This Easter sermon was preached on 4/20/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY.
Easter can be a challenging holiday for some religious progressives. We recognize the horrors perpetrated against Jews by Christians taking the wrong lesson from the Good Friday story. Some of us come from other religious backgrounds, and this story was never our story. Still others wrestle with the message: that the miracle of resurrection is hard to fathom in a modern scientific world. I’ve heard others not wanting the brutality of the crucifixion shared within earshot of children. And some of us, like myself, were raised and steeped in the mysticism of Easter, learning of the violence and the hope in its proper context – and for us – it’s a deeply powerful story with a message that’s still relevant two thousand years later.
The Easter story, beginning with Good Friday’s crucifixion, is a challenging text. Recounting the gospel of Mark, we hear an account where the Roman authority – Pilate – is convinced to kill Jesus by the efforts of the Jewish chief priests. We’re told of a custom where at this festival one prisoner is released through the will of the crowd. This time, the crowd chooses Barabbas, and condemned Jesus to crucifixion. Pilate, who is imperial Rome’s local liaison to the then Jewish vassal state, offers his last words on the ruling to the crowd, “Why, what evil has he done?” And thereby Mark washes Rome’s hands of Jesus’ death.
This text is a difficult one. Written by an author trying to evangelize the Roman world, words get carefully chosen. Words like “they” and “people” – will trick the reader into thinking the Romans were almost blameless, and the Jews were all at fault, or that magically the Jews were all of one mind. Roman soldiers would be referred to just as “soldier” in the text, right after talking about a Jewish crowd, making some think the soldiers were Jewish – which they were not. Imperial Roman complicity gets hidden, and the Jewish people get blamed for things said or done by Rome.
Even the myth of the custom of freeing one prisoner places the blame solely upon the Jews. Besides there being no such Roman or Jewish custom at the time to free a prisoner, the name Barabbas is a way of saying, “son of the father.” Imagine a crowd chanting to free the “son of the father” and what that would mean. .. But later Roman readers would not know that. And here, early Christianity has a seed planted that would pit some Christians against Jews for the next two thousand years.
At 1pm, this past Sunday, according to CNN, “A man with a history of spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric (was) suspected of shooting to death a boy and his grandfather outside a Jewish community center near Kansas City, Kansas, and then a woman at a nearby Jewish assisted living facility.”… “The Anti-Defamation League said it warned last week of the increased possibility of violent attacks against community centers in the coming weeks, “which coincide both with the Passover holiday and Hitler’s birthday on April 20 (today), a day around which, in the United States, has historically been marked by extremist acts of violence and terrorism.” The boy and his grandfather were both Methodist. The woman was Catholic. All three were deeply tied to their religious communities, and took part in community events at the Jewish community center. They were living in peace with their neighbor.
There is a sector in our population that equates violence and power with personal freedom…. It’s an addiction to privilege that is affronted by diversity. It replaces community and solidarity with a strict devotion to the self over others. Watch-groups are able to predict that violence will occur in the name of Hitler. This particular gunman even invoked Hitler’s name when he was apprehended at a local elementary school. Seeking to cause harm to Jews, his hatred fomented his rage, and random people became victims.
Good Friday reminds us that horrors happen in the world, and we must pay attention. Jesus on the Cross is an indictment of power and rage in a world where Caesar rules – whether Caesar be in office with worldly power, or Caesar resides in the common heart – terrified by the threats of humanity’s common bonds. The death on the Cross is about a life that refused to submit to the will to power or the force of rage. In death, a life well lived reflected integrity and conscience. We are called to live with such integrity, and to strive to prevent such harm in the world. That is our devotion.
But we are not called to glorify this death or any other. Good Friday reminds us that life is sacred, worth living, and occasionally worth dying for. It’s also a reminder that humanity fails from time to time. We craft evil – when it’s easier to be kind. It is our role, as witnesses, to build a different world. As religious progressives, we can fixate so much on our inherent goodness, and forget our propensity for evil.
Good Friday reminds us that humanity has the capacity for both, which makes our actions, and our choices, all the more vital. Our goodness hangs upon the cross this hour. And we are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline is not to move past it too fast – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. Redemption in the Easter story comes later – but first it marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose.
What is this death? The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. When we bear witness to the child or the teen shot dead because of the wrong time, or the wrong place, or the wrong color, or the wrong class. The Cross is there when society looks on in fascination or horror and stands paralyzed to act – only enabling the crime to occur again and again. There is no hope when we see this – but we can pray for purpose.
