Come Easter Us!

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 04/05/2015

Marked by Ashes
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the Day…
This day – a gift from you
This day – like none other you have ever given,
Or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day,
For we are already halfway home
Halfway back to committees and memos
Halfway back to calls and appointments,
Halfway on to next Sunday,
Halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
Half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
But all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes –
We begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
Of failed hope and broken promises,
Of forgotten children and frightened women,
Of more war casualties, more violence, more cynicism;
We are ourselves ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust;
We can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
Some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
Anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you-
You Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
Mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

[We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.]

So today we’re talking a bit about ashes, and a bit about Easter, and kind of comparing the two. It’s like we’ve got ashes on the one hand and Easter on the other. What is that all about?

It would be helpful to know or to remember the Easter story to see why those two things are opposites, at least for today.

Most of you probably know that the Christian religion is constructed around the man named Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago in the Middle East. In the Christian story, Jesus is a wonderful Jewish man who is so close to God, so similar to God, that he can perform miracles, and heal the sick, even bring back the dead. This similarity to God, and these miracles, have made many people suggest that Jesus is God himself.

In his lifetime two thousand years ago, Jesus taught his people many lessons about how to get along with each other, how to live a good life, what is important and what is not, and so on. He taught these lessons so well that he developed quite a following, kind of like how a good teacher today might be really popular and start drawing large crowds of students and listeners. Jesus taught so many people so well that most of the people in charge back then started to get really nervous about him.

Imagine if that popular teacher in school started to tell all the students that all the regular things you’re supposed do in school didn’t really matter, that tests didn’t matter and staying in classrooms all day didn’t matter and having lunch at the same time every day didn’t matter, and the kids started listening to the teacher more than the principals or the other people in charge. If that happened nowadays, in a lot of schools, that teacher might lose their job – but back in Jesus’ time, the people in charge were used to killing people they didn’t like. And so, very unfairly and unfortunately, they killed Jesus.

This part of the story is not just what Christianity tells us, it’s also what historians tell us. There was a teacher named Jesus two thousand years ago who was crucified by the leadership of his day, which was the Roman Empire, in Jerusalem, which is now in Israel.

The Christian story doesn’t stop there, though, even though that is where the historical record stops. The Christian story goes on with a lot of detail, and says that Jesus was killed, and he died, and he was wrapped up in cloth and put in a tomb for safekeeping, with a big stone in front of the door to keep everyone out, and three days after Jesus died his friends went to the tomb to finish burying him and his body wasn’t there. The friends at first thought Jesus’ body had been taken away by the Romans, but they later came to find out that Jesus had been resurrected by God. That means he was brought back to life from the dead, which is quite the miracle indeed. We haven’t seen anything else like that happen.

And, according to the story, after he came back to life, Jesus spent some time on earth explaining to his followers, his students, that his resurrection meant that we human beings didn’t need to be afraid of death any more. He taught that we humans still do die, hopefully after a long and happy life, but Christians say we should know that death is not the end of things, because there is more beyond death – a time of reunion with God, with the Creator of all life.

A Christian theologian that I like named Frederick Buechner said that “resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” In this case, Jesus’ death, or our deaths, might be the worst thing, but according to the Easter story, there’s more to come: Jesus’ death, and our deaths, are not the final thing.

Now, there are Unitarian Universalists who definitely believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and there are Unitarian Universalists who definitely don’t, and some Unitarian Universalists who say they don’t know, and some Unitarian Universalists who don’t really care, and all of those are perfectly fine in Unitarian Universalism. You can make up your own mind about Jesus and the Christian story, and come and tell me what you think or ask questions or whatever you want to. I’ll be your proud minister no matter what you think about the resurrection.

The part that I want to talk about today is the more important part of the story. Because I don’t think whether or not the resurrection really happened is the important part of the story. What I think is the important part is the idea that the worst thing is not the last thing. That applies not only to Easter. That applies to everything we do.

