This sermon was originally preached at First UU in Brooklyn on April 10th, 2010, one week after Easter.
I had another one of those surreal moments during worship last Sunday for Easter. It’s one of my favorite parts of being here at First UU. I’ll have to paint the picture right first though in order for it to make proper sense. A week ago Thursday, we enjoyed a memorable Seder with 70 or 80 congregants and folks from the community that lasted appropriately for hours. The Haggadah that Cara Muller crafted from various sources was thorough, meaningful and relevant to today. Our Seminarian, Jenn Lindsay’s sung Hebrew was exquisite and moving. It was great to share a meal together, and learn and live a bit of the shared history many of us in our community honors.
On Friday evening, a slightly smaller gathering of 60 of us broke bread for a Good Friday Communion service. This vespers was traditional, sublime and somber. It relived a tradition of this congregation’s that goes back for about a century give or take. Communion silver was polished and set, the altar cloth was prepared and a team of deacons gathered to lead the service with Rev. Patrick and I.
Easter morning, I was sitting on the chancel with Patrick looking out at all of the gathered’s Easter finery marveling at how many join us for this service – close to 300 this year. I was mentally preparing for the service to begin when our latest guest walked up the aisle and sat in about the 4th row of pews in the front and center just off to the left…. Now I knew the 6 foot tall (counting ears of course) Easter Bunny was coming; but I thought she was going straight to the children’s party downstairs. She wasn’t able to make it last year for my first Easter at First UU, so I wasn’t aware she typically chose to join us upstairs. You see, in the first few years of ministry at a congregation, there are so many wonderful facts like this that get left unmentioned because everyone else kind of knows, so people assume I must too. So you can imagine my … joy… at seeing her decide to worship with us for our traditional Easter service. With my very formal Catholic upbringing, this was rather unexpected. Yet another of the many things that I’m fond of about this congregation. We certainly know how to keep it real, keep it family friendly…and a little bit fun.
Our guest reminded me of my childhood expectant Easters. I more or less got the religious meaning of the holiday at the time as a kid but to be very honest I was equally focused on the candy. I wanted the fun of the egg hunts and the sugar induced coma of the sweet-tarts. A deeper appreciation of Holy Week would come later, but I do recall the period of “great waiting” that was the hallmark of this time.
That’s the sugar-coated stories I remember. But both the Jewish story of Passover and the Christian story of Easter are coated in blood, not sweetness. They culminate in hope but they are rooted in pain and sorrow. They speak directly to an all too uncomfortable fact of the lives of so many people on this earth. In the U.S. we are very fortunate to not have to live daily under the realized threat of military violence, so it may be difficult to imagine a justness to the repercussions detailed in scripture. But enjoying the privilege of relative safety, with the notable and rare tragic exceptions like here in NYC 8.5 years ago, I will personally withhold judgment. I can’t imagine living under the yoke Exodus speaks of that God brought the Jewish people out from under. Ex 12:12-15 reads, “It is the Passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Verse 51 goes on to conclude, “51 That very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.” The act of sacrifice and covenant culminated with protection for those who were violently oppressed and brutal punishment for those who were guilty of their abuses. But what then? Years of oppression over! Sacrifice followed by hope! The day comes, and liberation comes, only to be followed by 40 years of wandering in the desert. Why?! Promises were kept, but through a series of mistakes, that some would simply call sins on the part of the people, salvation turned into trial. Doubt arose even after miracle. Fear of what might be, led the people to hold onto what they could touch, rather than what they carried in their hearts. And that doubt led to the people once again needing to look toward another day when they would once more enter the promise land.
Faith and doubt are the counterpoints on the scales of liberation in the Jewish story. It’s the human story too, I feel. We hold onto the hopes of a way through whatever crisis, stress, or fear that plagues us. Whether its emotional, or financial; our health, or our heart. We wait for the news, we wait for the resolution and then the day comes. Sometimes it’s the way through we hoped for, or the message that the promise land is out of reach, for a time or maybe it seems that it’ll be out of reach always.
I believe the Jewish story of Passover and what follows after is a reminder that how we handle what comes before us – is what determines whether we feel like we’ve found our way home, or we’re lost in the desert that is the pit of our despair. Sometimes we may be the source of what causes our suffering, and sometimes the suffering that befalls us would be there regardless of anything that we could do differently. That tragic health prognosis for ourselves or our loved one, is not our fault, but at some point we need to choose whether in light of it we’ll find our way or we’ll be lost. In this story, the God of Israel seems to be saying to us that the path ahead is possible, despite it all, if we stay true to our hearts and keep our integrity.
