Scroll to the bottom of the page to play the audio from this sermon.
Spring seems to be getting off to a slow start this year. Here we are scraping the bottom of the barrel of March, and we’re still seeing snowflakes flying in the air. It feels as if winter won’t give up its grip and spring is not especially anxious to get up out of bed. If Easter is awakening, a glorious rolling away of the stone of the cold clutches of winter both in the world and in our hearts, then it seems to me it sure is taking its time in coming.
It’s not just the cold. So much in the world seems unsettled and uncertain. We have nuclear saber-rattling in the Koreas and a bubbling pot of conflict in Syria ready to boil over and enflame the Middle East. The stock market’s hitting new heights, but most of us still feel poor, and the high unemployment rate is hardly budging.
Even a horrific massacre of elementary school children doesn’t seem to be enough to get our lawmakers off the dime to adopt sensible gun control laws. And while hundreds of thousands across the country rallied last week to end discrimination against same sex couples who seek to have their commitments to each other recognized by law, the justices of the Supreme Court sounded a bit skittish about whether they might actually do something about it.
As I said: wherever you look, spring seems to be slow in coming. Sure, the daffodils and forsythia are providing their annual show, but in the morning as I head out early for the newspaper I’m surprised to see the thermometer in the 20s. Frigid temperatures are slowing the green wave that erupts each year across these mountains. Of course, I remember that the natural world has surprises of all sorts to spring on us, often in the most unlikely ways.
Beekeeper Sue Hubbell recounts her experience with one such surprise. In her book A Country Year, she tells of one spring evening in the Ozarks she was sitting in a brown leather chair in her living room when, in her words, “I became aware that I was no longer alone.”
She looked up and saw that the three floor-to-ceiling glass windows at one end of her living room were covered with frogs. There were hundreds, she says: “inch-long frogs with delicate webbed feet whose fingerlike toes ended in round pads that enabled them to cling to the smooth surface of the glass.”
From their size and toe structure, she supposed them to be spring peepers, those early choristers of life. She went outside to get a closer look and, sure enough, that’s what they were – the species hyla crucifer, pinkish-brownish frogs named for the dark criss-cross pattern on their backs.
“I had to be careful where I put my feet,” she writes, “for the grass in front of the windows was thick with frogs, waiting in patient ranks to move up to the lighted surface of the glass.”
Hubbell says she put down her newspaper and spent the evening watching them. “They did not move much beyond the top of the windows,” she says, “but clung to the glass or the moldings, seemingly unable to decide what to do next.”
The next morning they were gone, never to reappear, that spring or any other. What may have been most extraordinary about this visitation of sorts, Hubbell says, is that the frogs were totally silent. Being so tiny, they’re usually hard to find. We become aware of their presence from their sound – resonant mating calls from male frogs that come from vocal sacs that they fill with air, making a high pitched whistle that when they’re gathered in large groups can sound almost like the tinkling of tiny bells. At some ponds on spring evenings their collective symphony can be almost deafening.
Of all that life offers at this time of year, peepers are the true heralds of spring. For many years at the church I attended in Wisconsin, an artist friend who lived on forty-acres of woods with a pond next to her house would arrive at church some Sunday early in spring with a light in her eyes to tell us, “the peepers are back.” Ever since, each spring I, too, go listening for them, once again remembering our friend’s delight and the renewal that this awakening life brings to me.
Henry David Thoreau observed that, “There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness. I need only suggest what kinds of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and the mean. The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”
Some of you may know that currently UUCA member Elizabeth Schell and I are leading a class here on reading the Bible, specifically the New Testament. Our guide on this journey is the Rev. John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and a biblical scholar. His book is entitled “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers and Religious Liberals,” and his project, he says, is to help progressive people like us claim our own power to understand and to interpret the Bible.
For, he knows that many people come to our tradition after having had a bad experience with the Bible at some time in their lives. And all of us have seen Biblical texts used to oppress and discriminate. Yet, he argues, and I agree, that there is much more to be found in that text than those skewed and narrow readings would have you believe. The Bible is worth reading, not because we privilege it as a unique revelation, but because it is one of the great scriptures of the world that forces us to confront some of the most difficult quandaries that life presents us, and because it offers a rich and complex testimony of human experience that has extraordinary influence in our history and present culture.
