This Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/23/17. It explores the role of doubt and faith in light of living into the message of Passover and Easter.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have a lot that go on this time of year – religiously speaking. Passover and Easter meant we were celebrating two, difficult yet ultimately joyous holidays, in quick succession. Saturday night had song, and food, children pantomiming rivers of blood and hosts of frogs. And if you can’t imagine what pantomiming rivers of blood what might mean, don’t worry, no red crepe paper was actually harmed in the celebration of the holy day. And the following morning, our children enjoyed an Easter egg hunt, in our Memorial Garden, in what might have been the most perfect Easter weather I have ever experienced. One of the things I love about our Fellowship is how the community designed a memorial garden that would be warm, lovely and welcoming enough that our kids would enjoy an Easter Egg hunt there – and that our folks would want to craft spaces that were welcoming to all ages.
Being so open to play, being willing to shake the norms, or shake worn expectations, sometimes leads to some odd places. A few years ago, when I was serving another congregation, I think I saw the envelope pushed a little further than I might have been ready for. Easter morning, I was sitting on the chancel of a UU church with a very traditional Neo-Gothic style architecture; stain-glassed windows, wooden pews, solid stone walls. I was looking out at all of the gathered’s Easter finery. 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. Now – this is true for us here too, so please try to take it to heart. 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. (Like even this morning, I knew a dragon was coming to the service, but until last week, I didn’t know we even had a dragon that I could call upon. Someone should have told me we had dragons…). So you can imagine my … joy… at seeing the Easter Bunny decide to worship with the UU’s for our then very traditional Easter service. Add in my very formal Catholic upbringing, this was a rather unexpected challenge. (So please hear me, if anyone is getting any rabbit ideas for next year… [shakes head no].)
That famous 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 just as focused on the candy. I wanted the fun of the egg hunts and the sugar-induced coma of the sweet-tarts. (Remember when we could eat a punchbowl of candy without getting sick? Oh the good ol’ days.) The 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 – “The Very Hallmark Easter.” (This might be a little less pronounced for those who were raised Jewish, or maybe not since commercialized Easter knows no bounds in the modern US.) 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 from foreign powers, although many of our people are increasingly feeling unsafe from legal changes and practices. So it may, or may not be difficult, to imagine how just the repercussions were that we hear of in the scriptural stories. But enjoying the privilege of relative safety, with the notable and rare tragic exceptions like here in NYC 16 years ago, I will personally withhold judgment. I can’t imagine living under the yoke, that Exodus speaks of, where God brought the Jewish people out from under.
Ex 12:12-15 reads, “It is the Passover of the Lord. 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. 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. 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, “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? No, we pause in the story of Exodus where freedom from bondage is won; but it’s not too long before the people succumb to uncertainty. Doubt arose even after miracle. Fear of what might be, led the people to hold onto what they could touch, erecting golden calves that promised the certainty of old bondages, rather than the promise of what they carried in their hearts. And that doubt held the people back another 40 years to wander, before the promise was finally realized.
Faith and doubt are the counterpoints on the scales of liberation in the Jewish story; which is also the human story. We hold onto the hopes of a way through whatever crisis, stress, or fear that plagues us – whether it’s 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, now retired, famously said, “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. Transformations, 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. 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 that is 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 a week after Easter are found in, John 20:19-31
“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!” 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. Scripture continues, “Now Thomas (called the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 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.” 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!” 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.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 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 – (or maybe they may have been proud of it.) 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 seen 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 the time I was hit by a car as a pedestrian – I’m coming on that 7-year anniversary in a month. It took me 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 in the air, 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 was literally locked up in my second floor apartment, 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 these times 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 had pointed toward 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.