Sermons

Chasing Peacocks…An Easter Message, Rev. Dee Ledger, April 1, 2018

Forget for a moment what you know, or think that you know, about peacocks.  Many years ago, as a beginning teacher, I lived in a 70’s style Dutchmen camper for about six months.  The camper was only about 15 foot long, if that.  It had several amenities like a table that converted into a bed, air conditioning, refrigeration, and even a porch light, but also it also had two major drawbacks: no running water and a party of peafowl that enjoyed roosting on the camper.  Of course, I didn’t know about the peafowl prior to moving in, and there was no clause about them in the rental lease, given that there was no lease to speak of.  Peafowl look for warm places to roost at night, about 5’ high or higher which made my camper home a prime site.

I never paid much attention to the peacock presence at night but in the wee hours of the morning they would begin to rock back and forth on the camper roof, sounding like boulders rumbling and shaking the entire camper from floor to ceiling and ‘lil ‘ol me tucked into my kitchen table bed.  They would fly one by one to the ground and back again, shaming the roosters and rudely waking the dead, and me, with their cries. (demonstrate cry) One morning, having had my fill of their antics, I stormed outside and chased a couple of them down, waving my arms like a pinwheel…which only made things worse because if there is anything worse than a screaming peacock at 6 am, it’s a squawking, angry peacock at 6 am, when you can’t see anything clearly because you haven’t put your contacts in yet.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that this bird with its crazy cry and its proud strut and its odd desire to take dust baths is an early Christian symbol of the Resurrection.  Why?  The bird was believed to never decay upon death, leading to an association with immortality.  The Christian father, Saint Augustine, even believed the peacock to have antiseptic qualities…there is an odd account of his “discovering” this based on his own experiment.  In addition, peacock feathers lend themselves well to the idea of resurrection; peacocks annually regenerate their feathers in the spring and the blue-green eye of the peacock’s feather has even been associated with the all-seeing eye of God….

Given their association with resurrection, the peacock symbol has been featured on everything from paintings in early Christian catacombs to ancient mosaics, liturgical objects to Easter decorations, with a bit more sophistication than our national obsession with bunnies, chicks, and marshmellow peeps.   While we were in Israel several years ago, my husband and I visited Mt. Tabor, the famed site of Jesus’ Transfiguration, and the Franciscan Church built there had on one of its central windows two stunning stained glass peacocks flanking a chalice.

Now, in our scripture story… there are no peacocks, but who knows?  Maybe they were rocking that darkened tomb along with the angels.   Often the peacock is one of the animals painted into medieval manger scenes, roosting on stable roofs, and it is rumored that the gates of paradise are guarded by a pair of peacocks—so maybe a peacock or two at Jesus’ tomb is not such a far-fetched notion.  Perhaps those peacocks were making so much ruckus that the soldiers standing guard drove them away.  The beloved Southern writer, Flanner O’Connor, has likened the sound of multiple peacocks to “a cheer for an invisible parade” and we all remember how our Lord’s palm parade went down in Jerusalem with the Roman authorities.[1]  In any case, there’s a lot of running around in our Easter story, peacocks or no peacocks.

After seeing that blessed stone quite rolled away, Mary breathlessly runs back to tell Peter, then he and the disciple Jesus loved run towards the tomb to check out the evidence, one outrunning the other.  Back and forth they run in the wee morning hours—until Mary stands there rubbing her eyes (she couldn’t see very clearly either) and even then, she thinks she sees the gardener, not her Lord Jesus risen like a golden sun spilling over the tomb and warming that chilly, tear-stained morning.

The first Easter demonstrates the variety of human responses to divine action: confusion, running around, disbelief, blurry vision, mistaken identity, and even irritation…don’t ya know that bodies are supposed to stay dead and what are the Roman soldiers and Jesus’ opponents going to do now?  Chase him down like a peacock to shut him up? They’ve already done the worst to God’s best.

