Happy Easter! Halleluiah!
This is one of those rare times when even we liberal religious folks, even the most skeptical of us, can get to “halleluiah.” At least we are willing to sing it. We will sing things many of us would never say…at least out loud.
Just to remind you. Halleluiah means “praise the Lord,” or “praise ye the Lord” as the King James Bible delivered it. But the word comes from the Hebrew: hellel…to praise and yah…YAHWEH.
Praise Yahweh…those letters used in Hebrew to stand-in for the god whose name should never be spoken and whose image should never be shown…that god who is mystery of life and of death, that god who is mystery of rebirth and resurrection…
Spirit of Life.
Halleluiah! Now, we usually shade its meaning, not so much with praise as with relief.
Halleluiah! Thank goodness.
Thank goodness spring has finally come. The mammal in us has long been ready. Thank goodness the record setting rains are ending. Thank goodness the tulips are in full bloom. Thank goodness the earth is being reborn once again. Thank goodness that resurrection is not some arcane theological treatise but a living truth all around us.
Praise the mystery.
“The dead shall rise again.” Writes Victoria Safford. “Have you seen the trees? …The magnolias, swelling? …The forsythia (or as one child I know calls it, the three-sythia, the two-sythia) and those three small, flowering, perfect crabapple trees in the park, strong little trees begging children to climb them and get lost for a while in their magical, pink canopies?”
“Is it safe…,” she asks, “to presume that we have all seen the dead resurrected? Can we presume, just quietly among us, this basic fact? Can we admit, however carefully at first, however foolish it may sound, that once or twice in our lives or perhaps over and over and tumbling over, we have seen events miraculous?”
“The dead shall rise again. We know, because we have seen it.”
Praise the mystery. Halleluiah.
For some of us, that is enough. For some of us, nature’s miracle of rebirth and the blossoming of spring…for some of us, even in this trying year, that is enough to gladden our hearts and call forth praise…or at least heart-felt thanks.
And if that is true for you, then I have already preached the word you need to hear.
But bear with me and with us, because some of us all of the time and all of us some of the time come here looking for more. On this Easter morning, we yearn for a deeper resurrection in our communities and, most certainly, a more profound resurrection in our politics.
And many of us also come yearning for, searching for, hoping for a rebirth in our personal lives, a resurrection of our own spirits. And so, bear with me and with us as we try to look at the mystery, searching for what some might call a naïve and even foolish hope that new life may be possible even for us.
This season is celebrated in all the great faith traditions and in each of them it points to meaning beyond the greening earth. This season is celebrated not only as the renewal of matter, but as metaphor for the rebirth of spirit as well.
We hear rebirth in the liberation remembered and promised in the Jewish Passover and in the urging to reclaim “beginner’s mind” in the Zen Buddhist tradition. This is the constant “jihad” or struggle in Islam. And it is the Easter promise in Christianity.
Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes:
“This is the practice of resurrection. We die so many times a day. We lose ourselves so many times a day. …And we also come back to life several times a day.”
He is making a case for a spiritual practice…in his case meditation, but it could be prayer or Tai Chi…so many approaches…”In my Father’s house are many mansions,” is one way Jesus described these many paths.
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on: “Redemption and resurrection are neither words nor objects of belief. They are our daily practice. And we practice in such a way that Buddha is born every moment of our daily life, that Jesus Christ is born every moment of our daily life.”
It is fascinating to me that it is a Buddhist monk who has helped reclaim some of the Christian metaphor for us.
Many of us have a complex, love-hate relationship with the Christian story that makes this holiday so hard…once we move beyond the lilies and the bunnies. We would much rather reject or control the promise of Easter than be present to its mystery.
Brain Doyle, speaking deeply out of his own Catholicism, writes lyrically about the illogic and the mystery of his faith:
“Isn’t the loopiness at the center of it the best thing of all? …The very essence of our common belief, the polestar by which we [are asked] to steer our lives, is the fact that a thin, young Jewish guy two thousand years ago insisted that life defeats death, hope defeats despair, light defeats darkness? That is ridiculous. … The evidence is everywhere against it. But he insisted on it to the point of death—and whether you believe he rose from the dead … or you do not believe such a tall tale, the inarguable fact is that his insistence, his wild message lives on…”
“Isn’t belief that hope defeats despair a wild leap like the ones we take when we commit to marriage, to a vocation, to a tumultuous democracy?”
“Could it be that it is the very wildness of it that gives it the ring of truth.”
Wildness. Tulips and bunnies are just the tip of the iceberg. Living as if hope truly is stronger than despair is a radical departure from business as usual. The Easter message is that new life is possible even when our continuing racism demands Black Lives Matter activism, even when our largest bombs are dropped on caves in the Afghan hills, even when there is so much crucifixion that we may protest but ultimately condone…
The Easter promise is that new life can break out within us and among us…right here and right now.
Poet Annie Dillard writes:
“I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently [aware].“ We would say the same for most religious people: I do not find most religious people sufficiently aware of the power of what we promise.
“Does anyone.” She goes on, “have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke [in church]? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?”
She argues for the radical nature of the religious message and the potential power in the vision for Beloved Community we proclaim here every week.
“The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT… It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god (the Spirit of Life) may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Draw us out to where we can never return.
Resurrection calls us to put well worn paths behind us and move naively, perhaps foolishly forward into new ways…move naively, foolishly…but move.
In the Christian story, Easter morning has been made into a story of triumph and Good News. “Christ the Lord is risen today,” is the emblematic hymn. We sing “Lo, the Earth Awakes Again,” to the same tune, but most of us know the original lyric.
Easter as triumph.
