“A Triumphant Life”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
A Time for All Ages (Sermon follows)
Have you ever known somebody in your life that has died? Maybe it was your grandmother or grandfather, or an aunt or an uncle? Maybe it was someone in the family of one of your friends…
Well, even if you haven’t yet lost someone you love to death, one of these days you will and you might even know already that it is one of the hardest things that happens to us in life.
On Easter every year lots of people are celebrating the beauty of springtime after the winter months by remembering the man who was called Jesus. 2000 years ago Jesus led an amazing life, so much so that he has touched the loves of millions of people around the world since that time and still does today.
When we join in celebrating Easter, we remember the important part of Jesus’ life which is that he was killed for speaking out about the things he believed in like fairness for all people. On what is called Good Friday, Jesus was killed by the Roman army along with people who were found to be criminals. The crime that Jesus had committed according to the Roman army was he was introducing religious ideas that encouraged people to fight against unfairness and so he was considered to be dangerous.
And the Christian story tells us that after Jesus was killed by being hung on a cross to die, three days later when the women he knew went to tend to his grave which was in a cave in those days, the big stone that had been used to cover the cave had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was gone.
Then some of his closest friends really thought that they saw Jesus again, as if he didn’t really die! Wow, can you imagine how amazing that would be if it happened to you?
Well when this happened a lot of people started talking about how, even though Jesus had been killed alongside with criminals, somehow he was still alive and most importantly – people still wanted to believe in the things he was always talking about…how close we are to God and how important it is to be loving towards other people, even people who are very different from us.
We really don’t know what happens to people when they die and different religions and people have different ideas and beliefs about that, but you know, almost everybody around the world uses all kinds of flowers to celebrate the life a person they have lost.
It is a way of remembering the beauty we have known in that person and a way of reminding ourselves that even when our hearts are as sad as they can possibly be – there is still beauty in our world and life keeps going on even when it feels like it has stopped.
Today as Unitarian Universalists we celebrate a Flower Communion to honor the importance of the Easter holiday. When the choir sings Rhythm of Life I want to ask you all to come up here one at a time and pick a flower that you like best to take with you for today. We hope that the flower will remind you that even when you are having the hardest time you’ve ever had, maybe even because you have lost someone important in your life – you will be happy to know their beauty stays with you even after they are gone – in the same way that you will be able to remember your flower’s beauty from today—in a few days when it will have died.
Sermon: “A Triumphant Life”
There is a curious Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. Believers gather on Easter Monday to trade jokes. Doris Donnelly, a teacher of spiritual theology says “since the most extravagant ‘joke’ of all took place on Easter Sunday- the victory, against all odds, of Jesus over death- the community of the faithful enters into the spirit of the season by sharing stories with unexpected endings, surprise flourishes, and a sense of humor.”
Traditional Christian churches regularly celebrate Jesus’ victory over death with the practice of communion – breaking bread and drinking wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ which was given, they believe, for the salvation of humanity.
This kind of communion is rarely celebrated in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Although we recognize the extraordinary teachings and example attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, we do not require the standard belief held by Christians that he died to save us from our sins. Rather, we believe that Jesus’ integrity to stand by his beliefs, even at great risk to his personal safety is an incredibly powerful tribute to his teachings, and a personal challenge to us all. Although we greatly respect the personal sacrifice Jesus made in his willingness to die rather than betray his deep convictions, we do not believe that a loving God would require the brutal killing of any of God’s children, let alone one who was sent to fulfill specific requirements for all of humanity’s salvation. Unitarian Universalists believe that Jesus was executed for human political reasons, not divine or religious ones. Unitarian Universalists believe in a loving God who does not condone or advocate violence of any kind, let alone require any kind of violent death in order to establish redemption on earth.
The flower communion that many UU congregations celebrate annually on Easter morning, we find to be a more fitting act of remembrance and inspiration. The flower communion ritual originated with a Unitarian minister in Czechoslovakia as an annual festival to include children in worship prior to the summer church break. But since Rev. Norbert Capek’s death in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau at the hands of medical experiments, UU congregations has tied the martyrdom of his life to defend his convictions for religious freedom and tolerance with the beautiful flower ceremony that celebrates the legacy of an honored life beyond its individual death.
As we approach the 50th Anniversary celebration of this congregation in Pensacola, we are bringing fresh eyes to a painful part of this church’s history. In 1994, while volunteering as escorts at a local women’s health clinic, church members Jim Barrett was murdered and his wife June was shot. Many people in Pensacola were outraged by the extreme violence that was perpetrated, supposedly by religious people feeling justified by religious reasons yet relatively few were willing to take a public stand to denounce the violence.
