Easter People in A Good Friday World
Our reading for this Sunday came to us from the poet Jan Richardson, titled, “The Art of Enduring, for Holy Saturday.” The opening story of this sermon was adapted from Rev. Michael McGee.
I’ve been told that once upon a time a group of friends of various religious denominations were seated in fellowship discussing the true meaning of Easter one Sunday. Someone chimed in: “I believe we place too much emphasis on chocolate bunnies, colored rabbits and Easter eggs instead of the spiritual aspects, which is the real meaning of Easter. That’s what I believe,” said the Baptist.
“Me too,” said the Methodist. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. “Me too,” said the Catholic. “Me too,” said the Nazarene. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter is that Christ died on the Cross for our sins,” said the Methodist. “Me too,” said the Nazarene. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. “Me too,” said the Baptist. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter is the triumph of Jesus over the Grave,” said the Lutheran. “Me too,” said the Catholic. “Me too,” said the Nazarene. “Me too,” said the Baptist. “Me too,” said the Methodist. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter is not only what each of you have said, but also that all people who believe in the sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus are cleansed of original sin through baptism and are restored to the favor of God and many share in His eternal Life,” said the Catholic. “Me too,” said the Nazarene. “Me too,” said the Baptist. “Me too,” said the Methodist. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter, in addition to what has already been said, symbolizes that the bodies of all people will be resurrected and joined to their souls to share their final fate,” said the Nazarene. “Me too,” said the Baptist. “Me too,” said the Methodist. “Me too,” said the Lutheran. “Me too,” said the Catholic. –And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
The group then turned to their Unitarian Universalist friend, whom they all recognized as a little strange, and said, “Your silence is a mystery to us. Just what do you believe as a Unitarian Universalist is the real meaning of Easter?”
The Unitarian Universalist … said: “I believe the real meaning of Easter is the appreciation of life’s renewing cycles and, that for all things there is a season. I believe the real meaning of Easter is the acknowledgment, with its accompanying sadness, of a very human Jesus who was forced to die on the Cross because of his liberal religious views and beliefs.
But most important of all, I believe the real meaning of Easter is the Celebration of Thanksgiving for the presence of the sacred in each and every living person and thing; for the presence of the sacred in the birds that sing; for the presence of the sacred in the flowers which sway and the grasses which rustle in the gentle breezes of spring. This is what I believe is the real meaning of Easter,” said the Unitarian Universalist.
“Me too,” sang the birds. “Me too,” waved the flowers. “Me too,” rustled the grasses. “Me too,” sighed the wind. — And all the rest were silent.
This story of random inter-denominational friends sharing the meanings of Easter in their own traditions always causes me to nod in agreement at each statement. When we get to the Unitarian Universalist and their view of Easter deeply rooted in the natural world, the sacredness of human life—
I can’t help but agree with the Baptist eschewing the emphasis on chocolate bunnies, the Methodist declaring the power of life over the grave, the Catholic speaking of cleansing and sacrifice, and the Nazarene speaking of life eternal.
I look to their professions of faith and see my own, though the wording might be different, the approach places less emphasis on the day, but still, I can’t help but feel that nothing is lost with Easter in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – at least for the most part.
Easter is a complicated holiday for many of us that find their way to our congregations. Our memories are often filled with Easter-done-poorly, with a Jesus that doesn’t stop bleeding, a redemption that is always just out of reach, and the Gospel, the good news, that discovery that there is hope amidst death, used as a weapon instead of vehicle of peace.
And if you come from a religious minority in this nation, couple the Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, what-have-you of your past with a weaponized Christianity, and you are likely wondering when will you ever escape the American Jesus.
Even without the very real baggage that often comes with Easter, many of us sometimes wonder, why in a Unitarian Universalist congregation do we gather to tell this story? Aren’t we a non-Christian tradition? Do we believe in any of that anyway? Ministers wonder the same thing as well. Even those of us that find great meaning in the teachings of Jesus.
My colleague Jane Rzepka once remarked:
Every year, I fight the feeling that our UU churches just can’t win on Easter. Our familiar congregation will come through our doors, alongside a number of Easter visitors we’ve never seen before. Why do they come?
-To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
-To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
-To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection.
-To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days.
-To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition.
-To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter…
In essence, Rev. Jane was answering those questions in the age old Unitarian Universalist manner: It’s complicated. Our relationship with Christianity is complicated. Our relationship with the Gospels is complicated. With Jesus? Complicated. With his followers? You better believe it, complicated.
And if you think this day is not complicated for most Christians, then you are mistaken. It is a day that has taken us through a whirlwind of moments in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and a day that has taken on a life of its own with baskets of candy and chocolate, brunch, and our finest pastel clothing.
So when I hear that list from my colleague, I am reminded of the debates that carry over form year to year amongst ministers. How do we please everyone when some want a traditional Easter, some want non-traditional, and others would rather we not talk of it at all? I believe there is always common ground to be found.
But first it requires churches to admit that we are not in the business of pleasing everyone. The moment we try that, we’ve taken on a mission that forces irreparable failure. For us, here, on this good and beautiful Sunday, this Easter day, it is the task before us to look at this complicated day, the life of Jesus of Nazareth, to look death square in the eyes, to contemplate resurrection, and find a way forward that speaks to us in 2017 – while affirming our own baggage.
