A Sermon Offered to All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist
April 21, 2019 – Easter Morning
Rev. Shayna Appel
Opening Words: Easter is Paradox by Richard S. Gilbert
Easter is paradox;
It is the leap over the chasm between life and death,
Between victory and defeat,
Between joy and sorrow.
Easter holds together reality of crucifixion,
And myth of resurrection,
The Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith.
Those who lose their lives for others will be saved.
Those who save their lives for self will be lost.
Love is [only real] when we give it away.
Love hoarded melts inevitably as spring snow.
In the midst of winter we find in ourselves an invincible summer.
[So, come let us worship together]
Reading #1: From “Rolling Away the Stones” by Olivia Holmes
The Bible says the stone was rolled away, Jesus was gone, He had risen, and would go before his disciples to Galilee where they would see him again. The Jesus Seminar says he was probably buried in a shallow grave; no Resurrection. Seems to me there’s a lot of room for interpretation between the two, which puts a committed Unitarian Universalist right where we like to be most; in the middle of a dicey disagreement…
UU minister, Thomas Mikelson, thinks that Passover and Easter share a reverence for that moment in our experience just before a break-through. None of us ever gets to the breaking through without that awful time in the wilderness, without knowing our own walk to Golgotha is coming. There is no Easter without Good Friday. What Jesus tried to teach, I believe, in that last week of his life, is that we can only reach the one by courageously facing the other.
UU Rev. Scott Alexander preaches that “Easter is a decision, a decision of the human heart, a brave and beautiful decision to live – fully, recklessly, courageously – even in the face of death and despair itself. Easter doesn’t require colored eggs, flags, chocolate bunnies. It requires something deep inside me, inside you, inside us, a saving impulse of human hopefulness and defiance. Easter requires a stubborn, reckless and affirming heart…” And he goes on to boldly proclaim that Easter is not a noun, not a localized event occurring but once in all of history, but a verb: Eastering. You Easter. I Easter. We Easter when we decide, again and again, to search for the sources of our strength, of our hope, of our faith in our times of trial. Eastering is the faith of the human heart that encourages us to struggle on, no matter what, when what we’d really like to do is pull the covers over our heads and make the world just go away.
Reading #2: “We Are the Resurrection and the Life” by Max A. Coots
The resurrection stories of the New Testament need neither be taken as fact or reinterpreted to appear scientifically acceptable. They can be left as they are: myths of meaningfulness. They are the poetry of reverence. They are the stories of… reaffirmation of life that even death cannot end. They are…songs of the experience of a people, who, having experienced grief and loss and disillusionment, felt a restoration of their hope.
Human death is real. It is not at all similar to the retreat of plant life to the root to wait for spring. Human death is the end of life here, now, and among us. While a spring festival can crudely hint at the revival of life with the coming of crocuses, trillium, and bluets, our dead do not come back to life and show themselves to us, their disciples, except in the intangible ways in which we are the return of the lives that have ended. We are the bodies that give their spirits flesh again. We are the specific forms of the life-force in the world, a force that seems to die in us in our winters and come to life again in our spring-times regardless of the time of year.
In us are written, if they are written at all, the new versions of the old story of Easter, the empty tomb, the renewal. We are at least part of what the ancient myth can mean, for we are or can be the resurrection and the life.
Today is Easter Sunday. A day in which we remember the story, captured in all four of the gospels, of a stone being mysteriously rolled away from the opening of Jesus’ tomb, by angel, an earthquake or just plain gone. All four gospels also recount that, not only was the stone gone, but so was the earthly body of Jesus, who had been laid to rest in that tomb just days before.
According to Christian faith, Jesus was crucified like a common criminal, died on the cross, and was then resurrected by God. For many Christians, this story is literally true; a sign of God’s love and redemption.
For the 150 Christian scholars that comprise the Jesus Seminar, the story is false. They believe that, while the “historical” Jesus did live for a time and minister quite effectively on this earth, he performed no miracles. A healer? Yes. He was in all probability an extraordinary healer. And he was an extraordinary minister who empowered those around him to heal the world through the powers of acceptance and love. But the scholars of the Jesus Seminar do not believe that he worked miracles. Nor do they believe he literally rose from the dead. In fact, they believe his body was most likely buried in a shallow grave.
The bible says the stone was rolled away and Jesus was gone. He had risen. He went before his disciples to Galilee where he appeared to them and then rose to heaven where he would sit for eternity – or until the second coming – by the right hand of God. The Jesus Seminar says, “No.” He was buried in a shallow grave. No resurrection, no sightings after death, period, the end. As my good friend and colleague Olivia Holmes says, “Seems to me there’s a lot of room for interpretation between the two, which puts a committed Unitarian Universalist right where we like to be most; in the middle of a dicey argument.”
But, as Max Coots says, in our second reading for today: The resurrection stories of the New Testament need neither be taken as fact or reinterpreted to appear scientifically acceptable. They can be left as they are: myths of meaningfulness…the poetry of reverence. And the reason they can be left as they are, says Coots, is that, at their root, They are …stories of… reaffirmation of life that even death cannot end. They are…songs of the experience of a people, who, having experienced grief and loss and disillusionment, felt a restoration of their hope. In other words, the stories can be left as they are because they are universal stories of the human experience.
