Easter Sermon

Sunday, April 24, 2011
“Yearning for Renewal – An Easter Flower Communion Service”
The Rev. Stefanie Etzbach-Dale

Spring is all about renewal!  Join us as we explore the ways in which different traditions express their yearning for renewal and what those expressions say about their value systems!  This service will include a Flower Communion – so bring along a cut flower to represent the beauty of YOUR yearning!

Our opening words reminded us that “movement” is an integral part of the spiritual journey we human beings are on!  

And when I think of Easter, I can’t help but think of movement.   The movement (40-something years ago) of my eyes, darting back and forth across the living room, under the sofa, behind the plants, next to the radiator – yearning for a glimpse of color  not normally found there!  Hoping to spot a brightly painted, or foil encased, Easter egg. 

 And when I did find one, there was the movement of my whole body, as I raced to that spot to scoop up the egg before my sister or brother were able to, and to bury it in the green paper grass that spilled out of my Easter basket! 

I loved that aspect of Easter.  I loved having a holiday so filled with chocolate surprises ; with the experience of heightened senses, and discovery; with movement!  While grown ups looked on – in loving amusement!

 And I still love that part of Easter.  I look forward to watching the children here today dash about, looking for eggs.  And to see you doing so!  And, I hope to find an egg or two, myself.

 But there is, as we heard during our time with the children earlier, another aspect of Easter.  Actually, there are many!

 There’s the timeless, cross-cultural experience of welcoming new life; of gratitude; of celebrating the Springtime bounties of the earth:  a return to joyful abundance! And, the hope that all of this generates.  

There are the many stories that illustrate something about life’s renewal; that serve to explain the seasonal cycles of abundance and want.  

For example, there is the story of Persephone, whose presence on the earth, according to ancient Greeks, brought about its greening in Spring and Summer and whose time in the underworld gave rise to the barrenness of Fall and Winter.

 And there’s the story of the fertility goddess Ostara, who gave new life to an injured creature in the springtime:  a bird.

And there’s the Jewish story of Passover, which inspires, each year, renewed faith in God’s special relationship with his people.

And that brings us to the Christian story of Easter which, I must admit, despite it’s more flavorful joys, has always been a challenge for me.  Why?  Because, as a child, I couldn’t make sense of what that story of public execution and an empty tomb had to do with – the Easter Bunny. 

And no one seemed to think it unusual enough to talk about.  And as I got older and more familiar with the nuances of the Easter story and with the scholarship surrounding its origins and evolution as part of Christian theology this story became even more of a challenge for me. 

The Christian celebration of Easter morning was baffling to me. 

I was much more likely to find myself reflecting upon the stories of what happened before then:  Jesus’ LIFE ; his revolutionary teachings of love ; the way it transformed lives – creating disciples, small, covenanted, intentional communities committed to creating a “kingdom of peace” – here on earth! 

I couldn’t help but think about how quickly Jesus, those people, those communities, were targeted as political threats. 

THAT part of the story was fascinating to me.  Seemed “familiar”, somehow.       

I was drawn to the story of a man with a “high vision”, who was forced to confront the fact that most folks, even those who followed him, just weren’t ready to see themselves as SPIRITUAL BEINGS first and foremost. 

A man who had to confront the painful fact that humanity WAS ruled by fear, and that the response to this fear would continue to be, as always, violence.  Ultimately, his-own-death.

When that’s the story that’s emphasized, it’s clearly not a “happy Hollywood” ending.  But it’s one I found and continue to find – deeply poignant. 

It’s one that feels “real”.  I can locate myself in it, as I grapple with my own failings, my own hopes for peace and joy.  As I think about all the individual and collective “movements” we humans make toward something that we HOPE will help us make sense of our experience.  Will help, somehow, to ease the sufferings of life. 

(Are we humans being spiritual? Are we spiritual beings learning to be human?  What’s the difference?)

The story of Jesus’ life is one of the things I think about as I yearn for personal and collective renewal.  As I face the fact of my own failings, of how very susceptible I am to fear.  And how easily that fear can manifest in ways so contrary to my own highest vision.

Now, for me it always seemed that the happy Hollywood ending on Easter SUNDAY deemphasized something potentially:  critical. 

Not that I don’t enjoy or hope for happy endings.  But because the earlier part of the story feels much more instructive to me:  lifting up both the best and the worst that we are capable of. 

The earlier part of the story leaves it up to me, to each of us, to finish the story!  It leaves it up to me to take responsibility for my life, for my capacity for both love and fear, peace and violence.  It leaves it up to me, to us, to take responsibility for actively choosing that which will affirm life’s baffling complexity.

I believe that the part of the Easter story that is usually considered a mere pro-logue to the “greatest story ever told” encourages us to face some pretty powerful TRUTHS, with “open eyes”.  With heart and mind and body.

It took a long time to realize that the conclusion I came to on my own, years ago,  was part of a long-standing religious movement called:  Unitarian Universalism.  A movement to question the “official version” of the Easter story.   

But also, to engage creatively with its power – as a meaning making  tool.

The “traditional” Easter morning story, clear and simple, is a joyful story of a “loving God who sacrificed his only son in the name of human redemption”! 

But the only way to BE redeemed, according to mainstream Christians, is by focusing on and believing very “specific aspects” of that story.   That’s been the case since the establishment of the Nicene Creed:  a mandatory statement of faith for Christians formulated three hundred years after the death of Jesus.

Limiting the meaning of this “great story” to that creed    was something our Universalist ancestors were unwilling to do.  In reflecting deeply upon the Easter story, they considered the role of human yearning for happy endings.

