There was once an old farmer, a poor man who had worked his fields all his life, day in, day out, without ever making any money, never doing better than just scraping by. All he had to help him in his labours were his faithful old horse, and his son. One day, his horse, which had pulled the plough so faithfully all these years, just upped and died. And the old farmer’s friends were quick to gather around to offer their sympathies on this misfortune. What a sad thing, they all said, that your faithful old horse has died. Well, replied the farmer phlegmatically, It’s too soon to tell.
But, as it happened, just about that time an insurance policy that the farmer had bought years before and had forgotten, well it matured, and he came into a little money, and with that money he could buy another horse. Isn’t it great, all his friends chorused when they gathered around to celebrate this piece of good fortune. You can get another horse. Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.
Pretty soon, though, it became very evident that this new horse, fine looking beast that it was, had no heart for the drudgery of pulling a plough. It just refused to be yoked into that kind of menial work. The farmer’s friends were quick to gather. What a terrible shame that you spent all that money on a horse that is useless in the field, they cried. Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.
So the horse was released to roam free in a field, and the farmer noticed how fleet it was, why that horse could run faster than any other horse the farmer had ever seen. The farmer decided to enter the horse in a local race. And sure enough, the horse won, and with it, a handsome purse. The neighbours were there like a shot. How fabulous, they exclaimed, that this horse is a racehorse, you have won all this money, and will likely win even more money. This horse will make your fortune. Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.
Now the farmer’s young son decided he wanted to ride this frisky and fleet racehorse, so one day he saddled up and away he rode. Unfortunately, the only horse he had ever ridden before was the faithful old plough horse which, at best, could summon up a gentle canter. But now he was on a horse racing at a full gallop, and it was not long before he fell off. He broke his leg badly. There was immediately a knock on the door. The neighbours. Oh, how awful, they wailed, that your son has broken his leg, he is permanently crippled, and will not be able to help you in the fields as he did before. Well, replied the farmer, It’s too soon to tell.
Soon after, war broke out, and all the young men in the county marched off proudly to fight, all, that is, except for the crippled farmer’s son. And all of those young men, in one terrible battle, were killed. And the grief stricken neighbours came to the farmer, How lucky you are that your son did not go off to fight and die. And the farmer replied, Well, It’s too soon to tell.
Easter is supposed to be a difficult season for Unitarian Universalist preachers. Given that we likely do not subscribe to the notion of Jesus’ physical resurrection from death, as celebrated in mainstream Christianity today, what is there for us to say? I recall a ministerial colleague in England once telling me that he had only one Easter sermon. He said it was a really great sermon, and whenever he preached it he got a rapturous response, but after he had preached it, he had nothing else to say because essentially this sermon said, It didn’t happen. Jesus did not emerge from the tomb. End of story. Really, is that all there is say about Easter? The dreariness of denial. What joy there?
On the other hand, I have no patience with the Unitarian Universalist approach which ignores the Christian story of Easter entirely and regards it as a purely Pagan celebration of the return of the flowers and birds and the delights of spring, tra la. Of course, I know that Christianity appropriated the Pagan festival of Oestra for its own purposes. Of course there is rich symbolism to be tapped about the miracle of rebirth in nature after the darkness of winter, even as new life is said to have emerged from the darkness of the tomb. But remember, I grew up in the southern hemisphere. There it is autumn now, not spring.
To ignore entirely the magnificent story of Jesus in the Easter event just because we don’t accept the orthodox imposition of what it means is, I believe, needlessly to impoverish ourselves of something deeply, deeply profound. Above all else, the story of Jesus in the Easter event, is one of the most compelling narratives of what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now to be fully alive to our own humanity; what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now to be fully open to the divinity which might yet shine within us; what it means for us, you and me, here, today, right now to embrace life in all of its uncertainty and unpredictability, it grubbiness and its grandeur, and to stand firm in faith that life is good, and we are blessed beyond words to be part of it. Even if, especially if, we can never know for certain what any of it means. Even if, especially if, we can never eve know if it means anything at all.
