This Easter Sunday at UUCDC! Rev. Peter, Director of Religious Education Chrissy Bushyager, and Worship Associate Kathy Alston help us Unitarian Universalists make meaning out of this age-old story that is foundational to the Christian faith.
Sermon - "Resurrecting Hope"
Mary is a friend of mine. She’s about my age and we’ve known each other since we were young. She grew up Catholic and, unlike me, has stayed with the Catholic Church her entire life. She attended parochial schools as a child, right up through high school, and although she went to a private liberal arts college, she continued to practice her faith right through those years when so many of us fall away from the church. That’s not to say that Mary agrees with all the tenets of the church, because she doesn’t. She’s a progressive, American Catholic who believes in equality of the sexes and a woman’s right to choose, whose faith was seriously shaken but not broken by the sex-abuse scandal, and who believes in the church’s responsibility to use its wealth and power to raise up the poor and oppressed. Mary isn’t a “Sunday morning” Catholic. She lives out her faith every day, quietly serving others in the name of God. I’ve told her many times that she’d fit in well with us here in a UU church, and we get a good laugh out of that, and then she tells me she loves Jesus too much.
About ten years ago, Mary’s husband walked out on her. To say that she was devastated would be a massive understatement. It came completely out of the blue for her and, in the process of the divorce, her husband said some things that wounded her terribly and that have left deep scars on her heart. Scars so deep, in fact, that Mary has completely closed herself off to the possibility of any future romantic relationships. She has decided that it’s too painful to risk her heart ever again, and that she’d rather be alone the rest of her life than take the chance of being hurt that way again . As a friend, it’s painful to see her isolated and shut down as she is. As a minister, it’s hard for me to reconcile Mary’s deep and abiding faith with her decision. Because Mary tells me that she believes in Easter. That she believes that every Good Friday is followed by an Easter Sunday. She embraces the truth of Jesus’s life, his death and his rebirth into new life again. And so, it confounds me that Mary has given up on her own life the way she has. When it comes to relationships, she has relegated herself to the cross and the tomb. She has cut herself off from the possibility of new life. It seems that she has decided, because of her fear of getting hurt again, that the resurrection story is true for everyone but herself.
I tell you about Mary because Mary’s story makes me wonder about my own story, and maybe it will make you wonder about your own as well. Easter Sunday can be a confounding time for us Unitarian Universalists. Many of us have come to this faith after rejecting our Christian roots. Most of us, I will venture, no matter our upbringing, don’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus – that he died, was buried, and three days later came back to life. Some UU’s stay away from church on Easter Sunday altogether, because they don’t think it makes sense as UU’s to celebrate this magical, mystical, impossible event. Others keep their focus on the “spring-y” aspects of the holiday, and somewhat grudgingly accept the story as a tale about new life emerging after the long, cold winter. Easter, for them, is about bunnies and chicks and daffodils and tulips. I used to be one of those UU’s, until someone pointed out to me that that take on this holiday only works for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, and that for all those living in, for example, Australia, Easter arrives with autumn and that whole “emerging from winter” thing doesn’t work at all.
Today, for the next few minutes, I want to invite you to engage with the Easter story in a different way. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re called not to simply pass over this story that is so pivotal to the Christian faith, but to dig into it deeply. To wrestle with it. It’s not enough to simply say, with great assurance, that the story isn’t true. That’s a conclusion that’s all too easy. While the story may not be literally true, our task is to find the truths that lie buried in the story.
The first truth that I find when I encounter Easter is that bad things happen, even to good people. We don’t need the Easter story to know this, because we see it every day. The Universe, with all its beauty and abundance, can be a cruel, cold place. Children come down with cancer and teenagers die in car crashes. Husbands leave their wives. Cops cut down black men holding nothing in their hand but a cell phone. People in power oppress those who aren’t aligned or like them and those who rise up to preach a gospel of love and hope and justice are slain in their prime. We don’t need to look back some two thousand years to know this. It will be fifty years ago this Wednesday when an assassin’s bullet took down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stephon Clark is barely cold in his grave. The world abounds with Good Friday stories and we cannot ignore them. I’m guessing that you likely have a few of your own. We each experience many deaths throughout the course of our lives. It is a universal truth of our humanity, a condition of being human.
The second truth I find in the Easter story is the truth of the tomb. And, oh, how I wish that this part of the story was actually true. That we only need to be in the tomb for three days. Not three months. Or three years. Or three decades. That, to me, is the real miracle of the Easter story: that it only took three days for Jesus to rise again. Would that we were so lucky. But regardless of how long it lasts, the Easter story tells us that what I call “tomb time” is inevitable. We cannot, as much as we’d like to, go straight from death to resurrection. In the Easter story we’re told that Jesus’s body was laid in the tomb and a stone rolled across the mouth of the cave, and we assume that all that happened behind that rock was stillness. Silence. Waiting. And don’t get me wrong: some part of our tomb time requires stillness, silence, and waiting, too. Because in the stillness and the silence we can focus our attention and listen closely to the messages that seep through the cracks in the rock and we can listen to the still, small voice within us, the voice of God or of our own intuition, that is there to offer us wisdom. But stillness alone is not the only task of our tomb time. Because if we allow it to, stillness can become stuckness.
