Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 20 April 2014
Here’s a story for you, or maybe a scene to imagine. A young woman and her partner are sitting in the pews of a Unitarian church on an Easter morning. It is her first time ever at an Easter service. In fact, in her 24 years of life, she’s rarely stepped inside a church, except this particular church to get married several months before. The sanctuary feels a bit oppressive to her; the pews carved in dark wood, the exterior walls adorned with Tiffany stained glass windows. If the biblical stories the windows portray are different from those in other churches, she wouldn’t know. All of this is much too new and strange to her.
The minister, a man in his 70s, is carefully laying out a dry but reasoned case against the resurrection of Jesus. To assume that you know what happens after death is blasphemy, he tells the congregation. “Blasphemy against God,” he says. The young woman’s partner sits upright in his seat. He is following every word.
“What the heck is this guy talking about?” she wonders, as her mind begins to wander. Her mind settles on the question that always arises when she isn’t otherwise occupied. “What am I doing with my life?” She can feel a gaping hole spreading inside her gut, a feeling of emptiness that needs to be filled, but with what? Food? Wine? Money? Recognition?
She knows nothing of resurrection. Hers is story of Exodus. Exile, exclusion, wandering in the desert, these things she knows and understands. What she longs for is a home for her heart and soul, a place where she can feel she belongs, a place where she can speak about those moments of emptiness. A place where she can share those moments when her heart is bursting with fullness, melting out through her arms, reaching out beyond the known and the spoken, into something more, into something that she dare not try to explain to her co-workers or to her family.
After the service, she and her partner walk home, the sun shining bright on the spring’s first daffodils. Her partner is soaring with the inspiration of what he has heard. “What courage that minister had to speak so boldly and so brilliantly,” he says. “You would never have heard that in the church of my childhood. It was amazing,” he enthuses. But she feels like a stranger in a strange land, relieved to step out of the darkness into the light. What she would have given to have felt moved that morning.
So many years have gone by since that first Easter service, my first experience of an Easter service. So many years later, and I am the minister in the pulpit, something I would never have imagined doing – or wanted to do – back then. Now, here I am, struggling every Easter with the same question. How do I address a holiday that challenges me as a Unitarian? This is the week of the year when I find myself leading a Passover Seder one night and serving Easter communion a few mornings later. I’ve told you my story before, the granddaughter of a Ukrainian Catholic and the rest of my family Jews. As I jokingly say each year, I’m still waiting to be struck by lightning as I raise that communion cup.
You know the old joke about the visitor driving into town on an 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 the sign that says “Upsy-Daisy!”
So here it is, my annual disclaimer. I just can’t bring myself to do “Unitarian Lite” on Easter. My mind drifts back to that young woman, sitting in that pew those many years ago, listening to a sermon that failed to melt the winter ice around her heart. If I could speak to her now, what would she need to hear? What message would have made a difference in her life that Easter morning? Would it have helped if the minister had spoken about the life and teachings of Jesus instead of focusing on the resurrection? Would that have given her some perspective on her life?
So much ink and blood has been spilled over this man named Jesus. We’re still trying to figure out who he was. Did he really exist? Is there anything historically accurate in the gospels? There are biblical scholars, the Jesus Seminar, theologians, popes, priests, atheists and others, all weighing in from their perspectives.
To read the gospels is to uncover conflicting images of a peasant who spoke of love, who called the children to him, who spoke out for the last and the least, but also said “I have not come to bring peace but the sword.” (Matthew 10:34; Luke 12:51). There is Jesus the gentle lamb, turning his cheek. There is Jesus the lion, throwing the money changers out of the Temple. There is the religion of Jesus told through his parables, and the religion about Jesus that began to solidify nearly a hundred years after his crucifixion and death.
You have to know that the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are just four tellings of the life and teachings of Jesus among many that were written and floating around during the first and second centuries C.E. Four hundred years after the death of Jesus, the church fathers decided that these four gospels would be the centerpiece of the Christian Bible along with the letters of Paul and other writings. Add to that, that within each of those four gospels there are layers taken from other gospels, such as the gospel of Thomas and the gospel of Q, which have been uncovered in other sources — thanks to some significant archaeological finds. Biblical scholarship is fascinating and so much more complex than seeing the Hebrew or Christian Bibles as “the word” from one single divine source.
This past year, there was a major controversy over one of the most recent books on the historical Jesus. Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is a scholar of religions, but he’s also a Muslim whose wife and mother are Christian. His personal history seemed to totally confuse the press, especially in the U.S. A particularly obnoxious interview on Fox News went viral on YouTube with the title, “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.”
“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” the interviewer asks repeatedly, going on to accuse Aslan for not disclosing that he was a Muslim. It’s a false accusation that he easily counters. “I say I’m a Muslim on page two of my book,” he says, encouraging the reporter to actually read his book. He explains repeatedly that he studies and writes about many religions. “It’s my job,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I have a Ph.D.”
