Easter for Our Times

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 improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Sermon — “Easter for Our Times”

Those of you who come to church regularly have heard me say more than once that I am an unashamed Bible geek. Indeed, there are some of you in this congregation who are also Bible geeks. It’s a great time to be a Bible geek. Unrestrained by traditional Christian theologies, linguists, textual critics, social scientists, and a whole range of other scholars are publishing wonderful studies of Biblical texts these days — including studies of ancient Christian texts that didn’t make it into the official Bible. For me, being a Bible geek these days is as much fun as when I first bought my own personal computer twenty years ago, and while trying to superpower DOS wrote a bad command that completely killed the whole computer. Those were the days.

Now, for the Bible geek, the Christian holiday of Easter poses some interesting problems. Let me tell you what those problems are.

We all know the story of Easter: Jesus gets executed and dies at sundown on Friday; since the next day is the Jewish Sabbath, and since Jesus and all his followers are good observant Jews, they can’t prepare the body for burial on the sabbath so they put it for safekeeping into a tomb; then on Sunday, the followers go to get Jesus’s body only to find it gone, and suddenly there’s Jesus himself talking to them and saying he has risen. What a great story this is! I mean, I’m a religious naturalist who doesn’t admit of any supernatural elements in religion, and even I love this story. It has all the power of any great literature.

Problem is, that’s not quite how the story appears in the Bible. As any Bible geek is willing to tell you, there is not one story of Easter in the Bible: there are four Easter stories in the Bible, each of which is different, and some of which seem to contradict the others. It’s worth taking the time to briefly retell each of the four Easter stories in the Bible. And I think you’ll find that by retelling each of these stories, we can gain some insights into meaning that Easter might have for our times.

First story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of Mark.

When the Jewish sabbath day was over, two women, Mary Magdala and Mary mother of James and Salome, go to the tomb, carrying spices to embalm the body, all according to Jewish ritual and tradition. They are a little concerned because it’s just the two of them, and they’re not sure how they’re going to get the door to the tomb opened. You see, these tombs were actually small caves cut into the side of a hill, and the doors were these big heavy stone circles that ran in a track; and the way you opened the tomb was you had to roll this big stone circle aside. Mary and Mary weren’t quite sure they were strong enough to do it themselves, and they’re wondering whom they could trust to help them open up the door.

But when they get to the tomb, the door is already opened. This was not good! After all, Jesus had been executed on trumped-up political charges; what were they walking into here? were they going to get arrested by the government forces? And then they look inside the tomb, and there’s this young man, a youth, sitting off to the right. Who is he? the secret police? an agent of the Romans? He speaks to them reassuringly, telling them not to be worried, and saying that Jesus is going ahead to meet them all at Galilee. These words do not reassure Mary and Mary, and as soon as they can, they break away from this mysterious young man and flee from the tomb out of fear and excitement.

And that, my friends, is the end of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus does not appear to reassure his followers — to reassure us modern-day readers, for that matter — that everything is fine. At the end of the Gospel of Mark, everything is most definitely not fine. We may sense that the moral and ethical movement founded by Jesus will continue, but we also sense that the fear of political repression will continue as well. I think of this as the pragmatic Easter story: Jesus’s followers will continue the struggle for righteousness, but they are fully aware of the price they must pay for continuing the struggle.

Second story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of Matthew.

Mary Magdala and the other Mary go to the tomb on Sunday morning. Suddenly there’s a strong earthquake. There’s someone sitting in the tomb, although in this version of the story it’s not a young man sitting there, we’re told it is a messenger of God. He speaks to them reassuringly, telling them not to be worried, and saying that Jesus is going ahead to meet them all at Galilee. Mary and Mary hear this, and feeling apprehensive and joyous they hurry away to tell the other disciples. But whom do they meet on the way, but Jesus himself, who talks with them briefly.

Meanwhile, word gets back to some of the evil rulers of Jerusalem that Jesus’s body has disappeared. They bribe the guards to tell everyone that some of Jesus’s disciples came in the middle of the night and took the body away, and that’s why Mary and Mary didn’t find the body first thing in the morning.

