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What Rises and Falls?

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson: Somehow, we should earn our freedom - as the Buddha is reputed to have said on his deathbed: ‘Work out your own salvation with diligence.’

Kathe and I often have conversations that turn on memory and it will probably be no surprise to most of you that our memories are not often the same. Many of the details can vary, and we are often both quite sure that one of us is right and the other is wrong. Even things that happened last week can be remembered

easter bonnet

I have trouble even remembering where I put the car keys down, and I am forever calling my cell phone to find where I have last laid it. Memory is a fragile and slippery thing. As we age, short term memory often slips a bit – I used to be really good at remembering names and I find myself forgetting them more easily.

So how can we simply accept the report of events two and three thousand years ago, especially when they were not recorded until years after the events? But here they sit: Passover and Easter, two events essential to the beginnings of Judaism and Christianity.

Passover and Easter, part and parcel of the western world. Part of our parcel, too. Our birth is in Judaism and Christianity. A number of you grew up as Jews or as Christians, or perhaps a little bit of both. But if you are here, you left those places, perhaps after wandering for a while in a spiritual wilderness.

And we may have visitors today, travelers wondering what on Earth Unitarian Universalists do on Easter.

Perhaps we have family members for whom these stories are central to their faith.
But - it just isn’t our story. From our beginning as a religious movement, we have denied the resurrection, the bodily resurrection, firmly holding on to Jesus as fully human, finding comfort and meaning in what he taught and what he stood for, not in theological reflection about his nature.

We used to say, and still can, that we have always believed in the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus.

We can read deep wisdom and beauty in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament but not think they are literally true or infallible; we can honor and appreciate much of what has grown out of Judaism and Christianity without accepting them as dogma or doctrine.

These are curious stories, Passover and Easter. I know some of you never come on Easter [actually not some of ‘you’ because ‘you’ are here] - but some members never come. I sometimes want to say ‘Bah humbug on Easter.’

What kind of Father sacrifices his son in such a brutal way, a member asked me? What kind of God brings about the death of innocent children – as described in the Passover story?

So here goes – this is my take on Passover and Easter, especially Easter because that is today and it is what I grew up with and left. I grew up with the bunnies and eggs and a new suit for Easter. My sister always got a new dress and we believed pastels were the ticket to happiness. Women wore bonnets that day. We bit the ears off the chocolate bunnies first. We went to church and sang upbeat songs. But I always wondered how it could be true and I was always bothered by the story itself; for me, something was just not right.

I want to return to the reading for the day – from Adam Gopnik’s review of Elaine Pagel’s new book about the Book of Revelation. This is one of the best summaries of religious development I have ever read. All religions, he says, are, in some manner, an attempt to understand good and evil – what is good and why is there evil. This is explicitly what the Buddha set out to understand – why is there suffering, what is its
cause and how can suffering be relieved.

Much of the religion of around the time of Jesus understood the world as a battle between good and evil.

Good was the spiritual and bad was the material world. This notion underlies much of early Christianity – the material world is bad and the spiritual is good. The body is the source of evil; the spirit is the source of good.

Gopnik states that all faiths tend toward the devil in order to make sense of God’s furious impotence. How can God, apparently powerful and in charge of things, be so impotent, or incompetent, in the face of evil? If God can choose winners of football games, or tell people to run for political office, why can’t he stop child prostitution in the world or stop the ebola virus? God’s furious impotence – quite the phrase, eh?

Here we are at the beginnings of two great faiths – Judaism and Christianity, and both are born in the blood of the innocent. The Passover – an angel of death, sent by God, passes over the houses of the Israelites [not yet Jews – they become that in the wilderness wandering with Moses] so that only the first born of all of the Egyptians would die that night. Only! This is the price of freedom? A God who can rain frogs and turn rivers to blood can’t simply change Pharaoh’s mind and has to slaughter innocent children?

And Easter. It is a powerful and poignant story to be sure. Jesus gathers with his disciples and they do nothing but let him down. Judas betrays him for money; Peter is not much more than a coward, denying that he knows Jesus when asked; the whole crew of them falling asleep when Jesus goes to pray when Jesus asked them to stay awake and watch. And God is silent when Jesus calls out in agony.

