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.
–Leela

Easter 2010
Ellsworth, Maine
Born Again

…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.

Happy Easter.
He is risen.
We are risen.
Amen.

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For our Easter service this week I wrote a piece of speculative fiction. I am writing into the tradition of Jesus Christ Superstar and Real Live Preacher‘s Dramatized Versions and mean absolutely no disrespect.

Mark 16 (New International Version)
The Resurrection
1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6″Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Dear Diary,

It’s been a week. No, ten days. Remind me again why I did this? I could have stayed a nice, quiet carpenter, son of a carpenter. But no, I was curious. I didn’t believe what my people believed. So I had to go stir the pot, make trouble, tell people what I was thinking. I never thought it would come to that, much less this. You know that sinking feeling you get in your belly when you realize something is not going to be easy or simple? I should have paid attention. Crucifixion ought to be forbidden. There is nothing that can justify that much pain.

And now, odd as it seems, I’m back. It’s been good to see everyone again. I didn’t miss them–how could I? I was dead. But they missed me, and it’s pretty incredible to see them so happy. On the other hand, I have to wonder what happens now. The shock has worn off, the joy is softer, and it’s mostly like I was never gone. Now I go places and it’s heal this, save me from that, cast out the other thing. They seem to have lost all their independence, forgotten everything I taught them before I died. They expect me to be their leader like before, but it’s just not the same. I was dead. Dead–gone, vanished, not of this world. It changed me. The whole week changed me. I let people kiss me but I don’t really like it. I’m nervous around guards and spears and people in general, and this ability to vanish and reappear whenever and wherever I need to is still new. I feel different. I feel separate. I’m not the person I once was. I miss it–just eating and talking and joking as if it’s all going to be okay. It could end at any moment. What if your next sentence is your last? Now I’m a walking miracle. People don’t treat me like a regular person anymore. I have to reconnect all over again. It’s hard. And it’s lonely. I have to have answers, I have to be perfect. I can’t be their friend like before. We’re not the same anymore. They weren’t there with me; they don’t know. they can’t know. I don’t want them to ever go through anything like it. But I’ve changed. Things are never going to be the same, and I can’t explain that.

Do I have a choice about this?

Never mind, we already had that conversation. I just miss having friends. You’d think being a god would make things easy.

–Jesus

The truth about sermon topics is that they’re a false promise. That’s why I don’t like them–I don’t generally make promises I can’t keep. But the most I can say a month in advance is the general line along which I’m thinking. In fact, when I sit down to write I usually just have a word–a single word, or a short phrase–and the writing wraps itself around that. On a holiday it might be the name of the holiday, or it might be something else–rebirth, sex, abundance, exile, transformation, survival. They’re big words. There’s a lot in them. And the sermon doesn’t usually let me know what it’s really about until sometime on Friday, when I’ve chewed it over and let it sit some.

In other traditions they have a lectionary: a pre-determined sequence of Bible texts that will be the basis for the sermons over a one- or three-year rotation. In the lectionaries with which I’m most familiar, they have a New Testament, a Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament, and a psalm each week. The minister gets to pick. Those old stories have a lot of latitude, but I imagine after twenty years preaching on the same texts gets challenging sometimes. On the other hand, it means they are in deeper and deeper conversation with the writings that they hold holy. I can’t imagine what our lectionary would look like, if we had one: This week, the poem is Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese; the prose is Anne Lamott’s story about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Bird By Bird; and the musical text is “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer.
Go.
It would have to change every year. It would have to include theologians and New York Times articles and popular fiction. We’d need someone whose job it was to sift through new suggestions annually and produce the lectionary in advance. So maybe I can envision it. I actually think that would be an amazing job, producing the UU lectionary. And then, like everything else in our tradition, clergy would choose to use or not use it at will. I think a lot of us might welcome the challenge and the comfort, and the sense of connection. Imagine if you could talk with UU friends across the country about the lectionary readings. Imagine if there could be lectionary study groups. Just imagine. Maybe we’d get dull, but maybe we’d be more connected than ever.

Just imagine.