So ends this version of the Easter story. You will notice that it is quite different than the first version: in this version of the story, Jesus actually appears on Easter. Also in this version of the story, we get the peculiar story of how some of the rulers of Jerusalem decided to bribe some guards to claim that Jesus’s followers had taken his body away in the middle of the night; as if the storyteller were trying to explain away what perhaps actually did happen. But overall, this is an essentially sunny, optimistic version of the Easter story, which acknowledges some of the political realities facing Jesus’s followers, while emphasizing the storyteller’s central theological point that Jesus didn’t really die.

Third story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of Luke.

First thing Sunday morning, a group of women make their way to the tomb, to prepare the body. When I say it was a group of women, it included Mary Magdala, the other Mary, Joanna, and the rest of the women who were close followers of Jesus. They get to the tomb, which is already open, and they look inside. No body, no Jesus. Suddenly, two men appear and start talking to the women, telling them that they’re not going to find Jesus in the tomb, that Jesus had risen. So without further ado, the women walk back to the eleven male followers, and tell them what they had just seen; but to the men the women’s story sounded like utter nonsense, so the men refused to believe it.

That is, the men refused to believe the story until two of the men happened to be walking to another village, and suddenly there is Jesus walking along with them, except they don’t recognize him. And they get into this long conversation with Jesus, and finally Jesus says, Hey guys, you idiots, it’s me. Finally, the men believe, and they go back and tell the other men, who finally believe what the women have told them.

You will notice that this version of the Easter story is different than the first two. First of all, there’s more of everything: all the women go to the tomb, not just one or two; two men appear in the tomb, not just one; there are long conversations with Jesus, not just brief exchanges. Second of all, there is almost no hint of Jesus’s political life in this story: this is a story where the storyteller’s theology hides nearly all traces of Jesus’s politics. Finally, and to me most importantly, in this story the women are the smart ones: they’re the ones who really get what has happened, and when they tell the men, the men are too stupid to get it.

Fourth story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of John. It is about as different from the first story as you can get.

In this version of the story, Mary Magdala comes alone to the tomb to prepare the body. She sees that the tomb is already open, so she goes back to tell two of the male disciples that Jesus’s body is gone. Followed by Mary, the two men go to the tomb, they look around, it’s empty, they go back home. But Mary sticks around, and suddenly she sees two heavenly messengers, and next thing you know, there’s Jesus standing there too. She has a conversation with Jesus, during which he says, “Don’t touch me,” and then she goes back home. And that evening, Sunday evening, Jesus appears to the other disciples, says “Shalom” to them, and has a brief conversation before disappearing again.

When you actually read this version of the Easter story, there’s a sort of dreamlike quality to it. I think of this as the mystic’s version of Easter: the storyteller is telling us about grand theological events, while the characters in the story are divorced from mundane realities like political struggle, fear of arrest and torture, grief, and the need for secrecy.

So there you have it. Four different versions of the Easter story: the pragmatist’s story of ongoing struggle; the sunny, optimistic story; the story where the women are the smart ones; and the mystic’s story. As different as each of these stories may be, there are common threads that run through them. And at least three of these common threads are still woven into the warp and woof of our lives today.

The first common thread I would like to pick out is the thread that has to do with physical bodies. Most obviously, each of these four Easter stories is very concerned with determining what happened to the physical body of Jesus. What happened to the body of Jesus that Easter morning? Did his body rise up, to fulfill the predictions of later Christian theology? Did some of the followers arrive in the middle of the night to remove the body, forgetting to tell Mary Magdala and the other Mary? Was his body removed by person or persons unknown, in order to carry out one or more political objectives? I find no definitive answers to these questions in the Bible.

But what I do find in the Bible is a deep and abiding concern for bodies in general. Bodies were important to the people who wrote the Bible; bodies were not things to ignore or dismiss. In these Easter stories, I don’t find false divisions between mind and body, between matter and spirit; in these Easter stories, we are our bodies. I am particularly interested in that first Easter story we heard, the pragmatists’ story from the Gospel of Mark: Mary Magdala and the other Mary show up at the tomb only to find that Jesus’s body is missing; when things look fishy, they don’t risk themselves, they flee. They take care of their own bodies, so that they may continue the struggle for justice and righteousness another day.

I would offer that as the first bit of wisdom we might gain from these four Easter stories. I was not in the pulpit last Sunday because I got ill and instead of taking care of myself I tried to ignore my illness which only made things worse. Don’t do as I did a week ago. Take care of your body; be gentle with yourself; and be gentle with others. We can learn from these Easter stories to be concerned with, and to take care of, our bodies. While the struggle for justice and righteousness is important, we carry out that struggle as embodied beings; so our first priority must be to care for our bodies.

