Water, Wine, Loaves and Fishes: An Easter Service (Full Audio Available)

Sunday, April 21st, 2019
Rev. Diane Rollert, with music by Sandra Hunt, Gary Russell, the Phoenix Community Choir, led by Eleuthera Diconca-Lippert and guests

“Do you celebrate Easter?” my interfaith colleagues ask as we work together to build a coalition to protect individual expression and religious freedom here. Being a Unitarian Universalist, I sometimes feel like an odd fish in this kettle of religious leaders. I know many of you get the same kind of questions. “What are you? What do you believe?”

I come from a mixed family background. Three of my grandparents were Eastern European Jews who fled persecution by immigrating to North America, and my one Ukrainian Catholic grandmother came here after her father fled to the New World to avoid being drafted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

When I was a young child, my parents sent me to synagogue and Hebrew school even though they were atheists. I grew up celebrating Passover Seders like the one we had here on Friday night. At Easter time, I marvelled at the beautiful and mysterious Ukrainian Easter eggs that decorated my grandmother’s apartment. At this time of year, of Passover and Easter, I really feel the depth of my contrasting roots. I grew up to be an odd fish, indeed.

 I guess it doesn’t hurt for me to repeat what I say every year at Easter and Passover. Unitarian Universalism is a place where I can hold onto everything in my past, including my love for Jewish ritual, and still explore the other side of who I am by daring to consider the teachings of Jesus.

 Frankly, Easter Sunday is always a challenge for us Unitarian Universalists, and it wouldn’t be Easter if I didn’t share this classic joke. If you know it, you can shout the punchline with me (but wait for it…).

A visitor drives into town and sees two church signs announcing the sermon for that Easter Sunday.  The one in front of the Anglican Church says, "Christ Is Victorious over Death: He Is Risen!" while the one in front of the Unitarian Church says (now say it with me!), “Upsy-Daisy!”

Long ago I made a pact with myself that I would not shy away from talking about Jesus on Easter Sunday. Even if we have moved away from our Christian roots, they are still our roots. If you transplant a tree without its roots, it either dies or it grows new roots out of the same genetic material. Our roots are ours to recognize, to gather nourishment with which to sustain our lives and who we are as a community.

 Our historical family is a blended family. The Unitarian branch came into being in the 1500s, at the time of the Reformation. The printing press made it possible for people outside of the elites to read the Bible for themselves. What our ancestors found was a story of Jesus the great teacher, the great rabbi, who preached the sermon on the mount, who called out for justice for all people, who described a kingdom of heaven here on earth.

 Our ancestors found no evidence of a trinity, no evidence of a messiah who was father, son and Holy Spirit. Instead of original sin and human depravation, they found humanity created in the likeness of God, filled with the potential of beauty and goodness.

Our ancestors deliberately rejected dogma. They fought for the right of individuals to decide for themselves what they believed — and this was a blasphemous idea. Our ancestors were branded heretics and called the greatest of all insults: “Unitarians” — because they believed in the unity of God. Hundreds of years later, we would proudly claim that insult as our name.

In the 1700s the Universalist branch of our family tree rejected the idea of a punishing God that would condemn much of the world to hell for not converting to Christianity or not being a good enough Christian. In the words of John Murray, one of the earliest Universalist preachers in North America, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”  The Universalists believed in universal salvation, that a loving God would save all people and condemn no one to eternal hell.   

The two branches of our family tree, the Unitarians and the Universalists, merged in 1961, but we had long been moving toward each other as our principles of freedom of thought and social justice brought us closer together. In time, the Christian aspect of who we were faded into the background as Unitarian Universalism became a place where each person could build their own theology and understanding of the sacred. 

We became a home for many who had been wounded by past religious experiences. For many years, this meant dropping all religious language, often letting go of all mention of God and hiding our roots. Today, that still remains a challenge for us. We try to create an environment where a whole range of beliefs are welcome, but for those who feel strongly atheist, prayers and "amens" are jarring. Yet for those who crave a deeper relationship to God, we sanitize our words too often. As your minister, I live between those two extremes, trying to hold it all together. If I’m frustrating both groups equally, then I probably have the right balance.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, our ancestors moved toward a more rational way of interpreting the world. They found the miracles of Jesus to be a stumbling block. What mattered to them was the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus. They valued what Jesus taught and how he lived his human life, not his miracles or his death and resurrection.