The Cross returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity.
The story of the Cross is not a myth to ease our fears of the afterlife. It is not solely a tale of someone making a sacrifice for our good – or our ease – for our comfort. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world. The lynching trees of our history and our present can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods. There is a cross that hangs on the corner of the street – on so many streets.
Inertia. Apathy. Numbness. They can plague us sometimes. With the barrage of so many stories of grief, of loss – we can succumb to hopelessness. We can ignore them all, by throwing up our hands, and saying, “Not one more thing. Not me. I can’t fix it all. So I won’t begin anywhere.” That’s the warning of the cross. You won’t be able to fix it all. … That’s the truth. The Christian message doesn’t say we can fix it all. It says we have to act where we can. It says – “On this day – Don’t look away. You need to see this. There is something that can be done for the person before you. For the Cross on this street corner.” You can choose to be the soldiers dicing over the garments of the man on the Cross, or you can be the onlookers gaping in mute horror, or you can be the women at his feet who care for the body and quietly resolve to change the world as best they can – to live their life in memory of a man killed by worldly powers and worldly privilege.
This is why we commemorate the life and death of Jesus. There are some things worth living for; there are some things worth dying for; and there are some things worth remembering.
Spiritually, we can also look at it as a testament to the audacity of life in the face of power. Christian theologian Delores Williams writes, “”Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love’ manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather… the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life – to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between the body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit.” I feel this is the spirit of the Christian path that most strongly lives on in our Unitarian Universalist communities. How do we live a life of meaning, amidst all the world’s struggles around wealth, authority, and consumption? How do we build up communities when nations sometimes seek to divide and control? Which traditions hold us up and which traditions hold us back? Does a life of spirit have meaning to us any longer, and what does it feel like if it does?
The world of the bible is in some ways very similar to ours. It speaks of a people trying to survive within radically changing times. We are blessed here not to suffer under an imperial power, but many around us know the curse of poverty, or the imbalance in a stratifying economy, or the lack of equitable access to opportunities. Religion is changing, family structures are changing, how we view security, safety and information are all matters in flux. And today we focus in on the life of a prophet who reminded us there was a right way to live. In fact, his students were known as “followers of the way.” In this path, we’re asked not only to love our neighbor as our self. Not only to forgive 70 times 70. But to lift up the poor, to steer away from worldly power – and yes again – that some things in life are not only worth dying for,… but they are worth living for too.
Check out my latest Huffington Post Blog! “The Meaning of Good Friday”
This sermon was updated and preached on 4/6/14 in Huntington. It looks at how one can be a disciple of a path rather than a certainty.
Have you ever walked, jogged, or rolled across the Brooklyn Bridge? One day I was planning on meeting up with a friend in the West Village for dinner, when I was still living in Brooklyn, and I decided to take a stroll. In my mind, it seemed like it was going to be quite a bit of a stroll, but it was a warmish evening and the sky was clear.
To my surprise, it took me a little bit longer to figure out how to get onto the bridge than I expected. Traffic patterns, turn signals, cement barricades and one entrance feed later – I found my way. On paper (or the internet) the bridge was pretty close to my old Brooklyn Heights neighborhood – but you kind of have to already know the patterns to join the pathway. Even with the clearest map the electronic highway can produce, you have to do it once yourself, with all the natural missteps along the way, in order to get it. And between you and me… I broke out the GPS… shhh!
So I get on the entrance ramp, for lack of a better word, to one of the world’s greatest bridges, and it’s only about as wide as I am tall. No wonder I missed where it started! Walking along the now clearly demarcated pathway, stopped traffic was only separated from me by about 5 feet and low cement walls. People’s frustration was clear on their faces, all the while I was feeling a sense of success for finding my way and the surety of knowing I didn’t have to make any more choices for a bit of time.
Then the first cyclist came clown-bell ringing his way toward me. Enough of the sight-seeing; momentum and a narrow walkway meant I had some quick twisting to do. Surviving a few encounters with fast-paced inertia; the sort where you realize unless you move differently, no one’s going to, I achieved the bridge!
It was about at this point that I recalled exactly how bad my fear of heights actually is. I’m pretty good if there’s some width, or breadth or dozens of feet between me and a down that I can’t actually see. In my head I was thinking, “There are whole car lanes between me and down. I’ll be fine.” I had forgot that the pedestrian walkway has those lovely little holes and slats that show you what’s below you. You have to face it all. No one’s going to hide the brutal reality of “down” for the feint of heart. After the initial horror, and then the wondering why no one thought to cover that up, I have to admit, it was kind of exhilarating!
