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.