How that might have affected what witnesses remembered, their interpretations of events, and what they chose to write down.  They considered the imperfect process of transmitting information accurately, impartially, from one generation to another.  They considered the role that power and political intrigue played in the formation of a unified Christian theology in the 4th century and thereafter.  And they reasoned that a “loving God” (if indeed he exists and that is indeed his nature), would offer redemption to EVERYONE – not just those who believed in the OFFICIAL version of that story. 

They celebrated Jesus’ life AND his death, not because it gave them a special spot in heaven, but because they believed that story affirmed human value.  AND, because it set a loving course for the movements of their own lives.  (Along the lines of:  ”if God could love everyone that much, then oughtn’t we be working a little harder at loving one another?!” )

That was Universalism at its core:  LOVING!  And, utterly heretical. 

As far as I’m concerned (or else I wouldn’t be here), it was a step in the right direction.  Even if that interpretation still makes the Easter morning story “problematic” – as a meaning-making tool. 

Why?  Because It still lifts up violence and suffering as virtuous.  It still provides a model in which redemption comes through someone else’s sacrifice, not one’s own choices. 

In 1805 Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou openly asserted that the interpretative focus of this story really needed to shift.  In his Treatise on Atonement, he insisted that it’s God’s love  that redeems humanity. Not the death of Jesus.  And certainly not his miraculous resurrection.

And in the same tradition of rethinking meaning, contemporary theologian Rev Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World, describes how the traditional interpretation of the Easter morning story can serve to keep people tied into abusive relationships.   How it serves to JUSTIFY all sorts of violence, including “economic patterns of colonialization.”

How?  Well: If God’s love was shown through allowing the murder of his son,  and if his son’s love was shown through passive acceptance of suffering and death, and if it’s OK to have someone else die on our behalf à then what does that really teach us about how we are supposed to live and love?

That’s not something most people think about, when they think of Easter!  What most people think about is a joyful family celebration of love, of hope, of new life – and chocolate! 

And that’s what it IS for a lot of people, Christian or not.  Easter has become, like Christmas, a celebration for “ALL”.  So much so, that many people think first of the Easter Bunny, and perhaps secondarily of Jesus.  And most people don’t even question HOW the Easter Bunny got into the mix. 

And THAT, I think, should tell us something:  Things aren’t always what they seem.

The fact that two entirely different stories have merged, the fact that they can so easily become fused into ONE holiday – means that we haven’t had our eyes open.  The fact that the traditional interpretation of Easter ignores the problematic underlying values of that system of “meaning making” which are mirrored in our society through an overwhelming fascination with violence and a widespread unwillingness to take personal responsibility for our failings, for that which will “redeem us”, means – we haven’t been paying close enough attention!

Things aren’t always what they seem.  Apparently, what looks like a bunny can actually be a “magically transformed bird”. 

And if that’s the case, even in something as benign as a story about an ancient fertility goddess, then all sorts of things might need to be re-examined.  It just might make sense to think about all the stories we tell, individually or collectively.  

  • What do they celebrate? 
  • What do they tell us about who we are?
  • and how we’re supposed to love??! 
  • What do they tell us about the movements of our yearnings?
  • And what we’re truly capable of?

I think it makes a lot of sense to think about our own willingness or unwillingness to own up to the human potential for both love and violence.  Our potential to either be the visionary or the one trapped in fear.

Either one is a real possibility.  And we get to choose – we HAVE to choose.

I think it makes sense to look closely at our desire and ability to-create-a-kingdom-of-peace right here, and right now.   

And to stop waiting around for someone else to do it for us.

What it comes down to is this.  Are we willing to take responsibility for our own failings, our own redemption, however we may define that?   Or, are we ok with allowing that burden, that cross (if you will) to lie on the shoulders of others?

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not here to trash Easter.  I love so many aspects of this holiday and this time of year: 

  • the opportunities for joyful intergenerational celebration;
  • for appreciation of the beauty and abundance of the Earth;
  • the opportunities for shared worship.

And it’s that last point, about worship, that makes me NOT want to give you the “same old Easter morning message” of “the glories of sacrifice” and “the universal symbols of resurrection found this time of year.” 

I’m guessing you’ve heard all that before!!!!

What I want you to experience here today and take with you is: WORSHIP! 

The kind we described earlier in our shared reading, in which our eyes are wide open!

Worship that’s not about “bowing down”.  That’s NOT about passively receiving something that just makes us feel good about ourselves à but about “opening up ALL the windows of our being”!

 EVEN if that means seeing something, hearing something, that takes us by surprise and makes us squirm a little bit.  Even if that means having to let go of some innocence.

The kind of worship I’m talking about is the kind that let’s us fall in love with life all over again, knowing that it contains the possibility of pain as much as the possibility of singing and laughter.  And helps us CHOOSE which of these we are going to promote.

So, as you move through this special day, this season of abundance…of celebration and renewal, I encourage you to CELEBRATE LIFE in ANY way that makes sense to YOU!  Celebrate the yearning for renewal that is so much a part of our human journey, of our human pilgrimage, that it has found it’s way into the sacred stories of every tradition. 

CELEBRATE!  But do so, please, with open eyes! 

I challenge you, to take a closer look at all of these stories.  How is the yearning for renewal expressed in them, and what values does it promote?  What does it say about our failings?  Where is redemption?  And whose responsibility is it, anyway?

For me redemption lies not in the “empty tomb” of the Easter morning story.  It lies in our willingness to “move” DEEPER into EVERY STORY – into the whole, complex story of life. 

Therefore, the potential for redemption is right here:  in our story.  And that’s a story we get to write and re-write through our choices, through our love and generosity, every moment of every day.

And if I had my druthers, that story would definitely include an Easter Egg hunt. 

And, lots of flowers. And singing together.  And the FREEDOM to engage  in -“creative meaning-making”.

So may it be.  AMEN.