Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sermon: "Easter for Unitarian Universalists" (Delivered 4-4-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Connect - To connect on a shared spiritual journey. Click here for more information.

Reading
[This reading is by UU minister Rev. Daniel Budd. It appears in the collection Celebrating Easter and Spring, edited by Carl Seaburg and Mark Harris.]
We received an invitation from our neighborhood newspaper to place an ad for Easter. Someone suggested to me that, should we advertise, it should say something like, “Join us. We’re not sure what happened.”

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone appears whose message we feel offers hope; who inspires us with new ways of living which touch our hearts and lift our spirits in anticipation. We know what it’s like when they fall short of our expectations, or worse, are cut down by the forces of hate and bigotry.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone has grown profoundly into our own lives, who seems as much a part of our living as our own breathing, whose presence lives in our souls. We know what it’s like when death takes them from us, perhaps prematurely, and the empty place in our souls is much like an empty tomb.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to feel sorrow and loss, despair and grief. We know the waves of tears and the thoughts of the past which flow through us, which begin to fill the emptiness with stories and memories, begin to shore us up again with a different presence which will live with us for all of our lives.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to realize, to have it dawn upon us, that what we have known and loved lives on now with and within us, a part of who we are. We know that somehow, in our hearts and souls, resurrection is real: not that of the body, but of the spirit—a spirit renewed, even reborn, in the midst our lives and our living.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know that there is a difficult hope, a faith, that through the living of whatever sorrow and grief we feel (and will continue to feel on occasion) there is also a growing sense of grace and gratitude, of joy and thankfulness, in the mysterious and abiding astonishment of human being.

Sermon
Just recently, my beloved colleague Jane Rzepka retired as the minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. When she served as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Reading, Massachusetts, she wrote the following newsletter column:
Every year, I fight the feeling that our UU churches just can’t win on Easter. Our familiar congregation will come through our doors, alongside a number of Easter visitors we’ve never seen before. Why do they come?
• To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
• To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
• To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection.
• To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days.
• To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition.
• To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter…
I think you get the point. Jane Rzepka closed her newsletter column with both an affirmation and a hope. She said, “We each have religious stories, spring dreams, [and] seasonal celebrations… May we bring ourselves and our stories to church this morning and consider the blend a blessing.”

There is an old, painfully self-deprecating joke about Unitarian Universalists that goes that if you drive through a town on Easter Sunday you can always tell the UU church apart. All the other churches will have signs that proclaim, “Hallelujah! Jesus is risen.” The Unitarian Universalist sign will announce, “Hooray! Flowers are pretty.”

Unfortunately, there is some truth to the joke. On the email list for UU ministers you can always bet that there will be an uptick of messages shooting back and forth the week before Easter. Predictably, year after year, there is certain to be a discussion between those ministers serving congregations that mostly ignore Easter and instead hold Flower Communion on Easter Sunday and those congregations, like ours, that hold Flower Communion on a different Sunday. The email exchange inevitably includes a few voices which scold and chide those ministers who avoid Easter. And, it also includes a few ministers from the Northern states, where spring has not yet unwrapped the flowers, who jealously resent their colleagues in warmer climates for having the choice to avoid Easter. [Just for the record, let me say that the reason we do not hold Flower Communion on Easter is not because I think an all-daffodil communion would be aesthetically monotonous.]

In her newsletter column Rev. Rzepka lists a number of mutually exclusive desires that her congregants have when it comes to Easter. Some want traditional music; others want non-traditional music. And so forth and so on. Rev. Rzepka then claims that Unitarian Universalists just can’t win on Easter. But, let me say that if the goal is to please and satisfy everyone, none of our churches will win on Easter, or Christmas, or on most any other day for that matter. If your goal in life is to please everyone, well good luck with that; let me know how that goes for you. I might add that as a church we are not in the satisfaction business and the moment we delude ourselves into thinking that we are we have already lost before we’ve even started to play the game.

But I have a feeling that her newsletter column is actually writing about something more than the challenge of trying to please those with different preferences. Those different preferences are accounted for in our hymnal, which contains hymns set to the same music, but with theologically divergent lyrics. Some of us would no doubt prefer to sing hymn #268:
Jesus Christ is risen today
Earth and in chorus say
Raise your joys and triumphs high
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply
Others of us would prefer that we sing hymn # 61:
Lo, the earth awakes again
From the winter’s bond and pain
Bring we leaf and flower and spray
To adorn this happy day.
Both of these hymns are in our hymnal, just as in every UU congregation, as Rev. Rzepka, there are members who wanted to hear about “the newness of the spring [and] the pagan symbols of the season” on Easter Sunday and members who wanted to hear about “Jesus and His resurrection” on Easter Sunday.

I want to suggest that the idea that Unitarian Universalist churches just can’t win on Easter has to do with something more than trying to reconcile the diverse theological approaches our theologically diverse congregants bring to worship.

