Choose Life: Easter 2020

When I lived in the Southeast, next to Christmas, Easter was the most popular time for people who hadn’t been around for a while to show up at church. Then I moved north to Pennsylvania to minister to a small UU congregation in a small town. I had been with them for eight months or so before Easter rolled around that first year. I was still thinking like a Southerner, so I was completely surprised when less than half of the normal crowd showed up on Easter morning. And we had no visitors. 

Later I asked some of the regulars why so few were there that Sunday. I kind of assumed people had gone to a neighboring Christian church for a “real” Easter service. Incredulous that I would even consider such a heresy, they said, “We don’t do Easter.” 

In the past, in UU congregations, on Easter Sunday, I have explained the pagan origins of Easter, Astarte and all that has to do with eggs and bunnies and springtime rites. In southern climates, I made sure the flower communion was on Easter, so UUs could think of beauty and renewal, and not of blood and sacrifice.  I tried again and again to create a non-threatening way for UUs to feel good about Easter Sunday.

But here we are a month into a national—really a worldwide—traumatic event, that is calling all of us to not turn away… from the suffering and pain, just like Easter begs us to pay attention to the cost of resurrection. 

I hope to offer you not a pleasant way to have a comfortable church experience, but a challenge. I wish for you dreamers and visionaries the strength to stay home a little longer. We can do that. We can stay home alone. We can stay locked in with the same people day after day. We can grieve for those we cannot touch, or see up close without the aid of a video chat. We can feel our sadness, our frustrations, and our anger. And we can create a new dream, a compassionate vision for the new reality that will emerge.

As John Prine sang, “When religion loses vision, that’s how every empire falls.” The empire we have supported is falling. The religion that supported it has been too small.

This is our time to use our grief to dream, to birth a new wider vision of who we can be together.

We can shove the stone out of the way and see how the death-dealing empire we live with has destroyed life and community EVERY day. Every day before this pandemic ever started there was suffering, racism, oppression, war, persecution, hatred, bullying, abuse, injustice, impending environmental disaster…. 

The empire continues in full power trying to keep us stupid, blind, powerless, scared, compliant, indebted, poor in spirit….

It is time we rise. It is time we choose life. Not just for us and our community, our families, but for all. We can create a fierce new vision, insisting that love wins over hate. Acting so death does not prevail. So that life does.

Jesus existed to complete the work to which Israel was called. This work, from the call of Abraham onwards, was to put the human race into right relationship, to bring all of creation into right relationship… with the earth, with each other…. In the time of Jesus, the forces of evil were exceedingly powerful and destructive. They still are. Jesus met those forces within the political processes, in the clash of religious views, in the spiritual wars going on during his time on earth. With his suffering and his death, the power structures of the world were called to account. With his resurrection, a new life, a new power, was released in the world. I believe as the Universalists did, that what is important about Easter—about the Christian story, whether true or myth—what is important is that the power of resurrection remains accessible.

The essence of Easter story is transformation. It is never about things going back to the way they were before. Even if we prefer to focus not on an ancient tale, we can see that the new life of spring is new; it’s not last year’s leaves—those are over and done. Last year’s blooms are long gone. The empty tomb of the gospels wasn’t a sign that Jesus and his entourage were going to resume their former life. In fact, that way of things is done, long gone now. 

Only a radically new understanding of how to be a community together would save them from dissolution and despair. Only a radically new understanding of how to be a community together will save us from dissolution and despair.

This Easter, as never before in many of our lifetimes, we are invited to seek the strength to let go of an old way of life, to discover what else might be possible. As the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote at the end of the Second World War:

fear not the tolling of the solemn bell:
it does not prophesy, and it cannot foretell;
it can only record; and it records today the passing of a most uncivil age,
which had its elegance, but lived too well,
and far, oh, far too long;
and which, on History’s page,
will be found guilty of injustice and grave wrong.

The sane and real thing to do right now is to be grief-stricken and afraid, knowing that the world will never be the same.

Easter morning was like that for Jesus’s disciples. It would take years and decades for them to work out what the reality of the empty tomb would actually mean, for them personally, for the world, for the future. At first, the rolled back stone and the missing body was just one more indignity, one more complication, one more heartbreak to deal with. Had their beloved leader’s corpse been mistreated, savaged by animals, disposed of as part of a coverup by the Roman or Jewish authorities? Amidst all their other disappointment and grief, were they not to have even the simple comfort and closure of seeing him properly buried? The world as they had known it, transformed by the possibilities of healing, justice, grace and freedom, blessed by God’s loving compassion, evaporated as their teacher gasped out his last breath on the cross. Nothing of his bright vision remained, only the memory of betrayal, and suffering and death. The Roman Empire, too, was “a most uncivil age, which had its elegance, but lived too well, and far, oh, far too long, and which on History’s page would be found guilty of injustice and grave wrong.”

And yet, it is in the confusion and anguish of that disappearance, that inexplicably empty tomb, that the first whisper begins, on the lips of the brokenhearted women, trembling at their own audacity. Risen? What if the story isn’t actually over? What if the message still lives within us, is made real by who we are, together? What if the vision he taught us is still as true as it ever was; what if he is still among us, instructing, encouraging, calling us to rise again?

What if we too, on this Easter morning of Coronavirus danger and death, are called to rise again, and make a new world? What if there is no way back to what was before, only a path forward, to a different way of being, perhaps a society more nearly what it and we ought to be? This isn’t the first time the world has fallen apart—it just seems more devastating because it is ours. It seems, and is, more global because we know we are a global people. Ironically, what will save Sweden or Singapore or Peru—or New Jersey—is not pretending that there is a wall, or a fence, or any barrier that can protect us from our shared human condition. But here is the alleluia part: just as the thing that steals the breath of life from us and those we love is worldwide and knows no borders, so too we must survive, and rise again, together. This is what the forces of Empire never understand, from the days of Rome to the days of Trump: every one of us matters. What we choose to do, how we share and cooperate and protect each other, how we offer our skill and knowledge to the common good—this is what will turn back the tide, and save us all. This is how we rebuild the world; this is how we rise again.

Not because God likes us best. If there was ever a time to send that dangerous fantasy to history’s trash can, it is now. But because at the crucial moment, we glimpse again the truth that we are in this together, even in this time of isolation, when what is essential is that we cooperate intensely for our mutual well-being by staying apart. No one with a heart and a conscience is coming out of this event unscathed. We will all lose friends, neighbors, cherished elders, loved ones. We will all suffer. Some among us will perish, needlessly, from the carelessness of others. The world as we knew it is finished. To feel sad and lost, and anxious, is the sane response. Be not ashamed to mourn, and to lament; that is how Easter always begins. Danger and recklessness and cruelty are real, and cannot be denied. But hear the whisper (God only knows where it comes from; somewhere deep and always surprising): “rise again.” Let your trembling lips form the words, before you even understand what they might mean: “rise again.” Throw your assent, and your treasure and your labor, to the call when it comes: “rise again.” That is all that faith means, has ever meant; that human willingness to rebuild the shattered world, and knowing what we know now, do better this time. Spring is the sign, and the promise: “rise again.” The rest is up to us.

Many thanks to Rev. Dr. Kendyl R. Gibbons for a significant amount of the content in this sermon.

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