Troubling the Truth (Easter 2022)


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 17, 2022

The influential Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church used to joke with his congregation, “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.” And then he would ask them, “So what are we doing here? Why even bother?”

What are we doing here? Why even bother? At the outset, I wish to confess, I do not like Forrest Church’s joke because it is funny. I like it because it offers some rather deep truths about Unitarian Universalism.

We are a religious communion that has a complicated relationship with Christianity. Some of us identify as liberal or gnostic Christians. Others appreciate the teachings of Jesus but translate them into strictly humanistic terms. Such members of our congregation are all about the beatitudes and parables but care nothing for the more metaphysical parts of the biblical narrative.

Still other members of our community have little if any relationship with either Christianity or the Easter story. Maybe you grew up Jewish or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist? Perhaps, when you were a kid, your family observed Easter in a strictly secular fashion: it was all about chocolate bunny rabbits, waxy jellybeans, and inedible styrofoam marshmallow peeps. It had nothing to do with church, the cross, or Jesus. It could even be that prior to entering our sanctuary, or finding us online, you had little if anything to do with the Easter holiday. 

So, what are we doing here? Why even bother? Like some of you, I have a deep ambivalence towards Easter. I was raised Unitarian Universalist. In my youth, my home congregation was fairly humanist. In my memory, none of the adults in the community seemed to take Easter seriously. We had a big, exciting, Easter egg hunt in the garden outside the sanctuary. But it was rarely accompanied by anything that impressed upon me a connection with Christianity. 

If anything, I remember sermons and stories that were designed to present the holiday as something other than Christian. The holiday was connected with spring. We were told that in ancient England and Germany there once was a goddess named Eostre. Her celebration, we were reminded, eventually was incorporated into the Christian holy day. The pagan symbolism of the Easter bunny and eggs was also explored–they are ancient European symbols of fertility. 

So, what are we doing here? Why even bother? Historically, Unitarian Universalists have approached the Easter holiday from a variety of perspectives. Each troubles the traditional Trinitarian Christian account of resurrection. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has summarized it as the belief, “God the Father required the death of his Son to save the world.” Rejecting this claim she writes, “We seek a different theological vision.” 

We seek a different theological vision… It would be more accurate to state, we seek different theological visions. 

What are we doing here? There is no single answer to Forrest Church’s query. The reasons you are here are likely not to be the same reasons why I am here. You might be here because you are part of our Easter congregation. You wanted to come someplace this morning where you could hear something of the stories and life of Jesus from a more humanistic perspective. You might be here because you woke up this morning in need of human fellowship and sought out the warmth of this religious community. You might be here because you are a longtime member of First Houston and what you do is come here on Sunday mornings. You might be here…

We seek different theological visions… The core of my message this morning is to lift up one of the many reasons why we are here. And by we here, I mean the corporate we of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. We are here to provide a space where on a holiday like today we can humbly admit that there is no single religious truth for all of humanity. Instead, there are religious truths. What has meaning for me might not have meaning for you. And what has meaning for you might not have meaning for me. 

Our religious tradition encourages us to live with this ambiguity. It challenges us to figure out how to build community and work for justice despite the fact that we might each have a different understanding of religious truth. You might respond to Easter one way. I might respond to it another way. And yet, we are both here, in this sanctuary, on this fine morning, with excellent music, some ancient scripture, and a bit good fellowship.

The fourth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association reads that we covenant to affirm and promote, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It does not claim that we must affirm a specific truth. Instead, it urges to search for the truth. And I would add, search for it with the humble knowledge that the truth I find might not be the same truth that you find. And that despite the difference in our truths we still have to figure out to build community together.

We seek different theological visions… As a reminder of the diversity of religious truths that have been found by Unitarian Universalists, what I offer you this morning is not a single truth. Instead, I share with you three different approaches that our tradition has taken to the awkward holiday of Easter. Perhaps you will find something of your own views in one. Perhaps you will think a little bit differently about the truths to found in the holiday after hearing all three.

The approach we start with was popular with some eighteenth and nineteenth century advocates of our tradition. Their approach was to deny that the holiday had theological relevance.

The most famous advocate of this position was Thomas Jefferson. He is, to put it gently, a complicated figure. A generation ago, he would have probably been celebrate from this pulpit as a fearsome advocate of religious liberty, and someone who believed that, “everybody should be free in religious matters with no interference by the state.”

These days a more honest assessment of the man is required. It is difficult to mention his name without acknowledging that, advocate of religious liberty he might have been, he was also a white supremacist, serial rapist, and slaver. 

He lived off of other people’s labor. And the labor he lived off of allowed him to become a scholar. One of his signature achievements was a text called The Jefferson Bible.

