Monday, March 28, 2016

A Rite of Spring

A Rite of Spring 
An Eastertide Celebration in Three Acts
~ Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom ~

 “[God] has written the promise of the resurrection not in books alone,
but in every leaf in springtime.”
~ Martin Luther

~ Prelude ~

Opening Words
The Unitarian Universalist minister Max Coots once wrote:
“We need a celebration that speaks the spring-inspired word about life and death, about us as we live and die, through all the cycling seasons, days, and years. We need the sense of deity to crack our own hard, brown, December husks and push life out of inner tombs and outer pain. Unless we move the seasons of the self, and spring can come for us, the winter will go on and on. And Easter will remain a myth, and life will never come again, despite the fact of spring.”[1]
On this morning when our Christian brothers and sisters celebrate Easter, may we open our hearts and minds to all of the “spring-inspired” truths our human kin have found and that we, and our world, so desperately need to hear.
Ringing of the Bell
Chalice Lighting
“You who have an eye for miracles, regard the bud now appearing on the bare branch of the fragile young tree.  It’s a mere dot, a nothing.  But already it’s a flower, already a fruit, already its own death and resurrection.” [2]
Congregational response:  We light our chalice in peace and friendship.

~ Act 1:  winter and the tomb ~
Reader 1:  the Story of Winter
In a small galaxy in a far corner of the Universe there is a tiny ball of water and rock that is spinning around its own axis once every day, and around its sun at approximately 66,000 miles per hour, taking a full year to complete its course. This is where we live, the Earth, third planet from the sun.
Roughly four and a half billion years ago the Earth and her neighbors  came into existence from within the swirling stellar stew caused by the supernova of the primal star Tiamat.  It took nearly two billion years for the landmasses to stabilize, and the first eukaryotic cell — one with a membrane and a nucleus and chromosomes with DNA—the ancestor of all forms of advanced life, did not emerge for another five hundred million years.  Over the next one and a half billion years there arose a great diversity of life, nearly ninety percent of which were destroyed during the Cambrian extinctions of five hundred and seventy million years ago.  It is around this time that the earth’s axis stabilizes at its current 23 ½ degrees.  We are part of a story that is older than we can imagine.
Because the Earth spins on a slightly tilted axis, for part of the year the northern half of the globe is closer to the sun, and for half of the year its the southern hemisphere that receives the extra warmth of more direct sunshine.  Whatever part is farther away experiences winter.  This shift from summer through fall to winter and from winter through spring back to summer has been going on for nearly half a billion years.
Leaves have changed color and dropped from the trees.  Warm days and cool nights have given way to cold days and even colder nights.  Plants die, or close in on themselves.  The ground hardens; the air dries out.  Snow falls and covers the grasses, the rocks . . . everything.  Streams and ponds freeze solid, and even the larger rivers and lakes hide their movement in the depths, beneath a layer of frozen stillness.  It’s as if nothing grows; nothing moves.
In the animal realm, many species of birds, some bats, and animals like caribou, elk, and even whales have begun traveling to warmer climes.  Squirrels, mice, and beavers start eating the extra food they gathered and stored in the fall, expending their energy on staying warm rather than the now futile effort of foraging.  Bears, skunks, chipmunk, some fish, frogs, snakes, and turtles hibernate or go dormant, going within themselves, essentially shutting down. 
And that is how humans experienced this time of year since our emergence on the earth some two and a half million years ago until relatively recently when we mastered the science of creating artificial environments in our climate controlled homes and workplaces.  Still, in our cells, we remember.  Short days and long nights encourage us to slow down.  We, too, tend to fold inward, to mirror the stillness of the world around us.
Hymn: Now the Day Is Over  (SLT #46, vs. 2, 4, 5)
Now the leafless landscape settles in repose,
Waiting for the quiet of the winter snows.
May the season’s rhythms, slow and strong and deep
Soothe the mind and spirit, lulling us to sleep.
Sleep until the rising of another spring
Keeps the ancient promise fall and winter bring.
Reader 2:  the Story of Jesus
There once was a little boy born to poor parents from an oppressed people in a tiny backwater village from which no one thought any good could come.[3]  Not much is known about his early years except that he was sharp of mind and large of heart and “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”[4]  It seems likely that he took seriously the religion of his people—so seriously that it set him apart from his earliest days.
As a young man he began to preach and teach and heal.  He taught that all people are God’s children and that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do—God loves you anyway and will embrace you with joy if you’ll only turn toward that Love.  It is said that this boy—known in his day as Yeshua—was so filled with this Love that when he spoke it was as if God were speaking and when you looked on him it was as if you were looking at God face-to-face.
Crowds began to gather around him, crowds mostly of the poor, the disconsolate, the outcast—those whom others deemed unworthy.  A community grew, a community with a welcome more wide and more deep than any anyone had known before.  Even some of the scholars, and the priests, and the well-to-do found a home with the itinerant band that followed this wandering preacher and healer.
When[ever] the crowds learned [where he was], they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing.”[5]   He taught that God’s kingdom was not some far off dream to be yearned for but something real within and around each of us, that it was something to be worked for.  He taught that each of us, with faith, could “move mountains”[6] and that “if you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.”[7]  He taught that love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably intertwined and that pious words alone are worth nothing.
None of these teachings were well received by the authorities, of course — neither the religious authorities nor the authorities of the state who heard in his description of the “kingdom of God” a decidedly negative comparison with the kingdom of Caesar.  Such radical egalitarianism was a threat to the status quo, and the growing crowds were worrisome, too.  And so Jesus was arrested, tried, and sentenced to die.
On Friday evening he was taken out, publicly humiliated and brutally flogged, and brought outside the city walls to be nailed to a cross.  The crowds who had so recently invoked hymns now hurled invectives.  His closest companions abandoned him and hid in fear.  Yet even in the face of all this he refused to return evil for evil—offering only love, as he had all his life—praying to God from the cross for forgiveness on behalf of those who did these things.
In time, and in agony, Jesus died.  His disciples removed his body from the cross and placed it in a stone tomb, but as the Sabbath was beginning they could not properly prepare the body for burial. A stone was rolled in front of the entrance, and this man in whom so many had seen God was gone.  The “light of the world” was snuffed out, and those who knew him were bereft.
Hymn:  Now in the Tomb is Laid (SLT # 264, adapted)
Now in the tomb is laid, who welcomed everyone
and lived the Love of God.  Now in the tomb is laid.

