THIS IS A RERUN. The sermon was preached at South Park UU Fellowship in West Linn, Oregon, on Easter Sunday in 1997. It’s slightly abridged.
This Easter we have a current event to deal with as we consider a two-thousand year old tradition in addition to a three or four billion year planetary event. Let’s look at the most recent first.
In a San Diego mansion a group of people decided to commit suicide. They were mostly computer programmers -- intelligent, talented, loved by their families. They were influenced by a tall, maybe 70-year-old, conflicted gay man -- a singer, teacher and PK (preacher’s kid) maybe suffering from terminal liver cancer. Wearing Nikes, black clothes, short hair, and plastic bags, they followed Hemlock Society drug protocol and died ever-so-neatly in K-Mart bunkbeds with Target down comforters, purple cloth diamonds spread over their faces and chests.
This would never happen to Unitarians. In the first place the social activists among us would object to the Nikes on grounds that we should support Third World labor by boycotting shoes made under poor working conditions. In the second place many of us think that dressing alike is fashion tyranny. In the third place we are far too individualistic to get the same haircut, do the same thing at the same time, or shop at the same place. We refuse to lie down neatly and die.
On the other hand, we do include many computer programmers and gays, we have been excited over the comet Hale-Bopp, and some of us have been very much intrigued by New Age ideas such as eloping with the dome-headed, bug-eyed operators of UFO’s. Thank goodness we are too anti-authoritarian to ever be described as a cult. Many of us are simply too sceptical to be taken in by sci-fi fantasy.
Though we are founded on the principle of freedom of thought, I object to believing in the preposterous, I object to defining religion as believing in things that are not true, I object to defining community as a group that goes apart from the rest of the world and defines itself as special or privileged, and I object to events that distract us from our real allegiance, which is to the planet from which we arise. These points are at the heart of what I have to say this morning.
Christianity has always had a dangerous edge where inspired poetic theory overtakes mythic story or recorded history, creating a spurious aura of miracle. Thus, over and over everywhere recurs the human phenomenon of a reform leader who is captured and killed by dominating autocrats in the name of keeping order. In Eastern Europe, in parts of Africa, in the southern United States where slave leaders tried to push towards freedom and on the Western prairie where Native Americans tried to preserve their lands, the story is archetypal. We easily recognize it.
The inspired notion that created Christianity and set is apart was the idea that another realm exists in the spirit -- entirely unseen -- and that from this spiritual realm one leader had the indestructible power to survive and then to prevail over this world. Thus Jesus, the man, is killed but the Christ, which is part of God, survives and will return to set us “free.” Some Unitarians have always said this is fiction. Unless you want to call it metaphor.
It’s easy to slip this Christian conviction, which many in our society claim to believe literally, over onto the idea that a UFO traveling in the wake of a comet can carry beings who will come and save us, as this cult believed. Unknown, nonexistent, virtual worlds can be described any way you want. After two thousand years the people in charge of the Christian story have got a pretty good grip on it. Anyone who claims to know better than the Christian establishment story is probably not going to find a big audience. In short, declaring yourself to be the returned J.C. is probably not going to work as well as declaring yourself the returned E.T.
We are used to the institutionalized church celebration of Easter which has grown up around reenactment of the last days of Jesus. Now we have added commodification. I see in the paper there is available a little set of dolls complete with a crucified Jesus, a mourning Mary, and an open-doored tomb with a little plastic stone slab for the body not to be found upon. I don’t know how play with such dolls might shape a child’s mind. Certainly it would be interesting for a therapist to overhear. I wonder what Brother Cadfael, that practical monk of the PBS mystery series, would say.
It seems to me at once trivializing and interiorizing, making something liturgical into something merely subconscious, patterning for self-sacrifice and impossible survival, pre-conditioning for cults. Of course, a modern cynic would simply say it was a marketing opportunity about like the figures for the Hunchback of Notre Dame, complete with ambulatory gargoyles. That was a redemption story, too, wasn’t it?
Easter has two parts: Good Friday’s endarkenment and then Sunday Morning’s enlightenment. Where are the dolls of transcendence? Are they those little gold cherub pins made popular by the Brown family, who wore them to the OJ trial to symbolize their murdered daughter? Are we to take Nicole Simpson as a sort of Christ-symbol, someone crucified and now returned as a pure spirit who hovers over her children? Religion always ends up in such a mix of opportunism and suffering, scholarship and obsession, institutions and insanities. But my darkest thought is that once again we are, as Annie Dillard put it, making itsy-bitsy statues to itsy-bitsy gods.
As Christianity has gone around the world, transforming itself as it passed the boundaries of countries and through the eons of time, the Easter ceremony has become in some places a masochistic and terrifying pageant of people being actually nailed to crosses, as they are in the Philippines. In this country Easter has become so entwined with Martha Stewart Easter egg trees, baskets, bunnies and egg hunts for little children -- all baby pastel and sentimental ruffles -- that no hint of blood persists. Not the blood of crucifixion and not the blood of real birth, real sexuality, real union and conception which is the basis of the historical fertility cults of Europe that gave us rabbits and eggs.
