This Easter sermon, aimed at Unitarian Universalists and other skeptics, focuses on the life and ministry of Jesus as described in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Whatever our perspective on resurrection, there are stories about learning, healing, and sharing that may resonate with us today.
Easter was a little bit confusing for me as a liberal Christian kid in the 70s. I wasn’t quite sure why death and resurrection led to chocolate and jellybeans. Easter promised hope for life after despair, the immediacy of the Divine presence, and the persistence of community through trauma … and may or may not have involved literally raising a physical body from the dead. The church where I grew up was Jesus-centered, but people had a range of beliefs about Jesus. We didn’t have to agree about the meaning or literal truth of Bible stories before we got around to feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, comforting those in sorrow, and welcoming the stranger. Perhaps that sounds familiar.
Artists, singers, writers, and preachers have described Jesus in many different ways over the centuries. The Jesus of my childhood was a hippie. He had long hair, he associated with all classes of people, and he stood up to The Man. As fond as I am of that image, I know it’s not the only interpretation that’s supported by the text and by the personal experience of people who follow Jesus. Still, it was formative for me. The folk song by Peter Scholtes was a template for me of what a religious community could be:
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love
As the second-wave feminist movement took off and people began searching for more gender-inclusive ways of describing the Holy, sometimes we changed the words to “we are one in accord.” I like removing imperialist, sexist language, but “of one accord” sort of implies that people of faith never disagree with each other. On the contrary, I think having a clear, shared purpose gives people in spiritual communities, including us, the freedom to speak our various truths in love. Perhaps being one in accord means that the community works together on a mission.
If it’s true that all religions are different paths along the same mountain, my personal journey has been one of whacking through the weeds between paths, laterally around the mountain. I’ve mapped out some places where trails cross, and I’ve found sacred circles of hikers both near and far from the established paths. Maybe that sounds familiar, too.
After I wandered away from the friendly caravan of liberal Christians, I traveled alone for awhile as a solitary Pagan. I prayed with friends who were earth-centered Jews and self-described Witches along with other nature-loving spirits. When I reached the inn of Unitarian Universalism, there was room for all of the traditions I had colored into my map. Lifelong UU’s helped me understand the heritage of this faith, and UU’s from all directions shared their stories. UU pilgrims of have welcomed me, challenged me, and encouraged me. Wandering around the mountain is easier and more fruitful in community. May it be so for you as well.
Anyway, I didn’t think too much about Christianity for a few years, but my background came in really handy when I went to visit Transylvania in 2001. There has been a continuous Unitarian presence in that region for almost 500 years. I knew what they meant when they quoted the book of Matthew, “Be ye as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves.” Hungarian-speaking Unitarians described their Christian identity to me as a matter, not of worshipping Jesus, but following him. When I returned to the states, I met more people who were both UU and Christian. In interfaith meetings and in my counseling classes and Loyola, it was very helpful to have a common language with other folks who had studied the New Testament. Here at UUF, parents decided that Bible literacy is important for our kids, too, which is why we’ve focused on it in RE from December through next week.
Unitarian Universalism is a faith with its own depth and mystery, and also enough welcoming breadth to include people along beautifully complex spiritual journeys. We have UU Atheists and UU Buddhists along with Jewish UUs and UU Pagans and just plain UUs. Stories about Jesus might not come up every week, yet it seems appropriate to refer to them today. On this day when we have “wintered enough, mourned enough,” (quoting Jane Rzepka from our opening reading) the stories of Jesus’ ministry may draw us back into the spirit of life and the practice of community. When we teach and learn together, when we heal, when we share at the welcome table, we may find ourselves remembering Easter.
Teaching and Learning
One aspect of spiritual community that comes through in stories about Jesus is the practice of teaching and learning together. Recall that Jesus describes himself as a prophet, someone who offered critique and called for renewal within his own tradition. One of my Jewish friends said his grandfather, a rabbi, had a favorite Yiddish phrase for calling students in: kimmen learnen, come learn. The invitation was not to listen or to work, but to join in the circle of discovery.
My kids’ dad is Jewish, and he just about melts with joy when the twins ask insightful questions or make clever arguments. My daughter mentioned the other day that she was celebrating the birthday of one of her toys, and started singing “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew. My son noticed a Passover card game, and launched into a list of questions. “Why did Moses want to defeat his brother Pharaoh when they grew up? How did he move the water? What if he wasn’t a real person in that story and was just a character?” As their parent, it’s a lot of work to keep up with their curiosity, but this is exactly what their dad and their other mom and I hoped for. When they surprise us and challenge us with learning, we have such pride.