Now in the tomb is laid, who told the sparrow’s worth,
the lily’s praises said.  Now in the tomb is laid.

Now in the tomb is laid, promise left unfulfilled.
Light of the world grown cold.  Now in the tomb is laid.

Reader 3:  the Story of Our Lives
The story has been told in so many ways, the story of the seasonal cycle from springtime through autumn to winter:  it’s the story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld; it’s the story of Osiris’ death at the hands of his brother Set; it’s the Phoenix dying in a blaze of fire; and it’s Jesus on the cross and in the tomb. 
Of course, these mythological stories exist not just to explain how the world works out there, but how it works in here.  So these are also the stories of you and me.  You and me when our relationships falter, or fail.  You and me when worries about making ends meet keep us up at night.  You and me when depression clouds our souls.  You and me when concern for the world leaves us immobilized.  You and me when one we love dies.  You and me as we face our own mortality.
These stories of the coming of winter—these stories of death and despair—are not just stories from some far away people in some far away time.  They are our stories.  And while we may want to rush from cross to resurrection, from the first flurry to the first crocus, it is important that we spend some time here, for each of us has what Sarah Moores Campbell calls a “tomb of the soul” in which, “we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, [and] worries.”  To gloss over them, to ignore this place and this season, is not to rid ourselves of it but rather to ensure that we come back here again and again and again, like an injury left untreated that flares up each time worse than the last. 
Douglas John Hall has written, “It is the propensity of religion to avoid, precisely, suffering:  to have light without darkness, vision without trust and risk, hope without an ongoing dialog with despair—in short, Easter without Good Friday.”  Perhaps the poet Wendell Berry put it most succinctly:  “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.”  And if we are to honor life—not just the wonder of it but the whole of it, not just it’s triumph but its truth—then we must learn to honor, even embrace, both winter and the tomb.
Innana goes down to the underworld; Baldur is killed by Loki’s deadly mistletoe; and you and me—the story is told again and again. 
Hymn:  In the Bleak Midwinter (adapted)
In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter long ago.

You and I know winter, you and I know pain,
Times we feel the sun will never shine again.
Darkness all around us, with no end in sight
You and I know winter, when there is no light.

In the bleak midwinter earth and we are one.
Both in frozen darkness, hidden from the sun.
Yet we hope despite ourselves--what else can we do?
Hope that in the springtime we'll be born anew. 

~ Interlude ~

Offering & Offertory Music

Anne Sexton wrote:  “Look to your heart that flutters in and out like a moth.  God is not indifferent to your need.  You have a thousand prayers but God has one.”  [Let us, then] give thanks for those moments when we can feel that we live in a world that is not indifferent to our need.
We all have so many needs—a thousand prayers—a thousand needs—that really only need one answer:  let the world not be indifferent.  And may we live and be with each other in the way that shows this truth whatever the day brings:  that neither are we indifferent to each other.[8]
[So] let there [now] be an offering to sustain and strengthen this place which is sacred to so many of us, a community of memory and of hope, for we are now the keepers of the dream.[9]
And as our ushers collect your financial offerings, our choir will make an offering of its own.

