I’m trying something new: posting my sermons here on this blog, so I can manage them myself. I’ll be posting the ones I think are worth publishing, starting this week and working backwards.
…and on the third day he was risen. In the Christian story, today is the day of transformation. Today is the day that Jesus proves his divinity beyond the capacity even of doubting Thomas and rises again. On Friday he was crucified, and on Sunday, a new day was born. Even the Catholic church acknowledges some allegory, some mythology, some flexibility of details. Unlike Christmas, Easter is not a fixed calendar date, it’s a moving target, always a Sunday, always. It reminds us that we did not always number time as we do now, that once we counted seven days after the first full moon or two months after the longest night of the year, that the seventeenth of October is in fact not more precise but more approximate, if the heavens are our guide. It reminds us that there are larger forces than ours, that we have impact but we are not the only forces acting in this world. And it reminds us to examine the inexplicable, to embrace the impossible, to assume that some rhyme exists, that some reason holds sway, even if we do not understand it.
It assures us that we come from something larger. We die into something larger. We do both over and over throughout even a single lifetime. We love, we die, we birth, we die, we lose, we start over and over and over. Love’s recovery is not just a pop song, it’s a leitmotif for life, it gives us our marching orders–because the world will break our hearts and we have to keep going. We have to keep giving. We have to keep loving and playing and bringing the joy, bringing the celebration, bringing the hope.
But if we resist, if we push back, if we don’t step into the fire, we can’t come through it. We can’t get out of it. Grief is not something we can go around. Pain is not something we can avoid. Pat Humphries of Emma’s Revolution sings, “Baptism of fire/ never knew what that meant but now the flames are rising higher/guess I haven’t seen anything yet…the only way out is through.” The only way out is through. And we are tempered by the fire, strengthened by it, brought closer together, chaff burnt off. Everything that remains is that which can survive and thrive. We cannot resist forever.
We dare not resist. The tidewaters of rage and anger and fear, the tidewaters of soul-rending grief cannot be dammed up indefinitely–the dike will spring a leak, and a trickle will become a flood, and the low country will be flooded from the high grounds all the way to the sea.
And so we surrender. We give in, we let go, we look for the toehold we need to go before the goddess and find the gratitude in the ache, to find the beauty in the crystal shattered on the stone. We fling our hands wide and cry to the skies and let pain become the wave, the current that comes in, the rising waters that lift all boats, ours among them,
and we become one among many and we are no longer alone.
We, too, are risen.
but who are we now?
Because there is no way you can be beaten and betrayed, rejected, abandoned, stripped and bled and broken, and come back the same person you were. You are not the one you used to be. But you are someone, because here you stand, in a body with these hands and arms and legs, with these eyes and this tongue. You are only one, yet you are one, And you cannot, as Helen Keller says, refuse to do the thing you can do. But in this new life, this phoenix-after-the-rising, what is that thing?
Rebirth is powerful stuff: the renaissance is called that for a reason–re-naissance, re- for again, naissance, for birth. Europe was a whole new place. It was probably inexplicably unsettling to those who lived it, but with history’s long view we can see how extraordinary a reconstruction it was.
Our own rebirths are just as radical. They move us, pick us up and toss us back on the beach but a thousand miles from where we started.
Seminary tends to bring out some strange tendencies in people. One of the things almost all of us do or have done is we get really curious about personality tests and take a lot of them. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, the Kiersey-Bates, and so on. Each of these sorts people into groups based on the things we do or don’t do, like or don’t like, feel or don’t feel. Then they tell us what we already know about ourselves–but the last part is that they make recommendations about how we can bring out our best. But they all depend on self-reporting, which is dicey if you’re in the middle of some major life changes. What used to be true may no longer be so, and the people around you might know you better than you know yourself. After a while I started taking them in consultation with a friend or two, so they could tell me what I did not yet know about myself.
Seminary is a crucible. It is intense, elective rebirth. Like boot camp, like medical school, like gender transition, you go in a person, you come out someone essentially yourself and yet entirely different. It does feel like dying.
Now by the time we feel like we’re dying it might be there’s nothing worth preserving. But in the resurfacing there are these moments when we remember, hey, I used to do this. Hey, I used to be that. Hey, what happened? I liked that about me. Where did it go? How much am I willing to sacrifice, now that I’ve already sacrificed everything?
Choosing rebirth itself, as in Hinduism, can be a sacrifice. It means the transformation and then it means not resting, even if you’ve earned it. It means going back into the world, going to do the work that still needs doing, going to be the person that still needs being. Vishnu came to earth as Krishna to serve as a charioteer for Arjuna the prince in a great and terrible battle, because it needed to be done, because the world needed him. The Bhadgavad-Gita is the instruction he gave to Arjuna, and is widely considered a good of Hindu theology. The sacrifice of rebirth is continuing to have dirty hands and sweaty brow, continuing to engage with an imperfect world. The joy of rebirth is in being here, in discovering our gifts and talents.
