as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, March 23, 2008
Before I begin my sermon today I want to spend just a moment to tell you what I am not going to talk about. This morning I am not going to talk about the recent publicized remarks of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s speech on race in America and the state of race relations in our country. Perhaps this is a mistake on my part. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr always encouraged his students to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It is possible that by failing to preach on Rev. Wright, Obama and race this morning I am not heeding his injunction. Some subjects, however, are of such importance that my thoughts on them cannot be casually summoned. And, after some study and reflection I will preach on the subject in April. Racial situation in America is a complicated and ongoing one and the need to talk about it in depth will be just as important a month from now as it is today.
That said, I begin today with two confessions. This is my first ever Easter sermon. I never wrote one in seminary. I did not give one when I was an intern minister in California and I did not give one last year when I was serving a congregation part-time in Pennsylvania. Truth be told I am not even certain exactly what should go into an Easter sermon. In researching this sermon it seems clear that Unitarian Universalists use Easter as an opportunity to talk about death, Jesus, spring, renewal, resurrection, paganism and almost everything in between. Given the multiplicity of theologies found in Unitarian Universalist congregations I suppose that this is not surprising.
My second confession is related to my first. I have ambiguous feelings about the Easter holiday itself. Like a number of Unitarian Universalists I come from a mixed marriage. My mother was raised in a Christian household and has some continuing cultural affinity with Christian religious rites. My father is an atheistic Jew from Chicago. Growing up I attended the local Unitarian Universalist congregation and, at home, observed both the major Christian and Jewish holidays. At my parents house Easter was not a theologically important event. It was an opportunity to have a nice meal, make the kids run around the house and the yard searching for Easter eggs and chocolate and spend time with family and friends. I do not remember going to an Easter service until after Sara and I started dating. Then for three years I went to Sara’s family church in DC, All Souls, Unitarian for the Easter holiday. All Souls really takes Easter seriously, Easter bonnets are a popular phenomena, and I like to think that I learned a little about Easter from that congregation.
My ambiguity around Easter in no way makes me unique among Unitarian Universalists. Not everyone in our congregations is Christian. The Society includes among its friends and members atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, pagans, Jews and at least one Muslim, not to mention other religious traditions that I might be missing. This can make observing an explicitly Christian holiday like Easter challenging. As Forrest Church, the former senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian in New York City (not to be confused with All Souls in DC), once said in one of his Easter sermons:
“Easter remains an awkward holiday for Unitarians. The trumpets sound, we all sing, and Jesus is not resurrected. At least not as God’s only son. So what are we doing here? Why even bother? Are we simply creatures of habit who have forgotten why we do the things we do? Are we all dressed up with nowhere to go, witless participants in a vain show designed to make us feel better about death, without offering any good reason why we should?”
This morning we are here considering resurrection. Resurrection is at the heart of Easter. It is the victory of life over death and it is something we should all consider. There is no better time to consider resurrection than now as the world is reborn around us. Underneath all of the snow we can find spring’s advent. This week I saw my first flowers, crocuses and snowdrops. Nature is undergoing its own sort of resurrection. To resurrect something is to bring it back to life. Resurrection, then, is life after death. To consider resurrection then we need to also consider death. Death is not always a happy topic. Many people are afraid of death. The thought of the finitude of one’s own life can be terrifying. Death is one of the few experiences that unites all human beings, we all will die, and fear of death is something that can be found throughout the human experience. In the face of death we look towards resurrection.
Death is the focus of Good Friday. That is the day that Jesus was crucified as a criminal between two thieves. Today is Easter and we are concerned most of all with resurrection. Resurrection is what comes after death. Easter comes after Good Friday. Resurrection is life after death. You will note that I did not say the resurrection. I am not going to solely talk about the story of Jesus’s resurrection. I am also going to talk about resurrection in our lives. There are three ways I would like us to consider resurrection this morning. The first is literally as life after death. The second is life after a spiritual death or resurrection as a form of transformation. The third is resurrection as a response to and mirror of the cycles of the natural world.
I never really understood life after death until I worked as a chaplin intern one summer at the University of Chicago Hospital. An internship as a chaplin is required as part of the process in becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. As a intern chaplin you are supposed to learn something about ministering to people in life and death situations. What I learned is that the most you can do for someone who is about to die or whose loved one has died is be present with them. Sometimes you can offer them words of kindness, prayers or the opportunity for a last minute confession. Usually the most that one has to offer in those moments of transition and transformation is simply standing in witness and solidarity.
One summer afternoon I found myself sitting with a woman who was about to be made a widow. A few minutes earlier her husband had coded, his heart has stopped, and I had been called to talk with her and her family members as the hospital’s medical staff tried to resuscitate him. They failed and a minute or two after the man died and the medical staff cleared away their equipment we went into the room to view the body.
The couple had been married for forty-five years. Throughout all of that time they had lived together, raised children together and watched their grandchildren grow. The husband was a long time diabetic but death came quickly and was unexpected. I sat with that woman as she spent her last moments with her husbands body. She touched his face and hands and then she looked at me and said, “After forty five years of marriage I have figure out what is next.”
This is what resurrection is all about. It is how we revive ourselves after a great loss. It is what we do next after death. It is how we came back to the world after we face our grief. We who are left behind have to figure out what to do next. When someone we love dies it is we, the survivors, who are resurrected and not them. After death life goes on.
