Delivered April 21, 2019 at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church of Kennebunk.
Earlier in the service, we read The Cloud Spinner by Michael Catchpool.
All stories are true.
Some of them even happened.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that
“when the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.’” (NRSV)
He is not here.
Now the story of Easter may one of the most difficult in all of the world’s religions for Unitarian Universalists. It begs us to set aside our propensity for reason and fact, our disbelief in the supernatural, our suspicion of anything called a miracle.
Easter asks us to consider, for one day, the idea that a man who died at the hands of a threatened political and religious establishment not only rose from the dead three days after he was declared dead but that the large stone that closed off his tomb was rolled away so that he could walk out and be with his followers a little while longer. And that there was a point to it all.
Unitarian Universalists bump up against this story a lot – it seems fantastical and unbelievable, and to some, just made up in order to lend credence to a tiny Jesus movement that eventually became the religion we know as Christianity. Many Unitarian Universalists among us believe that Jesus was an incredible teacher and perhaps prophet, and some among us even see a level of divinity in the person of Jesus. And yes, there are some among us who do believe, as our Unitarian and Universalist forebears did, that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.
But I don’t think we struggle with the entrance into Jerusalem, or tossing the money changers out of the temple – we like that bit… we don’t wrestle at all with the idea that Jesus maybe knew this could be dangerous, and we understand the events that led to the final meal, the betrayal, the arrest, and the shuffling through the justice system up to the crucifixion. All of that makes sense. It’s not miraculous, it’s what happens all too often to those who tell truth to power.
Where we struggle is on that third day. At the empty tomb.
How do we explain this except as a miracle?
And if we do accept it as a miracle, are we sacrificing part of what makes us Unitarian Universalists in the first place – our daring to question, our cherishing of doubt, our openness to many ideas? What happens when we say “yes, there is a kind of miracle in the universe that we call resurrection”?
What happens – in true Unitarian Universalist fashion – is that we look for it elsewhere. And we find it, as the Transcendentalists taught us, in nature.
Now it’s not easy to see, with the ever quickening damage to our earth by climate change. The predictions are dire, and by all accounts, the cloud spinner’s answer, “there is still time” is in danger of being not true.
We mourn those who have already been lost to extreme heat waves. To floods, hurricanes, mudslides, and blizzards. To hunger. To drought. To disease. We mourn those other earthlings – the animals, who have been lost to dramatic changes to their ecosystems. Those who have become extinct. We mourn the plants and green species that have died. We mourn, and we can only do so much to restore balance, to create sustainability.
And we can’t just mourn – as Swedish teen Greta Thunberg told a room full of adults gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference,
“Adults keep saying ‘we owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”
We need a miracle. We need a resurrection.
And now we’re back to our problem – right? How can we understand the miracle of resurrection when it seems contrary to everything science tells us about the processes of life? How can we understand the miracle of resurrection when it seems like a story that was crafted over a century to keep a ministry alive? How can we understand the miracle of resurrection when we are watching this planet become increasingly unable to sustain life?
We need a miracle. We need a resurrection. Earth needs a resurrection.
Back in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Minnesota had an idea. As he writes in Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise,
“I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the national political agenda.”
The idea of Earth Day began as a “national teach-in on the environment.” By raising public awareness of air and water pollution, Nelson hoped to bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.
And it was effective. Protecting the environment quickly became a national priority.
Since 1970, Earth Day celebrations have grown. But it’s never been about the celebration; as Nelson writes,
“contrary to what some Earth Day critics today might say, my thinking was not that a one-day demonstration would convince people of the need to protect the environment. I envisioned a continuing national drive to clean up our environment and set new priorities for a livable America. Earth Day was to be the catalyst.”
It was not even founded to be a day of penance for all the bad things we’ve done to the earth. It was, as Nelson wrote, “founded on a spirit of desire and a sense of duty – as a means to an end, not as an end.”
For the ensuing 49 years, We humans have been simultaneously more and more conscious of our connection and relationship to the earth – and more and more careless about our use of natural resources, treatment of the air and water, and global climate changes due to our influence.
As Greta says, our house is on fire.
We need a miracle. Bigger than earth day. We need a resurrection.
This is where we turn once again to the earth, to teach us.
The earth teaches us stillness – but not the kind of stillness that makes us sit back and wait, because the truth is, the planet will exist long after life as we know it ceases to exist. The earth teaches us to be still and not try to overpower the earth with fracking or clearcutting or filling the air with poisons.
The earth teaches us courage – courage to be the first seed to fly off the dandelion, courage to be the first bird to fly out of the nest, courage to not just say ‘we should do something about it’ but actually DO something about it.
