Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fully Alive

Fully Alive

A Sermon by the Rev. Connie Yost
preached on Easter at the UU Fellowship of McMinnville

As some of you know, I love to travel.  I just returned from a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, where my nephew was married.  It was a beautiful wedding at a fancy restaurant in the old historic city.  The city, which I had not visited since I was 10 years old, is a truly gracious and lovely place.  At this time of the year, the azaleas and dogwoods were blooming with glorious color, and the wisteria grew wild up the trees in the forest.

Weddings and spring are surely signs of hope and life.  It was the first wedding both sets of parents had experienced, and the mothers, especially, were ecstatic.  Being the slightly eccentric old auntie, I decided to go ahead and ask my nephew the question we all were dying to ask:  “Are you and Becca going to have kids?”  My sister and I waited in hopeful anticipation as my nephew cleared his throat and announced, “Becca says the official answer is ‘We hate kids’” but he was smiling so I knew that this was not true.  He went on to explain that they wanted to get a house first, get out of the inner city of Washington DC where they live, and then – yes, maybe then we will have kids, he said.  OR, I suggested, it could happen the old-fashioned way – SURPRISE!

 Well, that’s life, isn’t it?  SURPRISE!  And we are!  For some reason, most of us are surprised when stuff happens that is out of our control.  Whether a good thing or not, it takes us a while to grapple with the things that happen to us.

The English novelist E.M. Forster said this:  “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

I think that is what being fully alive is all about.  It is about making a life that is yours, given all the peculiar circumstances of your life, passions and talents, and all that happens to you.  

We have a lovely UU church in Charleston, the oldest of our churches in the south.  It, like many of the old churches in the historic district has a graveyard attached to it.  I love graveyards anyway, but this one was especially attractive with Spanish moss hanging down from the branches of the live oaks.  Many of the old graves were hard to read, but I saw one from the early 1800’s that said the person had died suddenly, at 27 years old.  “Be ye ready” it warned.

Be ye ready.  I have thought a lot about that.  Be ye ready.

Ready to die?  Or ready to live?

It occurs to me that the way to be ready to die is to be fully alive.  To be fully alive is to live a life to the best of your ability.  To be fully alive is to fulfill the passions and truth of your being.  We may or may not be ready to die when death comes for us, but each day we get a new opportunity to live, to greet the day with new hope, new courage, and new opportunity to be all of who we really are.

Last Sunday, I attended the Circular Church, United Church of Christ or UCC, in Charleston, an open and affirming worshipping community founded in 1681.   Now you are probably wondering why I did not go to the UU church, and I have a good reason.  There was a family brunch scheduled for 10 am, so I had to find a church that had an early service as the UU church service was at 10:30 am. 

UCC churches tend to be very liberal and inclusive, but they do celebrate their Christian heritage more than we do.  The Circular Church proclaims that “Our faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, whom we endeavor to follow in the radical way of progressive Christianity. That is, we believe the Bible is truthful but not literal, that God is a living Presence but not a dominating white man in the sky, that Jesus is a person of the Spirit and of saving wisdom but not a sacrifice to an offended God.”

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday and the Circular Church was celebrating the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  On that day, the story goes, the people lined the road and adorned him with palms.  At the church, little children walked up and down the aisles waving palms as we sang “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna.”  Seeing the little children with their bright and hopeful eyes waving the palms, I could feel how it must have felt for those that greeted Jesus. 

We do not know for sure what happened the day Jesus entered Jerusalem.  We know he did go there with his disciples to celebrate Passover, but current scholarship shows that if he was actually proclaiming himself to be the Messiah as some of the Gospels claim, he would have been arrested on the spot by the Romans.  We know that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem later that week, a cruel and humiliating fate the Romans reserved for criminals and others considered to be enemies of the political order.  But according to the story in the Gospels, this humiliating defeat was overcome three days later when Jesus rose from the dead.  This is the traditional Easter story.

I grew up as a Missouri Synod Lutheran, which to this day is one of the most conservative branches of Lutheranism.  Easter was a big deal in our family.  We sewed our Easter outfits and went to church decked out in matching hats, gloves and shoes.  We hunted for eggs too, and my brother always tried to bite off the ears of my chocolate bunny.  But even as a kid, I knew that Easter was a celebration of life.  Growing up in Seattle, it was not hard to see that spring and new life had arrived.  My father, an avid gardener, filled our yard with blooming plants, and it was always the daffodils and crocus blooming that to me so joyously signaled the end of winter.

