READING BEFORE THE SERMON
From the Gospel of Mark, Ch. 15-16
They brought Jesus to the Place of the Skull. They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. They crucified him and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each would take. It was nine in the morning when they crucified him.
Those who passed by derided him, saying, “Save yourself!” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land. At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
Later, after the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Early on the next morning, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back, and beside it they saw a young man dressed in a white robe. They were alarmed. But the young man said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
NOW MORE THAN EVER, PART 1
Easter is challenging for everyone. In a moment I’m going to speak to the special challenges that Easter poses for Unitarian Universalists, but on the way there, we need to acknowledge that it’s just hard for everyone who’s paying any attention to the story.
Christmas is easy. Everybody loves babies. Everybody loves Christmas gifts and the Three Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem.
But Easter? There is no Easter without Good Friday, first of all, and that means Jesus’ crucifixion. There’s nothing cute about crucifixion. Jesus was a good man unjustly killed in a manner that was painfully excruciating beyond anything.
Then there’s the part of the story, three days later, when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb where Jesus’ body is supposed to be, but it’s not there. No one knows what’s happened to the body–perhaps some kind of miracle called “resurrection”–but no one is sure. It is all so terrifying that the women flee from the area because (as the Gospel of Mark says) they are “seized with trembling and bewilderment.” They talk to no one because “they were afraid.”
Yay Easter. Gimme some excruciating violence and blood, with a side of trembling and bewilderment and fear. Gimme something called “resurrection” that stretches credulity to the point of breaking.
No wonder millions of people have pretty much secularized the holiday, and for them it’s just an occasion to dress up and be a family together at church (but it’s more about FAMILY TOGETHERNESS than church), then, afterwards, a nice meal, then the kids running around the yard hunting for Easter eggs, and every family has a different way of setting up the Easter Egg hunt. One family I know stuffs some of the eggs with chocolate, other eggs are stuffed with single dollar bills, and then there’s the prize egg stuffed with a $50 dollar bill. Every year, soon enough, the hunt devolves into an Easter egg melee and then an Easter egg war and they count on that, it’s so fun they do it every year, again and again–and it is all miles away from the crucifixion and the women who loved Jesus who fled from the tomb in terror.
Easter is just tough all around.
But there is a special toughness in it for Unitarian Universalists. There is.
An old joke alludes to this. If you drive through town on Easter Sunday, goes the joke, you can always tell the UU church apart. All the other churches have signs proclaiming “Hallelujah! Jesus is Risen!” The Unitarian Universalist sign, on the other hand, announces, “Hooray! Flowers are pretty!”
If you are new among us this morning, or new to Unitarian Universalism, I know. It sounds like a whole lot of hand-wringing.
But let’s lean into this.
One special challenge relates to the fact that our Unitarian Universalism is just a little over 50 years old. (Yes, Unitarianism as a separate tradition is positively ancient, and so is Universalism as a separate tradition—but they married in 1961 to become Unitarian Universalism and this union of the two into one is what I’m saying was new–and now just a little over 50 years old.) We want to understand this. From the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on–the Flower Celebration, for example, or our Chalice Lighting ritual.
But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!
The tendency to adolescent rebellion is real in us. And we want to keep an eye on it.
But now, here is the next challenge Easter poses to us. This one relates to our diversity. “Our UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” writes the Rev. Jane Rzepka, because of the mutually exclusive desires of the people who come to services. They come, she says, “To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music. To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music. To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection. To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days. To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition. To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter…” That’s from the Rev. Jane Rzempa.
Easter comes, and you better believe, we very quickly become aware of a special form of diversity in this place: varying comfort levels with Christianity. Some people are fine with God-talk and fine with the traditional songs and imagery. “In Jesus’ name we pray,” is not offensive but comforting. They are the spiritual “carnivores” among us. They like spiritual “meat.” But what about the spiritual “vegetarians,” who are also among us, for whom “spiritual meat” is gross and offensive? Traditional songs and imagery that smack of Christianity are jarring and unwelcome—real turn-offs.
We love our diversity. We believe there’s nothing else like diversity to support a search for meaning that is creative and open and searchingly deep. Dr. Capek’s Flower Celebration honors exactly this.
But, clearly, diversity is not easy, and sometimes it leads us into terrific complications.
Finally, there’s a third challenge that Easter poses to Unitarian Universalists. This one is specifically about the concept of the physical resurrection of the dead. The resurrection of a truly dead body is impossible. It contradicts all known facts and science. We are a diverse folk, so there are perhaps some of us who may allow for the possibility of resurrection under certain circumstances. I don’t know. But most Unitarian Universalists balk at it. Like they balk at the concept of a “virgin birth.”
