“I Give Up” by Mark W. Harris
April 5, 2015 – Easter Sunday – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Joan of Arc
“Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and so they give their lives to little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it…and then it’s gone. But to surrender who you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying.
Reading – “Easter Morning” by May Sarton
The extreme delicacy of this Easter morning
Spoke to me as a prayer and as a warning.
It was light on the brink, spring light
After a rain that gentled my dark night.
I walked through landscapes I had never seen
Where the fresh grass had just begun to green,
And its roots, watered deep, sprung to my tread;
The maples wore a cloud of feathery red,
But flowering trees still showed their clear design
Against the pale blue brightness chilled like wine.
And I was praying all the time I walked,
While starlings flew about, and talked, and talked.
Somewhere and everywhere life spoke the word.
The dead trees woke; each bush held its bird.
I prayed for delicate love and difficult,
That all be gentle now and know no fault,
That all be patient—as a wild rabbit fled
Sudden before me. Dear love, I would have said
(And to each bird who flew up from the wood),
I would be gentler still if that I could,
For on this Easter morning it would seem
The softest footfall danger is, extreme. . .
And so I prayed to be less than the grass
And yet to feel the Presence that might pass.
I made a prayer. I heard the answer, “Wait,
when all is so in peril, so delicate!”
Second Reading – “Easter 1975” by Victor Carpenter
See Celebrating Easter and Spring, edited by Seaburg and Harris
Sermon – “I Give Up” by Mark W. Harris
Cover songs have been popular in the history of rock n’ roll . A cover song is a remake of a song that someone else originally wrote and / or recorded. One of my favorite rock bands, The Byrds, had several hits from Bob Dylan songs, that most people were not very familiar with, including Mr. Tambourine Man. Where covers sometimes became unethical was when popular white bands recorded African American rhythm and blues songs. I know I was introduced to Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” by the Rolling Stones, who were named for a Muddy Waters song. But perhaps it is no different than a Unitarian lyricist like Frederick Lucian Hosmer, who we will sing today, taking “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and using the tune St. Gertrude again, paired with the lyrics, “Forward through the Ages,” much to the relief of liberals (as Chuck mentioned last week), who don’t want to be identified with the cross of Christ marching and presumably forcibly and violently converting others in the name of Jesus. All of this is just to say that this sermon is a cover sermon, a redo of an old theme. A couple years back I wrote a homily called “On Losing My Teeth.” Today you could surmise from my Victor Carpenter reading that we will traverse some of the same territory. While I am sure you don’t want to hear the gloomy and painful details of this week’s procedures, it nevertheless reminds us of the decline of the physical body as we age, the need to carry on as best as we can in the face of life’s trials, and because life is difficult, the daily need for some one of our fellow humans, be it parent, child, friend or colleague to hold our hand, touch our shoulder, and assure us it will be all right.
Today my sermon is called “I Give Up.” On the face of it that sounds like resignation or giving in to something that we really don’t want to, but may indeed be necessary for our continued well being. This certainly applies to dental work. No one wants to face the pain of the pliers or drill, and the healing from trauma that ensues, but sometimes it is necessary if we are going to continue to be able to eat for basic nourishment, and enjoy one of life’s pleasures. We go through some discomfort to achieve a greater personal good, to say nothing of how bad it looks for a minister to have no teeth. Sometimes those of us who are aware of human freedom blame ourselves for illnesses or tragedies or painful ordeals that befall us. Squirrel Nutkin loses half his tail, but emerges with his life. Some of us might say it is his own fault, for being such a rude squirrel. It is a moral lesson in doing the right thing, and respecting others. I am someone who smoked cigarettes for a long time, and also failed to floss. Now we might say I am reaping what I sowed. Yet beating yourself up over what you did in the past, is not an especially productive exercise. Plus sometimes people are just darn lucky, and inherit good teeth. Considering what choices we make today might be more helpful.
These themes of what trials we endure, and what we give up for continued life are evident in the Easter story. Sometimes religious liberals avoid the details of the story because of the violence, death and finally, the pure irrationality of a dead person coming back to life, and instead resort to a spring celebration, as Kenneth Patton once did in his Easter sermon, “Upsadaisy.” We arrive on Easter morning, and nary a word has been spoken about Good Friday. Of course we know in the story that Jesus has to die in order that he might live again, as is true in nature, and in other religious traditions where the dying and rebirthing of the Gods explains the seasons. In Greek mythology Persephone marries Hades, and lives as queen of the Underworld for six months each winter. Then in the spring, she returns to earth. Demeter makes sure flowers are blooming again to welcome her daughter’s return., but then in the fall they die once again. This was Jesus’ story, too, except it only happened once for all time, and Christians made it literally true with some theological overlay that most liberals eventually found repugnant.
