“Glimpses of Resurrection”
Easter Sunday Homilies
By Revs. John Gibbons and Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, March 27, 2016
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Miracles seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or
healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see
and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright ® 1973 by Wendell Berry, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
When I told a colleague I was writing an Easter homily for the umpteenth time in my ministry, he responded, “Ah yes! Once more, with feeling!” The origin of that phrase, by the way, is that at rehearsal the great conductor Leopold Stokowski would say to his orchestra, “once more, with feeling!” – meaning, “let’s try it again as if you really mean it.” Leopold Connerowski, you must have said something like that to our choir!
As for me, though, I’m just not feeling it. Easter, at least traditionally, proclaims the victory of the resurrection and taunts the grave, “Death, where is thy sting?” Well, I‘ll tell ya, there’s plenty of sting still in Brussels and Syria and Ferguson and Flint (and so many places, and probably for some people right here in this room) and the news today isn’t much different than it was yesterday, and tomorrow it could well be worse.
Easter, at least traditionally, comes in a triumph of trumpets. And those of you who can anticipate the alliteration of my sermons, know that Easter has come this year, not in a triumph of trumpets, but in the perverse triumphalism of Trump and, again, tomorrow could well be worse!
How’s this Easter sermon going so far? Happy humbug Easter to you, too! No, I’m not feeling it.
But….there’s always a but. Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will…never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But (there’s always a 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.”
Megan and I will share a few hints, intimations, whispers, glimmerings…glimpses of resurrection.
In 2014 the United Nations reported there were 60 million refugees and internally displaced people around the globe. That’s one in every 122 people, or equivalent to the entire population of Italy. Not since World War II have there been so many refugees or internally displaced people. In my house a couple nights ago my friend and I hosted a dinner which was attended by quite a few immigrants. There we heard first-hand the stories of Palestinians and Syrians whose lives have been irreversibly shaped by war, violence and the threat of violence. One mother shook while recalling a time a few months back when in Aleppo the government had turned off her water and she had nothing to give her children to drink. Leaving the house with gunfire outside made no sense, but you can’t live without water she said, so she pulled on her coat and left her kids inside while she hurried out on her quest. I thought of those kids sitting there wondering whether their mother would return. 41% of refugees are children I learned.
My glimpse of resurrection this week was the news about Pope Francis washing the feet of refugees. The rite of foot washing is traditionally enacted on the Thursday of Holy Week, remembering how Jesus performed this for his disciples in his time. The picture that stays with me from this week was taken at a refugee camp, is of a bunch of black Muslim men seated side-by-side on a bench, with their bare feet not quite touching the floor. Pope Francis is on his knees, the lowest person in the image, with his flowing white robe crumpled beneath him in the dirt. He is gently placing a kiss on the top of one man’s foot. Now the pope is not Jesus, by any means. But he is the most prominent faith leader in the world today. And whether we are Catholic or not, the world has been waiting for a leader who will exemplify how to live in a manner befitting human kind, by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and casting no one out. We are so greatly in need of good leaders today, and this man who so many look up to, is demanding that the world pay attention.
Pope Francis is different from many past popes in many ways, whether in his manner of speech, his public outcry against war, his recent encyclical about climate justice, his personal frugality, and of course his advocacy for all sorts of human rights issues. I admire this pope. It takes some real gall to stand against patriarchy within the Catholic church. The ritual of foot washing has always called for only men to participate, and past popes and many priests traditionally performed it on twelve Catholic men, recalling Jesus’s twelve apostles, and further cementing the doctrine of an all-male priesthood. But after years of violating these rules outright, in January Pope Francis changed the regulations to explicitly allow women and girls to participate. This pope brings me hope! This pope, and this poem by David Whyte remind us that resurrection of the spirit means simply that hope comes from serving others.
Loaves and Fishes
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time
People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
— David Whyte
You know I returned on Monday from 10 days in Transylvania. People have asked me whether the trip was business or pleasure and I’ve had some difficulty answering that. But, really, I worked quite hard! I spent a whole day butchering a pig with David Gyero, our preacher here two weeks ago. I’ll spare you the details.
Another day, in our partner village, I helped drive the horse-drawn wagon, laden with barrels of plum mash, to the local still where with my ministerial colleague brewed a big batch of 104 proof plum brandy. I worked up a thirst.