Have you heard of it? It is a strange book. In it Jefferson attempts to construct, in his words, “a view of the life, character, and doctrines of Jesus… This view… purposely omit[ing] the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration.”

The effort is devoted to creating an account of the human Jesus. It contains no Christmas, no account of miraculous birth. And it offers no reassuring statement about the resurrection, no claim that, as the Gospel of Matthew concludes, “I will be with you always, to the end of time.”

Instead, we find a narration of the life of Jesus that begins simply:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the would should be taxed.

And it concludes starkly:

Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid.
There laid they Jesus.
And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.

The theologian Augustine wrote, “We are born between urine and feces.” Cornel West has famously expanded this sentiment as a call to be “true to the funk of living” and claimed, “We’re beings toward death, we’re … two-legged, linguistically-conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms.”

If we look at the human life of Jesus, if we look at the funk of his living, then we see him situated between two forms of state violence. He was born in the midst of an effort by the Roman state to extract money from the working poor to pay for war and imperial opulence. He died a victim of that same state for preaching a message of love and liberation. 

The human life of Jesus… For many Unitarian Universalist ministers, Easter is an opportunity to talk about the stories and parables of Jesus. There usually is not much of a focus on his death. If it is mentioned, it is often discussed within the context I have just offered, as an opportunity to critique systems of violence, white supremacy, and empire. After hearing about his work to build the beloved community, we are often reminded, “Violence destroys life,” as Rebecca Parker would have it.

This approach–with its emphasis solely on the human life of Jesus and its failure to conclude with his resurrection–reminds me of a favorite poem of mine. It comes from the fourth century Chinese poet T’ao Ch’ien:

Once you’re
dead and gone, what then? Trust yourself
to the mountainside. It will take you in.

What are we doing here? Why even bother? I am not sure that a focus on the human life of Jesus preaches particularly well on Easter. We can talk about that any Sunday we like. And in our Easter sermons Unitarian Universalist ministers often go in a different direction.

The more common approach is to take a metaphorical or mystical meaning from the holiday. You might have heard me offer a sermon from this perspective before. Influenced by the gnostic tradition and Jewish theologians like Martin Buber and Buddist teachers such as Thich Nhat Han, I have suggested that the purpose of religious community and religious practice is to wake up to what is.

I call this the resurrection of the living. In my Easter sermons, I typically focus on passages like those found in the Gospel of Peter or the First Epistle of Clement. Peter includes these words, “And they heard a voice from the skies, ‘Have you preached to those who are asleep?’ And a reply came from the cross, ‘Yes.’” Clement tells us, “We should look, loved ones, at the resurrection that happens time after time.”

In both cases, there is a claim that the true message of Jesus was to encourage each of us to undergo a spiritual awakening and experience, truly, the world that is around us. Rather than focusing on the singular resurrection of a savior, we are encouraged to undergo, engage with, the resurrection that is always all around us.

This morning the Earth woke up. Turning round the sun, the day star blessed us again with light and day followed night. New life, new possibility, new hope came into being with the freshness of dawn, the photosynthesis of leaves, the opportunity to be present in this moment, now the only one we have, and to be present with each other.

Such an approach reminds us, in the words of Unitarian Universalist theologian Marilyn Sewell, that we are always “threatened with resurrection.” Each day, each moment, we are offered the possibility of bringing a newness, a freshness, into our lives and into the world.

This might be the message that you seek this morning. A reminder that is it always possible to begin again. That when we stand, to again quote Sewell, “in the metaphorical grave, with the stone rolled over the door of our heart” we have a power within us, and a community around us, that can embolden us to push that stone aside. Here, in her words, we are reminded, “resurrection symbolizes a breaking open of the present, a breaking up of the soil of your spirit, and a resurrection of the ground of your reality, so that the seeds of life might have a warm and inviting place to grow.”

Here, in my words, you are offered the opportunity to wake up to what is, to examine yourself and the world, and do what you can to change what you can. Maybe, this Easter, the resurrection of the living will mean waking up to the beauty of your life and deciding to express a deeper gratitude for what is and for those around you. Maybe it means a decision to admit that you are struggling–and who is not struggling in these times–and seek connection with those who can help you with your struggles. A recognition, perhaps, that during the pandemic you have been drinking too much or that you have been too isolated or that you need help with your mental health…

Maybe it means waking up to the reality of the climate crisis, as scientists are demanding that we do, and committing as best you can to work to avert what might be coming. Maybe it means waking up to a clearer understanding of the dynamics of white supremacy and hearing the teaching of Ibram X. Kendi that racism and anti-racism are not fixed identities. They are ways of doing. In his words, “an antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea.”

