“Hope in the Dark”
Easter Sunday Homilies
By Revs. John Gibbons and Annie Gonzalez Milliken
Delivered on Sunday, April 21, 2019
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Life in all forms demands
The same respect we all give to money
So each and every one of us
Has to decide
– KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER AND AKA NIVIANA
(adapted from “The Manifesto of the Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” by Wendell Berry)
Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.
The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air–these things will never change.
The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry–these things will always be the same.
All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.
The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. 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.
– Thomas Wolfe
Sermon – Part I
Rev. John Gibbons
“Hope in the Dark: An Outside Chance”
Anticipating this day of resurrection, it was hard for me to ignore Wednesday’s New York Times headline: “Partly Alive! Scientists Revive Cells in Brains from Dead Pigs.” Did you see that? “We (used to have) clear lines between ‘this is alive’ and ‘this is dead,’” said Nita A. Farahany, a bioethicist and law professor at Duke University. “How do we now think about this middle category of ‘partly alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.”
There’s either an Easter or a Halloween sermon in there, but I’m not ready to preach it.
No, I want to go back to that Thomas Wolfe reading, Some Things Will Never Change. When I was a teenager, my minister asked me to read that in church and I’ve never been the same. I loved its words and resonance and cadence. You might even say that the experience of reading it was part of my call to ministry.
“All things belonging to the earth will never change. All things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth, these come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures but it endures forever.”
There’s only one problem and – I didn’t know it back then but unavoidably as I hear and read it now – I’m ever more aware that the problem is that its words are not true! It may not have been evident in 1939 when Wolfe wrote that, but it’s pretty clear today that the earth is not destined to endure forever.
The truth is that everything changes.
Relationships change. Families change. Love changes. And sometimes this is to the good: “It gets better,” we tell LGBTQ youth. To those contemplating suicide, I counsel, “What you’re feeling now may not be what you’ll feel tomorrow.”
Then again, iconic cathedrals burn down; and so do mosques in Jerusalem; and black churches in Louisiana. And many will rise again.
Pain and death persist, but lives may be resurrected as well. Love can transcend death. Perhaps you have known resurrection in your own life.
And sometimes change is not to the good, but to the worse. Environmental activist Bill McKibben, 350.org founder who has preached from this pulpit, has a new book titled Falter, subtitled “Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” It’s not a cheery read.
McKibben says that the human game comes with two logical imperatives. “The first is to keep it going,” he says, “and the second is to keep it human.” Both are now at risk: we may not keep life going. And we may lose something essential about what it means to be human.
We may well be past the point of no return, he argues. Environmentally, to be sure, but also as humans. For all the hopefulness, the future of artificial intelligence and bio-engineering is profoundly worrisome.
You may know about the Chinese CRISPR experiments – CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) that have produced genetically-altered babies.
And I suppose I could talk now about those “partly alive” resurrected pigs. But I won’t.
Bill McKibben suspects we’ve really done ourselves in.
And then there’s his last chapter, titled “An Outside Chance.”
Do you remember the story about the condemned man who offered his executioner, the king, a deal: In six months, if I teach you to fly, he said, you’ll set me free. What have I got to lose, he reasoned. In six months, I may die. In six months, the king may die And, then, in six months, maybe I’ll teach him to fly. It’s an outside chance, but maybe.
The salvation of life on earth, the salvation of our essential humanity is an outside chance.
Resurrection, I say, is an outside chance.
The Easter imperative, I say, is to go for it.
McKibben says there are two innovations that give him hope. Slim hope, but hope! The first, believe it or not, is solar panels. He waxes quite eloquent on this and I don’t want to share it all as I’ll repeat this when we bless our solar panels on June 9. Of solar panels, he says, “You can point a pane of glass at the sky, and out the back flows light and cold and information. That’s Hogwarts-level magic.”
Karl Winkler would love this book! McKibben even goes into the history of asphalt shingles, first introduced in 1901. Asphalt is a by-product of oil-refining: it’s the stuff “that still hasn’t boiled at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.” (This is your cue to boo.) Asphalt is pretty horrible.
Solar power, by contrast, is a miracle (or close enough for our purposes, McKibben says). Africa and the developing world are being transformed by solar power. The global potential is enormous.
And solar power had its origins at the 1904 when a Portuguese priest demonstrated a “heliophone which concentrated sunlight to produce temperatures of 6000 degrees.” That was at the St. Louis World’s fair, which also introduced the world to the club sandwich, the hot dog, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone. But I digress.
