Opening Words: from e e cummings
when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it’s april(yes,april;my darling)it’s spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)
when every leaf opens without any sound
and wishing is having and having is giving-
but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
-alive;we’re alive,dear:it’s(kiss me now)spring!
now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
now the little fish quiver so you and so i
now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)
when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living-
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
-it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring!
all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
all the mountains are dancing;are dancing)
Sermon: “Lifted from the NO of all Nothing”
i thank You God for most this amazingday:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Happy Easter; happy spring. This is the sun’s birthday! You’ll notice that the sermon title comes from the cummings poem, but it also suggests an aspect of today’s sermon: NO is the abbreviation for New Orleans.
The ancient Easter story says that Christ, who is God in human form, died on the cross and was buried in a tomb with a big stone to close him in, and on Easter morning when they went to the burial place they found that the stone had been rolled away and he was not in the tomb any longer.
The story says that he appeared to some of his disciples and when the disciple Thomas was told by the others that Christ had visited them to assure them Thomas said, “I doubt it!”
He said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into his wounds, I will not believe it.” When the man he believed to be the Messiah died Thomas lost his faith, his hope that the true Messiah had arrived.
So eight days later the risen Christ appeared again to the disciples with Thomas among them. Christ said, “Put out your hand and place it in my side,” then he said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Thomas, the doubter, became one of the most energetic missionaries, spreading the word that the Messiah rose from the dead and will return and bring believers to him. Thomas was eventually martyred for his faith.
Doubting Thomas is alive and well and attending Easter services here today!
What if you were shown the wound, and could put your hand in and experience it for yourself?
Or, better yet, what if you could see the old story in a new way, a human way, a liberating way? What if you came to a different understanding of the concept of the Messiah, one that was compatible with your rational understanding.
Most of us in this room do, indeed, have an understanding of the Easter story that makes it believable – “everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes!” Most of us see the Easter story as a powerful symbol, which is the way we hear the Cummings poem: ‘i who have died am alive again; lifted from the no of all nothing…”
I don’t really know what you see in the story, so I won’t assume that I know, but I know what I see in it and I want to tell you:
For me, the Messiah or the Christ, is not about a particular, unique individual person who will emerge to save the world from sin and evil, from suffering and death. Christ is the unique, particular part of each of us that needs to be nurtured; it’s that part of each of us that cares about something outside of our own skin; it’s that part of us we call compassion; it’s that part of us that urges us to do what is right, to do what is good.
We don’t have to believe in it – we have to believe it in; we have to make it happen, rather than to simply assume it will happen: walk the walk; be engaged in the process of a ‘new creation.’
It’s as if the story of Creation was happening now, deep down inside, as though God was still at work, forming and molding this clay and breathing the breath of life into us right now, so that we can become more than mere flesh and blood, so that we can become ‘a living soul.’
There’s a doubting Thomas in every one of us, representing the creative tension between faith and reason, science and religion, the rational and the emotional, the need for the use of reason and the equally important need for the free and open exercise of compassion, for tenderness and simple acts of kindness and a genuine sense of caring.
Unlike old doubting Thomas, however, we have to cycle through the seasons of belief and doubt again and again. It’s not a one-time deal; it’s a part of life – to feel like you’ve lost it…lost your faith in humankind, lost your innocence or naïvete.
Then you can say with the poet, “i who have died am alive again today!”
There’s something in us that has to be born again and again…just as our body needs to be nourished again and again…just as we need to withdraw and rest and sleep again and again.
Now I want to connect the Easter sermon to what’s happening in the world today. On August 29, 2005 hurricane Katrina came crashing and cut a wound in our Gulf Coastal midsection, nailing it to a cross, if you will.
A day or two before the storm hit we watched as thousands of cars filled with people and packed with precious possessions drove out of the endangered City.
Then we watched as the waves came crashing, determined to wreck their havoc, and then the levees broke, then the floods came, nailing New Orleans to the cross, and there were crosses on each side of her, like the three crosses in the ancient story.
We watched as thousands of folks who stayed, most of whom simply had no way out, were stranded; we cringed to see the desperation of folks breaking escape holes through the roofs of their houses so they could get their heads above the engulfing waters. And we watched thousands of survivors huddled into the Superdome and Civic Center where they were left stranded, as if God had abandoned them; we saw them crying for help on bridges, the only dry place they could reach.
The City of New Orleans was nailed to the cross and for three or four days the anguished cries came up from that cross: “Why have you abandoned us?”
We who watched from a distance were assaulted with a sense of horror, at first, then came the shame and finally the anger that this great nation of ours could be the scene of such complete and utter failure.
Doubting Thomas said, “New Orleans is dead, it will never come back to life.”
It’s a much longer, more complicated story than time allows today, but suffice it to say that I decided to see it for myself.
At a staff meeting several weeks ago Faith Taylor, our business manager, asked, “Does anyone know anything about the $10,917 in the Katrina account?”