Accordingly, writes the Rev. Forrest Church, “Easter is an awkward holiday because the trumpets sound, we all sing, and Jesus is not [literally] resurrected. […] So what are we doing here? Why even bother?”
This, I will say, implies what I want to call “reverse Biblical literalism.” This is when you take a biblical concept like “resurrection” literally and, because the literal meaning contradicts all known facts and science, you reject the possibility that it could have any meaningfulness whatsoever.
That’s “reverse Biblical literalism.” Easter gets thrown out, like a baby thrown out with the bathwater.
You can tell where I might be going with all this. Easter is tough for everyone. On top of that, Easter poses special difficulties for Unitarian Universalists. Even so: we need Easter. We need Easter now more than ever. We need to bother with it.
I’ll tell you in a second. Stay tuned….
SERMON PART #2
Easter is tough for everyone. On top of that, Easter poses special difficulties for Unitarian Universalists. Even so: we need Easter.
We need Easter now more than ever.
Part of this relates to the archetypal theme that Easter is but one expression of.
Think about this: Easter happens in the Spring. So does Passover. And so does Spring! Spring happens in the Spring too!
All three of these share something in common: the triumph of the underdog.
That archetypal theme, which is spun out in story after story after story.
And so, from our grandparent tradition of Judaism comes the story of Passover, which sees the ancient Hebrews oppressed by slavery and facing impossible odds, but hope is not lost, Moses leads the people to freedom from the awesome and punishing power of Egypt, Moses leads them to the Promised Land.
Triumph of the underdog!
And then, from our parent tradition of Christianity comes the story of Easter, with its various parts: the brutality of life under the awesome and punishing power of Rome, the death of a great man by crucifixion and how that crushed hope in the hearts of his followers. But a Mystery happened next: somehow that crushed hope came back to life again. That’s how Christianity was born.
Triumph of the underdog!
And then, of course, there’s Spring! The turning of the seasons! Earth-based spiritual traditions are clear on what is implied here: that just as the earth never gets stuck in the dead of winter but cycles inevitably into spring, so our hearts need not get stuck and they can be reborn again, just like spring flowers.
It’s tiny buds of leaves emerging at the ends of branches that have been bare for months. It’s lilies blooming out from a foot of snow.
It’s the ugly duckling who, in the end, turns out beautiful. It’s the little engine that not just could but does. It’s crabgrass that breaks through cement and grows. It’s Kung Fu Panda who goes all the way from Level Zero to being the best at Kung Fu ever.
This season is all about the triumph of the underdog.
We know this archetypal theme. And it’s so good, every time it gets expressed.
Tell it again and again.
In fact, here is one more way of telling it. I’ll start by pointing out that it is not without significance that the first Flower Celebration happened in the Spring. There is a deep “triumph of the underdog” storyline to it. Dr. Norbert Capek, serving in his native land of Czechoslovakia, created the Flower Celebration to affirm the individuality and dignity of each person, as well as the sacredness of sharing this individuality with others, in the form of friendship and community. Ironically, this Flower Celebration ritual was born in a time that saw the emergence of a modern version of ancient Egypt or ancient Rome. I am talking about the Third Reich. In 1939, the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, and Capek was from that time on a marked man. The Nazis hounded him because he dared to preach about spiritual freedom, he dared to preach about the value of the individual, he dared to preach about the blessings to be experienced when individuals live in Beloved Community—ideas that simply couldn’t co-exist with Nazism. So they were just looking for an excuse to arrest him, and they found it when they learned he had been listening to forbidden British radio broadcasts. Eventually, in June of 1942, Norbert Capek was sent to the death camp in Dachau. The Nazis killed him by poison, an agonizing death that, as with Jesus, seemed final. But look at how Dr. Norbert Capek has been resurrected, through the Flower Celebration. Look at how his ideals have triumphed and still live among us—in the end proven far stronger and resilient than the supposedly invincible Third Reich ever was.
Now, more than ever, when millions of people across the globe are infected by COVID-19 and there have been more than 100,000 deaths worldwide;
Now, more than ever, when the coronavirus has vaporized millions of jobs and 13% of Americans are unemployed and we are entering terrible economic times;
Now, more than ever, as West Shore weathers our uncertain times, and we feel exactly like an underdog in the midst of it, and we are having to make truly tough decisions to rally ourselves to the health of our overall community and to do what needs to be done to ensure resilience over the long haul;
Now, more than ever:
We need reminders that eventually, ultimately, the underdog triumphs.