After the acrophobia subsided a bit, I started to notice how I was the only person walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I began wondering if I missed the memo. In a city of 8 million, how is that no one is walking this same direction as me? The sights are awesome, and the view is energizing and scary, but I’m having that not so infrequent NYC alone feeling even though I’m around a ton of people. So many people dream of being right where I am, and I’m wondering how did I get here, where am I going … and why are those 8 million people walking in the other direction?
When I got to the midway point on the bridge, I took a breather. I reveled in the solidness of the central pillar. And by “reveled”, I mean to say, “clung” to the solidness of the central pillar. And by “breather”, I should say, “started to breathe” again. I could see how awesome the view was. There were a lot more people hanging about here. Propping cameras up in small crevices so that their timers could capture a moment between a couple. Fingers pointing toward this or that. This particular night was our first warm night despite it not yet being spring. I had a better sense of where I was, and which way to go again once I was ready. I was comforted by the peacefulness of the center’s surety, but I had dinner plans to go to. The West Village was calling, and there was a long way still to go.
And thus ends the parable of the bridge. Broadly, I see our faith, Unitarian Universalism, as that bridge. It is what I consider one of the world’s great religions. Spanning back to the reformation, Unitarianism in Europe, like many of the other early Protestant traditions, formed from the thoughts, writings and martyrdom’s of those that came before us. We have grown into a very contemporary religious expression, but our roots go deep.
Having a 400 year arc of tradition and change, how does one who is new to the faith, find their way in? How does one who was born into our religion, balance their life-path with the demands and rigors of our values? How can you live into this religious community when we all don’t have the same beliefs? It can often feel very difficult to find one’s way onto the bridge. The many traffic signals, cement barricades and the on-line maps of life tell us how to live and how to be. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they just don’t speak the truth. Consumerism teaches us to be more productive at the expense of living deeply. The crush of the Metro New York area and the protestant/american/capitalist work ethic informs folks who are salaried or who are holding two or more jobs, that working less than fifty hours a week is being lazy. I’ve heard this concern enough times before and since the recession, that I think it’s crucial to point out the following value – and it is very much a value. The 70 hour work week might be a reality for some of us, but lazy doesn’t start at under 50 hours. That mindset makes us automatons, not humans.
I remember a high school education with 8 classes, no lunch period – didn’t need it since the teachers would let me eat during class time, choir, track, and theatre. Mornings that started at 6am, and homework that ended by 9 or 10pm at night during the week. And mom still sent me to church and church school on the weekend as a kid. As a teen, I began returning the favor to mom, reminding her to make it to Mass.
Cement barricades serve their purpose; they keep traffic flowing, give solidity to our way of life. They also make some of us have to walk a few extra blocks out of the way to get where we’re going. Where’s the path that lets us maintain our jobs and find time for a religious life? Homework on Sunday mornings means there’s no room to explore our values; just our facts. Are we raising our children to be pro-Soccer athletes, or are we raising our children to be spiritually mature, good people? The cement dividers are here to stay. We have to find another way. When we take out our maps, or memorize those google maps and see where the blocked paths are, we need to make the personal choice to not be surprised when the path is long. We need to manage our expectations. And when we still lose our way, and know that we will all lose our way at least at one point, the GPS of congregational life – our clergy, fellow congregants, our parents, our sons and daughters, need to be ready to help point the way.
So, look around. … This might surprise some of us, but this week, we are the ones who made it. Not everyone makes it hear each week. We’re walking up the entrance ramp. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done so. Coming to the congregation might be the challenge, with seemingly narrow paths to joining. You haven’t seen all the activities, heard all the stories, served the call of justice-making in all its ways yet. At first the walkway may seem tight, but trust me, if you keep walking forward it will seem more open. One significant widening of our pathway is happening this month. Our Committee on Ministry has crafted a Mission Statement reflecting two years of cottage meetings from the Ministerial Search, and months of meetings this year. If you look in our Order of Service, I think on the inside cover, you’ll see the old Mission Statement. For folks who have been coming awhile, can you quote the several paragraphs by heart? (Any hands?) That’s a way in which the pathway stays tight. It’s hard to articulate our purpose when our purpose is so verbose. The new Mission Statement to be voted on at the April 27th congregation meeting is: “In Religious Community, we nurture our spirits by caring for one another and helping to heal the world.” Pending that vote, joining this community means that we recognize the value of community, and how compassion and social justice are spirit deepening practices. We matter, and how we act in community matters. And acting our values matter. This becomes what we are about – clearly.
