Monday, April 1, 2013

"Beyond the Tomb" - Sermon

Beyond the Tomb
         Today we celebrate a story of renewal and rebirth and take a closer look at the story of Easter. Like any story, there are different versions of the life of Jesus. It’s very rare that we get one compete story when a group of people have gathered. The version of the story that I am most fascinated by is from the gospel of Mark, telling about Mary Magdalene. They went to the tomb of Jesus to mourn his death, but they found it empty, and a man there told them of a resurrection. The reading says, “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is where the story ends. The oldest version of the story, the oldest of the four gospels just stops there as the end of the entire writing. It stops in silence.
         But we know the story of his followers continued. It’s difficult to say what literally happened on the ground, but we know that the story grew as the century wore on. My own guess, what seems like a fair assumption is that the disciples had scattered after the crucifixion. They had just watched their leader get tortured to death and they were terrified. But where two or three gathered they felt the presence of their beloved teacher and leader. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows what that is like. Eventually reports about the empty tomb made their way to these disciples, and they did what any good religious person would do. They consulted the scriptures. They looked for stories that matched what they were hearing.   
         From Jewish teachings they knew that a man would one date be resurrected, he would be a great leader, and his life and resurrection would mark a turning point in the world.  This wasn’t meant to be a hope just for them, but a hope for world transformation, a fundamental shift in the nature of things. A small group of people held hope for a paradigm shift, a world in which righteousness would flow down like waters, where the meek would inherit the earth, where there would be neither Jew nor Gentile, Slave nor Free , Man nor Woman. They dreamed of the kindom of God, coming to Earth.
         These frightened followers of Jesus began to transform their story of loss into a revolutionary story of hope. This is how many feminist Christians interpret the Easter story. They believe that Easter isn’t about torture, death and resurrection at all. Instead they believe that the miracle is the community that formed in the midst of loss. For only a community can transform grief into hope. Only a community can provide the fertile ground for new life to spring again.
         And so we celebrate with our Christian brothers and sisters, the hope that they held for their religious community after their holy man was crucified. Through their tears, they saw hope. Through their pain, they saw a future for their selves and for their community.
         This is no unique story, this story of hope over death, especially in springtime. Just as we celebrate Easter with our Christian brothers and sisters, we also celebrate the hope of Passover with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Not for the miracles that Moses performed, or plagues that God spread over Egypt, not even the passing over of the Jewish households while all of Egypt’s first born were struck dead in the night as the name Passover suggests. No, we celebrate the liberation of a community from it’s oppressor, and the gathering of a community for years to come, for thousands of years to come, to tell their story and hope for a better future for themselves and for all people.
         We celebrate a miracle of human community and hope. In the midst of our diversity and in the face of adversity, we celebrate the miracle of hope and renewal.
         The miraculous power of community to transform pain into hope is actually what drew me to ministry in the first place. I entered seminary from an activism background and fully expected to return to that kind of work. I imagined working for a non-profit one day or perhaps being a lawyer, one of the good guys. I was all about changing the world through fighting back. The only thing that has changed is that I began to see the power that churches have to change the world through loving relationships between individuals. Somewhere back there my idea of changing the world shifted from legislation to friendships, from protests to worshipping together. To me, changing the world is seeing you on Sundays, being your best selves, building relationships with one another. That is how we make the Easter story alive as Unitarian Universalists.

         Just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that reminded me of this. It simply said “Love Wins.” Some of you will recognize that as the title of a recent book. “Love Wins” was written by Robb Bell a few years ago. He is a prominent Christian writer who wrote a controversial and hugely successful book about Universalism. That’s right, our kind of Universalism, the theological belief that God loves us completely, and would never condemn anyone to Hell. Understanding God, having faith, is about accepting the truth of that love and being grateful for it.

