Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert for Easter Sunday, 5 April 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio file for this sermon)
We sing of hopes undaunted, of friendly ways and kind. We sing the roses waiting beneath the deep-piled snows…
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882
I’m sure I’ve told this joke every Easter. So, I guess it wouldn’t be Easter if I didn’t tell it. A visitor drives into town on Easter morning. The first church he passes has a sign in front that says "Christ is Victorious over Death: He is Risen!" Then he passes the Unitarian Church with its own sign announcing the theme of the day: “Upsy-Daisy!”
It’s true. We Unitarians will do just about anything not to talk about death and resurrection, except when it comes to celebrating the death of winter and the rebirth of flowers in the spring. For years I have fought that temptation - which is crazy because over the many years that I’ve participated in Unitarian congregations, most have avoided these topics. And me, the nice Jewish girl from a nice secular Jewish family that thought that talking about Jesus (let alone saying his name) was totally taboo, I’m the one who keeps insisting that we have to go there.
The way I see it, we have to confront our relationship with this rabbi named Jesus at least once a year. It has been a long time since many Unitarians have distanced themselves from Christianity, yet our roots are still Christian. The Easter story, as it is interpreted by many Christians around the world, is also a story that defines us, whether we like it or not. For our ancestors and for many of us today, what has mattered to us is not how Jesus was born or how he died, but how he lived. In other words, we’ve seen ourselves as the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus.
But this year, as we’re coming out of one of the coldest winters on record, spring seems to be refusing to assert itself. It snowed yesterday, on April 4th! Hats, gloves, winter coats, will we ever be free? I’m starting to feel as though it’s finally time for an Upsy-Daisy sermon. Maybe that’s what we need today: a message of reassurance that out of the dark and cold, new life does emerge. Maybe that’s we need to get us through this day.
Maybe the weather has finally worn me down. But no, I can’t give in… Not entirely…
Awakening. That’s the theme of this month. Awakening, a word that brings the Buddha to mind. With Moses and Jesus? Oy vey. Where to begin? Moses, Buddha and Jesus walk into a bar… A good beginning to a joke… but I haven’t got the punch line yet. So I’m asking you to suspend any serious knowledge you may have, to listen to three stories in isolation. I don’t know where the allegory ends and truth begins in these stories, but I do know that they can give us surprising glimpses into our own humanity.
Let’s say that this first story may have happened some 3,500 or so years ago in the land of Egypt. A boy named Moses is born at the wrong time, a time when the midwives have been ordered to put all the newborn sons of his people to death. Yet he survives and his mother sends him down the river in a woven basket. The Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him as her own child. He grows up to be a man with a temper, a man who stutters and can barely speak for himself. In a moment of rage, he kills a guard and escapes into the wilderness. He’s taken in by a family with many daughters and before he can catch his breath, he’s married and tending his father-in-law’s sheep.
Then one day, as he’s chasing after a lamb, he encounters a bush that is burning but is not consumed by the flames. A voice calls to him and tells him to take off his sandals for he is standing on holy ground. “Go back and liberate your people from slavery,” he is told.
“But who am I to do this?” Moses asks. “I haven’t any skills of persuasion. I’m slow of tongue. No one will believe I’m speaking for you.” What follows is a long argument with God. Moses has an excuse for everything. “What about this? What about that?” And God has a response for everything. “Show them this trick, show them that trick. They’ll believe you. Trust me.” Moses, the most reluctant leader, standing before a burning bush, finally agrees. He takes the assignment and he leads the Israelites out of slavery and into the wilderness for 40 years — while, admittedly, his people complain constantly. Yet when the time comes, as he awaits his own death, he comes to a place where he can see the promised land.
Let’s say this second story happens a thousand years later in India. The Buddha begins his life as a young prince raised in luxury. He is deeply troubled by the meaning of life. Why live? Why die? Are we here to fill ourselves with good food, to know only pleasure, to live with total ease? Are we here to become powerful, to rule over others? Or is there something beyond that, something more fulfilling, something more real? He leaves his wealth, his family, his wife and his only child behind in search of answers. He renounces everything he has, and for six years he chooses the path of an ascetic, submitting his body to extreme pain, hunger and suffering, in hopes of finding an answer. Nearly at death’s door, he wakes up to the realization that truth cannot be found through extreme suffering any more than it can be found in a life of luxury. The answer must come through a middle way.
