as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston’s online service, April 4, 2021
This is the second year that we have celebrated Easter online. Last year at this time there was much uncertainty. We were only at the beginning of the pandemic–uncertain when, or if, life would return to what it had been. Today, we are much closer to the end of the pandemic. I know that many of you have been vaccinated. I have my own first dose of a vaccine scheduled. On the horizon, coming closer, is the day when we will be able to gather again–the joyous physical resurrection of communal life.
While we await the transition from the digital to the corporeal, we offer you this Easter service. If this your first time with us, you might have noticed that our readings are not quite the traditional holiday fare. Instead of the only using lectionary texts from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, we include words from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas and the late poet denise levertov.
Their presence signifies two things about our communion. The use of levertov’s fine poem within the context of a service devoted to one of the central holidays of the Christian tradition invokes a principal Unitarian Universalist teaching. “Revelation,” we often say, “is not sealed.” The possibility of uncovering, discovering, encountering, religious truth remains ever present. It just as incarnate in the poet’s stanzas, in blue bonnets, in clumped oil on canvas, in the intricacies of mathematics, the complexities of circuitry, in your life, and in mine, as it is in ancient scriptures.
The Gospel of Thomas is offered as reminder that those ancient scriptures are themselves human creations. Religion, at its core, is a human tradition. In the words of the Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church, it is our “response to the dual reality of being alive and knowing we must die.” Like all human traditions, religion is something that has been constructed across time. The presence of the Gospel of Thomas might help us remember that what we think of as the Bible was selected from a great corpus of hundreds of possible texts and numerous attributed sayings to create a particular account of the life and death of Jesus. That account, which we might call the Trinitarian account, focuses on the significance of the death of Jesus. Its key elements are the crucifixion and the resurrection.
Unitarian Universalists and our religious ancestors have traditionally focused on the significance of the life of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is included in our service to inspire us with the knowledge that as long as people have been talking about Jesus, some of us have pointed to his teachings about the light within. We each have the possibility, the text tells us, of recognizing that “the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you.” Such a recognition is a waking up to the world as it is, a waking up I sometimes call the resurrection of the living.
Out of the rich set of texts that we have offered you, I want to focus on a sentence fragment found at Luke 24:16. We will use it to anchor this Easter service, celebrated from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. We read the fragment as “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I want us to use a slightly different translation. It runs, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.”
The fragment comes from a longer passage known as the Road to Emmaus. In the text, we find two of Jesus’s disciples hustling towards a village called Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, the first Easter Sunday. They are discussing Jesus’s execution, the empty tomb, and all that has happened in the past months. Well, actually, they are not having a discussion. They are having an argument. And they are not out for a casual afternoon stroll. The text suggests that they are fleeing Jerusalem. They are part of a revolutionary movement on the verge of collapse. The movement’s leader has been executed. Its members are scared and confused. They had been expecting victory and experienced defeat. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the text explains.
Into this hot mess steps Jesus. As the two disciples hasten along bickering about, I suspect, everything, up walks Jesus and asks what is going on, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.” In that whole story this is the verse I want us to linger upon, “something prevented them from recognizing him.”
Wrestling with the text we can imagine all kinds of reasons why the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus. The Catholic priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan took a fairly literal approach. Berrigan suggested that Jesus’s disciples failed to recognize him because his body was broken. Jesus appeared as he was, the victim of torture: bloodied, bruised and swollen.
Another interpretation suggests that it was the sexism, the misogyny, of the disciples that prevented them from recognizing Jesus. The initial eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In the verses immediately before our passage, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, along with some number of unidentified women, try to convince the rest of the apostles that the tomb is empty. The male disciples do not believe them, call their story an “idle tale” or “nonsense.” Recognizing Jesus might have required these disciples to recognize their own sexism. It would have required them to acknowledge that the women they had chosen not to believe were telling the truth.
Whatever the case, the text tells us this: there were two people traveling a path together; they were joined by a third; and they did not recognize him for who he truly was.
This is an all too human story. It is too often my story. I imagine you are familiar with it too. Think about it. How often do you encounter someone and fail to fully recognize them? Let us start with the mundane. Have you had the experience of thinking you are near a friend when you are actually in the vicinity of a stranger? More frequently than I would like to admit I have my made way across a crowded room to greet someone I know. When I arrive I discover someone who merely resembles my friend. They have the same haircut, a similar tattoo, or are wearing a shirt that looks exactly my friend’s favorite shirt. But beyond the short dark bob, double hammer neck tattoo, or long sleeves with black and white stripes is a stranger.