         We Unitarian Universalists believe that love wins. For some of us, that means the original theological formulation of Universalism, that God loves each and every person and through that love comes peace. But we also believe that love wins, even without God. We believe that we human beings are blessed with a capacity and an inclination toward loving one another and loving the world.
         At Easter time, we don’t celebrate the miracle of a literal resurrection. We don’t believe in science stopping in its tracks to bring the dead back to life. We believe in the miracle of nature that makes life so abundant and that makes love win. That’s right, we celebrate and embrace our role, as fruit of the earth to love one another and the world around us. We are, thanks to our genetic design, inclined toward cooperation and compassion. It’s not perfect, but it is at the core of our being, both spiritual and biological. Whether it is God’s love, or the undeniable fruit of nature and evolution, in this season of Spring we celebrate the miracle that love wins.
         But love isn’t always easy. In fact I would say real love is never easy. This is one of the hard lessons of life. Easter only comes after the crucifixion; Spring comes only after the Winder. Vulnerability and pain are a part of loving in our imperfect world. It’s something we have to learn, it’s something that I have to learn over and over again. Loving is always a risk.
         Several years ago, when I was ordained here by this congregation, a colleague of mine, Rev. John  Morehouse offered the charge. This is a standard practice, an esteemed colleague gives some tips on ministry. I don’t recall much of what he said that day, but I do remember that he clearly said “love them.” He told me that my task in ministry was to love this congregation.
         It is a strange piece of a job, to sincerely love 80 or so people. I can’t think of many other jobs that come with the same instructions. It is odd, but wonder. I have taken that charge seriously, to love you like a family. Yes, we have ups and downs like any family does. We don’t all have the same point of view and there are frustrations. But at the end of the day there is a foundation of respect and caring.
         Even while we Unitarian Universalists believe that love wins, we also know that with love comes vulnerability and pain. That has been abundantly clear to me this past week. The conversations I have had with many of you over the past few days have been extremely hard. I’m not saying this out of professional duty but out of a very real human heart. I have grown to care deeply about you all. And it breaks my heart to be leaving this community.
         But I would still choose to have the Winter for the sake of the Spring. I would still take that charge seriously. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

         This is a part of ministry and a part of church life. I have been reading up on it and often times this kind of separation is compared to death. The process of letting go is about acknowledging the big picture, the bumps and bruises along with the love and magic. It’s about fully coming to terms with the depth of relationship and commitment, so that you can let go of it. I turned to the Rev. Forrest Church and his book “Love and Death” for a little perspective. He wrote this book ago the late stages of terminal cancer. It was to be a record of his own coming to terms with mortality. He wrote,

“That said, will my love live on forever? I believe so. And your love, too. It will certainly live on after your death, continuing to touch from heart to heart long after you have gone. We know from experience that our indifference, cynicism, and hurt feelings leave little mark. The world quickly sloughs off our complaints against it. But love it and someone, somewhere will remember.” (Forrest Church “Love and Death” p. 140)

         I guess what I want to say is that love persists, long after we are gone. Gone in whatever sense. Real loving relationships are generative; they create something good in the world that wasn’t there before. They create healing, growth, and peace. They create things that don’t go away when a relationship ends. In that way, love wins. Even when we experience loss of a relationship, love remains to fill the empty space.  

         I came across a great story of teaching the Easter story to children. This was in an Episcopal Sunday School. The teacher explained that Easter was about newness and expectation, just like the Spring, just like the story of Jesus. And she gave the kids a big plastic egg, the kind that pantyhose used to come in. And told the children to put something in their egg that reminded them of Easter and come back next week.
         The next week as they went around the circle, each opened their egg. Some had a flower, some had candy, or a cross. One boy opened his egg and it was empty. The other children began to giggle as the boy mumbled some explanation, to soft and embarrassed to be understood. Until the teacher explained that he had truly understood the assignment.

         The empty place is the first site and symbol of the Christian faith, an absence rather than a presence, and with that space and absence comes a sense that the world is not as simple as we might imagine it. For all its laws and patterns, the world still has surprises. There must be space for new life to grow into. There must be a possibility held open in our hearts for newness and possibility, if it is ever to come into being.
         The truth is, Flower Communion wasn’t originally designed to be held on Easter Sunday. But the role that it plays in our Unitarian History mirrors the renewal of Spring so beautifully, that we have melded the two ideas together for many years.

       As we heard earlier, the Unitarian Universalist Flower Communion originated in 1923 with Dr. Norbert Capek, founder of the modem Unitarian movement in Czechoslovakia. On the last Sunday before the summer recess of the Unitarian church in Prague, all the children and adults participated in this colorful ritual, which gives concrete expression to the humanity-affirming principles of our liberal faith.
       But hope and renewal don’t come out of the blue. Spring follows winter, liberation follows persecution, resurrection comes only after death. Perhaps the reason that Dr. Capek’s beautiful ritual has taken on so much meaning for us, is that it has survived as a symbol of hope beyond brutal religious oppression.
       You see, when the Nazis took control of Prague in 1940, they found Dr. Capek's gospel of the inherent worth and beauty of every human person to be-as Nazi court records show-- "...too dangerous to the Reich [for him] to be allowed to live." For one of our most central principles, for believing in and preaching the inherent worth and dignity of every person, Dr. Capek was sent to Dachau, where he was killed the next year. This gentle man suffered a cruel death, but his message of human hope and decency lives on through his Flower Communion, which is widely celebrated today. It is a noble and meaning-filled ritual we are about to recreate. It’s meaning comes not only from a dazzling arrangement of flowers. It’s meaning comes from what those flowers symbolize. After pain and persecution, after Dachau, a community, our community comes together to celebrate hope.
       At this time I want to invite our children to come join me at the front of the sanctuary as we bless these flowers. Then as we sing our closing hymn, they will come through the congregation, giving each of you a flower, a symbol of hope for you to take home with you today.

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