Coming and Going
2014 Easter Sermon at Hillsdale UCC
I’ve been out of sorts this week.
I’m coming and going as usual, but I can’t seem to get the hang of any of it. I have stumbled into one of those misunderstandings with a family member that causes a lot more sleepless nights than it’s probably worth. I’m noticing I’m not as young as I used to be – and my achy back and unreliable knees and gigantic new bifocals remind me in case I forget. Nothing I want to watch is on TV and I overcooked the chicken one night so we had to have hockey pucks for dinner and I’ve suddenly developed spring allergies this year for the first time ever. This is all compounded by the fact that I’m a PASTOR and it’s HOLY WEEK, for goodness sake, and I’m SUPPOSED to be feeling HOLY.
So, on Friday, I cranked my way to an exercise class, which usually cheers me up, but this time didn’t really. Cranking home again, I passed our neighborhood’s little lake. Now, on a bad day – and Friday was a bad day – I can even be cranky about the little lake, consider it a sort of modern suburban cess pool that someone planted trees around to make us all feel better about it.
But even when I’m cranky, I always drive really slowly past the lake because it’s a favorite place for neighborhood kids to learn to ride their bikes, and because it’s populated by this species of half tame ducks that have no regard at all for the physics of motor vehicles. As I drove by slowly, I noticed a woman sitting on the sidewalk with her phone in her hand. She was dressed like she was out for a walk in yoga pants and a ball cap. It just seemed a little unusual to see her sitting that way, on the curb – alert but not moving. I don’t know why, but I pulled the around the corner and walked back to where she sat.
“Are you ok?”
“There are ducklings in there…” She pointed to the sewer grate. I bent down, mindful of the aching back and those unreliable knees, and saw a white PVC pipe emptying into a cloudy little square of water. And perched on the edge of PVC pipe, a chirping little bunch of ducklings.
“Look, see how upset the mama is.” She said pointed a few feet away and there was a mallard, calling and walking in nervous little circles. She must have been crossing the road, and walked right over the grate, where her little ones fell through, plop, plop, plop. She was too big to get to them, and they were too small to get out.
At that moment, the woman’s husband got out of a car. I guessed it was he who she had just called. He pulled the grating off the sewer.
“I tried to call Audubon,” the woman explained, exasperated “they said they didn’t know what jurisdiction this park is in, so they couldn’t help me.”
But then we stopped talking, because the man was scooping ducklings out of the sewer pipe. One, two, three. The mama duck called them and they ran right to her, nestling and chirping under her wings, but – in the manner of her species – she was ignoring the cars in the road, which were all coming to a stop, as people got out to see what was going on. As the ducklings got handed up to the road, I shooed them toward the mama, and anther woman in a sun dress and sandals (not dressed for a rescue operation, but willing nonetheless) started shepherding the ducks toward the curb. Three of them jumped it pretty easily but the fourth – there were four by then – got stuck and had to be shepherded over to the cross walk and the curb cut.
I don’t know how high ducks can count, but the mama mallard was obviously content with the four and waddled toward the little creek that runs under the road and into the lake, her ducklings scrambling behind her.
But the rescue team could still hear more peep peep peep in the pipe, although with all the excitement the remaining duckling (or ducklings?) had huddled back from the lip of the pipe and were hard to see. Someone produced a flashlight from a trunk, but the batteries were out. The man still on his stomach fished around some more and pulled out another duckling. I managed to grab hold of it instinctively (although I don’t think I’ve ever held a live bird before) lightly so as not to squish him and firmly so he wouldn’t wiggle away.
The woman in the sun dress saw the duck family a little way upstream, in company with the drake who had appeared from somewhere. She pointed the way, and carried the duck tenderly through the wet grass, and I lay right down on the mud of the bank – not thinking of my back or my knees or the conversation I should probably have to clear up that misunderstanding, or the TV show I would watch if it would ever come back on. Only feeling that tiny fuzzy body, trembling and fluttering, its little heart beating about a million miles a minute. Down on my belly, I saw those outrageous marsh marigolds that bloom everywhere this time of year. I saw the water, which was not a cess pool after all, but just a muddy spring stream, carrying sticks and leaves wherever they were going. And I saw the little duck family. As I reached down and put the duckling in the water its brothers and sisters peeped, and its mama honked and it swam as fast as it could toward them.
When I pushed up to my feet (and nothing hurt and all that sad heavy feeling I’d been carrying floated away), everyone cheered and I saw they’d all followed me from the curb - the man who’d been fishing in the sewer and the woman with the phone, and the other woman with the sundress and sandals on, who didn’t seem to be minding the mud either.
