Posts Tagged Easter
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.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This Easter Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/27//16. It looks at the discipleship of Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb, especially in light of North Carolina this week.
Happy Easter everyone! In the Christian holy calendar, we celebrate today the story of hope in the face of oppression. Jesus, a spiritual teacher and reformer, birthed a religious movement that would change the world. But today, we celebrate his life, and his victory over greed, victory over indifference, victory over abuse of power; and that saving message that defines spiritual life: Care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit those in prison.
Earlier, we heard the story from the Gospel of John, told and retold from a few perspectives. Personally, I’m most moved by the telling from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. She’s often overlooked; she’s seen as a secondary figure by many, and not always in a positive light, and sometimes, folks even say things about her that weren’t true. I think most of us go through our lives, at least at some point, where we can relate to that – being overlooked, or passed over, or criticized for things we haven’t done. In fact, it’s the very opposite for Mary Magdalene. Where we often hear about the apostles who witnessed the risen Jesus, Mary is the first person to witness Jesus on Easter. And He tells her to go and tell the others; Mary – Go and Tell Them! Mary Magdalene, a woman who is far too often mistakingly looked down upon, is the Apostle to the Apostles. In a way, she’s the first Christian. But we don’t always talk about it that way; I wonder why?
We heard a historical version of the story, and we heard a personal version of the story. But Scripture is alive and meaningful for today as well as the past. It’s not just a retelling from a community’s perspective, but a way to look at the events of the world today. As I did last year, I may be starting a tradition of con-temporizing Scripture each year for Easter. This year, I’m holding in my heart the news in North Carolina.
Bill Moyers reported that, “In a shocking, unprecedented move, the North Carolina state legislature convened a special session late Wednesday in order to introduce and pass a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, HB-2, which overturns local ordinances protecting gay and transgender rights. Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law later that night, writes CommonDreams.org.”
The ACLU of North Carolina would say, ”Rather than expand nondiscrimination laws to protect all North Carolinians, the General Assembly instead spent $42,000 to rush through an extreme bill that undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay and transgender people from legal protections.”
With this difficult news in mind, I offer this modern take on the Gospel of John:
Late in the night, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene heard the news coming from North Carolina. Late in the night, a sweeping anti-LGBT bill overturned local ordinances protecting gay and transgender people.
So she ran and went to the disciples, the ones whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken Justice out of the court, and we do not know where they have laid it.”
Peter and the other disciples set out to see for themselves. And they saw the remnants lying there. But the cloth, the compassion that covered Justice, was not with the remnants, but rolled up in a place by itself.
At first they did not understand, that Justice must be risen anew in each generation. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping on the state legislature steps. As she wept, she bent over to look into the legislature; and she saw two angels in white – spirits without gender, sitting where Justice had once rested; one at the head and one at the foot.
They said to her, “why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away Justice, and I do not know where they have laid Justice down.”
When she turned she saw Justice standing there, whole and waiting, but she did not recognize it at first.
Justice spoke to her heart, “Whom are you looking for?” Supposing the speaker to be a lawyer, she said to Justice, “Sir, if you have carried Justice away, tell me where, and I will take Justice back.”
But Justice spoke to Mary’s heart, and called her by her name, and she knew once more.
Justice said, “Do not hold onto me here alone, for I have not yet risen in all our hearts. But go to my siblings and say to them, “I am rising. To my God and to your God. From heart to heart.”
Mary Magdalene went and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”
For I have not risen in all our hearts yet…For me, that’s the core of the Easter message. We come out of a time of loss and turmoil; and it’s not magically washed away. Things may still be very difficult, but sometimes difficulty can point toward transformation – without glorifying the difficultly. In North Carolina, where fear and hate have had a chance to wedge themselves into the laws – laws that I can’t imagine will survive Federal Court appeals – we can find hope in the empathy we see in so many people. Decent people are outraged by ignorance, and fear, and bias in our neighbors. That wasn’t always the case, but empathy is rising in more hearts, year after year.
Empathy – a big word that means to understand and care for you in your times of pain, because we understand from having lived through a time of pain ourselves. The Easter story is the ultimate story of empathy – and empathy is a spiritual compass to live by.
