Because the Easter holiday is largely centered on Jesus, the stories of others who lived and loved and felt pain at that time are often overlooked. On this Sunday we will consider the experiences of some of those closest to Jesus, including his mother.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Perhaps some of you have heard of the UU cyberspace congregation called the Church of the Larger Fellowship. It’s not a physical church, but instead is a church that operates entirely online, complete with monthly newsletters and weekly televised worship services.
While serving as this church’s minister, Rev. Jane Rzepka wrote the following newsletter column about the blending of the tradition of Unitarian Universalism and the holiday of Easter:
Every year, I fight the feeling that our UU churches just can’t win on Easter. Our familiar congregation will come through our ‘doors’, alongside a number of Easter visitors we’ve never seen before. Why do they come?
• To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
• To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
• To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection.
• To be reminded of Jesus and his resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days.
• To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition.
• To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter….”
Rev. Jane then ended her column with these words of encouragement…“We each have religious stories, spring dreams, and seasonal celebrations… May we bring ourselves and our stories to church this morning and consider the blend a blessing.”
Considering such a blend a blessing is a lovely concept, and is also easier said than done. The dichotomous dynamics can be certainly be challenging to manage.
Rev. Jane tells a story from her childhood of dichotomous dynamics that were happening, not so much within her congregation, but within her school and church life. She recalls…
“When I was a child, my school didn’t have much of a grip on the separation between church and state, and so at this time of year we heard a lot about Jesus dying on the cross. I was a Unitarian, and this was the first I’d heard of the gory aspects of the crucifixion story—the nails in the palms and feet, the hours up there on the cross, the works. That he somehow rose straight up afterward didn’t matter much to me. What I got out of the story told at school was a sick feeling in my stomach.
At church, the same story was not so much about nails and blood but about a good man’s teachings living on after he was dead. His teachings came to life over and over again, not unlike the daffodil bulbs we planted in the autumn along the church’s long driveway. Some might say this is simply a wimpier version of the story, but it worked for me.
There was another difference between what I learned in school and what I learned in Sunday school. In school, the Easter narrative was presented as history; in Sunday school, as story.”
The differences heard in Rev. Jane’s story again appear in this UU Easter joke, “How can you tell a UU church from other churches on Easter?”
The answer – “Other church signs rejoice at the idea of the resurrection, saying something like ‘Hallelujah, Jesus is risen and is alive!’ while UU congregational signage is usually more along the lines of, ‘Celebrate! Flowers are rising and spring is alive!’”
Easter is indeed one of the trickiest times in the church year for Unitarian Universalists. As we heard moments ago, some people come to UU Easter services hoping, and maybe expecting, to celebrate Easter and what that word stands for in the world of religion.
And I get that. After all, the word “Easter” is on our Order of Service today. And Easter is a central, perhaps the central, spiritual celebration of the tradition from which we emerged.
Others would maintain that the operative word in that last sentence is ‘emerged’… “We’ve moved beyond, we’re not in the same theological place now, and we want to focus on what we’ve emerged TO, not what we’ve emerged FROM.” I get that, too.
Suffice it to say that there are some rather mutually exclusive ideas about how to go about celebrating this particular holiday/holy day.
And this isn’t found only in the hearts and hopes of congregants. It’s also found in our very own ‘holy book’ known as the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal.
In the Easter section of hymns, one song’s words (#268) say “Jesus Christ is risen today….Soar we now where Christ has lead…Christ has opened paradise.” The very next hymn’s words (#269) say… “Nature wakes from seeming death, at the southwind’s genial breath, festival of hope and cheer, ‘tis the spring-tide of the year.”
Yes, there are differing ways to approach this holiday. Regardless of which way you lean theologically, I invite you to temporarily set aside the rationalities that cause some of us to question, or perhaps even disregard, the traditional story of Easter.
Set them aside so that we can open-heartedly approach the story, and appreciate the rich messages woven into the narrative.
Now, generally, when it comes to a famous person’s narrative, the ‘background’ people in that famous person’s life are often largely overlooked.
The cable channel A&E has a show called ‘Biography’ which tells the narratives of famous people’s lives. I have yet to see an episode in which a famous person’s significant other - significant in some capacity or other - is highlighted.
And yet, there are wonderful stories that can be told about the experiences and perspectives of these ‘significant others.’
And thus, today we consider the Easter experience of one of those closest to Jesus - his mother Mary.
