coming back to life. April 24, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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“Coming Back to Life – an Easter Sermon
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on April 24, 2011
We can piece together the details of the crucifixion from the various gospels of the New Testament even though they don’t entirely agree with one another. They tell us that Jesus was brought to the “Place of a Skull” to be crucified and a man named Simon carried the cross for him. Jesus was crucified with two thieves, with the charge of claiming to be “King of the Jews.” The gathered crowd mocked Jesus, and the soldiers divided his clothes. When Jesus died, he called out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” or, variably “It is finished.” A soldier pierced Jesus’s side with a sword after his death, before the body was removed from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea requested the body from Pilate, which Joseph then placed in a new garden tomb.
Of course, the story does not end with the death of Jesus. As it was foretold, Jesus was resurrected after three days.
As is the case with the crucifixion, the gospels give various accounts of the resurrection.
The gospel of Matthew claims that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to see the tomb, and there was a great earthquake. An angel came, rolled the stone back, sat on it, and told them that Jesus was not there. He showed them the empty tomb and sent them to spread the news. But before they had gotten very far, Jesus appeared to them.
The gospel of Mark shares that the women were at the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They were wondering how they were going to get into the tomb, when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. The angel was waiting for them in the tomb. Again, Jesus appeared to the women first, but the male apostles didn’t believe them until Jesus appeared to them as well.
The gospel of Luke follows Mark, except that there were two angels, and they appeared to the women just outside the tomb.
The gospel of John doesn’t mention any angels at first. Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb, saw that it was empty, and rushed to tell the others. When they all ran to the tomb to check it out, the angel appeared and told them not to fear. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene, but she did not recognize him at first.
The gospels also describe various appearances that Jesus made over the course of 40 days after his resurrection. There was an appearance to the apostles in an upper room, where Thomas did not believe it was actually Jesus until Thomas was invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and side. Jesus also appeared on the Road to Emmaus, where again, he was not recognized by his apostles until well into the appearance. The resurrected Jesus also appeared beside the Sea of Galilee to encourage Peter to serve his followers. His final appearance was when he ascended into heaven.
This is the story as it is told in the various Christian Scriptures. And yet there are many aspects to the story that remain unaddressed. For instance – what was it like for Jesus to awaken from the dead? Was he in the tomb? What were those first moments of realization like? How did he decide to proceed, once he realized his situation? What was it like for him, having returned from the dead?
These questions remain unanswered in all the scriptures. And yet I believe that these questions address some of the core aspects of the resurrection that are applicable to us today. What might the experience of Jesus’s coming back to life have to teach us today?
Understanding, for me, comes from a variety of different places. In these questions about the particular experience of Jesus coming back to life, I find insight in a different savior story – a more contemporary story – the story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as told through storyteller Joss Whedon. I believe that when we look at the question of the experience of Jesus in his resurrection, and compare it alongside the experience of Buffy, we can learn some important things about what it means to metaphorically come back to life.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Prophecy of the Slayer states, “Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer.” Buffy Summers, of Sunnydale, is the slayer for our generation, and she saves the world time after time again. So often that it becomes a richly exploited cliché.
In the finale for the fifth season, Buffy commits the ultimate sacrifice necessary to save the world by offering her life in the place of anothers, and she dies. Her body is buried in a traditional grave.
The start of the next season presents a sad state of the world. Unlike Jesus, Buffy has been gone for a while – It has been five months since she died. Life has gone on for the residents of Sunnydale. Just as the apostles began to fall apart at the death of Jesus, so too do Buffys friends, the Scoobies, fall apart as they try to continue Buffy’s mission. They need their leader, their guiding star, the one with the super-powers who held them together. Demons are overrunning Sunnydale after the death of the slayer, and the world is falling apart. So they do some magic to bring her back to life, thinking that she will appear before them, magically unharmed, the way they remember her. But the spell is interrupted and so they don’t think it has worked. They are forlorn.
Meanwhile, a very confused Buffy awakens in her body, in the casket, in the ground. There is no angel to roll away the stone to let her out, but then, the gospels disagreed on this anyway. Buffy awakens in the dark, scared and suffocating. Thanks to her special powers, she is able to claw her way out of the grave. She wanders around the town that has been taken over by demons, confused and scared, like a wild animal.