Earlier in the service we handed out paper and crayons for drawing. If you have that with you, and would like to reflect – on the side you havent drawn yet, think of a time where you learned to care for others – to be empathetic. Maybe you can draw that. Or think of something inside of you that has been difficult, that you would like to love into something more; maybe a hope for something that means a lot to you. Sometimes the things inside us that used to keep us down, become the things that later in life lift us up.
Walt Whitman says this in his epic poem, “Leaves of Grass.” The excerpt goes, “I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me, I will lift what has too long kept down those smoldering fires… for who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman p. 278. Walt Whitman was a great American Poet, a Unitarian, and like many of us here, from Long Island. This excerpt from his poem talks about what we’ve been reflecting today. What’s the thing inside you that once kept you down, that has become a source of strength and identity in your life? We’re coming to a close in our month where we’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. Part of being liberated, is finding the rough parts in our lives, or finding the things that others chide or make fun of us for, and love them into fullness.
I know as a gay man, that’s been true in my life. What once was threatening to consume me, I now lift up. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Maybe, as the Mary Magdalene story goes, being a woman you’ve been told you’re second to the men around you. That’s not true – and it can be challenge in a world where we’re taught foolish things, to love ourselves into fullness. Or maybe you’re made fun of in school for being smart. I remember being called a geek when I was a kid. But that turns around in time, and the parts we might be embarrassed by because the empathy hasn’t yet risen in the hearts of all our neighbors, becomes sources for understanding life and love, sorrow and joy, all the more fully.
If you haven’t find a thing to draw yet, and you want another idea – try this – What’s that part of you that you want to love more of, or love again, love into fullness? Or what would a people of liberation look like?
Happy Easter everyone. Justice, empathy and liberation have not yet risen in all the hearts of the world, but Go and Tell Them. Hope has risen today. To my God and to your God. Heart to heart.
These homilies were preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Easter Sunday, 4/5/15. They look at the meaning of the open door in Passover and the meaning of Holy Week in light of discrimination posing in the guise of religious freedom.
The Open Door
Growing up in my one-half Italian house-hold, we had an annual tradition of opening our front and back doors to our home on New Year’s Eve. My mom would say we were doing it to let out the bad and let in the good. I hear traditionally, you’re supposed to open all the windows and doors all day so that the draft can wipe away the bad spirits, and the open doors would welcome in the new spirits. In the middle of winter, that’s a bit much for my family, so we would just run from one end of the house to the other side at midnight and open them for a short time. I’ve had a good life, so maybe it worked. But growing up, it sure was fun.
Jewish tradition has something similar this time of year, but for a more profound reason. During the Passover Seder – like the one we celebrated last night – a door is left open to welcome the Prophet Elijah (who our choir just sang about) to the Seder meal. But imagine what else that means. Passover remembers a time when the Jewish people were enslaved by the Pharaoh. The story tells us that there were plagues and locusts that had raged throughout the land as a punishment for the oppression of the Jewish people. Whatever we believe was happening, we can agree that it must have been a terrifying time to go outside. And it’s in this time of uncertainty and fear, that the Jewish people open up their doors and welcome in the Prophet Elijah, someone we may have heard of, but certainly have never met.
The open door is a tradition steeped in a deep sense of trust in God, in the Holy; trust in a sense of knowing one is safe even surrounded by trouble and danger. The prophet Elijah is a herald of God, a teacher, and someone who is believed will return some day to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the Christian tradition the Messiah is believed to be Jesus, a savior of souls. But in the ancient Jewish tradition, the Messiah is believed to be someone who will liberate the Jewish people and bring the world to a place of wholeness.
So if we put ourselves into the Passover story, we’re surrounded by challenge after threat, and we unlock our doors and leave them wide open. This time of year reminds us that there is a religious truth to the practice of hope; to trusting that a sense of wholeness, peace and justice are within our reach, even if we feel surrounded by all the woes of the world. The woes sometimes are very real, but they don’t need to change the nature of our character, of who we are. We can still choose to celebrate, with family and friends, the people and places we cherish and have worth in our hearts.
