Easter Sunday: “Good Soil, Good Seeds, Good News!”

Easter Sunday
Revs. John Gibbons and Megan Lynes
Delivered April 5, 2015, 9am
At the First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person
is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.”



“Good Soil, Good Seeds, Good News!”
Rev. John Gibbons

When he was in Concord, my colleague and now our parishioner Gary Smith famously began his Easter services by saying,
‘You know how just before the door closes the airlines say something like ‘this is flight 474 to San Francisco. If San Francisco is not in your travel plans today, this might be the time to get off the plane’… Well this is Easter Sunday and you are in a Unitarian Universalist Church. If a UU church was not in your Easter Sunday plans, this might be the time to head for the exits!”

Please don’t!

Easter, in traditional Christianity, celebrates the resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the central focus of traditional Christianity. “We preach Christ crucified!” say many churches. Many of our neighboring churches today proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

And while we truly respect our sisters’ and brothers’ faith, and while I suppose there may be some among us who have faith in a resurrected savior (hey Unitarian Universalism is a big tent and if there’s room among us for pagans and Buddhists and flying spaghetti monster aficionados, well, for sure there’s room here for those who believe in the resurrection)…BUT, for a whole lot of us and for a whole lot of folks who have seen themselves as followers of Jesus going back centuries upon centuries, when it comes to the resurrection, uh, we don’t quite get it, at least not the way traditional Christians get it.

Recently, I took a Transylvanian colleague on a tour of UU high holy places in Boston and we went to the First Church in Boston, which really is the descendant of John Winthrop’s original 1630 settlement and is now a Unitarian Universalist Church.

And then we went to Arlington Street Church (across from the Public Garden), one of our flagship churches where in a predecessor building in the early 1800’s William Ellery Channing first articulated Unitarian Christianity and where, of course our minister Jack Mendelsohn powerfully articulated a Unitarian Universalism for the 21st century.

Arlington Street Church was built in 1861. It was the first public building built on the filled-in land of the Back Bay. Beneath it are 999 wooden pilings, which secure it to the muck, and, to this day, someone has to regularly check the pilings to see that they are wet or else the whole thing could collapse!
I bet you didn’t know that! You are having an Easter education!
Well, in their sanctuary there are 14 gorgeous Tiffany stained glass windows, the largest collection anywhere in a church…and they are stunning “paintings in glass”: iridescent, opalescent, layered, actually 3-D.

Each window portrays something from the life of Jesus: John the Baptist, the Annunciation, the Madonna of the Flowers, Jesus and the Children, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus in the Temple, the Good Shepherd, and – then – upstairs there are the Beatitudes: Blessed are the Peacemakers, Blessed are the meek, rejoice and be glad, so are ye when men shall revile and persecute you for my sake, rejoice and be exceedingly glad, blessed are the pure of heart.

What’s NOT in those windows? The passion story, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection. It’s not that those Unitarians were in denial, they weren’t cock-eyed optimists, it’s simply that they were inspired not by the death of Jesus, but by his life, his teachings, his example.
Now I’m aware that we UU’s can be cock-eyed optimists, purveyors of bluebird theology, gaga for eggs and bunnies; there was a Boston Unitarian minister in the 40’s who caused an uproar when he preached an Easter sermon titled “Upsy Daisy,” and hey I’ve had pizza delivered in the middle of an Easter service (sorry, not today) and I’ve squirted the congregation with squirt guns; and yes, probably we can be in denial. But deep down, not really.

I’m glad we’ve resurrected a Good Friday tradition around here: suffering and cruelty, our betrayals and self-betrayals cry for acknowledgment.

Where I hope we end up, however, is with hope: hope, even confidence, that life is worth living and that there are mentors and friends and exemplars, like Jesus and so many others, with whom we try to walk.

After Arlington Street Church I took our visitor across the Common to King’s Chapel, a rare hybrid church that proclaims itself to be “Unitarian Christian in theology, Anglican in worship, and congregational in governance.”

And there on its altar is a great historic placard with the words, “he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.”

And what are those words from, students? A gold star for you! The Nicene Creed. It was at the council of Nicea in 325 that Unitarianism was declared a heresy but, hey, here’s a UU church with the Nicene Creed front and center.

The First Church in Boston, Arlington Street, King’s Chapel. Unitarian Universalism is indeed a big tent.

Well, for me, resurrection does not hold great appeal. The beatitudes, the parables, the teachings inspire me; Jesus is important; but Jesus is not central to my spiritual life. I’m not even sure there is a single center, save the whole of all life.

Nevertheless, there are Easter stories to do swell my heart and spirit. Last week, for example, I went to the VA here in Bedford where Carlos and Melida Arredondo were speaking. Do you remember the Arredondo’s story?
Carlos’s first son Alexander was a Marine on his second tour of duty when he was killed in Iraq in 2004. When the Marines came to tell him of his son’s death, they did not bring a chaplain and broke the news in his front yard. Arredondo was so distraught that he grabbed a hammer and proceeded to destroy the Marines’ van. He then grabbed gasoline and climbed in the Marines’ van and splashed gasoline inside the van. A propane torch he had brought inside was lit accidentally.