When she appears to her friends, Buffy is not the same. Again, echoing the resurrection of Jesus, only one of the Scoobies, her dearest friend Willow, recognizes her. Buffy returns to the scene of her death and Willow is afraid for her. Will she try to sacrifice herself once again? But Buffy does not and memories of her life return to her as she stands there, confused and bewildered.
Returning to the world of the living, Buffy now has to face both the mythical and the mundane realities of being alive – there are bills that have not been paid, her beloved mentor has left town, and things have fallen apart in her absence – not to mention the demons taking over the town.
Once again, it is Buffy’s responsibility to set things right. It is a heavy burden. But Buffy has a secret, and the secret must come out – as they usually do. The secret is that she was in heaven before she was brought back. “There was no pain, no fear nor doubt, till they took me out.” Her friends, she says, took her out of heaven, and brought her back to a world filled with pain and suffering, and they expected her to save them, and the world, once again. I bet she wished she could ascend back into heaven, the way Jesus had, after only forty days.
So what might the Buffy story teach us about Jesus’ experience of coming back to life, and what might both these stories have to teach us today?
First, this is not the story of rebirth. Rebirth implies something cyclical in nature – the flowers returning after the cold of winter. Though there are many parallels between the story of Jesus and the god of neo-paganism, whose lifecycle is represented in the wheel of the year, on this point they are very different: the neo-pagan god is reborn as an infant, to start a new life from scratch, whereas when Jesus dies, he returns as an adult in a very unnatural manner. People around him have certain expectations, and he can’t just start over. Metaphorically, the story of Jesus is not the story of rebirth we may experience upon retirement, or in a new relationship, or upon finding our vocation. Resurrection comes after a death. We die to our old life, and yet when we come back, we still have our old life hanging over us. We may have been in the land of the dead for a short time, or a long time. The longer we have been gone, perhaps, the more difficulty we have coming back, as the mundane realities demand our attention. Coming back to life is not clean and neat, but messy, and confusing. Possibly even overwhelming.
Second, I think we can know that coming back to life is not easy. It took magic to bring Buffy back, and then she had to claw her way out, confused. The gospels disagree on what happened with Jesus. But at some point, the stone in front of the tomb is rolled back, and Jesus is not there. Where is he? How did he emerge from the tomb? Is he struggling to remember who he is? Wondering why he came back? Like Buffy, did he return to the scene of his death, puzzled?
This is what we do when we come back to life: we look back at what it was that killed us. We return again and again to that painful place even as we are trying to climb out of it. Whether dealing with the death of a loved one, awakening from depression, emerging from some other trauma, we don’t just magically get up one day and are all better, as much as we may wish it were so. While there might be angels to help us – usually in the form of beloved family and friends – the best they can do is support us in our process, they can’t do it for us. Coming back to life is a struggle – and sometimes we have to claw our way out. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by excruciating day.
The third thing we know about coming back to life is that it is painful. In the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe is pregnant, a slave, and is running away from Sweet Home. She collapses on the side of the road, more than half dead. When all hope is about lost, she receives unexpected aid from a poor white girl named Amy. Amy helps Sethe to a lean-to and massages her damaged feet, telling Sethe to endure the pain because “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” Think about it: whenever we have an injury, the healing process is irritating at best, painful at worst.
Return to the story of Jesus again, for a moment. He had had a crown of thorns crushed onto his head, he had been nailed to a cross through his hands and feet. A sword had been thrust into his side. And when he came back, these wounds weren’t magically healed! His apostles were able to put their hands into them, to feel them. The wounds were not even scarred over. Though the gospels don’t talk about this part, imagine what it might have felt like to Jesus, to have his friends touch his wounds in this way. It had to hurt.
Buffy was ripped out of heaven and returned to a world filled with suffering and pain. It was too much for her, so even though she was alive physically, she shut down emotionally. She wanted, desperately, to live, to feel the fiery passion of life, but the fire just froze her – she looked into it and saw darkness. She was dead inside. It was not until she allowed herself to begin to feel the pain – to talk about and process her experience with her friends – that she began to come back to life emotionally. Coming back to life is a painful process, and it hurts.