The practice of the open door is also a way in which we build community. When we share our stories of struggle, of which there are many in our world, in our congregation and in our individual lives, do we share them from only a place of pain? Or do we share them, as friend to friend, or family to family, over a meal, with a sense of trust, that the joys before us will clarify the times of adversity and not be overshadowed by the hardship.
The Once Welcome Stranger
Our reading this afternoon, was a contemporary retelling of the Palm Sunday story. In the bible, the week before Jesus is killed, he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, welcomed by the people who are waving palm fronds. By some, he’s believed to be a leader who will free the Jews from Roman rule. By others, he’s seen as a great spiritual teacher and healer. The poem reminds us of the Christian belief that we find Christ in the stranger, in each other, in people we know and love and in people who are distant and unknown.
It also reminds us that in mainstream society we often hear folks fixate on the powerful, kingly Jesus who will come in glory and power. But, that’s the not the Jesus in the story. We can make a mistake by loving the idea of the powerful messiah more, than the humble Jesus who gave up power – or used his power – to help the weak and the forgotten. His ministry was to humanity at it’s most vulnerable.
Shortly after he arrives to goes to the temple to pray and finds that there are money-changers in the temple profiting off the changing of Roman coin to Jewish coin. The tradition was to sacrifice two doves at the temple, and because it was too hard to travel with live doves from the outer reaches of Judea, there was a strong local business of selling doves once pilgrims arrived at the temple. And the money changers were needed because the Roman’s only allowed Roman coin to be used for payments in Jerusalem, but the Jewish law required the sacrifice to made in shekels (what the Jews coined themselves.) It may not seem like a big deal to us today, but historically this wound up taking advantage of the poor and the downtrodden through costs of high fees. Jesus winds up flipping over the tables of the money changers in anger for their abuse of the poor.
Jesus is confronted about this outburst the next day, and through a series of events throughout the week, where Jesus challenges the systems of oppression under Roman rule, is charged with treason and killed. In the Christian faith, his death and later resurrection, are signs of God’s Grace and forgiveness of mankind’s sins. But in most progressive Christian churches, it is also important to remember why Jesus was killed – because he chose to side with the weak, the poor, and the outcast, against the Roman government.
I remember this when I hear stories in the news, like the ones coming out of Indiana this week. Where a law was passed that legalized bigotry under the guise of Religious Freedom. This law says that any person, or any business, can refuse service to LGBT people because of the business owner’s religious convictions. There are a lot of people in our country that are confusing the freedom to worship as your conscience tells you with the freedom to discriminate against people because you feel like it. Religious freedom isn’t the freedom to persecute others, it’s the freedom not to be persecuted against. And I believe it’s against the religion they are claiming they’re acting in line with.
How does trust in the power of an ancient story, bring support, focus, clarity and meaning today, to a contemporary challenge like the one I just shared? It’s in this light that I want to con-temporize the Easter and Holy Week story, much like the reading we heard earlier retelling the story of Palm Sunday as if it were happening today…
They thought they saw Jesus in Indiana a short time ago. Entering the capitol with fanfare and accolades. They thought they saw him in the governor’s office; all smiles and handshakes as discrimination was written into public policy. But instead, they waved palm branches for Caesar this year. We gave unto Caesar what was God’s. We climbed out of the colosseums, and took hold of the lions’ reins.
They thought Jesus was seen in the pizza parlor in Indiana this week; martyred for religious freedom, as a store was “forced” to close after speaking words of hate in the guise of freedom. They were right. Jesus was there. He was flipping the tables and the trays crying out against the money changers of this day, who will cry religion but mean GoFundMe. The owner of the pizza parlor that said they hypothetically wouldn’t cater a gay wedding should they ever actually be asked to, has since raised over $800,000 from people defending their bigotry under the guise of religious freedom.
They were right. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week. He hung from a cross alongside the poor, the downtrodden, those who are rejected from society. He sees the lives of LGBT Americans, who are not protected by the law against being fired from their jobs. Jesus sees Trans folk who go homeless due to persecution, and remembers a time when his parents were forced to sleep in the night in a manger. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week; and we hung him from the Cross once more.
