Sunday, April 04, 2010

What Easter Can Mean to UUs

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 4, 2010

I have the very great pleasure of meeting weekly with other ministers on the south end of the island, a regular time in which we talk about what’s going on in our congregations, what’s happening in the larger community that affects our congregations, and spending some of our time in Bible study.

We use the Common Lectionary for our study; this is a systematized list of the Bible readings for every Sunday of the year. If you are from a more liturgical Christian background, you’ll probably remember that there are normally several Bible passages read during a service. Of these suggested passages, our group usually chooses to discuss the Gospel passage, the one from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

When we met on March 26, here in our building for it was my turn to be the host, our Gospel passage was the one Dave just read to you. As I heard Father Rick Spicer from St. Hubert’s reading these words, I was struck by how important this story is to traditional Christianity; the tenderness and reverence with which he read the words were heartfelt and when he finished reading, we sat in silence for several moments, relishing the beauty of the words.

It’s interesting to be out on the far left end of liberal Christianity as a member of this group, which includes Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and House of Prayer pastors. I’m not all by myself out there any more because our friend Tom Ewell now represents the Quaker congregation in our study group and he has a lovely way of speaking his truth without being offensive. I think it’s his non-violent communication skills!

In any case, Tom’s responses during our conversation gave me a chance to say, in agreement with him, that I look more for the metaphorical meaning in this story than for its literal meaning. And that every Easter I look for a fresh take on an event that can be very difficult for UUs to find meaningful.

In fact, as Dave and I were talking about designing this service, choosing hymns and readings and discussing the general theme, we spent a little time sharing our misgivings about the traditional Easter story and the way it is often interpreted.

Both of us being of a personality type that likes empirical evidence, tangible proof of events, we acknowledged that the literal resurrection of Jesus’ dead body is pretty hard to accept.

We are both uncomfortable with the way this ancient story has been taken literally, considering how its supernatural elements meld into its context of early Mesopotamian culture under Roman rule, as well as the multiple variations of the story as it is reported in the four Gospels.

Yet we decided to include in our worship this morning two of those very traditional elements, in song and in scripture because there is more to this story than its supernatural nature. I think “In the Garden” is one of the loveliest hymns ever written, especially when I hear you all sing it in harmony, and the account in the gospel of John of the early morning scene at the tomb is poignant in its portrayal of human sorrow and fear and hope.

Our children’s story this morning was an allegory based on that ancient story as well, reminding us that death of a beloved creature, human or nonhuman, evokes deep feelings of loss and strong memories of the beloved, even to the point of seeming to see that beloved one reappear in the flesh.

We have no way of knowing for sure what happened on that spring morning, only that a well-loved and influential man who had been killed in a particularly gruesome way was no longer in the tomb prepared for him.

Like perhaps many of you, I am an avid reader of murder mysteries and might be tempted to rename this story “The Case of the Missing Messiah”, but doing so trivializes many of the important moments in this story and I don’t want to go there. A missing body is not the point of Easter, as I see it.

What might the story of Easter mean to Unitarian Universalists who insist on rational truth, personal meaning, and a call to action? We want to view the story through the lens of rational truth, we want to find a way to interpret that truth in a meaningful way for ourselves, and we want to be moved to act in a life-giving way because of the story. If we don’t get that somewhere, Easter is a mostly-meaningless religious event limited to traditional Christians.

We can still celebrate the time of year---spring equinox, flowers, new birth, that sort of thing---but the Easter story is a powerful one and I believe it does have meaning for us, even if we are not from a Christian background. Passover, too, which began this past Tuesday evening at sundown, has its meaning to consider, for what is often called the Last Supper may actually have been the Passover meal, which Jesus was celebrating with his disciples.

It’s interesting to consider the version of each of the Gospel authors. Each author crafts the story slightly differently. Mark’s version is subdued and quiet; Luke’s is vivid and spectacular, with extra people not mentioned in Mark’s version. Matthew adds an earthquake and an angel’s descent, with Roman guards standing about.

In John, the version we read this morning, Jesus appears and speaks to his friends. There are versions of the story which never made it into the Bible, such as one in the Gospel of Peter which offers a dialogue between God and Christ and a story of how Christ broke down the gates of hell.