For some of us, we’ve been coming for years and are active members. We volunteer our time, money and a ton of heart. So many folks here have given so much – and I am so grateful for your volunteer work. The teachers, the committee members, the people who keep the roof up, and the floor safely on the ground. The newsletter editors, the folders, the folks that keep our shelter safe and warm. Those who help honor our dead, and turn on our lights. The preachers, the counselors, the sound mixers, the webmaster, the youtube videographer, the pageant director. And the list will inevitable go on to at least one more role that I haven’t mentioned, no matter how many volunteer services I’ll name. Because we’re a community of many people who share many gifts.
But whether you set up your first Shelter Cot (like me last Sunday) or you’ve prepared a dozen Seder meals, in some ways we may be at the same place. We probably agree with the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism. And yet you might still be figuring out how to feel your way onto or up that ramp. You’re inline with our ethics and our causes, but the question of identity still seems elusive. Maybe, just maybe, the spirit in Unitarian Universalism hasn’t caught hold. The zeal of evangelism, even if it’s only to evangelize yourself, hasn’t taken grip. You might seek to figure out where our religious tradition’s values matches your own. You agree that people have value and worth; that justice, equity and compassion are imperative in this troubled world; that beliefs need not divide us in all things; that the search matters; that all voices should be heard; that world community is a goal; and that we are all related and that the natural world is inclusive in the word “we.” These principles ought to be impressive, because they are daunting and very difficult to follow.
For those of us who this describes, let me challenge you a bit, more than you already are in striving to live up to these values. In the month ahead, ask yourself what does our faith tradition ask you to do? When you catch yourself thinking, “I agree with that ethic, or value, or principle,” follow-up by asking yourself, “What can I do, or say, or consider in light of that value that I wasn’t doing, or saying, or considering before?” Consider it a spiritual self-assessment. We do all sorts of assessments in our lives – with our finances, our job performance, our buildings and homes. It may be time to perform one over what matters among the most in our lives.
I believe that’s the core of the meaning of the word discipleship. We often think of it in terms of Jesus’ disciples; men who were following a central figure. How can we be disciples when we don’t all have the same views, and many of us maintain an agnostic stance to faith? Discipleship can also be to a path, to a way of living. Our principles and purposes are not easy to maintain all the time, in all ways. Living them, intentionally, can change us for the better. Being devoted to that practice strengthens our character. For example, fostering justice, equity and compassion in human relations is not just a nice thing to do. It has implications on our perspectives and our personality. From time to time we’re all guilty of wanting to be the one to end up right and the other person to end up wrong. We get into struggles that are more about me, myself and I, rather than we and us. When we retract behind our Ego fortresses, we’re not living up to the practice of the second principle I just mentioned. We’re not living our path. We become devoted to something else – something with less substance or power.
For those of us who are ready for Advanced Lifespan Religious Education 405, take what you realize, or learn, or remember from that spiritual self-assessment and share it with your fellow congregant. Most week’s we invite a member to share how our congregation has deepened their spirit or transformed who they were for the better. Hannah Arendt once suggested that the highest form of human action is speaking amid and engaging with others. I think this point is often particularly difficult for Unitarian Universalists, not the speaking up bit, but the engaging with others about our spiritual values. We often act as if we are imposing on others, should we engage in a discussion about values as they pertain to religion.
…Raise your hand if you are easily swayed; if you do whatever you’re told; if any belief shared with you becomes your own. (Be gentle with those whose hands are up.) We kid ourselves into thinking we are being responsible by not engaging with one another over our values. Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. That’s another aspect of the agnostic disciple. We go out into the world and engage with one another about matters of the spirit, of the heart, of the mind. I sometimes imagine we’re helping convert people away from being automatons, away from their ego fortresses.
Be genuine as you engage, but remember to engage. Some parents here have heard me remind them that most of our religious education happens at home. One can not learn Algebra or Spanish by studying it one hour a week for nine or ten months a year – it only adds up to about 40 hours, or one week of school. Believe me, I tried that approach with Spanish, and it did not go well for me. It takes immersion. We are that immersion. If religious education ends in the classroom, our oldest youth may have as much as 12 weeks of full-time class with very little homework or 3 months – one semester – over the whole span of our religious education program. And that’s if you attend every Sunday. Our folks who joined us as adults may have but a few hours. Since we are that immersion course, I need you to help me out by practicing our spiritual fluency with regularity.