Easter morning is presented differently in each of the four Gospels. But all of them place Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb where the dead body of the crucified Jesus had been laid on Friday night.
Nothing could be done on Saturday, the Sabbath. But the women buy herbs on Sunday morning and go to the tomb to anoint the body as required.
In John’s Gospel, Mary is shocked to see that the huge stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away. She runs to tell two of his male followers who return with her, enter the tomb and find only the linen wrappings that had covered Jesus. Both men, terrified, flee, but Mary remains, weeping outside the tomb. She sees two angels inside the tomb and then a man whom she assumes is the gardener.
“Why weepest thou?” he asks.
She speaks of Jesus and asks if he has carried Jesus’ body away. And then he says her name, “Mary!” and she recognizes him as Jesus. They speak. She calls him “Rabboni,” my dear teacher. Then she runs to tell the male disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
Was it Mary’s memory, her imagination that created such a vision? Did her deep grief and her yearning somehow call him back to her? Somehow allow her to mistake a gardener for her rabbi? What mystery might have been at work…or at play?
My mother was over 80 when she died in 1985 in a car accident. I was an only child and we were closely bonded. It took me a good 6 months before the earth felt solid under my feet.
Her birthday was April 18. Or should I say…is…April 18. I am not sure what tense of verb I should use. Often on or near that date I will find myself hearing her voice, seeing her face, listening to her often caustic wisdom and occasional instructions about how I should life my life.
Is it memory? Well, it feels like something more. Perhaps it is the truth that she is so much a part of me that I am talking to myself.
I know. I know. This is pretty far into the mystical. But some of you have told me your stories that are different in detail but somehow the same. And I have listened and nodded…not to authenticate your experience…because your experience has truth that requires no priest to bless.
I have listened and nodded…and we have prayed…because we both know that these experiences, whatever they are…are somehow holy. And that sharing them can both liberate us and save us.
Our liberal religious tradition has, from our very beginnings, rejected the prevailing religious claims about Jesus. The Universalists believed that a loving God would condemn no one to hell, and that whatever saving Jesus did by his death was for us all. The Unitarians rejected the notion of human sinfulness altogether and the notion that some were saved and some were not.
Those understandings about what happens to us after we die are all true and interesting. They laid the groundwork for our current liberal religious beliefs. But those specifics are frankly irrelevant to most of us who don’t believe in the physical afterlife in any form, at least if surveys can be believed.
We are comfortable with the pre-Easter Jesus, that dusty, itinerant peasant preacher who proclaimed that what he called the Kingdom of God was coming, was already here in fact, within each of us…if we would only open our hearts to its truth.
The pre-Easter Jesus, with his focus on the poor and his challenge of authority…that pre-Easter Jesus rings true for us.
Even the Good Friday Jesus, the sufferer, speaks to us because, even in our privilege, we have all known suffering and the suffering we see around us still moves us. Too many are still being crucified.
But this morning I want to say that there is something in the Easter morning Jesus for us to learn as well.
You know that every month I lead the staff in a reflection on our spiritual theme, to be ready to respond to you as we move through the month. I do the same reflection with the Board and with groups of congregants. This month that theme is “resurrection.”
When I asked the question: where have you experienced resurrection in your life or where are you in need of resurrection…the answers went to depth. Many spoke of low points in their lives, of not being sure there was a way ahead. Some spoke of despair. But also of some change, some insight, some practice, some relationship that allowed, or caused, or facilitated a rebirth of hope, a rebirth of hope that allowed life to go on.
Some used the language of salvation, but even if they did not use that language, many were describing being saved.
Often by Unitarian Universalism. Often by this church.
The dead shall rise again. We know, because we have seen it. We know, because we have lived it.
The fundamental promise of Easter is misunderstood if it is focused only on personal salvation for yourself in some future life…or even in this life. Resurrection is most often a collective endeavor…found in relationship.
What would our welcome of visitors look like and feel like if we remembered not only the great gifts our visitors might offer this community, but also the great need they may be carrying into this sanctuary?
Many of you know that I have accepted the short term challenge of serving as Interim Co-President of the UUA. I was called back to help in the process of redeeming our faith’s history and our faith’s present around issue of race and privilege. There are many specific parts of this challenging assignment and I look forward to sharing some of them with you as that is possible. But the task is all about resurrection and rebirth.
The mystery of resurrection is a this-worldly enterprise. It is not “out there” and “out then.”
Theologian Rebecca Parker writes: “eternal life…for the writers of the Christian gospels who told the story of Jesus’ death and the mystery of his resurrection…eternal life meant a quality of love in the world—how god loved the world, how we are called to do so in the same unconditional way…how we are to live fully.”
“A quality of love in the world.”
It is a mystery and it is a hope we celebrate today.
And a promise that love is stronger than fear,
That hope can somehow replace despair,
That the Beloved Community is not just an idle dream but a possible future that we can, together build.
May it be so. Halleluiah.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love. Great Mystery at the Heart of Things
The words of Rev. Clarke Welles, former minister of this church,
God of Easter and infrequent spring,
Drive the sweet liquor
Through our parched veins,
Lure us to fresh schemes of life,
Rouse us from tiredness
Whet us for use
Fire us with good passion
Restore in us the love of living
Bind us to fear and hope once again.
Family Services, Eliot Chapel, 9:15 & 11:15 a.m.
-T.J. FitzGerald, Intern Minister and Cathy Cartwright-Chow, CRE, Dir. of Family Ministries
As we all witness the wonder of the earth bringing forth so much beauty, we recall that all living things find their sustenance in the earth. We will celebrate together this newness that is as old as time itself.