Somehow we are able to accept without reflection the juxtaposition of eager little girls -- in their ribboned, flowered bonnets and Mary-Janes -- with the brutality of an ancient crucifixion that compelled a mother to take in her arms the broken body of her son. So are we able to combine with crucifixion the banal and conforming suicides of three dozen computer nerds, people an unkind denizen of a Waldport bar called “losers,” people so rejecting of fertility that they had been castrated? Is there a difference between the twelve apostles who followed Jesus around and the 39 followers of Bo -- minus Peep? Is there a difference between the Assumption into Heaven which is the official Catholic dogma and the UFO that this group expected to come like Ezekial’s chariot to rescue the human caterpillars into butterflyhood. I should think so.
This is the difference I see. Strategies of escaping to paradise are doomed to failure and corruption because we are creatures of this time and place. Though we can imagine other places much finer and easier than this one, nevertheless, we must stay here. Not because we are trapped or condemned, but because we are part of the Here. We are made of the Here. Our bodies arise from what is Here and our minds and spirits arise from these bodies. To reject our real bodies and this real time and place is to make ourselves unreal, untethered, and susceptible to traveling lecturers in small town motels with conference rooms on the edge of the world.
My favorite Easter story is actually several months after the crucifixion. It is about how Jesus came back to visit his apostles. Early one morning they were out fishing and He was simply waiting on the shore when they came back. Remember that Peter got so excited he jumped out of the boat? And Jesus just hung around the campfire for a bit, toasting bread and visiting. Does it get better than that? Is there more than that?
Unitarians do sometimes lose their grip. A month or so after I enrolled at Meadville/Lombard in Chicago in 1978, the James Jones Guyana mass suicide happened. In the religious community of the clustered seminaries around the University of Chicago, there were connections to that doomed cult. One of the scariest was that Jim Jones had courted Jack Mendehlsohn’s favor. (Mendehlsohn was a major UU minister.) Jones was running what then appeared to be a progressive inner city church with a strong social action program. He inquired about becoming a UU minister and Mendehlsohn was willing to suggest him as a possible Starr King student. The hitch was that Jones didn’t have an undergrad degree, which is a prerequisite for a ministry degree.
Another more anguished connection was a less-known UU minister who was serving a church in San Francisco when Jones’ ministry began to oppress people. The sister of one of the group who died in Guyana came to this UU minister for help, but neither the minister nor other authorities believed her tales of perversion and abuse. Nothing was done. The stories were too awful for him to believe. He just didn’t think people were that bad. Afterwards he spoke to the national gathering of UU ministers in penitence.
That’s enough talk about the dark side of Easter. The shadow has passed. Some of us even saw it pass over the face of the moon a week ago as we shaded our eyes from the city lights while searching for the comet Hale-Bopp over by the constellation called Cassiopeia’s chair. Eclipses and comets are cyclical, like night and day, like the seasons, like the constant coming and going on of generations, like the cyclical mammalian movement in and out of fertility. These are the raw material of liturgy. They are far deeper than ideas, or dogmas, or even civilizations. The awakening and renewal of Easter is not the property of any church or religious position. It is simply produced by the tipping and turning and circling of the planet, something as real as we are, something we belong to, something we are made of. This Easter celebration of the return of the sun is the way life adjusts to seasons, no more and no less. Because we are part of the life adjusting to the seasons, which here in Oregon means mostly adjusting to warm rain instead of cold rain, we feel this in our flesh, our very cells. We cannot help but stretch, awaken, inhale the new smells (some of us will sneeze!) and feel better every minute that the sun floods down on us.
. . . I keep a file of Easter sermons, as do many ministers. The Easter Potato is one of my favorite ideas and I like the empty tomb motif, when people go to the cave expecting something sad and decaying but find instead an echoing emptiness they can fill with hope. Most often I come back to the Tolstoy quote: “Somewhere in the world there is a green branch and on it is written the word that will save the world.” Or something like that, since the original is in Russian.
. . . Once on Sauvie’s Island long, long ago, we kids went for a walk with our parents. We stopped at a willow tree. The sap was just rising. My mother borrowed my father’s pocket knife and cut a green branch the size and length of her finger. Then she took the knife by the blade and pounded the stick with the handle until somehow she had slipped off the bark. A quick notch and a slot, the bark slipped back on, and she blew it -- a perfect whistle with as clear and sweet a tone as a bird!
. . . My mother’s willow whistle was the call of the goat-footed balloon man -- so far and weeeee! The one that Unitarian “PK” e.e. cummings wrote a poem about, about spring when it’s mud-luscious. Follow that whistle among the trees! Real branches with real leaves spread out to the sun. Today, forget the other planets. You can lie down and die some other day. Today, look for a green branch. Read what is written on it and then -- if you want to -- chew on it.
It is real! This is a spring day with a new world beginning! Cast off your old self! Be reborn! Kindle hope and reach out your arms! Dance on the green and twine flowers in your hair! Why yearn for another world when this one can be so very sweet!