In the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson, who had Unitarian leanings (sometimes we claim him as our own — lately, not so much), created the famous Jefferson Bible, by removing all the miracles and anything that wasn’t founded in rational thought from what Christians call the New Testament. That austere approach still persists in some UU circles today. But as time goes by, I’m meeting newer generations of Unitarian Universalists who are more drawn to mystery and wonder, and they are craving exposure to ritual and the language of reverence.

The Christian Bible includes four different accounts of the life of Jesus: the gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. But in fact, there were dozens of gospels written during the first couple of centuries after the death of Jesus, and there have been millennia of debate over the historical existence of Jesus. Whether or not a single person named Jesus actually lived, the gospels are filled with rich and fascinating accounts that try to establish Jesus as someone far beyond your typical human being.

Water into wine, a few loaves and fishes transformed into nourishment for multitudes. These are metaphors that we often invoke. In the Gospel of John, there’s this very strange account of Jesus as a guest at a wedding where the wine has run out. His mother, presumably Mary, tells him to do something. He seems almost rude, like a sullen teenage son. “What do you want from me, Mom? It’s not my time yet.” And then he does what she asks. Jesus turns water into wine, and the steward commends the bridegroom for saving the best for last. “Others bring out the cheap stuff at the end of the party,” says the steward, “but you’ve brought us the best.”

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke there are several accounts of Jesus transforming a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish into enough food to serve thousands.  The disciples tell Jesus that the people are starving. “Hand me those loaves and the fish you have,” he says, and, next thing they know, everyone has been fed. In one account Jesus feeds 4000. In another he feeds 5000, not counting all the women and children. Does this happen on the same day, at the same event, or on a different day? Who knows?

 Each of these stories stands on its own as a brief account of yet another miraculous thing Jesus has done. These are stories that have become part of our language. When we face a challenge and someone manages to turn it around, we joke that they turned water into wine. When too many guests arrive for a meal and we manage to feed them all, we invoke the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  

You can find plenty of interpretations of these stories. For many Christians, these are miracles that are proof that Jesus is the son of God, who has come to die for their sins. For others, these are metaphors for the leadership skills of a man who knew how to bring food to those who were most hungry, and drink to those who were most thirsty. The food and the wine were perhaps metaphors themselves for much-needed hope and wisdom in times of spiritual and physical drought.

So can we, as Unitarian Universalists, claim these stories for ourselves, as we consider what it means to transform our lives or the world around us?

I love the retelling of the story of the loaves and fishes that you heard earlier, written by my colleague Rev. Barbara Fast. There’s nothing to eat, and then it suddenly becomes clear that the crowd has plenty to share. Loaves of bread and cooked fish that have been hidden in their cloaks, pouches and baskets are shared out. The multitudes succeed in feeding each other. All they needed was a leader to call them to their best selves. Isn’t this what we need today?  

We need to free ourselves from today’s Pharaohs who play upon fear and hatred. We need transformative leaders who help us to see the best in humanity, who call us to care for each other. This is the message I wish I could shout to the wider world.

 For many Christians, the Gospel points to resurrection and everlasting life after death through the acceptance of Christ as the saviour. If that’s what you believe, may you rejoice in this day, as long as you don’t condemn others who don’t share your beliefs.

For me, I rejoice in the example of a leader and a teacher who understood the transforming power of equality, kindness, and radical welcome for the marginalized and oppressed. Even for Unitarian Universalists today, it’s worth asking what Jesus would have done in the face of the many injustices we see now. Where are the leaders who bring the best of themselves to share at the end of the evening? Where are the ones who are willing to feed the many out of whatever they have?

Yes, spring is a time of renewal. The buds return on the stark branches of the trees. Warm green life emerges out of the cold and fallow soil. But I ask you to consider more. Consider letting your thinking, being and doing be transformed on this day. May this Easter Day be a reminder that we must and can transform ourselves through a loving generosity of spirit. May we let our deepest cynicism be replaced by hope. May we begin here and now by sharing what we are able to share, and may we call upon our leaders to sow love instead of hatred.

 After our service ends today, all those who wish to stay are invited to share in an optional,  simple communion with me: a tradition that’s been observed by this congregation for at least 176 years. Communion was not part of the tradition I grew up with, yet I always find this experience deeply moving. This year, as we share bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus the teacher, I will be thinking of the transformative power of radical welcome to all, of wine (or grape juice) that can quench the thirst of many guests, and the bread (gluten free) that can expand to feed multitudes. I will do this with love for you, my community, and for this place I call home. I will do this for the world that needs just and loving leaders, now more than ever.

Amen. Blessed be. Namaste.

- Rev. Diane