  ~ Act 2:  springtime resurrection ~
Reader 1:  the Story of Spring
Some notice first the skunkweed.  For others it’s the crocus flowering amidst the melting snow, or just the fact of the snow’s retreat and the re-appearance of browns and greens where there had been perpetual white.  We hear the peepers again, and the subtle change in the song of the chickadee.  The pussy willows bloom, and robins return as do their earthworm dinners.  Perhaps you perceive the sound of water running in underground pipes, the “gurgling brook” sound as you walk past a catch basin. Or you find yourself unable to stop from stepping on the brittle shelf of ice that’s “detached” itself and is standing an inch or two above the sandy pavement.  There’s the bright, rich yellow of willow branches, and temperatures that, in October, would have had us bundling up now making us want to shed our coats and celebrate warmth.
And bears leave their winter caves and begin looking for the fish that are now breaking the surface for the first time in months.  Iron-hard earth becomes oozy, and everywhere things seem to be opening.  Birds return, filling the air with song.  And animals that had horded and hungered are now out seeking for food just as the needed nutriment is sprouting forth anew.  This is what we celebrate today:  Spring has sprung again!
Hymn:  Lo the Earth Awakes Again  (SLT # 61)
Lo the earth awakes again — Alleluia! —
From the winter’s bond and pain.  Alleluia!
Bring we leaf and flower and spray — Alleluia! —
To adorn this happy day.  Alleluia!

Once again the word comes true  — Alleluia! —
“All the earth shall be made new.”  Alleluia!
Now the dark, cold days are o’er — Alleluia! —
Spring and gladness are before.  Alleluia!

Change, then, mourning into praise — Alleluia! —
And, for dirges, anthems raise.  Alleluia!
How the Spirits soar and sing — Alleluia! —
How our hearts leap with the spring.  Alleluia!

Reader 2:  the Story of Jesus
On the third day the women of Jesus’ community went to the tomb to wash and care for the body.  To their astonishment they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.  Beside themselves, they asked everyone they met:  “Where have they taken him?”  A man they supposed to be a gardener said, “The one you are looking for is not here,” but that was hardly helpful.  And yet, finding no answer from others they found one in themselves—Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the Love-filled life they had known.  Jesus of Nazareth, Yeshua ben Mirriam, was still alive, and they ran to tell the others.
The companions, still frightened and despondent, were locked together in an upper room.  They would not believe the women’s story, would not believe that all was not lost.  Yet even though the doors were locked—and, perhaps, their hearts as well — the spirit of their teacher came, assuring them that death is not the end of life.  And this is what we celebrate today: that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than anything!
Hymn:  Jesus Christ is Risen Today (SLT # 268)
Jesus Christ is risen today  — Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high — Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done  — Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won.  — Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise — Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise.  — Alleluia!

Hearts are strong, and voices sing  — Alleluia!
Where, O Death, is now thy sting?  — Alleluia!
As he died his truth to save — Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave?  — Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led  — Alleluia!
Living out the words he said.  — Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise — Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.  — Alleluia!

Reader 3:  the Story of our Lives
There is a promise here.  And, as Martin Luther noted, the promise is written not just in books but in every springtime leaf. It’s even closer than that.  The question is not whether we believe in resurrection but whether we have known it — known it in our own lived experience, seen it in the lives of others, felt it in the world around us.  
Persephone returns to the world of light; Osiris is resurrected by the power of the love of his wife Isis; the Phoenix is born anew from its own ashes; Jesus leaves behind the tomb.  Snow and ice melts, giving way to new life.
The promise of our Unitarian Universalist faith is the promise of the seasons and these stories—winter is not perpetual, the wheel will keep on turning, the tomb is not the end.  We affirm the promise of rebirth, of resurrection; of life’s ultimate victory over death; of hope’s triumph over hopelessness—not just as some abstract concept but as the miraculous reality of our lives.  And this is what we celebrate today!
~ Act 3:  alleluiah! ~
Closing Words
So let us go out into the world – this world of such darkness and such light, of such hard cold and luxurious warmth; this world of death and this world of life – let us go out into the world and share the good news that life is stronger than death, that hope is stronger than hate, and that love is stronger than anything … that love is the strongest thing there is.
Alleluia.  Amen.  May it be so.

~ Postlude ~

Endnotes: sources and citations
[1]   “Seasons of the Self” by Max A. Coots  (SLT # 627)
[2]   “An Eye for Miracles” by Diego Valeri (SLT # 625)
[3]   John 1:46
[4]   Luke 2:52
[5]   Luke 9:11
[6]   Matthew 17:20
[7]   Thomas, saying 70
[8]   Judith Meyer (SLT # 672, adapated)
[9]   Brandoch L. Lovely  (SLT #674, adapted)