Who among us, having lived a healthy number of years on this earth, has not experienced the very same thing? When I left my career as a firefighter/paramedic back in 1993 I might just as well have entered a tomb. I was burnt out. The career I thought I would do for a lifetime, that was once the source of so much pride and joy, had become unwholesome, unhealthy and unfulfilling. But my whole identity was wrapped up in that job. I had been on the line since 1978; fifteen years which, when one is thirty-three years old, seems like a long time. I had no idea what might be next, but the door on my past had been closed with the certainty of a stone being rolled before a tomb. There was no going back.
I spent a long time in that tomb. Like most tombs, it was dark, it was incredibly restricting, and after awhile it really began to stink in there! But look! I am not there! My story did not end with my leaving the fire department. There was, thankfully, more to come.
What the Easter story tells us, and what my lived experience affirms, is that tomb-time is not forever. For a season? Yes. But, not a lifetime. So, the Easter story needs neither to be taken as fact or reinterpreted in order to meet our UU standard of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Our first Source affirms our “Direct experience of…transcending mystery and wonder” and our third source affirms “Wisdom from the world’s religions.” So we can embrace the wisdom of the Easter story by simply holding up against our lived experience, and even the most died-in-the-wool UU will likely find some resonance there.
Another take-away from the Easter story is a bit more challenging in that it asks us to take a leap of faith. It isn’t one that will resonate with past experience because it calls us powerfully into the present and a future that is not yet seen. The notion is captured in our first reading this morning when Olivia talks about UU minister Scott Alexander’s assertion that Easter is a decision, a decision of the human heart, a brave and beautiful decision to live – fully, recklessly, courageously – even in the face of death and despair itself. Alexander goes on to suggest that, when we embody this fearless decision to live – even and especially in the face of death and despair – we ‘easter’. We turn the noun ‘Easter’, an event which happened once upon a time in a place far, far away, into a verb. You Easter. I Easter. We Easter when we decide, again and again, to search for the sources of our strength, of our hope, of our faith in our times of trial.
We search for the sources of our strength, of our hope, of our faith in our times of trial.
Well, my friends, we’re in luck! Because now IS such a time of trial. Look around, because you don’t need to look far. Opioid catastrophe, environmental degradation, epidemic poverty and food insecurity, take your pick. A government that cannot even agree on what is real anymore – and I’m not talking existential truth here…more like rocks are hard and water is wet kind of self-evident truth! Look left and you see an unprecedented percentage of the worlds population in forced migration, to the right and you see senseless slaughter of the innocents. Look up just in case some idiot with a drone is trying to take your head off, but don’t lose sight of where your feet are at in case you find yourself in an active shooter situation, or forced to leave your homeland and venture past the boarders of unwelcoming nations .
And all of this is just the external stuff! Because maybe, just maybe, in addition to all of that, you have some personal issues you’re wrestling with. Maybe you are sick, or someone you love is. Maybe you are aging and having to wrestle with some uninvited and unwelcome consequences of that eventuality. Maybe you are facing financial challenges that seem insurmountable, or issues with others who won’t be accountable.
The possibilities are endless, but the specifics are not important today. What’s important today is that we allow ourselves to be visited by the spirit of Easter. What’s important today is that we make room at our theological banquet for a story that will not concede to cynicism or despair, but rather calls on us, exhorts us, prays for us, stubborn, reckless and affirming heart[s]. What’s important today is that we “easter.” we search for the sources of our strength, of our hope, of our faith in these times of trail, or in any time of trial that awaits.
Theologically, we UU’s are a mixed bag, to be sure. Some of us grew up Christian. We cherish the old stories about the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith. You may have come here today to celebrate one of those stories. Some of us grew up Christian but at some point, and for any number of reasons, we left that faith, rejected the stories, and distanced ourselves from any notion of original sin, miracles, salvation, and substitutionary atonement. Some of us grew up Jewish and carry with us the pain of persecution at the hands of Christians and Christianity. Some of us grew up Humanist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Pagan or secular, with no religion at all. But I don’t believe that means the best we can do is mark the passage of this holy day by dressing up, eating candy and singing happy songs.
Easter is more than colored eggs, chocolate bunnies and fancy hats. It requires something deep inside me, inside you, inside us, a saving impulse of human hopefulness and defiance. Easter requires a stubborn, reckless and affirming heart…”. Truthfully? I think we’re up to the challenge!
I want to close this morning with a reading by Sarah York, and I offer it to us all in prayer.
Prayer: “Rolling Away the Stone” by Sarah York
In the tomb of the soul, we carry secrets, yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, worries.
In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from the world and its heaviness.
In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.
Sometimes this is a comfort, sometimes it is an escape.
Sometimes it prepares us for experience. Sometimes it insulates us from life.
Sometimes this tomb-life gives us time to feel the pain of the world and reach out to heal others. Sometimes it numbs us and locks us up with our own concerns.
In this season where light and darkness balance the day, we seek balance for ourselves.
Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities for new life in ourselves and our world.