First Church in Jamaica Plain, UU
Rev. Terry Burke
May 25, 2014
Who knows but what we most fear
May be our greatest good?”
How odd that with my imminent retirement this is my last full sermon, though I will deliver some short homilies for services on the 8th and 15th. Endings evoke memories of beginnings, and I just read a poem by Dan Berrigan, who blessed me at a workshop some 30 years ago. Still going strong in his 90’s, Dan was arrested during Occupy New York.
Berrigan, like Pope Francis, is part of the Jesuit religious order. In the early 1980’s I studied spiritual direction with the Jesuits, whose Ignatian spirituality focuses on finding God in the power of the imagination. At our April church retreat, I led the group in an exercise that I had learned from the Jesuits years before. Imagine that you are at a special party for yourself; perhaps it is your birthday. Bending time and space, all the people you love, living and dead, are present. During the course of the evening, they tell you how much you have meant to them. Now, one by one, they’ve departed, leaving behind a wrapped present on the table. You see that it’s addressed to you from God. You open it.
Years ago, when I did that exercise, I thought, ‘O, this is so silly, why am I doing this?’ And I opened my present and found… one of those yellow smiley faces. Clearly God has a sense of humor. When I did the exercise this spring, I opened the box to find… my illness. Flannery O’Connor wrote that, “sickness before death…is one of God’s mercies.”
When I received my cancer diagnosis in September, it took a while to “wrap my head around it.” The first book I read afterwards was one that had been given to me by the late Suzy Saul when she had cancer, Jerome Groopman’s The Anatomy of Hope. Groopman writes of the need for realistic hope even facing catastrophic illness; patients often have better results when they have a framework to understand and visualize their illnesses.
Drawing upon Groopman’s idea, I understand my illness as the “Rainbow Camino.” As you probably know, several years ago I walked the Camino pilgrimage in Spain with one of my daughters in wintertime. Numerous times I’ve quoted Camino spiritual leader Jesus Hato’s famous line, in English, “In life, you are either a tourist or a pilgrim.” My illness has become a pilgrimage, a time of spiritual deepening, that I walk with the support of my family and many wonderful people. I am grateful for the incredible “rainbow” of persons from different faith traditions, Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Unitarian Universalist, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, agnostic, who pray and send healing energy for me. It is truly humbling.
I want to speak of another famous pilgrim, but first a question. If a poll were done today, who do you think Americans would say was the most admired American, living or dead. Not who YOU would say, but who the millions polled would say? Gallop says Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton for living men and women. In some polls which include the dead, many people list their parents.
The person living or dead who consistently tops that list for most admired Canadian is athlete Terry Fox, who died of cancer at the age of 22 in 1981.
A college athlete at Simon Fraser University, he lost a leg to bone cancer. While in rehab, he was struck how, due to ongoing medical research, the potential survival rate for his illness had jumped in recent years from 15% to 50%. After running a marathon on his primitive prosthesis, he decided to run what he called a “Marathon for Hope” over 5,000 miles across Canada to raise cancer awareness and money for research.
Initially, he hoped to raise a million dollars. Starting his run in Newfoundland, at first he was ignored. Eventually, Fox became something quintessentially Canadian, a celebrity who didn’t want to be a celebrity. He’d run long distances out of his way to attend local fundraisers, but became angry when tabloids would report that he’d gone out on a date.
Fox ran the equivalent of a marathon, 26 miles a day, for four months. Huge crowds cheered him on. In Thunder Bay Ontario, by the northern shores of Lake Superior, he started coughing uncontrollably. With the support of the crowd, he was able to run a few more miles, but then collapsed at mile 3,339, the equivalent of having run across the continental United States.
Fox’s cancer had spread throughout his lungs, and while he didn’t want anyone else to finish his run for him, he wanted to finish it himself, he died nine months later at the age of 22. The British Houses of Parliament have a statue of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell facing them. The Canadian Houses of Parliament have a statue of Terry Fox. As a memorial, to date, fundraising for cancer research in Terry Fox’s name has raised over 600 million dollars.
