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Presented April 16, 2006, by Steve Wiegenstein
"You then," [Hazel Motes] said impatiently, pointing at the next one. "What church you belong to?"
"Church of Christ," the boy said . . .
"Church of Christ!" Haze repeated. "Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I'm member and preacher to that church where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way."
Back in the 1980s, Sharon and I lived in Shreveport, Louisiana. There are a lot of towns in America that claim to be "the buckle of the Bible Belt," and Shreveport is one of them. And I can say that if it's not the buckle on the belt, it's certainly one of the more well-worn holes. At any rate, living in Shreveport, we soon discovered that there were two greetings that newcomers were likely to get from the people they met. One was pretty gentle: "Have you found a church home yet?" If you said 'no,' you got the pitch. The other was more confrontational. It was usually delivered in one fast breath, as if it was a single word: "HaveyouacceptedJesusChristasyourpersonalsavior?"And if you said anything, anything but an emphatic "Yes!" you were in for a wrangle.
In case you were wondering, I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. In fact, theological questions in general just don't interest me. Is there a God, the nature of God, what does God think of us if he thinks of us, is God male or female, et cetera, et cetera-all these issues just make me scratch my head and look out the window. They're too abstract and hypothetical for me, and to be perfectly honest I find them boring. But here we are at Easter, a time when theological questions are hard to escape.
Easter is a tricky holiday for Unitarians, especially for those of us who were brought up in the Christian tradition. All over town, bells are ringing today to celebrate an event which supposedly happened a couple of thousand years ago that is, frankly, pretty hard to believe. All religions have their outrageous stories; but this one is especially so. Even mainstream Christians have problems with some of the finer points. I don't know whether you noticed a poll that was released earlier this month by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University-Americans overwhelmingly declared their belief in a God by 90 percent, and 72 percent said they believed in an afterlife of some sort. But when it came to the resurrection of the body, which is a belief that figures prominently in both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, only 36 percent said they believed in such a thing. The researchers were unable to contact God for comment about this slip in his ratings.
But as a fan of a good story, I do have to admit that the Easter story is great. It has all the elements of a real page-turner: conflict, deceit, little guys against big guys, intrigue, friendship, maybe a little love, a twist, and a happy ending. You have to admire the story even if you don't go along with the theology.
But maybe you have to go along with the theology to get anything from this particular holiday. We are so accustomed to the interpretation of Easter that comes to us through the letters of St. Paul and the theology of St. Augustine, in which Jesus' death is the earthly event that culminates a whole catalogue of theological concepts about God, humanity, sin, responsibility, the Jewish scriptures, the afterlife, and on and on. It's tempting just to throw that entire superstructure overboard and think of Easter in strictly human terms. Jesus as an ancient version of Martin Luther King, done in by the haters. But without a spiritual dimension, the Easter story also appears to lose its main point. And that's what I am concerned with. Is there a way to find meaning in Easter without swallowing the whole St. Paul-St. Augustine narrative of original sin, fall, Father sends Son, descends into Hell, et cetera? I certainly hope so, because if not there is nothing between that interpretation and the scrawny secular generalities you get from Walgreens. I don't want the orthodoxy, but I can't content myself with just bunnies and chicks.
A friend and colleague of mine, Kristin Van Heyningen, the chaplain at Culver-Stockton, made a remark the other day that stuck with me. She said the Easter season is like an entire life cycle compressed into four days. And it's that remark that I want to use as kind of a lever to pry open this holiday and see what can be extracted from within.
A quiet dinner with friends - except that one of your friends is going to turn out to be your enemy, and some of your other friends are going to be nowhere to be seen when you need them. Or to express it differently: there's the moment when you discover that being nice to someone doesn't guarantee that you'll get nice in return. In fact, with some people, the nicer you are to them, the more they hate you. Some people are just determined to put a target on your back. I don't mean to trivialize the Bible story here, but rather to point out some universal elements to which we all can respond. And certainly one of those universal elements is the theme of betrayal.
