as preached online for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 12, 2020
You might remember that our theme for worship for April is renewal. This is our Easter service. I am scheduled to be talking with you about renewal and rebirth. And in this sermon, we are going to be focusing on something that might be called the resurrection of the living. The inspiration for it comes from two scriptural lines. The first is found in a text in the Christian New Testament known as The Acts of the Apostles. In the old King James version it reads, “God is no respecter of persons.” The second comes from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” a gnostic Christian text from the early second century. There we find this description of the answer to the question, “What is the resurrection” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
God is no respecter of persons, an ancient idea that bespeaks the truth that we are alike to the divine. Each person, the rich and the poor, will go the way of all flesh. The living resurrection, a transition into freshness. Taken together these texts teach us that we all share a common fate and all contain within us the possibility of awakening into a “revelation of what is.”
The lesson is echoed in the words of William Ellery Channing, the principal nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian. He said, in an Easter sermon, “here on earth the influence of Christ’s character is seen in awakening an active, self-sacrificing goodness” in the heart of each; taught that the purpose of religion was to rouse the “likeness to God” that lies within all; and claimed that heaven might be found on Earth. “A new sense, a new eye, might show the spiritual world compassing on every side,” he preached.
The living resurrection, my sermon, with its central message drawn from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” might be divided into two parts. The first, a bit of context and some theological exposition. The second, a confession about our contemporary struggle.
Most of you have probably never heard of “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” Some of you self-identify as liberal Christians or come from Christian families. If this is the first time listening to one of our services marking the Christian high holidays, you might be surprised to hear a text read that deviates from the standard lectionary. You might have been expecting Acts and one of the Psalms or a reading from the canonical gospels of John or Matthew. But certainly not a passage from “The Treatise on the Resurrection.”
Here at First Unitarian Universalist, I always include a reading from the gnostic tradition in our holiday offerings. Unitarian Universalism has its roots in two heretical Christian traditions. Unitarians, like William Ellery Channing, believe that Jesus is best understood as a great moral teacher. They rejected the idea of what is called atonement theology, summarized best in the statement, “Jesus died for your sins.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.” “The importance of Jesus,” she writes elsewhere, “is not that he paid the price for sin. Jesus is important because he embodied loving concern for others and called people to love their neighbors.” Jesus pointed to the possibility of what other great religious leaders–the Buddha or mystic Rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov–and have pointed to as well, religion should awaken us to the beauty of the world around us and the compassion within us.
Universalism is the other heretical Christian tradition that inspires us. Universalists celebrate the love of God for all. They believe that God loves everyone, without exception. “The scriptures declare that God is love, that he is a good Being, that he is no respecter of persons, but is good to all, and that his tender mercies are over all his works,” wrote the nineteenth-century Universalist Lucy Barns. Such a good and loving deity, Universalists think, cannot damn her creations to an eternity of suffering. Instead, they understand, death brings us humans a common fate. They know that whatever Hell we find, we make for ourselves in our earthly realm. The theological sentiment of the Universalists is captured well in a fragment of the singer Bobby McFerrin’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm. McFerrin speaks of his faith in the feminine divine:
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.
Unitarianism, the knowledge that we can each open ourselves to the glory unfolding around us and the compassion within us. Universalism, the wisdom that we all share a common fate and that power of the divine is found in love. These are ancient heresies, teachings rejected by the powers and principalities of ancient Rome for their subversive nature. Each year during the high Christian holidays we read from texts like “The Treatise on the Resurrection” to remind ourselves that the core of our Unitarian Universalist theology is as old as the Christian tradition itself. It is just that we happen to be the heirs of those people who refused what the philosopher Cornel West and others have called Constantinian Christianity, the marriage between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Constantinian Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus without really asking questions: Why was he killed by the greatest Empire of his day? What did he teach that made him so threatening? The heretical Christians who wrote “The Treatise of the Resurrection” believed in resurrection of the living, “a transition into a new freshness.”