The necessity of pandemic masks have made such embarrassing encounters all the more frequent. Blessedly, they usually last a fleeting moment and then are gone. Other failures of recognition carry with them much greater freight than mistaken identity. For another kind of failure of recognition is the failure to recognize the human in each other. And that can carry with it lethal consequences.
As the trial for the murder of George Floyd is making all too clear, when police officers kill people with brown and black bodies they fail to recognize the human in the person who they shoot, choke, or beat. Years ago, police officer who shot Mike Brown said the young man looked “like a demon.” That is certainly an apt description of failing to recognize someone as human.
Reflecting on the murder of Trayvon Martin, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas has written we “must recognize the face of Jesus in Trayvon.” She challenges us to consider that Jesus was not all that different from Martin or Floyd. They all belonged to communities targeted by violent structures of power composed of or endorsed by the state. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, George Floyd the list goes on and on. What would it mean if their killers had recognized the human in each of them? What was it that prevented police officers from recognizing the human in 213 people they have killed thus far in 2021?
I want to let that unpleasant question linger. Let us return to our text. It contains an encounter with the holy. Our two disciples were on the road to Emmaus. They discovered the divine. But they did not realize the divine was amongst them until it was too late, until Jesus disappeared.
One of the principal theologians of our Unitarian Universalist tradition is William Ellery Channing. He taught that each of us contains within “the likeness to God.” Jesus, Channing believed, was someone who had unlocked the image of God within. He did this by seeing the divine in everything, “from the frail flower to the everlasting stars.” Channing might be labelled by more conventional Christians as a gnostic. The gnostics believed that Jesus came not to offer a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world but to teach us how to shatter earthly illusions and find enlightenment. As the gnostic Gospel of Thomas states, “There is a light within… and it lights up the whole world.”
This suggests a reading of our text that focuses not on the resurrection of Jesus in the body but the resurrection of Jesus in the spirit. Remember, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared from seemingly nowhere. The disciples were walking and there he was. Remember, he disappeared immediately, as soon as the bread was broken.
Maybe what happened was this: as our two disciples debated, and argued, and bickered as they fled down the road to Emmaus they finally understood Jesus’s teachings. As they recounted what had happened, the divine became palpable to amongst them. And when they broke bread together they felt the divine stirring within. It was the same feeling they had when they were with Jesus before his execution. They felt Jesus still with them when they recognized the divine in each other. They found each other on the road to Emmaus.
Understood this way, the story is not about what prevents our two disciples from recognizing Jesus. It is about what prevents them from recognizing each other. What was it? What is it that prevents us from recognizing the human in each other?
Let me suggest that failing to recognize the human in each other is an unpleasantly enduring feature in our lives. I suspect that this dynamic has been exacerbated by the pandemic. When much of human life has become reduced from the physical to the digital, when conversations take place over video rather than in person, when communication is by text or email instead of in person, it is can be even harder to recognize the human in each other than it used to be. Perhaps you have had the experience where someone says something in a Zoom session that you hear differently than you would if you were having a physical meeting. You get upset. They get upset. The actual issue might not actually be that big or it might have become bigger because of the pandemic. But because you are not together, in the same room, it is harder to fully see the human in each other–to emphasize with, to put yourselves in each other’s shoes–and so there is more conflict than cooperation.
Prior to the pandemic, in my academic life, the failure to fully recognize the human in another sometimes seemed structured into some of my interactions. Let me share, and in my sharing perhaps you will hear something that seems familiar. A regular feature of academic life is the question and answer sessions that follow presentations and lectures. These sessions have a scripted dynamic. Someone from the audience asks a question, the presenter responds. Harmless enough, such exchanges further the collective project of the intellectual community. Except… these exchanges sometimes include failure of recognition.
Have you witnessed any of the following: the individual who asks the same question no matter the subject of the lecture; or the person who aggressively repeats someone else’s query as their own; or the comment in the form of a question? Each of these comes from a failure to listen.