Finally, when we come back to life, we are not the same person we were before we died. Addicts in recovery know that they have to change who they were, all their habits. Emerging from the initial grief of the death of a loved one, we are changed by the process. Someone who suffers a major health crisis may come back with a different lifestyle, and maybe even physical changes that make them unrecognizable.
Only Willow recognizes Buffy when she comes back initially, but Buffy’s coming back process is long, and it means that her personality is virtually unrecognizable for an entire season of the show. She struggles as she tries to find her new self, her new place in the world. Jesus is also not recognized – in two of the different narratives. And though he appears to his apostles multiple times, he is not described as hanging out with them anymore. He is different – set apart.
We come back as different people – stronger, perhaps, but not always. Often confused as we try to find our new place in life. Sometimes, we come back with an awareness of the sacredness of life, but not always. When Buffy finally embraced the pain, she began to heal and found deep strength and compassion in her role as the slayer. Jesus, in his appearances, seemed more convinced about his own role in God’s story – he spoke less in parables and more in concrete urgencies. When we make it, when we survive the coming back to life process, we are not the same people we were when we died. We may have different priorities, different habits, a different understanding and experience of the meaning of life and our place in it.
This is what the story of Easter can teach us as we imagine the experience of the resurrection through Jesus’s perspective: That there is a difference between coming back to life and rebirth; That coming back to life is not easy; That it is an excruciatingly painful process; and that it changes us. In at least these ways, this timeless story has something to teach us all, even today.
five smooth stones. April 3, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Our Unitarian Universalist Good News
Delivered April 3, 2011 at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
“Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” -James Luther Adams
Call to Worship
Welcome to this community where we encourage one another in our searches for truth and meaning. Here we know that revelation is a continuous process, that truth and meaning aren’t things that were only discovered once, long ago. Instead, they are all around us: we just have to recognize it.
We find revelation in the cycle of nature, in the pushing up of the bulbs in springtime, reaching for the sun.
Revelation can found in the eyes and hearts of our loved ones; or in a piece of art which challenges and changes us.
It’s found in science, literature, music, anthropology. It’s in the in the elegance of a mathematical equation. It’s found in history, in the scriptures of the world religions, in the experience of poets and sages and in our own experience of the wonder of life, passed through the fire of thought.
Welcome to this place where we seek to know, and to be known, in new and wonderful ways.
by Charles Howe
We light this chalice to affirm that new light is ever waiting to break through to enlighten our ways: That new truth is ever waiting to break through to illumine our minds; And that new love is ever waiting to break through to warm our hearts.
May we be open to this light, and to the rich possibilities that it brings us.
Hymn #361 Enter, Rejoice and Come In
Reading our Covenant (unison)
Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
Joys and Sorrows
Here we gather together, not because some authority tells us we must, not out of fear for our immortal souls (should we have them!), but because being together is something that we choose. We co-create this congregation when we choose to share our lives with one another, to bind ourselves together in a thick community. One of the ways in which we do this is through the sharing of those joys and sorrows in our lives that have deep meaning to us. Each week, if you have a joy or a sorrow to share, I invite you to write it in the binder by the doors to the sanctuary.
Moment of Prayer and Meditation
We each have our own ways of connecting with the spirit of life and love.
We may meditate on our breath as we breathe in and out,
We may recite well worn words and phrases from times past
We may listen to the still small voice inside
We may talk to the divine as though it were a dear friend
We take this time now, in gathered silence, to join the spirit of prayer or meditation in whatever way feels right, holding these and other joys and sorrows in our hearts and minds.
Sung Response (unison)
We join in this community to build the world we hope will be. Our hearts and minds do hold in prayer these joys and sorrows which we share.
Invitation to Generosity
Hymn #346 Come, Sing a Song With Me
If you’ve been watching the screens, you may have noticed two “smooth stones” present themselves. At this point, you are probably wondering what on earth these smooth stones are, and how they connect to today’s program.
These smooth stones, and there are 5 of them, come from our Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, in an essay he wrote in 1939. Now Adams is known as one of the greatest liberal religious theologians of the 20th century, and in 1939, he was writing in direct opposition to what he saw happening in the world around him. Inspired by the myth of David fighting the giant Goliath, Adams asked what it is that liberal religion has in its hands that can help us fight the giants of our times. He identified five, smooth stones, five stones in our arsenal with which to battle those who would seek to limit our freedoms, to have us march lockstep with fear.
