Friday, April 30, 2010

Fixing Arizona

I sent a post this morning to the UUMA chat, which is discussing how to deal with the fact that General Assembly in 2012 is scheduled for Phoenix, AZ. Suggestions range from boycotting Arizona with our business in general to moving the locale of that GA, that sort of thing. I am wary of responding to this crisis in civil rights without some deep thinking on the problem and wrote the following:

I think the law will be declared unconstitutional, I think that local rebellion by the police who are supposed to enforce it will engender a reality check about its enforceability, I think that the outcry by all of those who see it as a racist, repressive, ugly act of legislation will have its effect, I think we are right in protesting and considering moving our business elsewhere.

However, I think we need to consider the plight of Arizona, which is overrun by drug runners and is desperate to control the lawlessness engendered by drug smuggling and other crimes typical to border states. Do we have anything better to suggest? How does a state protect its citizens when lives are at stake? I agree that this act is not a good way to approach it, but what is better?

I have learned over my 67 years of life that when I deconstruct the actions leading up to a decision and see the factors involved in the making of that decision, I understand the situation much better and can feel empathy even around decisions I don't like.

It's certainly appropriate to speak out in opposition to this legislation but have we taken Arizona's needs into account? Do we have something better to recommend? So far I haven't heard much.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thinking about ministry and the path ahead

I'm just back from our spring UUMA retreat at the Jesuit retreat center Palisades in Federal Way, feeling refreshed and energized by a few days away from my normal routine of ministry and household tasks. I had hoped to be able to sleep later than 5:30 a.m., since I would not be sleeping with three cats either pinning me to the bed or scratching outside the closed bedroom door. (No such luck---I appear to be doomed to wake up early in the morning with or without cats.)

Our programming in the spring tends to be pretty laid back, with plenty of free time and conversational groups. This year we structured the conversations a little bit differently, starting with what we call a "shallow check-in", i.e., a quickie rundown from every person present on their current professional and personal life, in one minute or less. Normally, we follow that up with "deep" check-in, small groups sitting together and sharing at a deeper level. But this time we were divided into small groups according to similar paths (small congregation ministers, community ministers, retired, student) with no more than 3 in a group, and spent almost two hours together in a "Clearing Circle" format. It was lovely, even better than my experiences with deep check-in in previous years. I hope we do it that way again.

The next day, we came together again in different small groups of six to share our spiritual journeys and the things we loved and did not love about Unitarian Universalism. Again, this was a rich and rewarding experience. In each case, I got to know colleagues I'd not known well before and to understand them more clearly, rather than relying on my first impressions of them.

It was also a good retreat in that after ten years I no longer feel like a newbie! There are still many people who were here before me, but I'm now one of the "elders" in the chapter and have a certain set of skills and memories that shape the colleague I am to them.

I opted out of Charades this year and just watched. I think I'll do this from now on; I enjoy Charades but I get so wound up by the competition and anxiety of impromptu performance that I don't sleep well. It was just as much fun to watch as to play. And I went to bed and slept rather than tossing and turning and second-guessing how I SHOULD have portrayed "The Full Monty".

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My friend and colleague the Rev. Mitch Howard...

had this to say on the DailyKos today.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An interesting thought....

upon the SCOTUS decision just announced that it is unconstitutional to bar the making and/or sale of videos depicting violence against animals: HUMANS ARE ANIMALS TOO.

It is currently illegal to make/sell/view child pornography, slash films, that sort of thing, because it is promoting violence against humans.

We prevent depicting actual violence against human beings. Why not against so-called "lesser" animals as well?

Just a thought.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is this a great quote or what?

In his letter to Randolph Ryer in January 1849, Thomas Starr King wrote (from Boston):

"Emerson gave us last Monday evening the most brilliant lecture I ever listened to from any mortal. It was on the identity of the laws of the mind with the laws of nature. He proved conclusively that man is only a higher kind of corn, that he is a squirrel gone up into the first class, that he is a liberated oyster fully educated, that he is a spiritualized pumpkin, a thinking squash, a graduated sun-flower, and inspired turnip. Such imagery, such wit, such quaint things said in a tone solemn and sublime! I have the most profound respect henceforth for every melon-vine as my ancestor (melancholic thought). I look upon every turtle as of kin. Tonight he lectures again. I fear I may lose it."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

God is a River: the sermon

GOD IS A RIVER (an auction sermon)
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 18, 2010

It’s always a lot of fun to put a sermon topic up for grabs at the annual auction; I never know who might buy it and what they might select as a topic. I find it is always a nice surprise and the topics folks choose are as varied as the choosers. One thing I can count on---that each topic will take me in another spiritual and religious direction.

