“WOW!” – Easter Sunday Homily & Easter Prayer

A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be
a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.
We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely
being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

Opening Words

(As read from the historic Fitch Bible, given to the Bedford church by Jeremiah Fitch in the early 1800’s)

“My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
(The Song of Solomon 2:10-12)

An Easter Prayer
by Rev. Megan Lynes
O Source of Wisdom and Strength,
You know our hearts
Our Joys and sorrows
Our confusion and pain
Our dreams and hopes

We give thanks this day for the bird call that awakens us to the leafing, greenly spirit of now.
We give thanks for the young children with laughing eyes, who will soon search for colored eggs upon the common,
And for these old wooden pews that hold and support us now, as they have held the generations before us, and will hold all who are to come.
The wheel of the year has again turned to Easter, the creeks have found their bubbling voice again. The flowers push through.
We gather this morning to celebrate the triumph of life over death. The body can be killed but the spirit cannot be quenched.

We gather today in wonder, Awed by the stone rolled back; And the surprise of the empty tomb.
Knowing that the Easter story speaks to us of all great loss, and all great love.

We gather in recognition, Of the pain and the injustice that came before; And of the pain and injustice that will likely come again,
Back in biblical times and within all our nations today.

We gather in hope, That life is abundant and worthwhile for all; That our differences can be bridged, That the beloved community can arise at last.

We gather in faith,
That the light shines in the darkness, And the darkness does not overcome it.

We gather in awe, Of the beauty we can see; And of the mystery of all we can never know.

Today we rejoice in light and gladness!
Be with us, Spirit of Life, and help us to be open and awake to the springtime miracle that is in each one of us.

We pause in silent witness to these hopes and aspirations.




(Bird-whistler Oen Kennedy interspersed bird calls throughout the reading of this poem.)

by Julie Cadwallader-Staub
All winter crows and chickadees,
Now, standing in this snowy field,
I bow my head to untangle the joyful calls:
goldfinches, kingbirds, robins, cedar waxwings.
And I can hear the snow melting, too:
the caves, pillars, ridges, layers,
these many-storied crystalline structures
known only to winter
collapsing under their own weight.
In spring, even grief struggles
to maintain its icy mansion.
Faith breathes upon its very foundation
and when the ice gives way, room by roof by porte cochére:
well, look, it was made of water too:
the same water that birthed us
the same water that sustains us
the same water that this goldfinch
is splashing in right now,
its plumage burning from olive to gold.


If the spring sap has not begun to flow in your parched and wintry veins, I recommend you turn in your bibles to the Song of Solomon, certainly the sexiest book of the Bible. This is from the 7th chapter:

“Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a skilled craftsman. Your navel is perfectly formed like a goblet filled with mixed wine….” Not to mention, “You are like a slender palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters of fruit….I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit.’” Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

This, by the way, is why I’m only preaching at the 9:00 service. At the 11:00 family service we wouldn’t dare read from the Bible!

Once more, let us hear the words with which we began this service, from a more decent section of The Song of Solomon, but this time our reader is the immortal Ernie Harwell, the late great sportscaster of the Detroit Tigers who each and every year began spring training with these holy words:

(A recording was then played of Ernie Harwell’s recitation from The Song of Solomon: “My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”)

Play ball!

This sermon is “Wow” – after “Help” and “Thanks” – and this – “Wow!” – is the third essential prayer described by Anne Lamott who will be with us a week from tomorrow.

Wow is a prayer that reminds us we’re alive and this is what Anne says:
“Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. ‘Wow’ means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Center towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. ‘Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing of the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.”

There aren’t many leaves yet to mesmerize us, and we decided against reproducing a volcano; so this morning birdsong is what we’ve got. Birdsong. I’ll get back to this.

In my opinion, Anne Lamott hits her stride with the Wow chapter. Just a bit more:
“Many people believe the word comes from the Scottish language: Robert Burns used it in a poem in 1791: ‘Tam o’ Shanter’: An’ wow! Tam saw an unco sight!’

Anne says, “‘Unco’ means strange and unfamiliar, which” – she says –“you probably knew.”

She continues, “You exclaim ‘Wow’ upon first tasting halvah, and upon first hearing that the Scottish not only eat haggis but love haggis.”

She says, “Some etymologists think ‘wow’ is a contraction of ‘I vow,’ the short form of ‘Holy Glasgow. I’vow!’”

What an education people get when they come to church! Though I’m not so sure about that Scottish “I vow” theory. In Hungarian, ‘wow’ is ‘hu’ – hu! – and I bet every language has some exclamation for experiences when words fail us.

Speaking of vows…This week we’ve paid attention to same-sex marriage vows. And how heroic is the chief plaintiff before the Supreme Court, 83 year old Edith Windsor who was married but for two of her 40 year relationship with Thea Spyer…and this week Edith said something intangible but unmistakable changed after she and Thea were married. “for anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it,” she said, “it is magic.”