We need all the reminders we can get.
We need our Flower Celebration.
We need Springtime.
We need Passover.
And we need Easter.
This leads to the last thing I want to say. Why Unitarian Universalists above all should bother with Easter, despite the special challenges it brings.
Why is this: exactly because the literalistic conception of the resurrection makes no sense. Because we of all people get that.
What we do next with it, though, is key.
What we should avoid, I strongly feel, is the “reverse Biblical literalism” I spoke about earlier, which is when you take the concept of “resurrection” literally and, because the literal meaning contradicts all known facts and science, you reject the possibility that it could have any meaningfulness whatsoever. This is throwing the Easter baby out with the bathwater.
Instead, what we should argue is that the literalistic conception just confines the resurrection, makes it too small, actually makes it irrelevant to regular human beings here on planet earth who are constantly experiencing tragedy and pain and constantly feeling burned up and we can taste the grief ashes in our mouths and we cry out to God to be born again and we don’t know how to manufacture that miracle for ourselves, it just has to happen in its own good time…
To make the resurrection only about dead bodies coming back to life again is to make what resurrection can mean to us way too small.
Go back to the old story. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last week of his life. His disciples actually thought that he was finally going to take possession of his rightful power as the Messiah. They actually thought he was going to go in like Rambo and crush the Romans and take over. Did you know that? But he didn’t. The most vigorous thing he did was argue with the moneylenders in the Temple and turn a table over. For the most part, though, he preached against structures of hatred and injustice and for love to God and love to humankind. He sat around praying.
That’s pretty much it.
When he was arrested by the Romans (because they too thought he was going to go all Rambo on them), that was the last straw for the disciples. It shattered all their illusions about who he was. In disgust, they started to drift away, one by one. Peter, his closest follower, denied him three times. We all know about what the infamous Judas did—but now stay with me. This is Judas ISCARIOT we are talking about, and “Iscariot” comes from the word “sicaroi” which refers to a group of Jewish terrorists who violently resisted Roman rule. In other words, it’s likely that Judas was so frustrated at Jesus’ nonviolent approach to opposing injustice that he turned on him. Judas’ frustration turned to viciousness because he felt Jesus had betrayed him.
Love became rage, in the blink of an eye.
Now we’re getting into the heart of the real Easter story, the real story of resurrection. It’s not about what happened to Jesus’ body. It’s about what happened to Peter and the disciples who survived those turbulent days of death, and beyond. It’s about what happened to the women who went to the tomb, discovered it empty, were “seized with trembling and bewilderment” and then ran away from the scene, talking to no one, because “they were afraid.”
That’s what I call being all burned up, all ashes. The underdog who seems like he’s always going to stay under and it’s NEVER going to get better. The ugly duckling that seems he’s always going to be ugly. The little train that seems like he’ll always fail.
But we know what happened. Death did not defeat Love. Death did not conquer it. Death only changed it. That’s the miracle. Jesus’ words and Jesus’ spirit came alive in his followers and they realized that the whole Rambo-obsession was completely misguided, that what this world needs is less Rambo and more Beloved Community. Gandhi realized that too. So did Dr. King.
What this world needs is less obsession with impossible miracles and more focus on the sort of miracles that can really happen through moral courage and hard work.
COVID-19 is killing so much these days. This is not the same world and this is not the same church we knew just 6 weeks ago. But Easter is telling you and is telling me that death shall not conquer. Death shall only change. The changes will be hard. It’s going to be hard going. But positive seeds are being planted even right now. Right now they are invisible. It’s going to take them a while to get from invisible to visible. But know this: when the seeds start growing, and new life appears, you and I will be amazed.
New life, in the larger world and right here at West Shore.
We Unitarian Universalists should bother with Easter because we can say, with all integrity, “The resurrection and the life is not at all supernatural. It is not about a dead body coming back to life. It’s about broken hearts made whole. It’s about love transforming hate. It’s about planting seeds of beauty and strength and community in fields that are now barren. It’s about the underdog triumphing, against all odds, no matter how long it takes, no matter how hard the road. It happened to the followers of Jesus, after everything they endured. And it can happen to us today, in the shadow of COVID-19. Humans are that resilient. Have hope. This too shall pass. Keep hope alive.”
We Unitarian Universalists get to say that.
That’s why we bother with Easter.