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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, April 4, 2010

Three Easter Stories

Mark’s Empty Tomb
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome agreed, as was the custom in those days, that when the Sabbath was over they would bring sweet spices to Jesus’ tomb and anoint his body. It was very early on Sunday morning, the sun just rising in the sky when they gathered together and walked toward the tomb. As they walked there, they worried about who they might get to roll away the large stone blocking the tomb’s doorway. But when they arrived they saw that the stone was already rolled out of the way. They walked into the gloomy tomb where they saw a young man sitting there, clothed in a long white garment. He said to them, “Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus who was crucified. But he is not here. He is risen. Go and tell Peter and the others that he has gone before you into the Galilee, and you will see him there.” Shocked, the women stumbled out of the tomb. But they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

—The Gospel According to Mark, 16:1-8

(Two questions for the children: Who knows what day this is? What does it mean for you?)

Easter is almost certainly the most problematic religious holiday for us as Unitarian Universalists. One could say our whole liberal tradition is woven out of a shift from the story of Easter, in my favorite version the story of how God sent his child into this hurting world, to hurt with all of us, and in so doing transforming the world into God’s realm. Our great shift was to the Christmas story, the story of the birth of a human being, whose life is totally ordinary but in the full giving of it, totally extraordinary, showing us by word and example ways to live that could bring joy and hope to this world. Our spiritual ancestors called this a move from the religion about Jesus to the religion of Jesus.

That shift and how most of us see these are stories rather than history mark out our spiritual tradition as a bit different from others in the great Western current of faith. Stories, yes, but big stories. Metaphors, yes, but not mere metaphor; we’re talking big stuff here, really important things.

Now, I’m moved by both stories, although most of the time that second one of how an ordinary life can be extraordinary through care and attention has meant the most to me. And, I have to admit, my life has been most deeply informed by other stories entirely, particularly a story from India and a couple from China, which have changed completely how I see the world. I suspect most of us in this Meeting House have encountered similar deep and compelling stories from many different sources that have touched our hearts in ways we barely can understand.

I suggest the proof of their importance is how we can’t forget them. I think it’s very important to notice these stories that inform us. Some, actually, are not very healthy. And we need to notice those, as well. There are bad stories, lies about who we are, that sometimes we can’t let go of, but need to. But today, the focus is elsewhere, on the great, the grand stories, the ones that we can inhabit and by doing so become larger. Of course, which one for each of us, who knows?

Maybe it’s the story of Henry Thoreau going to jail rather than supporting a tax that paid for an unjust war. Maybe it’s the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan showing that attention, care, relentless hard work and just a little good luck, can make a life. Make two lives in their case. Maybe it’s the story of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr, telling people they were too good to be so cruel to their brothers and sisters, and how telling that truth both won the day for their countries, and cost them their lives. Or is it some other story? Each of us seems to have one or two or three of these big life-making stories. There won’t be a lot of them. The important ones, they stick out in our hearts. We remember them all the time. The Easter story can be one such. And, for many of us it is.

Jesus of Montreal

Let me leave you with a question. What if this is your last Easter? Or the last Easter you are blessed to share with someone you love? Will anything you do or feel today remain? In your heart you know the answer. Only love remains, only the love we give away remains, the rest is dross. For you and for me, for Jesus… when death is the occasion, love is the only saving medium and forgiveness, love's most perfect catalyst. That is the message of Easter, its hope and its promise. Death doesn't conquer love, love conquers death. Those who love us live on in the love we receive. By their love we will always know them. And our own bequest of love, however imperfect, this too will outlast us. It will outlast us and it will perfect us. For not only does the love we give live on in our name. It redeems our own and saves our loved ones lives.

From the Sermon “Life Before Death,” by Forrest Church

(Two questions for the children: Who likes movies? Do you have a favorite? And a question for the adults: What’s your favorite spiritual movie?)

One of the things about the story of Jesus is how we each hear it in our own way. Me, I tend to focus on the story as it was told in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest by far of the gospels. In it the story’s end after Jesus’ death with an empty tomb, some mysterious person saying Jesus isn’t dead, and the women who hear this going away, afraid.