I imagine that Jesus’s disciples felt much the same way as the woman I described earlier after his crucifixion and death. They had to figure out what to do next. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. In Jewish tradition the Messiah ushers in the messianic age when peace comes to the world and all is made right. Jesus was not supposed to die. He was supposed to assume the mantle of kingship, rid Israel of the Romans and bring about an age of peace and prosperity. His arrest made no sense to his disciples. They did not know how to react. Peter, his closest follower, denounced him not one time but three. Jesus suffered like a criminal. He was beaten. He was publicly humiliated. And then he was crucified between two thieves. His death was undignified and in the end he even feels that God has abandoned him. His last words on the cross were “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What were his followers supposed to make of this? Christian mythology suggests that after death comes resurrection. On the first Easter Jesus’s followers went to the tomb only to discover it empty. His body was gone. The earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, ends not with an appearance of Jesus but with the appearance of a “young man, dressed in a white robe” who tells three of Jesus’s followers that “He has been raised; he is not here.” After that Jesus does not make very many corporal appearances. The later gospels, Matthew, Luke and John, have him present only to show himself to reassure everyone that he has been resurrected. He makes a brief appearance in The Acts of the Apostles mostly to explain why no one sees him in the flesh again. Like Elijah and other Jewish prophets Jesus ascends to heaven. From there the stories in the Christian New Testament very quickly shift from those that focus on Jesus to those that focus on his disciples.
There is a good reason for this. After Jesus’s death it was his disciples and not him who were resurrected. Faced with the loss of their teacher, whom they believed to be the messiah, they had to figure out what to do next. Their lives had to continue. So they tried to make sense of what happened. They created the resurrection story. Jesus lived on in their hearts so they felt that he must live on in some other form as well. A great prophet his state of simultaneous presence and absence would not be inconsistent with other prophets in Judaism who ascended to heaven but continued to influence the community. After the crucifixion the disciples reconstituted their community and began to focus on how Jesus lived on in each of them. They tried to become like their teacher. They dedicated their lives to God. They fed the poor. They healed the sick. They passed on Jesus’s teachings, as best they understood them. They struggled to build their community and they shared with each other. They were transformed and they in turn transformed the world. Christianity would not exist without their resurrections and transformations.
Jesus’s death led his disciples to experience a kind of spiritual death. They fell into a black hole of despair. But after their despair they experienced a spiritual rebirth and rededicated their lives to their master’s teachings. We all have moments of crisis that seem like spiritual death to us. Who in this room has not had a time when you felt like you just could not go on? Who has never doubted your abilities, felt a shocking and numbing loss or experienced a moment when you knew the depths of your own imperfections? I suspect that you all have had times like these. I know that I have.
It is in times of spiritual death that we can be at our most vulnerable. We can become numb to the world, withdraw and go into a sort of long emotional hibernation. The reading from this morning “The Inner Jewel” speaks of someone who has been living in a sort of state of spiritual death for many years. The narrative poem is a story of a resurrection. The man in the story begins it as a suffering weary traveler. He is angry, unkind and ungrateful. After many years of anguish he encounters a religious community that through kindness and contemplation offers him a chance for transformation. Almost unwilling he accepts and in doing so he learns that he had the ability to transform himself all along.
When Jesus’s disciple struggled onward after his death they discovered that they had all of the resources within them to build their community. Jesus had awakened something within them. This is where Paul gets it wrong. The resurrection that Jesus gave to his first followers was a corporal one. It was a spiritual one.
Paul is right in 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, a traditional Easter New Testament reading, when he argues that resurrection involves a fundamental change. It is clear in that text that Paul believes that the resurrection of all Christians will be literal. People will be raised from the dead and the living will have their bodies made immortal. Here he is wrong. But he is right to argue that the resurrections that we experience in our own lives, the moments that we change, leave us not the same as before.
Resurrection profoundly alters us. When it does we discover, like the traveller in our story, that we already have what we need within us. This is the secret of spiritual resurrection. Something or someone dies. Life continues and we have to figure out what happens next.
Spring serves as a powerful reminder of this and I suspect that most religious stories of rebirth and resurrection, and there are a lot besides that of Jesus, have their roots in the cycles of nature. After winter comes spring. Fall is a time of death. Winter is a time of dormancy. Spring is a time for birth, rebirth and renewal.
We are creatures of the earth and our religious nature is in part a response to mystery of the world around us. It makes sense that we have holidays that celebrate spring, even if we wrap them up in other theological trappings. During spring the dead do come to life again, though often in altered forms. Last year’s leaves become this year’s fertilizer which in turn become next years leaves.
The earliest pagan holidays celebrated spring and Earth’s transformation unabashedly. As Earth was transformed from frigid infertile ground, alienated from the sun’s life giving rays, to wet sticky mud ripe with seed our ancestors honored the world’s rebirth. Often they did this through telling stories of the death and rebirth of their gods. The Egyptian god Osiris, for example, was killed and dismembered by his brother Set only to be briefly brought back to life by Isis, his goddess consort. Before he dies again Osiris impregnates Isis with their son Horus. Horus’s birth is thought to represent new beginnings like the spring.
When searching for new beginnings in the face of death, spring reminds us that they are possible. Knowing that we can find them, that they are part of life and life’s cycles is ultimately what it means to consider resurrection. It means to consider the possibility of transformation, even in moments of despair. It means to remember that winter is always followed by spring and that as long as there is life, life will continue.
Amen and Blessed Be.