All of us live within a context which is always and ever too large for us to comprehend. What is the meaning of your life? Never mind such a big question about your whole life, what about that thing that just happened to you yesterday? Was it a piece of fortune good or bad? Was it cause for celebration, or consolation? The job you applied for and did not get, which for a time left you discouraged and deflated. It seemed at the time like such a bitter pill of disappointment. But then, you applied for something else, and you got it, and it turned out to be so much more rewarding and fulfilling than the other job would ever have been. The new relationship, in which you first feel such giddy delight, but which later turns sour and you wonder why you ever allowed yourself to be seduced into something in the first place which later caused you such anguish. Is any decision we make, any event which befalls us, is it for good or for ill? Well, it’s too soon to tell.
That old farmer, I think we can safely assume, was not there in Jerusalem on that fateful Friday when Jesus was crucified, but if he had been, and someone had come up to him and said, Isn’t it terrible that all of our hopes in this man have been so cruelly dashed, or even if they had said, Isn’t it good that we have finally got rid of that troublesome preacher, I suspect that old farmer would most likely have replied Well, it’s too soon to tell.
It is always too soon to tell whether our present endeavours will be for the longer term good or ill of ourselves or others. It is always too soon to tell if the processes of the present are laying welcome or unwelcome foundations for the future. And that is one of the key messages of the Easter event. That it is too soon to tell. For in the depths of our greatest despair can be born our greatest hope; in the midst of seeming death can be found the ultimate triumph of life; in the most impenetrable darkness even the smallest candle can cast the most happily received light.
Who could have foretold, that first Easter in Jerusalem, what far-reaching and profound consequences would ensue as the result of the life and death of that obscure peripatetic preacher from Palestine? Who could have foretold that two thousand years later, that that life and death would be commemorated by millions, billions around the world?
The miracle of Easter is made more so, not less, by believing in the full and unambiguous humanity of Jesus, human, just like the rest of us. Had Jesus been a deity, God incarnate sent knowingly to die for our sins, then the ordeal of his crucifixion, unpleasant as it would have been, would have been little more than a passing inconvenience, a temporary discomfort before he returned to heaven. Even I, I think, vain as I am, might be willing to endure such passing unpleasantness if I had a guarantee, signed by God, that I would enjoy the eternal adulation of the people.
But if Jesus was fully and solely human, as I believe him to have been, like us, then therein is the true power and impact of the Easter story. Easter is not about the victory of God over death. It is about the victory of us living fully in the face of death, living fully beyond death. We too, like Jesus, are fully and solely human. We too, like Jesus, are frail, faltering and fearful, yet we, yes, even we, can, like Jesus, become divine in the way in which we come to terms with our humanity, come to terms with our finiteness, even in the face of what seems like defeat and annihilation.
The story of Easter which profoundly moves me tells about a man who had been cruelly betrayed and abandoned by the very people had once professed their ardent discipleship, a man who knew he was soon to die a grisly death, who feared that everything he had believed and hoped for was soon to die with him; and yet who went to his death with a prayer of love in his heart and forgiveness on his lips.
We can never know what will be the impact of our lives, the sum effect we have upon the gradual unfolding of the human enterprise. It is always too soon to tell. We cannot know in our own immediate time frame. Kings and warriors who thought themselves mighty and proud in their own time have disappeared to history without trace. And an impoverished itinerant preacher who never travelled beyond his own immediate country, who wrote no books, who died in humiliating circumstances, is remembered and revered twenty centuries later. We are told that Jesus’ last words were “It is finished”. Even he didn’t know. It was too soon even for him to tell.
Each of us has to come to terms with our own mortality, our own finitude. How to do that has been one of the most penetrating and persistent of all religious questions. Given that we have to die, how are we to live? It is never for us to take full and final measure of our own lives. The miracle, to which the Easter event of Jesus gives abundant testimony, is that death does not negate life; despair does not negate hope.
The challenge which is ever before us, is to believe, and to continue to believe, in spite of all the disasters and ills which might befall us, in spite of our littleness and our frailty, in spite of our humanness, that how we live our lives is of supreme value, how we relate to other people and to the world matters and matters deeply, and that what reconciliations we make with ourselves and with our God affect the entirety of creation beyond our knowing. We can never know the full story of our own lives, because that story continues to unfold long after our deaths. We cannot know, because it is too soon to tell. It is always too soon to tell. But we can have faith, because the time for faithfulness is always now.