Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saving Paradise: an Easter sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 12, 2009

Sing with me if you remember this old song reminiscent of Easters past or let us sing it to you, if it’s unfamiliar.
I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear the son of God discloses,
And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

My best friend in high school once told me, when we were girls, growing up in the First Baptist Church of Athena Oregon, sitting on the front row of the sanctuary under the watchful eye of my dad in the pulpit, that she used to think God’s name was Andy, because of this old hymn we just sang. I have since heard of other children who recited, “Our Father who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.”

We chuckle at these childish memories and the innocence and naivete of childhood; we may remember our own childhoods and some of the things that were important to us then. Many of those values have stuck with us and we may sometimes long for the way things used to be, as we live in a world that is increasingly complex and hard to fathom.

Easter and Passover are a time of the year when the old ways are celebrated and mined for new meaning, a time when we feel grateful for the ancient ways, yet aware that we have moved beyond the literality of those ancient ways.

Recently I’ve been reading the latest book by our own Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry---“Saving Paradise”. Dr. Parker and her colleague Rita Brock made an astounding discovery as they explored the earliest vestiges of Christian practice in the first ten centuries of the Common Era, or “Anno Domini, the year of our Lord”.

Let me read you the first lines of the prologue to “Saving Paradise”: “It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not?”

And from a review of the book: “…Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker…discovered something that traditional histories of Christianity and Christian art had underplayed or sought to explain away…
“During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence in a vibrant world. He appears as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But he is never dead. When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise---paradise in this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God.
“But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do.”

This idea, that early Christianity was based on images of paradise promised by Jesus as the reward for a new life in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, piqued my interest, for it was new to me. I’d always wondered about the heavy insistence by most denominations on Jesus’ sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, when I considered his message of love and mercy to be much more important than how he died.

Jesus died under horrible circumstances, according to most ancient sources. And he must have known that his resistance to Roman oppression and his teachings of a new interpretation of Jewish thought would get him in trouble, big trouble. In none of the stories of his life and death does he appear to be fearful or evasive about the realities of the danger. Death by execution or assassination seemed to be inevitable and he faced it squarely.

Yet his promises of Paradise, both to his followers, to the crowds who listened, to the thief on the cross beside him during his last hours, those promises superseded the specter of death, and after that dreadful event, despite their grief, his followers clearly expected that promise to be fulfilled.

Consequently, in the centuries following his death, it was more important to teach new followers about the promises of Jesus, about the Kingdom of God being within each person, about the need for mercy, pity, and love in human relations, rather than about his sacrificial death.

Remember that in Roman life, whether in occupied lands or in Rome itself, a pantheon of gods shaped the cultural life of the community. Jews in Roman-occupied lands were subject to Romans who were themselves subject to the whims of the Roman gods---who did not care at all how humans treated each other.

So Jesus’ teachings that God loves humankind and treats humans better if they live according to the Divine plan, was a brand new idea, and very appealing to people who were beaten down by the strictures imposed by Roman rulers and their soldiers.

Mercy and pity and love for all persons, not just family members but even the undeserving, were generally thought to be defects of character in that ancient setting. They were impulsive responses based on ignorance, and not to be given into. This tended to be the belief of some classical philosophers, who regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions.

This was the moral climate in which Christianity emerged, teaching that mercy is a primary virtue, that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful, that Christians please God by loving each other and extending that love beyond the boundaries of family and tribe.

So this was the cultural milieu into which Jesus brought his message. And those who heard it were eager to learn all they could about this new life. A world where people treated each other kindly, mercifully, with understanding and respect---this was a world they wanted to create for themselves and their children, no matter what the price. This was the meaning of Jesus’ life to those early Christians.

And despite the setback of Jesus’ terrible death, the cruelty of the conditions in which they lived, the fear that they would be seen as accomplices to a criminal, the followers of Jesus taught those who came in search of a new life the principles of love and mercy and justice, making sure that they understood well what the requirements were for entrance into the new life.

And when each new follower, or catechumen, had been adequately prepared, the rite which established that person as a fullfledged member of the community was baptism, the immersion of the body in water to symbolize their dedication to a new way of life. Each person was led into a pool of water, immersed fully in the water and lifted up to be clothed in white, symbolic of the leaving behind of old ways and cleansed of sin.

One of my clearest memories, as a child growing up in a small Baptist church, is of the rite of baptism and how important it was to the gathered community. Recently in our lectionary group, we ministers were comparing our rituals and ceremonies, particularly the ones which are germane to the Easter and Lenten season.

Those from more liturgical faiths, such as Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian, have certain ways of baptizing the faithful and certain ways of celebrating the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper.

Pastor Glen Horn of the House of Prayer and I found ourselves with some common memories, if not practices, and I told them of my own experiences with baptism.

In Baptist churches, as well as at House of Prayer, the Baptistry is a small, deep reservoir of water, set into the wall at the front of the sanctuary. It has a short flight of steps down into the water and is just big enough for a tall man to be immersed, full length, in the water.