Constainian Christians instead preach of the resurrection of the dead. They sing the beautiful hymn, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through / My treasurers are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” The old heretical Christian asked instead, in the words of the labor hymn, “Shall we only hope for heaven when we’re dead?” Or shall we imagine the possibility that here, in our earthly realm, there might be, “joy and peace for all”? The resurrection of the living or the resurrection of the dead?
“The Treatise on the Resurrection,” this morning’s text, comes from heretical tradition called gnosticism. The teachings of William Ellery Channing resemble those of the gnostics. Contemporary scholar Elaine Pagels has distilled gnostic thought into three primary gestures. First, it taught that the resurrection of the living was the discovery that “self-knowledge is knowledge of God.” There is a flicker of the divine–what humanists might call the spark that leaps from each-to-each in times of common crisis–within each of us. We are resurrected to life when feed that spark.
Second, they claimed that Jesus was “a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.” Following teachings such as those found in “The Treatise on the Resurrection” or the better known “Gospel of Thomas” offers us advice on how we might each kindle our own flame. Much of that teaching might be captured in the advice of the prophet Micah who rhetorically asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” The resurrection of the living, the gnostics believed, was available to all who opened themselves to the “revelation of what is” and sought “the transformation of things” and “transition into freshness.”
Third, they saw Jesus as a human being who pointed the way to the resurrection of the living, not someone who was the “Son of God in a unique way,” as Pagels puts it. Instead, those who underwent the resurrection of the living could become like Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas relates, “Jesus said, I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out… He who will drink from my mouth will become like as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” The likeness of God, claimed William Ellery Channing, resides within each of us.
The resurrection of the living, here is where we reach my confession. I am having more than a little trouble believing in it this morning. As I speak to you, the words of the poet T. S. Eliot lie somewhere in the background, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
It is hard to preach about the resurrection of the living, to offer you a sense of renewal and the hope of rebirth, in this cruel month of April. Like a lot of people, I am struggling. I am blessed to continue to have a job and good health. But I am a single parent of a thirteen-year-old boy. We are sheltering in place together, in our 1,200 square foot apartment. Like a lot of parents, I am finding it difficult to stay home all day–with the exception of an hour walk in the evening–with a kid who has to attend school online, complete his homework, cannot see his friends, and who is not able to go outside all that often, to be hard. It is almost unbearable. Which is not to say that I do not love my son. It is more that juggling work–this sermon was written in a series of snatches between vain attempts to get schoolwork completed in a timely fashion–and having to do all the cooking and well, everything, else is more than a little hard. Most days I go to bed simply grateful to have made it through the day without entirely losing my mind.
I do not tell you this elicit your sympathy. Rather, I tell you this to join my voice to the chorus of others making statements like, “It is OK not to be OK” or “Parents are not OK.” Voices from around the world tell us that they are not OK. From Italy, Sylvia Poggioli writes of “the grimmest [ritual]: the 6 o’clock televised press conference at which… the latest number of Covid-19 cases and the day’s body count” are announced. Hari Kunzru describes how the unrelenting deaths in Brooklyn are bringing “a rapid disintegration of all social and economic life [that] has exposed the terrible fragility of the American system.” Nicole Rudick observes from New Jersey that during this cruel April, “boring is the best you can hope for.” Staying in Oxford, England, Merve Emre, experiences “isolation,” walking “the empty aisles of the supermarket–no pasta, no beans, no peanut butter,” and learning of a “nurse who had worked for forty-eight hours straight crying in her car because she couldn’t find fresh fruit or vegetables after her shift ended.” In New Mexico, Danny Lyon meditates upon the impending death of a friend and asks the question: “When this horror passes, and it will, will the survivors accept a new way to live? The party is over… Is this the turning point? Will we emerge into a new and better world?”
The survivors… I pray that all who are watching this service, and all of your loved ones, will be among them. For this is likely to be one of the most difficult months that many of us have lived through. To date, more than a hundred thousand people have died from COVID-19, more than twenty thousand of them in the United States. In this country alone there are over five hundred thousand infected. The true number could be ten times that since testing has been such an abysmal failure. That would mean five million infected, one out of every sixty-six people living in the United States.
