Are YOU entitled to celebrate EASTER? Easter is only for those who believe a certain way. Right? Hmm, let’s reflect on this.
Centering Thought: Most of us would agree that the important thing about Jesus is not his supposed miraculous birth or the claim that he was resurrected from death, but rather how he lived. The power of his love, the penetrating simplicity of his teachings, and the force of his example of service on behalf of the disenfranchised and downtrodden are what is crucial. – Forrest Church
Share the plate: Oregon UU Voices For Justice
Celebrant: Arrhiannon Kirkpatrick, Anchor: David Jeffers
Music both services: UUCS Choir
During my youth in the Southern Baptist church in Columbus, Georgia I always felt like “a stranger in a strange land” and I realized that I had better keep certain things under wraps – for example, my true thoughts and feelings about Easter. While I enjoyed the springtime trappings of that celebration as much as anyone – that hearty brunch at nearby Calloway Gardens following the sunrise service, the general joyous, festive feeling, the Easter egg hunt, the candy – I was an outsider. I didn’t feel I belonged because I didn’t believe what I was taught one must believe in order to celebrate Easter – the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ – and knew I’d be shunned if I let this be known.
Not to be too judgmental, but I couldn’t see how a such literal belief had much practical affect on the way folks lived in Columbus: it remained a racially segregated society in which black people always – always -got short shrift, where cotton mill owners lived in luxury and the mill workers eked out a living, and where a young military officer – who was convicted of killing 22 unarmed civilians in Viet Nam – and after a few years of house arrest, was warmly welcomed into the community and married a socially prominent young woman. While I could imagine that a belief in the literal resurrection might give one a certain kind of hope it seemed to be a compartmentalized conviction that didn’t really seem to play a discernable role in the day to day life – it did not strike me as edifying or transformative. Simply put: it generally didn’t seem to provide much spiritual traction.
What about Jesus? Who was he? The evidence we have regarding his life and ministry is that his great desire was to help people gain spiritual traction and get unstuck from the many sad, sordid, unloving realms of being. Here’s my take on him (informed by my years of study and reflection): he was a rare spiritual genius, grounded in the Jewish heritage, with exceptional creative and comedic gifts (his use of hyperbole and sarcasm is hilarious) whose life and ministry was all about empowering the powerless ones to get out of the mire of despair and sense of unworthiness, dislodging the high and mighty from their heartless, narrow minded, ruts, and leading the anxious ones out of the dismal realms of fear onto the path of trust in the ultimate goodness of life and love. Jesus wanted to help folks find some spiritual traction – to bring about the transformations that would mean that the realm of God could be realized on earth just as it is in heaven.
So how does one – how did Jesus – help these folks gain spiritual traction?
He and his twelve disciples would march into the Galilean villages like spiritual storm troopers and the cowed population submissively received their moral and ethical marching orders and set about enacting legislation that would impose their rigid morality upon everyone.
He yelled at them like a drill sergeant to strike fear in their hearts and he demanded obedience to his great spiritual authority. And he was a moral scold who upbraided his listeners to induce an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame so they’d finally get their spiritual acts together. Yes, that’s how Jesus operated. Or some seem to think so.
Or maybe not. No, Jesus had a different way that was both childlike in its simplicity and profound in its wisdom and subtlety.
Most importantly, he simply embodied his message. Which is to say, he was the authentic embodiment of a purer love than anyone he encountered had ever experienced. This love manifested in different ways in different contexts. Among the sick and the poor it manifested as radiant compassion, among tax collectors and prostitutes it manifested as forgiveness and understanding, among the rigid, intolerant upholders of the oppressive status quo it manifested as a direct challenge for them to abandon their dogmatism and hardheartedness.
Think about it – when you have contact with a beautiful soul – even if it’s only through the medium of print or story – it is transformative. Have you ever been in the presence of someone whose life in grounded in love? It lights our inner chalice. I imagine that the Jewish prophet of Galilee was a light who kindled love in the hearts of many the ones he encountered.
