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RESISTING PRAISING MARVELOUS THINGS

A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter isn’t a holiday that makes much sense, really. Culturally, it’s celebrated in a strange and curious manner. First off, we should pause here to bring into our minds Easter’s mascot: a bunny; but not just any bunny, the Easter bunny lays eggs.

Now I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm. Living through the depression inspired in them a taste for rabbit, which is a vile meat in my opinion. So, in my lifetime I’ve shot and cleaned any number of rabbits and I can’t recall, for the life of me, ever finding one hiding eggs. Whoever it was that thought up a candy-egg laying bunny probably did so the morning after attending a Led Zeppelin concert.

I’ve loved Easter since childhood, mostly because I’d wake up to a basket filled with candy. Aside from Christmas, it was a glorious morning in which I was allowed to consume candy for breakfast. The tradeoff, however, was that I was required to wear an Easter outfit.

This might sound harmless to many of you, but where I’m from when young boys dress in their Sunday best they look like they walked off the set of Bonanza. So, somewhere, there are 16 or so pictures of me wearing a collared shirt with a vest, snakeskin cowboy boots, and stonewashed dungarees so tight even the Easter bunny did a double take.

As much as I’d like to say I’ve moved on from this pageantry I haven’t. My daughter woke up this morning to a bunny-delivered basket filled with candy; and yes, my wife and I let her have candy for breakfast. And later we’ll force her to pose in her Easter outfit. Some things are too sweet to change.

I certainly hated them as a child, but I’ve grown quite fond of the rituals and seasonal celebrations my family took so seriously. My mom still sends a shirt or a tie around Easter; some habits defy the maxim and never die.

As I recall, the second half of Easter morning began in a place just like this: in church.

Wearing my Sunday best my grandma marched my grandfather and I up the street to the dilapidated Baptist church with a school attached. The church was so traditional they wouldn’t allow any instruments to be played on Sundays, so we’d have to sing all the hymns a cappella.

The old minister usually dozed in a chair on the chancel until it was his turn to read the scriptures. He’d usually spend several minutes trying to find that morning’s passage. In the meantime, rather than waste the moment, my grandmother used it as opportunity to clean my face and restyle my hair.

So, like a cat, she’d lick her index finger and wipe the chocolate streaks off my cheeks; and then she’d slap the back of my head for trying to pull away; and finally, midway into the boring old minister’s message she’d pinch the back of my neck when I started to squirm.

After church my grandpa would waddle his way back home in his Bonanza outfit to get a head start on his afternoon beer drinking contest, of which we was the only contestant because he hated losing; meanwhile, my grandma and I would walk down to the St. Francis River where she’d sit on the bank smoking as I skipped stones and swam around in my underwear.

I asked her one of those Easter Sundays if she really believed what the old preacher told us about coming back from the dead and being reunited with our families and friends. My grandma nearly choked to death and shouted back at me, “God, I sure hope not!”

The idea of the resurrection isn’t supposed to be easy to comprehend. It’s supposed to get our attention. Nobody who’s heard or read the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is supposed to buy it hook, line, and sinker without first lingering for a time in faith’s best friend, doubt.

Many people, and I think it safe to assume most Unitarian Universalists, never leave that period of doubt. And who can blame them? I’ve stood vigil with many people as they died. And never, not even once have I seen someone get up after a physician has pronounced someone to be dead. But that’s just the science in me talking, and science is a method, not a rationale. Let me explain.

When I was a hospital chaplain I often asked the families of people who were dying what mattered to them in the end.

Most everyone wanted their loved one to be pain and anxiety free; and all of them wanted their loved one to know that they love them no matter what, and that all the things they didn’t get around to doing, like fixing the sink or paying off the MasterCard will get worked out one way or another.

But there were also a lot of people who said with no small degree of certainty that even though they were sad and in mourning they knew they would see their loved one again in the sweet by and by, as the old hymn goes.

I can’t say for certain if there is a by and by, nor can I comment on its sweetness. When I first started working as a chaplain I was more concerned about protecting my own beliefs about life and death. But over time I got to where I’d ask those nearing death to say “Hi” to my grandmother for me. I’d ask them to tell her I love and miss her very much.

And I’ll admit that part of me did so because I was worried my grandma might get word I was talking with all these people headed her way and not sending along a message. Part of me asked those people for insurance purposes. I didn’t want to start my eternity in heaven with the back of my head being smacked or my neck being pinched.

