Roll Away the Stone, Rise Up, and Go Out Into the World: An Easter Sermon

Easter. The holiest day on the Christian calendar. The culmination of holy week. The end of the season of Lent. Here in America, Easter is usually all of that or Easter eggs, bunnies, baskets full of toys and candy, and pictures of terrified children with giant bunnies that may or may not be demons. Or was that just my 80s experience with the mall Easter bunny?

Easter, like Christmas, is a rather complicated holiday in America. Confusing if you have no idea what it’s about. It’s a mix of the secular and the religious. Christian and pagan. And for many people it truly is both. Going to church and then running around with other kids looking for hidden eggs and toys in Easter egg hunts.

While I’ve been really excited to do this service for months, I really struggled on how to approach it with you. Easter can be approached in a lot of ways. I consider myself to be a UU Christian. I am a member of the UU Christian Fellowship. UU Christians are still UUs and we have a lot of diverse beliefs. I am also an agnostic who does not know anything for sure and it feels arrogant if I try to think in absolutes. I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about theology and theological opinions, but I’m horribly indecisive by nature and I want options for everything.

A few weeks ago Adam asked me “So what DO you believe about the resurrection?” And I’ve been considering my answer ever since, thinking I might have something more coherent by now. Well, I don’t.

Did Jesus die on the cross and then rise three days later? Did he or angels appear to his friends and family and give them their marching orders? I don’t know. But I do think that something happened. I believe that the followers of Jesus experienced something that renewed their hope and their spirits after witnessing the worst thing ever: the brutal execution of their savior. Something happened. Now, I know how legends and myths work. I get how Christianity came to be this stew made from the many ideas and concepts floating around the Ancient Near East at the time. What my professor calls The River of God because rivers pick up all sorts of things that become part of the river. But there’s often some truth to legends. I refuse to outright dismiss the fantastic from the story of Jesus for the sake of hard logic or science.

I knew I wanted to tell an Easter story about Jesus. I wanted to keep Jesus in Easter. This is his story. But there are a lot of ways to tell his story. I was once reading The Watch Tower, which is a religious tract that Jehovah’s Witnesses publish. There was a question on the back of that particular issue. It asked the reader who was Jesus to them. The options were: the baby, the martyr on the cross, or the triumphant king. I thought about it and realized that while those are all legit Jesus evolutions, like Pokemon Jesus, none of those were MY Jesus. When I think of Jesus, I picture a man with kind eyes and gentle hands and a salty and sassy disposition. I think of the man that people followed and traveled far and wide to listen to. The man who said bring all the children to him. The man who healed and comforted. The man who stood up to the powerful for the powerless. The man who gave people hope. The man who was so awesome we are still talking about him over 2000 years later.

So Easter is a story we tell every year to remember it. The story is of life conquering death; it’s a story of a man who fought the system and seemingly lost that fight, but actually won. In Jesus, the oppressed had a champion and then he made us all champions. He ran the race and then passed the torch to us.

The death of Jesus was not the end of his story or his ministry. Oh no. The Roman Occupiers and the ruling classes tried to silence him because they were afraid of his message, but all they ended up doing was giving him a bullhorn and a platform. To quote a modern day Jesus figure, Neo, Jesus didn’t come to tell us how the story was going to end, he came to tell us how it was going to begin. Easter is Jesus in the phone booth at the end of The Matrix. He warns the system that is lying to us and using us and oppressing us, the Matrix, that he is going to open the eyes of the people and show them the real world, as it really is. And once people see, once they know The Way, they are going to remake the world.

Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Lent is the 40 period Christians spend in reflection and mindfulness of sacrifice, endings, death, and loss. Then there is Holy Week which starts with Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, known as Palm Sunday, includes Maundy Thursday which is a commemoration of the last supper, Good Friday when Jesus was crucified, and Easter vigil on Saturday with lots of light. Then there’s Easter. Today. Today is a celebration. Today is a joyful day. The most joyful day.

The four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection slightly differently. Which is typical of the gospels. But each one is important and beautiful. In the book of Matthew, Jesus leaves the tomb at some point, then appears to the Marys after some angels tell them that Jesus has risen like he promised. He tells the Marys to gather the other disciples and he gives them all their final marching orders. He tells them to make disciples of all the nations and teach people what he taught them. The very last thing he says to them is “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus tells his followers that he is with them always, even when he is no longer physically with them. His love and his faith in them, in us, is everlasting. I don’t think it matters if you do not believe in the resurrection.  But do you believe in this kind of love? The kind that can transcend death?