The second extraordinary innovation of our times, Bill McKibben says, is nonviolent resistance. In Concord, Thoreau spent his night in jail, objecting to the Mexican War. Tolstoy read Civil Disobedience, and Gandhi read Tolstoy, and MLK read Gandhi, and pretty soon Brown Pulliam (and others among you) were behind bars, and did you see that over 300 climate activists were arrested last week in London – the Extinction Rebellion? They glued themselves to the top of a London commuter train, blocked a major bridge by staging a yoga class, and occupied landmarks, all part of a global campaign to demand government action on climate change. I say celebrate Easter by rebelling against extinction! Can I get an amen?
Hey, it’s an outside chance but maybe we can pull off this resurrection thing.
McKibben concludes, as do I: “We are messy creatures, often selfish, prone to short-sightedness, susceptible to greed. In a Trumpian moment with racism and nationalism resurgent, you could argue that our disappearance would be no great loss. And yet, most of us, most of the time, are pretty wonderful: funny, kind. Another name for human solidarity is love and when I think about our world in its present form, that is what overwhelms me. The human love that works to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, the love that comes together in defense of sea turtles and sea ice and of all else around us that is good. The love that lets each of us see we’re not the most important thing our earth, and makes us OK with that. The love that welcomes us, imperfect, into the world and surrounds us when we die. Even – especially – in its twilight, the human game is graceful and compelling.”
And so, again: May there be “something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.” Amen.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
Sermon – Part II
by Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken
“Hope in the Dark: Nonsense and Idle Tales”
“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Another translation of this text says:
“But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
And it is nonsense isn’t it? I mean, I don’t love the dynamic with the male disciples not believing the dedicated women who were brave enough to leave the house go to tend to the body. I think that’s pretty patriarchal and crappy.
But this story about somebody coming back to life after death? That’s definitely an idle tale. We try to make it palatable with nature comparisons. Love has come again like wheat that springeth green.
Wheat springs green all the time! Every year! That’s normal. Dead bodies do not rise up and push away the doors of their graves. That is NOT normal. THAT is nonsense.
So what are we to do with that story?
I take my cue from Wendell Barry – be joyful tho you have considered all the facts
I have that little phrase from the Manifesto we read for opening words framed and sitting on the bookshelf in my home. It belongs to my housemate, who is also a UU minister. I love that quote and I need it.
There are some pretty dire facts to consider: There’s what John already told us about climate change and the human race and the outside chance. There’s the messy brokenness of interpersonal relationships. The systematic violence of racial gendered capitalism. Yes, indeed I have considered all the facts. And I know you have too.
The facts remain: when an empire executes a poor brown person in an occupied land, when a young Jewish man is murdered for his faith, when a radical organizer is assassinated for threatening the status quo – those people don’t come back to life.
I wish that they would. I wish that anybody anywhere who has been killed by some kind of hatred or oppression would rise up alive! But I don’t see that happening, not literally.
And that’s why I need this story. This idle tale. This nonsense. Every year when I hear it and tell it and sing Allelujah, and shout “he is risen indeed!” I am being joyful, though I have considered all the facts.
Somewhere between fact and fiction, somewhere between nature metaphor and biblical literalism lies my faith. My nonsensical faith in idle tales.
There is a common chant in some activist circles and I wonder if you know it. It goes “I believe that we will win!” CHANT
For me, that chant and the Easter story are one and the same. I see the facts: dead bodies, violence, the victories of empire. I see the facts: broken political and economic systems, broken humans hurting each other even when we’re doing our best not to. I see the facts: betrayal, loss, grief.
But this story says that these facts are not the end. Love gets the final word, Life gets the final word, yes God gets the final word. The wounded body comes to life, the terrified followers are emboldened to live their faith, the women are finally believed. Relationships are restored. The empire is not toppled but it is transcended.
This, beloveds, is hope in the dark. That’s the title of a book by Rebecca Solnit, hat tip to Maureen Richichi for giving me a copy. And Solnit, like many others, point us to the places where liberation has happened and is happening lest we give into despair.
Hope in the dark is putting up solar panels in the face of climate change. Hope in the dark is reaching out for help when we are struggling and ashamed. Hope in the dark is nonviolent resistance to empire. Hope in the dark is working to restore trust in a broken relationship. Hope in the dark is taking sanctuary in a church to fight for your family. Hope in the dark is a Jericho walk around the ICE office in Burlington praying that those walls come tumbling down.
Oh, I have considered all the facts. And yet I am joyful. I believe in idle tales. Because I believe that love IS stronger than death. And I believe that community IS stronger than violence. And I believe that we WILL win.
Now, back to that about the partly alive pigs, hear these words:
It is the little deaths
before the final time we fear.
The blasé shrug
that quietly replaces excited curiosity,
that takes the place of innocence,
The soft-sweet odor of success
that overcomes the sense of sympathy,
that rob us of our will to trust,
The ridicule of vision, the barren blindness
to what was once our sense of beauty —
These are deaths that come so quietly
we do not know when it was we died (Max Coots)
May we be neither partly alive nor partly dead. May we be fully alive!