But don’t let my reminiscing cloud my respect and awareness of the depth of seriousness and reverence Easter invokes, and rightly so.

This holiday is so special it demands an observance of Lent, a full forty days of sacrifice in order to fully participate in it. Just this past Monday a group of people carried a cross from church to church, stopping for a moment in the very pews you’re resting in. They walked through the cold rain when they could have been home, warm and dry, watching the reruns of The Golden Girls.

Instead they gave up a couple hours of their free time to follow in Jesus’s path, stopping for a moment in a Universalist congregation to hear a kind song and listen to some clergyman try his hardest to make sense of something so utterly strange as life and death and their shared meaning.

The writer Marilynne Robinson writes that the Easter “narrative fractures the continuities of history. It becomes so beautiful as to acquire a unique authority, a weight of meaning history cannot approach.”
The narrative of history is fractured because the story doesn’t rest its authority upon history or science or reason; Easter, like Christmas, rests its authority on the story itself.

What gives the stories their verve and authority is that they’ve been told and retold, doubted and believed by millions, billions even. Furthermore, Easter has, in many families, a life of its own, just like Christmas.

I’ve known both of those stories for as long as I can remember. And trust me when I say that doubt has been no stranger to my regard for either of them. But that’s never stopped my heart from melting at the sight of a manger in front of the local Catholic church; or the sight of a Christmas tree all aglow, shining through someone’s living room window.

Part of me has always welcomed winter and the changing of the seasons. But another part of me looks forward to the sadness and joy and the sweet memories that flood my mind as Christmas approaches.

And Easter is no different. The sight of bunny eggs and neon colored baskets brings spring to my mind. The smell of hay sends me right back to my grandpa’s barn. Wet earth brings me right back to my grandma’s victory garden. And the smell of cigarette smoke mixed with Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume can put me right back on my grandma’s porch, passing binoculars back and forth, spying on the neighbor boy as he and his girlfriend made out on the bed of his pickup truck.

I welcome these memories because they punctuate others in me that only invoke sorrow and pain. Memory comes back to us in magical ways, in sights and sounds, in feels and smells; there are some memories recalled so vividly I could all but swear I’d been reborn right in the midst of it. Which brings me right back to the topic at hand: Easter.

Easter’s a tough sell because at the heart of the story is a miracle. The dictionary defines a miracle as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” For some people, miracles are just another part of life; some people even pray for miracles. And of those people who pray for miracles some get them, and others don’t.

Other people disbelieve miracles due to their lack a scientific explanation. These people put their hope in luck or chance; and, among those people, some are lucky while others aren’t.

But belief in luck or miracles has their risks and rewards, right? I assume benefiting from luck is pretty sweet. But I also assume that getting a miracle is pretty sweet, too. Either way, I think it’s safe to assume the joy and awe one feels after coming away with a bunch of luck or a miracle is likely quite similar.

Whether someone prayed or crossed their fingers before surgery, my guess is they’ll be delighted to wake from the anesthesia to learn they’ll live to see another sunrise. And whether you said five Hail Mary’s or rubbed Buddha’s belly won’t matter all that much once the storm blows over and your house is still standing. Either way, waking up from surgery or surviving a storm is pretty awesome regardless of whom you choose to give credit to.

There are some things in life that just demand praise. If you don’t believe me, take the first left in most any Target store to find the proof. Human beings like to praise a lot of things: birthdays, getting well, post-surgery, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Groundhog’s Day, Graduations, memorials and funerals, St. Patrick’s, age 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and god help them, age 100; I saw a card that celebrated the day someone’s divorce is finalized. Humankind, a thinking animal no doubt, is perhaps better understood as a praising animal.

If I still haven’t convinced you that humankind is a praising animal, then take an hour or two and watch some of those YouTube videos of soldiers returning home from war, or high schoolers getting college acceptance letters, or kids getting hearing aids for the first time, or when, atop overpasses and along street sides, entire communities gather to salute a police officer who’s been killed in the line of duty.

We do this out of respect, of course. But also, we do this because there is something more to life what we can explain with science and reason.

There is something utterly marvelous about us earthbound bipeds. In an ever-expanding universe, with the best equipment science can offer, the only life we’ve found that is truly noteworthy is ours, right here.