Arredondo was pulled out to safety by the Marines, but 26% of his body was burned. Despite his burns, he attended his son’s funeral on a stretcher with two paramedics at each side. Subsequently, Arredondo apologized to the Marines, he was not prosecuted, but – with a kind of PTSD – he and his wife have both spent time as inpatient psychiatric patients.

The Arredondo’s became peace activists and it is a result of their lobbying that flags are put at half-mast whenever a Massachusetts soldier is killed in action. They also successfully lobbied so that the press could cover the arrival of soldiers’ remains when they are returned from a war zone.
As a result of this, the Arredondo’s became good friends with our parishioners Alma and Brian Hart, and I hope you heard President Obama’s shout-out to the Harts in his speech at the new Kennedy Institute, acknowledging their work to provide troops with armor.

Seven years after Alex’s death, the Arredondo’s other son Brian took his own life after years of depression and drug abuse following his brother’s death. Alex and Brian were their only children.

And so the Arredondo’s have become prominent advocates for peace, but also for suicide prevention, acknowledging the rippled effects of PTSD on soldiers and parents and siblings and their friends.

At one time an undocumented immigrant from Costa Rica, Carlos Arredondo has since become a US citizen and, in doing so, honoring his sons, he changed his legal name from Carlos to Alexander Brian Arredondo.

And then in 2013 Carlos was at the finish line of the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off and in many videos and photos he’s seen pulling away debris and when he came to Jeff Bauman who lost both legs, Carlos is the guy in the iconic cowboy hat who lifted Bauman into a wheelchair and helped stanch the bleeding.

So the Arredondo’s are peace activists and mental health advocates and, well, they go to our UU church in Jamaica Plain; they call themselves Catholic Quaker Unitarians. Hey, why not? They’ve started a family foundation to help military families in need and they’ve agreed to come here to First Parish sometime soon where we’ll host some sort of fund-raiser.

The Arredondo’s are not a story of resurrection but they are a true story of redemption: redeeming the worthiness of life from death and despair, snatching the eternal from the desperately fleeting.

I’ve got one more Easter life to hold before you and, if I know what’s good for me, I’d better find a way to make you laugh.
The other life I honor this Easter is the life of our parishioner Emily King whose memorial service was held here yesterday.

I’m pretty sure that Easter was one of Emily’s least favorite holidays and resurrection was one thing she did not want. She softened and became more tolerant over the years but she was one of our out-spoken fervent and determined atheist UU’s. She lived a long and good life, raised a brood of idiosyncratic kids, was the first woman on the Bedford Planning Board, stood up for fair housing and gay rights and nurtured dear, deep and loving friendships.

A few weeks ago, when Emily’s body could no longer support her spirit, she said enough is enough, and I’m ready to die. She didn’t give up; she certainly was not self-destructive; but she chose not to live any more. “If I fail at dying,” she worried, “I’ll be a big flop!” She was not a flop.

The rest of us weren’t always altogether certain that she’d made the right decision, but she was! “Won’t you just have a cookie, Emily?” “No,” she said, “It might make me feel better!”

Family friend Donna Little tried to persuade her to live. “It’s sunny, Emily. “ “Yeah, yeah,” said Emily. “Spring is coming,” said Donna. “Yeah, yeah,” said Emily. Donna said, “I’ve got a new puppy and you have a new granddaughter. To which Emily then snaps, “Donna, shut up!” This is how Emily talked to people she was genuinely fond of!

Clear-headed until the end, Emily redeemed the time she had by saying her good-byes. “And just when I was ready to go,” she said, “somebody else walked into the room and I had to stay a while longer.”

She got a chance to express her regrets, some of which involved her sharp tongue. Last Christmas when Ron Green brought her a plate of Christmas cookies from the church, she told him, “Ron, I don’t want any goddamn Christmas cookies.” Last week she lamented, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Of course, for the most part we loved her and her sharp tongue.
Emily loved and was loved. Utterly uninterested in resurrection, she nonetheless redeemed the time that was hers. She was a redeemer.

Jesus, too, was called a redeemer and Emily was a redeemer and so too are Carlos and Melida Arredondo, and so too are you.

Let us all redeem the time that is ours, here and now.

The poet May Sarton once said:
I would like to believe when I die that I have given myself away like a tree that sows seed every spring and never counts the loss, because it is not loss, it is adding to future life. It is the tree’s way of being. Strongly rooted perhaps, but spilling out its treasure on the wind.
You are called to think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth. You are also called to plant seeds and patiently wait. Then you can do some weeding.

My friends, despite your imperfections, you are such good soil. Despite your limitations, you are such very good seeds. Yeah, you’re good eggs. And, alleluia, whatever the news may be, you can make your own news and you are such very good news.

Emily King was a staunch atheist and yet she instructed that the final hymn at her memorial service be Amazing Grace. I’m not sure that she believed a word of it but she loved it, nonetheless.
Resurrection? I’m open to the possibility. Well, we’ll see.
Meanwhile, let us redeem the time that is ours. Happy Easter!

