A Sermon on Unexpected Hope
Happy Easter! In the Episcopal tradition, we refer to the time between Easter Vigil and Pentecost as the Great Fifty Days. We celebrate the hope of resurrection with feasting, flowers, and general merry-making.
I haven’t shared a sermon on StyleWise in awhile. But, considering that I’ve been completely absent from this space for the past month, I thought you might like to know what I’ve been up to.
The last 30 days have been wild. My supervisor at church announced his imminent departure. His last day was yesterday. We got through the planning, rehearsing, and services of Holy Week. And now, the church is scrambling to put systems in place to sustain us until they can hire a new rector.
There’s a lot of rapid change and it has left me feeling adrift at times. This year, I needed to hear a story of hope. The gift of preparing sermons is that I get to hyper-focus on beautiful, meaningful, and hopeful things.
Snails, Kites, and an Empty Tomb
In 1964, the U.S. Government published the very first official list of endangered species. The list included the now-extinct Ivory Billed Woodpecker and the critically-endangered Florida Panther. But there’s one species whose story has taken a surprisingly hopeful turn, nearly 60 years later…
This is the story of the Florida Snail Kite.
Related to hawks and eagles, the Snail Kite is a large, bird-of-prey that lives in Florida’s wetlands. The males are charcoal gray and the females are dappled with brown and white. They have large, round, red eyes; bright yellow talons; and, a nearly 4-foot wingspan.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Kite is said to appear when the gods are resurrecting someone. But it looked like the Florida Snail Kite was the one in need of resurrection…
You see, Florida Snail Kites feed on one thing: the Florida Apple Snail. And that’s where the problem started.
By the end of the 1990s, much of the Florida Everglades had been drained, or disrupted by industrial agriculture. This caused a significant decline in the native apple snail population. And this, in turn, threatened the survival of the Snail Kite, whose long, hooked beak is uniquely adapted to hunt and eat the snail.
By the early 2000s, there were fewer than 800 birds remaining. And progress was slow.
In 2011, the governor of Florida cut Everglades restoration funding by over 120 million dollars. The next year, the National Research Council gave Florida an “F” rating for their progress in conserving the Snail Kite population. Without significant changes at the state level, it seemed that nothing was going to save the Snail Kite.
…Meanwhile, when no one was looking, someone quietly released their pet snails into the Everglades.
While politicians slashed funds, conservationists shook their heads, and nature-lovers mourned, the island apple snail was on the move.
Like any invasive species, the island apple snail was never supposed to be there. And conservationists tell us that invasive species are almost always bad news. They signal the slow death of an ecosystem, as fragile food chains are disrupted, and natural resources get knocked out of balance.
Once an invasive species really takes off, this normally signals the end of an ecosystem’s harmonious story; the death knell of abundant life…the proverbial stone being rolled across the tomb.
Maybe you’ve heard some of these terrible, awful, no-good invasive stories:
- The aggressive gray squirrel starves out the red squirrel.
- The Burmese Python eats the wood storks.
- The European starling spreads disease, to livestock and humans.
Violence and death are everywhere when invasive species roll in.
And once they get a foothold, there is no future for the habitat, without somebody or something making a way where there seems to be no way.
Without something that makes HOPE possible.
So, you can imagine my shock when I read this headline:
“In Florida, an invasive snail is helping save an endangered bird.”
In March 2022, conservationists reported that there are now over 3,000 Snail Kites living in Florida’s wetlands, compared to less than 800, 20 years ago. And their numbers are on the rise!
All because someone dumped their pet snails in the Everglades. And the snails decided to make the best of it. All because something that never should have happened DID happen. And it made hope possible.
Today, on Easter Sunday, we make the most daring and strange declaration of our faith.
We declare that something that never should have happened DID happen. Jesus was dead, and now he is alive. Jesus was in a tomb, and now the stone is rolled away. Mary was weeping, and now she is running, and shouting the news: “I have seen the Lord!”
As Christians, our story is now marked forever, not by death, but by abundant life. The death knell became Easter bells.
If that first Easter had a headline, maybe it would read:
“In Judea, an invasive resurrection is saving the world.”
Bishop N.T. Wright notes the invasive nature of the Easter story by calling it “strange.” Strange because, throughout most of the Gospel stories, the writers nearly constantly draw on Hebrew scriptures to legitimize Jesus’ ministry.
But when they get to Easter, all the theological commentary suddenly falls away. And they let the resurrection speak for itself.
The disciples were just as surprised as we are that Jesus, dying as a human in a mortal body, could rise from the dead. The bodily resurrection of one person was never part of the Messianic narrative. The Messiah was supposed to come back at the very end of time and resurrect all people. Not roll out of a tomb three days after being murdered.
For the disciples, the death of Jesus was never meant to signify anything other than the world’s cruelty. They couldn’t see the resurrection coming, because it defied everything they understood about the natural world, and everything they believed about God.
So, in the moments before the resurrection, Jesus’ community was grieving not only the death of a friend, but the death of hope.
They were witnesses and victims of extraordinary oppression and violence. They thought that Jesus was going to start a revolution. That he would create a habitation in which all could thrive. As long as Jesus could just stay alive, abundant life was on the horizon.
His crucifixion was the death of a dream. In those days and nights before resurrection, the disciples were an endangered species with no hope in sight.
But something was happening in the shadows. An invasive resurrection disrupted the old story of death and grief.
Something that never should have happened DID happen.
Through his death, Jesus defeated death and mortality for all time. The stone was rolled away. The screeching of the Kite was heard again above the marshes.
And in his rising, Jesus brings us all back to life. We have a future, because Jesus is alive!
Jesus calls us to hope when all seems lost. He calls us to hope when our leaders aren’t making it possible to thrive, the money has dried up, our tears have dried up, and our voices are cracked from shouting.
Jesus’ love reproduces and grows in the murky swamps, even when we can’t see it.
The Risen Christ descended into Hell and defeated evil. Rose to heaven and sits at the right hand of God. Stands with us in the garden as we weep for all that is lost.
He is the one who brings us out of our tombs into the bright light of day, and tells us that he is building something new. He will give us good things to eat, and friends on our way.
We are called to abundant life, because Jesus is alive. We are called to harmony with our siblings, because Jesus is alive. We are called to love with an invasive and persistent love, because Jesus is alive.
We are called, today, to dare to hope for resurrection in the graves and murky swamps and dark valleys, of our world, and of our lives.
“O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?”
Snails, kites, and an empty tomb remind us that things that defy the odds can also be true. A future is possible.
An invasive snail made conservationists rejoice. And a God whose death defeated death changed everything.
Christ is alive! Hope is alive! Alleluia!
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.