Learning is not a matter of passively receiving information, but actively engaging. Active, shared teaching and learning is very Jewish and also characteristic of the kind of teaching Jesus often does in the gospels. I think this is part of the reason why Jesus uses parables; parables ask listeners to imagine and to draw their own conclusions. Some of his teaching is a little more straightforward, like the Sermon on the Mount, but even then he phrases things in surprising ways that challenge listeners to think. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors” (Matt 5:43). Jesus uses the pattern “you have heard it said … but what I tell you is” several times. Many, if not all, of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are aimed at increasing unity among the people.
This style of active teaching and learning come up in different ways in different gospels, framed as public speeches and as private dialogues. One of the examples of an individual conversation is with the Samaritan woman at the well in John, chapter 4. Just the fact that he is depicted having this conversation, across the lines of gender and culture, says something about the respect and inclusivity of the early Jesus movement (“the Jesus movement” is a phrase I borrowed from John Dominic Crossan. See his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, for further reading). The woman at the well asks insightful questions and makes comments that uncover the common ties between Jews and Samaritans. In their book, Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker point out:
“The Samaritan woman would become one of the most popular figures in early Christian art. She appeared in the mid-third-century Dura Europa baptistery, in the Roman catacombs, and in early church mosaics. Usually wearing a striped dress, she stood at the well, bucket in hand, while Jesus sat nearby, speaking to her. Her boldness in disputation suggests that one way paradise flows into the world as living water is through those who raise questions, probe answers, and stay in the conversation.” (From Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 44)
Jesus’ method of teaching is the active engagement of a community of learning in an atmosphere of respect for all. I think we can get behind that. You may have heard the joke about directional signs in the afterlife, “This way to heaven,” and “This way to a discussion about heaven.” For UU’s, they point the same way. We are seekers, scientists, mystics, and investigators. Asking big questions is central to the way of our faith. Each one of us brings our own responses to those questions. We work to build a congregation and a world where every seeker can fully participate in the conversation. We each bring different thoughts and talents.
This is a congregation where we share our gifts. We respect one another and encourage each other in our spiritual growth. One ways we show that respect and encouragement is by inviting members and friends to lead summer Sunday services. Your perspective matters. Each person’s active engagement with learning and spirituality matters. Let M.N. or D.L.K. know when you’d like to speak your truth in love.
Another aspect of Jesus’ ministry is that of healing. He doesn’t just go around lifting the illnesses of the wealthy and powerful, although of course sickness and suffering reach everyone eventually. Healing stories about Jesus focus on people who have been cut off from other sources of hope. In the stories, he not only restores sight, strength, and relief from physical pain; his compassionate attention and physical touch cross the borders of marginalization. He brings rejected people back into community by acknowledging their humanity.
For instance, there is this pair of healing stories from Luke 5:12-20 (similar to Mark 1:40-2:5; this is from the Revised English Bible translation):
He was once in a certain town where there was a man covered with leprosy; when he saw Jesus, he threw himself to the ground and begged his help. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘if only you will, you can make me clean.’ Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will: be clean.’ The leprosy left him immediately. Jesus then instructed him not to tell anybody. ‘But go,’ he said, ‘show yourself to the priest, and make the offering laid down by Moses for your cleansing; that will certify the cure.’ But the talk about him spread ever wider, so that great crowds kept gathering to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.
One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven you.’
In the first story, Jesus not only acknowledged the man who was an outcast due to his illness, he touched the person. His next step was to encourage the person to “certify the cure.” In other words, he wanted the man to immediately and officially re-enter the community.
In the second story, the patient’s friends encountered an obstacle, but they found a way to bring their friend to a healing place. Jesus saw their faith, the commitment of the group of people holding someone in care. It didn’t matter that power brokers were watching and criticizing. The time, place, and social status of the suffering person in front of him didn’t stand in the way of compassion.
There is a difference between healing and curing. Curing takes away the symptoms and fixes the broken parts. Healing embraces the whole person. Healing is an experience of humanity and dignity. Someone in the process of healing might still have pain, they might still have limitations that other people don’t, yet they also have the fullness of being. To heal is to travel with the Spirit of Life. I’m not sure if I believe that Jesus could cure, but I don’t have any trouble believing that his ministry healed some of the wounds of dehumanization.
Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Attitudes are the real disability.” It means that exclusion and rejection based on physical, intellectual, or emotional ability are based on the choices of the dominant group, not on the conditions of the marginalized group. Some of us are accepted as temporarily able-bodied, but we use adaptive technologies like cars, eyeglasses, and telephones. The only difference between these and strategies such as wheelchairs, text-to-voice readers, and sign language interpretation is that some people are singled out for trying to have full inclusion in community life and some people can take it for granted. It costs money to be welcoming and inclusive. It costs lives to stop short of inclusivity.
I think the essence of the healing stories in the New Testament was to proclaim a way of being together in which love overcomes rejection. Jesus was healing individual people, and he was also healing attitudes that turn differences into disabilities. Just like the group who lowered their friend through the ceiling, spiritual love finds a way to bring people from the margins to the center.