Another part of the reason why it seems like we can’t win is that Easter celebrates a supernatural event in the resurrection while our tradition emphasizes the human works and teachings of Jesus. Classical Unitarian Christology, which is to say the way that Unitarianism makes sense theologically of the meaning of Jesus, points to Jesus as a profound moral teacher and a dedicated advocate for a world made fair with all her people one. For most Unitarian Universalists it is the life of Jesus, not the afterlife, that is important. We are inspired by Jesus’ care for the poor and concern for the widow, orphan, and prisoner. We are moved by his peaceful resistance to the brutality of the Roman Empire. We celebrate the beloved community that gathered around him, an ecclesia that bridged the divisions of class and ethnicity, that fully welcomed the literal and metaphorical lepers of society. To us, Jesus is the dark-skinned socialist who embraced health care for all.

That is the Jesus whom we can embrace: Jesus as prophet. Jesus as teacher. Jesus as enlightened figure. But, the supernatural Jesus is one who challenges many of us: The Jesus who walks on water. The Jesus who multiplies fishes and loaves. The Jesus who rises from the dead on the third day. It won’t surprise many of you to learn that Sophia Lyon Fahs, the Unitarian religious educator who dominated our approach to religious education for over half a century, taught that the miracle of the multiplication of the fishes and loaves was achieved by getting the multitudes to let go of the small parcels of food they had hoarded out of fear of scarcity and to share, one with another, out of a sense of abundance.

But, I want to go one step further and suggest that even our resistance to supernaturalism fails to fully account for the challenge that Easter poses. I would argue that Easter poses a different challenge. Not a challenge of assent to a supernatural doctrinal proposition, but a different challenge: A challenge that has more to do with faith than with belief. The challenge of how we respond to disappointment, devastation, and the failure of enormous expectations.

For us as Unitarian Universalists, I would insist that we best learn the lessons of Easter by observing the actions and reactions of the disciples over the course of the Holy Week.

Last week I preached on the passage in Luke 22 when Peter denied Jesus three times, a denial based not only on calculated self-preservation but also on a deeply felt sense of shame. All throughout the holy week we observe all kinds of very interesting and very intense and very human behaviors on the part of the disciples. Moreover, these are behaviors that we might observe in ourselves from time to time.

The disciples had high expectations for Jesus. Entering the Holy Week, some of the disciples expected Jesus to perform a miracle to end all miracles, recapture Jerusalem, and ascend to an earthly throne. As the week goes on the disciples become increasingly impatient, competitive, and even despondent. They argue with one another about whom Jesus loves most. They jockey, clambering for Jesus’ attention and affection. In the Garden of Gethsemane they ignore Jesus’ instructions to keep vigil and fall asleep instead. It is as if a collective melancholic despondency has settled over them.

The most obvious example of a disciple who grows discouraged is Judas. Judas is most normally regarded as a traitor who falls under the power of the devil and who betrays Jesus for personal gain. But, some New Testament scholars paint a different picture of him. One school of New Testament scholarship insists that the name “Iscariot” comes from the word “sicaroi.” The "sicaroi” were dagger-men who resisted the Roman Empire by assassinating Roman soldiers. Under this interpretation, Judas comes across less as a greedy betrayer and more as a zealous and radical figure who grew disappointed that things were not happening fast enough. “We’re supposed to be cleansing Jerusalem with the force of God on our side and instead you have us sitting around praying.” [This interpretation was the one I learned in my academic training but it has since become a minority interpretation.]

It is this growing frustration and sense of disappointment that we witness with the disciples that leads Marilyn Sewell to write,
But the true rising from the dead, the true awakening in this story, is what happens to the disciples. They expect Jesus to be crowned king, but he is crucified like a common criminal. He is not God, and God does not save him from his fate—big surprise for the disciples. These events shook their world—totally destroyed their dreams of overturning the Roman oppressors and establishing their own kingdom.

Post-crucifixion, the disciples woke up to a very different reality. They were chastened, sobered. But gradually, they found themselves strangely in love—filled with love. They were not in love with pride, as before, not in love with ego, but in love with God, or the Godness, the goodness, within.
When I think of what Easter means for Unitarian Universalists, this is the lesson that I would point towards. What happens to us, to our own spirits, to our relationships, to our sense of community, when events shake our world and disappoint our dreams? Do we practice denial? Do we engage in petty feuds? Do we practice destructive betrayal?

Or, do we do something else? Do we turn not away but towards one another? Do we find ourselves strangely in love? Do we minister to the disappointment of our brothers and sisters? When Reverend Jane Rzepka wrote that the blessing is a blend, she was writing about the ability to let go of your own ego needs and to take the time to understand the needs of someone else.

Or, as Daniel Budd puts it,
“We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to feel sorrow and loss, despair and grief. We know the waves of tears and the thoughts of the past which flow through us, which begin to fill the emptiness with stories and memories, begin to shore us up again with a different presence which will live with us for all of our lives...

“We know that there is a difficult hope, a faith, that through the living of whatever sorrow and grief we feel (and will continue to feel on occasion) there is also a growing sense of grace and gratitude, of joy and thankfulness, in the mysterious and abiding astonishment of human being.”