That diverse people throughout the planet have devised stories to help make sense of this cosmic mystery fills me with awe and wonder. It is that same creative spirit of discovery that’s inspired humankind to eradicate diseases, form effective governments, and sow peace; that a few of those ancient people envisioned reincarnation and eternal life is just another example of the splendidness of humankind’s ingenuity.

Whenever I struggle with an idea or a concept I have a habit of wanting to read the source material for myself. This is called researching primary source materials for all you high school seniors sitting in the pews.

In the case of Easter, the primary source material is the Bible, specifically the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We heard from Mark this morning, the earliest of the recorded Gospels. Mark’s Gospel is the most Spartan of the four. It’s all work and no play. It’s the CliffsNotes version of Jesus’s life. Jesus is raw in Mark, spitting in the dust and rubbing mud in peoples’ eyes. Matthew’s Jesus is similar to Mark’s, but with a bit more polish, save the mud. John portrays a militant Jesus marching boldly to his death, certain of his divinity. I’ve always been partial to Luke’s though. Luke, so we’re told, is a physician and historian, and his narrative reflects his refinement, coming across clean and precise, and the book in which the best Christmas and Easter stories are found.

In Luke we’re told that after Jesus dies a man named Joseph traveled from afar to lift Jesus’s body from the cross, tenderly wrapping him in a cloth, and laying him to rest in a tomb.

Jesus’s mother and friend, both named Mary, accompanied the man until the door of the tomb was sealed shut, with the body clearly inside.

All the next day, Mary and Mary prepared a memorial for their friend and son. But by the time they got back they found that the door was rolled open and the tomb sat empty. Two angels inform the women of Jesus’s resurrection; filled with excitement, the women run to tell their friends.

And in that very moment two of Jesus’s posse was walking together, to a village called Emmaus, crying and talking about their dear friend.

And wouldn’t you know it, walking the opposite way on that same road was Jesus. Why he was walking back to the town he’d been murdered in we’ll never know. What Luke tells us is that the two friends didn’t recognize their friend. And who would, who expects to see the dead after they’re gone?

Jesus, doing what anyone would do in this circumstance, capitalized on his friends’ ignorance and plays along, acting like he’s just some random dude walking along the road.

So, the three of them walked the rest of the way together into the evening, talking and arguing and reminiscing as friends do.

The two Apostles, still not recognizing their friend, invite the man in for supper. According to the story, the stranger in their midst blessed the meal and they broke bread together. And in that simple act of sharing a meal they recognized their friend. But as soon as they did he disappeared; and all that remained was a burning in their hearts. I assume the burning they felt in their hearts was love. What else could it have been?

Hours later, with all his friends gathered, Jesus eats one last meal with them. And finally, at the end of the celebration he turns to his friends and says that each of them is a gift; and then he rises from his seat, blesses them, and disappears forever.

What I find so endearing about this story is that within the sadness and the longing there is friendship and, I assume, laughter. My guess is that Jesus’s friends would have been together eating whether he showed up or not. They were probably gathered to memorialize their friend anyways.

Put yourself in the driver’s seat for just a moment: What would you do if in the first moments after you die you wake up to find out you’ve got a few hours to do whatever it is you want? Really, what would you do? Would you settle an old score? Would you scare your neighbor’s dogs? Would you take a trip to the Louvre or the pyramids? I doubt it.

You’d probably do what Jesus did: You’d mess with your friends’ head, you’d play a few practical jokes, and you’d get them to serve you a delicious home cooked meal; and then you’d sit down and enjoy every last moment of it; and when it came time to clean up you’d dine and dash.

Jesus shows up one last time to share a meal with his family. At the meal’s end we’re told he raises his hands and blesses them. So, in the end, we’re left an image of a man telling his family he loves them; and then he disappears.

The story fractures the narrative of history because it’s about love. Love is that strange thing that is both tangible and just out of reach. Love isn’t rational; it’s logical or scientific.

Sometimes love is evoked by a trace of cigarette smoke and White Diamonds perfume; or by the sound of an infant crying; or in the pews of an old church. Sometimes love is found in the pain of loss and absence, or in the feel of dirt after a spring rain.

Love is there in the laughter and jokes we play. It’s there when we spy it through binoculars kissing on the back of a pickup truck, and when we give baskets of candy delivered by an egg-laying bunny.

Whether by miracle or luck, Easter is a day that asks us to believe there will be love in the end. Happy Easter, dear friends; Amen.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, “Wondrous Love,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 127.