All Souls Kansas City

April 12: “The Now and the Not Yet” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

Hares and rabbits are not the same animal, but they certainly look similar! One difference is that hares bear their young in grass nests on the ground, rather than underground burrows like rabbits. Because baby hares are born completely developed, fully furred and with their eyes open, they do not remain in their nests, which are called forms, for very long. It is not uncommon for a disused form that once held a hare family in the spring to be adopted as a nest by ground dwelling birds, like plovers. This may be the origin of the idea that the Easter bunny brings eggs.

While rabbits are more suitable for domestication and household pets, the hare has many associations with ancient springtime magic. Some traditions picture a hare as the companion animal to Eostre, the pagan goddess of dawn and springtime; sometimes the goddess carries the sun, and the hare brings the moon. Hares were once thought to have magical abilities — they were said to be the only animal that will run into fire to escape human pursuit — you can hear echoes of that in the Jataka Tale of the Selfless Hare. They were also thought to be able to change from one gender to the other, or to give birth spontaneously without mating. Many medieval paintings of Mary the mother of Jesus show her with a pure white hare at her feet, suggesting that she too was fertile although virginal. Hares are solitary and nocturnal most of the year, but in early spring their high energy, open air courtship behaviors of running and jumping erratically, and chasing and boxing with each other, have given rise to the expressions “harebrained” and “mad as a March hare.”

Hares have also been symbols of transformation in many cultures. In British witchcraft, the difficulty of catching or even following a running hare — who can move at a sustained 35 miles an hour, zig-zagging over long distances — gave rise to the idea that female witches would elude detection by turning themselves into hares. There is an image, found all over the ancient world, of three hares chasing each other in a circle, whose ears meet in the center, forming a triangle. Each hare appears to have two long ears, and yet there are only three ears depicted. This motif is repeated in Buddhist caves and Chinese textiles, on Muslim Persian coins, in German Jewish synagogues, and in many 14th and 15th century Christian churches in Cornwall and Devonshire, England, where it was explained as a reference to the trinity. This motif was also often associated with the tin producer’s guilds, and with alchemy, since the mining and refining of tin is a complicated and mysterious process to the uninitiated.

The elusive hare, with their exuberant mating antics, is the harbinger of spring’s transformations. Gazing down from the full moon, they observe the alchemy of winter’s end, and the beginning of the new growing season. They companion the goddess of spring as she wakes the plants and animals from dormancy, and brings new life. More than just a chocolate bunny with a fancy basket of jelly beans, the hare beckons us to a bit of earth madness at Easter time, in the new green after the long cold.

A long tradition here at All Souls has been our annual Children’s Easter egg hunt around the grounds. Andrea, Angie and Chuck have come up with some pictures from years past, and the corner is the number of eggs that you might be able to find in each picture, if you have a good eye. It’s a bit chilly for being outside today anyway, so enjoy this virtual search!

Reflection 2: Now and Not Yet

American politics contains this interesting piece of threshold time. Every four or eight years, there is a period of ten or eleven weeks in between election day and the inauguration of a new president. Everyone knows who the new leader will be; the decision has been made, but they are not in power yet. The previous administration is about to end, but is technically still in charge for the moment. It is helpful, I think, to imagine that the communities of Jesus and his disciples, and the early Christians, saw themselves as living in just this kind of time. The redemption of humanity had already been decided; it was a done deal. And yet, for just a little while yet, the powers of earthly empire still held sway.

It’s always a balancing act — how much do you conduct yourself as you know the new powers-that-will-be would want you to, and how much do you pay heed to those who are still running the show, even though their days are numbered? Paul’s new testament letters to the newly-founded churches throughout the gentile Roman empire are so much easier to understand from this perspective. Live into the kingdom that god is in the process of establishing, he urges his followers. This is the only reality that is going to matter going forward. But, don’t be surprised if the outgoing empire can sometimes still jump up and bite you. And the real challenge is that the old empire and the new kingdom both exist within you, as well as all around you. The old policies are familiar, and comfortable, even if you don’t approve of them. And the new regulations are going to feel awkward and complicated, even if you agree that they are better.

We ourselves are living in a kind of liminal, threshold time out of time — in some way holding our collective breath, waiting for the Corona virus to lose its hold over us, as we are confident that it one day will. We will manufacture more masks, create more test kits, find a vaccine, sooner or later. Of course we will; we know how to do this science thing, it just takes a little time. But in that meantime — so much risk, so much suffering, so much grief! Easter is not about the celebration of empire; that is for sure. Those who make it a shiny, flowery triumph do not understand its true power; its vision of a future that is both now and not yet; its call to live in the ambiguous land between ultimate assurance and present threat. Jesus spent all his ministry there, summoning the oppressed and impoverished and despised to the victory feast of a struggle already won, to be shared in the shadow of a power not ready to concede its own defeat. The threshold of a new world is no comfortable spot; not a place to relax, or be at ease. But it is where we have arrived at this moment in history.