As a quick aside, just like the widening ramp, let me warn you, at some point in your religious life, you will likely encounter someone speeding toward you rapidly ringing their clown-like bell to get out of their cycling path. Whether you may feel that’s coming from the pulpit, or coffee hour, please do not take my challenge toward deeper engagement to sound like a ringing cyclist on a narrow path. Be nimble, be swift. Take what is of value, even if it turns out to simply be that cycling (like spiritual engagement) is a healthy sport, and turn to the side as you need. We control not the sounds and bells along the way, only that we continue to have a path to share. How we share it is all our responsibility.
Some of us lament the lack of neat, simple answers in our faith to the questions of belief. This is the particular challenge of the Agnostic Disciple. Like my acrophobic-induced panic attacks, we do not cover up what’s below us and around us with straight, hard, and opaque answers. There are times in life where we feel we may desperately need the certitude of truth to be known by us as clearly expressed belief. … We don’t build that way. We lay walkways and frameworks that allow us a clear view in all directions – even the scarily downward ones; yet the path is firm. Millions have walked it. And it can get exhilarating if you let it. Know that belief does not equal faith. The path we walk is our faith. We may construct that faith with varying beliefs, but the wise choice of wood, metal, solid, or porous does not diminish the path. These choices will change the view though.
Some of you may question my choice in the West Village as the destination of my little spirit-walk. Kingdom of Heaven, Beloved Community, or Nirvana it may or may not be. But it was where I was going. I just so happened to know this time which way I headed. We don’t always know that. But the path remains as firm as it needs to be. We have chosen, or continue to choose each day, to walk through this precious and rare gift that we know as life in the manner we do. Each day we see a rebirth to this life, and are faced with the most serious question we can be asked. How do we live? Knowing that the majority of our religious education comes from one another in how we choose to answer this question of living; consider how you model the role of teacher; how do you model the role of disciple? What would your students learn from you? How would they learn to live their life? Where do you connect with our values? Where do you fall short? From time to time, we all succeed and we all fall short. Each day that we see a rebirth to this life is a new opportunity to change, to grow and always and ever to teach.
Spirit of Devotion, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We pause this hour to reflect on our commitments, our obligations, and our burdens,
help us to gain insight into where we have laid down our devotions,
where we have placed our hearts,
who we have shared our lives and our dreams with.
For those of us struggling with persevering,
who are giving their all just to get by,
grant them strength in this time of difficulty,
lighten their hearts, even as their shoulders are weary.
For those who are seeking a right path, a new way,
may wisdom be known to help find a true purpose,
knowing that even when we are lost, we are not alone.
For those at ease, those of us who are complacent,
may a Spirit of Newness enter our minds,
and stir us to action.
Mother of Wisdom, remind us that each of us will know these challenges
throughout our lives.
Teach us to help those in need when we are strong,
to help even when we are weak,
and when we are afflicted,
to remember that all trials will some day pass,
We pause this hour to express gratitude to all the people of this congregation,
children, youth and adults,
who have helped to make this community thrive.
For the countless hours of support cleaning, and building, and stocking, and folding, and prepping, and teaching, and leading, and planning, and learning;
we give thanks.
We would not be a community were it not for all of our service to one another.
It is with this commitment to gather that we make scared this space.
Let us be a house of welcome
knowing each of us comes here,
not our own,
formed by earth,
and the generations that came before;
may we welcome each other
as life as welcomed us into her home.
We gather once more around our sacred fire, much like the generations have since the dawn of humanity, to share story and song. We make holy this place through our commitment to gather. From the light we carry in our hearts, we kindle this flame as a beacon of liberal religious faith.
Spirit of Presence, God of Many Names, and One Abundant and Transforming Love,
Welcome us back to our center.
Help us to find the quiet of the moment,
amidst all the bustle and conflict in our lives.
May we find your wellsprings in our time of plenty,
and our hours of dryness,
knowing that solace is always a breath away.
Some of us our grieving this week,
lost fathers, lost daughters, ongoing struggle with illness,
difficult news, the search for good work, the stress of tests and college applications.
Ground us when we are stressed,
lift us up when we are tired,
teach us to turn down the volume of over-thinking when we find ourselves trapped in all the possibilities.
Others of us are celebrating successes in school, on the field, in the Scouts; welcoming grand babies, coming home healthy from the hospital, making a new friend when we felt alone.
Mother of Life, center us in joy,
teach us to remember that life calls to life,
and we are ever so called.