Friday, April 25, 2014

Easter: Looking at Resurrection Anew

I preached this sermon on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Texts:
Story for All Ages: The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williamsadapted
Reading: Matthew 28: 1-8 and Luke 24: 1-12

Happy Easter!  Today marks the most holy day of the Christian calendar, the day in which Christians believe that after being arrested and put to death, Jesus arose from the dead.  Depending on the Christian and the Christian community, it might be literally that Jesus rose body and spirit from the tomb; for others Jesus spirit arose; many probably don’t know what they believe about what happened in that tomb; in fact the diversity of what “Christians” believe about the Resurrection is similar to the diversity of beliefs within this community.

The stories we have just heard from the various gospel accounts tell us that the women went to the Tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, to mourn the loss of one they loved so much, and much to their surprise his body is not there.  They are told to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them.  Later accounts in the Gospels and in the book of Acts describe the disciples’ encounters with the risen Jesus.  They describe them walking with him along the road; sharing a meal and breaking bread; visiting them in an upper room.  Sometimes they recognized him immediately and other times it was not until well into the encounter.  Mary Magdalene is called the Apostle to the Apostles because it is she who delivers the news that Jesus is risen and where they can find him.

No one knows for sure what happened, no one knows what the women and other disciples saw.  There was no video camera in the tomb.  No one recorded their accounts.  Whatever it was they experienced however transformed their lives.  It led them to continue to spread Jesus’ message of love.  Out of it came first a sect within Judaism of Jesus followers. Later, much later, an entire separate religion with the blessing of the Roman Empire emerges becoming over time what we know as Christianity.

Early American Unitarians and Universalists wrestled with Scripture. They wrestled with its meaning, how to understand it.  William Ellery Channing in his famous sermon in Baltimore, which articulated Unitarian Christianity for one of the first times publicly,  stated “We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to the remarks now made on its infinite connexions, we may observe, that its style nowhere affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment. -- We find, too, that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.”  Channing took the Bible seriously but not literally and challenged his opponents that reason was essential to understanding Scripture.  This was true of all our Unitarian and Universalist founders even though they did not all agree with each other.

Just as there is disagreement today among the many different Christianities, there was disagreement among early American Unitarians about the nature of Jesus and the Resurrection.  Channing while rejecting the full equality of Jesus with God the Father held onto the miracles, the Resurrection stories and that Jesus was in some way uniquely divine.  Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson on the other hand rejected the miracles, the Resurrection and the Divinity of Jesus.  For Emerson, Jesus’ represented the best of humanity, sent to show us what it meant to live a life of virtue and as a child of God.

On the Universalist side, Jesus’ death and resurrection was a basis for their belief in universal salvation. Jesus died that all might be saved.  The love of the Divine excluded no one.  That was the message of radical love of the Universalists – that all of us, each of us were saved.

Yet both the Unitarians and Universalists found deep truth and wisdom in the Christian stories. It would be all too easy for us to just ignore the Resurrection stories. To insist that they are just that stories, with no relevance to our lives.  Is that really true?  Have we not had resurrection moments in our lives? Yet then we also dismiss the stories of those early followers, their experience of profound transformation that continues to have meaning and value, in age after age.

Let us begin with what the word resurrection means. It means the act of causing something that had ended or been forgotten or lost to exist again.  Something that has ended or forgotten exists again.  The disciples had lost Jesus and somehow they found him to exist again.  In what way we can’t say for sure but the fact that their story survived and others found transformation, hope and faith in those stories indicates that something profound happened. So let’s begin that for the disciples and the early Jesus followers there was something that had ended that came to exist again. Something so powerful that they were willing to risk their lives – for Rome prior to Constantine was not in favor of these Jesus followers. After all they were following a man Rome had executed for treason - a man who they believed was a threat to Roman peace and reign.

Rev. Bruce Epperly who I knew as a campus minister and professor at Georgetown, writes this about the Resurrection: “While we can’t literalize the gospel stories, the recognition that Jesus was recognized by his followers and known by his wounds points to a continuity of his post- resurrection body with his pre-resurrection body.   Such events are possible in a lively, dynamic universe, and are surely no more marvelous than invoking the big bang as the first moment of our universe. How can one not be amazed to recognize that from a microcosmic energy event a universe of 125 billion, and counting, galaxies emerged? All is natural, yet all amazing, mysterious, and beyond our imaginations. “

There is wisdom here in Bruce’s words.  We do not yet know or understand all the mysteries of the universe.  It is just as amazing to imagine that out of one singular event the galaxies and universes began and evolved in such a way to support life as we currently experience it. Isn’t just the fact that we exist at all a miracle?  It reminds me of the Peter Mayer song, Everything is Holy Now.  Is resurrection so out of the question when we think about how life in all of its beauty and diversity surrounds us?

So is there something in here for us Unitarian Universalists?  In what ways in your own life have you experienced resurrection?  Have you ever lost someone you loved so much, and you thought the grief would never end, that the sadness was almost too much to bear?  Yet then over time, with healing, you found yourself coming back?  You were still sad but you could laugh again.  You were sad but you found that instead of the person’s memory bringing pain, it brought joy of remembrance?  Maybe it wasn’t a person but an event that was devastating.  At the time, it felt like life would never be right again. Again though with time, life renewed.  The wheel of life turned.  Almost without you knowing how, there was joy again. Maybe you re-discovered something you loved doing and had stopped. Maybe a person you lost touch with re-entered your life.  Maybe a lost dream got revitalized in a new way.  All of these are ways we experience resurrection. What was lost, what was forgotten comes back. It is different and the same. Much like the flowers in spring which come back – they are not the same exact flowers but we count on those daffodils to start pushing their way up and out – year after year without us doing much other than the initial planting.  They remind us that life continues.  Spring follows winter and then summer and then fall until we return again to the sparse bareness of winter. Creation demonstrates resurrection!

Maybe another way to think about it is in our story this morning.  The Velveteen Rabbit asks what it takes to be Real.  He learns it takes a long time, that it hurts, that it means having your fur rubbed off but that you don’t mind.  Isn’t it true?  How becoming real, becoming ourselves takes a long time, that it hurts, that we may lose our external beauty.  How many remember an object like the Velveteen Rabbit? How many of us as parents have searched for that beloved lost object – the panic that it is gone and the joy that returns when what has been lost is found.  How many of us remember as children the urgency of having that one particular object to sleep with? That no other would do.  That it could not just be replaced.  Yet when it was found, a moment of resurrection!  This story speaks of the transformative power of love, of its ability to make something real.  In our lives too, our true selves are shaped by love – the love we show ourselves and the love others give to us.  On that early morning of the first day of the week, those who had been loved, loved for who they deeply and truly were by a man named Jesus went to his tomb to mourn, to show their respect, to show their love to one who had loved them so much and he was not there.  Something happened, something so transformative that 2000 years later we are still telling their story.  What does their story have to teach us?  What does their story have to do with our story?  That love wins!   That while those we love may die, they are never truly lost to us!  That the universe is filled with wonder and mystery!  That resurrection moments never erase the wounds we carry but instead allow us to integrate them so that we become more of who we are! That love makes us real!

May it be so!