All these accounts were, as far as scholars can tell, written between the year 65 A.D. (or the common era) and the year 150, many decades after Jesus’ death. It would be erroneous to think of these various stories as deliberately misleading; each version undoubtedly represents the recollections of many persons who had been present at the time and each author listened, edited, and published what he found, according to his own beliefs.

The writers of the later gospels would have been entirely dependent on the previous generation’s memories. These accounts are also colored by the early Jewish prophecies and the numerous resurrection myths which were current in the Mediterranean world at that time.

In addition, the authors would have felt a strong responsibility to offer accounts of the life and death of Jesus that would serve to keep the fledgling band of supporters together and motivated to carry out Jesus’ mission, to give the good news to all the world.

We Unitarian Universalists are adept at exploring old stories and finding new truths or rediscovering old ones. We can find a moral in virtually every children’s book, every ancient creation legend that native peoples offer, every fable and exotic koan. Dreams, for us, are sources of truth, as are a number of other imaginative resources. But we have a harder time with the stories of our Christian heritage and I think that’s a shame.

We get rather cynical sometimes about our Christian heritage, focusing on the negative aspects of Christian history---the development of patriarchal and oppressive doctrines, the extermination or exclusion of non-believers of many kinds, the hypocrisy of those who preach one thing and do another, the insistence on literal belief and infallible sources.

And we overlook, often, the good things that Christianity has done in the world for the centuries since its inception, standing firm against oppressors, feeding the poor and fighting injustice.

It’s as though there are two Christianities----one is the religion OF Jesus, the values and actions that Jesus demonstrated throughout his short life, and the other is the religion ABOUT Jesus, the one dependent upon miracles, resurrections, and carefully-selected Bible passages which seem to support prejudices about who is worthy of inclusion in the Kingdom of God.

So I ask you today to set aside any resentments you may have about the Christianity which is ABOUT Jesus and let’s focus on the Christianity OF Jesus, the messages and values which were given new life---resurrected, as it were---raised anew from the rigid purity laws and prohibitions of ancient Judaism and reinterpreted by a Jewish teacher who saw that centuries of deprivation and trying to maintain a sense of identity as Jews, while far-flung across the known world, these laws had made the religion of the Jews too unwieldy and uncompromising to be meaningful or even just, in the present day.

Those ancient laws needed to be interpreted to release humans from the slavery of religious laws which made life even more difficult considering the ways they were already forced to live under Roman rule.

Jesus, it could be said, looked at the ancient laws, applied what he had learned in his own studies about mercy and justice and humility, and resurrected the original intent of those laws while expanding their value so large that they could apply to all humanity, not just the Jews.

It was hard for his listeners to understand. Many thought he was advocating overthrow of the Roman regime and were disappointed that this new life Jesus promised was an inner, not an outer, process.

But thousands of women and men were ready to hear, ready to listen to a message that favored mercy over retribution, that encouraged loving connection over harsh discipline, that recognized that wrongdoers or sinners needed kindly acceptance, not rejection, that the ancient laws were put in place for a reason but that many of those whose duty it was to uphold the laws had become hide-bound and vengeful, caring more for the letter of the law than the spirit of the law.

The relief of Jesus’ followers was so great and their attachment to their teacher so strong that not only did they continue to feel and even visualize his presence among them, they began to understand that though he had died in a physical way, he still lived and moved among them and that his mission, to offer a new way of life to all humanity, was now in their hands.

Some still hung onto the hope that there would be a physical overthrow of the oppressive Romans and looked forward to a return to earthly life of their beloved teacher, a time when evil would be vanquished once and for all and the innocent and pious would be elevated as a reward for their faithfulness.

Many still hope for this today; witness the strife over separation of church and state where our latter-day zealots try to impose narrow doctrinal stances upon a population which is too diverse to accept them.

What is the message of Jesus that was immortalized by Easter? What are the truths of that event that we can verify historically or, based on our own experiences, that we know are likely to be true? And what is the call to action that moves us even today? Here’s what I think.

It seems to me that Jesus’ message, portrayed not only in his words but in his actions, was that human beings need to be free from bondage to unfair, oppressive religious and political laws, as well as cruel masters. He upset the apple cart every time he had a chance, from defying Sabbath laws in order to heal or feed or comfort the people to facing death as a consequence for his actions.