In the book of Mark, the Marys are again the first to know of the risen Jesus. Once again, he sends Mary Magdalene out to tell the others. In this version they don’t believe her, typical, but Jesus chews them out later for not believing her. The text says he “upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness.” Typical Jesus. One last scolding of the disciples for the road.

Jesus tells the disciples “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all of creation.” What IS the Good News? The Good News is that the Kingdom or kin-dom of heaven is real and it’s here. Already. Paradise is right here under our feet.

Okay, it doesn’t look that way to us right now, because the earth is covered in trash and carbon emissions, violence, war and death, eroded top soil and people who do not know the way. All sorts of pain that creation can feel, and is wounded by, because I think that God suffers with us. The universe hurts when we inflict pain upon each other and the earth. Life itself is crying and begging for mercy. We are all so traumatized. And tired. And angry. It’s too much, and also not enough. But it’s not the end of this story.

The Good News is that the light of love and hope can never be extinguished.

In all the gospels, Mary is deeply grieving for Jesus. Her world is shattered. Hope is gone for her. Mary doesn’t even recognize Jesus when he is standing in front of her. She assumes he is a gardener. Her eyes are full of tears and darkness is all she can see. Jesus has to shout her name to get her to see him. To see light again. He has to prove that he knows her before she knows him.

In the book of Luke, two angels ask Mary, who is in the tomb looking for Jesus, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” We spend so much time looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. We look for love in the wrong places, happiness in the wrong places, fulfillment in the wrong places, meaning in the wrong places. We often confuse what is truly good with what we think is good. I’m not sure it’s our fault. We are drawn to what seems good. The light was the first thing there was. God called it “good.” It was the first Good thing. We turn our faces to the good like flowers towards light. And whether it’s sunlight or artificial light, the flower will hope for the best.

Let me talk about sin for a moment. We are talking about good and I am purposely trying to shy away from “dark” as a contrast to “light.” Dark IS a contrast to light as a non-value judged reality, but dark isn’t BAD. I’m not using dark as a synonym for “sin.” To UUs, sin is not something related to identity. It’s not something we are born with. No original sin. We are all born in the image of the creator and so we cannot be born as anything but good. Because creation is good. Sin, to us, is a transgression against what is good. Sin is what we do to other people. It’s not a sin to be a certain race or religion or sexual orientation or class or nationality. That’s who you are. But it IS a sin to hurt people and animals, to exploit people and our resources, to abuse, to withhold lifesaving resources and tools, to value the unimportant over what is actually important.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul lists what he believes are the marks of a “true Christian.” He says, “Your love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to each other with mutual affection. Excel at showing respect for each other. Never be lazy in showing such devotion. Be on fire with the Spirit. Serve the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in trouble, and persistent in prayer. Supply the needs of the saints. Extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you. Keep on blessing them, and never curse them. Rejoice with those who are rejoicing. Cry with those who are crying. Live in harmony with each other. Do not be arrogant, but associate with humble people. Do not think that you are wiser than you really are.

Do not pay anyone back evil for evil, but focus your thoughts on what is right in the sight of all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in peace with all people. Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me. I will pay them back, declares the Lord.” But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him. For if he is thirsty, give him a drink. If you do this, you will pile burning coals on his head.” Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

I think piling burning coals on a head means killing with kindness.

To the Univeralists, good is what endures, not evil. Not sin, but justice. There’s a Universalist slogan from like the 19th century that says “death and glory!” It sounds like a wrestler’s catch phrase or something, but it means we die, then we get glory. There is no hell. The love of God is too big, too rich, too pure, to condemn any of creation to an eternity or afterlife of damnation. All are saved. That’s what universalism means.

For a lot of UUs today, this idea of salvation or hell isn’t one that resonates with their core beliefs. Many consider ourselves to be post-Christian or our primary belief system is something very different from Christianity like Buddhism, paganism, humanism and so forth. But we retain the idea that people and creation are fundamentally good at the core. We put enormous faith in people. We rail against systems and corporations and governments and ideologies and, yes, people but we believe that they can be fixed or saved or rebuilt. THIS is a deeply hopeful faith. We try not to throw things away because everything has intrinsic value. Our 1st and 7th principles honor the worth and interconnectedness of all things. To condemn others is to in some way condemn yourself. We’re all the same starstuff. That’s the sort-of Good News.