And the temple was torn in two once more. From top to bottom, the politics of bigotry shook and the rock of national silence split. Many who have fallen asleep from indifference were raised. Numerous states, corporations, celebrities, and even denominations (those on the left, the center and the right) have spoken against this fake religious freedom law, and some have begun boycotting the state.We have given to Caesar what was God’s; making religion subject to the laws of the state; pretending the money-makers, the businesses and corporations are houses of worship. Caesar may be forced to do the right thing this time from the harm to what he truly loves (as the boycotts harm the production of money.) When will God’s people bear witness for God’s sake, and not Caesar’s? When will we act with love, and not merely sound as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal?
I found the story of Easter to be powerful and transformative. I believe it has a depth of meaning that can point us back on the right path when we trip up. There’s the the challenge of Palm Sunday to remember a time when we have spoken or acted with fanfare for his message of compassion, forgiveness and charity, but we forget that – when in our daily lives – it’s hard to deal with the needs of the world. Or the flipping of the tables, and Jesus’ alignment with those who are most in need. In a world where a lot of people allow greed to win over compassion, it’s life-saving to have a message that teaches otherwise. Oppression, discrimination, bigotry, are always on the wrong side of history, and they are always on the wrong side of the gospel message.
But Easter is not solely this social justice message; it’s not solely the spiritual message of salvation and grace. Easter is also a story that lays the bedrock for community. Communities are built upon lessons of compassion and concern. Communities are well-founded when power and privilege don’t become the rule of law. And the virtue of forgiveness is critical, if we ever hope to enter back into community after another wrong is committed. Religions make central these teachings, because these truths are central to life. They must be told again and again. Happy Easter. May this day remind us of the commitments we have faithfully made, and help bring about a world that is worthy of the trust we have been given.
Check out my latests Huffington Post blog here: http://huff.to/1D2nEAg
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.
#35 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn – Based on the sermon, “Resurrection for the Rest of Us” preached by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons at First UU on Easter 3/31/13. This session explores the meaning of resurrection in our own lives.
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) An excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon.
“Death and taxes are supposed to be life’s two inevitabilities and in the Christian Scriptures, Jesus weighed in on both. Taxes, he agreed, are a given. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he said. Death, however, he contested.”
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: An excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon.
“It’s a truism that death is part of life. Parts of ourselves die every day. The process of entering adulthood necessitates the death of part of our childhood. We lose the comfort of breastfeeding or lose our fascination with dinosaurs or our childhood best friend drifts away. Relationships die, identities die, beliefs die, dreams die.
Most of these deaths happen to us, we are passive; we have no control over them. But the wisdom of this season suggests that for resurrection to occur, to awaken into new life, we need to be active participants in letting a part of ourselves die. Painful as it may be, we have to be accomplices to the killing.
We all cling to our selves as they have been. We cling to our fears, cling to our feelings, cling to our rationalizations for why our lives have to be as they are. Letting parts of ourselves die is one of the hardest things in the world. And actually collaborating, actively participating in the death of parts of ourselves is even harder. This is what the Phoenix does when it builds its own funeral pyre and this is what Jesus did when he carried his own cross on his back and this is what the earth does when it blows cold wind and snow onto its own back every winter, killing the grass and leaves and sending all creatures into hiding.”
Discussion Questions: Reflect on the many endings and beginnings in your own life. Which stand out the most as major turning points in your life where rebirth happened? It’s often easier to focus on the endings that brought us difficulty and regret. Were there times that seemed impossible in the moment, but healthy and transformative in hindsight? What grew from them in your life?
After this session, consider writing up a short version of this to share with Rev. Ana. She is seeking to collect these stories all month to be an on-going discussion in our community.
Closing: (please read aloud ) excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon
“The teaching of this season is that there is a force in the universe that makes resurrection possible for all of us – for those of us struggling, feeling stuck, feeling powerless, feeling alone – there is a force in the universe that makes it possible for us to be reborn into freedom, empowerment, and love. We are given little deaths if we are willing to die them and then we awaken.”