My initial response was embarrassment. I said, “You mean we didn’t send the rest of the money to our partner church in New Orleans?!” Then, almost without missing a beat, I said, “I’ll deliver it to them.”
That’s the genesis of my recent trip; I wanted to see for myself what’s happening; I wanted to see the church and talk with my colleague, Marta Valentin who was here last year; I wanted to be a witness, so I could report back to you.
There’s a religious connotation to the word ‘witness,’ of course – one who publicly testifies to faith or belief. There’s a legal meaning: one that gives evidence at a trial. I have both meanings in mind – we have faith in the process of people helping people; and it’s important that we do not cover up the failures of our governmental agencies – Brownie did not do ‘one heck of a job.’
It was important for me to visit New Orleans as a witness, as well as a sign of our ongoing support for our partner church. I had to see it for myself.
“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I experience and I understand.”
After spending three days in New Orleans, visiting our friends at First Unitarian Church and touring the Katrina-torn neighborhoods, I can report that the stone has not been rolled away, but a resurrection is promised; that’s a faith statement.
The church and the city is coming back to life, slowly and painfully. It’s an ongoing Easter story.
I had a camera in my pocket, but took no photo; not a single picture to show to you. I bought a new coffee cup at Café du Monde, where I had visited during my five-day stay in New Orleans during my sabbatical 15 years ago. I brought back a copy of the Picayune Times, and I brought back two gifts our partners sent – the two hand-made banners that remind us to ‘keep the flame burning,’ and to ‘renew rebuild revive’ – to help New Orleans to live again!
I have no pictures but I have a vivid, powerful memory of the pot luck supper in their church, which had been gutted a year ago, and just a couple of weeks before I arrived they began to move back in. Twenty of us gathered in ground-level room to share a big pot of gumbo with bread and wine—a real communion meal.
The gumbo and other food that was shared that night was really tasty, but there was something that was even more delicious than the gumbo – it was the gusto, the genuine sense of warmth that they poured out so freely, giving me an expression of gratitude they want me to convey to you.
While the money I brought is obviously very important to them, the sense of connection I brought was much, much more important, and that took my a bit by surprise. My presence was a clear statement to them – that the world has not abandoned them.
My presence allowed them to peek around the stone, which isn’t yet rolled away, but they need to believe that the stone will be rolled away; that the levees will finally be built to withstand the kind of storm that Katrina delivered; that there are other Unitarian Universalist congregations that want to provide encouragement for them to ‘hang in there.’
The dinner was planned for seven o’clock on Monday the 19th, the day I arrived. Marta Valentin, the minister, invited me to come at six so we could spend an hour catching up. She gave me the cook’s tour – she told me that on March 6, just a couple of weeks before I arrived, they had an extraordinary gift given to them in the form of work on their building — work that allowed them to return to their church building. The work was done by ninety-five people, many of whom were skilled at installing wallboard. There were carpenters from a company called Gable International (GI).
Many of the volunteer workers were Unitarian Universalists who have came to the city to help rebuild, many of whom have stayed in the Volunteer Center housed in the church—I saw dozens and dozens of cots and air mattresses in their fellowship hall and other space.
Most of the walls are up. All of the floors are bare cement; but Marta finally moved into an office space and they have started to meet in the gutted-out sanctuary.
After the tour of the church building we sat down to talk, and the first thing she told me is that just the day before, on Sunday the 18th, she announced her resignation to the congregation; she’s leaving in June.
I asked her to summarize her 19-months there. She and her partner moved to New Orleans in August of 2005; before she stepped into her new pulpit it was washed away, along with everything in her office. She told me about her first sermon, delivered on September 11, 2005, which she titled Ultreya, a Spanish word that means ‘moving forward with courage.’
She spoke to a congregation in diaspora—a congregation that was scattered around the country. She preached that sermon into a telephone to fifty or sixty members on a conference call, a gift provided by a large company where one of them worked. In that sermon she said, “This year I want our mantra to be an ancient Spanish word, ‘Ultreya,’ which simply means, ‘moving forward with courage.’
I was moved by the story of how they had the music director put the phone next to the piano in the home where she was staying and she played a hymn while the conference-call congregation sang into their phones.
Marta wasn’t baptized by fire, but in the spirit of John the Baptist, she was baptized by water! She had a very powerful, moving and effective ministry there.
So it took courage for her to tell that congregation that she has decided to move forward in her own life—her partner is going to have a baby in June, and she needs to devote herself to this new chapter.
As we ate the gumbo and other pot-luck offerings, we went around the room and everyone introduced themselves and gave some personal church history – four or five of the nineteen had served as president of the congregation – the current president introduced himself. In a small congregation everyone gets to serve; and this was a core group, so all had a rich history.
The discussion inevitably centered on Katrina and its effect on their congregation as well as the larger issues relating to New Orleans, their views on The Road Home program – a state initiated plan to rebuild New Orleans and bring the people back – their views on the disastrous response of the Federal Government…FEMA.
