Sermon by Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton
‘When I Am Among the Trees’ by Mary Oliver
Often we sense our hearts are reaching for something, but we can’t quite figure out what. When asked, ‘How are things going?’ we respond, “Good” or “Pretty Good.” We’re grateful for the basics of food and shelter, and the beauty around us, a caring friend or two. It should be enough, we say.
In challenging times, we may respond, “As well as can be expected, at least for now.” Letting a bit of our ragged edge reach out.
But the question, “How are things going?” seems to draw only a partial answer. What of the gap – the unsettledness – we often hold?
Often to open a meeting I ask a different question. “How is it with thy soul?” or “How is it with your soul?”
It’s an invitation to share more deeply. What do we yearn for? Yearning is defined as a longing for something, often something that is hard to attain. While we might have a hankering for a hot fudge sundae, or a wish that the date we’ve picked for a family reunion will be sunny, ‘yearning’ captures something more foundational. The closest synonym for this sense of yearning might be ‘ache’ –What do we ache for?
Maybe you yearn for a sense of a greater sense belonging. Maybe you yearn for a greater sense of security. Maybe you yearn for healing – of body, or of relationship, or of the land? How is it with thy soul? What do you yearn for?
Often yearning is about void of sorts. Often our deepest hopes are clearer after some change, even disruption. We yearn and search to restore something.
The Easter story begins with disruption. In the Bible we come to Easter morning after a week of tension. From Palm Sunday and the entry to Jerusalem, to the Last Supper on Thursday, to the Crucifixion on Friday, to Easter morning. In the gospel of Luke on Easter morning several women go to the tomb where Jesus had just been buried.
Luke 24 ( But on the first day of the week)… at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.[a] 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women[b] were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men[c] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
Still in shock and grief, and just plain exhausted, and inevitably confused, and maybe these women yearned for clarity. What had happened? Who could they trust? Maybe these women were numb…not quite yearning for anything they could name, at least not yet.
I’ve wondered what Jesus had yearned for as he entered the city a week earlier. He’d gone through a week he anticipated would end with his own death. From disrupting the money changers, to preparing his disciples at the Last Supper, to the cross…What might Jesus have yearned for that week?
Possibly, Jesus yearned for his family and those he loved to be safe.
Possibly, Jesus yearned for a fresh start for society – a society he saw was divided between those who had wealth, and power and certainty, and those who did not. That had been his focus.
Possibly, Jesus yearned for a legacy that mattered.
We don’t have to guess about what Jesus believed mattered most He’d spent three years of ministry making his point. He was intentional at every chance to make his vision clear. Followers knew his dreams. Whether wearing the hat of teacher, story teller, rabble rouser, or spiritual leader, he intentionally put his vision out there…his yearnings.
Early in his ministry, Jesus offered his Sermon on the Mount. In the gospel of Matthew we hear,
5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
And he went on with the Beatitudes and other teachings. What was wrong in the world? What could the new day bring?
Jesus likely yearned for disciples who could sort through the chaos and carry forward these ideals. Jesus had named his sense of what a whole and healthy society would look like. He knew change was needed; that power needed to be distributed differently.
Could the disciples move from the resistance and disruption of Jesus’s recent activities and actually make corrective changes a reality?
Resistance and disruption hopefully opened space for change, but weren’t the end game.
What if we’d asked Jesus during holy week, “How is it with thy soul?” I sense we would have gotten an earful.
In life, laying out where we are struggling, or unsure, or fearful is a start to filling our unsettledness – our heart’s deepest yearnings.
Author James Baldwin notes, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Knowing what we want to change matters. Moving toward filling the gaps, and doing so with intent is also part of the Easter lesson.
Easter is a story of deep struggle (and darkness) meeting possibilities for change. We’re reminded of this Easter message when plants arise from seeming death. We’re reminded of the Easter message each morning the sun rises, almost tiptoeing around the horizon.
Resurrection can be understood as this fresh start. In the midst of confusion, resurrection was a message to the disciples to carry forward a legacy. Their role was to make meaning from the death and to have confidence that Jesus was with them. .
Recently I read from work of Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest, who understands resurrection as “the Christian name we give to the multiple ways we push back against the darkness.”
In Mitch Albom’s novel “First Call From Heaven” a small town becomes the center of calls …real live telephone calls, with real voices – being made from the deceased to loved ones. The calls fill voids the surviving loved one hadn’t named before these mysterious calls start coming in. As those living can more clearly see what it will take to move forward, darkness begins to lift. While much can be explained…worth a read to see how… the power of a fresh start is not erased. New perspectives mattered and new senses of legacy emerged.
What helps when your heart longs for something? What helps you find a path toward balance and restoration?
What happens when our collective community is yearning for something and wants to path toward balance and restoration? Yet, the chasm feels big, too big to know quite how to start?
In part we can lean on those who have gone before us and learn.
Religious stories help us do this. The Easter story, the telling of the Exodus at Passover – stories that offer stories of communities in struggle who find light.
Scripture reminds us not to dismiss our heart’s longings.
While “How is it with thy soul?” can sound sort of squishy, or religious or spiritual, it’s a human need to express longing and pain. It starts the path to healing.
What matters is not to dismiss our unsettledness – not to avoid naming of our deepest yearnings.
When we let our personal and current day community stories (and fears and uncertainties) bump into the stories of those who came before us, we just might connect with those deepest yearnings and find unexpected ways to push darkness and uncertainty aside. We might make room for new ways…new perspectives.
Jesus put stakes in the ground. His named his deepest yearnings. Might the story of resurrection – the Easter Story – be an intentional response from his followers: We get it, we’ll carry on.
John Shelby Spong’s (liberal Episcopalian bishop) sees the meaning of resurrection is intricately tied to the moving forward of the life affirming messages of Jesus. He sees Jesus, “as one who was constantly dismantling the barriers that separate people from one another.” He too sees Jesus as Love.
What if resurrection is a reminder to (as Spong says) hear love as manifest in the “desire to explore the crevices of the unknown.” …deep crevices…yearnings … which need care and attention.
Might resurrection be how those who’d been following Jesus respond to Jesus’s yearning for a legacy that mattered?
Is the Easter story the only way help respond to deepest yearnings. No. It’s one path.
What helps you name deepest yearnings? Are you then intentional in turning toward light and leaning away from darkness toward more belonging, or more security, or more fairness?
Trees in Mary Oliver’s poem…trees open to light…open to shine.
In the story of Easter we hear of new understandings –a tomb opened – a message to be carried forward for the ages.
Together may we trust that what our heart is reaching for…aching for…matters…and from there may we move toward light with intent and imagination. May we trust in the power of sharing of what might be.
And may our deepest yearnings be met with love.