We’re talking Easter this morning, and right off the bat I want to say that the essential story is bigger than Christian tradition can contain. The essential story, larger than Christianity and longer-lasting than any religious tradition, is that of the underdog triumphing. It’s crabgrass bursting through concrete. It’s the lily blooming out from a foot of snow. It’s the ugly duckling who turns out beautiful. It’s the little engine that not just could but does.
We already know this story. And it’s so good, every time.
Tell it again and again.
Easter is this essential human story—told in concentrated form.
And perhaps the concentrated nature of it is the reason why it’s an especially challenging variant of the “underdog triumphs” motif. Some stories are fairly mild, like your basic Publix variety green pepper. But then you have stories which scorch like the pepper called Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, one of the hottest peppers on the planet, with a Scoville rating of 1,463,700 SHUs. I’m not even going to explain what an SHU is. I think you get the picture.
The Easter story is like that, for Unitarian Universalists.
It’s why the Rev. Steve Cook says, “It’s a tough holiday for UUs, probably the toughest.” The Rev. Forrest Church calls it “an awkward holiday.” “UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” says the Rev. Jane Rzepka. And religious educator Michelle Richards titles a recent article, “What’s a UU Family to Do On Easter?”
There’s an old joke that says if you drive through town on Easter Sunday you can always tell the UU church apart. All the other churches have signs proclaiming “Hallelujah! Jesus is Risen!” The Unitarian Universalist sign, on the other hand, announces, “Hooray! Flowers are pretty!”
If you are new among us this morning, or new to Unitarian Universalism, I know. It sounds like a whole lot of hand-wringing.
In part, it’s because UUs tend to be overachievers. We tend to be perfectionistic. The Universalist side of us reassures us that God loves us just as we are, warts and all, but the Unitarian side of us has long spoken of “salvation by character” and encourages us to max out our potentials, be all we can be. Shun complacency.
On the Unitarian side of the spiritual family, there are no couch potatoes.
So we can be hard on ourselves. Where this connects with Easter is simply the fact that Easter is challenging for everyone. For everyone, it’s like a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. Doesn’t matter what tradition you’re from. Christmas is easy. Everybody loves babies. Everybody loves Christmas gifts and the star of Bethlehem. But Easter? There is no Easter without Good Friday, first of all, and that means crucifixion. There’s nothing cute about crucifixion, just a whole lot of excruciating violence and blood. Then there’s the part of the story when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb where Jesus’ body is supposed to be, but it’s not there, no one knows what’s happened, perhaps some kind of miracle called “resurrection” but no one’s sure, and it is all so terrifying that the women flee from the area because (as the Gospel of Mark says) they are “seized with trembling and bewilderment.” They talk to no one because “they were afraid.”
Yay Easter. Gimme some excruciating violence and blood, with a side of trembling and bewilderment and fear. Gimme something called “resurrection” that stretches credulity to the point of breaking.
No wonder millions of people have pretty much secularized the holiday, and for them it’s just an occasion to dress up and be a family together at church (but it’s more about FAMILY TOGETHERNESS than church), then, afterwards, a nice meal, then the kids running around the yard hunting for Easter eggs, some of which have been stuffed with chocolate, others stuffed with single dollar bills, and then the prize egg stuffed with a $50 dollar bill, and before you know it, the Easter egg hunt has devolved into the Easter egg melee and then the Easter egg war and this is all miles away from the crucifixion and the women who loved Jesus fleeing the tomb in sheer fright.
Easter is just tough.
But on top of this, yes, there really is additional toughness for Unitarian Universalists. There is rhyme and reason behind all the hand-wringing.
Part of this has to do with our diversity as a religious community. “Our UU churches just can’t win on Easter,” writes the Rev. Jane Rzepka, because of the mutually exclusive desires of the people who come to services. They come, she says, “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…”
In the quantum world, particles are waves and waves, particles. But worship is not a quantum world. When we have mutually exclusive desires, some are met and some are not met. And then what?