Maybe it means waking up to the reality that we all just born human, each come into the world as “an original blessing,” in the words of Matthew Fox. My blessing is different than yours. All of these categories that surround us–categories of race, gender, sexuality, class, nation, citizenship–are categories that are secondary to the simple reality that we are each born human. Secondary to the simple reality that the categories are things that we humans have constructed over time and that any cursory glance through history and across human culture will remind us that there is no fixed way of being human.

It might be that the Easter message you need this morning is that you, and I, and all of us, are threatened with resurrection. We each can undergo the resurrection of the living and wake up to what is. You are a blessing.

You are a blessing.

There is a third approach that Unitarian Universalists sometimes take to Easter. It seems particularly relevant this Sunday morning when Easter falls in the midst of both Passover and Ramadan. It is approach that calls us to look back at the teaching of the earliest Unitarians in Europe. In the sixteenth-century they rejected the Trinity for two intertwined reasons.

First, they rejected it because they found little, if any, textual evidence to support it within the Christian New Testament. Reading the scripture, they discovered that almost every text that was supposed to prove the Trinitarian nature of the divine was either a misinterpretation, mistranslation, or later interpolation–it had been added after the original text was written.

Studying the history of Christianity, they learned that the early Christians did not affirm the Trinity. It only became established in Christian doctrine with the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. The council is an incident that has been described as the marriage of the church and the state. It represented an alliance between those church leaders who wanted Christian theology to be fixed so that they could better regulate, and control Christians–have the ability to say who was a heretic and who was not–and the Roman imperial powers. The Roman rulers hoped that by making the Christianity of the council the official religion of the state they could tame it and turn it from a religion of dissent–which is what Jesus taught–into a mechanism for solidifying their power.

Second, these early Unitarians rejected the Trinity because they thought it was the theological doctrine that prevented Jews, Muslims, and Christians from recognizing that they all worshiped a single deity. In places like Transylvania, our religious forebears proclaimed that we are all “Children of the Same God.”

On an Easter Sunday like today, this third approach to the holiday lifts up a portrait of Jesus that affirms the commonalities of the three major monotheistic traditions. Unitarian Universalist ministers who offer this perspective remind us that Jesus was a Jew. He did not seek to create the religion of Christianity. He sought to be faithful to his understanding of the Jewish tradition. He taught a version of Judaism that was meant to liberate the poor and oppressed from the yoke of the Roman empire. And the holiday he celebrated at this time of year was not Easter. It was Passover.

Jesus, this third variety of Unitarian Universalist sermon, tells us is also revered by Islam. Muslims believe that he was a great prophet. The Quran includes many texts describing him. None of them offer him up as person to be worshiped. All lift him up as one of the wisest of humans.

This type of sermon might be the oldest of the three that I have described. Historian Susan Ritchie has written about how more than four hundred years ago Unitarian ministers in Europe were preaching theologies that “resisted” understandings of “God that could not be freely shared across” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The great Unitarian theologian Francis David, whose maxim, “we need not think alike to love alike” you have probably heard quoted from this pulpit, even went so far as to encourage the congregations he served to stop addressing prayers to Jesus. Doing so, in his view, got in the way of reconciling a vision of God across the three faiths.

Sometimes, today, this reconciliation approach is summarized with a verse from the Rig Veda, “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”

Truth is one, the wise call it by many names. What I have attempted to offer you this Easter morning is a reminder of a fundamental Unitarian Universalist principle. We live in a world where there many different approaches to the truth available. You have your truth. And I have mine. The challenge we face is to figure out how to live together when we are faced with all of these competing truths. How do we remain a community–or a society–and freely and responsibly search for truth and meaning?

Did you hear a Unitarian Universalist version of Easter you came seeking this morning? That spoke true to you? On Easter, did you need a sermon on the humanity and stories of Jesus–an account of the teacher that ends with his death on the cross? Did you need a sermon reminding you of the resurrection of the living? Or one that reminded of what the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have in common? Where did you find yourself in this mix of truths?

Easter remains an awkward holiday for Unitarians. I have offered you not a single story but three not as a reminder of how awkward this holiday can be. I have offered you these different narratives because one of the most important messages our faith has to share is that we can each have a different truth and yet figure out how to live together.

This message is much needed in the state of Texas. The demand that teachers avoid critical race theory, the Governor’s ruling targeting transgender children and their families, the Lieutenant Governor’s desire to bring a version of Florida’s “don’t say gay” law here… Each is an attempt to limit the truth to that which is most comfortable, most convenient, to the most powerful among us.

There is no single truth. There are only truths. Let us wake to that message this Easter morning and in all of the days of our lives.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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