“Easter Everywhere” by Mark W. Harris – March 23, 2008
“Easter Everywhere” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – March 23, 2008
Call to Worship (Responsive) – from Stephanie Kaza
We live by the sun, We feel by the moon, We move by the stars
We live in all things ; All things live in us
We eat from the earth, We drink from the rain, We breathe of the air
We live in all things ; All things live in us
We call to each other, We listen to each other, Our hearts deepen with love and compassion
We live in all things ; All things live in us
We depend on the trees and animals, We depend on the earth, We celebrate with joy all forms of living, grateful for all beings and companions
We live in all things ; All things live in us
Celebration of the Spring Equinox –
Today marks the first time we begin to celebrate the seasons in our regular worship services as part of our Green Sanctuary program. The vernal equinox is one of the four major turning points in the cycle of seasons for our planet. As our Earth spins on its axis it travels in a path around the sun, the axis on the equinox is neither tilted away from the sun, as it is in winter nor toward the sun, as it is in summer. Equinox means equal night. Many religious festivals celebrate the return of spring. It was said the Greek God Dionysos was in terrible pain during winter. Just like us. In Persephone’s story, she descended into the underworld and returned near the time of the spring equinox. This story has close parallels to various legends, including the stories of the life of Jesus. Today, in celebration of the coming of spring we water the plant, and thus symbolically bring it back to life. And say, welcome spring.
Reading : from Doreen Valiente
I am the beauty of the green earth
And the white moon among the stars
And the mystery of the waters
And the desire of human hearts.
Call unto your soul: Arise and come unto me
For I am the soul of nature who gives
Life to the universe.
From me all things proceed
And unto me all things must return.
Reading – from Easter Everywhere by Darcey Steinke
Inside Grace the altar is covered with potted lilies, pink tulips, and daffodils. The place is humid and sweet as a greenhouse. Ushers wear white skirts with yellow blouses. As the choir processes, the congregation sings, “I know that my redeemer lives.” We hold hands across the rows for the peace song. Reverend Banks begins his sermon by explaining how Easter originated as a pagan holiday named after the goddess Oestar, and that Persians died eggs long before Christ was born. Banks goes on to describe the crucifixion, the thorns puncturing the skin of Jesus’ forehead, blood streaming down his chin, how he passed the dark night in the tomb and then how his resurrected body filled with nothing but light.
I am lucky if I can believe in the resurrection ten minutes a month. I have doubt. But I have faith as well. My doubt fuels my faith. to me doubt connects to the mystery of god much more than certainty. The finite cannot contain the infinite. Once, a New York cab driver told me he was a former Muslim who now subscribes to no organized religion. He said he was reading anne Lamott’s writing guide, Bird by Bird, to help him write a book that lays out his theological ideas. “Religions are ot directly form God,” he said animatedly from the front seat. “Religion is finite. God is not finite, but infinite.”
Banks comes down out of the pulpit. “You need to be sure, dearly beloved, absolutely sure. Christ died for you. Hello? Somebody? Are you positive, absolutely positive?”
I slip from my pew and walk out of the church. On the sidewalk I think: Jesus himself was a doubter. He questioned the validity of the established religious order. He doubted his ability to do what he was asked to do and, on the cross, he doubted the loyalty of God,
Rather than certainty, I try to cultivate a sense of sacredness. Life is brutal, full of horror and violence. Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy. Both things are true at the same time. The paradox extends to my own being. I think of the words of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who calls Christianity the religion of Love and comedy, a la Charlie Chaplin: “The point is not that, due to the limitations of his mortal sinful nature, man cannot ever become fully divine, but that due to the divine spark in him, man cannot become fully man.” Abbie, as young as she is, has already felt this dichotomy. On a page of her journal I found this epigram: “I feel like I am someone like God I do not know why.”