Jan Richardson says
You have seen, and so you are already blessed.
You have been seen, and so you are the blessing.
There is no other word you need.
There is simply to go and tell.
There is simply to begin.

May we not despise the lesson of Easter, the summoning to live into a future that is both now and not yet; the home that our spirits yearn for, where they have never been. For that is the only resurrection that matters.

Reflection Three: Rising Again

Here’s the thing: The essence of Easter is transformation. It is never about things going back to the way they were before. The new life of spring is new; it’s not last year’s leaves — those are over and done. Even the empty tomb of the gospels is not a sign that Jesus and his entourage are going to resume their former life. In fact, that way of things is finished. It is only a radically new understanding of how to be a community together that can save them from dissolution and despair.

This Easter, as never before in many of our lifetimes, we are invited to seek the strength to let go of an old way of life, and discover what else might be possible. As the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote at the end of the second world war:
fear not the tolling of the solemn bell:
it does not prophesy, and it cannot foretell;
it can only record; and it records today the passing of a most uncivil age,
which had its elegance, but lived too well,
and far, oh, far too long;
and which, on History’s page,
will be found guilty of injustice and grave wrong.

The sane and real thing to do right now, as Aisha Ahmad says, is to be grief-stricken, and afraid, knowing that the world will never be the same. Easter morning was like that for Jesus’s disciples. It would take years and decades for them to work out what the reality of the empty tomb would actually mean, for them personally, for the world, for the future. At first, the rolled back stone and the missing body was just one more indignity, one more complication, one more heart-break to deal with. Had their beloved leader’s corpse been mistreated, savaged by animals, disposed of as part of a cover up by the Roman or Jewish authorities? Amidst all their other disappointment and grief, were they not to have even the simple comfort and closure of seeing him properly buried? The world as they had known it, transformed by the possibilities of healing, justice, grace and freedom, blessed by god’s loving compassion, evaporated as their teacher gasped out his last breath on the cross. Nothing of his bright vision remained, only the memory of betrayal, and suffering and death. The Roman empire, too, was “a most uncivil age, which had its elegance, but lived too well, and far, oh, far too long, and which on history’s page would be found guilty of injustice and grave wrong.”

And yet, it is in the confusion and anguish of that disappearance, that inexplicably empty tomb, that the first whisper begins, on the lips of the broken-hearted women, trembling at their own audacity. Risen? What if, the story isn’t actually over? What if, the message still lives within us, is made real by who we are, together? What if the vision he taught us is still as true as it ever was; what if he is still among us, instructing, encouraging, calling us to rise again?

What if we, too, on this Easter morning of Corona virus danger and death, are called to rise again, and make a new world? What if, there is no way back to what was before, only a path forward, to a different way of being, perhaps a society more nearly what it and we ought to be? This isn’t the first time the world has fallen apart — it just seems more devastating because it is ours. It seems, and is, more global because we know we are a global people. Ironically, what will save Sweden or Singapore or Peru — or Kansas City — is not pretending that there is a wall, or a fence, or any barrier that can protect us from our shared human condition.

But here is the alleluia part — just as the thing that steals the breath of life from us and those we love is world-wide and knows no borders, so too we must survive, and rise again, together. This is what the forces of Empire never understand, from the days of Rome to the days of Trump — every one of us matters. What we choose to do, how we share, and cooperate, and protect each other, how we offer our skill and knowledge to the common good; this is what will turn back the tide, and save us all; this is how we rebuild the world; this is how we rise again.

Not because god likes us best. If there was ever a time to send that dangerous fantasy to history’s trash can, it is now. But rather, because at the crucial moment, we glimpse again the truth that we are in this together, even in this time of isolation, when what is essential is that we cooperate intensely for our mutual well-being by staying apart. No one with a heart and a conscience is coming out of this event unscathed. We will all lose friends, neighbors, cherished elders, loved ones. We will all suffer. Some among us will perish, needlessly, from the carelessness of others. The world as we knew it is finished. To feel sad and lost, and anxious, is the sane response. Be not ashamed to mourn, and to lament; that is how Easter always begins. Danger and recklessness and cruelty are real, and cannot be denied.

But hear the whisper — god only knows where it comes from; somewhere deep and always surprising — “rise again.” Let your trembling, mystified lips form the words, before you even understand what they might mean — “rise again.” Throw your assent, and your treasure and your labor, to the call when it comes — “rise again.” That is all that faith means, has ever meant; that human willingness to rebuild the shattered world, and knowing what we know now, do better this time. Spring is the sign, and the promise — “rise again.” The rest is up to us.