I say sort of because Jesus told us The Way isn’t easy. This isn’t going to be easy. Let’s throw stones, and point fingers, and be done with all that mess, right? But what if we push a little harder? Try again? Stay a little while longer? Do it one more time? Listen more deeply? Love with everything we have? What if we commit ourselves to doing as Jesus says, Jesus who died for this, and bring the Good News, which is hope, to all the nations? We could, as the UU Christians say, truly love the Hell out of this world. See what we did there?

Incipit Vita Nova is the motto of my undergraduate college, Scripps College. It means “enter into a new life” or “thus begins a new life.” It is etched on a stone archway you walk through to enter the campus from the front. When you step through that archway, you are beginning a new life. It really was like that for me.

Easter is the story of new life. It was a new life for Jesus and his followers. For many of us, the church is a new life. Many of you left other faith traditions to come to UUism and begin a new life. Many of you went from non-believers to Unitarian Universalists. Many of you are standing right now on the cusp of a new life or identity or version of yourself.

Don’t be afraid. Roll back the stone and step into the light. Let your eyes adjust to the brilliance before you. See us, recognize us. Your friends and blood family and church family. Let us join hands and walk into the world together. Perhaps on different paths, but not alone. Never alone. Like Jesus, we are with you always, to the end of the age. There’s an entire world to save and we, Easter people, are the ones to do it.

May it be so, Blessed be, shalom and amen.

 

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God Loves a Cheerful Giver– 5/18/14 Sermon on Gratitude and Generosity

This is a sermon I gave at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside on 5/18/14 on generosity and gratitude.

 

Last Sunday, I was in a parking lot when a man approached me as I was heading to my car. He asked if I had some spare change so that he could get some food. He offered to wash my windows. I told him that I would give him some change, but he didn’t have to wash the windows. It was freely given and I don’t ask for or expect people to “earn “my generosity. He begged my pardon but said he came from a working class family and would much prefer to wash the windows and do what he could. While he washed my windows, he told me a bit of his life. He turned 60 on that Saturday before. He’s been in and out of the hospital with health issues. He’s on SSI and would get more money if he could hold out until 65, or even 62, but he has 4 ruined discs in his back and he’s broken his neck in the past. I was feeling really bad for him by this point, when he said that he feels blessed because he “could have woken up in a 3rd world country today.” Now at that point I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, no, what is he going to say next’ because you usually have to brace yourself with those sorts of openings. But he continues and says, “half the world woke up without clean water today. Half the world woke up without food. I wake up every day and think about that. Despite all this, I can still walk and do something. I’m blessed. That’s what keeps me going.” He then thanked me for the change and went on his way with his napkins and Windex in an old water bottle. I just stood there, overcome with awe and affection. 

One of the reasons why this encounter made me pause, physically and spiritually, is because our theme for this month is gratitude and I have been having a really hard time lately finding anything to be particularly grateful for. Because the thing is, when we are usually told to count our blesses or be grateful, there’s an assumption, a judgment sometimes, that you have all these good things in your life that you are just taking for granted and how dare you not recognize that. But sometimes, maybe often times, there are seemingly no good things in your life to be grateful for. Or they are especially hard to see through your tears and pain. We all know that there are, generally speaking, those less fortunate than we are; we just sometimes want our moment to think of ourselves as that person once in awhile. And I think that’s okay. But in the story I just related to you, I think the universe put me directly in the path of one of those ‘less fortunate’ people in the flesh, not as a statistic or a hypothetical, but as a Teacher. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, right? This man had practically nothing, and was in pain, but he was grateful just for life and felt sorrow for those that had even less.

In Matthew 6:25, Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what will you put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” It has been my experience that some of the most grateful and hopeful people are those that have the least. Some of you know that you have to sometimes lose everything to learn the value of what you had. And have. In that same section, Jesus goes on to say, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Basically, take it one day at a time.

I don’t have much right now, but I was able to give that man what I could. People have been put in my life who have been able to give me what they could, when they could.  And I, admittedly, like a lot of you, have trouble accepting people’s generosity. I am often too proud and I feel guilty for needing help, because maybe if I made better choices, I wouldn’t be in this situation, even as I know that most of that isn’t true. It’s so hard to admit that you need help and then to take it when offered. Recently, a friend offered to help me with money after hearing some of my troubles. I turned her down, politely, because I know some of her troubles, too. She doesn’t always have steady work and these last few years have not been the easiest for her. But she said ‘No. I have a few gigs right now and I’m kinda steady for the moment. I’ll gladly share the little I have with you’. Learning how to take someone’s outstretched hand is an act of the deepest faith, I think. To trust that they aren’t going to snatch it back at the last minute or later lord it over you.  To believe that people just want to pay it forward and help where they can. Trust falls of faith is a thing we need to practice.