A line from our responsive reading brings Mary, and some of the emotions she surely experienced, to my mind. The line reads In the tomb of the soul we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, regrets, worries, fears.
Certainly Mary, as the mother of Jesus, must’ve come to know each of these emotions well. Do any of these emotions resonate with you as parents, as people who have loved another so deeply that we would lay down our life to ensure their well-being?
How many of us have made deals with God to keep our child out of harm’s way. “If you’ll just let him pull out of this illness, I’ll go to church every Sunday.” “If you help her to work through her drug addiction, I’ll stop smoking forevermore.”
I can imagine Mary trying to make deals with God. She had to have known that her beloved son was seriously stirring the pot with very powerful people, and was therefore in grave danger.
And she didn’t have the benefit of aftermath information…she could’ve known what the world would make of Jesus after his death.
What she surely did know, though, was profound love, the love of another that can make one’s heart explode with pride, stretch with yearning, and shatter in anguish.
There’s a song in our aforementioned hymnal that speaks to such a range of emotions, entitled “When Mary Through the Garden Went.” One verse of the song is particularly striking…
When Mary through the garden went,
her eyes, for weeping long, were dim,
The grass beneath her footstep bent,
the solemn lilies white and slim,
These also stood and wept for him.
The emotions in the reading and in the song are poignant, some of the most deeply felt emotions of the human experience; ones that we too know, and thus are not difficult to attribute to Mary.
There’s another attribution to Mary, however, that I hadn’t made until recently. It’s in the quotation by Kelli Russell Agodon found in today’s order of service. She says, “We must live with our hearts in our hands - like Mary. We must hold the blood-red heart and not be disappointed when others look away.”
We must not be disappointed when we hold our hearts in our hands and others look away.
When I read this quotation, our UUCD congregation came to mind. Vibrant spirituality requires us to live with our hearts in our hands.
I believe that, if we wish to grow as a congregation, we must live with our hearts in our hands for others to see…the hearts that love, and are connected and committed to this spiritual community…the hearts that say Yes! to life, and thus are open to its highs and lows.
If we are going to grow we must not only embrace the Principles, but also to speak of them in direct terms to others in our lives, and thus live with our hearts in our hands, and in our voice.
And not be disappointed or disheartened if those that hear our heart-held/heart-felt message either actively disagree, or look away with discomfort or disinterest.
I know that people can be skeptical about ‘wearing their heart on their sleeve’ or holding it out there in their hand.
It goes along with the general skepticism that is common among UUs when it comes to the idea of evangelizing, and for that matter, whole idea of Easter.
If you experience some of this skepticism, I invite you to listen to the words of UU minister Daniel Budd. Daniel tells the story of his congregation receiving an invitation from the local newspaper to place an ad for Easter in the paper.
Someone then suggested to Daniel that their ad say, “Join us. We’re not sure what happened.”
Daniel then expounds on the concept of ‘We’re not sure what happened.’ And he does it in a way that aptly paints a picture, using both light and dark hues, that reflect Mary’s probable experience of Easter, and what ours could be as well….
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone appears whose message we feel offers hope; who inspires us with new ways of living which touch our hearts and lift our spirits in anticipation. We know what it’s like when they fall short of our expectations, or worse, are cut down by the forces of hate and bigotry.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone has grown profoundly into our own lives, who seems as much a part of our living as our own breathing, whose presence lives in our souls. We know what it’s like when death takes them from us, perhaps prematurely, and the empty place in our souls is much like an empty tomb.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to feel sorrow and loss, despair and grief. We know the waves of tears and the thoughts of the past which flow through us, which begin to fill the emptiness with stories and memories, begin to shore us up again with a different presence which will live with us for all of our lives.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to realize, to have it dawn upon us, that what we have known and loved lives on now with and within us, a part of who we are. We know that somehow, in our hearts and souls, resurrection is real: not that of the body, but of the spirit—a spirit renewed, even reborn, in the midst our lives and our living.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know that living through whatever sorrow and grief we have felt (and will continue to feel on occasion), there can also be a growing sense of grace and gratitude, of joy and thankfulness, in the mysterious and abiding astonishment of being human, [of human beings].
Indeed my friends, we cannot be sure of what happened some 2000 years ago. But we can be sure of our capacity to take pause and consider the Easter narrative, and receive its richness so that our spirits can grow like seedlings in springtime.
May it be so.
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