Epidemiologists are reporting that over the course of the pandemic at least sixty thousand people in this country will die. Some forecasts are much higher. The national death rate is supposed to reach its greatest height in the next weeks–suggesting that April will live up to its reputation for cruelty.
The cruel month of April is bringing massive job losses. Close to ten million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis. Another ten million will probably lose their jobs by the end of the month. Somewhere close to fifty percent of people under the age of forty-five have are now unemployed and huge numbers of people without healthcare. In most states, the unemployment system is overwhelmed and benefits have been slow in coming. Rent was due at the beginning of the month. Many families were forced to make the choice between paying it, buying food, and, in some cases, paying for medicine.
The cruelty of the month suggests that at least a few of you who are watching have experienced illness, are suffering from the virus, or have recently lost your job. If that describes you, I hope you will reach out to us here at First Unitarian Universalist. One of the purposes of a religious community is to take care of its members. The congregation is here for you during this time of pandemic. We will what we can to provide you with comfort and relief.
In the midst of such of a cruel month, it is difficult to preach a sermon on the resurrection of the living. I suspect it is difficult to preach an Easter sermon today from any tradition. Easter is supposed to be a grand and joyous holiday. Here at First Unitarian Universalist, we typically celebrate it with: magisterial organ music; an exuberant choir performance; bright, voluminous, bouquets of flowers; a few Easter bonnets; and our annual Easter parade. Each year, for more than twenty years, this congregation’s children have celebrated the holiday by marching down Fannin Street to the Emergency Aid Coalition with a rather sizable donation of canned goods.
None of that is happening. Instead, I find myself preaching again to an empty sanctuary–prerecording a message that I hope will provide you with a sense of connection, a bit of uplift, and perhaps some clarity during these strange days. It is Easter and the emptiness of the sanctuary provides us with the temptation to choose the theological analogy of the resurrection of the dead. For it is on Easter that Jesus’s disciples, the scriptures in the Christian New Testament claim, found the empty tomb. And it is on Easter that they became convinced he had been brought back to life–the resurrection of the dead.
The story is recounted that Jesus, the young peasant revolutionary from Nazareth, was executed on Friday. Jesus, the story says, a young peasant with brown skin–for any peasant born two thousand years ago in the town of Bethlehem would have brown skin–was put to death by the officials and soldiers of an imperial state. Jesus, the radical who, the Gospel of John tells us, “made a whip of cords and… upset the tables of the money-changers” and drove them from the Temple, and “whom,” the Acts of the Apostles in the old King James claims, “they slew and hanged on a tree,” and who, when his friends and loved ones went to reclaim his corpse, was discovered not to be in his tomb. Jesus–who, in a more contemporary translation of the Gospel of Luke, warned, “But alas for you who are rich; / you have had your time of happiness, / Alas for you who are well fed now; / you will go hungry / Alas for you who laugh now; / you will mourn and weep. / Alas for you when all speak well of you; / that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”–was not moldering in his grave. Instead, the Christian scripture declares, “God raised him to life on the third day.”
The empty tomb; God raised him to life on the third day, that is the story of the resurrection of the dead. The empty sanctuary; the suggestion that God will cause us to rise up again, after this pandemic, a non-heretical Easter metaphor. God will cause us to rise up again, the claim, the belief, the message that everything is going to be fine in the end, that we will return to the way things used to be, to “normal,” that stock market will resume its endless rise, that employment will come roaring back.
The resurrection of the dead… Last week Rev. Scott urged us to reframe hope. He quoted the writer David Whyte, “Hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.” Hoping that the world will return to “normal” after the pandemic ends or that we will all quickly return to work and profit making is hoping for the resurrection of the dead. Literally, it will require that some of us die so that others might resume making money–a wish that Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has expressed. But it will also mean that we, as a society, have learned nothing from this pandemic and all the suffering it has brought.
