Again!

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan Milnor
April 16, 2017

It's spring! Can you embrace the sheer glory of it, made all the more astonishing for coming each year again? Just when it seemed this winter would never end, the signs on Plum Island broke out. Goldfinches in their brilliant yellow springtime best. A gentle breeze instead of howling gales. Buds finally ready to burst.

After living for two years in the heart of New York City, I have found uncompromised joy in seeing spring so closely, though I have needed some reeducation. One morning, upon hearing a sustained chirping, I warned my husband, "The smoke alarm battery must be low." He looked at me strangely and said, "It's birds singing." 

Today is also Easter. On this holiest of days in the Christian tradition, the story goes, Jesus, who had been executed by the Roman Empire for treason two days earlier, came alive again. Three faithful women, Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, and Salome, bring spices to the cave to anoint his body. To their amazement, the stone is rolled away, and Jesus is gone. When an angelic young stranger tells them the women they will see him again, they are terrified. Sure enough, in the days to come he appears to them and to the disciples again, though sometimes in unrecognizable form, and their hearts are filled with hope.

We Unitarian Universalists tend to find our miracles in the holy common of everyday life, like the rebirth of spring. And our tradition has long focused more on the life of Jesus – his humility and compassion, his courage and prophecy -- and his teachings -- love your neighbor – than on his death. But there is something powerful in the story of resurrection because without human rebirth, how would we be here today? Surely, most of us have endured Good Fridays yet survived to hope and love again. I, at least, can say that twice I have felt life was so shattered and my outlook so dark that it was as if I had been sealed away from the light. As my colleague Victoria Safford writes, "Choose whatever word you need – surprising, unanticipated, lucky. . . but we have known despair, some of us, and deep discouragement, some of us, and discord of mind and heart. . . and we have felt, perhaps when we least expected to feel anything at all, . . . something very small and tight within us begin to swell and open up . . . love lives again." Again!

Everyday stories of such rebirth appear before us if we but recognize them. In 2010 Ed O'Leary's doctor told him to buy a burial plot because he would be dead in five years. It sounds harsh, but the physician was trying to startle O'Leary into valuing his own life, which had, in some ways, been left untended. He was carrying too much weight, had out of control diabetes, and was spending $1000 a month on drugs. More importantly, he had become uncomfortable around other people: living in an isolated bubble, he interacted with no one outside of work. In his own words, he had "stopped living." 

At his doctor's instructions, he saw a nutritionist, who gave him surprising advice. Go to the Humane Society and adopt a dog from the Mutual Rescue program. O'Leary was skeptical, but he went and said he wanted a middle-aged, obese dog so that they would have something in common. So it was that Peety, a dog who had been confined to one tomb-small space and then abandoned, came into his life. Out of necessity, O'Leary began to walk Peety every day, and yes, both he and Peety lost weight and grew healthier. He also started to talk to other dog walkers. Most transforming of all, despair fled in the amazing face of his new friend's unconditional love. "He looked at me as thought I was the greatest person on the planet," Eric says. "I decided that I wanted to be the person he thought I was." 

Eric O'Leary experience a rebirth: he re-appeared in the world to love life once more. Now, he runs marathons, and his heart has opened. Inevitably, Peety reached the end of his life, and when he died, O'Leary mourned him. "I think about it now," he says, "and I wonder, who rescued whom?" But take heart, friends, love and companionship are born again in this story too. Six months later Eric adopted Jake, and they trained to do a half marathon together.

A person can live again! And if personal transformation is possible, then the rebirth of purpose and meaning can happen as well. Think about the disciples. After Jesus' death, they were in despair, not only because they grieved for him, but because the hope he had brought suddenly seemed gone. As we reflected on last week, Jesus grew up a peasant among peasants, whose land and livelihoods had been taken by their oppressors. It's fair to say they existed in a virtual tomb of lost opportunity and ever present fear. Jesus invited them to bring again a kingdom of justice and dignity, as they had had with King David. And he also embodied unconditional love and profound compassion for human beings, particularly those who had been discarded even within the ranks even of his own people. When they lost Jesus, the disciples lost heart. Yet he re-appeared, at least in their memories and hearts, and they began to see that the message and the love were now theirs to carry. They knew that hope could live again.

Because spring comes, and because of Jesus and others whose witness still inspires us, my own faith resides in the power of love to survive living death and the hope for justice to emerge from wrong. I believe in it for people like James L. Eleby Jr., who had spent much of his life in detention or behind bars and desperately needed a new way. Then he found, of all things, an organization called Re-foundry. As Eleby's kids rooted for him, Re-foundry gave him the skills to take pieces of rejected wood and metal and design and build handsome, unique tables. I love the way he describes it: "I bring trash or garbage back to life." His tables are not perfect: they have blemishes, scratches, dents, and they are thus evidence that we can "value the story in every piece of furniture and in each of us." Due to the compassion of human beings who are willing to love unconditionally the potential in others, he found his new way. 

The Easter message is as clear as the signs of spring, and it can even be framed as a question. What would happen if we looked at people caught in tombs of hopelessness and despair as the greatest people on the planet, waiting to become whole? What would happen if we saw the story in every human being who has been discarded by uncaring systems and unlucky circumstances? What would happen if we could tap the god within us capable of caring for each other no matter who we are? 

On this Easter, and on every other day of our lives, may we look for the rebirth of life in each sunrise of the heart. And when we need it most, may it surprise us with its power and its hope yet once again. Happy Easter! 

Copyright 2017 Susan Milnor 

 

Sources
LeVitt, Danny. “More Than Just A Second Chance, Refoundry Helps Former Inmates Create A Career. blyner.com, November 2, 2015. Web, 2017. 
Safford, Victoria. “Did the Sun Come Up This Morning?,” Walking Toward Morning: Meditations. Boston: Skinner House. 2003.
Shute, Nancy. “He Rescued A Dog, Then the Dog Rescued Him.” npr.org, March 10, 2016. Web. 2017.