The second common thread which I would like to pick out for you, a thread which runs through these four Easter stories, has to do with community. Jesus was not alone in his struggle for justice and righteousness; he had a strong community of people surrounding him and supporting him. Perhaps I am more aware of this because I am a Unitarian, and therefore I am not confused by notions that Jesus was some sort of God or God-like being. Jesus was a human being, and he was one part of a community of human beings who worked together to try to create heaven on earth. Yes, Jesus was the most important human being in his little community while he was still alive; he was the moral and spiritual leader of that community. But they all knew he was going to be arrested on trumped-up political charges, so the community was prepared to continue without him. Not that we’re ever fully prepared for the grief that comes when someone we’re close to dies. Yet when Jesus did die, his community of followers was able to carry on without him.

I would offer that as the second bit of wisdom we might gain from these Easter stories. This powerful bit of wisdom applies to every one of us here this morning. At some point, let us hope in the very distant future, each one of us is going to have to die. Yet because we have invested ourselves in communities and social networks while we are alive and active, because of that investment we will achieve a level of immortality after our death. For a religious naturalist like me, this is the real resurrection of Easter: knowing that the communities and social networks I help nurture today will carry on long after my death, carry on and carry forward the ongoing struggle for justice and righteousness.

The final common thread I would like to pick out for you from these four Easter stories is probably obvious to some of you. Jesus was executed by the political and religious powers of his day because he and his followers wanted to establish a kind of heaven on earth: an idealized form of government where no one would be more powerful than anyone else, where the poor and oppressed would be more than equal to the rich and powerful, where the paramount law would be to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That kind of heaven on earth enrages the rich and powerful, because they think they will have to give up so much of what they now have while gaining nothing in return.

And I offer this as the final bit of wisdom that we might gain from these Easter stories. The struggle for justice that Jesus participated inn two thousand years ago continues today. Today, just as was true in the days of Jesus, the rich and powerful people of this world continue to oppress and impoverish whomever they can so that they may remain in control. So it is that today, just as was true in the times of Jesus, that the rest of us continue to strive to establish a kingdom of heaven here on earth. That is to say, we continue to engage in moral political action that will allow all persons — regardless of age, gender, race, national origin, economic class, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability — to live their lives without fear and without hatred.

And on this Easter Sunday, let us commit to continue following this ideal of Jesus. We will not do this alone, for we have this church community and many other social networks who will support us. And as we continue to follow this ideal, we will take care of our bodies, being gentle with ourselves and with each other. So may we nurture heaven on earth, with true peace and true justice for all.

A Unitarian 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) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Opening Words

The opening words were read responsively.

“The Middle Path”

Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, said: “There are two extremes which a religious seeker should not follow:

“On the one hand, there are those things whose attraction depends upon the passions, unworthy, unprofitable, and fit only for the worldly-minded;

“On the other hand, there is the practice of self-mortification and asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

“There is a middle path, avoiding these two extremes—a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment.

“What is that middle path? It is the noble eightfold path: Right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct;

“Right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

“This is the middle path. This is the noble truth that leads to the destruction of sorrow.”

This noble truth was not among the religious doctrines handed down from the past.

But within the Buddha there arose the eye to perceive this truth, the knowledge of its nature, the understanding of it, the wisdom to guide others.

Once this knowledge and this insight had arisen within Buddha;
He went to speak it to others, that others might realize the same enlightenment.

[From the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra, trans. T. W. Rhys Davids. Adapted by Dan Harper.]

Story — “A Unitarian Easter”

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian version of the Easter story. This is the Easter story I heard as a child, and I thought I’d share it with you this Easter. Why is our version of the story different? When we retell that story, we don’t assume that Jesus was God. And that leads to all kinds of little changes in the usual story so that in the end — well, just listen and you’ll find out how it ends.

After a year of preaching and teaching in the countryside, Jesus and his followers went into the great city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. 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! The way I picture it, a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Then 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?

Imagine what it would be like if people were selling pigeons here in this church while we were trying to have a worship service. Very distracting… 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.

Over the next three 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 he made those powerful people look bad. 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. The Romans did not want the people of Jerusalem to get any rebellious ideas.