This is the doctrine of the atonement, that Jesus gives up or sacrifices his life so that we humans might live eternally in heaven. But liberals began to say, wait a minute. What sin? What did I do? Liberals rejected the sacrificial nature of the atonement because it seemed to imply that a vengeful, blood thirsty God needed some kind of compensation because bad humans need redeeming. Rather than God needing to be reconciled to us, it is us, the liberals said, who need to be reconciled to God, and that Jesus came to help us achieve that, not through a blood sacrifice, but by teaching us how to love one another. While this removes the whole idea of God needing a sacrifice to have his anger appeased, it asks of us the even more pertinent question, what kinds of sacrifices do we need to make to find love in the world.
The immediate sacrifice we might think of in the context of Jesus’ life is that he died for what he believed in. He mentions this by the courageous act of laying down your life for your friends, or we might say for something bigger than yourself. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater. This may make us uncomfortable because we think of religious fanatics. Christianity grew because there were martyrs who stood up for their beliefs, and were willing to die because of their belief in the truth of the faith, and their desire to see it live. No one here would probably promote the zealous nature of a martyr’s sacrifice that is founded upon a religious belief because it reminds us of the multiple numbers of suicide bombers these days. This seems parallel for me with the famous Japanese kamikaze pilots I read about as a boy. These were the pilots who voluntarily and happily sought death by crashing their zero aircraft into US ships to win glory and gain the favor of a ‘divine’ emperor. This is more fanaticism than it is sacrifice for some greater good. A better test might be those causes, or principles upon which you are willing to risk your life. I certainly think of those Unitarian Universalists who traveled to Selma fifty years ago when Martin Luther King said a great injustice prevails in our land, and we must stand against it. Many went knowing they were risking their lives, especially after hearing young men taunt them and seeing troopers carrying truncheons, and then two UUs James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo gave their lives to help our country to achieve racial justice.
In recent years sacrifice has either been depicted in a negative way or scarcely mentioned at all. Every Memorial Day my classmates and I would stand in remembrance of those who gave their lives in war, remembering that it was we the living who redeemed the lives of the fallen by how we lived our lives. In the wake of Vietnam, people often said the sacrifice of a life in war was a waste because the country had violated its principles of truth, and justice. There was a sadness for many because this had once been seen as the most noble of sacrifices to serve your country as a soldier so that your fellow citizens might enjoy the fruits of freedom and democracy. In my most cynical moments, I often feel like no is willing to sacrifice anything these days for the greater good. In some ways the response to the tragedies of Ferguson and beyond is heartening, because we can still be enflamed with anger about how our society can target certain people as unworthy. We see once again that our voices need to be heard so that our vision of justice for all might prevail. We say, yes, I can sacrifice some time, some energy, some personal comfort and ease to build a better world.
I have feared the loss of this spirit of common cause ever sense Reagan occupied the White House and seemed to convince the American public that paying taxes was a bad thing. The society where we took care of each other and promoted the common good was rejected in favor of one where there is now an enormous gulf between rich and poor, and we watch bridges collapse, roads crumble, and subways break down Whatever happened to sacrificing a little of that pay check so that everyone might enjoy the fruits of a good life? Yet these kinds of things impact us all, and help us realize the need to sacrifice for the greater good.
The sacrifices we make in response to policies prevalent in society makes me think of our own congregational commitment to slowing the pace of global warming. Most of us remember the energy crisis of the 1970’s. For many there was anger that we had to wait in line for gasoline, or only be able to buy fuel on odd or even numbered days. We were used to having all the gas we wanted whenever we wanted it, and so it was more than a matter of frustration with inconvenience, it was also the results of a thirst we never placed any limits on. Today people like me enjoy having berries all year round, but flying them in from Chile is not exactly good for the environment. What are the consequences of having whatever we want any time we want? Do you remember what was good about the gas crisis? Maybe we agreed that conserving was good and adopted slower speeds, and walking more. We learned to sacrifice to preserve our planet. Right now California is learning the effects of a years long drought. They must conserve. Watering lawns must become, Governor Brown says, a thing of the past. If you care about life, the life of your children, the life of the planet then we see a sacrifice must be made.
