Blessing the World with Hope
A sermon by Rev. John Morehouse
Easter Sunday 2014
It is so wonderful to see so many of you here today! Hoppy Easter. I am always reminded of how mis-understood this holiday is, a Christian story of Jesus resurrection to heaven overlaid upon millennia of Pagan rites of Springs. Indeed the goddess Eostre, for whom this holiday was originally named was a Germanic goddess of the dawn and new beginnings, whose mascot was the hare, or bunny, known for its mating fecundity. Eggs and chocolate represent fertility and sweetness of life and the lamb, so traditional at Easter dinner is a reminder that a sacrifice of the old must be made to herald the new. Still it can be confusing especially to a preschooler. At one church preschool the teacher asked if anyone knew what Easter was about. One little boy raised his hand…4th of July….Turkey, Thanksgiving…. Presents, Christmas, “anyone?” Little UU girl raised her hand. Easter is when Jesus died was buried in the tomb and on the third day the stone was rolled away and if he saw his shadow there would be four more weeks of winter.
More seriously, Easter is about rolling away the stone of the winter in our souls and seeing the blessing of a new day. For many here this Easter is especially powerful… life is a hard winter and it’s not over yet. We need a new day, we need a new beginning, we need hope as promised. And we need to bless the world with all the hope we can find.
Hope is a tremendously grand idea but as slippery as a catfish on a hot summer day. We all want hope but most of us don’t have a clue as to how we “get” it. We face lives full of struggles at worst and mediocrity at best. So I start today with my first observation which is that hope is not something you get. Like the Spirit, like spirituality, hope is not owned by us but within us. You can be having a tremendously bad day and all of sudden someone says something or does something for you and you feel it: hope. Somehow it’s going to be o.k.
Hope owns us. As such hope is not something we pursue but something we create the conditions for. It is how we can create the conditions for hope in our lives and in our world that will be the focus of my sermon. It is said in the Christian story that on this day the great stone of the tomb was rolled away and the tomb was empty, Jesus having risen to a new day, blessing us all with his message. How many of us long for the stones of our pain to be rolled away. Today, I offer you stones of hope which we might roll away. Stones that I hope we will help uncover for others as well. How can we find hope when hope is hard to find? “Revolutions” wrote Jean Jacques Rousseau “are born of hope not despair.” What is hope? I take hope to be the belief that conditions will change. That’s it: the belief that conditions will change for the better. What a revolutionary idea!
“Hope is not a matter of knowing that everything will turn out all right. It is more like directing your life toward a point on the horizon beyond which you can see, but toward which we all have to journey if there is to be any worthwhile future for any of us.” (John Buerhens Our Chosen Faith p.201)
So let’s start by looking for that far point on the horizon. Our first touchstone this Easter. The point starts with the self-reference that we are worthy of that journey. It is our first principle: “We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” In other words, we believe that everyone is entitled to hope. But are they? What was once said about Christianity could be said of us, “Its not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, its that it has been hardly tried” at least in the radical sense that Jesus taught; the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I ask you today can we really say that everyone has inherent worth?
I believe we all have the potential of that worth. But it depends on how far out that horizon we want to set our sights. Throughout my ministry I have tended to set my sights pretty far out… sometimes a little too far out. When I was ordained over twenty years ago I wanted to change the world. After a few years of tending to the hurt and the needs of the world, I thought I could just change my congregation. As my work has deepened with the congregations I have served, perhaps my sight is set on just changing myself. My point on the horizon, that point of hope I see is still far away; I dream of PUC as more diverse, more able to help those in need… but more importantly, my point of hope has moved into me as well. How can I get through this day? How can any of us facing financial problems, job loss, disease, failed relationship get beyond just today?
My second touchstone of hope is to live right here and now. I often said that being a parent and a minister are the best antidotes for despair. Just when I think I can’t go on, one of you or one of our children will share some great story and I will remember why we are in this together. Likewise, just when I get too full of myself, one of you, my beloved people, will remind me of a mistake or a misjudgment.
I think then this Easter that the third touchstone of hope is to forgive yourself. It is said that while Jesus was dying on the cross he uttered “forgive them father for they know not what they do” but I think it is closer to Mark’s version “Adonai, Adonai, why have you forsaken me?” Who amongst us hasn’t felt forsaken? Left for dead; ignored, forgotten, the world going by without noticing we are even gone. The great power of the Christian Easter story is that we come down off that cross of self – crucifixion. To be laid in the cool of a tomb, not dead but ready to re-live life again. And what pulls those nails out of our wounds? Forgiveness, most especially for yourself. Is this the day, this Easter day when you make that call? Reach out to those we love, be human again. Human, humus, humility, humorous.
Michael Eselun, a UU chaplain at UCLA talks about just how powerful and humbling it can be to live in the here and now, even as the universe conspires to bring us meaning. In a previous life he was a professional dancer. One day he ran into the husband of a friend at Disney Hall. Literally. This man was blind and Michael helped him find his way and asked if by any chance he was married to Jenny his friend. “I am” Said the man “and she’s here”. They connected and talked about old times. Michael asked about another fellow dancer Sarah. Jenny said “yes, we still talk.” Michael asked Jenny to pass along his number which she did. A week of so later Sarah called Michael. “How are you Sarah?” Michael asked “Not doing so well” said Sarah, “My sister is quite sick in L.A. with cancer and won’t talk to any of us.” “Where is she?” asked Michael “She is at UCLA on the tenth floor.” Which just so happens to be Michael’s hospital and his floor. She had refused to talk with Michael the day before but now he would see her again. Humbled by the synchronicity. Michael implores all of us to live in the present and be open to the universe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGXXKg0lq5g
To touch the stones of hope is to affirm the inherent worth of all people and thereby create the conditions for hope to grow. One person told me, “hey I screwed up, I made some bad choices, and the world is reminding me just how bad those are. But what I didn’t need was to come to my church and be judged. I just needed to be accepted.” Acceptance is my fourth touchstone. At least within the confines of our sacred ground here. There is plenty of judgment out there. Here, today, this day of resurrection, I say we accept you. Come as you are, and let the holy spirit do the rest.