Even today, when the metaphor of battle has lost much of its luster, these stones are inspiring, for they encapsulate in 5 short, easy to understand bullet points what the good news, indeed one might even say, the saving news of liberal religion is all about – saving not from eternal damnation, but instead from the short sightedness of radically conservative religious faiths.
The first smooth stone we touched on in our opening words this morning is that Revelation is continuous, that truth is available to us to be found and understood, something alive and vital, not something that was discovered once, written about, and that’s the end of the story. Revelation is continuous. When the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association say we promote “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” and that we engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” this is what they are talking about! That we recognize we are all on a journey, looking for truth and meaning. Journeys, such as the ones that Clare and Kailoa are on, that we recgonized and affirmed a few moments ago. Journeys that we are all on, that remind us that we are still growing and learning as the human species and as individuals.
The second smooth stone was briefly touched on as I introduced our joys and sorrows. That is, that relations among persons should rest on consent, not coercion. Adams was big on volunteer associations, and was often heard to put a twist on the words of Jesus, saying “By their groups ye shall know them.” He would never let us take for granted the precious power of voluntary associations – groups freely gathered – such as political parties, and advocacy organizations, and free churches, because these are the institutions that the forces of fascism and oppression first seek to abolish. I can’t help but wonder what Adams’ response would be to the Union busting movements taking place in Wisconsin and other states. I suspect he would be quite upset.
We also see a reflection of this smooth stone in our UU principles, for when we say we affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;” we are talking about each person having a voice. Additionally, I believe that our existence as a creedless religion informed this stone of Adams, because we are not going to coerce you into saying you believe something you don’t believe. Remember – we are all still searching, and finding, truth and meaning!
Which brings us to Smooth Stone #3. “Religious people have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community.” Because we know that truth is still being discovered, and because relationships with one another must be based on consent, as human beings, as practitioners of liberal religion, Adams said that we have a moral obligation to work for justice, to work to create the beloved community.
Recently, we have heard some theists claim that atheists can’t be moral without some sort of fear of God. Meanwhile, some atheists claim that the theists are only being moral out of fear for their souls, and they wonder what kind of morality that might be. So what does Adams, mean when he says religious people have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community?
Adams identified as a Unitarian Christian, and his understanding was that God acts through people, and that when this happens, people act for justice. Adam’s personal understanding of God was not at all traditional and he knew the word God was laden with all sorts of baggage for people. Adams used the term “God” to describe purposes and processes far greater than those humanity knows.
With this in mind, he wrote that “A faith that is not the sister of justice is bound to bring us to grief…It thwarts creation, a divinely given possibility; it robs us of our birthright of freedom in an open universe; it robs the community of the spiritual riches latent in its members; it reduces us to beasts of burden in slavish subservience to a state, a church or party – to a self-made God.”
Justice, said Adams, is love writ large, and as practitioners of liberal religion (whether you are a theist, and athiest, or neither), we are called to love in this large way, though seeking and creating justice.
I believe that the rest of our principles are influenced by this one smooth stone of Adams. Because it recognizes that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and that all people have a right to justice. As a religious body, we are called to create justice in the world, to create the beloved community, that each person deserves to live in. We seek peace, we are careful how we tread on this earth, we understand our connectedness to one another.
Harken back to John Lennon with me for a moment, and Imagine all the people sharing all the world. Imagine it! Our liberal religion calls us to envision and work for world of freedom and justice, a world where all the world will live as one. But our good news does not stop there, oh no.
Adams identified the fourth smooth stone as: Good things don’t just happen, people make them happen. We are not called to sit back and wait for the Beloved Community to come about; instead we are called create the beloved community where freedom, peace and justice reign here, and now. Though working together in our voluntary associations, associations like this congregation, human beings can bring justice into being.
My favorite quote for a long, long time was the Margaret Meade quote found in the back of our hymnal. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;” Meade wrote. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
But they didn’t just change the world by sitting around and wishing for it to change – not at all. That wouldn’t change much of anything. Good things are not just going to fall into our laps, we have to do something.