The hundred pages of footnotes and my friends who are biblical scholars attest to the fact that this book is very well researched. Aslan makes a persuasive case for a best hypothesis about the historical Jesus within the context of his times. As he tells the reporter, “Jesus was a real political revolutionary who took on the religious and political powers of his time on behalf of the poor, the meek, the dispossessed and the marginalized, who sacrificed himself for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves and whose death ultimately launched the greatest religion in the world.”
For Aslan, the vision of Jesus as the loving peacemaker is a sentimental, historical spin on the true Jesus, the zealot and the rabble-rouser. His Jesus is definitely more lion than lamb. He also says that there is one thing that all four gospels agree upon: Jesus was a healer, a magician and an exorcist.
That’s all the stuff in the New Testament that really makes us uncomfortable, right? He turns water into wine, he heals the sick, he feeds thousands with a few loaves and fishes, he casts out demons, he cleanses lepers and walks on water, he raises Lazarus from the dead.
Aslan says that how we view the miracles today is irrelevant. What matters is how the people of the time viewed them. That’s the historical evidence. “For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was – a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate? there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker.”
Exorcist. Miracle worker. Now that’s challenging territory for us as Unitarians. We had major disagreements about the miracles of Jesus back in the 19th century that seriously divided us, and ultimately prepared the way to the rational side of who we are today. Our ancestors argued that the miracles of Jesus were superstition and not central to Jesus as the ultimate example of how to live as a virtuous person. Even earlier than that, Thomas Jefferson, who had always had Unitarian sympathies, created the famous Jeffersonian Bible. What did he do? He removed all references to the healings and miracles of Jesus because these were not rational facts. A wise man running around casting out demons and raising up the dead? That was unacceptable to Jefferson.
Now we have Reza Aslan telling us that among the few facts that we can really garner about Jesus is that his miracle-working may have been real – at least as it was perceived by the people of his time. I’ve said in the past that there is a rich tradition we lose if we leave Jesus hostage to the interpretation of others. But dare we venture into this murky realm of magic?
In his book, Writing in the Sand, Thomas Moore argues, “Our tendency to sentimentalize [Jesus] or to turn him into a moral crusader is a defense against the sheer radical challenge of his intellect. As long as we piously enshrine his personality, we don’t have to feel the full force of his vision for humanity…. Jesus does not teach how to be virtuous, how to be saved, or how to be a good church member. He says nothing about memorizing dogma or following a strict set of moral rules. Instead he demonstrates how to be in this world as a healer.”
So what is his vision for humanity? What was he trying to heal? What I like to take away from the gospels is the story of a man who wasn’t afraid to reach out to the most marginalized in his society. He wasn’t afraid to touch lepers, to reach out to the mentally tormented or step into the houses of the sick; he honoured children and women at a time when neither had power or value.
You don’t need to believe in magic, resurrection, exorcism or miracles to know that we all could do with more compassion in our lives. We live in soul-crushing, materialistic and narcissistic times and we are suffering emotionally, physically, spiritually and relationally, says Thomas Moore. “From time to time we are all in need of healing, and we are all called to be healers.”
I think that healing is not so much about physical health than it is about bringing us back to wholeness in body, spirit and mind. There are times when I have that heart-melting feeling that brings me back to love, when I can feel so connected to everyone and everything. But like anyone else, I can get caught up in the anxiety, in the perfectionism, in the material desires, in the ego that can sicken my soul.
If I could reach out to me, that 24-year-old woman those many Easters ago, I think I’d simply tell her this: There are many places to find truth and inspiration in life. Sometimes you find it in the most foreign places, in the forbidden gospel that belongs to someone else. You don’t have to accept it all, but you can take what you need. In the end, you’ve got to learn how to love yourself before you can love anyone else and, once you’ve found that love, don’t hold it in. Stand up for freedom, reach out to the world, embrace children, dance with your elders, hold the hand of someone who is sick and frightened, don’t be afraid of unexpected grace.
Many years after that first Easter, that same young woman found herself sitting in another church, a small chapel overlooking the Sedona Hills of Arizona. She, her partner and children were on a camping trip when they stopped as tourists for a brief visit. The chapel was a simple box, one side formed by a wall of glass, a window opening up to the pink, red and golden hills, with blue sky and white clouds beyond. In the front of the chapel there was nothing. Just the flat sculpted face of a man hanging in place of an altar. It was a mask really — forehead, eyes, nose and mouth, its gaze turned inward as if in contemplation. She sat for a long time that morning, staring at that face. It was supposed to be Jesus, she imagined, inviting visitors to prayer. She didn’t think of herself as a Christian, yet the invitation and the quiet of the space brought her to tears. This was the experience beyond words that she often felt but could not explain. It resonated through her whole being. Perhaps it wasn't the face, or the chapel itself, but she felt she had come home.
Twenty years later she returned to that same spot only to find it drastically changed. The chapel had become a tourist trap and the empty altar had become so cluttered that the power of the mask was lost. Perhaps her memory hadn’t been very clear. You can never go back, she thought. It didn’t matter. She had already been healed by this place so long ago.
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