a litany, perhaps this is so for you, too. Our struggles and our failures are all captured for us to notice in these ancient holy days. I think of my auntie. I think of our gathering for a communion with snickering mudheads in the back of the Meeting House. I think of friends gathered for a Passover dinner. I think of Buchenwald and all the horrors that flow out of a lack of consideration and love and attention to what is.

Here, I recall T. S. Eliot’s words.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

In a moment all my knowing flows out of me like water down a sink. I’m left with no analysis good or bad. I am only able to wait. Wait. I think of T. S. Eliot, warning us that in the darkness we must wait. We must surrender, not to inaction, but to not knowing. That is the secret. That is the universal solvent to our spiritual journey. To wait.

And here’s the good news. Here’s the good news. After the long night, and all that waiting, day breaks. After the hurt, healing happens. A great spiral dance plays through the cosmos and our human hearts. Eternally the sun returns, and eternally we awaken to the majesty and beauty of what is. Our hearts break and in that breaking the sacred is revealed. If we are willing, if we wait, if we do not turn away, then like day follows night, Easter comes for each of us. A free gift: like today, like today. The scholars can describe it. And bless them. But at some point we must ourselves turn to the morning light. All we need do is look at the sun rising, to know, to know in our bodies. To know the peace that passes understanding, the joy at the center of the cosmos. And at that moment, then, now, how can our tongues say anything but hallelujah.