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.

After the Seder, Jesus was restless and depressed. He was pretty sure that the Romans were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. 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.

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 his friend Joseph of Arimathea put Jesus’s 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, Jesus’s friends Mary, Mary, and Salome went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a young man whom they didn’t recognize, but who seemed to know what was going on.

When I was a child, my Unitarian mother told me that what must have happened is that some of Jesus’s friend Joseph of Arimathea had already come and buried the body. There must have been a fair amount of confusion that first Easter morning. Jesus’s friends were not only upset that he was dead, they were worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, or even executed. Because of the confusion, probably not everybody got the word about when and where the burial was. Thus, by the time Mary, Mary, and Salome had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body — and they left quickly, worried that they might get in trouble if they stayed around.

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 my Unitarian mother told me that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. It’s just that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again. And that’s the Unitarian version of the Easter story that I learned as a child.

Now, the children are invited to stay for the whole worship service. It’s good for children to attend an entire worship service once in a while, so they know what it’s like. There are Easter coloring books and pipe cleaners at the back of the church, to help children sit. If your child gets a little too squirmy, you can take them into the vestibule by the front door, and there are speakers where you can listen to the service. Or you can take your child into the Parish House to child care in the Green Room — there’s a map of the building on your order of service, so you know where the Green Room is.

Readings

The first reading was read responsively:

“The Good Is Positive”

Certain facts have always suggested the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind;

and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool;

and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.

Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity.

Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit,

which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes.

All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends,

he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.

[From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” arranged DH.]

The second reading this morning 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), Jospeh 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.

Sermon

In the opening words this morning, we heard how Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment, and then went on to preach that enlightenment to others. And this is what all the great religious prophets have done. The prophet Mohammed received his great inspiration from Allah, and then spent the rest of his life preaching that inspiration to others. The great sage Lao-tze had his deep insights into the universe, and the place of humanity in that universe, and he not only taught his insights to others, he is said to have written the Tao te Ching to share his insights even farther.

Most of these religious prophets had years to preach and to answer questions from their disciples. But what happens when a great religious prophet dies at too young an age? This was the problem that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth faced. Jesus was only about thirty years old when he was tortured and then executed by order of a minor functionary of the Roman Empire on trumped-up charges of political agitation. At that point, he had only been preaching for a relatively short while — two or three years according to one story; but only one year according to most accounts of Jesus’s life.

Compare the trajectory of Jesus’s life with the trajectory of the Buddha’s life. Siddhartha Gotama became a monk at the age of 29; at the age of 35 he achieved enlightenment; and then he is said to have had another 45 years of life to preach the middle way, to travel far and wide through the countryside; until finally, at the age of 80, he departed this world to enter the state of parinirvana. Compare that to the life of Jesus. Jesus began his ministry when he was approximately 29 years old, after being baptized by John the Baptist; immediately thereafter he spent forty days in the wilderness wrestling with his inner demons and deepening his already deep spiritual insights; and then he is said to have had one short year to preach his message of love, to travel in the countryside around Jerusalem; until finally, at the age of perhaps thirty, came his untimely execution in Jerusalem.

Jesus lived too short a life. And perhaps that is why his followers felt his loss so keenly; and perhaps that is why they came to feel that Jesus was God. As Unitarians, we do not feel the need to think of Jesus as God; and yet, we still find immense inspiration in his religious and spiritual teachings.

Jesus said his core teaching was simple: first, to live out the Jewish shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” and to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and second to love your neighbor as yourself. [Mk. 12.28-30] It is a simple and profound teaching, and it has shaped my life for the better, and the life of many people in the Western world.

That core teaching sounds so simple, but the more you think about it, the less simple it appears. After he died, his followers wondered if non-Jews could also follow Jesus’s teachings, and they concluded that Jesus taught the Jewish shema because his audience was Jewish. His followers said that if Jesus had lived, he would have included non-Jews as well. Today, that leads people like me to wonder what, exactly, Jesus meant by the word “God” — did he mean to limit “God” to the old Jewish conception of God which is so eloquently stated in the Hebrew scriptures? — or would Jesus have felt comfortable with my understanding, that the word “God” refers to the totality of all the universe and all relationships, human and non-human, therein?