When Gloria bought the chance to name a topic, she asked if I would be willing to consider a song as a basis for a sermon and---you know me---I was delighted at the idea. She brought me words and music to several of her favorites and asked me to choose the one that spoke to me.

It’s funny how songs can affect us. It can be the melody or the harmony or the catchy rhythm; it can be the words or the people who are singing the song. A song can express joy or sorrow or confusion or it can be humorous. My favorite songs tend to be the songs that express an idea that I resonate to.

So I listened to all the songs Gloria gave me and read their words, but the minute Peter Mayer’s music started, my mind was flooded with images.

I saw myself playing in gentle Ecola Creek at Cannon Beach in Oregon, as a child, wondering what it was like farther upstream as it slipped quietly and mysteriously out of the Coast Range forest.

I thought of wandering along a tiny stream through a horse pasture in eastern Oregon, noticing how even in such a small current the eddies and ripples could form.

I remembered living on the banks of the Columbia River in the Gorge and watching the river in flood stage, wondering what it was like before the dams went in and remembering the fishermen at Celilo Falls in the 50’s.

Then, on Outward Bound in Colorado many years ago, facing the rapids of Lodore Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument as a total rafting novice, clutching my paddle and barely hearing the words of our instructor as I gazed at the turbulent waters of a rapid ominously named Hell’s Half Mile.

I saw in my mind’s eye the indelible image of our African American Outward Bound river guide Jesse, reaching down to snatch a struggling teenager out of the maelstrom of Warm Springs rapid in Dinosaur, on a later student trip I’d organized while a teacher at my Colorado junior high.

I felt again the icy shock of the water as I let myself down into the Green River in Utah, to experience being buoyed up by my lifejacket, trying to remember the guide’s directions: if you fall overboard, point your feet downstream so you can bounce off the rocks, steer with your arms as best you can, your lifejacket will hold you up and the river will carry you.

The sweet memory of our four year old son, asleep in his lifejacket on our raft as we rode the currents of the Upper Snake river in Idaho, asleep, that is, until a sudden riffle splashed him awake giggling.

A few years later, shivering with cold and trying to keep my son warm after a drenching rainstorm while rafting the North Fork of the Platte in Colorado, a scary experience with hypothermia.

A languid drift down through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons in canoes and then a mud bath underneath the crumbled structures of an Anasazi ruin.

Watching friends (and some of our food supplies) being tossed into the water as their boat flipped on a huge rapid named Hermit in the Grand Canyon and on that same trip, the sorrow of realizing that my marriage was over and yet finding a tiny bud of hope that things would finally get better.

It’s hard not to take you on a trip with me down memory lane, or perhaps memory river, as I have a long history with rivers, in another life. And rivers have had an important spiritual connection for me.

Peter Mayer speaks, in his song, of thinking a rock in the middle of the stream can be his salvation. He describes the ever-shifting waters of the river of life as scary, uncomfortable, fretful, twisting and turning and he reaches out for something solid, something unmovable, something dependable, something he can cling to.

This is a pretty natural thing to do, as we humans negotiate the river of life. Unfortunately, a rock in the middle of a stream is not a particularly good place to be!

A boat full of people that comes up against a rock in the middle of a river is apt to fill with water on its downside and toss its passengers into the drink, leaving the boat itself pinned against the rock by the current.

A lone human on a rock is almost unsavable, as the current may not allow for rescue by another boat or person. The only way for a person in that pickle to get out of the river is to jump back in the water and float downstream to a welcoming eddy. And, of course, swimming in turbulent waters only works if you’re wearing a good lifejacket.

A river has a way of making human beings come to terms with their own lives. We see in the course of a river the way obstacles in its path shape that path, how an inflow of rock and mud from a tributary stream forms a rapid that changes the surface of the water. And downstream from the rough water, there is inevitably an eddy, a sidewater where the current doubles back on itself and offers rest to boats or logs or lifejacketed passengers who float through.