Flannery O’Connor adored peacocks featuring many of them, as Christian symbols, in her writing.  Quite literally obsessed with them, she raised quite a few, probably as many as Ernest Hemingway had cats.  She once wrote:  “Many people, I have found, are con­genitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is “good for”—a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none.”[2]

Flannery believed that some people “are genuinely affected by the sight of a peacock, even with his tail lowered, but do not care to admit it; others appear to be incensed by it.”[3] This should give us pause when we consider our response to Resurrection on any Sunday other than Easter Sunday. The same could be true about Christ’s Resurrection in so many unlikely times and places.  Sometimes we are so surprised and incensed by Christ’s Resurrection that we chase it down, not to embrace it, but to warn it to get back in its tomb, break its flight, and stop its squawking. The prisoner who reforms himself, does his time, and has the audacity to sit down next to us in our community…The ex-spouse who turns over a new leaf and a new wife without settling an old score with us…the stingy family member who becomes very generous with her estate and leaves it to the hired cook (a non-family member); the politician who breaks rank with our party and takes a stand on the opposing side of us; the person who insists on their God-given right to exist as  themselves and ask us to address them by him or her or their preferred pronouns.  We welcome and admire the beauty of resurrection from afar, as long as we don’t have to have to clean up after it or listen to its persistent cries.

I venture that we all have experienced resurrection from graves in our lives, but we don’t always recognize it or wait for it to happen.

O’Connor tells this story: “The tele­phone company sent a lineman out one day to repair our telephone. After the job was finished, the man, a large fellow with a suspicious expression half hid­den by a yellow helmet, continued to idle about, trying to coax a (pea)cock that had been watching him to strut. He wished to add this experience to a large number of others he had apparently had. “Come on now, bud,” he said, “get the show on the road, upsy-daisy, come on now, snap it up, snap it up.”

The peacock, of course, paid no at­tention to this.

“What ails him?” the man asked.

“Nothing ails him,” I said. “He’ll put it up terreckly. All you have to do is wait.”

The man trailed about after the (pea)cock for another fifteen minutes or so; then, in disgust, he got back in his truck and started off. The bird shook himself and his tail rose [all] around him.

“He’s doing it!” I screamed. “Hey, wait! He’s doing it!”

The man swerved the truck back around again just as the (pea)cock turned and faced him with the spread tail. The display was perfect. The bird turned slightly to the right and the little planets above him were hung in bronze, then he turned slightly to the left and they were hung in green. I went up to the truck to see how the man was affected by the sight.

He was staring at the peacock with rigid concentration, as if he were trying to read fine print at a distance. In a second the cock lowered his tail and stalked off.

“Well, what did you think of that?” I asked.

“Never saw such long ugly legs,” the man said. “I bet that rascal could out­run a bus.”[4]

I suspect O’Connor would agree that we do not recognize the Resurrection even when it spreads its wings in front of us because we can be too focused on its ugly feet, which is to say that we can be too focused on the disheartening and ugly circumstances in which resurrection tends to occur.  Resurrection loves to bath in the dirt and kick up a storm like that Pig-pen fella who hangs around Charlie Brown.  We can’t imagine God transforming such an ugly situation into a redeeming one, and because we can’t imagine such things, we do the math and say that nothing adds up, so therefore God’s math must be wrong.  Or we are too impatient, too busy expecting the resurrection to occur on our timetables; we insist on getting “the show on the road,” as the lineman demands of the peacock.   We find it quite impossible to wait for God’s bird to spread its wings and offer up its beauty, and even when it finally does, we tend to notice those long ugly legs that led up to splendor…quite missing the resurrection all feathered out,  molting the dust before our disbelieving eyes.

Today, if we are the ones standing on the other side of resurrection we may realize with reflection that God’s getting us out of those graves wasn’t always pretty or easy.  Nor was it particularly quiet or hush-hush.  There is a reason why our gospel writers talk about earthquakes and angels in the empty tomb; resurrection isn’t always a tidy affair, but when God rocks our tombs we can shake as much or more than a trailer with twenty squawkin’ peafowl taking off in rapid succession.

As my colleague, Mary Luti, has said, “Resurrection is original. Despite our need and our longing to unburden our pasts, to heal our memories, to change, Easter is the thing we most fear—that nothing will ever be the same.  St Paul says, ‘We know what we are now, but what we will be we have no idea. The whole creation is on tiptoe, groaning in anticipation of it.’

“Easter,” Luti writes, “is a glimmer of it.” [5]

Brothers and Sisters, as you hold those Resurrection feathers in your hands, let them remind you that God’s pride is taking lumps of clay like us and molting everything that gets in the way of our re-generation and our capacity to love as God loves.

Praise the peacocks that squawk and show us the way.

Happy Easter and Alleluia!

[1] “LIVING WITH A PEACOCK” by Flannery O’Connor – September 1961.  Accessed online.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] Mary Luti, And Very Early in the Morning, While It Was Still Dark,” Sicutlocutusest.com , March 29, 2013.