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.
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.
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.
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.