I like how that story so didn’t work for so many that in the surviving early copies there are four different endings added on. One could say the other gospels, written many years after Mark also worked against this version adding enormous details about what happened after finding that empty tomb. My favorite is the anecdote about Thomas who is said to say he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw for himself and with his own finger touched the wounds from the cross. I like to think of him as the patron saint of Unitarian Universalists.

And the story just gets retold, over and over, each different version pointing out something particularly important to that teller or for the listeners. Good stories are rich, and this is one of the best. In modern times I think particularly of all the film versions of the story, from King of Kings to Jesus Christ Superstar, to The Passion of the Christ. Among my favorites would have to be the Life of Brian. But my actual favorite would have to be Jesus of Montreal.

The plot is simple enough. A shrine in Montreal features an annual version of a medieval passion play about Jesus, his life and his death. It has become old and tired and pilgrims are no longer coming. The priest at the shrine hires a troop of actors to revamp the story. The movie follows what happens when the actors take on their roles, really take them on. Soon the story becomes eerily like the original, culminating in the main character, who has been playing Jesus, following a path proclaiming love and attention, right down to his death at the hands of the authorities. Without the soft sell of miracles his resurrection is found in his organs going to those in desperate need. And, and this is important, there is something more.

Film reviewers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat summarize it for us. “In one of the crucial scenes in Jesus of Montreal, the battle-weary Father Leclerc tells Daniel (who is playing Jesus) that churchgoers don't want to be informed about what his research reveals about Jesus. They come looking for happiness; they hope to be consoled with the good news that ‘Jesus loves them and awaits them.’ Turned out by the church, Daniel must find his own understanding of what Jesus means. The path leads to the innards of the city where his life and death give significance to the Scriptural passage ‘Greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends.’”

Greater love has no woman than she lay down her life for her friends. Greater love. Greatest love. This is a message that grabs our attention. We may recoil. In this case it is a harsh and dreadful love to which we’re being called, a love that costs everything, even our lives. But, perhaps, I know I do, we hear this, and however far I wander from it, I find I keep returning, wondering, thinking, and most of all feeling somewhere deep in my body how this tells of some truth, something about how we find real joy.

The Religion of Jesus as the Easter Experience

And Jesus taught them, saying. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted, and people speak falsely against you because you proclaim this message. It is like with the prophets who came before you. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Know that a city that has been built atop a hill cannot be hidden. Neither would you light a candle, and put it under a bushel. So, let your light so shine before the world that they may see your good works, and glorify God.

The Gospel According to Matthew 5:2-16

There’s a reason I’ve climbed up into our high pulpit for this last part of today’s Easter reflection. Like for any good production, you need the right setting. It can be in a dark moment, and small, like when in the fog swept airport Bogart takes Ingrid Bergman in his arms and almost whispers, ‘Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Of course the music begins to swell. And it should. A good story is well framed.

Some things call for high pulpits and good lighting. And, my dear friends, my sweet friends, this is one of them. We come into this place with many different visions of deep truth. And its important that there be a place for us all. If, that is, we’re willing to be challenged, to open our hearts as wide as possible, and, at the same time, to engage our brains: this is our way. And it is a good way. When we join our brains and our hearts together, we find the wise heart, the point of this enterprise.

And nowhere is the wise heart found better than when we realize it is in the teachings of Jesus, good old mainstream Jewish teachings, given a little spin, that we find a truth so deep that it deserves to be joined with that grand story of our shared hurt, and God’s deep care, and how as the divine pours into the world, everything is changed. It turns out the way this is done is through care and attention. God’s care and attention is nothing other than our care and attention. As we care, as I care, as you care, not in some general way, but specifically for each other and all who long and are lost, then we find we act in different ways.

You want to know what the resurrection looks like? You want to poke your own finger into the wounds and know for yourself? Well, this is what it looks like.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We call this the religion of Jesus. Find your heart and live fully in the world knowing these many small truths taken together is the transformation of the world. It is God revealed, and the world changed right to the core. It is our hurt and joy become one. This isn’t a mere metaphor. This is a direct pointing to our heart’s longing, the truth of how we, and the whole world are healed.

It is the Easter message written on our hearts from since before the worlds were born. Know this and know joy.

And so, in that spirit, in that call, happy Easter, dear ones.

Happy Easter!