Sermon “Love Endures”
Copyright Sarah Person
Delivered March 31, 2013 First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
For years, the director of religious education in one of my former churches would have minor conniptions over Easter. What am I supposed to tell the kids, she’d agonize. I cannot stand one more story about baby birds and bunnies! When I was a child, I heard endless watered down versions of the resurrection – you know – the ones that speculate on what probably really happened. One suggested that a group of devout followers removed his body and buried him in a hidden place because they wanted to prevent anyone from desecrating his tomb. Another suggested his followers were so grief-stricken and wished so much that he hadn’t died that they imagined they saw him walking around afterwards. I asked our Sunday School children what they already knew about Easter and what they thought of it. One child stays in my mind. Her very elderly cat had died, and she missed him very much. She wondered if he had died because he was bad. Why, I asked. Because he was still buried under the tree in the backyard, she said, he hadn’t disappeared. I didn’t ask her how she knew. My DRE and I realized that dwelling on what might have probably really happened wasn’t the most important thing to know about Easter.
Biblical scholars and historians estimate that the Easter Story I read to you was created around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem. [That’s almost 2,000 years ago, kids.] After four years of fighting, the Romans destroyed the temple and ended The Great Jewish Revolt. We can speculate that the devastation wrought by these events affected not only the Hebrews, but their widespread religious minority of Christians as well. At this time, we think about twenty years after Paul wrote his letters to the faithful, all Christians could agree on was: that Jesus was divine, that he was God’s Son, that he was the Messiah, that he was crucified and that he was raised. There was little agreement on anything else. At the time of the Gospel of Mark, Christians did not agree on whether Jesus was human as well as divine. They did not agree on what a person had to do to show that he or she was Christian, like be baptized, or give away all their worldly goods to the community. They did not agree on whether people who were not Christian were good or bad. Some were beaten up or even killed for being Christian and it was hard to think that Jesus wanted his followers to be meek and love their enemies. When times were hard for them, Christians wanted each other to hold on. The Christians learned an important lesson from the Hebrews. They knew that one of the reasons that the Jewish faith had survived centuries of wars and captivity, was that Jewish people agreed on basic and fundamental beliefs, reminded each other of those beliefs in all places and all times, and held onto those beliefs no matter what. Jewish people survived because they knew that God loved them and moved in history by rescuing his people from slavery, and still did.
The Gospel of Mark collected everything Christians knew about Jesus and had been telling each other for years. It told followers of Jesus the good news that, even though horrible things were happening around them, Jesus was indeed divine, he was God’s Son, he was the Messiah, he was crucified and he was raised. If they could hold onto that belief, they could get through anything. God moved in history and still did. This is what gospel, or good news does. It tells in the strongest and most powerful way possible; that no matter what is happening in our lives, there is a reason to go on and hope for joy. It is the central task of all faithful people: to tell one another in the most powerful way possible that no matter what is happening in our lives, there is hope for peace and for joy. The reasons to go on may differ from one religion to another, but the central task is the same.
So, what can we Unitarian Universalists tell each other about Easter? What does Easter ask of us? We tend to be uncomfortable with miracle messages. We tend to want our faith in that which is greater to be based in historical truth. If we don’t have historical truth, then we want whatever we understand to be holy to be based on our own senses and of the world around us. We tend to receive the New Testament not as historical truth but as metaphor and allegory. We tend to receive scripture as ancient wisdom for us to interpret. We receive the New Testament as good news for Christians; as a testament framed all those years ago in the most powerful imagery and language possible to give a reason to hope for joy. Just because we tend to not receive the account of Jesus’ resurrection as historical truth, does not mean that it does not have something to tell us.
What does Easter have to tell us? What does it ask of us? Each of us has to answer that question ourselves, but I think Easter asks of us four things. The first is that we know and accept that we carry around with us a winter of the heart, an abiding capacity for loneliness, for sadness, for feeling apart and overwhelmed, for feeling broken. It is cold and airless and unforgiving in that place – and we all have the ability to stay there. The second is that in spite of this, or perhaps even because of this, we have the capacity for joy. If there is winter, there must be spring. Even those of us who have been deep in the mud, who have found it hard to move and impossible to speak with the weight of our sorrow or anger or guilt or fear, know that there will come a point when our hearts can be lifted. Even when our circumstances will not change, and our burden will not disappear, something in us can change and make the burden lighter. We know this in part because of the seasons of our lives. And we know this in part in remembrance of whatever good and loving thing has happened in our lives, and whatever good and loving thing we have done.
“A Tomb Is No Place to Stay” Richard Gilbert once wrote:
A tomb is no place to stay,
Be it a cave in the Judean hills
Or the dark cavern of the spirit.
A tomb is no place to stay
When fresh grass rolls away the stone of winter cold
And valiant flowers burst their way to warmth and light.
A tomb is no place to stay,
When each morning announces our reprieve,
And we know we are granted yet another day of living.
A tomb is no place to stay
When life laughs a welcome
To hearts which have been too long away.
The third thing that Easter asks of us is that there is a reason for joy, and we have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to look for it and to find it. It can be the joy of new life, of valiant flowers bursting from the ground. It can be the freedom that comes from realizing with one’s whole being that we have a choice about how we react to adversity. It can be a sudden random act of kindness, a thing of startling beauty, an assurance and a sign of love from something all-powerful and everywhere. Or it can come on gradually, a dawning realization that we were meant for more. What would have the power to lift you out of the mud? What is it that gives you the assurance that you can handle what life brings, and even laugh out loud? Love exists in many forms and guises and waits impatiently in spring for us to find it. The fourth and final thing is that we can act in this world out of the despair which connects us all, and the hope that joy brings.
In her book Practicing Resurrection, Nora Gallagher came to grips with her own tragedy, saying: “[this]is the story of my life at a crossroads, discerning what to do and how to live after my brother’s death. The life I led before Kit died no longer made sense. Stretched between meetings, always ten minutes late, increasingly without surprise or humor, I realized I’d lost more than Kit. I’d lost my “own wild life,” and a sense of the sacred in the world. When I think about the resurrection now, I don’t only think about what happened to Jesus. I think about what happened to his disciples. They went into hiding after the crucifixion, but they walked back out into the world. They became braver and stronger; they visited strangers, and healed the sick. It was not just what they saw when they saw Jesus, or how they saw it, but what was set free in them. We spend so much time in the Church “believing” in the resurrection or “not believing,” that we may lose the point. What if the resurrection is not about the appearances of Jesus alone but also about what those appearances point to, what they ask? And it is finally what we do with them that matters; make them into superstitions or use them as stepping stones to new life. We have to practice resurrection.”
Practice resurrection. I like that thought. Practice resurrection. Bring our sorrow and anger and fear out of the cave and into the light. Let go of all that keeps us from leaving the darkness and airlessness. Breathe deeply and clear away the dead branches and debris that has cluttered our lives and prevented us from reconciling with what is true and real and lasting. Strengthen ourselves and commit ourselves to making things right. Spring and resurrection ask that forgive ourselves, that we ask for forgiveness, and that we forgive others. This is the way that love endures – by being created again and again where it is least expected. There is love, steadfast and lasting, and that is the truth we are called to make real in Spring and resurrection time.