That simple statement seems to beg other questions as well. What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? While this seems so straightforward at first glance, it is not a straightforward statement at all. My friend, and fellow Unitarian Universalist minister, Helen Cohen has pointed out that there are quite a few people who, quite frankly, don’t much like themselves — does that mean that they’re supposed to dislike other people as they dislike themselves? Maybe Jesus should have said: Love our neighbors as we ought to love ourselves. There’s also the reality that in the two millennia since Jesus was executed, his Christian followers have not done a very good job at actually living out this teaching; we can only wonder if Jesus had lived longer whether he would have been able to give us better instruction in how to actually live out his teachings.

Buddha had 45 years to explain his teaching of the middle way, to answer questions from his followers, to teach by the example of his own life. Jesus had a year or so to teach his idea of radical love to his followers, before he was executed. A year is too short a time.

I’m a Unitarian. I cannot believe that Jesus was somehow God. Yes, he was a great religious prophet; personally, I’d say he was the greatest religious prophet who has yet lived. And there are some Unitarians who would go farther than that, and say that Jesus was so great a religious prophet that he was more than human. But we Unitarians know that Jesus was not God.

Having said that, we can fully understand the impulse that led some of his followers to proclaim that Jesus was, in fact, God; we can understand why, nearly three hundred years after he died, the Council of Nicea proclaimed that Jesus was somehow God. Jesus died before he should have. Gotama Buddha had 45 years to explain his teachings; Jesus should have had long years to explain his teachings. When Jesus’s life was cut short, naturally his followers would want answers to their growing questions: if we are to love our neighbors, who is our neighbor? if we are to love God, how are we to understand God? His followers could not ask questions of the man Jesus; Jesus was dead; but if they understood Jesus as God, then they felt that Jesus would be with them forever, and so they felt they could converse with him through prayer.

To those of us schooled in the ways of scientific thinking, it sounds odd to say that Jesus became God. But this is not a scientific story, it is a poetic story. This old story makes poetic, but not literal, truth. It is poetically true to say that Jesus rose from death; from a poetic point of view, his idea of radical love is too important to die when his physical body died; and so it is that his teaching of radical love rose from the dead and lives on in us.

And this is perhaps the greatest contribution of us Unitarians: we know that Jesus’s teaching of radical love lives on in us. Radical love doesn’t live on us as individuals; it lives on in us as a gathered community. Our great genius has been to live out our covenant. Our covenant is the promise we make to one another to live up to the impossible ideal that we shall love each other, love our neighbors, as we ought to love ourselves. We come together in love each week, to seek together for the good; and in the spirit of love we care for one another, and we care for all our neighbors, human and non-human.

The great Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “All things proceed out of this same spirit, and all things conspire with it”; everything comes out of the oneness of the universe; and Emerson taught us that “Whilst we seek good ends, we are strong by the whole strength of nature.”

So it is with us here in this room this morning. Jesus’s teaching of radical love lives on in us, it is love that is lived out into reality through our mutual covenant with one another. This is the miracle of Easter: that what Jesus taught us about radical love lives on through us. As we seek the good, those teachings gain strength within us, and we spread them into the wider community beyond these walls. That which is good can never die die, but rises again, and again, and again, the product of the one will, the one manifold power of all existence, the power of love and goodness.

So on this Easter morning may radical love for all humanity rise up in us once again. Amen.

A Universalist Easter

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading comes from the Christian scriptures, the book known as the Gospel of Mark. In this snippet, the rabbi Jesus quotes from the Torah, first from Deuteronomy, and then from Leviticus:

“One of the teachers of the law [asked Jesus]… ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

“‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no greater commandment than these.'” [Mk. 12.28-30]

The second reading this morning, which I take in part as a commentary of the first reading, comes from the Treatise on Atonement, written by the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou in 1805. I should add that the First Universalist Church in New Bedford, which merged with this church in 1930, traces its history back to the moment when Hosea Ballou once preached in New Bedford. Ballou wrote:

“The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men, have been believed to exist in God; and professors [of Christianity] have been molded into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel than the uncultivated savage! A persecuting inquisition is a lively representation of the God which professed Christians have believed in ever since the apostacy. It is every day’s practice to represent the Almighty so offended with man, that he employs his infinite mind in devising unspeakable tortures, as retaliations on those with whom he is offended.” [p. 147]

So end this morning’s readings, with these scornful words of Hosea Ballou.