My favorite memory is of my father, tall, stout, dressed all in white, holding out his hand to the person descending the stairs. He leads the person into position, folds their hands in front of them in one large hand, puts his other hand behind the person’s head, says a few words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, leans the person back into the water until it covers the whole person, then lifts them up back up, wiping the water from the face with a tender hand, and helping them back up the steps.

My dad would usually baptize several people during an evening service and we always looked forward to the drama and beauty of the ritual. But my favorite part was when, at the end, he would turn to the congregation with his arms outstretched and say to us, “once again it has been done as God has commanded. And yet there is room.”

Even now, the idea of “and yet there is room” touches me. We Unitarian Universalists don’t baptize people, we don’t have any ritual which cleanses from sin or denotes a changed life, and I’m glad about that. We come from so many different perspectives and religious traditions that to require such a demonstration of a changed life would impose strictures that are not appropriate to our pluralistic, multi-faceted, multi-faith congregation. Yet there is room under this roof and in our hearts for many more people.

It might surprise you, going back to the practices of those earliest followers of Jesus, to know that those small groups, scattered across Roman territory and Asia Minor, were very diverse from area to area, maybe as diverse as we UUs are in our own theology.

There was Jesus’ fundamental message of love and mercy and justice but there were various interpretations, some of which caused consternation among the disciples and later apostles, such as St. Paul.

These diverse bands are known today more as a Jesus movement than as Christians. These devotees were committed to keeping Jesus’ memory alive, telling the stories over and over, doubtless with each story being spun a slightly different way in the telling. We can see some of those differences when we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of which have striking differences in how they present some of the stories and the implications they make about the meaning of the stories.

These early followers were just trying to be good Jews, using the message of Jesus to amplify their understandings of Judaism and to spread it among other Jews. They firmly expected that Jesus would physically return and establish a new kingdom of God on earth, Paradise where all would be welcome, all would be fed and cared for, all would learn the mysteries of Paradise.

Their sacred rituals were baptism, both by full immersion and other means, and the communal meal, which was a daily re-creation of elements of the Passover supper which was Jesus’ last meal.

There was an excitement, a passion and sense of empowerment, of growth and fulfillment. The emphasis was not on sin as much as on joy.

At the same time, there was a sense of immense loss at his death, which perhaps was the impetus for the fostering of joy, a counter-reaction to what we might today call PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder.

But there had been an important transformative moment not long after Jesus’ death, described in the book of Acts, a moment when, according to the ancient story, tongues of fire came down upon the assembly of Jesus followers, all Jews but with a great diversity of languages and customs among them. This moment, which is called Pentecost by the Christian world, imbued all those present with a desire to create the Kingdom of God on earth, according to Jesus’ message.

And from this moment they began to spread Jesus’ good news of love and mercy and justice.
Years later, probably in the last half of that first century, many years after Jesus’ death, the stories were published in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as in countless other memoirs and writings.

By this time, the oral tradition had spun Jesus into a miracle-worker, a magician of sorts, the true son of God and the virgin Mary, born in a way unlike any other child, with a death and resurrection that were described differently by several sources. More ancient writings were explored for prophecies that would foretell his birth and triumphant presence in Israel.
And it is not lost on scholars that these stories of Jesus are remarkably similar to other stories of legendary ancient figures.

The man we now call St. Paul, through his writings of letters to each of the small Jesus communities across the Mediterranean area, codified much of early Christianity, creating customs and theologies that would endure, interpreting the stories in a uniform way and advising congregations to adhere to the same theologies and practices.

This helped the early Jesus movement become the Christianity that would survive persecution and martyrdoms. But it also imposed a structure on the early church which sometimes caused dogma and tradition to be more important than the message of love and mercy and justice. Turf wars over who had it right caused church leaders to call for councils to establish “the true way” and out of these councils emerged doctrines of the Trinity and other theological concepts.

Most of you probably know that Unitarians and Universalists were outgrowths of these councils, that they were stances taken by dissidents and heretics who did not agree with the concept of the Trinity, arguing that God was One, not Three and others who argued that a loving God would not condemn his children to life after death in hell, no matter how sinful they might be.

As a Unitarian Universalist, even one with Baptist DNA in my system, I have always felt better served by a theology of joy rather than sorrow, of practices that celebrate life rather than fear death, that reward positive action rather than punish negative deeds.

So I resonate to the idea of Paradise on earth and am fairly uncomfortable with the idea of making a spectacle out of a long-ago death. I have great respect for my friends and family members whose Easter celebration includes an emphasis on the horrible, cruel way that Jesus’ life ended. This is important to their understanding of Jesus’ message and mission, yet for me its portrayal of Jesus as a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”, a living sacrifice looking ahead to his own death, skews his message from joyful living to painful punishment. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended to be his legacy.