“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” 2nd Corinthians 7. So many of you are “cheerful givers”! I have a book called “Dancing with God: Americans Who Have Been Touched By The Divine.” A man, a photo-journalist I suppose you could call him, Steve Wall, travels across America, mostly in the Deep South, and talks to people about their experiences with the divine or a spiritual “other”—which covers a lot of definitions and experiences and takes pictures.  Most of the people he encounters are poor, have had tragic lives and have, to quote a favorite song of mine called “Cry Ophelia,” ‘come to a little wisdom through a whole lot of failure.’ In the first story, Mr. Wall talks about going undercover in a homeless shelter to see what the experience is like and how the people who rely on those services feel about life in general. He has a not only completely dehumanizing experience dealing with apathetic staff, poor conditions and inadequate supplies, but it’s a genuinely terrifying one as he experiences how the world sees him and treats him when he’s perceived to have nothing. And yet. And yet he meets some of the most generous people in the truly homeless he meets. Men who offer him their little bit of money for bad coffee because it’s cold outside. Who offer him a place to stay because they can.  Even though they just met him a couple of hours ago. One of the men he meets is “crazy” Little Willis, who is like a guardian angel to these men and who has a knack for getting the other homeless what they need, be it medicine or a coat in the winter. Steve Wall asks him why does he do these things for the others and Little Willis says, “I ain’t no man of the cloth, no nothing like that. I be just a plain child of the Almighty. We’s all God’s children, and I just gotta do what the Almighty expects outta me. Makes no difference what all the reverends say ‘bout heaven someday. That’s holy talk. Peoples gotta have a little help from time to time in the here and now. The rest the Almighty’ll take care of. These men are my family, man.” Steve later walks into an upscale, suburban church, still pretending to be homeless, and has yet another terrifying  and eye-opening experience.  As soon as he walks in, he becomes an example, a teachable moment for really bad theology, and a project to the “good” church folk as they try to blame his lack of means on his perceived lack of faith. Later, in the car with his partner, after he’s literally run out of the service, his friend has a revelation and says, “For them, you weren’t a Christian because God blesses those who follow Jesus. You were poor and dirty. You were homeless. God doesn’t let that happen to His people. In their mind God was not listening to you, so you must not have been one of His own. Otherwise, you would have earthly material goods. They didn’t want anything to do with you,’ cause they didn’t want any of you to rub off on them. I call it ‘bump-and-run Christianity.’ It was real easy to run up and shove God in your face, try to get you ‘saved.” And when you wouldn’t, they could clear their conscience with, ‘Well, I’ve done my part.”  

I want to contrast that religious community with ours. So many of you open your homes to stray animals and people in need; you give a dollar when you only have two; you volunteer 10 minutes  when you only had 5 to spare; you offer your whole hearts and hold nothing back. Why? What makes you all so generous?  Reverend Tom Owen-Towle says in his book “Theology Ablaze: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary Year of Unitarian Universalism that, “the sensibility of gratitude” and I would say generosity because they are two sides of one coin, “is bedrock to stoking the flame of our liberal religion.” We UUs are gracious people.  This is built into our faith and our faith communities. It’s no accident that so many of us are in “helping” professions. You are: counselors, teachers, social workers, nurses, caretakers etc. Rev. Owen-Towle points out that “[n]one of us asked to be born. There’s no special merit involved with our arrivals. We didn’t earn the privilege of life. We were lucky. Whether we look at existence scientifically or religiously, it’s a miracle, a wonder, a gift of grace.” So why give? “The Hebrew religion says that we do genuinely good deeds out of neither guilt nor fear, neither to impress our neighbors nor gain heaven, but we lead moral lives mainly because we hanker to say thank you to God, to the Creation, to Life itself for our very existence, for being freed from all sorts of slaveries, and for being loved ongoingly. “ Our faith calls us to take stock of what we have, to be grateful for it, then to share that generously with others. The flame of our chalice is to be used to light paths in dark places and to be used to light other candles. You don’t diminish a flame by sharing it. You just increase light, exponentially.  So let us hold, in our left and right hands, that we must have gratitude and generosity. We must experience both to be fully human. Giving with one hand and accepting with the other is a spiritual and sacred act that we should consider ourselves lucky to be able to do.  So may it be so today and all our days to come.