I write thank you notes. I write them a lot. I know they matter. But sometimes they don’t get read by the people who need to see them. Maybe if I write to the internet…

Dear Living Tradition Fund contributors,

Yes, even you, even the one who put five dollars in the plate at the last installation you attended which was when your minister was installed fifteen years ago and haven’t done anything since. Even you, who don’t know really that the Living Tradition Fund exists.

Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you also on behalf of my congregation, which has no idea what a difference you have made in my life. I received my second LTF debt reduction grant this week. It’s not much in the face of my debt load: between three and four percent. Last year it was smaller. Every year I hope I won’t need it the next year. It won’t get me out of debt tomorrow. But it makes a difference. Here’s why it matters:

It matters because it helps. Every little bit helps. Even small drops eventually fill the bucket. If a thousand people give five dollars, that’s $5000. If all 100,000 of our people gave five dollars that would be $500,000. And if we each gave $50, that would be 5 million dollars, if my math is right. And if we did that for 10 years, 20 years,30 years…you can see where this is going. Every donation matters.

It matters because it says to me that I matter. It says that my denomination, its members and leaders, are interested in, and committed to, supporting the continuation of an educated clergy. Clergy education is taxing. We ask a lot of our ministers. It asks of us four full-time years (or many more at part-time), and somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 dollars. It asks that we move, along with our families, or it asks that we travel extensively for our education. It asks that we study hard and lose sleep and dismantle and reassemble ourselves into the shape of this thing called minister. We’re working on developing new systems, but that’s how it is right now, and every one of us gives up a lot because we believe in this faith and want to work to strengthen and deepen and bring it to the world. We believe in us. That’s why we do it. But we also need to eat. And these grants mean that people get that, and they are supportive. That matters so much, especially on the hard days when it’s easy to believe that what I do doesn’t matter. And yes, we do have those days. (Don’t believe me? Look at Mother Theresa’s diaries. Or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s). It matters.

It matters because eventually the debt gets smaller, and when it does, I will have more to give. Economic stress makes me less available to everyone in my life: less available to my congregation, less available to my family, less available to strangers on the street. Whatever energy I don’t have to devote to thinking about lining Citibank’s pockets I can instead direct toward pastoral care and prophetic outreach, study and preaching and ministry. I am a better minister when I have less stress about money. Grants reduce not only the immediate strain, but the overwhelming sense of debt that presses on the psyche. Especially for those of us paid under and in the low ranges of the pay scale, it can feel like we’re never going to get out. Your gifts help show us the light at the end of the tunnel.

All of this doesn’t even touch on the support that you give everyone else: ministers in financial crisis and retired ministers and spouses of retired and deceased ministers who need help. The LTF is the means by which the ministry is supported…by you. All of you.

So thank you. Thank you for giving your money to the Living Tradition Fund so that it could support your ministers and the ministry that we all do in the world.

Thank you.

As often happens, I hunted and hunted for a tell-able version of this myth before writing my own for use in Sunday service. Research tells me that the details have flexed over time in true folk traditional style, so I have made my own choices about what from which versions to keep and what to leave out. Tradition says, for example, that there were 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 pomegranate seeds–I suggest you pick a number that corresponds to the length of your winter.

The original title for this is “The Rape of Persephone”. Modern retellings often take “The Abduction of Persephone” as their name instead. For audiences with very young children, like mine, I prefer simply “Persephone’s Tale”.

Please do not reprint without permission, but feel free to tell it (out loud) with attribution. Enjoy!

Once upon a time a long time ago in the land of Greece there was a god named Zeus and a goddess named Demeter. keep reading

Last Sunday I quoted briefly from an Alice Walker poem; this week it turned up in the Panhala poetry feed. Here it is: Expect Nothing.

Michael Durall wrote The Almost Church Revitalized, which has been a major part of our board’s revisioning and revitalization process. Because of that book our board members are thinking differently about who they are and what we as a congregation are doing. It has been transformative. He writes here in the UU World about the private vs. public church, and how the spiritual and religious worlds are changing. What do you think?