This past Friday, Good Friday in the Lenten season, the day that is marked as the day of the crucifixion, I took part in the traditional Good Friday vigil that is offered here on the south end of the island every year.

And though I appreciated the invitation to participate and worked hard on a message that would reflect my own UU thinking and yet honor the thinking of traditional Christians, I found it difficult to absorb so much emphasis on the agony of Jesus’ death and the different interpretations of his final words from the cross.

I had chosen to speak on what is called the “Third Word”, when Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son” and to the disciple who was standing nearby, “Behold your mother”. And my reflection focused on the human feelings and concerns of both mother and son, at seeing the dreadful death unfold.

Jesus, in this moment, asks his friend the disciple to care for his mother in the future, which I used as a metaphorical request to the entire community to care for the elders and needy in the community. And I was satisfied with what I offered the gathered congregation.

But it was clear that others who were speaking were expected to rehash ancient doctrines of blood sacrifice and my heart grew heavy, not with the blood and gore, so much, but with the link I felt I saw between the violence of that day and the violence which permeates our world on this day.

We can’t ignore violence, we need to work against it, but I question whether spotlighting it in this traditional way is helpful. Does it help us resist violence or are we more vulnerable to it when we highlight it rather than move beyond it to the promise of Paradise?

We can’t ignore grief, we need to acknowledge and experience it, but we find healing in new ways of being, new joys, new relationships.

The book “Saving Paradise” ends in this way:
“We reenter this world as sacred space when we love life fiercely and, in the name of love, protect the goodness of earth’s intricate web of life in all its manifold forms. We feast in paradise when we open our hearts to lamentation, to amplitudes of grief for all that has been lost and cannot be repaired…We recommit ourselves to this world as holy ground when we remember the fullness of life that is possible through our communities, our life-affirming rituals, and our love of beauty…We give thanks for gifts of love that have been ours all along…We enter fully---heart, mind, soul and strength---into savoring and saving paradise.”

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, savoring our time together, our love of life and of each other. May we love this paradise we live in so much that we protect and serve it with our whole hearts and minds and souls and strengths. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Robin Edgar said...

Happy Easter Of Your Understanding Ms. Kitty.

Pass it on to the cats too. ;-)

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Robin, Max, Loosy, and Lily appreciate your kind wishes.

Miss Kitty said...

Wow. I'm amazed at the thought of the first 1,000 years of the church having been so very different from the last 1,000.

Thank you for a wonderful sermon, Ms. K. Hope your Easter was a blessed one.

ms. kitty said...

Artistically, at least. Of course, the various church councils were steadily imposing theologies and anathematizing dissenters.

Lizard Eater said...

I've read this sermon several times since you've posted this, Ms. Kitty. It keeps drawing me back! This must have been even more powerful in person. (How funny, the word verification is "unifi.")

ms. kitty said...

I'm glad it grabbed you, LE. I was not expecting it to be so well-received by the congregation, but I had tons of positive comments and NO criticisms (yet, it's only Tuesday!). In fact, one person who often offers a constructive critique hugged me afterwards and said thanks. I was surprised and pleased, because the sermon had a hard time being born.

Prometheus said...

I am so sorry to do this but........

I have enormous sympathy for the authors, their motives and their boundless enthusiasm for what appears to them to be a remarkable discovery that they wish to communicate to their readers.

Their conclusion that the redemption of both the Christian and Christianity may be attained by a return to the original propositions of the early church which they conclude are sweeping boundless inclusive redemption and a path of love and rebirth into paradise demonstrated by a living pastoral Christ is both as appealing and meritorious as it is demonstrably false.

They state without equivocation that there are no images of Christ’s death until one thousand years after his crucifixion. This is untrue.

Christ crucified and the Pieta are not central icons of church furnishing until after the eight century because they were prohibited by law and don’t appear until after the late fourth century because crucifixion was still being practiced and Christ’s manner of death was a basis for ridiculing early Christians.

Images of Christ crucified and dead were common however in reliquary art jewelry and illumination.

Those images that were exempt from the prohibitions of the iconoclast patriarchs of the late roman byzantine and early medieval church, are described by the authors as “a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder”

This is deliberately misleading he is in fact portrayed specifically as:

Christ Panocrator=Manifest God as Trinity, consubstantial and undivided, denied by the Arian Heresy.

Christos Anesti=Christ as retroactive redeemer and tomb breaker denied by the Docetist Heresy.

Theophany= manifest God as Trinity, consubstantial and undivided, denied by the Arian Heresy.

The Christ of the Theotokon=Christ manifest as God from birth by the “god bearer” denied by the Nestorian Heresy

Dormition=Sanctity of the God bearer denied by the Nestorian Heresy

Unfortunately for the authors, what their experience is analogous to, is an individual, with no other reference points, attempting to describe the Third Reich based on colorful propaganda posters and the films of Leni Riefenstahl.

It is a deeply embarrassing and sad book because the author’s motives are so good and yet their conclusions so crushingly and glaringly wrong .