Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 27 March 2016
I appreciate the challenge of holidays like Easter that are emotionally and spiritually charged. These are the moments when we have to face our own internal struggles: Which words of the hymn do we choose to sing? “Lo, the earth awakes again” or “Jesus Christ has risen today”? At least the “hallelujahs” stay the same.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Easter if I didn’t begin with the tradition of telling this classic story:
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 that people outside of this community do ask me, “Why would Unitarians celebrate Easter?”
It’s hard not to stammer for a moment. No, I don’t tell them that we praise the return of spring and avoid that Jesus thing. I say it’s really about our Christian roots. Sometimes they frown at me like I’m crazy. You should see the reaction when I tell them that this particular Unitarian Universalist church, unlike most, has a tradition of celebrating communion twice a year. “Communion?” some ask in shock.
“It’s a way of honouring our ancestors,” I say.
“Uh huh, sure,” they respond, looking even more uncomfortable.
It can be hard — even embarrassing — to put these things into context for the person asking. We’re like the free-spirited child that has left home, never to look back, until one day we mature enough to return for a visit, seeking those things that are of value in our family of origin. Homecomings are not easy for all of us but, as psychologists often say, it’s a healthy thing to do.
So, here I am, making my annual disclaimer. I keep thinking a year will come when I won’t feel I need to do this. But for those who don’t know my story, I feel I have to offer some context before I can really talk about the meaning of this day. My personal roots are both Jewish and also Christian, thanks to one grandmother, my father’s mother, who was a Ukrainian Catholic. Completely out of character for the 1920s, she married my grandfather who was Jewish. My grandmother’s choice was a big scandal in her family, a risk I’m grateful she took.
Every year I place a bowl in the middle of our dining-room table filled with pysanky, the Ukrainian Easter eggs, that I make in my grandmother’s honour. Right now, the table is covered with jars of dye, wax tools and eggs that I’m going to have to remove in time for tonight’s dinner. Each egg takes hours of concentration and discipline. Woven into each design is my own search for connection to a line of ancestors I know almost nothing about, except that they lived, they toiled, they made mistakes, they laughed, cried and loved. Out of that love, somehow, I emerged, inheriting a legacy I have yet to unravel.
I grew up celebrating Passover, not Easter, and when Passover rolls around this year, I’ll honour the other side of my family, adorning the Seder plate that was a gift to my mother. This Jewish-Christian background is the legacy that I bring to this day, as each of you brings your own spiritual legacy, your own joy, clarity, ambivalence or discomfort.
So, why are we celebrating Easter? Even though we have evolved into something broader, our Unitarian Universalist tradition grew out of two particular branches of Christianity. How we approach this day is central to our story. As far back as the 16th Century in Europe, Unitarians rejected the idea of Jesus as God, but they still saw themselves as Christians. Jesus was a great teacher, they would say, a model to follow, as close to divine as any human could aspire to become. On the other side of the family, the Universalists rejected the idea of a punishing God who would damn those who didn’t accept Christianity. They spoke of Jesus as the divine teacher who taught love above all things.
Both branches of our family tree were more concerned with the religion of Jesus than the religion about Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus was not what mattered. It was Jesus as he lived, what he taught as he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, as he spoke of the poor who would inherit the earth, as he spoke of a kingdom of God that could exist on earth, as he challenged those without sin to cast the first stone, as he called for forgiveness and love — not only of one’s neighbour —but also of one’s enemy.
Yes, I know, there’s plenty of research that questions the actual existence of Jesus. Scholars of the Jesus Institute gather regularly to debate what is real and what isn’t in the search for the historical Jesus. If you choose to take the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John as literal historic record, you will be disappointed. There are many internal inconsistencies just between these four gospels. After all, the first was written at least 50 years or more after Jesus is said to have lived, in a tradition that began by passing its spoken memories from generation to generation. Who knows what got lost in translation when the gospels were finally written down?.
Keep in mind that it took nearly four hundred years for the Church (which became the Catholic Church) to finalize which texts would become the Christian Bible. There were dozens of gospels they could have chosen that were written during the early centuries of Christianity, each telling its own story. Some passages are similar, and some are vastly different. If you are looking for scientific proof of what Jesus actually said or did, good luck!
But does it matter whether one man named Jesus really lived? Does it matter if he might actually have been several prophets who lived some two thousand and sixteen years ago, who were crying out for social justice in tumultuous times? What matters to me are the parts of this man’s story we can choose to hold onto, the parts of this legacy that we can rightfully and proudly claim as being part of who we have become.
This month, we’ve been focusing on the theme of discipline. It’s one of those words that has several very distinct definitions. There’s discipline as in punishment. You punch your brother and your parents discipline you by sending you to your room without supper. There’s discipline as self-control or as mastery over something that is difficult to master: a meditation practice; writing poetry; playing an instrument, or perfecting your skill as a professional dancer. There’s also discipline as a set of moral rules to be followed, a code of moral behaviour to be learned.