Sermon “Easter Everywhere” by Mark W. Harris
When Darcey Steinke’s memoir Easter Everywhere was reviewed in the New York Times, the reviewer Stephen Metcalf began, “I love my neighbor as I love myself – which is to say minimally, if at all, and in between fits of out and out loathing.” As I began to write this sermon, all I could think of was Andrea reminding me the other day about Nora Ephron’s book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and what had happened to her neck as it showed the effects of aging after she had turned sixty. In recent years memoirs have been extremely popular. Each succeeding self-revelation seems to chronicle the most dismal accounting of the human condition or behavior. We seem to identify our misery with meaning, so that every unhappiness seems to be based in some childhood trauma or undiagnosed illness. This is not to demean the seriousness of our afflictions, but it sometimes feels as if all of life’s meaning is derived from dealing with our pain. I laughed out loud this week at a New Yorker article where the outraged author was concerned that the overuse of antidepressants was making everyone too happy. He went to say that most of our creativity stems from our misery, or better yet, our angst over the turmoils and traumas of life. Bring back our depression, he seemed to say, or we will be bored to death with our own tepid, even tempered personalities that lack anger and self-hatred. Think of the great British literary tradition. Where would the British be if they could not wallow in their own misery, complaining about everything? There would be no culture.
Steinke asks herself this question about the source of self-loathing. “What if my abiding sense of misery isn’t due to abuse or balky neurotransmission, but to the absence of God in my life, to an unfulfilled relationship with my own divinity, as vouchsafed to me by the Creator?” You might say, Oh that’s good for her, but what do we Unitarian Universalists do as our Creator is a scientific Big Bang, and our relationship to God is something we define as questionable mythology of our own making, praying not to our Dad or Mom, but to whom it may concern. We sometimes feel as though Easter is the one religious holiday we should boycott. After all, we can celebrate the return of spring only so long, before we have to reflect on Jesus. Now, while he does qualify for having the traumatic life of single parent home, wandering mendicant, and finally put to death on a cross, we also need to ask ourselves what this resurrection really means. We don’t accept a dead person coming back to life, and while we can twist it into meaning a belief in immortality of the soul, we know the body returns to the earth from whence it came, and unlike the tulip, does not pop back up again in twelve months.
Like many of us who eventually find our way to Unitarian Universalism, Darcey Steinke is plagued with the issue of doubt. As the daughter of a Lutheran minister she wants to know how God, if God exists, can allow such suffering in the world. Rather than give her an answer, her father gives the flippant response, “That’s the $64,000 question.” Of course this presumes some kind of all powerful control by a deity over our human freedom to make bad choices, or even the option of altering the natural world so that disease and death do not abide, at least not for me. We Unitarian Universalists know the world to be subject to chance and whim and even tragedy without any kind of supernatural control. It comes down to issues of authority. Steinke’s feelings of spiritual rootlessness, Metcalf tells us, emanate from the dual message she gets from her father. On the one hand, when he wears the robes, he is a commanding presence, but it really turns out that he is kind of a Wizard of Oz figure who has all the appearances but none of the actual power when he takes off the mantle of the office. There is nothing there. The Emperor has no clothes. So we won’t submit to that kind of authority. But that leaves us with the question of what kind of authority does demand our worship
Steinke comes to doubt the existence of the God she had heard about as a young girl under the ministrations of her father. This is the same God most of us associate with Easter, the one who raises a dead man to life, and of course we also say, so untrue. But then where does our doubt take us? If we deny God, then we may make other things into our Gods. Steinke quotes the German mystic, Simone Weil, who wrote, “One has only the choice between God and idolatry. If one denies God . . . one is worshipping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them.” Paul Tillich once said something to the effect that our God is whatever we assign ultimate worth to. This is an interesting question, what do you worship in this world? Perhaps in some ways we worship our partners or families as people we love and care about, or perhaps we worship the earth as our home that gives us birth and sustains us in life. Maybe it is self-fulfillment we worship, and those who write memoirs about all the pain of their lives are working out their past. Does this lead beyond a kind of self-indulgence or self-pity and point towards some kind of resurrection of the spirit, or is it simply a litany of all those problems, so that we only worship the problems in our quest for self-fulfillment.