The Christian story is similar. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, who joined us for our 175th Celebration, has written that, “The cross would cast no shadow were it not for the light of resurrection morn.” Jesus, a teacher of non-violence, compassion, forgiveness and hope suffered the cruelest corporeal punishment the Roman Empire executed. Crucifixion was reserved for insurrectionists and highwaymen. The saving message of building that beloved community on earth; the message of turning us back to our humanity through these virtues he extolled, is tempered by the painful reminders of worldly suffering. The way forward must ever remember the difficult truths of our world if it can ever be followed. Transformation, and resurrection, have no meaning if they don’t honestly accept the reality of human experience and suffering.
Some say that suffering is redemptive…. I would not be one of those people. Suffering can be crippling, or suffering can be transcended, but any redemption that occurs through suffering is only in light of that suffering, not because of it. The moment of resurrection in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships brilliantly reflects back like that light of Easter morning Dr. Morse once wrote of. We do not need to suffer to be reborn, but many of us only choose rebirth when it gets too difficult not to. Even then, it’s not too late.
What of the week after the resurrection central to the Christian story? A woman, Mary Magdalene, was the first to witness Jesus and begin to spread his gospel. His other apostles, the men as it happens, were huddled hidden in a room upstairs – fearful. In the Christian lectionary, the readings that are given this Sunday of the year, John 20:19-31 begins with these first two verses“19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews (which I would clarify were their own people), Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” This is the microcosm of the perennial story of liberation and imprisonment. The greatest moment of Christian salvation has occurred and the apostles of that movement are hidden away upstairs with their doors locked. Whether you believe this story is metaphor or fact, imagine for a moment being those apostles. You’re terrified of your own people. You’re scared that the government – the Roman Empire – might be coming for you next because you were part of some fringe movement that was supposed to end with his execution. We’re supposed to be free, but we lock ourselves away scared of all those people who seemed familiar and safe a moment ago. The story tells us that liberation and resurrection has just occurred, and for the life of us, we can’t see it. We haven’t even gotten word yet.
That’s what we see with the apostle Thomas. The lectionary continues on in verse 24 saying, 24 Now Thomas (called the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I’ve always found this scene in the story very curious. It seems to be suggesting that those who require proof in order to have faith are less blessed than those who have not seen and yet still believe. Centuries of Christian interpretation can be summed up with the critical phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” The Agnostics and Atheists among us might have cringed at some point in their lives over this imagery. I find this scene curious because a week later, one week after the resurrection moment, the door to the room the apostles were hiding in was still locked. They’ve all scene their risen Lord, and claim to be overjoyed in response to Jesus’ acclamation of peace. They are saved, and are the rock of the church to come. And yet, a week later, the door is still locked.
It leads me to think they’re all still scared, and they don’t yet have that sense of liberation, of redemption, of freedom we’re often led to believe. It’s very human. They’ve been led out of Egypt and yet can’t walk out of their bedroom. So what does this mean for us? We’ve gotten word that the prognosis is good, or that our kids made it home from the war, or we got into the school we really wanted to, but we can’t let go of the fear of what might have been. I remember healing from my scary car-pedestrian accident of almost a year ago. It would take me a while to walk on my own without a cane or splint. But even though I got the seemingly miraculous news that nothing was broken even though I was thrown 10 feet, it would be months before I would believe I could do much with my leg. I was fine in body, considering the seriousness of the accident and the couple of weeks where I really couldn’t walk, but I locked my room-for-maneuver away up a flight of stairs that I scarcely thought I could climb back down. More than half of that recovery was a matter of the heart not the body. If the prognosis had been bad, any recovery that could of occurred would have been entirely a matter of the heart, not just half of it. What are you locking away in a room up a treacherous flight of steps you can’t seem to find a way back down from? And the teacher and prophet reminds us, “Peace be with you!”
My childhood cravings told me this time of year were coated with sugar and sweet. They led me with great excitement to the moment of celebration, the moment of fun, the moment of beauty in all it’s finery and splendidly colored eggs. There were giant 6 foot tall bunnies aplenty to bring a smile to my face – and I was very glad for it. The hard work though, begins some point after that moment. All the information is in, the facts seem set, and we now have to do something with it. One week after, life continues on whether or not we’re ready for it. The news can be liberating or mesmerizing or terrifying as we huddle in the corner. When you catch yourself putting the blood on the door in the hopes of the Angel of Death passing over, or you find yourself feeling in your body like you’re truly hanging from the cross – stop. Take a breath. It might be all you feel you can do, so you might as well do it with intention. Come back to that moment. Fill the way forward with intention as often as you can.
Some of us will doubt no matter what; others will say they are overjoyed with their lips but remain trapped in their hearts; and others will find a way to keep ourselves imprisoned in action when all signs pointed to liberation. But like these scriptural stories, there is always another opportunity to let go, to get out, to accept or to heal if only in the heart and not the body. Beyond or despite the facts of whatever situation we find ourselves in, what is most crucial is how we deal with the moment, and not what the moment told us. One week after is when the difficult work begins.