We all must remember that ours is a historic faith. These ideas, these Unitarian and Universalist ideas, have resounded along the ages from the moment a community emerged from that first gathering of disciples. Our history with Christianity has only but started to diverge given how long the ideas of our tradition have been in existence.
But I believe wholeheartedly that Unitarian Universalism is not done with Easter, and Easter is not done with us. And so, what can we take from this day in addition to all of those other things: the affirmation of life, the beauty of Spring, the teachings of a great prophet. For such an answer, I need only to look at the world around us.
I look at the world around us, and I see the promise of Easter. I see the promise of resurrection, transformation, the new and wondrous, and the indelible truth of the Gospel stories that we tell each other year after year. Please note, I said truth, not fact. But in so looking at the world around me, I realize one very important thing about the hope of Easter.
We are indeed an Easter people – a people that believe in transformation and possibility — living in a Good Friday world. Good Friday being the day that Jesus was tried, tortured, and killed at the hands of the Roman Empire for preaching love and speaking truth to power.
Yes, we are living in a Good Friday world – a world where such a thing is still possible. A world where speaking truth to power is still a dangerous act. A world where the state of Arkansas is trying to rush the executions of seven inmates. A world where refugees are shut out but the bombs fly free. A world where the oceans will rise, hunger remains, and thirst awaits.
And that is only the beginning. It is appropriate that we are gathered here on a cloudy day, because it looks like I’m giving you a cloudy Easter. Living in a Good Friday world means being confronted with the unthinkable, the unbearable, the unwanted, and watching it unfold before our eyes.
It means confronting cruelty and death, it means grappling with grief and bittersweetness, it means burying the light in the tomb. And you thought this day was about chocolate! Just because we are here in this world of ours, with all of its flaws, it’s traumas, it’s shocking moments, we do not have to despair.
We the living, in this Good Friday world, have a hope of Easter – of transformation. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we call it the beloved community – that heaven on earth that frees the oppressed and sees justice realized.
Martin Luther King Jr sums it up far better than I could ever attempt to do. He writes:
Oh, this morning are you disappointed by something? Are you disappointed about some experience that you’ve had in life? Well, don’t give up in despair. You’re just in Good Friday now, but Easter is coming. Are you disappointed about some great ideal that you had and you felt that you would have achieved by now, but you have not achieved it? You have somehow been caught in the moment.
You have somehow been caught at a point at which it seems that you can’t get out. Well, don’t give up in despair. If you will just wait, Easter will come. This morning, have you had some high and noble ideals?
Have you had some high and noble hopes, and it seems that they have been blasted by the years? Well, don’t give up. Don’t despair, because Easter is coming. And this is the thing that men through the generations have learned…that Easter can emerge, and that all of the darkness of Good Friday can pass away.
Easter is indeed coming. That world in which we’ve gone from experiencing the tragic to encountering some new way of being and thinking and living. But it will not happen on its own. The stone does not just roll away on its own. Though that is where we start to sharply disagree with our Christian siblings.
They expect to find the risen Christ emerge from the tomb, Unitarians expect to find the life and legacy of Jesus living on amongst the people that cared about him.
While I am certain there are Unitarians that do believe in the resurrection – you are free to do so – the majority of us do not, at least as a literal event. But this distinction does not take away the power of the story, it only changes the manner in which that power is made available to us.
Unitarians see Easter not as a means to salvation for our souls, but as a means of salvation for the soul of the world. We see the life and teachings of Jesus as a model for how to build that beloved community we hope for – that transformative heaven on earth. This is probably the most scandalous thing you’ll hear in a Unitarian Universalist church, but we are still partakers of the ministry of Jesus.
Just as we are partakers of the ministry of all those prophets, women and men, from traditions familiar and new. This robe that I and many of my colleagues wear. We do not wear it because we love unbreathable fabrics. We wear it because it signifies the authority to preach the good news.
This stole is not just a fashion accessory, but a symbol of the yoke to ministry. “For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” And by extension, these symbols are not just for me, because in this tradition we all have a ministry in some way. We all have good news to share with a Good Friday world.
Our good news might be the newness of spring and the rebirth of life, it might be the teachings of Jesus, it might be the pagan celebration of Ostara, it might be xyz – but what matters is that your good news is life-giving and life-affirming. And on this day, this Easter Sunday, we celebrate just one of many life-affirming messages of hope, renewal, and radical transformation.
We are indeed in a Good Friday world, dear friends. Hope is crucified daily and the light is sealed in a tomb. We will find ourselves grieving, we will find ourselves despairing, we will wonder why bother.
But if this day teaches us anything, this day that is Easter just as any day can and should be Easter, is that that which is good does not perish. The light cannot be extinguished. Friday always eventually leads to Sunday. But first, Saturday awaits.
Whatever brings you to a Unitarian Universalist church on Easter, whatever expectations or fears or baggage or joys that carry you through these doors – my hope is that you will take away, in your own way, in a way that is appropriate for you in this moment, the knowledge that there is always hope
But it requires us to be active participants in the world. Active participants in wherever life calls us to bring about that first glimpse of light on Easter. May you find hope. May you find transformation. May you find the hope of Easter.