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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The Wonder of Love

As told from the pulpit of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside on April 13th, 2014:

“Love is a form of work or a form of courage”: This is the quote that was in our Wayside Pulpit this week. I was walking through downtown Riverside this past Sunday, heavy of heart and chastising myself for never seeming to know when to let go of something or when to surrender. I was also wondering if those two things are actually the same thing—surrendering and letting go. As I was thinking about this, I walked by the church and saw that quote. The truth of it struck me, hard. “Love is a form of work or a form of courage.” What a powerful truth. And exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. Well played, Universe, I thought. Personally, I think it’s an ‘and/or/both’ thing. Love is a form of work and a form of courage/love is a form of work or a form of courage/love is *both* a form of work and a form of courage. That got me to thinking about love and our theme this month of wonder. There are so many things in this world that are wondrous, so many, but one of the most wondrous things is love. Love in all its forms.

The ancient Greeks gave names to four different types of love: Agape (spiritual love), eros (romantic love), phillia (mental love-love of community/virtuous love) and storge (family love). Love is one of the surest things that make us human. Has anything been more written about, talked about, sung about, lived about than love? Of love, the poet Maya Angelou, who just celebrated her 86th birthday, says “In the flush of loves light we dare be brave/And suddenly we see that love costs all we are and will ever be. Yet, it is only love which sets us free.” We’re going to come back to this idea in a minute.

It’s been my experience that love is the hardest emotion to feel, the hardest to express. Especially on any kind of grand scale. Hate is easy, anger is easy, apathy is easier still. It’s really easy for us to give into negative emotions. But Love? Love is hard. Love is the emotion that leaves us most vulnerable. The things we do for love. The compromises we make, the bargains we strike, the things we sacrifice, lengths we’ll go to, what we can achieve! For love.

I’m reading a book right now called “The Demon’s Surrender” by Sarah Rees Brennan. It’s the third book in a young adult trilogy. In one scene, one of the main characters says something really profound about love that stuck with me. Before I tell you what he says, let me give you a little of context. In this series, this young man, Alan, has spent his entire life protecting his little brother, Nick, who’s actually a demon in a human body (just go with it) from the world. Mainly from magicians who are always trying to kill them. For several reasons. He’s always been on the run and has had to become a really dangerous person with no other relationships in order to protect his brother. He was disabled in an attack and he’s lost all his other family. Love has cost him literally everything. In a scene where he has just been tortured, another character remarks that the price he had to pay to keep his brother alive, this torture, was too high a price to pay. Especially for a “brother” that is a demon and he has no blood ties to. In response, Alan, the young man, then says, “Love always costs more than you can afford to pay. “ But then he says, “And it is always worth the price.” Let me repeat that.*repeats* Imma let that sink in for a second.

A show of hands: How many of you have loved someone who can’t or won’t love you back? How many of you have felt that love was a burden? How many of you have wished that you didn’t love something or someone? How many of you have loved something it hurt to love? Or someone? How many of you have had to walk away from something or someone *because* you loved it? Think of that saying about if you love something, you have to set it free. Now, taking all that into consideration, how many of you loved anyway? Fully. Knowing it would hurt, knowing it would change you, for better OR worse, knowing that it would not be returned, or maybe not in the same way. Knowing it would cost more than you could afford to pay? Or, conversely, pay back. And yet who among you would still love, and gladly, and think that it was worth it—even if it cost you everything? I thought so. And isn’t that wondrous? Isn’t that a miracle?

The Christian Bible says that we humans love because God loved us first. That’s said explicitly in 1 John: 4. God, in the Christian religion our faith claims as one of our sources of truth and meaning, loves us when we are wayward, when we hurt each other, when we are not being our best selves. We are hard beings to love, we humans, and yet we are told that our Creator, if that is what you believe, loves us anyway—always. Even though we are imperfect and continuously fall short. Maybe even because of that. In fact, the Bible claims that one cannot be of God or know the divine unless one has love and extends it to others:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the “soothing” for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother

Love terrifies me. “It is a form of work and a form of courage”, remember. So I am grateful when it is extended to me for free with no strings attached. I think we all need love, and we all deserve love. But that’s hard to believe about ourselves sometimes, right? We think all of our flaws and our past mistakes make us unworthy of love, think maybe love is not something we deserve. Or maybe someone has told us that we are not worthy of love. Or that we are unlovable. And we believed their lies. And they are lies. We deserve it because we live. Because we are human. That’s all. We are part of the story of creation and all things and that alone means we should love ourselves and each other. All of us are walking wounded. We all hurt sometimes. Let us remember this today and all our days to come so that we can pay it forward, all that love we didn’t have to earn or win, to someone else. Someone who is in pain and just trying their best to simply live and who maybe falls a little short like we all do sometimes. This is what our faith calls us to do. To love. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. When it hurts is when you have to push forward, not retreat. You have to believe that love is worth it. That you are worth it. That WE are worth it. Do you believe? I said, Do. You. Believe? Good. Than go forth and love this entire broken world with all your heart and let this world love you back. Because we are ALL worth it. Amen and blessed be.