A Unitarian Universalist Easter

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Story — “The Story of Easter”

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian Universalist version of the Easter story. If you were here to hear last week’s story, we left Jesus as he was entering the city of Jerusalem, being welcomed by people carrying flowers and waving palm fronds.

On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem — the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus noticed that there were a number of people selling things in the Temple (for example, there were people selling pigeons), and besides that there were all kinds of comings and goings through the Temple, people carrying all kinds of gear, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and I imagine that a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer — how could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

I don’t know about you, but I think Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. We know he quoted the book of Leviticus, where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into fairly heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem at that time. The Romans were also concerned about Jesus. When Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder. (By the way, if you’ve ever heard of “Maundy Thursday,” which is always the Thursday before Easter Sunday, that’s the commemoration of that last meal; and while not all Bible scholars agree that least meal was in fact a Seder, many scholars do think it was a Seder.)

After the Seder, Jesus was restless and depressed. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t know how or when it would happen, but he was pretty sure he would be arrested sometime.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder. He was given a trial the same night he was arrested, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. (And the day of Jesus’ execution, the Friday before Easter, is called “Good Friday,” a day when many Christians commemorate Jesus’ death.)

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, which was a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill. There the body would be safe until they could bury it, after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

When I was a child, my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school teachers would tell me that what had probably happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had come along, and had already buried the body. You see, there must have been a fair amount of confusion that first Easter morning. Jesus’ friends were upset that he was dead, and they were worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, or even executed. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not everybody got told when and where the burial was. Thus, by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body.

Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and following that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. But in our Sunday school, we say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t actually have to believe that Jesus actually arose from the dead. We can choose to believe that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

That’s our Unitarian Universalist version of the Easter story. Now, the children are invited to stay for the whole worship service, and Dan and I believe that it’s good for children to attend an entire worship service once in a while, just so they know what it’s like. There are Easter coloring books at the back of the church, to help children sit quietly through the service.

Prayer

Because the children are present this Sunday, I’ll talk briefly about how we Unitarian Universalists do prayer and meditation. When it comes to prayer, there’s only one firm rule for us Unitarian Universalists: you don’t have to pray or meditate if you don’t want to, but you do have to stay quiet so you won’t disturb other people.

As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned that when you pray, you just sit comfortably and quietly, with your eyes open and your head up. I learned that the most important thing is to be quiet and peaceful inside yourself. As you get older, you may discover other ways to pray or meditate, but this is a good place to start. So now let’s begin our prayer and meditation time by sitting quietly. If you’re sitting next to someone you love, you can lean up against them, and even put your arm around them if you want.

Let us join our hearts in the spirit of prayer and mediation, first with spoken words, then with a time of silence, and ending with a musical response.

As we do each week in this time of war, we think of all those in Iraq and Afghanistan. March 20 marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. On this Easter Sunday, when we think of Jesus who is called the prince of Peace, we pray for peace in the Middle East.

Thursday marked the date of the spring equinox, when daytime and nighttime are of equal length. May we take the time to enjoy the lengthening days; may we take the time to look for signs of spring, the return of life after the long winter.

May we also take time to think of all those in our immediate community who are suffering. May those who are troubled in mind and spirit find comfort and healing; may those who need it find peace; may those who need help find it.

Readings

The first reading is Our Kind of Story:

What comes to mind when Jesus is mentioned? Where to begin?

Jesus was a Galilean Jew. Most men had beards at the time. Many men wore their hair long in a braid down their backs — maybe that’s what Jesus did. He would have eaten with his hands from a common bowl. He no doubt wore his clothes many days in a row. He would not have brushed his teeth.
We have no reason to believe that Jesus thought himself to be the Messiah, or believed in heaven, or in angels. These were ideas later ascribed to him by his followers.

Most Unitarian Universalists find it easy to imagine this kind of human Jesus.

But at this time of year, we don’t get off quite so easily, because the resurrection shows up on our calendars on Easter Day.

