Sandhill Cranes & Resurrection

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, November 10, 2013
Blair Pogue

Job 19:23-27a; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-3


            Fifteen years ago, my family and a couple of our friends from southern California traveled to Nebraska to watch the lesser sand hill cranes gather at the Platte River during their southern migration.  My father, an animal and nature lover, had traveled to Nebraska the previous fall, and came back convinced that the rest of us needed to see what has been called one of the seven wonders of the natural world.

            Some of our enthusiasm dwindled when we got a hold of the tour schedule.  Most of the major bird and prairie animal tours departed at 4 am, which our non-early-morning crowd found distressing.  And, compared to the entertainment we’d left behind in southern California, waking up for a prairie owl sighting at 4 am didn’t seem too exciting.  We began to wonder if my father’s enthusiastic temperament had contributed to a distorted view of Nebraska’s merits.

            The main reason we’d come, however, was to see the lesser sandhill cranes.  The first 4 am tour consisted of traveling to an Audubon property where we would hide behind blinds or viewing stations and watch the cranes land on the Platte River.  The morning of the tour my alarm went off about 3:45 am. Getting up felt like pure torture.  I wanted so badly to turn the alarm off and go back to bed. Grudgingly and half asleep I pulled on my sweater, parka, mittens and hat.  I met our entourage at the bottom of the stairs and we traveled to a parking lot, where we then followed our tour leaders to the Audubon blinds. The blinds had open windows for bird watching, and were uninsulated. It was cold and dark, I was hungry, and more than that, I was sleepy. 

            After a long wait, and as the sun’s rays began to pierce through the dark sky, we suddenly heard the cry of a lesser sandhill crane, then two, then three, then twelve, then fifty.  All of a sudden, hundreds of cranes flew into our view, coming from all directions.   They called out to each other as they prepared to land on a narrow islands of sand in the middle of the Platte River. And their landings were one of the most graceful things I’ve ever seen. They flapped their wings hard as they approached a wind current, and then folded their wings, arched their backs, let go in a posture of trust, and rode the current downward.  This movement slowed the cranes for their descent. As I watched these beautiful creatures approach and call out to their kind, I thought about the resurrection. This must be what the resurrection is like, a time of reunion, of gathering, where we call out in joy to those from whom we’ve been separated all these years.

            Today’s scripture texts give us a rare opportunity to think about resurrection apart from Easter. On Easter the readings, sermons, and hymns, tend to focus on the meaning and importance of the resurrection. We often sing “I am the bread of life,” a hymn we will sing together later in this service. And we remember the loved ones who have gone before us, those we miss so much it hurts. Easter is always a day full of emotion. But today is no less full of emotion. The holiday season begins soon – some say it has already begun – an extremely hard time for anyone who has lost a family member or dear friend. Most of us have lost at least one person we love, some of us are facing an imminent death, and all of us will die one day. Life in God, death in God, and life after death are important topics we need to pray and think about. What is the resurrection about, and why is it so important?

            Today’s Gospel is helpful as we contemplate these questions. In it, Jesus appears to be involved in an arcane argument with the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Jews who thought that only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, were authoritative. They did not accept the writings of the prophets or the Psalms. Some Pharisees and early followers of the Way of Jesus did not consider the Sadducees to be Jewish because they denied the resurrection.

            One of the major implications of the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection was that they understood this life to be the only time God would keep God’s promises. This world was it. When you died, life was over. So much for those who were born into poverty, or who were conquered or killed by the brutal Romans. There were no second chances.

            So in the exchange, the Sadducees are probably trying to trap Jesus with a question about the resurrection, something in which they don’t believe. They seem to be posturing here, looking for some flaws in logic.

            But Jesus takes this opportunity to offer teaching on what does happen after death, which involves a whole different way of being in relationship with others. So for instance, marriage doesn’t exist meaning that women in this era won’t be seen as property. The dead are like children of God, cherished and loved, even if their earthly experience included pain, suffering and shame. After declaring that God is God of the living, not the dead, Jesus says, “all of them are alive.” In God, the dead are alive to God and one another.

            Throughout human history, there have been many stories claiming to have the last word on how human life will end. For many years modern western culture  lived with the myth that technological and material progress would yield a world of perfect harmony, productivity, health, and happiness for all. We now know this to be a false promise. We see a very different story playing out in the 21st century—a violent, painful, and divisive one in which the planet’s survival is at stake. Many societies have told stories—sometimes compelling and seductive ones—about how life turns out. There is the story that might makes right, that what you earn or own defines your value, that those who lose out in life’s great race to the top are worthless.

Jesus told a different story. It is the story we will continue to unpack, learn from, wrestle with, dwell in imaginatively, and participate in as followers of the Way of Jesus. In the life he lived, and in the community which formed around him, a different way was embodied for the world to see—a way in which the poor were recognized as of equal dignity with the rich, and close to God; a way in which reconciliation between all sorts of people became a living reality; a way in which forgiveness, healing, and liberation were practiced. This community began to be a tangible sign of a different set of promises than the false ones all around.

Yet when Jesus was himself a victim of violence, empire and cruelty and executed as a criminal by the powers that be, those hopes seemed to be dashed. How could his followers and friends carry on when he too had been crushed by this world? Their hopes were crushed—understandably so.

            But the story didn’t end there. The raising of Jesus from the dead is God’s tangible, concrete assurance that God’s promises in Jesus are true, that death is not the last word, that every human being, especially the most vulnerable, is precious beyond measure, that injustice and violence will not ultimately prevail.

            We, like Jesus’ earliest followers and detractors, are confronted with a reality that invites us to move from confusion and cynicism to wonderment—wonderment at God’s power and presence in a world that seems so often void of it, wonderment at the strange and surprising ways in which new life emerges from the places of death, wonderment at the fact that in Jesus, all of humanity is promised resurrection and restoration in a just and merciful community.

This morning, I invite you to turn from disappointment to faith, from cynicism to trust, from isolation to community, from despair to hope. For in the resurrection of Jesus, God has turned us and all of humanity from death to life. Amen.