As it happens, our reading in that class has just now taken us to the Easter story – it’s our focus this coming week. We’ve just been through the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, or colt, depending on which gospel you’re reading – the story commemorated in the Palm Sunday celebrations at Christian churches last week. Was this intended by Jesus merely as a gesture of humility, or was he getting a dig in at Roman authorities? And we looked at his cleansing the temple, upsetting the tables of money-lenders and those selling animals for ritual sacrifice. Was he really so outraged with this practice, or was this just another example of his turning ritual Jewish practice on its head, along with his meals with prostitutes, or was it guerilla theater, like something out of the Occupy movement?
Now we move into what may be the most fraught part of this story. Without anticipating too much where our class will go next week, let me observe that scholars consider much of the passion story of Jesus’ final days to be more a creation of his followers than a historical record. Among other things, it’s a little too tidy how closely those events echo well-known passages in the prophets and the psalms of the Hebrew scriptures. Yet, scholars also say that of all the stories about Jesus, the one that is most firmly documented is that of his crucifixion on the cross as a punishment for sedition against the Roman state.
And then? The early Christian church was explicit. As Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ was has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” Whichever gospel story you read, the Bible insists that Jesus was raised from the dead, and such remains the center of Christian churches today. And it is a central point that separates us from them. While we have our roots in the Christian tradition and regard Jesus as a great teacher and prophetic figure, we hold that he was a man like other men and that he died as all men will.
That, of course, then begs the question: what are we doing celebrating Easter? What, indeed! Here is a response from one of our ministers, the Rev. Earl Holt: “Jesus died. His death meant exactly what every death means: the end of life’s promise, the end of his hopes, the end of his dream, and also the hopes and dreams which others had of him and for him.
But “something happened in the minds and hearts of Jesus’ disciples, for whom everything had been lost. A transformation occurred, a radical shift from absolute despair to renewed hope, from a sense of the utter absence of Jesus to a feeling that in some way he was still with them. His death was not the end; it was the beginning. What had died became again lively in the world.”
What I believe makes the Easter story inspiring is not that it is a magical tale of bodily resurrection, but what it says about the power of Jesus’ radically egalitarian message and how it worked on and transformed those he left behind.
John Dominic Crossan, one of the most prominent scholars on the life of Jesus today, argues that the Easter narrative in the gospels, rather than being an account of three days in the life of Jesus’ followers after his death, is likely instead a distillation of what took place in that community over several years, how those following Jesus evolved, grew as a community and found a way forward.
It’s a complicated story and not every development was a positive one, but it speaks to something that can inspire our own lives – that the hope we live by might survive us. As Crossan puts it, “Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.”
And so as we watch the regreening of our world, the emergence of frogs and the reappearance of songbirds, we reflect that love and hope can endure winters of sorrow, pain, or discontent and reappear in the most astonishing ways. And that can be cause enough for celebration, for dressing up, gathering flowers and decorating eggs – the seeds of new life – and for singing alleluias.
I think Jacob Trapp had it right in our reading earlier when he said of the Easter miracle that it is about celebrating the ecstasy of gratitude I feel for this, my life, and the freshness of awareness that might teach me to be present to it every day. I know that all living things will die, as I will die, and yet those deaths will bring about ongoing renewal of this miraculous world. Those who follow us will be the ones to make the possible, actual.
I love his phrase, “Nothing grows, flowers and bears fruit, save by giving. All that we try to save in ourselves wastes and perishes. Things ripen for the giving’s sake, and in the giving are consummated.”
It is the oldest and hardest story on Earth. In Trapp’s words, “The ploughshare of sorrow, breaking the heart, opens up new sources of life.” Sorrow and loss are woven into the wonder of life on Earth, our life on Earth, but it is only a small part of the story. The greater part is rebirth, the enduring possibility that the goodness of our lives and what we give our lives to will outlive us. We see it all around us in the renewal of life, in the children we welcome and to whose care we dedicate ourselves, in the blessings we bestow on them that make the way easier by surrounding them with love.
So, I guess I may have let my grumpiness get the better of me earlier. For in truth, after writing my complaints about how spring just wouldn’t come, I woke yesterday to find the temperature near 40 and a soft, life-giving rain falling. As I said, you never know how the natural world will surprise you.
Heading out once again to pick up the newspapers, I decided to pause a moment and watch the sky in the east begin to lighten. And while standing there I decided to focus my attention briefly on a little copse across the street where water tends to gather just to see if I might hear anything.
I wasn’t sure at first, but then there it was, like a soft tinkling of bells. It’s true, my friends, the peepers are back.
© Iperl | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images