What are we to do? We might take a look at the Book of Mark, written 70 years after Jesus’ birth. It’s a compilation of the oral tradition that already existed about Jesus. In Mark, Jesus is crucified, and after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and Mary set off to find his body to anoint it.

But the body isn’t there. Scholars agree that the original book of Mark ends with the women fleeing in terror. The two Marys don’t tell a soul, and Jesus never shows up again.

Wow! Imagine if the early Christians had let that story stay in print as it was first told, ending as it did in a frightened failure of nerve. It took a couple hundred years, but finally someone did add a new ending to the Book of Mark. Now, at the end of the story, Jesus appears again as if he were not dead.

Some people think that resurrection has to be about the resuscitation of a corpse. Of course not. Dead people don’t come back to life. At least that’s not our kind of story.

For us, it’s like this: We know that when something as wonderful as the message of Jesus comes along, in real life it does not die forever. The message comes back to life. We know that when goodness, and righteousness, and love emerge in the midst of humanity, they continue to rise up and come back to us.

We know that hope does not die. Hope comes back to life.

[Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Jane Rzpeka published in the April, 2006, issue of Quest. Available online here.

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The second reading comes from the Christian scriptures, the gospel of Mark.

When evening came, since it was the preparation day (that is to say, the day before the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished councillor, arrived who was also himself awaiting the Kingdom of God. He ventured to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that he had died so quickly, and having sent for the centurion asked if he was already dead. When the centurion confirmed it, Pilate granted Joseph the corpse. After purchasing a linen winding sheet Joseph took Jesus down, swathed him in the linen, and laid him in a tomb quarried out of the rock: he then rolled a boulder against the entrance of the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary mother of Jesus observed where he was laid.

When the sabbath day was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (it was very massive) they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his disciples, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will se him there just as I told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[Mark 15.42 - 16.8.]

Sermon

Unitarian Universalism was born in May, 1961, when two long-time religious groups, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, consolidated and became the brand-new Unitarian Universalist Association. Thus the Unitarian Universalist Association will be forty-seven years old this May.

I would argue that when the Unitarians and the Universalists formally voted to consolidate and become a new legal entity, they also became a new religious entity. We’re not really Unitarians and more, and we’re not really Universalists; we’re Unitarian Universalists which is something quite different. And as religious groups go, we’re still relatively young. Yes, we can trace our Universalist churches in North America back into the 1760s, and yes King’s Chapel in Boston was calling itself Unitarian as early as 1785. And yes, if you go to Europe you can find Unitarians in the 1400s; and yes, there were people preaching unitarian and universalist doctrines not long after Jesus died. But this amalgamation called Unitarian Universalism — that’s something new and different.

What makes us different? Right off the top of my head, I can name three things that make us different. First, when the feminist revolution started in the 1960s, we were ready for it and we adopted feminist theology wholeheartedly; so that now half our ministers are women, and our principles and purposes reflect feminist theology and gender-neutral language. Second, we have made the decision that we are going to be a truly multicultural religion, in a country where most religious groups are racially divided; and in 2001 we became the first historically white denomination in the United States to elect a person of color as our president. Third, we can only be described as a post-Christian religion; for while many of us would call ourselves Christians, more than half of us would not.

And this brings us to Easter, and leads us to ask ourselves how it is that we Unitarian Universalists understand Easter. The old Unitarians had a pretty straightforward interpretation of Easter:– they knew that Jesus wasn’t God, which meant Easter became a more human drama. The old Universalists had a pretty straightforward interpretation of Easter:– they knew that hell doesn’t exist, which meant everyone gets to go to heaven, which meant that Jesus didn’t “die for our sins”. But what about us Unitarian Universalists — how is it that we understand Easter? Here’s one way we might tell the Easter story.

So on Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was put to death, and since his followers were Jewish, they didn’t want to bury him on the Sabbath day, which lasted through Saturday night. First thing on Sunday morning, then, two people who were particularly close to him, two women named Mary who were particularly important leaders in the little group of followers, went to reclaim Jesus’s body. But the body was gone — maybe the Romans took it away to discourage Jesus’s followers, maybe there was miscommunication among Jesus’s followers, who knows what happened — but the body was gone.