A river’s life seems much like a human life in the way obstacles shape us, how infusions of new things change our lives, and how a resting place usually appears at the end of the hard times.

We’ve all had times, I suspect, when we did wash up on a solid rock in the middle of the stream of life and had to figure out our next move. We may have looked at the rushing waters of life and realized that we weren’t quite ready to jump back in, that we needed to rest there for awhile and get our strength back. And that worked for awhile, it gave us a chance to think about the best direction to leap, when we left the rock.

But eventually, perched on that rock in the middle of life’s stream, we got cold and hungry, night fell perhaps, or sun beat down so strongly that we were burned and sore. And rocks are HARD, not very comfortable in the longterm, as a bed.

Yet the river looked cold and swift and perhaps there were other things floating by that didn’t look very pleasant. Who in their right mind would jump into that swirling water? But who in their right mind would sit forever on that rock?

Some people do, of course, sit forever on the rock. It might be the rock of inflexible religion, or the rock of an abusive relationship, or the rock of addiction, or the rock of wealth, or the rock of fear, or the rock of anger or the rock of security. There are many rocks of ages in the middle of the stream.

Peter Mayer calls the rock a savior, a safe spot, and he describes his efforts to hold on until the water sweeps him away again. Life will do that sometimes, sweep us back into the current because we can’t hold on any longer. We have no choice but to rejoin the stream, sometimes. It depends on the size of the rock!

What makes it easier to jump back in the stream is the reliability of our lifejacket.

Back in the days when I was first learning to paddle a raft, to steer it in the river, to read the rapids in order to chart the best course through the bumpy waters, I learned a lot about life jackets. I learned that they had to be well made, they had to be well-designed, they had to have enough straps to hold them on securely, they needed to hold one’s head above water, to keep an unconscious person in a breathing position.

A good lifejacket was worth its weight in gold. It mustn’t ever get waterlogged; you didn’t treat your lifejacket carelessly in those days. You didn’t let it get walked on or punctured by thorns, if it was one of the old kapok jackets with plastic covering its cotton filling. It’d take you straight to the bottom if it got soaked. I hope all those old lifejackets are outlawed by now.

But the most important lesson of all was that it was necessary, on the river, to wear my lifejacket all the time we were on the water. On very calm, lazy stretches of river, we might doff them briefly to cool down, but as soon as we approached any riffle, we’d put them right back on. A lifejacket in the bottom of the boat is no protection, even in calm water.

Peter Mayer’s song describes God as a river, a moving stream of life that bears us up, teaches us to let go and let life carry us where it will, and is always tugging at our resistant selves. It’s scary to look at life sometimes; other times it’s gentle and satisfying. Life can be a wild raging rapid or a slow meandering flow; it can be a deep and narrow passage or a peaceful sandy shoal.

What the song doesn’t mention is that letting go of the rock can be easier and safer than it sounds. An unprotected swimmer is in great danger in a river; even the strongest swimmer can drown unexpectedly.

When my brother, at age 16, decided to swim the Columbia River at Maryhill, near Goldendale, my dad was right there beside him in a boat, ready to offer help if necessary, probably with his heart in his mouth because the Columbia was about a mile across at that point! My dad was a strong loving presence ready to help.

A child needs that strong loving presence in order to stay afloat in the river of life; parents and guardians and other adults provide that presence. A grieving widow needs a strong loving presence in order to weather the death of a spouse; sisters and brothers and children and friends provide that presence. A lonely single person needs a strong loving presence in order to find companionship and community; a congregation, a group of old friends, a neighbor can provide that presence.

We all need that strong loving presence to stay afloat in the river of life. We give it to each other and we receive it from each other. That’s the work of a faith community---to give and receive that strong loving presence within these walls and outside this meeting house, in the larger world.

When we build a Habitat House, we’re providing that strong loving presence; when we donate money to Good Cheer, we’re helping Kathy McLaughlin and her crew provide a strong loving presence. When we give appreciation to those who have helped us, we provide that strong loving presence.

But there’s something more that helps us stay afloat in the river of life and that’s our lifejacket, the understandings that we have about life and death that help us not be afraid, that keep our head above water even when we are beset by the crashing waves of life.

I was curious about the many kinds of lifejackets I know are available these days. The old Mae West, so named because its wearers looked as physically well-endowed as the legendary actress Mae West, was bulky and cumbersome and not always reliable, if it had been treated roughly. (No doubt similar to the legendary actress herself!)

Physical life jackets have a wide buoyancy range and are recommended for different activities, from aiding new swimmers to open water rescues and storm-related dangers.

But the metaphorical lifejacket I’m talking about here gives a swimmer in life’s river a buoyancy that comes from a sort of safety net of understandings of life.

Some people may find that their faith in a traditional religious doctrine is an adequate lifejacket for their river of life experience. Others may discover they need to understand more about the river’s behavior and these understandings are a good lifejacket. Yet others swim the river unprotected by the presence of a lifejacket; some of them survive nicely, others go under.

What does a physical life jacket do? It keeps the swimmer’s head above water. It is brightly colored so the swimmer can be easily spotted in the water and it provides a little warmth against hypothermia.

What does a metaphorical life jacket do? It provides a sense of hope. It draws others to us and it provides warmth and security.

But, of course, it can’t protect us from all of life’s stormy waters. People drown in rivers even when they’re wearing a life jacket. It just happens. The currents can overpower a swimmer even then, even pull off a loosely secured lifejacket. What happens then?

Here’s what I think. Nothing can keep us entirely safe in life. No matter what my precautions, things can go wrong. But I still have hope because I have come to understand that we are all connected, that life and death are one, that healing is not necessarily a cure, that loss can be the doorway to great joy.

I have learned not to be scared of the river of life. I know it has its dangers and its pleasures. I know I have only a certain amount of control over my life. I have spent 67 years creating this life and letting life create me and I trust that process.

It could happen that something could go terribly wrong---I could come down with a serious illness or have a bad injury; I could make a dreadful mistake of some kind and have to face the consequences; I could find myself in desperate financial straits under certain circumstances. Lots of things could go wrong. There is a lot I could worry about.

There are things I could worry about that I can’t control: my son’s life is no longer in my hands. I can’t warm him up by the fire anymore when he’s shivering or give him Tylenol when he’s feverish. I have tried to give him a sense of his own lifejacket and he’s been on the river enough that he knows how important a good strong lifejacket is.

So what does my metaphorical lifejacket look like?

Well, mine has invisible cords that connect me to the people in this community and to the friends I have in other places; they aren’t going to let me drown without a fight. My lifejacket has a strong buoyancy that keeps my head above water and helps me see that there is hope out there, that there are people and ideas that can keep me afloat; my lifejacket is a warm layer against my heart that reminds me that the river is beautiful, that it is being what it is, a flowing body of water, and that I am flowing with it.

My lifejacket is my life’s work, what I feel called to do, the service I can render to others, the ministry that I offer you, my congregation, and the larger community. It is the love I have to give to family, to friends, to all of you, and to myself and my household. It is the love I have for music and art and new ideas and books and conversations.

I am continually repairing my lifejacket, to keep it in good condition; I read and I think and I talk with people about the insights and ideas that keep me alive, keep me thinking, keep me connecting with the universe.

I keep my lifejacket on all the time I am on the river of life; I never know when I might need it. I don’t set it aside very often, because I need it to help me remember to be authentic, to be kind, to be an instrument of justice, to be humble as I swim this river of life, which the song calls God.

My lifejacket helps me float down the river of life----with my feet out in front of me so that I can bounce off the rocks, with my arms steering as best I can, and with the trust in my heart that I will find a resting place at the end of the rapids.

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 that others may need us to buoy them up, and let us keep our lifejackets in good repair so that we don’t let ourselves or others down. May we serve our community well and grow as we serve. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

God is a River: the song by Peter Mayer

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

House Proud...

is something I've never been, I guess. I can't remember ever living in a house that was fancy; from the apartment underneath a church fellowship hall to a parsonage in Goldendale, a storefront apartment, shared spaces with roommates and a boyfriend, a falling-down house in Colorado (bentonite was to blame), a couple of my own "boughten" houses after the divorce but still nothing fancy. It didn't feel necessary to spend a lot of money on home furnishings or on the structure that held them; it was more important to be cozy and not too expensive.

The house I live in now, I am often aware, is low on the scale of luxury, by Whidbey standards. Nearly everyone I know lives in much more elegant surroundings! And I love visiting those homes, sinking deep into sofas that have no decorative shredding, admiring gardens that are freshly weeded and mulched, decks that are free from the litter of empty flower pots and sacks of potting soil, rooms that are actually decorated as opposed to hurriedly thrown together, office rooms that are vacuumed and dusted, bathrooms with unstained tubs (it's NOT a bathtub ring, it's iron in the water), kitchens with leaky fixtures and very little counter space.

That's a description of my home sweet home: shredded furniture, weedy gardens, littered decks, thrown-together bedrooms, dusty office, stained tub and sink, moss on the roof, you get the picture. But this is the favorite so far of all the places I've lived, even the house in Portland where I lived for only a few years before moving to Seattle.

Last night I hosted the ad hoc task force which is drafting a Covenant of Right Relations for our congregation; each of them lives in a gorgeous home with lovely furnishings and even views of the water. I sometimes wonder what people think when they come to my house for a meeting or other gathering; my house is no showplace---except maybe for the acres of grass, shrubs, and giant trees that form the yard. I hope they don't feel sorry for me and I hope they don't wish I'd live in a more upscale way.

The truth is, I'm living just exactly as I want to. The house is clean and tidy (well, a little dusty with a few dust farts in the corners). I don't have to share it with anyone, so in between visits, the catnip on the living room rug can pile up, the toothpaste spit in the sink can congeal, the dust farts reproduce. It's my house and I love it.

I just don't need stuff, I guess. At least, decorative stuff. Except for the paintings I've bought over the years. And even the paintings are not museum-quality. They're things I've bought from friends, mostly. They have relational value, rather than monetary value. Maybe my house and its furnishings have relational value and that's why I'm happy with them.

The house itself is big enough for parties and potlucks. The deck has hosted a few warm-weather jams. I have room for overnight guests. The place is easy to find and there's plenty of parking. I have nice neighbors. The couches are soft, if shredded. The basement accommodates our band practice and recording sessions. It's a happy place to be, I think.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Back in the saddle....

It's interesting to note the difference in myself as I age, when it comes to feeling ill. Back in the day, when I was working fulltime as a school counselor, I'd normally just pop a few cold tabs and go to school, despite a snuffly nose and laryngitis. I did take mental health days occasionally, as did we all, but I hated to take a sick day for "just a cold".

Those days are long gone, I notice! It's probably a combination of aging and the awareness that a neglected minor illness can develop into something more plus a sense that "dagnabit, I don't need to kill myself for this job!". It's also worth noting that since the 80's and 90's, when I was doing my thing as a junior high school counselor, we as a society have developed a much more acute sense of the wisdom of staying away from people when we are even slightly ill. Perhaps that sense developed as we were becoming more and more overworked as a society.

In any case, this morning I am feeling rather fine, still a bit hoarse and full-headed, but not enough to pop any meds. And I am feeling particularly smily after spending yesterday evening in a full-throated conversation with some Mensa friends about "what should be humankind's relationship to animals?" Richard and I started this gathering, here on Whidbey far from the center of Western Washington Mensa's activities in Seattle, so that we could get together with others and have a little fun without going to "the other side".

We initially just got together to shoot the breeze and have a beer, but small talk wasn't enough for most of us, so I got into the habit last fall of using my congregation's "theological question of the month" as a starting point for a more engrossing conversation. We didn't discuss it in religious terms, but more in philosophical terms. Everybody, it seems, has a philosophy; not everybody has a religion.

Last night's conversation started in the car between Richard and me as we headed north to Oak Harbor, where we were meeting with Ken, Helen, and John, plus maybe others who might drop by. What fun it is to share opinions and be asked searching questions about one's sense of rightness or wrongness when it comes to a topic like treatment of other living things!

Richard is particularly adept at asking good questions; he's a lawyer, after all, and I often tweak him about taking off his lawyer hat and putting on his ordinary person hat. But I do appreciate his questions because they make me think more deeply and not rely on pat answers. And he has such a good heart; he doesn't glory in making me feel foolish and he is kind when he disagrees. He's such a good friend. I wish more males were capable of this kind of friendship---undemanding yet reliable and stimulating.

Anyhow, it's good to be feeling well again after several days of minor misery. Today I have an afternoon gathering in Coupeville, at NEKK, our North End Koffee Klatch, and then a party at church tonight to kick off our annual canvass. Tomorrow I trek over to Mt. Vernon to preach for them and I hope to enjoy the tulip and daffodil displays on the way back from the Skagit Valley.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

It is no fun...

to be under the weather. And I don't mean the blustery, rain-spitting day outside. I mean the hoarse, achy, snotful, cough-y weather indoors. In here. In my study where the computer keyboard doubtless harbors toxic goo of a spring cold.

I started coming down with this, I think, on Saturday night at a congregational party, one of those great auction item events, at which we sang (I bellered, I'm afraid) umpteen moldy oldies accompanied by ukulele. I had a great time, but I wore out my voice. And I should have known better, but it was so much fun!

The next morning, I could feel my throat tightening up and during the sermon, I had to take many sips of water and stifle a tickle in my throat several times. I made it, but by that night, I knew I was not going to avoid Something.

I've had this kind of thing before and it often resolves without anything more than a tightness of the throat, no cold, no other problems. But this little interruption in my otherwise healthy life has turned into Something.

Monday I had to back out of our scheduled rehearsal and a worship committee meeting; Tuesday was no better but at least I didn't have to cancel anything and got some miscellaneous stuff done around the house. This morning I woke up at 4 a.m. with a raging sore throat and NO voice.

Strangely, I don't exactly have a cold---at least not the nose variety. It seems centered in throat and upper chest and has a stranglehold on my larynx. So I've backed out of tomorrow's rehearsal AND the evening jam. I have to preach this Sunday over in Mt. Vernon so I have got to have a voice then or sacrifice the honorarium AND leave them in the lurch.

Never fear, I am doing all the things I know to recover: resting, griping (not aloud), eating, complaining (silently), blogging (whiningly), ibuprofening, neti-potting, feeling sorry for myself (self-righteously), and staying away from people (wisely, I hope).

The worst part is that I am going to have to actually do something about the many small jobs around the house that have been cluttering up my to-do list and waiting for me to have some free time: gathering together all the old financial records and shredding them; relieving my files of all the useless but interesting info I've collected over the past ten years; defragging my older laptop and making it functional again. You know the drill, the stuff that I virtuously put on my to-do list eons ago and have never done anything about "because I didn't have time". Now I have time.

But I'm sick (oh, no, I actually said the word!) and I don't feel like doing anything like that. I'm going back to bed.

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.

Friday, April 02, 2010

I am appalled...

by the claim that one of the Pope's henchmen has made in a Good Friday service, of all places: that the accusations against the Catholic Church and its leadership are akin to anti-Semitism. "I'm not going to talk about the victims," he said, "because they're being talked about elsewhere. I'm going to talk about how unfair it is that the Church and Pope are being maligned in this way." (my paraphrase of his words)

Here's what the follow-up news item said: "At a solemn Good Friday service, Pope Benedict XVI's personal preacher likened the tide of allegations that the pontiff has covered up sex abuse cases to the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism." But within hours, facing a storm of criticism at the comparison, the Vatican felt it necessary to distance the pope from the preacher's remarks."

I have dear Catholic friends and family members who must be cringing at the situation that has developed over sexual abuse by priests over the past many years. And my friend Father Rick doubtless suffers himself every time another accusation is made against a fellow priest, because his profession is suffering.

Whether accusations are proven true or not, the accused person (priest, teacher, pastor, coach) is often ruined personally and professionally. The widespread scandal in religious organizations causes every clergyperson to be viewed with suspicion.

And yet the damage done to victims by that betrayal of trust is, I think, even greater than the damage done to a profession, to a religious tradition, to an individual. There is no excuse for any kind of abuse perpetrated upon a child or adult who trusts the perpetrator. Or who doesn't trust, for that matter. There is NO excuse.

And there is no excuse, IMHO, for pretending innocence or ignorance, for being blind to the damage being done, for shuffling an offender into another position without consequences. I have seen too many times the results of sexual abuse and the way it utterly distorts a person's sense of safety and personal identity.

As I said, I am appalled.