About thirteen years ago I gave up smoking. Now you can say this was merely an addiction, but I certainly felt like I loved smoking. I would do anything to get a cigarette, and I thought about it all the time. If I ran out of cigarettes, even late at night, I would jump in my car in a mad search for a store with late evening hours. I needed that butt. When I smoked I could neither smell it on me or on others. Now I don’t even think about it anymore. I never want a cigarette, and I am glad I was able to kick the habit. In a way it is like something I once worshipped – it relaxed me, helped with anxiety, calmed me down, but I came to doubt its central place in my life, and what it was doing to me. Now that it is no longer a part of my life, I notice the smell in the air and on others. If you have never smoked, perhaps you cannot imagine the powerful hold it had on me, but it was dominating. For some, giving this kind of authority to something can make it difficult to ever rid oneself of it. When I was in seminary I remember talking to a fellow student, who had also smoked for many years. He said that even twenty years after quitting cigarettes, he was still dreaming about smoking. The desire was still there. I think of this as an object of desire that controlled my life. That little filter tipped roll of tobacco was what I would do anything for. It was emblematic of the idolatry Simone Weil spoke of because it provided a focus for my life- what I did first thing in the morning, and last at night.
It may seem silly to characterize cigarettes as a kind of God substitute, but it was the way I ordered my life. As Weil said, it is the things of this world that we worship to which we give attributes of the divine. One could see this in such obvious things such as money giving us the ability to buy all of the things we ever wanted. Yet I don’t think Steinke was interpreting this in the idolatrous sense when she used what became the title of her book to explore the idea that we give attributes of the divine to things of this world, and experience them as such. It was the deeper things of the spirit; compassion and love. This is Easter Everywhere.
We all know this world is full of grief and suffering, and God does not make it go away. This is the reality in Jesus’ life on Good Friday, and it is also the reality in many of our lives that make their way into these successful memoirs. I have suffered abuse or neglect, or I have taken all the gifts and talents I received and frittered them all away on drugs and booze. Part of the Christian myth seems to reflect the reality of our lives, too. They are difficult and fraught with pain. It helps us have some sense of human solidarity to share that pain. Others have similar experiences, and perhaps we feel a degree of affirmation when another says, I have gone through that, too. I am sure this is part of the reason these memoirs are so popular, plus it also helps us feel better when we know someone else has had more severe miseries than our own. We can always say, it could be worse, or there but for the grace of God go I.
We may feel like the resurrection story is not only a false myth about a human coming back to life, but even metaphorically we might scoff at the idea that all of our pain is going to end, and our opportunities for another career or complete health will be resurrected in a second chance, or a final sweet victory. Sure sometimes that happens, and we can feel some sense of gladness in the small victories we find. But we may not recover fully from the injury or illness we suffered, and the idea of even a small moment of resurrection is remote. What then? I think what is meaningful about the resurrection story is that it reinforces the Christmas message that God emerges within the human context, within the everyday matters of our living. It says in an elaborate mythic structure that the divine is present in the human, and that our longings to create God in an all powerful otherworldly scheme are false. Whatever is divine that we may know is here in us, in what we do, in how we embrace life. And what we must do to find this divine in life is to die to the world.
To die to the world, we must get out of our grief mode. By this I don’t mean stop grieving for those loved ones who have died. I mean we must move through those things that make us feel dead to the world. Maybe smoking cigarettes made me feel dead to the world, and certainly doing a task or job over and over again in rote fashion without any kind of affirmation makes me feel dead to the world. Unitarian Universalists are often very smart people who are searching for ways to feel fulfilled. For some of us work makes us feel fulfilled, but sometimes that is all we do. But the work may have none of the divine in it, if it only feels like duty and obligation. Obviously a large part of work is merely what we have to do to make a living and support our families, but if it keeps us in grief mode with its challenges and demands, and offers us nothing new, gives us no joy in living, or no larger purpose, then it is the job that is the meaningless God, and we are failing to see the divine joy in our work. We must find ways to discover the divine in our lives. Where do we find joy, and what is it we feel passionate about? It is possible that we can do that by finding new challenges or switching jobs, but there must be something in that work that helps us care for others, helps a community, makes us feel like we are learning new things, and so we are growing and we are helping the company or institution around us grow to become something that is more compassionate and more affirming of the human condition and the human community.