We love our diversity—we believe that there’s nothing else like diverse community to support a search for truth and meaning that is free and creative and open and, ultimately, one characterized by integrity. But, clearly, diversity poses its own challenges.
As for the other reason why Easter is especially tough for Unitarian Universalists. It’s because UUs take the Bible seriously without taking it literally. For us, the resurrection is figurative in significance only. It wasn’t ever a concrete historical happening. It never WAS, but (as a metaphorical reality of the human condition) it always IS. Pain and suffering and evil need never be the last word. Addiction can give rise to sobriety. Bitterness can give rise to blessing. Tragedy can give rise to wisdom. The phoenix will rise from the ashes….
But our specific spin on the resurrection puts us at odds with a great deal of Christian America, which believes that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected. It’s “an awkward holiday,” writes the Rev. Forrest Church, because “the trumpets sound, we all sing, and Jesus is not [literally] resurrected. […] So what are we doing here? Why even bother?”
“What’s a UU Family to Do On Easter?” says religious educator Michelle Richards because she knows full well that the kids at school are having conversations during recess and the Unitarian Universalist kids are trying to explain their point of view which is way subtler than the conservative black and white views of their friends.
“It’s a tough holiday for UUs, probably the toughest,” says the Rev. Steve Cook, because, ironically, Easter can cause us to doubt ourselves and our communal wisdom. Taking the Bible seriously and not literally does not lead to the same sort of black and white certainties that our conservative religionists bandy about so obnoxiously—and we can envy their swagger. We can envy their “old time religion.” What is such a strength for us, we can see as a weakness. We are too much in our heads, we say. Too much head, not enough heart.
What ARE we doing here? Why bother?
Here’s why Unitarian Universalists should bother with Easter, even though it can taste like a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper…
If Easter is special in the way it brings out mutually exclusive desires in people, as the Rev. Jane Rzepka says—and I think she’s exactly right—then Easter invites us to think more carefully about what Unitarian Universalist diversity means and how to manage it well.
Easter comes, and you better believe, we very quickly become aware of a special form of diversity in this place: varying comfort levels with Christianity. Some people are fine with God-talk and fine with the traditional songs and imagery. “In Jesus name we pray,” is not offensive but comforting. And then there are those who are like vegetarians being offered a juicy steak. Traditional songs and imagery that smack of Christianity are jarring and unwelcome—real turn-offs.
Unitarian Universalism is part of the problem here—and it is ALL of the solution.
I say “part of the problem” because Unitarian Universalism is just a little over 50 years old. (Yes, Unitarianism as a separate tradition is positively ancient, and so is Universalism as a separate tradition—but they married in 1961 and the marriage created something completely new. That’s why I’m saying we’re just a little over 50 years old.) And, from the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!
That’s the problem I’m talking about, and it’s a good problem, it’s the problem of growing up and figuring out who we are.
As for Unitarian Universalism being ALL of the solution, what I mean is how our faith calls us to bring compassion to our self-understanding and to the understanding of others. Each of us has a past. Each of us has a story. Our spiritual preferences reflect this. For a long time I could not say the word Jesus without choking, because I was in recovery from being a part of an abusive fundamentalist church growing up. I was allergic to Christianity. Highly. Some of you are right there. Now, when I start to talk about Jesus, pretty soon I’m brought to tears because I love him so. He is beautiful and noble. The allergies have all been worked out. Some of you are right there. And others of you grew up with good experiences, so you’ve never had to heal any allergies. Still others of you are in a different place, and Jesus and God and the Bible are just interesting and you want to know more and all the talk about allergies is actually off-putting for you….