He did not promise physical relief from bondage; he promised that his followers would find relief from bondage by looking within. He modeled courage in the face of opposition. He did not raise a sword or ask others to protect him with violence. He did ask for moral support and courage on the part of others, a gift most were unable to give. He lived a life which exemplified his promise that the Kingdom of Heaven is inside oneself, not a physical realm to be attained but an inner peace that defies oppression and death.

He did not tell people to be happy with their lives under oppression; he told them how to be released from that sense of bondage. He told them that freedom requires courage, changing one’s behavior and attitudes, and that it is dangerous because it calls forth challenges from those who would deny freedom to those in bondage. He showed them, with his life, that to respond with violence was to remain in bondage, a kind of slavery that results in continued violence. He demonstrated a stillness of soul that protected him more effectively from violence than any sword.

This is, I think, Jesus’ essential message: freedom from bondage and a non-violent release of the captives in bondage.

What are the truths about Easter that we can either verify historically or through our own common human experience?

Historically, we have the words of Josephus, a general in the Jewish army and a man of letters in that period of history, who mentions the crucifixion of Jesus as a real event, similar to the other cruel punishments of those days. Josephus writes:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher . He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
It is pretty certain, scholars believe, that Jesus did exist and that he was a beloved teacher, whose followers were loyal after his death. But there are other truths that we can understand on a personal level.

If our beloved friend and teacher, a person we had relied upon for support, comfort, assistance, strength, and guidance, had died cruelly and unjustly and suddenly… If that beloved friend and teacher had asked for our support and courage and we had been too frightened to offer it… If we had gone to the graveyard to sit by the tomb, despite our fear, and grieve… If we had lost someone in these particular ways, would we not experience the same effects of human attachment, especially if we discovered that somehow his once-entombed body had been taken away to an unknown place?

And in our grief, would we not remember and idealize the beloved’s faithfulness to our ideals? Would we not recognize his or her importance to the bereaved community? Would we not share with each other the lessons learned from the beloved? Would we not go forth with determination to live more productive lives, more loving lives, more mindful lives? And would we not turn again and again to the sense of the beloved’s presence among us, not his or her physical presence, necessarily, but a sense of love and connection that personified the beloved’s gifts?

And what is the call to action that Jesus’ message offers us? Where is the bondage today in our world? There’s poverty and homelessness here in our nation and abroad, there’s human slave traffic around the globe, abuse of those who are weaker abounds in families, in corporations, in nations, in churches. There are laws which restrict full civil rights to minority groups and even punish those groups for being who they are.

These are the physical prisons that restrict human beings. Few of us here experience those prisons literally and many of us work to eradicate them in a variety of ways. But there are also spiritual prisons that keep us from having the fullness of life that freedom promises and Easter reminds us that we can leave those prisons. It takes courage, commitment, a sense of idealism, and the support of a community to free ourselves from inner bondage.

Are there those here who are enslaved by addiction? Addiction to food, to spending, to acquisition, to power, to drugs, to alcohol? Are there those who are enslaved by fear? Fear of intimacy, of not having enough, of love, of rejection, of death? Are there those who are enslaved by resentment? Resentment of those we envy, resentment of those who have mistreated us, resentment of circumstances that have held us back?

Are there those who are enslaved by inertia? Inertia which keeps us from answering a call to action, which keeps us stuck in old habits and beliefs, which keeps us from connecting more deeply with others?

Very likely each of us has some area of life which binds us too tightly and begs to be loosened. The call to action of Easter, I think, is to examine our lives and discover those bound places and to find ways to loosen them. For if we are in bondage, we are unable to answer the call effectively and to live the abundant life that Jesus the teacher told us about.

To live deeply satisfying spiritual lives, our spirits must be free, forgiving, and fully present. To live otherwise is to live in bondage.

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, remembering the message of Easter, that we can surmount and be released from the bondage of our spirits. May we seek to give others that essential message, that a free spirit and an open heart are the gifts of liberation, liberation from fear, from alienation, from inertia. And may we ourselves find that peace of mind that is the key to the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Mile High Pixie said...

Well done, yet again, Rev. Kit! I appreciate the distinction of the religion OF Jesus rather than ABOUT Jesus. The "Of" is something I can get into.

Robin Edgar said...

Good sermon Kit.

Happy Easter to you and the kitty's!

Joel said...

Very good! Very good!

ms. kitty said...

Thank you all for the kind words. Lots of people in the congregation were moved as well.