Easter sermon (audio and text)

“And they walked with Him and talked with Him”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County

You don’t know what it was you were looking for on that beautiful spring day. You told yourself, if nothing else it would be nice to see the wildflowers, the red everlasting that grow in every corner of your city. You weren’t sure what you hoped to accomplish by getting a glimpse of the traveller who people said was on his way to save the world.

Your city does not lack for prophets. There are warriors with knives strapped to every inch of their body, announcing that are more than a match for any empire. There are religious nuts of all descriptions, screaming that the end is near, or the beginning of a new age is near, or that people are unclean, or that the truth is not what you see. There’s no shortage of people who claim to speak for God in this Godforsaken city of Jerusalem.

You don’t lack for prophets. But, for reasons you find hard to articulate, you went to greet this prophet at the gates. People said he was capable of miracles. People said he could heal the sick, give sight to the blind – they say he even helped the pitiful lepers, so reviled by everyone. You, yourself, didn’t need a miracle – well, not especially, not more than anybody else does. You could use help, certainly, for life was hand to mouth, and you lived with the awareness that it all could fall apart at any moment. And sometimes it did. But more than any of this you wanted to see, with your own eyes, this man of peace who said that heaven was already here. And so you asked your neighbor to watch the kids and you walked down to the Olive Mount. And what you saw there was not one person but many: a tumultuous crowd, women and men together, children and old people together, slaves and nobodies and sick people, everyone singing, dancing, crying, “Hosanna in the Highest.” Joy spilling out over this tumble of humanity into the olive fields. The people tore down the branches of the palm trees, they tore down the palm branches as if it were a military parade, the branches were torn down and placed on the road for a man travelling on a donkey. The authorities will not be happy, you thought to yourself.

You strained against the exuberant masses to get a better view of this stranger. What did you think you might see? For him to be glowing? Levitating over the earth? And when you pushed your way to a place of vision what you saw was a man, travelling on a donkey, laughing at a private joke shared with a person near him, a man grasped at, touched by the crowds who wanted to be a part of it all, and extending his hand in return. He looked – human. From a hundred feet away he looked so human. So frail. Almost broken. And then he turned, and seem to look right at you. And even as the trace of his laughter faded you could see the sadness that ringed his eyes. It was a sadness that took the whole world into its gaze and bathed the sadness of the whole world in watery tears. And you thought, suddenly, of Miriam – your sixth child, dead in childbirth, the child you held in your hands at her coming and her passing. You were lucky to have so many live, you beat the odds, and yet Miraim returns to you many, many days in memory. And you don’t know why this serious, foolish man on a donkey reminds you of your tiny baby, but in that moment when your eyes meet you are cast back to the first things of this world, the holy beginnings, and you felt a hunger to be together with all that was lost.

Baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
but love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
(Leonard Cohen)

You went home shaken without knowing quite why. All week, the gossip of the prophet’s outbursts came to your neighborhood in waves – the banker’s tables overturned at the temple, the riddles and the questioning, the stories of God’s everywhere love, the pronouncement that every stone would fall in the Temple, that the entire world as we knew would die and then be made new. You didn’t understand any of this but you wanted to be with this strange man, and his followers, this movement. You didn’t know what the pull was all about; your husband chuckled at your foolishness. “There are dreamers enough to talk of a world transformed, the rest of us must settle on getting bread for the table.” A practical man, your husband, and you were always a practical woman, but day after day as the week goes on, there is a pull to be a part of…some new world. There must be something better than the terror and death and hopelessness, the inevitable decline, that surrounds you every day.

And so, in the middle of the week, before you have time to realize what you are doing, you are walking into the center of town to look for the prophet. You are speaking his name and asking for him. Everyone knows who he is, everyone you talk to has a story. But no-one can find him.

You spend an hour looking for him. Far too long: your family will wonder where you are, they will need you. You find tears coming to your eyes as you search one more alleyway, one more dead end for the prophet. You wanted to be a part of something, to embrace the possibility of a new world, and now, you see, this whole moment will pass you by. You only have this moment, and now, before you even realize it, it’s already gone. You were ready to leave everything, to be one with the alpha and the omega, to dance beneath the stars in yesterday’s robes, to leave it all behind…

and you are left with only yourself. And a few whispered stories. That is all. You rush back home through your tears.

Later, you learn what has happened. What everyone expected, what the followers said would never happen to their heavenly king, but what everybody knew was the way of the world. It was bound to happen.

You went out to Golgotha, when it was all too late, to see what human beings do to each other. There, on the hill at Golgotha, you see the dream of peace dead, yet again, just as before. And you think, this, this is the way of the world. You may not be crucified yourself, but are we not all on the road to suffering and then…oblivion, nothing upon nothing. Time marches on, and none of us, ultimately escape. A new world? Peace for ever? Eternity you can touch? Pipe dreams.

You lie in the dirt and empty your heart.

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
(Leonard Cohen)

After the death of the beloved, a time of silence. An emptiness carving out the hearts of those who loved. And then, people say…people say, they saw him. Not just saw him, but walked with him and talked with him. The reports come in, from Jerusalem and Emmaus and Galilee. Because it’s women who are appeared to first, the reports are not believed. An old wives’ tale, they say. Weak people are prone to visions.

Only you saw him too.

You did, and you didn’t. That day, coming back from the hill of Golgotha, it was silent, almost peaceful. You kicked up the dust with your sandals as you shuffled up the hill to your house. Your husband was waiting in the yard, kids playing around his ankles. It’s such a vision of joy, but you fear your husband’s critical gaze. You are ready to lash out in anger, to strike back against any critical words he may have for you, but he takes you in his arms without a word.

Not the most emotional man, your husband, but sometimes he knows more than he knows. Without a word, he grips you, hard, and through your tears you let go of the river inside your spirit.

It is two days later when you are preparing a meal for your family. The lentils feel good in your hands, it’s refreshingly real to chop the spring onions. You still find it hard to believe the horror that you saw at that hill, it still lives in you like a lead weight, but life is creeping into your world again like crabgrass.

And then you carry the bowl into your family. They are sitting, expectant, hungry. The most familiar people in the world, your flesh and blood. And then – he is there. At your table. The strange prophet of peace, you see him sitting there, as calm as can be. But you blink again, and it is Sarah, your eldest daughter. Why, on earth, did you think she was Jesus?

But throughout the meal, as you eat and talk and listen to your children, you feel that this prophet of life’s heavenly joy is with you. And it is not a voice, for it is deeper in you than a voice can be, and it is not a sign, for it is larger and more expansive than any sign, you feel inside you that “life is with you always.” Life, the life beyond death, life, the life that embraces the moment so hard it pays no tribute to the next, the life eternal is with you as you share lentils and clasp hands and knock your spoon against the wood. Life eternal is here amidst the everyday things of the world. And you get a sense, somehow, that every moment lived in love can never die.

A bird flies by your window and sings in untranslated ecstasy. And you, you keep the vision of the prophet to yourself. You don’t know how you would possibly say anything about the world that lives forever, the world that is always a new born babe, and gives the most to those who have the least. The best you can do is try to live that world, to express it in kindness. Kindness, perhaps, is the only way to grasp at mystery.

And from then on, even when the world seems broken, as it so often does, even when the castle of power is erected against the possibilities of the meek, there is something at work in the world that brings joy to our tables. The end is only the beginning. And you don’t understand quite how, there is some quiet corner of the world where Miriam is in your arms again, where you walk and dance with the prophet, and the world is new again. That quiet corner, you are sure, is near enough to touch.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah…
(Leonard Cohen)

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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