If we can’t bring compassion to this Beloved Community and our shared religious venture, then we are not really Unitarian Universalist at all. Or we’re just bad UUs. As a people of covenant, our diversity works because we make a basic promise to each other: to give up a sense of entitlement, that everything that happens in worship or anywhere else has to satisfy me all the time in all ways. We make a promise to give that up. We also promise to be generous. When we are our best UU selves, and something happens and it’s like we’re vegetarian and someone offers us a steak, of course we don’t eat it, but we also don’t grumble grumble grumble, because we know that someone else in our Beloved Community needs that steak and delights in it. Knowing that is what makes it all OK. That’s what feels good. That’s what Beloved Unitarian Universalist Community is all about.
And so we bother with Easter. We brave Easter even though it brings up mutually exclusive desires. Covenant helps bring us through and take us to something that’s beautiful.
We also bother with Easter even though it puts us at odds with millions of others who read the Bible literally and not figuratively, not as a poetry of the spirit. For them, resurrection is about Jesus literally coming back to life after he was definitively destroyed; resurrection is about this specific miracle. Understandably so, since it was Paul in the Christian scriptures who declared that if this kind of resurrection did not happen, then all of the Christian faith is folly.
But we part ways with Paul. Christianity is not folly, even though Jesus died and stayed dead. That’s what my Unitarian Universalism leads me to, and in fact it tells me that the literalistic conception just confines the resurrection, makes it too small, makes it actually irrelevant to regular human beings here on planet earth who are constantly experiencing tragedy and pain and constantly feeling burned up like the phoenix and we can taste those ashes in our mouth and we cry out to God to be born again and we don’t know how to manufacture that miracle for ourselves, it just has to happen in its own good time…
We need to get the resurrection right. You do know what the symbol of our congregation is? The phoenix. Resurrection is who we are.
Go back to the old story. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last week of his life. His disciples actually thought that he was finally going to take possession of his rightful power as the Messiah. They actually thought he was going to go in like Rambo and crush the Romans and take over. Did you know that? But he didn’t. The most vigorous thing he did was argue with the moneylenders in the Temple and turn a table over. Mostly, what he did was preach love to God and love to man. He sat around praying. That’s pretty much it.
When he was arrested by the Romans (because they too thought he was going to go all Rambo on them), that was the last straw for the disciples. It shattered all their illusions about who he was. In disgust. they started to drift away, one by one. Peter, his closest follower, denied him three times. We all know what the infamous Judas did—but now stay with me. This is Judas ISCARIOT we are talking about, and “Iscariot” comes from he word “sicaroi” which refers to a group of Jewish terrorists who violently resisted Roman rule. In other words, it’s likely that Judas was so frustrated at Jesus’ nonviolence that he turned on him. Love became rage, in the blink of an eye.
Now we’re getting into the heart of the real Easter story, the real story of resurrection. It’s not about what happened to Jesus’ body. It’s about what happened to Peter and the disciples who survived those turbulent days of death, and beyond. It’s about what happened to the women who went to the tomb, discovered it empty, were “seized with trembling and bewilderment” and then ran away from the scene, talking to no one, because “they were afraid.”
That’s what I call the phoenix all burned up, all ashes. The underdog who seems like he’s always going to stay under and it’s NEVER going to get better. The ugly duckling that seems he’s always going to be ugly. The little train that seems like he can’t.
But we know what happened. Death did not defeat Love. Death did not conquer it. Death only changed it. That’s the miracle. Jesus’ words and Jesus’ spirit came alive in his followers and they realized that the whole Rambo-obsession was completely misguided, that what this world needs is less Rambo and more Beloved Community. Gandhi realized that too. So did Dr. King. What this world needs is less obsession with impossible miracles and more focus on the sort of miracles that really can happen.
We bother with Easter because we get to say that. Unitarian Universalism gets to say, “The resurrection and the life is not at all supernatural. It’s not about a dead body coming to life. It’s about broken hearts made whole, love transformed into beauty and strength and community. Against all odds, the underdog does triumph. It happened to the followers of Jesus, after everything they endured. And it can happen to us today. Humans are that resilient. Have hope. Keep hope alive.”
We get to say that.
That’s why we bother with Easter.