A Poem for Easter 2015
Rev. Megan Lynes

O day of light and gladness, of prophecy and song,
What thoughts within us waken, what hallowed mem’ries throng.
The soul’s horizon widens, past, present, future blend,
and rises on our vision, the life that has no end.

The church that is our grounding, our place to think and be,
Has called to us this Easter, we come to hear and see.
We come with doubt and questions, but ready for some fun.
Just what might be in store for us? A pizza, or squirt gun?

We’ve seen some fish and streamers, and the Easter hunt’s at noon,
But what about the questions that rattle round the room.
We wonder what the story of a prophet long ago,
Can teach us in this era; is there something we should know?

Are the messages of Easter, all clear as day for you?
Do any of them matter, as you settle in your pew?
Today is here for you to ask, “But wait, what does it mean?
Astonishment is yours to find, a pearl for you to glean.

When you think about your living: coming, going, day by day.
The way the ocean glitters, or you see a bird of prey,
Just soaring over forests, free and high up in the air,
Pause your thoughts a moment, and picture yourself there.

Look down upon your little life, the circles that you walk,
Beside the friends you cherish, the way you talk your talk.
Think now upon the way you live, is it how you want to be?
Ask “what will friends of mine recall, in remembrance of me?”

Last month our dear friend Emily passed on, although her mind was clear.
She led this church, and spoke her truth, and loved us year by year.
And in return we loved her back, stood taller in her sight.
We miss you Em’, but you’re still here, your memory brings delight.

Though Easter tells the story of a man upon a cross,
Most of us know how it feels to have a certain loss
Of kinship, friendship, teacher, and here’s a truth to tell:
When love lives on inside us, we’re bound by no death knell.

What if the life that Jesus lived was something good and true:
His caring for the least of these, the poor and widows too?
His life and not his dying left us wisdom for today.
Love triumphs over suffering; that’s Easter, I dare say.

There in the stained glass windows of churches long ago,
The sower tends his garden, turns earth with rake and hoe.
Each seed with life within it, begins to open true,
Redeeming with the sunlight, the chance of life made new.

And so for those of us, whose faith is in the grass,
A blade that holds the world, the sun and rain that pass,
When winter comes and rattles, the green all turns to brown.
Yet spring brings resurrection, the season’s come around.

Earth feels the season’s joyance, from mountain range to sea
the tides of life are flowing, fresh manifold, and free.
In valley and up / on land, by forest pathways dim,
All nature lifts in chorus the resurrection hymn.

What else about our wonderment is worth extracting here?
What messages of Easter make you see things bright and clear?
What if the truth is that: for every “no,” there is a “yes?”
The past is gone, wake up and live! Your life itself is blessed.

What if rebirth could come to us, like the man in cowboy hat,
Helping, saving, healing? Kindness teaches that
The worth of life can trump despair, give what you can to all,
This chance we find at Easter, hope eternal; it’s our call.

Reflecting on our planet, grief and amazement there;
We gape at the destruction, the tomb that is a snare.
Do naught, and life will perish, but rather do arise.
Walk out into the sunshine, act swiftly! Earth’s our prize!

O Dawn of life eternal, to thee our hearts upraise
The Easter song of gladness, the Passover of praise.
Thine are the many mansions, the dead die not to thee,
Who fillest from thy fullness, time and eternity.

Despite our imperfections, we are good soil indeed,
We sow, we wait, we garden, and then in turn we weed.
The time is ours, the here and now, worth every bit of toil.
So Alleluia! Make good news! From life, do not recoil!

The Easter story beckons, with room for all to find
Room for imagination: in the world and in your mind.
What if the world were different, well you can make it so;
Roll back the stone, let Love lead on! Ready? Steady! Go!

Closing Words
There is an old Chinese legend about three vagabonds. Nobody knows their names. They are called “the Laughing Sages.” They would come to a market place and begin to laugh, deep belly laughs. People around them would stop in astonishment and then slowly gather to find out what was going on. And the laughter was infectious. One by one, others would join in the laughter; and the shop keepers would close their doors and the customers would forget their buying; and their anxieties and griefs would dissolve in the laughter. They danced and they laughed; and a whole new world opened up for them.

The three laughing sages went from village to village transforming the world. Then one of them died. And people wondered: what would they do? Their friend was dead. Surely this would sober them. But the two friends danced and celebrated as if nothing had occurred. People asked, “Don’t you know your friend is dead?” And the sages said, “Yes, but our companion laughed all her life. How could we give her a better send off than by laughing? If we did not do so she would be laughing at us and say we had fallen into your trap.”

The people could not understand this strange talk. They wanted to prepare the dead body for the funeral pyre. But the sages said no, the old woman had left instructions that there be no ritual, that his body not be prepared but placed directly on the fire. It was done.

And then the last trick of the vagabond was revealed. She had hidden fireworks under her garments. Suddenly there was a volley! Death was taken by surprise. And the world was transformed. Peal after peal of laughter welled up from the hearts of those who had gathered there, releasing painful tensions that had been trapped inside.