Who hasn’t been judged? I was always last to be picked for teams as a kid. I imagine that more than a few of you know that feeling pretty intensely. Being told that you are ugly or fat or stupid over and over again as a child is a rejection of your worth and ground zero for despair. How many of us in therapy know that you have to begin at the beginning? We go all the way back to find where we lost the will to love, be loved. We go all the way back to the beginning to find out that for whatever reason we weren’t affirmed. And we have been working at ever since.
Rabbi David Wolpe says that “we live lives of successively shed hopes”. We want to be rich, but we are not. We want to be thin but we not. We learn that we can’t have what we want, but, as the Rolling Stones put it, we usually get what we need. And hopefully over the long haul we learn the lesson that Churchill put it so wisely that we “make a living by what we get and a life by what we give.” But we will only learn that if we have a choice.
And we do have a choice, in some ways the simplest choice of all, the choice to let go and let the Spirit of love do its work. “Let go and let God” goes the old saying. Even if you don’t believe in God, just let go and let your universe unfold. This is my fifth and final touchstone this Easter morning, to touch and let go. We have been facing some tough times these last few years. Our saving grace, our mantra, beyond all the things we are supposed to be doing, patiently listening, taking a fearless inventory, regular walks and home cooked meals is to just let go. To look at each day and say, today the sun has risen, today we have a home, today we have children well and growing, today we have this church, this “golden egg of a church” as Frances reminds me. Today we let go into the arms of each other. Isn’t that resurrection enough?
So here we are at the beginning. The real beginning, beginning with each of you. Do you feel worthy to be alive? I do hope so. I do know that sometimes it’s enough to just pick up the trash off the floor of your self and not to worry about given yourself the white glove test of emotional stability. Sometimes getting out of your self is the best thing you can do. And that is a blessing unto the world.
Remember this Easter as my colleague, teacher and good friend, Ed Harris, taught me that “everything is small”. Ultimately every lesson, every change, every condition we create for hope starts out small and grows collectively. What are you going to do, today, right now, this week, after this Sunday to work on some worth in your life? It might not be what you do for yourself but perhaps what you do for someone you know. This is the heart of our faith as Unitarian Universalists. The Unitarians seeking the unity of the Spirit in all and the Universalists extending that love outward.
We worship today in some hopeful company. Such Unitarians as Beatrix Potter who had just a miserable life. Beaten by her father, sheltered in almost slave like conditions. She managed to express her self worth, and garner her hope in writing fanciful children’s stories. Ever read those stories? They are a study in the varieties of human existence, good and bad. But they are also expressions of innocence and beauty. What probably began as a desperate expression of self, became a study in hope.
Our great Universalist P.T. Barnum, whose circus fortune helps to finance ministerial training even today. His irascible wit and sharp skepticism belied his warm heart and generous hand. He not only bailed out dissents but helped the poor. He blessed the world with hope. And he went bankrupt many times doing it.
I want to close with a little story. A true story that I was a part of years ago as a seminarian. I was in my final year of seminary and completing my chaplaincy training at a hospital in South Bend, IN. There I met a beautiful woman who I will call Mary. Mary was a stoke victim, paralyzed on one side by a terrible stroke. When I knocked on her door and introduced myself as a student chaplain, she just shook her head and slurred out words in a thick southern Georgia accent. “Might as well give me the last rights, preacher, I ain’t for this world much more.” At least she had a sense of humor. We talked or I should say I listened as Mary recounted her beautiful rich life. One of ten children born to a poor African American sharecropper in Georgia. She had moved up north and had raised six children of her own. She had 14 grandchildren. She loved her family, who I would meet over the coming weeks and her church. Although I probably should have spread my time around I found myself visiting with Mary as often as I could. Despite the tremendous severity of her stroke she was slowly regaining her strength and mobility.
It was a grand day for her and the whole unit when she walked out of the hospital and went home. I felt great and hopeful. That hope was to be short lived. A week later I went to visit her at home, something I almost never did, to find her despondent and sad. After much prodding I learned that she had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was depressed and I was angry. Where was the fairness in this I yelled at God? Why is this happening? She was so sad she told me that she would only buy yellow bananas, “because who knows how long I will live?”
But Mary never really gave up, she thought too much of herself to do that. Besides she had all these grandkids to love. In time she managed to live as well as she could for the last months of her life. I visited when I could but in the end, we came to the end. As she lay dying I came to see her one last time. Her huge family was there and we were all crying. We prayed and laughed and tried to make the best of it. As I turned to go she called me back, “Rev. John” she said “you know just before I got so sick I had to come back to the hospital, I bought some green bananas. I suppose they’ve gone bad by now.” Overwhelmed at her hope I struggled to say something and in the end said, “at least you bought them Mary, at least you bought them.” And with that I was gone.
We will bless the world through the smallest actions; to set your sights on a farther horizon, while living in the here and now, to forgive yourself, accept others and let go. Our task will be to look for where we can make it grow. It was Emily Dickinson, another great Unitarian that wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” May we all find that perch. May we find resurrection today and always. Amen.