I have a little secret to tell, like a confession. It feels a little weird to say in a UU church, but here it is…I am beginning to think that people are not very smart. Not you guys. You’re all very smart. But I’m talking a little bit about myself and mostly about the category of people in general. In general, people just aren’t very smart. Not as smart as Life itself, anyway.

And the reason I don’t think people are very smart is because of this: We decide what’s going on, way too soon. We also decide what’s good and what’s bad, way too soon. We rush to judgement without all the facts. People are the kind of people who look at dirt and seeds [like we saw this morning] and think, well, that’s it, if that’s all we got, everything is over. It’s just going to be dirt from here on in and who knows what these hard things are. And even though we know every year that spring is going to come – just like we know every night that morning is going to come – we get discouraged and depressed during the dark and cold and we lose our faith. We begin to see the world as a place full of ashes. We forget.

Here’s another way we aren’t very smart. Think of the prayer. Every day we wake up to a miracle world that is made perfectly for us to live in – or better to say, we are made perfectly to live in it. The earth makes the food that we have to have to eat. Forget that – the earth makes the air that we have to have to breathe, right now! I need to breathe right now! And again! And that’s here for free. And, just for the heck of it, the earth happens to also be beautiful while it gives us these things!

And instead of waking up each morning, in our comfy beds in our heated homes, and jumping up and down because we are so happy and so lucky, instead, we worry and we make up trouble – remember in the prayer, about how we have all the appointments and memos and we’re frazzled? - and we get all concerned because some time we are going to die, even though that day is a long way off for most probably every single one of us.

This is what people are like. We aren’t very smart – except for you guys. And that’s why we need to be reminded so often of what the world, what life, what creation, really is like. Some might say we need to be reminded of what God is really like.

We need to be reminded that morning breaks.
We need to be reminded that spring comes.
We need to be reminded that it is in our nature to turn towards Ash Wednesday. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But the worst thing is never the last thing.
We need to be reminded that Creation is full of possibilities, always. It is always changing, always new. Always. Even when – especially when – the worst of times seem to be upon us.

That’s why Christians use the word Victory so often on Easter. Because Easter is a victory of the way the world is over the way we thought it was. We’re not that smart. We get it wrong. We think the appointments and the frazzle is the way the world is. But it isn’t.

The worst thing is never the last thing. That’s why, in the prayer, Bruggemann prays for God to “come Easter us.” Show us, like Jesus does in the Easter story, show us how the worst thing is not the last thing. Show us there is something more. We can all use that reminder.

Let me tell you about a really weird situation in Montana. I heard about this situation a couple of years ago on a podcast called Radiolab.

So there’s a couple of environmental scientists named Andrea and Don Stierle who move to Butte, Montana around 1980 or so. Butte, Montana is an old mining town, where they dug into the earth and the mountains to get metals out – in this case, copper. During the early part of the 20th century, Butte was crazy productive in copper, and people were making telephone wires and cables and stuff for World War Two. There was a mine there called the Berkeley mine, and at one point a third of all the world’s copper came from this one mountain where the Berkeley mine was.

But then copper got more expensive and we started to use other things and the mining slowed and eventually the mine was closed. Except it wasn’t closed, because it was a giant pit, a huge hole, in the mountain. They stopped mining in 1982, and they turned off the pumps that kept the groundwater out of the giant pit, and slowly slowly slowly water began to seep into the pit, and now the pit is full of 70 billion gallons of water. It looks like a lake, carved into a hill.

It sort of looks like a lake, I should say, because it is wet. But the people who tried to describe it for the radio show weren’t sure how to tell us about it. First of all, the lake is red, and also green, and also gray and also black. The producers of the show said you might say it is technicolor. Also, the lake shimmers, and they said it shimmers in “a way words can’t describe.” So that’s not very easy to picture, a giant shimmering red lake in the side of a mountain, but I think we can assume that it is a very weird sight to see.