Amidst the heated controversy and complexity over the woman’s right to abortion and the larger issue of women’s access to reproductive healthcare including contraception, several of our church members rallied with other people of conscience in Pensacola to continue providing volunteer escort services, even under the dangerous conditions of local women’s health clinics.
A surprising twist to this real story is that today, fifteen years after the initial clinic violence which as we recall spanned several years, a group of young people in association with the Women’s Studies Program at the University of West Florida are about to submit a resolution to Pensacola’s City Council petitioning for a Day of Remembrance for the victims of acts of domestic terrorism, including the doctors who were murdered and several others injured.
This student organization called the Women’s Studies Collective is joining with other local organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and American Civil Liberties union to sponsor a film series on Reproductive rights. Next month the film Soldiers in the Army of God will be hosted here at UUCP where segments of the film were made. Members of this congregation have been faithfully serving as escorts ever since these awful events, even today, as there is a resurgence of pro-life activism at local clinics. There is a real need for these faithful volunteers to be supported by the willingness of new people to get involved as escorts and advocates for women’s rights to healthcare.
For centuries, UU’s have been living out the faith of their conviction despite danger and adversity, and this is part of our celebration of the flower communion on Easter.
But I have another story I want to share with you today that recalls the anguish of Good Friday and the transformational act of being renewed which is the glory of Easter.
This is the true story of a young man from Kansas City and his deeply moving transformation from soldier to antiwar activist. This story is now being widely told through a 2007 award-winning documentary film called Body of War, which was co-directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue. Remember him?
Phil Donahue was inspired to make this documentary after Ralph Nader invited him to visit a woman and her son, a seriously wounded soldier, in Walter Reed hospital. This is where Donahue met a heavily medicated Tomas Young. Donahue was so moved by this young man’s desperate predicament and the courage with which he and his family were facing it, that he endeavored to produce an intimate and thoughtful reporting to share with the public. Both Donahue and co-director Ellen Spiro wanted to offer a brave example of the free press which is guaranteed by our Constitution as a much needed antidote to the sanitized coverage provided by the corporate media on the war in Iraq.
Two days after President Bush spoke on the ruins of the Twin Tower from 9-11, Tomas Young enlisted in the Army to defend our country and to help find Osama Bin Laden. He was 22. A year later after expecting to go to Afghanistan but being sent to Iraq instead, Young was shot just above his left collar bone on his first mission. He had been in Iraq just one week when he was riding in an unarmored Humvee with his fellow soldiers and they were fired upon.
The bullet severed Young’s spinal cord in his upper back so that he has no bodily functioning from the chest down. In addition to not being able to go to the bathroom without manual assistance, Tomas can’t even cough, and has to regulate his body temperature with the use of ice packs.
Surprised by Donahue and Spiro’s interest in his personal story, Young weaned himself from the excessive morphine needed to manage his pain so that he could share his heartfelt message with the world. Young feels betrayed, not only by the Bush administration’s ill planned and misguided approach to the war, but also by the lack of medical care he has received since returning him from that war.
Despite terrible depression and grief, and constant physical discomforts of various kinds, Tomas Young is claiming his new life built on the anguish of his past, as a serious anti-war activist making personal appearances as often as he and his family who cares for him can manage. After this intimate documentary was completed, Young has produced a companion soundtrack album, also called Body of War, with a wide array of artists including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who provided two new songs for the documentary.
When Donahue and Spiro were interviewed by Bill Moyers, they admitted it was difficult to co-direct this ambitious project, as they struggled with their different styles, and a desire to balance the subtle and poetic intricacies of Tomas’s life with a direct and hard-hitting political critique of what is likely to become known as one of the worst mistakes in this country’s history.
But Donahue and Spiro wholeheartedly agree that they were personally inspired by the bravery and patriotism of Tomas Young and his family.
This Easter as we recall the bravery and courage which Jesus showed in his darkest hours, as well as the legacy we have inherited from countless generations of lives which were not given, but taken, may we celebrate the beauty of their hard won lives of honor. May we keep our hearts and minds open to the ongoing beauty of life when we ourselves are facing our darkest moments.
And may we join with others around the world this Easter morning in a prayer for peace and an end to needless violence.
As we prepare to participate in the flower communion, which we will observe in silence as the music plays, I’ll close today’s message with Norbert Capek’s flower communion prayer.
“In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the flower
and in our hearts the longing for people to live in harmony;
In the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother and father,
the brother and sister, lover and loner what they are;
In the name of sages and great religious leaders, who sacrificed their lives
to hasten the coming of the age of mutual respect—
Let us renew our resolution—sincerely to be real brothers and sisters
regardless of any kind of bar which estranges us from each other.
In this holy resolve may we be strengthened knowing that we are God’s family;
that one spirit, the spirit of love, unites us. Amen.”