Reading – from Isaiah 58, “And Then” by Judy Chicago (Children’s Time and Reading based on Tico and the Golden Wings by Leo Lionni)
Sermon – Awakening
There it is, down through the ages – from Isaiah to Judy Chicago - at times a whisper, at times a mighty roar…this voice that is the voice of gods, of prophets, the voice of peoples, perhaps of the very planet herself.
In Sumeria they called it the cosmic mountain. In Persia, paridiada. The Israelites wrote of Creation. The Christians speak of the kingdom come. Paradise, the whisper and shout of the ages – Eden.
What does paradise look like? Are we talking about pearly gates, heavenly hosts of angels singing, golden harps and rays of pure light….? No. Paradise looks like…it looks like sunrise, sunset, pastures green with grass just when the herds need them, warehouses filled with grain, clouds filled with rain, sunshine on harvest day, new carrots pulled from the earth. Paradise looks like children with full bellies and old men with all their limbs, and most of their teeth. Paradise sounds like laughter, like neighbors talking, like the sigh of a person who sits down at the dinner table at the end of a very long, hard day. Paradise sounds like songbirds singing, like the shush of snowflakes covering tulip bulbs that will bloom the next spring.
Where is this paradise? It’s far away isn’t it? How much do I have to improve and apologize to get there? What must I renounce?…No. Paradise is….Look out the window. This is easy, here in Maine – you look out the window – you’re in paradise. The ocean, the wind, the waves, the evergreen tree impossibly high, the blue sky above it, the impossibly white seagull framed by that blue…the river chuckling through the ice shown clearly by a raspberry red sunrise. We’re in paradise. You didn’t think there could be anything more beautiful than this – this masterpiece, this earth – you didn’t did you? We’re in paradise. All the tablets and books say the same thing, in every age: God/dess created no kingdom but the one we stand on right now.
Who lives in paradise? Very very few people. Very few people live in paradise. Other powers are at work. I am walking in the sunset, trees overhead, purple storm clouds racing by, people waving from their cars – y’all do that, it’s my favorite part about living here – people waving…I’m in my own private hell. I’m stressed out. I’m greedy. I’m tired, I’m neurotic, I’ve got a headache, I’m full of anger, too much food, people telling me what to do, kids driving me crazy, more cavities in their molars, why did we get that pet gecko, were we out of our minds – have you seen what those things eat?! …Kingdom come – I’ve missed the boat.
Who lives in paradise? Other powers are at work. The richer people get the poorer other people get. If I cannot eat, if I cannot feed my children, if I cannot pay my oil bill, if I cannot escape the junta, if I cannot escape the gangs, if the war is in my town, the bombs exploding in my city, my village, if there’s no water, no water, no well…Kingdom come – I’ve been pushed off the boat.
Paradise all around us. Paradise is not the question. The question is: how do we participate?
To participate you have to have faith. You have to believe that there’s a piece of the garden of paradise that’s your to awaken to – perhaps to awaken others to as well.
We haven’t known, as a community, which piece belonged to us. Some of us worked over here, and some over here…our efforts were scattered and results varied. Some of us felt good that our own pet projects and concerns were being tended to, but we never quite knew how to bring others in. We sent money, time, energy – everywhere! – we were trying to bring about the kingdom, but mostly we were just wearing ourselves out.
Little churches like ours tend to do that….That’s what we are, in the grand scheme of things, a little church, in a far away place. But, we have big hearts, large spirits, we are a big-hearted, talented people, and we have resources…and now we have big plans.
The mission of the Faith In Action program of the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth “is to advance economic and environmental justice, working together as a community of faith.” This is our part of the garden, our part of paradise. This is who we are, this is what we do. We believe in an earthly paradise, much as our early Christian forebears did, and we are outraged at paradise denied. That fatal intersection, where the destruction of the earth and all her splendors, and the growing poverty not only in far away lands where we have good friends, but in this very land we call home…the hunger of children without enough food to eat, the desolation of their lives if they cannot access an education, and the social skills to use that education, that intersection is where we stand. Picture yourself there, picture all of us there together. We stand at that intersection of destruction and despair and we offer hope. We plant seeds, we bake bread, we offer to share it. We ask questions, we write letters, we speak at press conferences, we challenge systems. WE build shelter, teach conflict resolution, ensure that water is clean, store in extra blankets, extra hats. We listen. We listen and listen. We speak for those who are afraid to. We demand change. At the place where economic and environmental injustice feed on one another, we stand and say, not today. Not this child, not this family. Today is a better day. Tomorrow we’ll stand here again, and see what else can be done.
This has always been who we are, we just needed to say it, to claim it – to decide, to choose….This is not the only way to participate, but it is our way. It is what we have to offer. Our pair of golden wings.
Our greatest asset in this is our love for one another – our generous hearts. You don’t change the world by changing people’s minds, you have to change their hearts. You have to go into places you’re not sure you really want to go, and love people you’ve never met before, and then carry them with you and advocate for them in everything you do. We’re good at that. We live that out with our international partners. You also have to invite people into where you live, people you’ve never met before, who have needs you don’t quite understand. They turn your heart upside down, and then you change. As we gain local partners here in Maine we’ll have that experience through our Faith In Action program….I bet we’ll be good at that, too. Change hearts, not minds, and then, of course, legislate. Make illegal that which is immoral.
The great cosmic mountain, it is here with us. We live on its green hills – so close, and yet so far. That is as it should be. Paradise must ever be an actuality, and a promise. Human beings respond best to possibility. We strive.
Live paradise every day. See it, feel it, listen to it, every day. That’s our first responsibility. Then we can share it. First awareness: an awakening on our own part. Then sharing: allowing others to wake up to the same privilege, power, beauty, and possibilities in life that we enjoy. We have chosen to do that at the places where economic and environmental justice intersect. Our Faith In Action program will lead the way. I look forward to standing at the intersection with you for many years to come.
This sermon inspired and informed by Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. For a full understanding of earthly paradise from pre-Israelite cultures down through the ages, and a wonderful theological exploration of what that means for us today, please see this work.
Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Brock, Rita Nakashima; Parker, Rebecca Ann. ©2008. Boston: Beacon Press.