This past week at Andover Newton I was teaching a class on the evolution of religious humanism. In Unitarian Universalist history, humanism developed out of a liberal Christianity that began to see that all religions develop within a cultural context, and because of that we begin to understand that our religious affiliations are dependent upon what we learn in the time and place where we each grew up. Liberal religion also began to understand that no one can assert whether God exists or not. What we truly know is founded upon reason and observation, and we can never offer proof for God. Our own First Parish minister John Weiss challenged the prevailing religious views, even within Unitariansim by advocating for a faith that would help lead the liberals further along the path towards a religious naturalism that embraced both the findings of science and a multi-religious approach to faith, but remain open to mystery. The new Free Religious Association stated that the basis for this faith was the “common ground on which all religion rests . . . Christian and non-Christian.” For the first time in history, a religious organization proposed that all faiths meet “on perfectly equal terms.” The radical willingness to move beyond Christianity demonstrates Weiss’ leadership among religious liberals, but, he was attacked for his radicalism. What did they sacrifice in reputation and jobs and friendship when others shunned them or attacked them as atheists? After his active parish days had ended, Weiss once met his colleague Minot Savage in Boston. He said, “Savage, you ought to be grateful to some of us fellows. We have been killed to make way for you.”
This is a reminder of what one generation does for the next, but moreover how responsible we are to the next generation when we will no longer be around. Think of those who sacrificed to give women the vote, or those who were part of the Stonewall riots. What did they sacrifice so that we could enjoy equal opportunities in life. Raising children reminds me daily of the regular sacrifices we make for our children. When I suggested this at a service I conducted Friday at an assisted living facility, one woman said “that’s no sacrifice, I did it for love.” While we mostly have children by choice, we do sacrifice careers, personal development, adult relationships and time for this commitment. On Thursday, Cynthia Lennon died, the former wife of Beatle John Lennon. Julian, their only son, remarked in a video about his mother, “You gave your life for me. You gave your life for love.” Parenting reminds us time and again of giving support to those who need our strength. They receive our time and love and energy because we want so much for them to find their way in the world – to grow in knowledge, and to be happy in what they do and achieve. I feel many of these tensions over planning for college. All parents sacrifice to lesser or greater degrees, with the hope that those who follow will have happy and productive lives. So do we all in our willingness to commit to others.
Sometimes we sacrifice one way of living so that we might gain another that we feel is reflective of the kind of person we want to be. Kahlil Gibran once wrote about how he sacrificed others friendships, so that he might gain his own soul. When I played football in college, it seemed by the time I was senior to be a meaningless exercise in sacrificing the health of my body, which I now know in retrospect was even more dangerous, but also that I was sacrificing more emotionally and intellectually fulfilling choices in favor of bad behavior with my friends. My sacrifice of those friends who were not helping me was one that provided personal transformation. This was even more critical for Gibran who was exiled from his society for rejecting his old friends, but found in his new life a degree of truth and freedom.
We began this service with the words of Joan of Arc. She presents us with the most critical question of all. You are going to give your life, sacrifice it, if you will, for what you believe. What is that sacrifice you are making? The coming of spring symbolically reminds us in tree and flower of what beauty life can hold. But it is ever so fragile. May Sarton who struggled with depression her entire life teaches in her Easter poem: “When all is so in peril, so delicate!” Sacrifice means what choices will we make now, perhaps in the difficult challenge of gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, in making the slow walk toward a better life. Jesus himself knew this when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. When they saw the injured man, the first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” To truly sacrifice, we move beyond asking what will happen to me, – will I have enough gas? And instead ask, what kind of resources am I leaving for those who follow?
Victor Carpenter grew up in a family where little affection was shown, but sitting in that dentist’s chair in an uncomfortable situation and feeling some human tenderness, brought him back to another dental experience with his father cradling his head in love and support. Life can feel like a drill of pain when we experience how others can be mean and unfriendly towards each other. Here we see that even in the most deadening moments, we can be recalled to life, a crocus can emerge from the snow, or we can choose to be delicate and patient with one another, and not find fault, as Sarton says. Sacrifice one moment to ease another’s pain. My father, too, was not very effusive in his expressions of affection towards his children. I knew of his sacrifices in his hard work, and his dreams for his children’s education, but one Saturday, I was injured in a football game, a torn hamstring, so painful I had trouble walking. When the bus brought me home, my father came out the door, down our front steps, and took me up in his arms. He then carried me, his 185 pound son, up the stairs to my room, and laid me on the bed. Like Carpenter’s father, I was taken back to my father’s show of comfort and care when I had my dental surgery this week, and the dentist kept saying to me, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” This stands out, like Carpenter’s memory of his father, as a life saving, life nurturing opportunity that we each have to care for one another. Whether it a friendship, a marriage, or a parent to child, we realize in life’s struggles through pain, and failure and depression, we can be recalled to our best selves beckoning within us. We have the resources to lift each other up. Even as Jesus’ mother stood by him in his hour of trial, so we are asked to share our love, that those we love, those who share our world, those who will follow, may live.
Closing Words – from Martin Luther King, Jr.
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”