Betrayal comes in many forms, from the passive, I'll-call-you variety that we have all undoubtedly experienced, and probably all engaged in at some point, to the malicious turn-on-a-friend kind that, thankfully, is rarer. But not as rare as it ought to be. Spend a while on the playground and you'll be reminded that we begin getting our experiences of denial, backstabbing, and humiliation at a very early age. And from time to time throughout our lives we meet Judas, not in situations of life or death, but in the everyday push and pull of advancement, desire, and self-interest. Sometimes, God forbid, we even play the part ourselves. There's a moment in the Odyssey, late in the story, when Odysseus has returned to Ithaca with plans to regain his rightful place and drive off the suitors. But at this moment he is in disguise as he studies the situation. He encounters an old blind servant woman who was once his childhood nurse. She touches him and immediately recognizes him by a childhood scar on his foot. Our betrayals are like this - they leave marks, which may heal and may no longer hurt, but can still be felt. We are known by our scars.
Sorry to be so somber here, but another aspect of the Easter story I think all of us can respond it is that of suffering. I did not go see "The Passion of the Christ" when it came out two years ago; but I have it on good authority that the movie followed an established tradition of one branch of Catholicism in focusing very intently on the suffering of Jesus.
In the standard tradition, this emphasis on suffering is supposed to remind us of how much God went through to save us from our sins. But here's what I see. I see people suffering today just as much as Jesus did, and maybe even more. There is the physical suffering of oppression and brutality in parts of the world where the rule of law is missing. Children are neglected and abused by those who should be their protectors. Even in placid Quincy, Illinois, where life is good, as the sign at the county line tells us, people wake up every day to fear and violence. And this is not to mention the emotional suffering that may be inflicted by others who are cruel or thoughtless, and the suffering which at a deeper level is simply woven into the fabric of our lives - the loss of a loved one, illness or the fear of illness, economic anxiety, dreams denied. The fact is, there are people nailed to their own personal crosses all over town, and all over the world. Sadly, in our world Easter Sunday does not always follow Good Friday. I think of friends and loved ones for whom the times of sadness and cruelty were simply too much, or who were unable to see that they are not permanent states of existence. Again, I don't want to minimize the Easter story. But the sufferings of Jesus are not unique. Perhaps the tragedy is that they are all too commonplace.
And yet - and yet amazing things happen. Truly miraculous things happen. One way of appreciating Easter without embracing the entire religious tradition is to focus on its seasonal significance, the coming of spring, the return of life, the lengthening of the days, and so forth. And certainly, when I walk out onto my back porch these days and see the violets blooming, the crab apple blooming, the tulips, the jonquils, the anemones, the trillium, and there are cardinals, juncoes, bluebirds, goldfinches, doves, I want to shout hallelujah! It's a miracle. But it's not really a miracle after all, it's perfectly natural. It wasn't divine intervention that put those tulips there - it was Sharon. Not being supernatural doesn't make them any less beautiful or holy.
If we are looking for miracles, we should probably look at ourselves instead of at the natural world. With all the betrayals and suffering I mentioned earlier, people still discover amazing things in themselves. They rise above loss. When they had despaired of love, they find love, or it finds them. They discover themselves quite unexpectedly to be creative and resourceful. They form bonds across generations and distance. They behave with kindness and heroism when they could easily have shown cruelty or cowardice. We may not be able to come back from the dead; but there are other forms of resurrection. Not as dramatic as roll-back-the-stone, ascend-into-heaven miracles, to be sure. But miracles nevertheless. And again, most of us have experienced these miracles ourselves at one time or another.
In his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis spends quite a bit of time with the character of Lazarus. You will recall that in the Bible, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead after three days, moved by the pleadings of Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha. That's all we get from the Bible story. But Kazantzakis pursues the story further. What is Lazarus like after this experience? Well, for one thing, he can't stay warm, and he has a rather unpleasant odor. But more importantly, he is different. Everyone senses that about him, and he senses it about himself. And instead of a miraculous transformation, Lazarus simply has to get back to work. That's the way it is with our own resurrections - we suffer a great loss or a setback, and somehow we find it in ourselves to rebuild ourselves, to pull through. It takes a lot longer than three days, too. But after it happens, we are not the same. We carry a whiff of that experience with us always, even when our Easter Sunday is over and it's just another Monday morning. Perhaps this is what it means to be a grownup.
So happy Easter to everyone, even though I cannot offer you the assurance of bodily resurrection and eternal life. If you were looking for that, you probably wouldn't be here in the first place. Easter is not a singular, once-in-the-universe event. It is a process that we can see going on all around us, of sorrow and victory, and one does not get to have the victory without the sorrow. To quote W. P. Lemon, who was a Presbyterian minister in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1920s: "Easter is not a passport to another world; it is a quality of perception for this one."
She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true."
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.