Story for all ages

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian version of the Easter story. This is the Easter story I heard as a child, and I thought I’d share it with you this Easter. Why is our version of the story different? When we retell that story, we don’t assume that Jesus was God. And that leads to all kinds of little changes that add up in the end…. Tell you what, let’s just listen to the Unitarian story of Easter and find out.

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. It’s just that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

SERMON — “A Universalist Easter”

I’ll start this morning by telling you a fairly stupid Unitarian Universalist joke. It seems that two Unitarian Universalists died and went to heaven. Somewhat to their surprise, they found themselves standing in line in front of a pair of large pearly gates, waiting to talk with someone who was unmistakably St. Peter. When they finally got to St. Peter, he asked them what religion they were, and they said, “Unitarian Universalists.”

“Unitarian Universalists?” said St. Pete. “Well, even though you’re heretics, you did so much social justice work on earth I’m going to let you in to heaven, instead of sending you to hell.”

The two Unitarian Universalists look at each other, and finally one of them says, “You mean you actually send people to hell?!” — using the exact tone of voice that vegetarians use when they say to you, “You mean you actually still eat meat?”

“Oh yes,” says St. Peter.

So the two Unitarian Universalists start chanting, “One two three four, we won’t go in heaven’s door/ Five six seven eight, we are going to close hell’s gates,” and next thing you know they’re picketing the Pearly Gates carrying signs saying, “God Unfair to the Damned,” and “Ban Eternal Torment.”

Needless to say, we Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in hell. To a Unitarian Universalist, the concept of eternal torment is most likely to be a fable used by certain religious leaders to try to frighten people into good behavior; and the more cynical among us would add that “good behavior” is defined as that sort of behavior that helps keep those certain religious leaders in power. We don’t believe in hell, and indeed the concept of hell is likely to fill us with a certain amount of righteous indignation, just as we heard in the stupid joke with which I began this sermon.

While we usually take this for granted, I would like us to take the time to explore a little of why we Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in those hoary old stories of hell and eternal torment. Easter seems like one of the best days on which to do this exploration; because some of our more traditional Christian brothers and sisters know Easter as the holiday where Jesus (they would say “Christ”) rose up from the dead; and they would echo the words of Paul of Tarsus, who wrote: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”; the third day being, of course, Easter. This is what our more traditional Christian brothers and sisters say and believe with all their hearts and minds; but we know this to be wrong, we know in our hearts and in our heads and in the depths of our soul that this is simply wrong. Let us, therefore, articulate why it is wrong.

At the most basic level, whether or not you yourself believe in God, it is quite clearly stated in the Christian scriptures that God is love. God is love; and God loves all persons, even the poor and oppressed. That God loves the poor and oppressed is one of the more remarkable innovations of Christianity; most earlier religious traditions were quite willing to neglect the poor and oppressed. Yet if God is love, and if God loves all persons no matter how despicable they might seem on the surface — how could that kind of god dispose of any person by throwing them into hell for eternal torment? To say that God would throw people into hell is illogical on an intellectual level; and it violates emotional logic as well, because a God of love would obviously be incapable of such vicious hatred.

That’s the argument at the most basic level; and really we shouldn’t have to go beyond that argument. God is love; therefore God will not damn anyone. Once we make that argument, it is up to people with other beliefs to explain to us why a God of love would dispose of persons; it is up to people with other beliefs to explain to how “love” can include torture, humiliation, and eternal torment. Nor do you have to believe in God yourself to make this most basic argument, because really what we are doing is pointing out the impossible contradictions bound up in the idea of the traditional Christian hell.

Let me give you an example of how this basic argument works. Each year on the second Sunday in September, a mile-long stretch of Solano Street in Berkeley is taken over by a street fair called the Solano Stroll. 250,000 people come to watch the clown parade (think Rasta clowns instead of Bozo the clown), to eat fantastic food, to listen to music from rock and roll to the Royal Hawaiian ukulele band; there are art cars, jugglers, and more. Naturally, the Unitarian Universalist church sets up a booth — these are obviously our kind of people. Well, the year I served at the Berkeley church, the organizers of the Solano Stroll put the Unitarian Universalists right next to a booth full of fundamentalist Christians. Some of these good people came over to find out what we believed in; needless to say, they were a little shocked by us. They wanted to argue with me, and we went back and forth, until I finally told them that everyone gets to heaven because God is love. That took some of the wind out of their sails. You could see the wheels turning in their heads, and almost hear them thinking: “If I tell him that he’s going to go to hell, he’s going to say, ‘You mean you don’t believe in a God of absolute love?’, and then he could say that I don’t believe that God is all-powerful….” And pretty soon, they all drifted away. All except for one young man whom I think I may have convinced; he kept talking to me, wanting to know more; but eventually he, too, went back to his friends.