I sat and cried with a woman whose young son died a few months ago (a candle was lit here at the time). I preached to students at the Unitarian High School; I met with an ethics class (that wanted to know about same sex marriage and, uh, Donald Trump). I went to church a few times, including last Sunday in the beautiful new winter chapel in Abásfalva – the 35 people there were so happy to be warmed by a wood stove and by the American-inspired tradition of coffee hour! That chapel was made possible by your generous contributions and they are so thankful.
One day I walked in a field of bear leek (also known as wild garlic) – a sure sign of spring. My favorite culinary story, though, is that of my traveling companion Harold who, in his partner village, picked lots and lots of a green spiky-leafed plant that was said to be good arthritis medicine and, indeed, when Harold washed the leaves his hands got warm and tingled and, sure enough, his arthritis was soothed. Then they cooked and ate the leaves like spinach. Later, he asked the name of the plant. It was…poison ivy!
But…there’s always a but…none of this is my glimpse of resurrection. This is: The Unitarian High School in Kolozsvar, with 900 students – 80% of whom are non-Unitarian – is one of the best in all of Romania. My friend Zsolt, the ethics teacher, recently organized a project with his 15 and 16-year-old students. You see, in downtown Kolozsvar two blocks from the high school there’s a once-grand hotel called the New York, built in the late 1800’s by a famous Hungarian architect in an elaborate classicist fin de siècle style, but which is now vacant, neglected and derelict. Zsolt’s young students have embarked on a campaign to Save the Hotel New York and they entered a national contest for the best project of historic preservation. The kids went to social media and to Facebook. Their campaign has gone viral and global: they were in the newspapers and on TV; there’s an English language YouTube you can find. They posted a picture of their bumper sticker on my Subaru.
On Friday, a week ago, they organized a flash mob that converged in front of the hotel. (I can even tell you how to say “flashmob” in Hungarian: it’s flashmob!)
The students’ brass band played “New York, New York.” The kids dressed up as swells, and hotel guests, and bellboys, and hookers (having your students dress up as hookers would probably get an American teacher fired, but the students loved it!) And then two students climbed high up on the scaffolding (another thing that would get an American teacher fired) and they unfurled a huge banner proclaiming “Save the Hotel New York.” You can see all this on YouTube.
And, finally, on Sunday – a week ago – the students gathered with 1000 others in the opera house where the contest results were announced. The students of the Unitarian High School won first place!
This is a glimpse of resurrection. Transylvanians cling to the past – pig-killing, brandy-distilling, church-going…but sometimes by honoring the past there is a new way into the future. As the phoenix was resurrected from the ashes, so too may the Hotel New York. And I witnessed a group of teenagers who have learned the truth of Margaret Mead’s words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Working as a hospital chaplain, I came to understand that there were daily experiences of bodily resurrection that I would not ever be able to understand. I don’t always feel comfortable with the word miracle, but I do know that seemingly impossible things happen. To attend at a cardiac arrest was living proof to me that one could die and then return. But what struck me as more powerful even than the triumphs of modern medicine, were the triumphs of the human spirit to find joy even while in the midst of death. By far the most fun that was ever had on the bone marrow oncology floor, was in the room of a young woman in her twenties named Jennifer. She was so ill she couldn’t walk or keep food down, and yet, for months she held forth the joy of the entire universe in her room. Nurses and patients from all over the whole floor would sneak in to see her, just to laugh and relax around her. She was so ill that the doctors said “no visitors, too tiring, too many germs,” and to that Jennifer replied “I’m dying, let them in.” She made everyone feel wanted, and special, and irony of ironies, alive. I was so touched by her open heartedness that I painted her a mandala of the ocean with dolphins jumping from the waves. Her spirit was like that. Determined to leap, even if she would fall back. When she died, it felt as if she’d given us her hope, her happiness, her laughter. Anyone who knew her would miss her, but would also be better equipped to face hard things, and to find the happiness or hope in all sorts of impossible places.
While I was traveling, I got around to reading parishioner Andrea Cleghorn’s new book, The Whipple Brunch. (Wave your hand, Andrea!) Subtitled A Journey through Cancer, it’s her account of surviving kidney and pancreatic cancer. You may know that the Whipple procedure is a complex surgery that removes part of the pancreas, small intestine and gallbladder (and she even includes before-and-after drawings that show the whereabouts of these and other body parts…many of which resemble the parts of the pig I came to know last week in Transylvania, but I digress). Anyway, before the Whipple surgery Andrea indeed hosted for her friends a party, a Whipple Brunch where the dining-table centerpiece was some expanding sponge thing represented her kidney and some sort of inflatable carrot, meant to represent her pancreas. I mean, who knew that an inflatable carrot resembles a pancreas?