The question of what we are willing to sacrifice changes shape; when we die midstride, that which survives is our essence, our core, the irrefutable center of our being. We ask the question: what of my old self is divine? That is all we keep. Everything else is gone.
That’s a profound loss. All the habits, contexts, securities, gone. All the old familiar illness, gone. All the comfort, gone. And in the midst of all the triumph, celebration, excitement, it can be obscured. The times of grief and quiet and absorbing the transition lose their standing in the wash of joy from everyone else.
Imagine you’re Jesus. Imagine you were crucified. Beaten, tortured, dead.
And then imagine you were reborn, healed so you could go back to saving the world. The first day or two is pretty good. Your closest friends and associates are astonished and amazed and profoundly glad that you’re among the living again, even if their own grief makes them skepical. But you get a little further into your new life, say a week. Last week you were about to be crucified, this week you’re back on your feet, walking, teaching, into your routine. You’re still a little skittish about kisses. And guards and hills. Every time you see a thorny shrub it makes your head hurt a little. And don’t even talk to you about spears. But everyone wants you to be normal, the Jesus they used to know. There’s not a lot of time for you to go stare at the place where you died or touch the places on your own hands where the nails were. You’re not supposed to cry or rage or process with Peter, or try to find Judas’ body so you can bury it before the vultures shred it. And who do you talk to about the sorrow of loss, that you’ve lost yourself? Do you go to Mary Magdalene and explain how hard it is to be so different from everyone else so she can nod and say she understands? She’s so glad to have you back–they all are. How can you ask her to understand your grief when she’s already had her own?
Rebirth is not unmitigated joy. It is bittersweet. But it’s real. It is possibly the most real thing any of us will ever do. When we are born for the first time, we experience it without understanding. By the time we encounter even the possibility of doing it again, we have known not just triumph, not just Palm Sunday, but despair.
Our forbears, some of them, were Anabaptists. They had adult baptism only, because they believed that each person had to consciously choose to enter the church. Many traditions now have multi-part processes; Catholics have baptism, first communion, confirmation. We have dedication, coming of age, membership, and bridging. These allow for an adult choice, th moment to deliberately enter into the process of renewal and transformation.
Each person must choose. The choice gives us a sense of power, of agency, of bigness in a very big universe.
The profoundest part of the crucifixion narrative is that Jesus did not choose without reservation. He prayed at Gesthamene that the bitter cup might pass from him. His experience of separation from everything and everyone is so profound that he calls out to the god that he himself incarnates, and asks, “why hast thou forsaken me?”
Why have I abandoned myself?
What sense of loss is greater than this,
and what is more necessary?
How can a human-merely-being become Cummings’ unimaginable You (because that’s what’s happening—a human is being transformed into a god) without first being lost to everything and everyone, including–most importantly–himself?
As long as we cling to what we were, we cannot become who we are.
Jesus Christ–christos, the anointed one–is risen. Until the moment of reappearance, though, no one knows. He is just another disappointment, vanquished. The bad guys have won. Until today. Until this morning. Until the day that changes everything.
I watched a TED talk last week. These are 20 minute speeches given by people with big ideas who have won grants from TED, a “small nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading”. The best ones get put online. The one I watched was of Kevin Bales speaking about modern slavery and how to go about eliminating it. He says that since the 1600’s the price of a person in today’s money has dropped from about 40,000 to about 90 dollars. Enslaved people–people are no longer even a capital investments. People are less expensive than cars. They have become disposable, like coffee cups. Children are slaving in quarries. Adults are being beaten to death in agriculture. One of my colleagues is witnessing to and fighting slavery right here in Florida. There are 27 million people forced to work without pay under a threat of violence and cannot walk away. Only Iceland and Greenland are entirely slavery-free. Every other country seems to have slavery in active operation. Anyplace that has legal corruption, anyplace where people can get away with being violent, the vulnerable can be enslaved.
Bales was in Nepal, working to free people, and the owners and slave traders were menacing them. He was scared. And he said to a woman there, “Are you upset?” And she said, “No.” She said, “People like you come from the other side of the world to stand with us, and so we have hope. How can we not have hope? How could we not succeed?”
And that’s what the story says that the divine Jesus did, he came, god as man, to stand with humans, to be in solidarity with humans in suffering, carrying the possibility of success and bringing hope.
Not just once, but twice. Born and reborn, divine on earth, like Krishna, come to teach and transform and be with us.
Now here’s the miracle of Unitarian Universalism: We all have that of god within us. Every birth brings the presence of the divine into the world. And in our struggles, in our heartache, in our pain, we die and we could let the divine slip away. We could become embittered and disconnected and lose sight of the sacred within us, and of our sacred responsibility to the world. We could stop and get mired in the hurt. But we don’t. We in this faith rely on our people, our religion, our practice, our community, on our people, to bring us back from the dead with our hearts again made whole. Mended hearts. Healing hearts. Duct-taped hearts if necessary. Whatever it takes to keep us in the world as deeply caring, fiercely good people. That is what we do here. That is what this faith does. That is our miracle of Easter.
He is risen.
We are risen.