The earth teaches us caring – caring that we are not an alien species put on this planet in order to use it up – but rather that we are earthlings ourselves, caring for the earth that we belong to, caring for the interdependent web of all existence, caring that the circle of life we are a part of continues through birth, life, death, and rebirth.
But mostly, the earth teaches us how connected we really are, and how much we need one another, what we might call a network of mutuality.
Consider the story of Mount St. Helens, in the Pacific Northwest. In May of 1980, this mountain volcano exploded in what might be the most costly volcanic eruption in US history – 57 lives lost, millions of fish, hundreds of other animal and plant species destroyed, nearly 250 square miles of land turned from lush green canopy to a landscape then president carter said looked like the moon.
Thanks to an environmentally friendly congress, Mount St. Helens was turned into a 110-thousand acre federal reserve, and scientists have been watching – and not meddling – ever since. What they have seen is a wonderful – and surprising – resurrection of this utterly destroyed landscape – wonderful, in that they are learning about the effects of ash on soil ecosystems, watching ‘pioneer’ species of plants and animals reshape the ecosystem, seeing the tree canopies begin to form and the lakes begin to sustain life again. Surprising – in that it’s not happening in the order they anticipated, which has led to nearly 40 years of re-examining what we know about the earth.
But this didn’t happen by chance. It took pocket gophers to bring fresh soil up from under the lava and ash. It took pioneer species like lupins and lilies, that grow in carbon-heavy soil. It took birds, carrying and dropping seeds. It took biota in the lakes to clean and reoxygenate them so that other life could return.
Now to someone who hasn’t seen a picture of Mount St. Helens in a while, the difference between May 1980 and today seems like a miracle – and in many ways, it is. This place was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
And yet, it rose, thanks to a natural network of mutuality.
There was a miracle. Of resurrection.
But this is just one story, one that may we may not be able to tell for much longer if we forget that our house is on fire.
And so we must tell the stories of resurrection to remind us that, as the cloud spinner says, there is more time, if we don’t sit back and let it happen but instead engage in the networks of mutuality we see – not only for the work of sustaining life on this planet – but also the work of sustaining individual lives.
We see resurrection in the reviving breath of a patient after being saved from certain death by emergency room doctors.
We see resurrection in the determined look of an addict who, after hitting rock bottom, gets clean and becomes a counselor herself.
We see resurrection in the gentleness of a former gang member who comes out of prison to prevent other young people from following his broken road.
We see resurrection in the relieved smiles of immigrant who is reunited with their family.
We see resurrection when we stop talking and start actively caring for and conserving our planet – enough is enough and not one stitch more, reminds the cloud spinner.
We see it in the jubilation of a small group of citizens – or a small human – who sees a wrong, sets out to change the world – and succeeds.
But the miracle is not just the moment breath comes back, or a person appears, or a bird drops a seed. It’s about the whole network of mutuality – the doctors, and teachers, and role models, and birds and dandelion seeds, and scientists, and organizers, and prophets, and senators from Minnesota.
In the gospel of Mark, where we began, the miracle of resurrection only starts in the empty tomb, but that’s not the whole story – it’s about the women who saw the tomb empty, and the man who told them Jesus was raised, and the disciples who one by one heard the news from these women – including Thomas, with his need for proof. (I’m pretty sure Thomas was a Unitarian).
It’s about the people who knew that this radical message that their teacher preached had to live on. It’s about the folks who lived out that radical message and cared for the poor and the sick in his memory, and it’s about the people who understood the liberating power of this radical, freeing, healing message and shared it, and it’s about those who found – and continue to find – hope in the simple proposition that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
And while the gospel points to this one moment in this one time, 2,000 years ago, it also tells us that the miracle of resurrection can happen for every one of us, happening one seed, one bird, one doctor, one court, one hand, one welcome, one protest, one Yes at a time.
Resurrection is about the miracle of hope when hope is lost. It is about the surging and resurging power of life. As theologian Walter Bruegemann writes,
“The Easter question is not whether you can get your mind around the resurrection, because you cannot. Rather the question is whether you can permit in your horizon new healing power, new surging possibility, new ways of power in an armed, fearful world: new risk, new life, leaping, dancing, singing –and praising the powers beyond all our controlled powers. “
We can’t ever know for certain if the story of the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened two thousand years ago. Belief in that resurrection in that moment is a matter of faith and your own spiritual development. The story is true –we just don’t know if it actually happened.
But we do know that resurrection happens when we open ourselves, one by one, to the possibility that just as life returns to seemingly desolate parts of our earth, life can return to those who need a resurgence. And resurrection happens when we open ourselves to the reality that miracles don’t happen in a vacuum…because WE are the miracle.
Earth teaches us that resurrection is not only possible but that it’s happening all around us. The miracle is not that new life returns; the miracle is in the holy and blessed interdependence of all existence on this beautiful earth.