Looking back two thousand years later, we can understand why some people wanted to say that Jesus rose from the dead; that’s a very easy way to explain away his body’s disappearance. But as feminists, we might want to tell the story differently. Yes, someone took the body away — if it was due to political or religious skulduggery, then we say, A pox upon those who perpetrated such an evil deed. But we also admire those women for having the presence of mind to leave the tomb as quickly as possible so that they wouldn’t get arrested — as feminists, we know that sometimes you have to save your own body from destruction so that you can take care of the next generation.

And so those women went back to the other followers of Jesus, and the followers of Jesus organized themselves, and began to spread out over the countryside, forming new little communities throughout the ancient Near East. Within a generation after the death of Jesus, we know that there were many strong women leaders in those early Christian communities — we know, because we read about them in Paul’s letters. They had formed communities so that they could pass on the wisdom of Jesus to succeeding generations — they made sure that their children would be raised with the highest moral and ethical ideals.

That’s one way that we Unitarian Universalists would tell the story of Easter, based on our understanding of feminist theology. Here’s another way we might tell the story:

Jesus managed to transcend cultural and ethnic barriers. That the story he told of the Good Samaritan? — that was a story of how someone from one ethnic minority, a Samaritan, was willing to help someone from another ethnic minority, a Jew, in a time of trouble. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves — and he said that we had to do this across ethnic and racial boundaries.

Now this kind of teaching was troubling for the authorities of the Roman Empire. The Romans had united a huge empire through military force, and they kept their empire together by forcing everyone to conform to Roman religion, Roman standards, and Roman laws. The Romans ruled, not by loving their neighbors, but by dominating their neighbors.

So when, in the obscure province of Judea, there was a crazy religious prophet named Jesus who preached the radical doctrine that all peoples could learn to live together in harmony, the local officials determined that he was a possible threat to Roman rule, and for the purposes of internal Roman security he had to be arrested and put to death.

But although they managed to execute Jesus of Nazareth, they were completely unable to kill off his high ideals. His body might have died, but his teaching lived on:– that we can learn to love our neighbors, even though they may be a different racial or ethnic group than we are; that we can learn how to united and create a truly just and peaceful world, even as people around us try to exploit racial divisions to divide us.

That might be another way we Unitarian Universalists tell the story of Easter, based on our understanding of multicultural ideals. And there’s another way we might tell the story. As a post-Christian faith, we find we are not limited by the old Christian dogmas of Easter, and we are open to multiple points of view, and multiple personal interpretations of Easter. So we could even tell the Easter story like this:

So Jesus was a Jewish preacher and social activist who demanded justice for all persons, no matter what their ethnic background, no matter what economic status. In his fight for human rights and social justice, he ran afoul of powerful political figures and religious leaders in a Jerusalem that was dominated by the Roman Empire. He was arrested on trumped-up charges, and sentenced to death in a trial that proceeded without any sense of true justice. He was publicly executed using a particularly violent form of execution to serve as an example to everyone else that they had better just sit down, shut up, and toe the Roman line. And when several of his closest associates went to claim his body for burial, it was gone. But, his followers decided, what mattered wasn’t the physical body of Jesus. What truly mattered was the life of justice that Jesus lived. What truly mattered was what he taught. What truly mattered was to carry his work forward into the future, so that future generations might live better lives. In this post-Christian telling of the Easter story, we discover that we do not have to believe in some miraculous resurrection in order to believe in what Jesus taught — there are many ways to believe in Jesus

The story of Easter does matter for us. We may not understand Easter the way the older, more traditional Christian groups understand it. We may not even understand Easter quite in the same way that the older Unitarian and Universalist groups understood Easter. We may even have differing points of view about Easter among ourselves — individually we may range from liberal Christians to atheists, we might have pagan, Jewish, or Buddhist viewpoints. But we can all understand Easter as a story of how one man, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed for teaching justice and love — and we can all celebrate how the truth he taught lived on even after his death.