A Unitarian Universalist Easter

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the Christian scriptures, the last chapter of the Book of Mark, as translated by Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish scholar of the ancient Near East. Later copyists added a more upbeat ending to the Book of Mark; in this reading you will hear the original ending, filled with ambiguity.

When the sabbath 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?” 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 far 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 been raised. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his followers, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.”

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

The second reading is “The Hailstones,” by Ai Qing [aye ching], translated in 1983 by Angela Jung Palandri. This poem was written in 1979, after the poet was released from the prison camp where he had been spent the previous twenty years, because he had fallen out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party. The poem can be found in this online essay (scroll down to page 72).

The final reading was by Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States. The title of the poem is “Singing Everything.” This poem is reproduced at the end of this newspaper article.

[These two links go to webpages that reproduce the poems with full permission of the poets.]

Sermon: “A Unitarian Universalist Easter”

That last reading, the poem by Joy Harjo, tells a truth that is worth considering on Easter Sunday. We used to have songs for everything, “Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,” as the poet tells us, and songs “for sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” But today we are reduced to a narrow range of songs.

Admittedly, Joy Harjo exaggerates a little when she tells us, “Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and /Falling apart after falling in love songs.” We do have a few other kinds of songs such as political songs, and songs of interior landscapes by singer-songwriters. But Joy Harjo is an enrolled member of the Muscogee nation, and as a Native American she is aware of a broader range of songs that once existed. Most of those kinds of songs that once existed in indigenous cultures — including indigenous European and African and Asian cultures — have disappeared from today’s mass-produced culture.

Mind you, I love the music of today’s culture. I love Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It has to be the best falling-apart-after-falling-in-love song ever. And some of you will remember Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song at the roots of hip hop; this is a truly great political song. Perhaps you are now hearing in your head the many other great songs of our time. Even so, most of our popular songs today are love songs, or political songs, or songs of interior landscapes. We have very few songs about sunrise, or planting, or harvesting, or giving birth, or (as Harjo says in her poem) “songs of the guardians of silence.” We have many great songs today, but they mostly stick to a relatively narrow range of topics.

The same is true of much of religion in today’s world. Most of today’s religion occupies a narrow range of feeling and values and being. Popular American culture thinks of religion as having to do with the Bible, except that the Bible is merely supposed to support the assumptions and prejudices of conservative American Christianity. One of my favorite examples of this is that conservative American Christianity assumes that the God of their Bible is entirely male; except that in the Bible, in Genesis 1:28, it very clearly states that God is non-binary gender: “God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them.” God may choose to use he/him pronouns, but God’s actual body is both male and female. Somehow the conservative American Christians manage to ignore that part of the Bible. This shows you what I mean when I say that today’s American religion occupies a too-narrow range of feeling and values and being.

We might imagine for ourselves a religion with a broader range. Consider with me the story of Easter as we heard it in the first reading, as it was originally told in the book of Mark. Here’s how I would retell this story:

The Roman Empire executes Jesus of Nazareth, and he dies at sundown on Friday. The friends and followers of Jesus are all observant Jews. Since the Jewish sabbath begins at sundown of Friday, they want to wait until the sabbath is over to prepare the body for burial. So they place the body in a tomb. Promptly on the morning after the sabbath, Jesus’ mother, accompanied by Mary of Magdala and Salome (these three are leaders among the followers of Jesus, and as women would know more about preparing bodies for burial than any of the men), these three women go to the tomb to care for the body. There they encounter a stranger, a man who is strangely dressed, who tells them that Jesus has been raised, and will precede them to Galilee. The stranger tells the women not to tell the men these things. Not surprisingly, the three women find this strange and weird. They are unnerved. Fearing for themselves and for the other followers of Jesus, they quickly leave the tomb. They tell no one.

That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

Now, the book of Mark is accepted by most scholars as the earliest story we still have that tells about the life and death of Jesus. This means that all those traditional stories about Easter we hear — the stories of resurrection and triumph — that’s not the way the story was first told. The original book of Mark does not end in triumph, and so it sounds like some contemporary poetry — like the poem of Ai Qing we heard as the second reading. Ai Qing lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in China; he was exiled to a labor camp for twenty years. His poem “The Hailstones” is a poetic retelling of how the Cultural Revolution brought his poetry to a violent end. Since he’s telling us this in a poem, we know that eventually his poetry was reborn. Yet when he looks back on those twenty lost years, he can only say: “What remains / Are sad memories of the calamity.”

You notice that I’m using a poem by a disgraced Chinese Communist poet to talk about Easter. I’m not talking about Easter the way we’re “supposed” to talk about Easter; at least, the way the conservative American Christians tell us is the correct, orthodox way to talk about Easter. We Unitarian Universalists have never limited our religion to the narrow confines of conservative American Christianity. For us, religion and spirituality are broad and inclusive. We can look at the Easter story with fresh eyes.

We don’t feel a need to shoehorn the Easter story into a confining orthodoxy. We don’t need the Easter story to somehow prove that Jesus was a god who could not actually be killed. If you want to interpret the Easter story in that way, that’s fine. Yet for us, the Easter story contains far more complexity. As with any good literature, we find multiple levels of meaning. I’ll give you an example from my own life. This past year has been a year of loss in my household: my father-in-law died just about a year ago, and my spouse’s stepmother died the day after Christmas. So this year when I read the Easter story in the book of Mark, what I feel is the emotional truth of that story: someone you love is alive one day, and then they’re no longer alive, and you know they are gone forever. This can leave you (as the story puts it) trembling and unnerved, and you can find yourself afraid and unwilling to talk about it.

That is one emotional truth we can find in the story. We can also find another emotional truth carried in that story. After people die, we have not lost them. They live on in our love. If there’s a resurrection story that all Unitarian Universalists agree on, this it it: love transcends death.

And we can find still more emotional truths in this simple story. For example: Jesus was a brilliant spiritual teacher, who encapsulated spirituality in simple, easy-to-understand stories and formulas. His most famous spiritual teaching is quite simple: love your neighbor as yourself. (Simple in the saying, but far more difficult in actual practice.) When the Roman Empire executed him, his teachings did not die. You cannot kill truth that easily. This another emotional truth of the Easter story that all Unitarian Universalists can agree on: you cannot kill truth so easily.

With enough time, we can find still more emotional truths in this story. So it is that we can see how religion and spirituality have a much wider range than popular American culture would have us believe. Popular American culture tells us that religion is concerned with beliefs many of us find unbelievable, beliefs to which we are supposed to conform. In truth, however, religion and spirituality exist to help us understand the perplexities of life. From this, we gain comfort and support. Religion and spirituality concern the truth that never dies. From this, we remember that love transcends even death. Religion and spirituality teach a universal love that includes all people, no matter what gender or sexual preference, no matter what race, no matter what, period. And with that knowledge, we can create a world where we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s why we keep coming back here to this community. That’s why we keep our religion and spirituality alive in our personal lives. We celebrate the incredible diversity of humankind, the diversity which exists among us here today. And we celebrate that which transcends us all and which unites us all — that which is highest and best, that which keeps us going from day to day.

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 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.


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.


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.]


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.