Instead of hoping things will return to the way they were, instead of seeking the resurrection of the dead, I think, this Easter, as hard as it is, we must choose the resurrection of the living. The resurrection of the living, what does it mean for us in this moment? It is hard me to preach about it or seek it, as I struggle amid the chaos of an upended world to compose these words, but I suspect I know what it means: take pleasure in living and pursue the politics of the living.
Taking pleasure in living, awakening to the “revelation of what is.” The other night, I went for a late walk over by the Menil Collection. The museum was shuttered. The streets near empty. The darkness as dark as it gets in the middle of Houston. Live oak trees lined the sidewalks. Sculptures interrupted, as they always do, the symmetry of the Menil’s lawn–a lush and neat expanse surrounding the rectangular building with its inviting porches and columns. A flutter interrupted the sculptures, the trees, the lawn, the columns, the porch. A flutter and then flash of wings and legs, tufted feathers, the observant, silent, head of a tricolor heron. Never had I seen such a bird before–let alone in the midnight of the city. There it was: nature’s beauty, revealing to me how life continues, thrives, in the midst of a pandemic. A spark of the resurrection of the living.
You can awaken yourself to the resurrection of the living no matter where you are during this pandemic. The beauty of the world surrounds us. There are always complex patterns and unexpected openings–no matter how cramped we might be and no matter how much we suffer. And here I could offer a learned discourse on all of those who have found beauty among misery and horror. But instead, I will just quote the survivor of World War II, Sami Rosenstock, who wrote during that moment of terror, “Salt and fire await you on the mineral hill of the incandescence of living.”
The incandescence of living, if we are to experience the resurrection of the living we must pursue the politics of the living. This is what Jesus did. And this is why he died. The politics of the living follow the injunction that God is no respecter of persons. They urge us to remember the most vulnerable among us. They challenge us–be we white or black, Asian or Latinx, poor or rich–to recognize that the grave injustice of the disproportionate death rate among African Americans is a result of the politics of white supremacy. It is not an accident that black people are dying from the virus at a higher rate than white people. It is the result of a system that has spent generations creating riches for wealthy whites at the expense of people of color. Pursuing the politics of the living means heeding the call of Anthony Fauci who reminds us that the unequal death rate is a result of “health disparities [that] have always existed for the African American community.”
Again, there is much I could say about the politics of the living. But instead, since this is Easter, I will just quote Jesus who said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you did for me.” The politics of the living come from the resurrection of the living. They challenge us to ask ourselves the question–most especially in the midst of a pandemic–what shall we do to make the world more beautiful for all?
The resurrection of the dead; the resurrection of the living… I confess to you, my friends, absent in body, though present in spirit, that this Easter I having trouble choosing the resurrection of the living. April is cruel. It will get crueler. I do not anticipate that sheltering in place will get easier. I do not believe that any of this will end soon.
But I will make what small movement I can towards the resurrection of the living. I will leave this place and go for a walk with my son. We will wear masks. We will keep our social distance from others. And, perhaps, we will see a tricolor heron or a flower or some other spark of beauty to awaken us to the “revelation of what is.” And it will remind us that no matter how difficult the hour, the glory of life is ever present.
And I will leave this place and do what I can to remember that God is no respecter of persons. I will speak out and demand that our society care for the least of these–which in this time of pandemic could become all of us. I will do what small things I can. Write my words. Call those who are struggling. And remember the rhetorical question, from the ancient prophet Micah, who called for the resurrection of the living when he asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“Why do I seem to shout?” the ancient text inquires. “What is the resurrection?” it asks. Didactically it answers:
“It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
This Easter may each of us, no matter how along we might feel, no how matter vulnerable we are, no matter how much we are struggling, begin to undergo the resurrection of the living. For, “These are the symbols and images of resurrection. They establish its goodness.”
The goodness of the resurrection of the living is established. Hear those ancient words and remember that truth, my friends. And now, I invite you to remember that truth, hear my words, and present in spirit say, Amen.