Others say that, during the three days in the tomb, Jesus descended to hell and wrestled with the devil, and I can relate to that, too. Think about how much we must wrestle with after suffering some kind of loss, some kind of personal death. We lose faith in ourselves or in others. We descend into the hell of depression, fear, anxiety. We are tempted to medicate ourselves with drugs, alcohol, or other harmful behaviors. Yes, the tomb time can clearly be a time of wrestling with the devil, and so that part of the story rings true for me as well.
Our time in the tomb can also be seen as a latency period. A time to recover. To gather strength. A time to lick our wounds, to heal, to figure things out. We can also think of tomb time as a time of transformation, like the time the caterpillar spends in the cocoon where, inside a protective shell, amazing changes take place. Who and what we are when we enter the tomb isn’t – doesn’t have to be, in fact shouldn’t be – the same as who or what we are when we emerge. The apostles on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus as himself not because he was trying to conceal his own identity from them. They didn’t recognize him not because he looked different, but because he was different. Changed. Transformed.
And let us take this idea of tomb time one step further and ask the question that civil rights lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur asked in her “Sikh Prayer for America,” “What if this darkness is not the darkness of a tomb, but the darkness of a womb?” So, I ask: What if we saw our time in the tomb as gestational? As a time where we allow ourselves to be nurtured? Fed? Cared for? Loved? The Easter story calls us not to treat the time in the tomb as some kind of prison sentence, but to embrace it as that pregnant time that is full of possibility and potential. Yes, we have suffered a terrible loss, a loss akin to death, even. Let us welcome the time in the darkness as a gift that holds the key to our recovery, our transformation, our future.
The third lesson that I take from the Easter story is this: Resurrection is always possible. I would like to say that resurrection is inevitable, but I don’t think that’s true. Like my friend Mary, we can remain entombed by choice. By fear. By all the “what-if’s” that hold us back from taking the risk of emerging from the tomb. There’s a reason that we all come literally screaming into the world. The womb is comfortable and cozy. It’s familiar. It’s safe. There is no doubt that it’s scary to have to face the harsh light of day. We know this instinctually as infants and we certainly learn it, over and over again, as adults. So, there’s good reason why we might choose to stay in whatever tomb we find ourselves. But I don’t believe we are meant for the tomb. I don’t think God, if you believe in God, wants us to cower in the dark, to hide behind the rock, to stay stuck in the darkness of the tomb. We are called to be born and reborn, again and again. We are meant for new life. We are meant for transformation. As long as we are living, breathing animals, we have within us the capacity for redemption. Easter reminds us that resurrection is always possible.
In its purest sense, resurrection means simply to “rise again,” and that’s what I mean when I say resurrection is always possible. We can all rise again. And again. And again. That is not to say that there aren’t systems of oppression that work against the resurrection of some of us. There are. But I align myself with those who express this possibility of rising again in the language of resistance, that declares: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” And for those of us in positions of power and privilege, it is our duty to nurture those seeds and to actively dismantle the systems that keep them from sprouting and growing and blossoming, from rising to their full potential.
The apostles, the ones closest to Jesus, didn’t believe that resurrection was possible. The men didn’t believe the women who told them that Jesus was no longer in the tomb until they went and saw it with their own eyes. Thomas is held out as the doubter, but they all doubted until Jesus appeared to them. And then they saw and they believed. I have seen and I believe in the truth of the resurrection. I have seen people suffer devastating losses, losses beyond imagining, who emerge from their grief and their pain transformed. Empowered. Positive and hopeful. Look at the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. Listen to the voices we heard just last week, of the teenagers whose friends were gunned down in Parkland. Look no further than “Mothers in Charge,” a violence prevention and advocacy group right here in Delaware County comprised of women who have lost children and spouses to gun violence. If these people can roll back the stone from their tombs and rise again, then we must declare the good news of Easter that, yes, resurrection is possible for us all.
What is not possible is that we will rise to be what we once were. No matter how we might harken back with nostalgia and fondness to the past, how it was before our loss, before our grief, before whatever form our death has taken, we cannot walk out of the tomb anything but transformed, anything less than a new vision and a new version of ourselves. Will we look and walk and talk the same as before? Perhaps. Our transformation may not be externally visible, like the caterpillar that enters the cocoon earth-bound and emerges with wings to take flight. But we will be different, have no doubt about that. We will see the world with new eyes. We will engage the world with new senses. We will pass each new experience through the fire of what came before.
Where does this leave me on this Easter morning in 2018, when children are being murdered in the hallways of our schools? When unarmed black men are being gunned down by police in our streets? When world leaders are re-igniting a long-dormant nuclear arms race? When half a million Puerto Ricans are still without power, 6 months after Hurricane Maria? When the last male white rhino on the planet has perished? The story of Easter leaves me with hope. Hope for our world. Hope for our nation. Hope for our community. Hope for you and for me and for my friend Mary. Because if there’s one thing that they have tried to put to death, over and over again, it’s hope. And if there’s one thing that’s been entombed and seemingly lost forever, over and over again, it’s hope. And if there’s one thing that rises up, over and over again, it’s hope. As long as a single human heart beats out the rhythm of the planets, hope will rise, and rise again.
Happy Easter. May it be so.
Closing Words - From retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong
“One prepares for eternity not by being religious and keeping the rules, but by living fully, loving wastefully, and daring to be all that each of us has the capacity to be.”