Failures to listen are failures of recognition. They often come from failing to imagine someone else as a conversation partner, as an equal, as another person with whom we are engaged in a shared project. If we lift the curtain behind failures to listen we will frequently find insidious cultural dynamics, corrupting structure of power. Within the academy, I have seen, over and over again, an older male colleague restate a younger female colleague’s question as his own. I have seen white academics ignore the words of people of color or try to co-opt their work. I have seen graduate students comment on each other’s work not in the spirit of inquiry but in the spirit of currying favor with their faculty. To be honest, I have done some of these things myself.
When I commit them I am locked in my own anxieties, my need to appear smart, my desire to impress, even my longing to be a hero. Instead of listening to what someone is saying, I focus on my own words. And so, I miss the conversation. I do not fully recognize who or what is around me. Have you ever done something similar? How often are we, like our disciples on the road to Emmaus, oblivious to the holy?
Recognizing the human and the divine in each other is hard. Let us think about race. Race is a social construct. Race is a belief. White supremacy is a belief system. It requires that there are people “who believe that they are white,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memorable words, and that those people act in certain ways and believe particular things.
Most people who believe they are White believe in white normativity. This is the idea that an institution or community is primarily for or of white people. The assumption is that normal people in the institution are white and that other people are somehow aberrations. Religious communities are not immune to this.
The Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka came up with a test for white normativity. It is called the “Race Game.” The game is straightforward. It has one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, today after the service you might call a friend: “I went to an online Easter service today. The preacher was an articulate White man. Wow! Has his pandemic hair gotten long!”
The “Race Game” can be uncomfortable. It can bring up feelings of shame. Thandeka reports that in the late 1990s she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or an email describing their experiences. She received one letter. According to Thandeka, the White women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Does it require courage to recognize the human and the divine in each other? What was it that prevented our two disciples from recognizing Jesus? What assumptions do each of us hold about what is normal and is not that prevent us from recognizing each other? We could play variations of the Race Game as a test. The Gender Game: “The preacher was a cis-gendered straight presenting man.” The Social Class Game: “He was an upper middle-class professional.” The Ableism Game: “The able-bodied man with no noticeable neurodiversity.” Such games might be difficult to play. They reveal the social constructs that prevent us from recognizing each other.
But something prevented them from recognizing him.
But something prevented them from recognizing each other.
But something prevented us from recognizing each other.
What must we do to recognize each other? Again, I turn to the text for an answer. Recall that our disciples were part of a revolutionary movement. Remember, they had given themselves over to a liberating struggle, a common project. Two thousand years ago they did not accept the status quo of the Roman Empire. Today, we can recognize the divine when we join in struggle against the world’s powers and principalities.
The Black Lives Matter movement of recent years can be understood as an attempt to prompt our historically white supremacist culture to recognize the human in people of color. The Women’s Marches of the Trump era were part of an effort to dismantle patriarchal power and, in doing so, create a society that fully recognizes the human in people of all genders.
The last President’s regime was a sickening reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the human. The afflicted are not comforted. The comfortable are not afflicted. The brokenhearted do not have their wounds bound. The stranger is not welcomed. People die from the violence of white supremacy, from the violence of military action, from the violence of state sponsored poverty, from the violence of those who, like the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Texas, who have prioritized opening businesses, bars and restaurants over health measures to keep us safe throughout the pandemic.
Our disciples finally recognized Jesus because they were part of a revolutionary movement that was committed to welcoming the stranger into its midst. A movement that bound wounds, healed spirits, and denounced violence. But more than that, it challenged people to find the divine amid and amongst themselves. For as Jesus said, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is! “For the kingdom of God is among you!”
It is the poets who sum this sermon best.
T. S. Eliot:
“Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
–But who is that on the other side of you?”
Jimmy Santiago Baca:
“the essence of our strength,
each of us a warm fragment,
broken off from the greater
ornament of the unseen,
then rejoined as dust,
to all this is.”
“Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent”
Let us join together in a closing prayer.
spark that leaps each to each,
source of being
that in our human language
so many us of name God,
stir our hearts
so that we may have the courage
all that prevents us from recognizing
and the divine that travels amid
our mortal community.
Grant us the strength,
and the compassion,
that we need to go together
down the revolutionary road,
liberating the human within each of us,
binding the wounds of the broken,
welcoming the stranger,
comforting the afflicted,
and encountering the truth,
the holy is never absent when we join together in struggle.
May we, like our two disciples,
find each other on the road to Emmaus.
Amen and Blessed Be.