So it is that the old Universalist ideas retain their power even today, 200 years after Hosea Ballou. Universalism has a saving message for many people, if they can but hear it.

Using traditional Christian language, we could say that message like this: “God is love; everyone gets to go to heaven: doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; doesn’t matter what religion you follow; doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight; doesn’t matter what color your skin is; doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman: all that matters is that because you are a human being you are deserving of love.”

Or we could use less traditional religious language, and actually leave out the word “God” altogether. We could say, “Love is the most powerful force in the universe; not television love, but the deep love we must have for all human beings; we know that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect no matter how much money they may have, no matter what religion they belong to, no matter what their sexual orientation, no matter what their racial or ethnic identity, no matter what their gender:– for your worth and dignity are an inherent part of you as a human being.”

Recently, I’ve been going even further beyond traditional religious language. I’m now willing to say that love is the most powerful force in the universe and I’m willing to extend that love to other living beings along with human beings. This isn’t romantic love; nor is this sentimental love limited to those animals and plants that I find cute and cuddly. It’s a love that extends to all living beings, to the entire biosphere, as ultimately sacred; and even though we have to eat other living beings in order to survive, we can do so with a sense of reverence; even though we have to fight against things like the influenza virus, we can do so in reverence for the awful beauty which is truly a part of all living things. But this is a pretty radical notion; and there are still quite a number of philosophical and theological points I’m trying to figure out. And I have to say I don’t recommend trotting out universal love for the biosphere when you get into a discussion with some of the more traditional Christians.

Yet no matter what kind of religious language we use, we can affirm the central principle of Universalism. Traditionally, Universalism referred to the universal salvation of all persons; in other words, everyone gets to go to heaven. Go beyond the old traditional language, and universalism calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all persons here and now. Go even further beyond traditional religious language, and we might say that all living beings should be valued, and saved from extinction, as we try to create an ecojustice heaven here on earth. But always, love is the central principle.

And I firmly believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a Universalist, although he wouldn’t have called himself that. But clearly he knew the power of love. He said that all the teaching of the old religious sages and prophets came down to two simple points: Love your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. By the way he said this, you know that Jesus’s God loved all persons without distinction; and so we are told did Jesus live out his life, consorting with the poor and the downtrodden, hanging out not with the elite but with ordinary fishermen, and with tax collectors and prostitutes. When he spoke of love two thousand years ago, it was in a time and place that was quite different from our time and place; and today some of us might say that we shall love the universe with all our heart and mind and soul, and love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter how we say it, we remain in the tradition of the great teachings of Jesus: ours is a religion with love at the center; ours is not a religion that threatens eternal torment to anyone.

And why then do we celebrate Easter, if we don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead in order to save us from eternal torment? I think Hosea Ballou, that old Universalist preacher, would say that Easter is a chance, not for us to recall that Jesus died to atone for our sins; but rather, that Jesus lived to help us reconcile ourselves to God, and to God’s love.

Today, we are likely to tell Jesus’s story in a different way, like this: Jesus was arrested on trumped-up political charges, and then he was executed to serve the interests of the powerful elite of Roman-ruled Judea. Jesus’s message of love threatened to change the way the political establishment worked; Jesus’s teachings threatened to replace a corrupt political establishment with a heaven here on earth based on love and resulting in true justice and true peace. That is why Jesus was executed; and we remember his story in order to remember that love is the ultimate subversive act, one which has the potential to bring about true peace and true justice in our world.

Nor do we necessarily believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead. But we do know that his ideas, his teachings, his message of love, did indeed rise up to take on a new life after he was executed. Those ideas are still alive; they are with us even today. Even though Jesus was executed, love remains powerful. Love is constantly renewed; even when we think it is dead, love rises up and astonishes us with its power.

May your life be renewed by love; and may you find new life in the firm knowledge that you, too, are worthy of love.