Listen to this poem by Ron Padgett

It's not that hard to climb up
on a cross and have nails driven
into your hands and feet.
Of course it would hurt, but
if your mind were strong enough
you wouldn't notice. You
would notice how much farther
you can see up here, how
there's even a breeze
that cools your leaking blood.
The hills with olive groves fold in
to other hills with roads and huts,
flocks of sheep on a distant rise

What kind of God is this who sends his ‘only begotten son’ to an awful death? How many of you would sacrifice your child? Is this the only way? God’s furious impotence, says Gopnik.

This has always turned me away from the Easter story. But what is troubling above all is that in both of these stories, someone else pays the price – in the Passover story, it is the families of Egypt who lose their first born so that the ancient Israelites might go free. In the Easter story, it is Jesus who pays the price so that salvation may occur.

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This seems wrong and offends the idea of justice and diminishes the obligations of responsibility.

Somehow, we should earn our freedom - as the Buddha is reputed to have said on his deathbed: ‘Work out your own salvation with diligence.’

Here is my argument with Christianity: they gave up, almost right away, at least within a couple of centuries. They gave up on Jesus and sided instead with Pontius Pilate, who just washed his hands of everything, who stepped aside and let what he knew was an injustice happen, let an innocent man die.

They sided with Judas, who sold out for money – if this isn’t the history of the church I don’t know what is.

They sided with Peter who was just a coward.

They sold out – instead of staying with the Jesus who told them to feed the hungry and house the homeless, comfort the widow and visit the prisoner, instead of staying with the women who went to the tomb that Sunday morning to care for the body, who cared for the things of the world that sustain us and give our lives meaning, expecting death but finding life instead, they turned Jesus into an object to worship rather
than a leader to follow. They turned against the material world and labeled it evil, though that was where Jesus lived and breathed and exulted.

The real crucifixion happened after Easter. It was the early church that crucified Jesus by arguing about his nature rather than striving to follow his teachings.

Gopnik says:

‘The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, whether Marx or Jesus; mystical variations held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.’

These are hard holidays for Unitarian Universalists. Yet they mean so much to so many people that we shouldn’t just pass them off as ancient myths, as wishful thinking, as meaningless.

So where are we left?

It is this, I believe: the resurrection we wait for is in our hands, in living lives that exemplify the best in the human spirit – compassion and justice, equality and peace. It is to live our lives filled with love – for the world, both natural and human, for others, and for ourselves. This is where new life happens; this is where
resurrections occur. Jesus lived, and he died, and his teachings are as true now as then. He was a great spiritual presence, a man of his time but nothing more. And that is enough.

Let me take a swift shift here. Most years at Easter I talk about the women who went to the tomb to care for the body, and, how for me, they are the heroes of the story. While the men cower in the upper room wondering what they are going to do – they seem lost – the women go, as was the custom, to care for the body.

Sound familiar? – women cleaning up afterwards, doing what is necessary to continue on. They run to the disciples to tell them what they have seen and heard. Of course, no one believes them, and women soon fade into the background of religious misogyny.

This last Thursday night, we had a full house to watch the documentary film, ‘Miss Representation’ about how the media portrays – misrepresents - women and the really detrimental consequences of that. It chronicles how women remain second, or third class citizens, how women have been objectified, seen mostly as erotic objects. It was a sobering, enraging, and troubling movie about the seriously damaging effect of our modern media culture, and the rise of narcissism and depression, eating disorders, mostly among young women but increasingly so among young men.

And I wonder whether this isn’t somehow the flip side of Easter, and the tendency in religion to see the spiritual as uplifting and the material as debasing. By objectifying the body – we treat it as less than what it is, a part of, not just a vessel of the spirit.

What the movie called for, and what Jesus argued for, was that we be engaged in the world, creating justice and compassion, that the body and spirit be one, not separate, that the body, like the minds be an agency of joy.

This is the Easter message we can proclaim, not that Jesus rose from the dead, but that in doing what is right in the world, new life does indeed result. Feed the hungry and new life is possible. House the homeless and a resurrection of hope will occur. Empower everyone and new life can emerge.

Perhaps the Easter message is best found in the women who went to the tomb, to care for the body. They went there expecting death, but they found life – and perhaps the life they found was just what they were doing – caring for the things of the world.

jim nelson

So, on this day we don’t believe in, what can we believe in? I am always looking for the good news. Today I find it in movies like Miss Representation and our efforts at justice and equality. I find it in you, in this beloved community, and in this physical world of beauty.

Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church