Yet Jesus knew that people needed something that would stick with them after he moved on to the next town. So he spoke in parables – like the parable of the sower: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What’s that parable saying? As a Southern Baptist youth I was taught a specific creedal interpretation that fit in with their dogmatic agenda and thus for years was oblivious to the subtle, memorable wisdom it contains. With parables, no one – not the theological experts or religious authorities or anyone else gets to dictate its meaning to you. Jesus told parables to offer his many listener’s their spiritual freedom to explore their own hearts. Today when I hear this parable it asks me these pointed questions: does love take root and grow when you are being hardhearted or filled with anger, hate? Nope, it doesn’t. Or when you go through daily life in heedless haste and indifference? Um, I guess not. How does it go for you when your heart and mind are enmeshed in a bramble of many cares, distractions and diversions? Not so well. To grow the seeds of love requires the deep, rich soil of those who hearts are open and accepting of both the sunshine and rain of life, who are present to the joy and wonder and challenges of daily life, who are openhearted, who feel reverence for the tender growing shoots of being that grow in daily life.
Daily life – it’s the only life we really have. We may cast our minds into the past or the future imagining that our life was or will be in those imagined realms, but the real action is here, right now. This present moment, this eternal now is where love takes root and grows. And from time to time I do remember to check in and ask myself how my daily life is going – especially because of an occupational benefit that is built into my role as minister of this congregation.
Several times a year we gather here to grieve the death and celebrate the life of a member or friend in our beloved community. Oftentimes I have known the person who has died and oftentimes I will sit with the family as we reflect on the life of the one now gone. We sit and cry and laugh and reflect and remember this precious, unique life. Invariably, what we remember is the love that took root and grew. Love takes root in so many ways in so many places. We remember those moments when she/he was lovingly, creatively, courageously, humorously, outrageously present to the moments of life. Mostly, they are the simple things that actually turn out to be the building blocks of a meaningful life. Together we create the story we will share in the memorial service.
And then we share our loving remembrances of this life– tears are shed – tears of grief because it is heartbreaking when we say goodbye to those we dearly love, but more significantly there are tears of gratitude, for when we experience profound gratitude it moves us to tears. It does. Thus we acknowledge our gratitude for the precious gift of this life, this life that we not only appreciate but that has changed us. Yes, this life has changed us because love changes us. Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church noted that “the one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.
Which begs the question – do we really go? I’ll leave my eastern religious inspired thoughts on what happens to us after we die for another day. Here, on this Easter Sunday, I think it’s more to the point to acknowledge how we don’t really leave this world when we die IF we have loved. No, for the presence of those who lived lovingly, who gave love away continues on.
Think right now of those you have known and loved who have passed beyond. Can you honestly say that they are gone, that the sum total of their lives is nada, that impact of their lives has vanished without a trace? No the lives of those who gave us love has interfused with our own life. Seeing this, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of “interbeing” and says that we “inter-are.” The notion that you live as an isolated, independent entity is an illusion and the more love a person brings into this world the more obvious this is.
Yet to Jesus’ disciples and followers it sure felt like he was dead and gone when he was crucified by the Romans, who wanted not just to kill Jesus but to stamp out all memory of him. They wanted him completely airbrushed out of the canvass as though he had never existed.
And that is how it felt to those who had loved him. It seemed that he was gone, pure and simple.
Now when seeds are planted underground you can’t see them. It’s as though nothing at all is there. And in our moments of grief and loss, seeing nothing of love’s legacy you could despair. Jesus’ followers did.
Now Jesus didn’t just plant one or two seeds of love in his life. He served as the embodiment of pure love prodigiously planting the strong, healthy seeds of love in so many receptive hearts. Yet in their time of grief they forgot about those seeds germinating so deep down within their hearts.
One day, a tender shoot broke through the seemingly barren soil and some began to murmur – “love has risen.” At first most questioned this, but the next day and the next, new shoots appeared and soon they all came into full blossom. That spiritual life force, that sublime love which has animated Jesus’ life and ministry had not died. It was within them and among them. They realized that the revolutionary ministry of radical love which Jesus had now set their hearts on fire.
It was a transformative moment, but not just a transformative moment that happened once upon a time long ago. If we live in this world with open hearts the seeds of love take root. This love bursts forth into life. Love resurrects in our hearts generation after generation. This is how I make meaning of the story of the resurrection and the celebration of Easter. It gives me the spiritual traction to go out and love, and it makes no distinctions – it includes everyone – Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, agnostic, pagan, atheist – for love is for everybody. Easter – it’s the celebration of the ongoing resurrection, rebirth, renewal and restoration of love in our world – a world in which it often seems that love has been killed and hate and fear now rule our lives. Easter affirms that no matter how long it takes, or how daunting the odds – the love that shuns or excludes no soul wins. Love wins because our hearts are meant to love.