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The Rites of Spring – 4/24/2011

A Story for Pesach

The story of Passover is the story of the Hebrew people, the great-great-grandchildren of a man named Israel, and their journey from slavery to freedom. Long, long ago, in the land of Egypt, the Children of Israel were forced to work building cities for Pharaoh, the cruel king of that nation. The Egyptian authorities controlled all that they did, punished them horribly, and kept them even from practicing their own religion.  When the cry of the people for their freedom was heard in the land, and reached the ears of the Pharaoh, and he refused to set them free. And things did not go well for anyone living in Egypt, no matter what language they spoke or God they worshipped, because a society built on injustice can never be at peace with itself. Those of you who were with us at our annual seder yesterday know this story well because we spent last night telling it to each other and discussing its meaning. Again and again came the demand for freedom, and again and again, Pharaoh refused, until finally the price of iniquity grew too great. Finally, the great king gave in, and allowed the Hebrew people to have their freedom.

They left Egypt in a terrible rush, afraid that the Pharaoh would change his mind. And carrying everything that they owned with them – just a little food, a few supplies, and some musical instruments – the people arrived at the scene of the story we are going to tell this morning. The Children of Israel, fleeing from slavery into freedom, from the land of Egypt into the hope of a new place to live, reached the shore of the sea.

So the Children of Israel stood before the ocean and they were afraid. How could they reach their freedom now? But the yearning for freedom and the determination of all people to live and to follow the stirrings of their hearts is very powerful indeed. And when Moses at the head of that crowd of refugees raised up his hand, the sea itself made way for them.

And the people, with their prophet, Moses, set out onto the dry sea bed.

The sand underneath their feet sloped further and further down, as the people stepped forward. They walked between the waters, with the ocean formed up into great swirling walls on either side. The ancient name in Hebrew for Egypt is Mitzraim, which means “a narrow place”. To pass from bondage into freedom, from brokenness and desolation into the promise of a new life, the Children of Israel had to pass through a place that was constricted and confined, with overwhelming forces on both sides. Because in a world that is torn by injustice and cruelty, hope walks a narrow path.

When the Hebrew people could see the other shore, as the ground began to rise up above the level of the water, they took out their instruments that they had carried with them, and they made a joyful noise. Taking their first steps out of the sea, their first steps outside of Egypt, the people sang a song of thanks, in gladness for the gift of freedom.

A Story for Easter

The story of Easter is the story of the early Christian community, the earliest followers of Jesus, finding a way to continue their movement after the murder of their teacher. Let me set the scene for you: the Jewish lands of Judea and Idumea, Samaria and the Galilee are occupied by a foreign military: Rome. The nation’s wealth and the land needed to grow food to eat has become concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of landowners, many of whom have never seen the farms and vineyards they now possess. The gap between rich and poor grows wider and wider every day. The people, hungry and oppressed, are split into factions both political and religious; a privileged few are for Rome, most are against it but their uprisings are brutally put down. Anyone who talks about revolution is quickly arrested.

This is the state of things, when Jesus hits the scene, coming out of the next best place to nowhere: the rural backwater of the Galilee. Subject to an empire built by overwhelming military power, he preaches peace. In a polarized and divided society, he counsels, ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’. In an era ruled by money and the love of it, he tells his students, ‘Sell everything you have and give it to the poor…Then come follow me.’ The people who do follow him come seeking after freedom – freedom for their bodies and freedom for their spirits. They hope to replace the perpetual war of an occupation, with peace, and the tyranny of the powerful over the meek and the rich over the poor with a new state of being; a world that has a place prepared for everyone.

But then the empire got a hold of that man Jesus, and they killed him. The hope of a new world was not fulfilled. The teacher was gone, and his body entombed. A movement that seemed ready to challenge the injustice of the status quo was lost and scattered by despair. Just a few of the loyalists remained to go through the rhythms of grief, seeing to it that their teacher received the proper burial rites. This is the setting of our reading, from the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 16, verses 1-8:

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Here ends the reading.

Just over a hundred years ago the Russian mystic and artist Nicholas Roerich shared a very rough idea for a ballet performance with the composer Igor Stravinsky. Their collaboration with choreographer Vaslav Najinsky produced a piece that is known in English as the Rite of Spring. The music and the dance paint an imagined picture of life in pre-Christian Russia – the ceremonies and sacrifice that the people believe is necessary for the harsh winter of the steppe to give way to spring. Their work is said to have caused a sensation when it first premiered: the audience was sharply divided by the performance with its violent, primal dance style and radical departure from musical conventions. Just the opening notes were a point of fiery contention. We’ll hear them now.

When that part was written it went beyond the accepted range of the bassoon, the instrument it was to be played on. The strain on the instrument was intentional; it evoked the ballet’s theme of sacrifice. Like the imaginary pagans of Stravinsky’s composition, there are some earth-centered religious traditions that associate the coming of spring with a sacrifice. Two of these earth-centered religions are Judaism and Christianity.

The Jewish festival of Passover is deeply connected to the sacrifice of lambs – it’s a key part of the Exodus story, and in the early days of the Jerusalem temple, hundreds of sheep were sacrificed each year as part of its observance. In the case of Christianity, the sacrifice is a human being: Jesus of Nazareth. For two thousand years there has been a strong voice in the Christian tradition championing the virtue and necessity of sacrifice. ‘Suffering,’ this voice has said, ‘will set you free.’

But for centuries there has also been a voice from Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, to challenge that. This voice has dared to assert that an empire, executing a civil rights activist, was not and can never be a good thing. Instead we have offered our tears for the wounded and the martyred, and proclaimed that it is not sacrifice but struggle that will make us free. Confronting powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love – this is what the Children of Israel did in Egypt, this is what Jesus and his community did in Judea, this is what all people of faith and good will are called to do to turn the winter of oppression into the freedom of spring.

It is hard, and it is dangerous work, and it takes a lot of chutzpah. Just think of those refugees from Egyptian bondage, gathered on the shores of the sea. There is a tradition that says that the water did not begin to part until the people had marched into it up to their nostrils.[i] It takes risk to seek for justice, and you know, sometimes, you walk out into the sea, and the water doesn’t part.

Which brings me to this morning’s reading. There is broad consensus among scholars that of the Gospels in the Christian scriptures, Mark’s was written the earliest. And the most of the oldest copies of that document that still exist end just where our reading ended this morning: with Salome and the two Mary’s fleeing from the empty tomb in fear. That is a very different sort of Easter story. It is still a miraculous tale – the teacher has been raised from the dead, says the youth in the white robe. But it leaves everything in the hands of the person who hears it – go back to Galilee; the teacher is waiting for you there. When the search for liberation falters, when the spring of the spirit fails to arrive, this is the lesson that I believe we all should take to heart: go back to where you started. Begin the struggle for freedom and justice anew.

My friends, in this season of flowers and new growth and life, may we be bold what we risk for the sake of a freer and more verdant earth. May we be ready to march together to the sea. If it does not part, may we return, and try again. And if it does, may we rise up on the far shore, singing.

[i] Sh’mot Rabbah 21:10




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