The root of the word discipline, itself, comes from the Latin for instruction or knowledge. From discipline comes the word disciple. Jesus had twelve disciples — well, maybe more than twelve, including several women, if you read the alternative gospels that got rejected by the Church. To be a disciple is to follow the teachings of one person, to follow because you are inspired to live your life according to his or her moral code. Whether Jesus is real or not, there is a moral code that speaks to us from the gospels.
If you read the gospels, it can sometimes feel as though Jesus is yelling at us like a stern father, disciplining us for our behaviour. He speaks in parables, verbal puzzles, about the growing disconnect between a Judaism that he felt needed to be focused on the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour, and the surrounding Roman culture that was pulling everything into its cruel vortex.
In the Gospel of Luke, you find the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. Someone says to Jesus, “You say I should love my neighbour, but who is my neighbour?” Jesus answers by telling a story of a man wounded by robbers lying on the side of the road on the way to Jericho. Two respected figures of his community pass him by, ignoring his suffering. Finally, a Samaritan, a member of the most hated ethnic group of the time, tends to the man, lifting him out of the street, bringing him to shelter and paying for his care. Which of these three was the neighbour to the wounded man? Jesus asks. “The one who showed him mercy,” answers the questioner. “Go and do likewise.” Jesus instructs.
Nowadays, we think of this story as a cliché. But, believe me, this is at the core of our tradition that today speaks of the inherent worth and dignity of every person — every person. Even our enemies. Think how hard that is for us to live right now.
We are living in what feels like one of the most challenging times ever. Even if social historians tell us that we actually live in the most statistically peaceful time in recorded history, that doesn’t mean much to us. How can it when we hear news, almost daily, of suicide bombings, of devastating war, of refugees stranded and waiting for asylum all over the world? How can we feel comforted when we hear US presidential candidates who incite anger and violence and speak of building walls between neighbours, of keeping all Muslims out of the country and killing the families of terrorists? We look across our borders and half-jokingly, half-nervously, ask if we too will be building walls to keep our neighbours out.
We hear stories of young people who have lost their way in the world, who go seeking a kind of rigid discipline in their lives that they hope will bring them meaning and glory. ISIS calls and they go in search of something that is missing . We see communities of anger rising up, seething in disappointment whether because of a long history of colonial oppression, high unemployment rates or the suppression of religious expression. We fear the religious fervour that gets channeled into suicide bombs.
How can we possibly love the neighbour we fear? If we dig deeply into our roots, this is exactly what we are called to do, to wrestle with this challenge, to search for solutions to what ails the world by keeping the Good Samaritan in mind. Not because he was good, but because he was the one we were supposed to fear the most. It is too easy for us to believe that the violent actions of a few represent an entire people.
“Leaders speak to people’s guts, not to their minds,” one journalist recently wrote, reflecting on that US presidential candidate I spoke of earlier, whose name I refuse to say out loud. We can demonize his followers, or we can look more deeply at the hopelessness that lies beneath the anger. The same is true for the suicide bombers in Belgium, Iraq, Nigeria, and beyond. We may not be able to forgive their actions, but we do have to ask ourselves how our faith calls us to respond.
On this Easter morning, I wish I could offer you an answer to all that ails the world. I don’t think there are any quick or easy solutions. But my job as a minister is to send you home with some hope, maybe just a little bit of “upsy-daisy", if you’ll forgive me.
Out of the darkness of winter, what is the spring that revives you? Do you stand on the sidelines deliberating, procrastinating, staying outside of the fray, our do you choose to roll up your sleeves, to get engaged, to plant the seeds, to reach out, to have courage to overcome what you fear? Do you allow yourself to dream?
In the end, it’s the life you choose to live, the example you choose to follow. I have so much hope when I see the courage people have to sponsor Syrian refugees. Just this week a woman appeared at our door with a bag of new towels, enough for the family of nine we are sponsoring. She didn't leave her name or ask for a tax receipt. “The sales receipts are in the bag,” she said. “Exchange whatever you need to exchange, if these aren't the right thing.” It was a small gesture, but a gesture of love and faith that we are trying to do the right thing.
In Jordan, a Muslim family of nine is waiting to join us here. They ask our interpreter, “Who are these people in a church? Will they try to convert us?” “Don’t worry,” the interpreter responds. “I can promise you that they are simply generous people.” The family answers back, “It’s so amazing. They don’t know us and yet they are willing to do all this for us. We had given up hope and here they are, waiting for us.”
It takes a certain discipline to follow your conscience, to open your heart and your doors to the very stranger you are being told to fear. It takes courage for that stranger to trust that your hospitality comes without expectations. That’s love. That’s hope. That’s a life lived.
We can be disciples of what is best in the example of Jesus; the example that inspired our forebears to build this church community.
Hold onto that powerful light of welcoming, of willingness to offer hospitality to the stranger. Because that is who we can be in this world. That is the flower that blooms even on the coldest Easter morning. We have to keep coming back to this place of promising each other that we will encourage the best that lives within us.
Go and do likewise.
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