Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 1 April 2018
Easter, Passover, April Fool’s (Poisson d’avril), the first Sunday in a month focused on the theme of curiosity, my very first day back after a three-month sabbatical. I’ve got nothing... You can go home now… April Fools!
But seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this dream on a Saturday night that I’m standing in some very strange sanctuary and I discover that I’m supposed to preach and I have no manuscript, no notes, no clue about what I’m supposed to say. I stand in terrified silence, desperately searching through random papers. “What do I say? What do I say?” By the time I finally start to speak, everyone has given up and left the sanctuary.
Here’s what I ask myself as I actually stand here, each year, on this Sunday: How many hearts are broken or aching? How many hungry souls are in desperate need for something to chew on for the rest of the week? Do you need some sort of Unitarian Easter salvation or some way to be reborn? Do you need Passover liberation? Do you need a dose of Jesus or Moses, or are you hoping for me to finally do that upsy-daisy sermon I’ve threatened to do for years? Do you need to laugh like holy fools at the absurd times we live in? Or do you just need space to let your mind wander? I’m not standing here hoping to please everyone — I gave up on that years ago. But I’m truly curious to know if you struggle as I do on this Sunday. Do you ask yourself what it is that you really believe about life, about death, about rebirth and renewal? Do you wrestle with the angels or the devils of your past?
Every year I offer this disclaimer for those who don’t know my story. My personal roots are both Jewish and also Christian, thanks to one grandmother 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. I grew up identifying as ethnically Jewish, but there was always a part of me that was strongly connected to my grandmother, even though her side of the family saw us as an unfortunate mistake.
This afternoon, when my family gathers for Easter dinner I’ll be displaying the Ukrainian Easter eggs I’ve made this year. We’ll be eating matzoh ball soup as we recount to my grandson for the first time the Passover story of the Jews’ exodus out of Egypt. He’s too young too young to follow, but it’s a start, and maybe he’ll enjoy singing Dayenu. My non-Jewish husband has jokingly asked if he could serve ham this year. “Not on your life,” I tell him. “Then how about pork roast?” he asks. (No way… Not gonna happen!)
Every year I offer the same disclaimer because, if this is the only day of the year that you find yourself here in this sanctuary (except maybe on Christmas Eve?), then I want to be sure you know that you are welcome here with your questions and your longings, your frustrations, or your feelings of “I don’t know why I got dragged to this Easter service.”
But really, Easter, Passover, and April Fool’s all on the same day? The last time Easter fell on April 1st was in 1956, which also coincided with the eight days of Passover. The next time will be 2029, then 2040 and then not again for the rest of the century. So what are we supposed to do with this strange confluence? We could talk about the verbal jokes that Jesus made — you probably didn’t know that he had a sense of humour or that the King James translation takes away a lot of the bite from the original Greek. We could talk about Moses who stood before the burning bush, saying to God, “You’ve got to be kidding. I can’t possibly stand up to the Pharaoh. I can’t say a single word without stuttering. You must think this is some celestial joke.” We could talk about the Holy Fools in the ancient and Medieval Christian tradition who gave up all their possessions, I mean all their possessions, to wander naked demonstrating the depth of their faith.
But this is literally my first day back after a three-month sabbatical and, I confess, my own heart and mind are still caught somewhere in the mists and mountains of Nepal where I spent a good chunk of my time away. I stand here looking at my mother’s Passover Seder plate that I’ve set beside the historic John Cordner communion silver from the 1800s which belongs to this congregation. (I’m a little worried that Rev. Cordner may be rolling in his grave about this — but I like to believe that he was more open to interfaith connections than most of his contemporaries.) I look at these symbols and I realize that, hey, Nepal fits perfectly into the mix.
In February my beloved and I flew to Kathmandu, to the capital of Nepal, to attend a weeklong gathering of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. We then travelled with Nepali friends for another two weeks, up into the mountains towards China and down into the valley towards India. Nepal is this overwhelming, mystical place, a place of flat plains in the south that merge into steep hills that become the gateway to the world’s tallest mountains in the north, the majestic Himalayas that were hidden by smog for much of the time we were there. Yet you feel their presence and when they appear, you realize why the Nepali people have always revered them as sacred.
In ancient times Nepal was a major crossroads on the Silk Road, bringing together peoples, languages, cultures and beliefs. It was a place where merchants and traders would often find themselves stuck for months, often half the year, unable to travel on. In the south, the monsoons would flood the rivers blocking the passage to India. In the north, snowstorms in the mountains would make it impossible to journey across the passes into Tibet. Nature or the gods forced diverse cultures to forge a new reality together. Hindus and Buddhists mingled with each other and local indigenous traditions, shaping each faith into its own unique Nepali version. Later, they would be joined by small populations of Christians and Muslims. But Nepalis are quick to remind you that they were never colonized.