You may remember a day not that long ago when we had an ice storm on a Saturday afternoon. S. E. did an amazing job hacking away at the ice late into the night around the parking lot as well as the walkway, but there was more than one person could handle. I came in to get worship set up before the Board meeting the next morning, and I did the best I could with our snow shovel and our dwindling supply of ice melt. P.N. arrived and took over from me. L. looked at the ice melt supply and ran out to three different stores searching for reinforcements. P.P. had winter skills and additional tools hard-won from Minnesota, so he was out there, too. The meeting was about to start, so S.P. picked up where the Board members left off. D. and M. G. came in and relieved S. I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting some people. By the time worship started, we had a safe and welcoming walkway into church.
Our building is already fairly accessible. There are no stairs to worry about. We have grab bars and plenty of room to turn around in the restrooms. Our sound system includes an audio loop so that people who are hard-of-hearing can catch what is said in worship. Every once in awhile, we get to put in a little extra effort to make sure our doors are open to all. Come, come, whoever you are.
It seems to me that love was the overwhelming power that sent everybody who was able out to clear the sidewalk. We love our friends who amble in and roll in. We love the folks who thunder in on little feet. We love the stranger who needs to know that their arrival is joyfully anticipated. Out of love and concern for these friends and neighbors, known and unknown, people pitched in. These are the actions of spiritual folks who want to tear down the barriers that might prevent someone from fully participating in community.
People of faith open up pathways from the margins to the center. To do that, we sometimes need to be willing to change. We need to be willing to change attitudes that turn out to be exclusionary. We need to be willing to change physical surroundings and comfortable routines. This congregation has changed and will change again, because the mission of hospitality is constant.
A third activity identified with Jesus’ life and ministry was sharing, especially sharing food and wine. He ate and drank with tax-collectors and sinners (Luke 5:30). He set a table where all were welcome, mixing genders and social classes and cultures in shocking ways. His first miracle was at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11), signaling that a spiritually vibrant path could include celebration. Jesus spoke of having life abundantly (John 10:10). There is a story from Luke (24:31) that takes place after Jesus’ death in which the disciples see him, talk with him, and walk with him; but they don’t recognize him until after the breaking of the bread. The literal and symbolic practice of the welcome table, with food and love for all, was important for the early Jesus movement.
What does that mean for us as Unitarian Universalists? We are sometimes criticized for sitting down together with a mixed bag of folks. Seeing the way we join together in acts of faith without enforcing a creedal test, we’ve been accused by our gentlest critics of not being serious about our religion. Less gentle commenters call us a cult because of our diversity. We’ll sit down at the table with anybody.
Like just about every religious group, we do works of charity. We share the spirit of hospitality. That’s not controversial. What’s upsetting to our detractors is when we criticize the systems of inequality that make poverty worse.
UU’s are NOT the only faith movement that seeks to eliminate poverty at both ends, the root systemic causes and the results in our communities. In fact, our interfaith relationships can be strengthened when we recognize ourselves in league with all of the justice-seeking people, from every religious category and from non-religious categories. There are lots of folks out there overturning the stalls of the money-changers. Let’s create a table where we can break bread with them as well as with our neighbors who know first-hand the impact of economically unjust systems. Fellowship is a powerful force.
Let’s show up with more enthusiasm than ever for our turn at the Sharing Table on May 24. Let’s bring our friends and all of the macaroni and cheese we can carry. Let’s search all the couch cushions at home for quarters to share in the laundry room a Harford Family House. Let’s add an extra jar of grape jelly to the basket for the Harford Food Pantry.
At the same time, let’s remember that trickle-down charity within a broken social contract is not enough. As we practice fellowship with neighbors from all genders, social classes, and cultures, we will build relationships. On the strength of those relationships, may we transform our society to one in which every person will have life abundantly.
Unitarian Universalists are a theologically diverse bunch. Some of us have some history with Christianity or regard Jesus as an important teacher. Some of us have other spiritual priorities. We bring different perspectives and experiences with the Spirit of Life. Some of us might attribute the continuing presence of the Divine among people as evidence of the Resurrection. Others might see all the hope we need in the human drive toward love and compassion. In any case, I think there are resonances between the life and ministry described in the gospels and the priorities we have as a UU congregation. We teach and learn together, creating a circle where wisdom flows in from many sources, honoring what each person has to share. We seek to heal as well as cure, removing the obstacles to a fully inclusive community and relieving suffering wherever possible. We set a welcome table, sharing food and abundant life with our neighbors. To me, the clearest glimpses of the Holy shine through in these moments of learning, healing, and sharing. Regardless of theology, we can be of one accord in acts of compassion.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.