And not just weird looking, but also dangerous. Apparently much of the lake is sulphuric acid, which is what you get when you mix the metals of that soil with water and with air. Sulphuric acid is poisonous. It is corrosive. It burns you. It would be hard to imagine living near a red shimmering lake of sulphuric acid. It is a very bad, very dangerous situation. It is literally a toxic disaster area. And the water just keeps on coming in. So it is literally a rising toxic disaster.

At one point many years ago 342 snow geese landed on it and unfortunately drank the water. The next day there were 342 dead snow geese floating on the toxic lake. Examination showed that they had sores all inside of them. I think you get the point. Bad lake. A place that would damage all living things beyond repair. A place where nothing would survive, and if the “water” spread or leaked that would be bad news for all living things, snow geese and us.

So Don and Andrea Stierle were employed to study this toxic mess and see what was going on and what could be done. They got busy doing that, to figure out how to fix the bad, bad problem.

One day one of their assistants brought back a piece of wood with some green slimy stuff on it, and said he had found it in the pit, floating below the surface of the water. And the Stierles looked at the green slimy stuff and realized that it was alive. Something was alive, and living in the pit. Not what they had expected was possible at all.

This was fifteen or so years ago, and since then the Stierles have found hundreds of different compounds alive in that pit. Hundreds. And they aren’t just slime, although much of it looks like slime. Some of the things alive in there have proven to be tough fighters, bacteria and other stuff that fights cancer and viruses and is proving to be useful to the world, to us. The Stierles have published tons of papers about these living things in the toxic mess. They say it’s extremely exciting research.

One of the compounds they found is a sticky black organism. Now, apparently there are compounds, bacteria and so on, that can clean toxic metals out of polluted water. That’s not terribly uncommon, and we have learned to use some of those compounds in some of our other polluted places. Generally these compounds are able to clean about 15% or so of the water, which is helpful but doesn’t solve the whole problem.

But this sticky black organism that grew out of the Berkeley pit, it soaks up the toxic metals of the pit to an extreme degree. This substance, whatever it is, I guess it’s some sort of yeast, it cleans the water. This sticky black yeast can absorb about 85-90% of the metals in the water of the red, shimmering, toxic, but not dead, Berkeley pit.

85-90%, cleaned up by this yeast that no-one knows. It just appeared in the pit, and started to get the job done, this job that obviously so needs doing. The Stierles investigated this yeast, and found only one other place where its presence had ever been reported. That one other place, the only other place in the whole world, was in the intestines of geese.

I’m not saying that it’s a good or even an okay thing to have this giant toxic pit of sulphuric acid in Montana. I’m not saying it’s good to have 342 snow geese die because they thought they were drinking from a lake, even if they did leave a miracle yeast that might clean the pollution up. I’m not saying that whatever it is that you spend your days concerned with, worrying about, scared of, that those things aren’t scary or concerning things or that you’re dumb for caring about them. You just do what people do. We are people of ashes, we are mortal, and this is what we do. We concern ourselves with things. But Easter reminds us that those things we’re concerned with are small.

All I’m saying is, the worst thing isn’t the last thing. All I’m saying is, it’s Easter now, and spring is here, and morning has come. All I’m saying is, Easter is here to remind us, because people forget. We aren’t that smart. We think the last thing is the tomb where Jesus lay dead. We forget about the rest. But a tomb is no place to stay, writes Rev. Richard Gilbert in his poem .
A tomb is no place to stay,
Be it a cave in the Judaen hills
Or the dark cavern of the spirit.

A tomb is no place to stay
When fresh grass rolls away the stone of winter cold
And valiant flowers burst their way to warmth and light.

A tomb is no place to stay
When each morning announces our reprieve,
And we know we are granted yet another day of living.

A tomb is no place to stay
When life laughs a welcome
To hearts that have been away too long.

A tomb is no place to stay. Let Easter come, and easter you until you remember.
On this [Sunday], we submit our ashen way to you-
Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, …. Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our [Sunday] with
Mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

So may it be.