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Presented April 1, 2018, by Rev. Krista Taves
Easter is paradox;
It is the leap over the chasm between life and death,
Between victory and defeat,
Between joy and sorrow.
Easter holds together reality of crucifixion,
And myth of resurrection,
The Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith.
Those who lose their lives for others will be saved.
Those who save their lives for self will be lost.
Love is real only when we give it away.
Love hoarded melts inevitably as spring snow.
In the midst of winter we find in ourselves an invincible summer.
There is not one Unitarian Universalist congregation I have ever been in that has not struggled with what to do with Easter. While our historical foundation rests in liberal Christianity, many of us don't consider ourselves Christian any more. And even those of us who are Christian struggle with the form of Christianity that is most evident at Easter, that sees humanity as depraved and Jesus' resurrection as necessary to save us. And since most of us are a bunch of rationalists, we don't know what to do with the resurrection itself? It's a huge claim that many Christians believe you must accept literally in order to be faithful.
So what do we do about Easter? Sometimes the day has been used to celebrate the beginning of spring, that's pretty safe! Other times we talk about new life in a generic sense, or we talk about all the different religious traditions that have been borrowed from that led to the creation of Easter, as we know it. Also, pretty safe. Sometimes we just don't even pay attention to the fact that it is Easter. We'll have a talk just like any other Sunday. Also, pretty safe. So often, we UUs have evaded the Christian Easter by replacing it with other safer things.
But I am of the mind that if we want to practice integrity in a faith tradition where we profess honor all the world's religious traditions, then we should honor the religious holiday that is before us. I don't think we should avoid Christian holidays because of what others have turned them into. In fact, if you look at our own rich history, Unitarians found ways to celebrate Easter in a way that freed it from its most oppressive aspects.
I want to talk about some of those ways today, not only to give us a history lesson on where we came from, but also because those creative ways offer us something for today. They can be relevant now and give us tools to sustain life now and bring healing, hope and justice to this world now.
In the very early years of Unitarianism in America - after the American Revolution and until about the 1850s, there were heavy debates about what to do with the miracles in the New Testament. Jesus changes water to wine, he heals people, he brings dead people to life, and finally he overcomes his own death. Those early Unitarians struggled with how to understand them because American Unitarianism started out as an attempt to bring together Christianity with the Enlightenment values of rationality and the scientific method, and the scientific method doesn't have a lot of room for miracles. So if you wanted to be a rationalist and Christian, how did you reconcile the scientific method with the miracles?
Part of what those early Unitarians were really concerned about was how other Christians saw them. They were already ridiculed because they didn't believe in the Trinity and didn't believe that Jesus was God. If they stopped believing in miracles, they would be even more ostracized from other Christians. Those early Unitarians desperately wanted to find a way to be enlightened rationalists who believed in the scientific method, and Christians who could still believe in the miracles and the resurrection.
William Ellery Channing became one of the voices that sought to find the both/and answer.
Let me tell you a bit about how Channing and the early Unitarians understood God. For them, God was Mind, and to seek oneness with the Mind of God meant engaging in a form of deep centering thought. In this centering you were to bring in all of your intellect. If you were able to bring yourself into a place of intellectual purity, you would meet the mind of God. And by mind, Channing didn't use the same mind vs. heart or intellectual vs. emotional split that we talk about today. Channing didn't mean a passionless, objective, unemotional place. He meant that our mind is where our spirits are, our emotions, our moral convictions, our passions, love, generosity, fairness, and the ability to experience beauty. All these things, he believed, were in us because we were created by God and invested with the same things that were in the mind of God. The task of the religious person was to unlock those faculties that we were already given.
Joseph Priestly, a Unitarian scientist who came from Britain fleeing religious persecution, believed that scientific discovery opened up the mysteries of the natural world and was a window into God. There were no scientific discoveries that were to be feared because God had created it all. Thus science was a religious pursuit.
The early Unitarians brought the scientific method to their study of the Bible. They understood that just like nature, the Bible had secrets and if you brought the right form of rational inquiry, you would access the mind of God in the Scriptures.
In the God as Mind, you connected to God by transcending this world. You moved into a higher consciousness that took you beyond this place into the ultimate. In the God as Revealed Through Nature, you connected to God through immanence, God in the world rather than above the world. God is in everything. But ultimately, transcendence was superior to immanence.
So getting back to Easter. The early Unitarians tried to figure how to balance these two ways of meeting God, and they did it through a new understanding of the miracles in the Bible.
William Ellery Channing proposed that the natural world, with its amazing mysteries, pointed us beyond it, to the God as Mind. So the immanent pointed us to the transcendent. He proposed that there have been crucial moments in history, when the natural order was not enough to point our minds to God, and that something had to break through history to refocus humanity to the mind of God. He pointed to the cruelty that humans are capable of, to the injustices, the pettiness, and the selfishness that can poison the natural order. For Channing, God the Transcendent has the power to break through the natural order in key moments in history, in order to help us, who are embedded in this natural order, to reorient ourselves back to the mind of God, back to the good and back to truth.
This is what happened in all those miracles. Here's Jesus, who has been sent by God, sent into the natural order as a human being who can model oneness with the mind of God. God sends him into a bad situation. The Romans occupy Israel, a cruel colonizing power, life is excruciatingly hard and the Jews are viciously dehumanized anytime they try to assert some sense of worth and dignity. Channing argued that every miracle that Jesus did broke through the cruelty of his time and brought the benevolent mind of God to those who were being oppressed.
The biggest miracle of all was about God having the last word. When Jesus' teachings were rejected, when his disciples betrayed him, when he was arrested, tortured, tried, and put to death, the resurrection was God's way of breaking in to the natural order that we had poisoned and saying, "I have the last word here. The teachings of the one I sent will not die. The evil that put him to death will not prevail. I'm breaking in to set this right and to give you the hope that even in the darkest of times, you can transcend the horrors created by human error, hatred and selfishness. You can rise into that consciousness and become one with the mind of God."