Today, wherever you go, you’ll find Hindu Gods guarding Buddhist temples, and Buddhist bodhisattvas adorning Hindu temples. Everything is a lively, chaotic blend of everything else, marked with bright red tikka, a paste of rice and vermillion dye that’s spread on the statues of gods and buddhas and on the foreheads of the faithful and the not so faithful.
It’s beautiful, it’s mysterious, but it’s far from perfect. As my Nepali friend said to me one day after she had gone into the temple to be anointed with a red tikka on her forehead, “Going into the temple, going to church, it’s nice. It makes you feel good.” Her faith was both very traditional and deeply private. But, she told me, she also felt anger toward the priests who constrained the rights of women, who limited what they could do and when, who barred them from many temples and many practices. She said wistfully to me, “We’re a long way from having women priests.”
Still, as I witnessed this blending of traditions, I thought of us, the Unitarians, the Unitarian Universalists. I thought of my own journey, of my continuing struggle to reconcile this day, of trying to weave together the strands of my own roots of Judaism and Christianity.
During the ICUU conference, I was invited to be one of three keynote speakers. I joined Rupaia Lamar of the Unitarian Union of Northeast India, in the Khasi Hills (where there have been Unitarians since the 1890s), and Rev. Rácz Norbert Zsolt (everyone calls him Norbie), of the Hungarian Unitarian Church, (representing Transylvania and Hungary where there have been Unitarians since the 16th century). Then there was me, representing North America, (where there have been Unitarians and Universalists since at least the 19th century). We were asked to speak about theology and the heart of our own UU faith, how it plays out in each of our lives.
I spoke of my faith journey, of weaving together two central prayers from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Rupaia spoke of life in the Khasi Hills, of the weaving together of indigenous traditions with Christianity — tempered by a Universalist message of salvation. Norbie spoke of the long thread of the Hungarian-Transylvanian Christian Unitarian tradition which for more than 450 years, has rejected the divinity of Jesus and upheld the unity of God.
Later in the conference, Norbie proclaimed Kolozsvár, the capital of Transylvania, as the Jerusalem of Unitarianism. It was a playful statement, but he meant it.
Ellen, a young, vibrant and brilliant leader from Indonesia said, “I’m sorry, but you are not Jerusalem for us. We figured out this faith on our own, with no contact with the West until now.” We all laughed with her., for her courage and her direct truth.
Norbie also said, that all of us, as Unitarians, have a unifying message, quoting the Gospel of Mark: “Love your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul, and with all your strength…and love your neighbour as yourself.”
I didn’t get a chance to respond, but if I had, I would have argued with Norbie as well. Even though the core of Judaism and Christianity speaks to me and is part of my own expression of Unitarian Universalism, I don’t think it is the central message that unites us. Not as he expressed it. Many of our Western European and North American members would take exception to the idea of love of God as our unifying message. Love maybe. God, not necessarily so much. As an international religious movement, we have many differences. We are not fully unified in our beliefs. We have no dogma, no creed, no test of faith. Yet what binds us together is our openness, our curiosity about the other, our willingness to stay engaged, and, yes, our love for each other, even when our theologies are not a perfect match.
After having spent an intense week talking about my own faith with U/Us from around the world (the US, Canada, Europe, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Burundi, Rwanda and elsewhere), and as we found ourselves in Nepal surrounded by the chaotic mash-up of Hindu and Buddhist temples, here’s what I came away thinking: We can take this life much too much for granted. Too often, we can walk around in a stupor, just going through the daily motions of life. But if we are to be saved; if we are to be liberated; if we are to be renewed or reborn, then we have work to do. We each have a responsibility to build our own theology. What I’m saying is, be curious! Figure out what it is that you believe.
Whatever it is that you find yourself weaving together on this day, make sure it has integrity. Make sure you can express your values to yourself, to your family, to your children or your grandchildren. If you can’t, then you know where your journey toward renewal has to begin. If the dearly held beliefs of your past don’t allow for love or for your own well-being then you know where your journey toward rebirth has to begin. If the deeply ingrained beliefs of your present don’t allow for the well-being of others, then you know where your journey toward liberation has to begin. You don’t have to become a holy fool. You don’t have to give up everything, but you may need to change something.
The buds of promise are waking up to life again on winter trees. As the young rebbe, Jesus of Nazareth, once said, as Moses might have said on his way out of the desert, “Go forth and do likewise.”
Amen. Blessed Be. And in true Nepali intonation, Namas
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