I guess as a child I just accepted the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  I liked to think about the grieving women coming to the tomb and finding it empty.  I liked the disciples not recognizing Jesus when he was among them.  I liked their sadness being turned into joy when they realized that Jesus indeed had risen and lived among them as a spiritual presence.  I think to a kid the miraculous is always plausible and I did not worry about whether Jesus had a physical body anymore or not.

In a way, not much has changed for me.  I still love the Easter story.  I love the image and metaphor of life rising out of death.  Jesus continues to inspire and nurture me, not as the Savior as I was taught in Lutheran Sunday School, but as a powerful spiritual presence who preached and embodied love and hope and healing and justice.

Jesus was, of course, a Jew.  That is forgotten by a lot of Christians today.  He came to Jerusalem allegedly on a donkey at the time of the Passover, the Jewish festival which commemorates the liberation of the Jews by God from slavery in ancient Egypt.  Passover, like Easter, celebrates new hope and new life.  Some of you may have experienced the Seder dinner which involves ritually telling the story of the liberation, drinking and eating foods which have symbolic significance, reflecting on the story of this liberation and finally celebrating their freedom.  I had the privilege of participating in a Seder dinner at my church – First Unitarian in Portland – last night.

In Charleston, it was not hard to find reminders of slavery and the Civil War.  I went on a plantation tour and we talked about how the slaves lived and worked on that land.  The plantation owners promised the slaves a permanent resting place there, and I walked among the unmarked graves thinking that in many ways, the inequality between the rich and poor has not changed nearly enough.  At the Atlanta airport, I paused to look at the display outlining the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.   At the Circular Church, I noticed that all of the children were white except for 1 little black boy, and 1 little Hispanic boy.  I heard a story on NPR that said that desegregation efforts in the South are actually going backwards as courts fail to uphold older court-ordered desegregation mandates.

I do not believe that Jesus had a bodily resurrection.  Some scholars say that he probably did not have a burial at all, but we do not know that for sure.  In any event, it is not hard for me to imagine that those who loved him were in shock over the horrible chain of events that rapidly culminated in his crucifixion.  I can imagine that they thought about him, dreamed about him, and even thought that they heard him or saw him. 

The important point is that Jesus lived and died and is not forgotten.  For me and many people, whether Christian or not, his life and teachings remain a source of inspiration.  For me, Jesus was advocating for a world in which poverty and injustice did not exist.  Jesus ministered to the outcast, the poor, the oppressed, those that suffered and were “the least of these.”  Jesus reminds us that we are all worthy and that “the kingdom of God” is one of love, compassion, and justice for all.

The black minister Howard Thurman, who was a mentor to Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this about the Easter season:

The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit. It is a good song, measured to a rhythm to which I am bound by ties of habit and timidity of mind. The words belong to old experiences which once sprang fresh as water from a mountain crevice fed by melting snows. But my life has passed beyond to other levels where the old songs are meaningless. I demand of the old song that it meet the need of present urgencies. Also, I know that the work of the old song, perfect in its place, is not for the new demand! …

I will sing a new song to Thee, O God.

Howard Thurman reminds us that even in our lifetime the old passes away and we need to find a new song for the new phase of our life.  The Easter story reminds us that even in death, the words and actions of love, kindness, compassion and justice live on in the hearts and minds of those who received them, often for generations to come.

On this glorious Easter Day, let us celebrate life and all that it offers us individually and as a community.  We all experience losses in life which are a deathlike experience.  But I believe that life is always calling us forward, even through the loss and grief.  No matter what our physical, mental or financial capabilities may be, I believe there is always a way that we can participate in repairing the world – what the Jews call Tikun Olam.  We start with ourselves.  What hope, love and healing can you offer yourself?  What calls you to greater life and love?  How can you offer hope, healing and love to your neighbor and your community? 

Let us ready our hearts and minds for prayer and meditation.

Spirit of life and love, we celebrate all the new life we see in nature today.  Some of us are sad because of a loss or disappointment in our life.  Be with us now in our grief, sustain us and support us when we feel alone or overwhelmed or unsure of what we can or should do.  Help us to feel that spark of new life and creativity that calls to us.  Help us to discern what makes us feel truly alive, and give us the strength and courage to trust the depth of our passions and talents.

Spirit of life and love, we know you call us to deep compassion for one another, the environment and all living beings.  Help us to continue the struggle for justice even when it seems hopeless.  Our hope lies in doing what we can, however small it may seem.


Copyright 2014  Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved