WHAT DOES RESURRECTION MEAN, ANYHOW?
By Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 16, 2017
As Allie and I worked together on this Easter service, we noted the many ways human beings celebrate this time of year. We recognize the Vernal Equinox, the changes in weather patterns, the shoots of plants popping up in gardens and fields, the new lambs, calves, and foals. Rebirth, even resurrection, seems possible in the fervor of spring’s changing and sometimes tumultuous conditions.
Looking at this religious season through a Unitarian Universalist lens tackles the problems of believability and our quest for trustworthy answers, especially in this era of clickbait and fake news.
The vernal equinox story is one of physical regeneration from the earth at the turn of the seasons and the end of gestation periods for a number of species; the Passover story is one of rebirth from a condition of slavery to one of greater freedom. The ancient Easter story is one of physical resurrection from the dead.
Sometimes it takes a lot of thinking to find a meaningful way to approach a season which is built on a ghost story, a legend that has great significance for our Christian friends but not so much for those of us who have a more rational approach to religion.
I get tired, some years, of figuring out how to talk about Easter to a congregation that is kinda past supernatural stuff. Zombies are okay in a horror flick but we don’t really believe they’re real. We want to be open-minded but…
My conservative Baptist minister dad used to say to me, “Honey, don’t be so openminded that your brains fall out.” But it seemed to me that there was something worse than being so openminded that my brains fell out. It seemed to me that being so closed-minded that my brains dried up was worse. But saying so seemed tantamount to accusing him of dried-up brains, and that didn’t feel so good either.
As a child, I depended on my parents and other trusted adults to tell me the truth. They knew more than I did, and I trusted their knowledge. I trusted them to be right.
As I grew older, I gradually began to realize that my parents and other adults were telling me the truth only as they saw it. Though I knew that they had my wellbeing in mind, I also began to see that they had received their version of the truth from still other persons.
Filtering this received truth through their own experience, they had passed it along to me. How many people were there in this line of truth-telling? Where did the original people get their truth?
“Yeah but, Mom, I’d rather figure it out myself” became my refrain as I sorted through the sources of information that I knew about and looked for others that made more sense.
I loved the romance and tragedy of the ancient Christian Easter story: Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and his acceptance of this act; the commandeering of a donkey for a triumphal ride into Jerusalem; the overturning of the greedy vendors’ stalls in the temple; the clever answer to the trick question “is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”;
And then the chilling words spoken at the Passover Seder with his disciples—“this do in remembrance of me”; the betrayal by a kiss from Judas the disciple; the arrest in the garden and the subsequent series of denials from Peter the disciple; a kangaroo court, a condemnation, a beating, a savage public execution in front of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and all his friends.
This all felt completely believable to me. As thrillers go, it ranks right up there with some of our best modern stuff. It displayed human nobility and human frailty in extremely clear detail.
But that famous story as told in the Gospels of the Christian scriptures ends with a twist---a twist which turns a human tale into a ghost story. Jesus’ body disappears from the tomb in which it is placed. Angels appear to the women who are searching for his body to cleanse and wrap it.
Jesus the living person appears to his friends in several places, vanishes again into the stratosphere, and then reappears to offer them advice about evangelizing the world, building an institutional church, and living his teachings.
This part of the story bothered me. A lot. I didn’t know what to think about it. All the ghost stories of my youth notwithstanding, I didn’t believe people could rise from the dead. Surely there was another explanation.
In studying the Bible as literature in college, I discovered that there were actually several different versions of this story in the Gospels. Either it happened several different ways or it didn’t happen at all or somebody made it up or at least embellished it.
Or maybe people dreamed it. In any case, the entire Christian tradition in all its many variants seemed to be built on a supernatural foundation. Never mind the perfectly sensible and inspiring events of Jesus’ life.
My sources of authority---how I knew what I knew---began to shift dramatically as I dealt with the ramifications of a possibly-fictional Easter.
I met non-theistic friends who told me that Easter was proof that the concept of God is absurd. What loving parent would send a beloved child to be killed as a sacrifice? This God didn’t make sense.
Nor did the Hebrew scriptures seem any less fantastic in their authority. Laws which mandated that wool and cotton not be combined in clothing? Which recommended death for a myriad of seemingly minor offenses? Which dictated laws of diet that collided with modern science?
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free…” one of Jesus’ most famous sayings. We want to find truth, to believe the truth, to be able to trust the truth we hear. We want to find reliable sources of authority, but we are hard-pressed to find those reliable resources.
A couple of Sundays ago, our friend Carol Newman spoke to us about credible sources of information, about being careful not to fall for fake news, to ask for sources and proof when we are told of some so-called event or fact. Facebook has been a source of both instant communication and equally instant miscommunication, in fact, downright deliberate deception.
I appreciated the document she gave us because it’s so hard sometimes to tell truth from fiction.
But religion is a little tougher to sort out. Many of us were raised to revere certain texts and authority figures as sacrosanct, infallible, or at least metaphorically true, if not factual. The Hebrew Bible, the Christian scriptures, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths---these are all sacred bodies of knowledge, revered by humans world-wide, accepted by many humans world-wide as absolutely true.
Now, we have come to Unitarian Universalism at least partly because we have a problem with accepting a sacred written text or body of knowledge as absolutely true.
We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we believe that our actions toward each other and toward the earth and universe are more important than certain beliefs about God or the creation of the earth or the lives of the Buddha or Jesus or Muhammed.
Yet we still need authoritative sources of knowledge. What will they be? How will we decide?
As a religious humanist, I am convinced that human experience and wisdom can be an authoritative source of my knowledge. My own experience and wisdom are authoritative for me, but may not be authoritative for others. I am willing to accept the experience and wisdom of credible others, but I insist on filtering it through my own experience and personal wisdom.
I accept certain texts as authoritative---the Declaration of Independence is, for me, an authoritative text, as is the Bill of Rights. Imperfect as they may be, they establish principles of democracy that I believe to be right.
The Constitution---well, with the challenges it’s getting these days and the current membership of the our Congress---well, who knows how it will fare?
As a Unitarian Universalist, I find great wisdom and credibility within many sacred texts. I do not consider them historical documents and would not use them as the basis for a history lesson.
Yet these poetic literary works offer me a great deal of universal wisdom: to treat others as I would be treated; to act with justice and mercy toward others; to be generous with the poor and downtrodden; to love freely and unconditionally; to express compassion and to work for freedom.
Our UU principles are based upon the universal wisdom of many religious and secular thinkers as well as our own human experience.
Living in a multicultural world, we are always called upon to interpret and evaluate the sources of authority that bombard us. We are forced to rely upon media reports of national and international events that seem hysterical, inaccurate, and often evasive.
We hear rumors and stories from friends and family about other friends and family. We click on links that sound interesting and are accosted by stories that have little or nothing to do with the inflammatory headline.
We cringe at the proclamations of truth that we hear from certain groups: creation scientists, big corporations, cults and many political organizations, fundamentalist religions and hate groups. We step carefully through our lives trying to live by our ethical and moral principles but always knowing we don’t have enough accurate information to know for sure.
For example, I believe deeply that Easter is a season to celebrate, that it is meaningful, that its meaning has profound consequences for my life, and that I neglect that meaning to my detriment.
Sixty years ago, my conviction was based on my Christian upbringing. I believed that it was the day that Jesus rose from the dead. My parents and teachers had told me that this was the truth, and I believed them. I found the story inspiring and the great love and sacrifice it portrayed thrilled me to the core, even with my skepticism.
But one day, Kit the teenager was sitting on a windy bluff early one gray Easter morning with other youth as a single ray of sunlight pierced the clouds, singing an old hymn about light and space and thunderclouds and storm and then the words “it breathes in the air, it shines in the light, it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.”
My understanding of the truth of the Easter season changed at that moment, from a concentration on the death and resurrection of Jesus to the ever-present, all-embracing sense of wonder at the infinite divine which I saw at that instant portrayed in the natural world before me.
It was bigger than Jesus, bigger than I was, bigger than all the doctrine I’d ever heard. With its boundary-less, inclusive power, the Living Universe subsumed the Christian message. And I would never again be satisfied by a doctrine or a creed as my source of authority.
Today, we live in a tumultuous, crisis-ridden America, having seen an unbelievable turnaround in our progressive journey toward greater human rights and concern for the environment. We have been faced with the prospect of a tyrant dialing back deliberately and vengefully many of the successes established by his predecessor. We have been shocked by his behavior, his threats, his falsehoods and accusations.
We have come to fear that democracy may be dying, that in the hands of an inept and cruel demagogue, all we have gained may perish. This realization has had a profound effect on those of us who want democracy to live, to be healthy, to fulfill the true American dream of liberty and justice for all.
Craig teased me a couple of weeks ago about preaching today about Resurrection. And I agree---supernatural resurrection is not believable.
But I think that we are in a state of resurrection right now. We moved overnight from a state of complacency, sure that our candidate was going to win the election, that the other guy was such a clown he would never win, into the shock and denial and anger that follow a huge loss.
Complicated by factors of electoral college returns, accusations of fraud and complicity on both sides, we did not remain complacent. We organized. We refused to take the loss lying down. We discovered that we might as well have been dead, in our complacency and inattention to the forces that won the election.
But we are dead no longer. From the moment the final results were tallied and we realized the worst, forces for good began to gather strength. Small at first, a few people talking together about what could be done. Explorations of quick solutions that didn’t pan out. A longer view toward upcoming elections, toward resistance of injustice, cruelty, dismantling of humane regulations, protection of the arts, education, and the environment. We began to move forward instead of crumbling under the load of disappointment and loss.
Small efforts grew into large grassroots movements. Here in our area, 1300 people took part in the Women’s March, the organization Indivisible became active and people started attending local civic meetings, running for office, keeping lawmakers and enforcement agencies aware that the people are the boss, not the president.
Resurrection to me no longer means a supernatural return to life from actual death; it is now, in my view, a return from metaphorical death, from apathy, from disinterest, from over-confidence, from letting someone else do it.
That it seemed to start its massive roll toward the future on the streets the day after the inauguration reminds me of the wonderful words of a favorite old suffragette hymn: Bread and Roses.
“As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days, for the rising of the women means the rising of the race---bread and roses, bread and roses!”
In a recent press release from the noted writers’ organization, PEN announced that the Freedom of Expression Courage Award is going to the "Women's March" for "galvaniz[ing] a potent global movement to resist infringements on the rights and dignity of women and many other groups." PEN America’s executive director Suzanne Nossel added: "We honor the Women's March for acting at a critical moment to overcome the inertia and fear of failure that can impair public mobilization, and for inspiring millions in America and around the world to do the same."
We were warned, we were given an explanation, and nevertheless we are persisting. We may not have eternal life, but we are not dead!
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service has ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that physical death is not the only kind of death. May we join together in the resurrection of our ideals, of our principles as guidelines to a more compassionate and fulfilling life. And may we succeed in bringing our beloved country and our planet back to a healthy and productive vibrant life. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.