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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford and DRE Cathy Seggel delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 24, 2011

Easter Meditations

I love Jesus, who said to us:
heaven and earth will pass away.
When heaven and earth have passed away,
my word will still remain.
What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
one word: Wakeup.

— Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly

Allow me to put an end to any speculation on the matter. There is no part of winter I like. Well, except the end of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, I fear and loath winter. Glad to get that off my chest. And, something else, as I’ve allowed myself to sink into what this means, to be-at-one-with the fear and loathing thing, I’ve realized a deep atavistic connection with the ancestors.

Twelve thousand years ago, or thereabouts, our ancestors were busy inventing farming and developing complex religious views. I can’t imagine a single neolithic person liking the winter. I suspect pretty much everyone was cold and hungry for the duration. More, a false step, bad calculation, or simply bad luck and you were dead.

Nothing like the depth of winter, I find, to help one think about mortality and to cherish life. I know it wasn’t until we moved out here that I really noticed and admired the crocus. Toward the end of winter I look for those small green buds shooting out, an eternally recurring promise of new life, of hope in the midst of the long shadow, putting the lie to my nagging fear it will never end, or rather it all will end in the great cold. A little later when the buds come out on the magnolia between the Meeting House and the Parish House, I look at it, and I find my heart begins to sing praises for this good earth. With each of these small miracles, I think back to the ancestors. And the stories they told that point to all this.

One of my mentors, the Reverend Mark Belletini wrote of these stories. “In ancient Sumeria, where the Tigris and Euphrates cradle civilization and where the word “freedom” first appeared in human history, Tammuz the god of field and meadow died each year and came to life in marriage with Inanna, goddess of soil and fertility. In early Greece, Persephone, goddess of grain and Orpheus and Dionysus, the gods of music and wine, died each year with the cycle of the seasons and came to life again as a sign of hope. In ancient Egypt, people planted seeds in the fertile earth, the body of Isis that her dead lover Osiris, god of grain and harvest might spring to life again.”

And, of course, we find this yearning, this longing, in those stories of this season closer to us than our jugular veins, Passover, and today, particularly Easter.

Today we will consider the arc of our lives, our spiritual and fleshy existence as one thing, found in some terrible and compelling stories.

All preaching one message. The great human thing.

It’s all about hope.

When I was a little girl, Passover was one of my favorite holidays. I think it was because it was a family time, with yummy, some, quite unusual foods.

And, the adults told a story, a story that was always the same.

My own children liked it too, when they were young. They still resonate with the celebratory feast, although, these days it is rare to find a way to gather. Even now, I do make sure that I call them on the phone, to be certain that they remember. Remember the ancient story, probably a combination of history and fiction, told and retold by families for uncounted years, to teach each generation what it means to be part of a Jewish family.

The Hebrew Bible asks folks to retell the tale of the Jewish people’s need to leave a land where they were slaves, forced to do hard labor, for no pay at all, to a place of freedom. For us, freedom in 21st Century U.S. might mean defining family in a way that works, including the right to marry. It might mean freedom to practice the religion of our choice, or none at all. Or, it is the safety to express our feelings in public. Being free certainly includes the privilege of voting for things that are important to us.

For me, as a Unitarian Universalist, the most valuable message from my Passover tradition is that true freedom for any of us is connected to liberty for women and men of all ages, cultures and abilities. I might add all creatures, all life, The Earth.

Another hopeful practice that strikes me as sacred in the Seder meal celebration is that of welcoming Elijah, the prophet, bearer of good news or tidings. He was said to magically appear in times of need. It became a custom to set an empty place at the table, so that anyone lonely or hungry would be welcome to come in. There are ways that we embody that same spirit in our congregation and in our lives.

In our chapel service last week, I asked the children, youth and their teachers to join me in remembering the precious message of our interconnected freedoms all year long.

I spread my deep hope that we would lead caring and fair lives, at home, school, work and beyond, so that when we gather next year in the same season, the world will have been made better by our efforts.

It is all about hope.

Easter conjures up all sorts of images; bunnies, lilies and of course, chocolate. The sacred, religious account is a Christian one and tells of a Jewish teacher, a carpenter named Jesus. This brave man felt God’s spirit and wandered across the land now called Israel and Palestine, to share it. He offered hope to an oppressed people with a message that God loved all. He was welcoming to everyone, especially those who were disadvantaged and had been rejected, including the poor, the sick, women and the tax collectors who worked for the Romans.

Because large crowds gathered around to hear Jesus’ message of welcome, love and hope, the authorities saw him as a dangerous troublemaker. Jesus decided to travel to Jerusalem, the capital city, to challenge those in power by spreading his belief that all people were loved and worthwhile. It was a dangerous mission and he was arrested by Roman soldiers and later, sentenced to death by being nailed to a wooden cross, as was the custom. After his death, his body was lovingly prepared by the women in his life, for burial in a tomb, like a cave. As was tradition, a large stone was used to cover the tomb. After his death, Jesus’ supporters were devastated, sad and frightened for their own safety. It seemed that their message of hope had been crushed by the empire.