The message of Easter is really a very simple one. God is in you, and it asks us how we are doing to die to the world we are living in right now, so that we can embrace the divine in us. One of the great things about my Unitarian Universalist faith is that this message of discovering the divine in your life has been central since we first rejected the claims of personal sinfulness for those of potential greatness. Sometimes this has been interpreted to mean self-indulgence and individual fulfillment. But I think it points toward something greater in us, and in the world. In Easter Everywhere, Darcey Steinke says that life is both brutal and beautiful. Sometimes we react to the brutal out of guilt. We become a worker for a green world because we feel some obligation to do the right thing. While it may be the right thing to prevent global warming, it must be approached from a feeling of reverence for the earth, of embracing a sense of sacredness about life. Liberals tend to spend a lot of time in their heads thinking about the right thing to do, but finding Easter Everywhere means we would feel the sacredness with a passion for touching, for looking, for seeing and hearing, for knowing that the divine is in us and all around us. We want to see the world anew, like a cleansing rain, or a budding bank of tulips.
In Easter Everywhere, Steinke’s daughter Abbie writes in her journal, I feel like I am someone like God I do not know why.” I think the quotation from the Slovenian philosopher Zizek fits this sense of divinity. Our proclivity to sin means that we cannot be divine, we are not Gods. But the divine spark in us means man cannot become fully man. We are more, and we can live into that divinity with an embrace of Easter Everywhere. Even though I am a minister I do not tend to use the traditional verbiage about my job, he is doing God’s work. But I think it would be helpful in the context of trying to understand Easter for all of us to think about how we do divine work in the world. I think my father used to do this in the way he ran a retail oil company. That sounds like a kind of business that would not be likely to invoke divinity. Yet, as a child the first thing I realized was that every oil truck had a basket of lollipops to give to children along the route. He also gave out S and H Green Stamps as a reward for cash paying customers. You may remember the stamps were pasted into booklets, and then redeemed for gifts like lamps and stereos. I suppose you could see them as gimmicks to help him succeed in business, but I saw them as ways that he was thinking about his clientele, who had to buy his product anyway since it was a necessary commodity. When I was thirteen, I began to play for a baseball team that had the name of his company on its uniform. These sponsorships are common, but they recognize that there is a community fabric that we need to maintain. That community fabric must also be extended to neighbors in need. He also gave oil to those who were in desperate need, and one winter provided oil to a family whose daughter had died of leukemia. I am sure he would not have thought of his business practices as reflecting divinity, but his care for his customers and the community were ways that reflected that he believed even with a money making venture such as his, that if you are not serving others, giving back to the community and building something better for tomorrow, then you are merely indulging in your own selfishness, and while you think you are getting ahead, you are not dying into the new life of loving your neighbor.
Easter helps us think how we can give our work and our lives a little divine significance. Spring has arrived this week, and we are glad for it. We will see flowers and trees blooming, just as these flowers here today are harbingers of what is to come, bringing joy to our senses. When our spiritual founder William Ellery Channing looked around him he said that the beauty of the world was reflective of the beauty of God, and he also believed that our intelligence was reflective of God’s intelligence. In his sermon, “Likeness to God,” Channing helped inspire subsequent generations of Unitarians to realize, “We see God around us because God dwells within us.” When we seek the truth or live it, whenever we receive or give a blessing, whenever we encounter something with moral courage, whenever we bear a trial patiently, whenever we perform a disinterested deed, whenever we war against a habit which leads us to neglect our higher principles, these are things he said, that help us realize that divinity is growing within us. Only through that energy, only through that knowledge, only through that beauty will we sense that there is a greater cosmic harmony and significance. A couple of months ago, there was an article in the Globe West about Alex Stephenson, the son of our former student minister Fayre Stephenson. It told how each week Alex, an Army major collected between 50 and 100 blankets to distribute to villagers in Iraq. He said, he hoped these gifts would help the Iraqis come to believe that Americans are kind and giving people. We might think of army life as the locus of death, Good Friday all the time. Yet even in a war zone, he responded to the sight of people who had nothing, by giving them warmth at night, and a shield by day to protect them against the sun. Doing good things for others, and defending your life represent extreme paradoxes of living and dying. Each day, he realized was a resurrection – an opportunity to redeem fear and hate and self-interest with compassion and love. You may or may not call that God, but what it means is that a man realizes that it is more than merely making money for his family, it is connecting with others in a way that builds up the fabric of our relationships. It is dying to selfishness, and being reborn to love for neighbor. It is what Easter Everywhere is all about.
Closing Words – from Thich Nhat Hanh (adapted)
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply. I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile.
learning to sing in my new nest,
to br a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing in the
surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the
clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
My joy is like spring so warm it makes
flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it,
fills up the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
so that I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.