My Easter homily draws from the picture book by Jane Cutler entitled, The Cello of Mr. O. Publisher’s Weekly summarizes the story as follows: “’At night, from my window, I can see the white trails of tracer fire and the orange flash of mortars in the sky. I pretend I am watching shooting stars and meteors,’ says the nameless girl protagonist of Cutler’s moving and, sadly, timely story of the healing power of music in wartime. With winter approaching, food scarce and her father off fighting, the high point of the girl’s week is Wednesday, when the relief truck arrives and the community gathers. Most days, she sits with the other children under the stairs until their high energy levels send them running through the halls, where they taunt an unsociable musician named Mr. O. As the girl stands outside his apartment, she remembers how her father described the craftsmanship of Mr. O’s cello and the command performances of the cellist’s youth. When a rocket destroys the relief truck, Mr. O surprises the children by courageously playing music in the middle of the square and lifting their spirits.”
For me, a key moment in our story for today comes when Mama, referring to the war her family and community are suffering through, says, “This is not the first time in history that such a thing has happened.” And then her daughter says, “It may not be the first time it’s happened. But it is the first time it has happened to me.” Thus the fear and anger. Thus the sense of hopelessness.
And thus the crucial and indispensable work of the holy season before us: Passover in the Jewish tradition, Easter in the Christian tradition, and, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, carrying forward the universal insights of Passover and Easter as well as making our own unique contribution: the Flower Celebration. The work of this holy season is exactly like Mr. O after the rocket attack, marching out into the middle of the square where everyone can see him, and playing music—powerful reassuring notes—beautiful music that lessens anger and transforms it into energy that is more productive. Music that eases fear and strengthens courage, makes our faces shine.
This is what we are doing this morning. We march out into the middle of the square, and what we play is the complicated music of human nature and human history. With Jews around the world, we Unitarian Universalists play the music of Passover, we tell the story of the grinding, seemingly endless enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt. But then comes the tipping point: Moses, aided by the power and might of the Lord, leading the people out from bondage and into freedom. “Let my people go.”
We play the music of Passover, and we also play the music of Easter. With Christians around the world, we tell the story of the great rabbi Jesus, seen as a second Moses by his followers, who once said, “I have come that people may have life, and have it abundantly.” We play the harsh music of life in first century Palestine—the people enduring extreme social and economic oppression. We play the slow, sad music of Jesus’ last days, his devastating execution at the hands of the Romans. But suffering is not the last word here, either. Some call what happened next a miracle—resurrection. Whatever happened, it is unarguable how Jesus’ followers felt that, despite the brutality and finality of his death, his spirit was still with them, still alive and vibrant, as real as ever.
The complicated music of human nature and human history is what we play, today: music of the Passover, music of Easter, and also the music of the Flower Celebration. We tell the story of the Unitarian minister Dr. Norbert Capek, who, serving in his native land of Czechoslovakia, created a ritual that would affirm the individuality and dignity of each person, as well as the sacredness of sharing this individuality with others, in the form of friendship and community. Ironically, this Flower Celebration ritual was born in a time that saw the emergence of a modern version of ancient Egypt or Rome in the form of the Third Reich. In 1939, the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, and Capek was from that time on a marked man. The Nazis hounded him because he dared to preach about spiritual freedom, he dared to preach about the value of the individual, he dared to preach about the blessings to be experienced when individuals live in beloved community—ideas that simply couldn’t co-exist with Nazism. So they were just looking for an excuse to arrest him, and they found it when they learned he had been listening to forbidden British radio broadcasts. Eventually, in June of 1942, Norbert Capek was sent to the death camp in Dachau. The Nazis killed him by poison, an agonizing death that, as with Jesus, seemed final. But look at how Dr. Norbert Capek has been resurrected, in our midst. Look at how his ideals have triumphed and still live among us—in the end proven far stronger that the supposedly invincible Third Reich ever was.
This is the music we play, this morning; and ultimately it is about seeing the present in light of the past. “It is the first time it has happened to me,” says the girl in the story; but when she and we see the present in light of the past, we realize something. We realize that though the arc of the universe is so long that its bending towards justice is usually imperceptible, there are nevertheless moments in human history that stand out as unique, and you can actually see the bending. Enslaved Israelites freed. Jesus crucified and yet his spirit lives on. Norbert Capek’s death in a Nazi concentration camp, and yet the ideals he stood for still vibrant, still strong. Such stories have inspired Unitarian Universalists for hundreds of years bring healing and hope to the world, and they can continue to do so even if elements of the stories, interpreted literally, are inconsistent with current historical and scientific knowledge. You don’t have to take the stories literally to take them seriously. This is our privilege as Unitarian Universalists. Once we cut through all the literalism, we can begin asking the really relevant questions the stories suggest, such as, Who or what Pharaoh enslaves us today? What Red Sea rises up before you, and how are you going to cross it? Have you ever had a crucifixion-like experience of your own, when you have felt so down and so depleted and even destroyed that the very possibility of coming back to life again seems as absurd as the possibility of the literal resurrection of Jesus’ physical body?
We need to remember these stories, as this morning we step out into the middle of the square. Thankfully, no recent rocket attack here in Atlanta motivates this; there are no white trails of tracer fire and orange flash of mortars in our sky, as there are in too many other parts of the world. Yet war is only one variety of suffering—there are so many others evident all around us. On a personal scale, we could talk about all the ways we nurture resentments in our relationships and imagine the other person to be less than human—and so, as the children in the story did with Mr. O, we pop paper bags right outside their doors, we laugh and run away imagining their fear, we wage a more innocent and less consequential kind of war but it is war nevertheless. So many varieties of suffering. On a collective scale, we could talk about the recent string of mass killings around the country—how some suggest the underlying factor to be the dismal economy, the epidemic of layoffs and uncertainty. Bonuses for top bank executives, bubkus for the working man and woman. Glimmerings of improvement in the economy, yes, but this in itself can cause a special form of suffering, because then you wonder: are we fooling ourselves? Perhaps we only think we’ve hit bottom, and worse is yet to come?
It’s just like our story for today. War has already taken its grinding toll. The beloved father is gone, with the other fathers and older brothers. The streets of the city are broken. All the wood has been used up for heat, food and water are scarce, nothing is as it was. How could things get worse? And then … it gets worse. The relief truck is destroyed. Supplies will no longer come to the people. To get them, the people will have to walk for miles….
This is exactly when Mr. O steps out into the middle of the square and begins to play. This is exactly what the holy season before us is all about. No matter how bad it gets—even if what’s bad has a false bottom, and you break through to something worse—nevertheless, the work of Passover and Easter and our Flower Celebration is to remember that, in the face of the worst, seemingly impossible beautiful things have happened to people just like ourselves. A Moses rose up, and slaves were freed. Jesus’ spirit and sense of abundance were unkillable, and lived on. A ritual involving something as frail as flowers outlasted the might of the Third Reich. Impossible things happening. Meaning that suffering need not be the last word, unless we allow it to be. Meaning that hope is real, if we believe.
May the music of this holy season make your face shine.