Magic is wow.

The marriage equality movement is working magic. Wow.

And though he hasn’t yet come around on marriage equality, that Pope Francis is something of a wow. I mean, for a pope. Carries his own luggage. Pays his own hotel bill. Doesn’t even call himself the pope! He closes his homily from the balcony, saying, “Buon pranzo” – “Have a good lunch”! Then, on Thursday, he washed the feet, not of priests, but of juveniles in a detention center – all nationalities, including two young women and two Muslims, and he kissed their feet! Wow.

And about that name, Francis. From St. Francis, of course. And what is one of the most famous of Franciscan stories? Francis preaching to the birds. But, with all due respect, I think something got lost in translation because my suspicion is that the birds preached to St. Francis. Birds can preach. Birds preach; we say ‘Amen!’

But back to Anne Lamott who is surely right when she says, “Wow is the child seeing the ocean for the first time. Wow is the teenager’s Christmas car (secondhand but still). Wow is John Muir. Walt Whitman. Mary Oliver saying that the sun was “the best preacher that ever was.”

Wear your sunscreen but, wow, do we ever need to bask in the warmth of that preacher.

Birds can preach. The sun can preach.

Easter is wow. “Pain and death will always be the same,” wrote Thomas Wolfe. “But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower – Something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.”

On our email listserve, I asked for some of your experiences of Wow. You said:

“At least once a day I see or hear or think of a friend who loves me – she/he knows the stupid, hurtful, ignorant, selfish and/or conceited things I’ve done a AND STILL LOVES ME. Amazing people who have better things to do with their time…and they blow their limited time on me.” Wow.

“the births of my children” Wow.

“standing at the edge of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon” Wow.

“being inside the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia – Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona – took my breath away and brought tears of joy….” Wow.

And another cathedral: Chartres. Wow.

“My niece’s new baby Oscar.” Wow.

“When the burning need to live authentically overwhelmingly squashed the old need to live in societal norms.” (There’s a story behind that one, I bet.) Wow.

“Reading Anne Lamott while sick in bed. Reflecting on the unbearable-but-not pain and joy present in the human experience, Love/Life/God/Universe is also present…” Wow.

“Megan, for your sermon last week (Sorry, John but I missed yours.)” Wow.

“Being awakened by the amazing sound of howler monkeys deep in the rain forest of Costa Rica and later spotting them frolicking high in the trees…I just returned last night!”

(A recording of howler monkeys was played.) Wow!

An awesome night on a night hike in the mountains of San Diego county, at a clearing 4000 feet up. A full moon shone on the forest and the air was cool and still. We could see for miles; I felt frozen in time. Wow.

“The Moon and Jupiter nearly touching in the night sky last night. Huge solar flares.” Wow.

That reminds me that…

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the sky, and tell me what you see.” Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.” Holmes said: “And what do you deduce from that?” Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.” And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.” Wow.

Wow is the realization that things are not as we assume. Easter is wow. And, as your submissions suggest, wow can happen anywhere but, as it did to those women on the first Easter, wow happens, not uncommonly, out-of-doors.

Easter is wow and wow is about going – or being taken – outside the boundaries of familiarity, remembering that we’re not dead yet: we’re alive, spirits rising, eyes not locked down on the treacherous ice and snow but our vision lifted to sights long unseen; and our ears, not dulled or deafened but cocked and curious, attentive to sounds long unheard. Birdsong, perhaps.

Megan and I read that Easter poem from Julie Cadwallader-Staub and this is another of Cadwallader-Staub’s, titled “Blackbirds.” Cadwallader-Staub! Wow! What a name! “Blackbirds”:

I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.

You know, I once saw a flock, a cloud of blackbirds like that. There must have been a million of them, swirling, turning, cartwheeling through the sky. I was in Transylvania, on the ridge of the hill between Almas and Abasfalva. And it was amazing. There’s a word for such whirling bird clouds, you know: they’re called a murmuration. Like I say, come to church and you learn all sorts of stuff.
And it was wow, those birds were amazing.

Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be

We’ve spent enough time indoors, in human society; it’s time to go outside!

Every one of us knows too well so much cruelty and fear, and apathy and exhaustion; and every day I am tempted – we are tempted, I think – to regard our existence as puny. But your life, our lives, are not puny.

Our world and our lives in it are wow. Not always, of course, rarely probably, but once in a while… sometimes, if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear. For instead of puny,

… instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.

This is how it’s meant to be. Wow.

Now, go pay attention to the sun and the birds, the best preachers in this curving and soaring world. This is how it’s meant to be.
Wow. Happy Easter!

And, oh! Buon pranzo! Have a good lunch!

Closing Words

(from Emily Dickinson)

SOME keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.

God preaches,—a noted clergyman,—
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I ’m going all along!