One of them said, “It was an equal opportunity hurricane–go to the Lakeview region (middle class area) as well as the ninth ward…(poor black area.)”
We didn’t make any fanfare with the check; I simply took it out of my jacket pocket and handed it to the woman who had introduced herself as church treasurer. They were very appreciative, and I was glad to be the messenger, but I also thought at that moment about ways we might continue our support—financially as well as moral support and possibly some actual hands-on work in the future.
Their rebuilding project is long range—a couple of years or so to go.
The next day I did some touring on my own until I met with Emily Danielson in the afternoon. Emily is a life-long Unitarian Universalist who grew up in the Schenectady congregation. She told me that she had graduated from college just before Katrina hit and in January of ’06 she went to New Orleans to help with the beginning of the clean-up effort.
Something happened to her during that initial experience and, to make a long, interesting story short, she moved to New Orleans where she has devoted herself to working with the lowest socio-economic group; she told me that she has decided to stay there for the rest of her life. She has enrolled in a local university where she’ll get a Master of Social Work degree. She has a plan. She has ‘found a calling,’ as they say.
Emily talked candidly with me about what she has seen and what she sees going on during this initial re-building time; she is a young woman with a sense of hope, determination and commitment.
Shortly after the two of us began our tour, headed for the devastated ninth ward I said, “Someone at the church supper last night said, ‘This was an equal opportunity disaster, it hit the middle class as well as the poor. So be sure that Emily takes you to the Lakeview region.’
She responded with obvious irritation, “That was a white person who said that!”
I said, “As a matter of fact everyone at that meeting was white.”
From that point on Emily interspersed her descriptions of what we were seeing out the car windows with insights about the racism in the rebuilding that has become increasingly clear to her.
As she told me the statistics: 200,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged; 200,000 cars towed away, I said, “This has got to be the biggest natural disaster in our history.”
She said, “It wasn’t a natural disaster. The hurricane was a natural disaster, but the hurricane didn’t do this: this is the result of the failure of the Army Corp of Engineers to construct and maintain the levees, which have been reconstructed only to pre-Katrina specifications…now we wait.”
She talked about how FEMA has been slow, in general, to getting the money allocated for survivors, but has favored the white middle-class victims over people of color, including a large Vietnamese section of the City.
She talked about how difficult it was for people of color to get disaster loans, which I had read about in a New York Times editorial titled ‘The Poor Need Not Apply.’
She talked about what the insurance companies are doing, especially to the poor, most of whom happen to be black; how they denied wind-damage claims by attributing the damage all to the water; how they are doing a lot less clean up work in the poor sections while the money is flowing more freely in the white middle-class sections of the City, like Lakeview; how the low-lying black areas are being ‘yielded back to the swamp,’ while the low-lying white areas are being re-built; how the black cultural heritage of New Orleans, which has been so rich, is being downplayed and the talk is about building a new New Orleans
Emily did not sound bitter, mind you; she sounded sincere determined and very savvy. She sounded ready to take another important step in her life, a step toward making it meaningful, toward making a significant difference in the world.
She has a plan. She has a sense of direction.
She told me, “I came to help gut houses and I got talking to some of the survivors, most of whom are black and Vietnamese, the underclass, and I knew they felt better because I had been with them, because I talked with them and because I listened to them.”
After a pause she reflected, “And that experience took me by surprise and it made me feel like I was doing something that mattered. So I decided to get a Masters in Social Work and get my credentials so I can spend my life doing this.”
Emily helped me to understand the issues of racism and classism that are at work in New Orleans, just as they are at work in Bridgeport.
We don’t have to go to New Orleans to work on these issues; but I hope we will stay involved in with our partner church in New Orleans; and I hope we will continue to find meaningful ways to work for racial and economic justice in Bridgeport.
I don’t have any photographs: I have my coffee cup from Café du Monde, I have the home-made banners from our partner congregation, and I have the experience of driving in and around the city for hours, stunned by the extent of the devastation, mile after mile, with houses that are collapsed or abandoned and acres and acres of empty lots where houses once stood.
The bottom line is that I saw a resurrection in progress; an Easter story, if you will; and the need for a Passover story where those who have been in bondage of various kinds will cross a sea of red tape to get the help they need and that this nation promised, explicitly as well as the implicit promise that comes with being part of this great nation.
“But when Jesus looked out over this city, his eyes filled with tears (and he wept openly.” He spoke in his pain: “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:)
In the Gospel of John there’s a story of Jesus going to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and he overcome with emotion and there’s the famous passage that says, simply, “Jesus wept.”
We watched what happened when the levees broke—we watched and we wept. We’ve wept over the loss of people close to us; each of us carries our grief.
May there be a resurrection for New Orleans; a resurrection for the Gulf region, and a resurrection for those among us who are carrying an overload of grief
Now is the time for the stone to be rolled away so we can sing ‘i thank You God for most this amazing day.’