Next, according to the oldest version of the story, three women went to Jesus’ burial spot, concerned about the difficulty of rolling the stone away from his tomb in order to anoint the body with spices. However, when they arrived, they found the stone already rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. Frightened, the women ran from that place. Their story became legendary.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, his friends and admirers gathered and told stories about Jesus and collected his sayings and tales of his deeds. They remembered the empty tomb and felt he was still with them.

Over time, the people began to feel hope again as they recalled the unconditional love that Jesus taught. As they remembered, his message, that love is stronger than death, stayed in their hearts.

His spirit of generosity and welcome lives on and is the hopeful teaching we remember today.

It is all about hope.

I recall when Jan suggested we see this movie from Quebec. I asked if it’s in French? She said yes, but there are subtitles. I sighed. Living with an intellectual can be hard. Then she said, but it’s about religion. And, of course, she had me. The plot for Jesus of Montreal is simple enough. A Catholic priest at a shrine in the city has been presenting a Passion play, one of those reenactments of the story of Jesus, for thirty-five years. Attendance, however, has been dropping off. He approaches an actor, explaining the situation, and concludes, saying, “The text is a bit dated. It needs to be modernized.”

And the plot plays out. The troop of actors are an unlikely a crowd as Jesus’ disciples and pretty much as disreputable. There’s an interesting attempt in the research the actor does at the best of modern scholarship, if you count what was in the popular press at that time as scholarship.

But, what most mattered for me was how the actor portraying Jesus was caught up in, how can I say this, in the myth of it all, and particularly for him, increasingly consumed by the archetype of Jesus. The temptation for him is to sell out and do advertising. Okay, this I found it a bit contrived. But, the important part was the relentless call of a human Jesus, who reminded us of love and called us to serve one another. And that I found compelling, as compelling as a crocus bud bursting out of the cold earth.

As the time of fulfillment arrives, the actor portraying Jesus is crushed when the cross in the play crashes down on him. He is rushed to a hospital, but dies. Critical to this retelling of the story his corneas and his heart are donated, giving new eyes and a renewed life to other people.

There are those who might complain that reducing the story of the life and death of Jesus to an ordinary life, an ordinary death, and a resurrection that is found in organ transplants is something banal, too small a meaning to derive from a story that has sustained generations.

I disagree. I don’t think anyone has to believe in a literal historical Passover to see the powerful currents of our human hearts being held up, and a pointer toward new life for all of us. And, similarly, I don’t think it necessary to believe in a literal resurrection to find the power of giving one’s life for another.

I think Jesus of Montreal one of the finest religious films ever made. And it turns on the fact the ordinary is sacred, our lives, our deaths, our hopes, our love is miraculous, as miraculous as the budding of that magnolia in the window.

It’s all about hope.

And so I ask you to think about how we wake up, how we find our place in the scheme of things. Our hearts have been buried in the great and cold dark, into the womb of the world, the winter a shroud, the winter the dark alchemical soil. And then, now, bursting forth, a bud, like the sprouts of a crocus, like the buds on a magnolia.

And, there’s one more step.

We have many projects here in this community that expresses that hope for rebirth, for resurrection, for that redemption of human possibility buried with all these stories of winter and spring. Our monthly food bank is perhaps the most important. The secret is our direct involvement in the needs of our human community here and elsewhere. I think of our work for marriage equality, our standing with the immigrant, our call for racial healing and justice. Our desire to be of use in this poor, hurt, and so beautiful world.

And another of these is how a number of us are involved in the work of Bal Kendra day school in Katmandu, for which we will be directing the entirety of today’s offering, save only checks specifically marked for one’s annual pledge.

Bal Kendra is a day care program, a clean and safe place for children who are also taught basic literacy and math. They’re also given a snack, which sometimes is most of their daily nutrition. Because Bal Kendra targets the absolutely poorest of the poor, they tend to end up serving dalits, that’s the new cleaned up term for untouchables, and girls. And here’s a hint of the Easter miracle. Bal Kendra’s annual budget is about six thousand dollars. For that money they serve about sixty children. I find it astonishing how much is accomplished with so little. A tiny seed. A bud of hope.

Quickly, back to these stories of our ancestors, and to what it is they point.

I dream of Jesus as a crocus, as a bud on our magnolia. But, really, if you were looking for Christ today, I suspect you could not do better than look to the children of Bal Kendra. Look at Phil’s photographs in the Parish House. I have and I’ve glimpsed the Christ there. I’m sure of it, although I’m not sure which one is the one. I think he may be found sitting on a pile of garbage. I think she might well be found tending her younger brother in the filth and need, where hope comes forth a tiny bud of possibility.

Hope as the smallest of all things.

And there is no doubt in my heart. It’s all about hope.