Endings and beginnings. At the beginning of my ministry, in the 1980’s, I travelled to El Salvador. The people I met, the photographs of massacre victims I saw, the refugee camps I visited, have remained part of my ministry. Hearing the wonderful rendition of “The Rose” in our worship service reminded me of Jean Donovan, who along with her companions Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel, were murdered by a government sponsored death squad in El Salvador. Shortly before her death, Jean Donovan wrote to her parents, ‘this is such an amazing country, roses bloom in December.’ Today’s reading by Marxist intellectual Eduardo Galeano tells of the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. As a revolutionary, one time he escapes death because the Salvadoran government falls. Another time, an earthquake breaks the walls of his prison and he escapes, only to be killed by a dissident faction of his comrades. Galeano writes of the many ways we can encounter our deaths, and that he always thought Roque would meet death laughing. Along with his poetry, such humor and courage is a form of memorial.
“Let us now praise famous men (and women I might add) writes Sirach in a famous passage from Ecclesiasticus. Though some are without memorial, they are still part of the community. As a friend said to participants at the end of a year-long workshop, “When I remember God, I will remember all of you.” Or as my Russian friends say upon hearing of a death, “Memory Eternal.”
On this Memorial Day, we especially honor our veterans. When I am in Washington D.C., I find myself drawn to the Viet Nam Memorial Wall, a truly holy place amidst all the grandiosity. At the wall we grieve those who died in the war, and all wars, as well as so many other deaths and losses, spoken and unspoken.
Even final sermons have to come to an end. What has been the memorial of our time here, ministering together in this neighborhood? An old building passed on to another generation? When I was very young, I read Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidic Masters and Ellie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire, books about obscure rebbes in backwater villages in Poland and Ukraine who tried to spiritually set the world on fire. When I came to what was our tiny congregation here in 1983, Jamaica Plain was a backwater, a neighborhood marked by the scar where I-95 had been going to go through.
I wanted us to set the world on fire.
We didn’t. We didn’t set the world on fire.
But in our time and place, we imperfectly tended the flames of love, caring, and justice.
We have tended those flames though our decades together on our Camino, on our shared pilgrimage, running a marathon of hope. Now I will be dropping off and stopping, but your pilgrimage in Jamaica Plain will continue, with our memorial of faithful community.
Closing words: ‘Christ moon/ Buddha moon/ Who knows but what we most fear/May be our greatest good?” “Don’t fear the reaper!” Amen.
Eduardo Galeano, from Days and Nights of Love and War
…I start to talk about Roque Dalton. Roque was a living absurdity who never stopped. Even now, in my memory, he’s running. How did death manage to catch him?
They were gong to shoot him, but four days before the execution the government fell. Another time they were about to execute him and an earthquake split the prison walls and he escaped. The dictatorships of El Salvador, the little country which was his land and which he carried tattooed all over his body, could never handle him. Death took its revenge on this fellow who had so often mocked it. in the end, it slayed him through treason: it delivered the bullets from the precise place he least expected them. For months no one really knew what had happened. Was it, wasn’t it? The teletypes did not vibrate to tell the world about the assassination of this poet who was born in neither Paris nor New York…
He was the most joyful of us all…Roque’s poetry was like him: loving, mocking, combative. He had courage to spare, so he didn’t need to mention it…
We all meet death in a way that resembles us. Some of us, in silence, walking on tiptoe; others, shrinking away; others, asking forgiveness or permission. There are those who meet it arguing or demanding explanations, and there are those who make their way slugging and cursing. There are those who embrace death. Those who close their eyes; those who cry. I always thought that Roque would meet death with laughter.
In Memoriam, J.F.K.,
Jorge Luis Borges
This bullet is an old one.
“In 1897, it was fired at the president of Uruguay by a young man from Montevideo, Avelino Arredondo, who had spent long weeks without seeing anyone so that the world might know that he acted alone. Thirty years earlier, Lincoln had been murdered by that same ball, by the criminal or magical hand of an actor transformed by the words of Shakespeare into Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s murderer. In the mid-seventeenth century, vengeance had employed it for the assassination of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus in the midst of the public hecatomb of battle.
“In earlier times, the bullet had been other things, because Pythagorean metempsychosis is not reserved for humankind alone. It was the silken cord given to viziers in the East, the rifles and bayonets that cut down the defenders of the Alamo, the triangular blade that slit a queen’s throat, the wood of the Cross and the dark nails that pierced the flesh of the Redeemer, the poison kept by the Carthaginian chief in an iron ring on his finger, the serene goblet that Socrates drank down one evening.
“In the dawn of time it was the stone that Cain hurled at Abel, and in the future it shall be many things that we cannot even imagine today, but that will be able to put an end to men and their wondrous, fragile life.”