Folksinger Jewel has a song called “Life Uncommon” that reminds me of this smooth stone. She sings:
“There are plenty of people who pray for peace
but if praying were enough it would have come to be”
While our imagination and our prayers are important, they are not enough. We must put our faith into action and make the good things happen.
This is why Social Justice is so important to Unitarian Universalists. We must use these hands that we are given not to sit around wringing them, but to go create the world we want, that Beloved Community.
Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale said “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Hale does not say anything about thinking about problems, or talking about them. He says he will not refuse to do something.
But just what is the something that we can do? I know that I often get overwhelmed thinking of all the problems in the world, all the injustices that need correcting. It can totally overwhelm us to the point of becoming immobilized. We have this amazing vision, but how do we even begin to make the good stuff happen? Thankfully, we don’t have to do it all at once – even what we think of as little steps are progress in the right direction. Slowly, as we get more used to this type of movement, our steps become larger, and with more and more of us stepping together, we become a movement…a force for good in the world, doing what we can.
People can make good things happen, as overwhelming as it may sometimes seem. We can take care of the environment by reducing our carbon footprint, we can work for justice where we see it is absent. We can love our brothers and our sisters and our neighbors as ourselves. We can make a difference.
This leads to Adams fifth and final smooth stone, perhaps the most important piece of this puzzle of Good News we are putting together today: hope. The resources available for change, Adams said, justify an ultimate optimism.
Now the modern period in which Adams lived is characterized by this grand hope in the capabilities of mankind: progress! Onward and upward! Fluffy-bunny optimism is how I tend to think of it. Sure, it’s easy to be optimistic when one has access to all sorts of riches and privileges, to be optimistic when you are well-educated and have a job and a home. This modern optimism we now know was pretty short-sited and limited in where, and to whom, it extended.
Certainly, Adams was a product of his time. However, there is an integrity to it when he claims that the resources at our disposal justify hope. He was not talking about fluffy-bunny optimism, not at all.
In Germany during 1935-36, Adams watched as the Nazi government of Adolph Hitler ruthlessly crushed any and all dissent as it marshaled forces for its coming march across the continent. Interrogated by the Gestapo, Adams narrowly avoided imprisonment as a result of his engagement with the Underground Church movement. Using a home movie camera, he filmed theologians Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer and others, including those who were involved in clandestine, church-related resistance groups, as well as pro-Nazi leaders of the so-called German Christian Church. Adams returned to the United States more convinced than ever that the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness could only render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evils, and he stated his convictions loudly and frequently.
Coming out of this experience with Nazi-ism, I think that for Adams to claim that there is hope, that the resources human beings have at our disposal – both internal and external, justify an ultimate optimism – this is very, very good news indeed.
But hope can be hard – to hope is to risk failure. To risk being hurt. I know I sometimes find myself lacking in hope. It isn’t that I fall into despair, mind you, but that I am sometimes afraid to hope. Emily Dickinson wrote that Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul. A thing with feathers – something fragile, that may fly away at any moment. It can be hard to hope. It can take a force of will for me to say to myself: Ok, I will risk this. I will allow myself to hope. I am aware that I risk deep sorrow, when my hopes don’t manifest, but I would rather have to climb out of sorrow than never have seen the peak to begin with. I believe that what Adams said continues to be true, that the resources for change justify an ultimate optimism: that justice will prevail, that love will conquer hate. So I will hope.
But hope can’t stand by itself. Hope alone is not our good news – there are four other pieces that it must build on. And so we have five smooth stones:
- Revelation is continuous
- Relations among persons should rest on consent, not coercion.
- Religious people have a moral obligation to establish a just and loving community
- Good things don’t just happen, people make them happen
- The resources available for change justify an ultimate optimism.
This is a powerful message of salvation – not in some other life, but in this life, in this world. Right here, right now! We have good news! This is a message, not of “us-versus-them”, not of domination or dogmatic belief. Rather, it is a message that understands that there are different paths to Truth. It is a message of inclusion and connectedness. It is a message of building bridges in such a way that reduces polarization rather than feeding into it. It is a message that moves us to action!
Taken together, these smooth stones of liberal religion that Adams identified are very, very good news indeed. And it all starts with you, and with me, right here, right now. May it be so. May we make it so.
Hymn #1064 Blue Boat Home
Extinguishing the Chalice (unison)
We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.
From Theodore Parker
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.