For Channing, the resurrection was God's way of pulling us beyond the natural order into the mind of God.
Now I'm not proposing that any of us need to suddenly believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus or all those miracles in the Bible. I know that I can't. But what I think we can relate to is that deep yearning, when we look at all the things around us that aren't right, for something to break through. Sometimes it is hard to absorb how cruel we can be to each other. How do we make sense of that cruelty? We are truly yearning for something to break through, and it doesn't need to be a miracle, it just needs to be . . . something.
Channing and others of the Classical Era of Unitarianism were responding to that same yearning. This was the early industrial period in America, and there was a new kind of poverty that emerged in the cities among the working poor that was sobering. Many Unitarians struggled with the fact that their nation was among the last in the western world to practice slavery. The abolitionist movement was gaining steam and some Unitarians were part of it, but in those early years, it was hard to imagine slavery ever ending.
Unitarian women were becoming key leaders in the suffrage movement and many experienced first hand the hatred of those offended by any suggestion of women's equality. These suffragettes were often mocked, scorned, and threatened.
Then there was the temperance movement. Today, we often make fun of the women who led the movement to criminalize alcohol. We see them as prudes and busy bodies. But in 19th century America, alcoholism was extremely high, as many as 80% of men were alcoholics, and their victims were often women and children who faced poverty and domestic violence. Many Unitarian women believed that banning alcohol would save women and children. And for this, they were also mocked and scorned.
So is it any wonder that there would be a yearning for something higher to break through and set things right, inject a little bit of the mind of God into a natural order that seemed to be pretty disordered?
Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the March for Our Lives. Some of you took part. It's not the first time people have taken to the streets pursuing common sense gun control, but it is the first time they have been led by young people. Young people created the message and the momentum. Many of us are hoping, yearning, that something has broken through, that for once, the stone will be rolled back from the tomb and it will truly be empty.
The statistics about gun violence in this country are sobering. 96 deaths a day. 13,000 every year. The highest suicide rate of any nation. 50 women a month are shot by domestic partners. Multiple mass shootings every month, many of them in schools.
Every time there is a mass shooting, donations to the National Rifle Association go up and gun sales spike. Our politicians have done almost nothing. The victims and their families are offered thoughts and prayers and that's it. After the school shooting in Newtown, many of us were certain that things would change, and nothing did. In fact it got worse.
So, when we heard there had been another school shooting, many of us went into that place of cynicism, protecting ourselves from more heartbreak.
But then, those students in Parkland, who no one would have judged if they had turned inwards to grieve the loss of innocence, the loss of friends, the profound violation of their safety and dignity, instead, they rose up, they raged, they opened their grief up to the public gaze, they put themselves in the line of fire, the kind of fire that attacks the spirit not the body, and they organized. Something broke through.
Something broke through.
I am wondering if those classical Unitarians would have seen this as a shining example of the mind of God breaking into a disordered natural order? Would they have seen this as a resurrection? By all counts, what those children experienced was a crucifixion. It was the power of a state that has abdicated its responsibility, which has allowed so many young people to be murdered. Our politicians may not have had their finger on the trigger, but their inaction might as well have put them behind that gun. Rome crucified Jesus, and the United States crucifies its children for the sake of gun ownership and calls it a second amendment constitutional right.
What those children have done is not that much different from that deep centering that Channing talked about, where you center in your own conscience and join the transcendent mind of God. When those kids went inside, what did they meet? They met heartbreak, they met a white-hot anger, and they met a deep conviction that they have been called not to shrink back into their pain, loss, and sorrow, but rather that it was time to raise their voices and to speak. And speak they did, and when they were ridiculed and told to remember their place, they spoke even louder. When they were told that they were simply the mouthpieces for adults, or that they were actors, or that they were being manipulated, they spoke even louder.
And you know, that's exactly what Jesus did! He was mocked, he was attacked, they tried to trick him, they tried to peel off his followers, and ultimately they had him murdered by the state. In this awesome myth, that has more truth as myth than it ever could as fact, he never shuts up. He keeps going. He keeps being that conduit for the mind of God. Not even death can silence him.
These children who refuse to shut up are the voice for the 1000s of children who have been killed by gun violence, children that will never have a chance to grow up, go to college, get married, have kids, build careers, get old, enjoy grandchildren, and die the kind of death where you can say, "So and so was blessed with a long, rich, and full life." They were robbed. Their parents were robbed and will grieve the rest of their lives. Their siblings were robbed and will always know that someone is missing. Their friends were robbed, forced to experience a deep and tragic grief far before they should ever even have to understand what that is.
We need something to break through. By this time, I don't care if it's the mind of God, or the heart of God, or the spirit of humanity. I don't care if it's rooted in anger, or fear, or compassion, or restlessness. I want something to break through.
We have a right to want the stone to be rolled back from the tomb and welcome back all those children who have been stolen, all those souls who are no longer with us who should still be breathing, loving, and living their lives.
What I felt after Marching for our Lives last weekend, is that if our children are showing us the mind of God in their brave and visionary words, I will follow them. We should follow them. We should dare to hope, dare to raise our voices, and dare to believe in the kind of resurrection that will break through and save us all.
So, fellow rationalists, Happy Easter! May the spirit be with us, and break through us, on this day and in the days to come.
Amen and blessed be.
William Ellery Channing. "On the Evidences of Revealed Religion." Delivered before the University in Cambridge, at the Dudleian Lecture, March 14, 1821.
David Robinson. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Greenwood Press, 1985.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.