After bringing himself back to health, the prince sits down beneath the Bodhi Tree and tells himself that he will not move until he has found the answer he seeks. He meditates into the night, going deeper and deeper into a state of calm and peace. He witnesses past lives, until he can see all truth, all reality. He arises the next day, and he has become the Awakened One, the Buddha.
This third story happens 500 years or so after Buddha, in the land we now know as Israel/Palestine. Jesus is a son born into a humble life, who grows into a man seeking answers to the injustices of his time. He sees the poor, the disenfranchised, the widow and even the tax collector as victims of the system that has engulfed them all and he speaks out for love of the least and the lost. But before he begins on the path that will lead to his own trial and death, before he begins his journey to lead the masses to a kingdom of heaven on earth, he is tested. For forty days, he searches his soul in the wilderness. The devil takes him to the highest mountain, the pinnacle of the world, and shows him the splendours of the world. “All this will be yours,” he is told. “Just bow down and worship me.” Jesus answers, “You’re not the one I’ll serve,” and the devil disappears. It’s then that Jesus steps into his role as liberator.
These are the three images I want you to hold in your mind: Moses standing before the burning bush, Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree, and Jesus in the wilderness. Three moments of awakening. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.”
I’m wondering if, in order to awaken, you must first realize that you’ve been asleep? Maybe that’s the common thread in all three stories. Moses is sleepwalking through his life until, one day, the shock of a voice speaking from a burning bush forces him to wake up to realize he’s called to liberate his people. Jesus has to exile himself to the desert, he has to refuse the temptation of unearned luxury and power, before he awakens to fulfill the call of his life to liberate his people.
Buddha escapes luxury and then misery, going through the motions of one and then the other. It’s only when he allows himself to seek a middle path between sensuous selfishness and self-inflicted suffering that he awakens out of his sleep. He finds deep compassion in his heart and comes to realize that he is called to liberate humanity from suffering.
It’s rare to meet a Buddha, Christ or Moses in our lives. It’s rare that any one of us would wake up to realize we were called to lead our community into freedom, let alone lead humanity into freedom. But surely each of us has experienced some moment of awakening in our lives — on a smaller scale.
I haven’t encountered any burning bushes, no devil has tried to test me by taking me up to the highest pinnacle to offer me power and wealth, and I’ve yet to find a Bodhi Tree where I could reach a consistent level of calm in my meditation. But I have known dark days that have led to new and beautiful paths that I never could have found without the darkness.
I have known what it is to find my heart entombed, my mind enslaved, and my equilibrium lost. I have known what it is like to believe that winter will never come and that roses will never bloom again. I have known what it is like to resist the path that I knew I was called to take. I have known what is like to convince myself I wasn’t worthy. Yet I can promise you that spring does come, sometimes at a cost, but it does come. For me, awakening arrived through a practice of meditation and prayer, and through a better understanding of my own place within my family history.
I think that each of these moments in the stories of Moses, Buddha and Jesus point to the deepest struggles in being human. That’s what makes them so amazing and so worth the retelling. These are ancient stories that speak to our personal and cultural struggles today. We find ourselves unworthy. We find ourselves tempted by things that we know don’t fit our values. We find ourselves fluctuating between the selfish and the self-harming.
Maybe for us, Easter is not the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The lesson of his life will always say more to us, a lesson of universal love that I have hardly touched upon this day. But maybe, we can allow for a kind of death and resurrection that takes us from sleeping through our lives to being fully awake. Sometimes we need that sleep before we can have the strength to accomplish what we have been called to do.
So, if the roses are still buried beneath the deep-piled snows, have no fear. The earth is simply nurturing them to be more glorious than ever.I promise you, that day will come.
Amen. Blessed be. Namaste.