See, here’s the problem with Easter. It makes us think that death, every death, is huge and monumental and that resurrection, when it comes will come with trumpets and earthquakes, and angels perched cheekily on stones. But sometimes resurrection doesn’t come like that at all. And sometimes resurrection, when it comes, comes much more gently, a tiny flutter of life you can hold in your hand.
Here’s the problem with Easter. It makes us think that this life is a line and along comes a bump of death and after that another bump, new life. But sometimes it’s not one big death, but a thousand small ones that bury you. And when you stand up dripping mud and maybe tears, you will find it’s not just another life that’s been saved, it’s your own too. Because sometimes resurrection happens not along a timeline, but in a circle – death and life and death and then more life again.
So we went back to the curb, patting ourselves on the back and thanking each other and then the woman in the sun dress said, “Oh my god, do you hear that?” Peep peep peep. And then the man lay back down in the street and pulled the sewer grate off one more time and pulled one more duckling out. But there was one we could not save, that had gotten too far down the pipe to come back within reach. So we worried a little and tried to think of good ideas, but there were none, only goodbye and tears of grief now, as well as tears of joy.
Listen. Mary and the other Mary were feeling sad that week. Their leader and friend murdered, their movement and their hopes shattered. And who knows? Maybe someone overcooked the Passover lamb, so they ended up having Passover hockeypuck. In any case, it was in a state of despair that they headed to the tomb that week. They had died one big death and a thousand little ones and they went to the burial place expecting more. At the grave, what they found was not death, as they expected, but new life, quivering and trembling in their hands. And not just new life for Christ, but new life for themselves, for their friends-that-had-become-family. New life that would circle around and around as they told that terrible good news again and again all the way from there to Galilee, joy would always be mingled with grief at inevitable loss – bitter grief would always be just a little bit sweet with the promise of resurrection. Around and round.
One of the great privileges and joys of being your pastor is that you let me walk with you through many of the comings and goings your life. So I know that for many of you, this season carries big deaths and a thousand little ones, too. Sometimes literally. Elaine Walser Clark said that I could tell you this story. A few weeks ago, Elaine and her spouse Lynn got the dreaded call. Elaine’s mother Eleanor in California had been admitted to the hospital with both pneumonia and a blood infection and was not expected to live through the night. The doctor had actually advised Eleanor to make peace with her Maker, using those very words. Could they come? With the assistance of some good friends who helped with them with the arrangements even as they were literally driving to the airport in rush hour traffic, they caught a plane that evening, arrived at the hospital in the middle of the night.
But Eleanor did not die. Not that night, nor the many long nights ahead as Elaine and Lynn and Elaine’s sisters and their families sat vigil. As those nights and days passed, Eleanor would wake from sleep and ask them “Am I coming or going?” And they would hold her hands and kiss her forehead and say, “You are here. And we love you.”
Then, on a Thursday night, it seemed the hour had come. Elaine realized it had been a while since she had heard a breath, and she leaned over her mother, touched her hand, and readied herself for the next moments, hours, days – thought about going to a get a nurse to say “It is finished.” And then a surprise. Eleanor gripped her daughter’s hand, not weak but fierce, and said, “I am still here.” Eleanor did not die then or in the days since, but continues to live and even, in her way, to thrive.
Am I coming or am I going? Eleanor asked the question we all ask -- when we are sitting by a death bed, or rushing crankily home from Friday morning aerobics, or waiting in the food bank line or the symphony ticket line, or watching our favorite TV show that finally came back on, or weeding the garden, or adding up columns of numbers for the second time because that can’t be right, or feeling the forehead of a sick child or lying in bed wondering if we really have to get up and face another day. When we are grieving a big loss or a thousand small ones.
It was the question two women asked as they hurried to the place of death. am I coming or am I going? Where am I ? Who am I?
And we ask those questions, expecting Easter with all its glory, trumpets, earthquakes, angels. Waiting for the movement of impossibly heavy objects, the fainting of strong men. But here’s how the answer comes. It comes in small resurrections one by one by one. Resurrection comes in the unexpected grip of a hand on a death bed. Resurrection comes in the flutter of young wings, the peep peep peep of small voices. Resurrection comes when Mary and Mary and you and you and me finally -- after all the coming and going – fall in a full stop at the feet of the Christ, allow ourselves to hear his voice greeting us.
If you are here, I will be with you.
If you go way up to Galilee, I will be with you.
I am here.
And you are here.
And I love you.