What I love about your book, Andrea, and what gave me a glimpse of resurrection, is that it’s not about how on this journey you found God or enlightenment or Grand Conclusions about the meaning of life, and you most definitely did not find life everlasting. Instead it’s a book about your family, your dear friends, the often amazing and still very human doctors and nurses, and (as you say in the preface) how you “will never forget the village that took this child in.”
And it’s a book about pain and pain meds and treatment dilemmas and waiting and how we never know what’s around the next corner. And it’s about the time you thought you had lost one of your drain bags in an aisle at CVS. You feared that you’d have to go up to someone and say, “Pardon me, sir you’re standing on something squishy that doesn’t belong to you.” Fortunately, I guess, you found it in a rain puddle in the parking lot.
I also could tell them about your red gingham checked bikini underpants but they’ll just have to read it themselves. Hey, I’m just trying to sell some books for you, Andrea!
And the book’s about your 91 year old mother, Nuzzie, and how she died early one Easter morning. You and your brother didn’t know what to do with yourselves so you went to church. You say, “No Protestant church would consider Easter truly Easter without the hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”….”First Parish has (however) different gender-inclusive lyrics, “Lo, the Earth Awakes Again….” “The phrase “spring and gladness are before” seemed a celebration.” “It was a privilege,” you said, “to be able to go to my church home of 30 years and light a candle for my mother just hours after her passing, and get a few hugs afterward….” And, yes, there was also a memorial service here in this room, and “Nuzzie would have loved it.”
And then there are stories of your daughter Abby’s wedding.
And the Whipple Brunch concludes with your love of gingko trees, “the distinctive fan shape of the leaves, the chrome yellow color in the fall.” Gingkoes, you say, are prehistoric, maybe the oldest trees in existence. “Gingkoes survived the bombing of Hiroshima. A symbol of hope, of survival.”
“The summer after the Whipple…friends planted a small gingko tree in front of my dining room window. That fall it died. The following spring it sent up a long side shoot…and then that shoot died.” “The next spring a third shoot appeared…. This time it kept going. Now it has tripled its original height. It will never be the prettiest tree…but it is thriving…. This little tree could grow to be 165 feet tall someday. “ And, at last you say, “I won’t be around to see it happen, and that’s perfectly OK.”
Thank you for this glimpse of resurrection.
My final glimpse of resurrection will be very brief. I was in Hiroshima, Japan, for the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb, dropped by the U.S B-29 bomber the Enola Gay in 1945. In one instant 90% of the city and 80,000 people were killed. On that hot remembrance day August, I entered the Hiroshima Peace Park, with crowds of quiet children in uniform. Hanging from every tree, fence and cart were thousands and thousands of long garlands of paper cranes in colorful rainbow bunches. I took my seat beneath the sun. I did not apply sun block, knowing I would burn, and somehow that seemed only right. The ceremony was in Japanese, and yet I could tell that people of all nationalities were leaning forward in their seats, straining to hear the words. I knew they contained hope, though I couldn’t understand. It had been said that nothing would grow again in Hiroshima, but the park was lush and green. The buildings had been rebuilt, with the exception of the one building with a dome on top, which was all that had remained standing after the devastation. I wondered at the cancer rates in the city. I wondered at the people who chose to live there. Some may have had no other option, but others were there by choice, as if honoring the ruined earth with the gift of their own aliveness.
As Thomas Wolfe reminds us, “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.”
I sat quietly beneath the hot sun, when suddenly around me the sky darkened. I could feel the difference in temperature. Above me I heard a soft whooshing noise, and I realized the white bodies of doves were brushing one another, as they rose high into the air. A thousand Peace Doves had been released to indicate that war is not the answer, and that the beauty of the world is right here in our own hands if we simply open them. Tears slid down my cheeks. How could there be hope amid devastation? Beside me an old Japanese woman reached out and took my hand. She pressed into it a single sheet of origami, and began to show me how to fold a crane. How is there hope? My eyes were asking her. She seemed to know my question. Like this, she seemed to answer, one person at a time, with no extraordinary means, except with love.
Alleluia. Hope is risen. Happy Easter!
We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know
This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.
We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.
Amen. Amein. Shalom. Salaam. Shanti. Peace!