The Absent Presences: Passover and Easter

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Your touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat arising green.
--John McLeod Campbell Crum
When we are all despairing:
when the world is full of grief;
when we see no way ahead,
and hope has gone away;
      Roll back the stone.

Although we fear change;
although we are not ready;
although we’d rather weep
and run away:
      Roll back the stone.

Because we’re coming with the women;
because we hope where hope is vain;
because you call us from the grave
and show us the way:
      Roll back the stone.
--Janet Morley

Passover, Ramadan, and Easter – here we are in this confluence of holiest days of the three Abrahamic traditions. Passover: bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom. We celebrate the Hebrew escape from the bondage in Egypt – and reflect on our own path to freedom. To what, in your life, have you been in bondage, and have, at least somewhat, freed yourself? That’s worth celebrating. Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom. And to what are you now in bondage, that you may yet break free of? For freedom is ever the half-won blessing, the ongoing project. Its unfinished work lies before us.
What modern pharaohs live in arrogance crowned?...
Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle made....
Still does resentment bind each brother and sister.....
Long be our journeying, yet justice is worth it.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here, then, are the questions for your Passover reflection: What decisive break with a big part of your past is called for? What sacrifices will that mean? What effects this will have on others? And, importantly, who can help you? Who is there who go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on your path to liberation? Remember: not one of the Israelites walked out of Egypt alone. We need each other to become free. That’s the Passover story for us.

Ramadan celebrates the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad. Whether you’ve ever looked at a Koran or not, there is some source for what we understand of what is true and how to live in this world – and there’s something wonderful, mysterious, and miraculous about how that came to be – something worth celebrating.

For the rest of our time this holiday, let’s look at this Easter story. For us Unitarian Universalists, emerging as we do out of Christianity, Easter is the more central, and there are certain themes that are basic to our Unitarian Universalist tradition. They are perhaps not as well established as the Passover themes are in a Jewish congregation, or the Ramadan themes in a Muslim congregation -- after all, we are a newer tradition. Still, the basic UU themes are well enough established that even the AI program, ChatGPT, can competently identify them.

When I asked ChatGPT to write an Easter sermon for a Unitarian Universalist congregation, this is what it said:
Dear friends,

Happy Easter to all of you!

As Unitarian Universalists, we gather today to celebrate the renewal of spring and the resurrection of hope. This is a time of year when we witness the beauty of nature and the rebirth of life all around us. And as we gather on this special day, we also take time to reflect on the meaning of Easter and what it means for us as a community.

Now, I know that Easter is traditionally celebrated in the Christian faith as a day to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, as Unitarian Universalists, we come from a wide range of spiritual backgrounds and beliefs. So, today, I invite us all to explore the meaning of Easter in a way that is personal and meaningful to each of us.

For me, Easter is a time to celebrate the human spirit and the power of hope. It is a time to acknowledge the struggles and hardships that we face in our lives, and to remember that we have the strength and resilience to overcome them. It is a time to embrace the beauty and wonder of the world around us, and to find joy in the small things that make life worth living.

As we look around us today, we see the signs of spring all around us – the flowers blooming, the birds singing, the sun shining. These are the signs of hope and renewal that we celebrate at Easter. And as we celebrate them, we also remember that hope is not just a fleeting feeling, but a powerful force that can inspire us to create positive change in our lives and in the world around us.

So, let us all take a moment to reflect on the hope and renewal that Easter brings. Let us celebrate the beauty and wonder of the world around us, and let us find strength and inspiration in the knowledge that we are capable of overcoming even the greatest challenges. And let us go forth from this place with renewed hope and a commitment to making the world a better place for all.

Happy Easter, my friends. May this day be filled with joy, hope, and renewal for each and every one of us.
ChatGPT AI has never experienced hope, or renewal – beauty or rebirth or celebration or joy. It has simply been fed billions of words of text and extracted the ones that statistically go with Easter and Unitarian Universalist and arranged them according to principles of grammar – and the sermon form – and produced this bland but essentially accurate summary of how our tradition regards Easter. You and I, unlike ChatGPT, have flesh and bone bodies that have felt the cold of winter. We have eyeballs that have seen the barren trees for months. We have skin that lately has at last been again feeling the warmth of the springtime sun. We have the viscera to viscerally feel the wonder and delight at the daffodils and bloodroot blossoms breaking forth from Earth that not so long ago was frozen hard.

We have bodies that respond to beauty, experience its joy, and feel inside the stirrings of celebration. We find these bodily experiences enhanced and deepened by articulating them in words. The disembodied AI can do OK at pulling those words together, but it is to our embodied lives that those words can mean something – and it is to our collective embodiment as a community that we help each other realize our prayer for days “filled with joy, hope, and renewal for each and every one of us.”

Across the various different interpretations of Christian faith, our UU tradition is to seek an underlying universal truth. We look for a meaning of resurrection that we, too, can affirm – a universal truth of resurrection. And it’s not hard to find: it’s right there in the perennial cycles of nature: fall, to winter, to the spring in which the world, which had seemed to lie cold and dead, is resurrected to life again.

We can also look more carefully into the story – what we can tell of it. You heard earlier from William Channing Gannet who laid out in 1887 some “Things Commonly Believed Among Us.” He said, “We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, revere Jesus and all holy souls that have taught truth, righteousness, and love.” And there is an interesting story and instructive story there. There is the wonderful new life of springtime to pause and breathe deeply in and allow to delight us, and there’s also this story about a beloved teacher and healer who died – who was executed in the prime of his life – and how his followers carried on in the face of this.

To understand what Jesus was really all about, argues scholar John Dominic Crossan, look at the way he took meals – the theology of food that he exemplified – the meaning of eating together.

Anthropologists Peter Farb and George Armelagos write:
“In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…. Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members…. To know what, where, how, when, and with whom the people eat is to know the character of their society.”
To bring home to our own experience the way that eating reflects social position, Crossan suggests:
“Think, for a moment, if beggars came to your door, of the difference between giving them some food to go, of inviting them into your kitchen for a meal, of brining them into the dining room to eat in the evening with your family, or of having them back on Saturday night for supper with a group of your friends. Think, again, if you were a large company’s CEO, of the difference between a cocktail party in the office for all the employees, a restaurant lunch for all the middle managers, or a private dinner party for your vice presidents in your own home.”
The structure of our meals recapitulates the structure of power.

And when Crossan examines the gospels, he finds Jesus teaching and exemplifying open commensality. "Commensality" – from “mensa,” Latin for table.
“The rules of tabling and eating [are] miniature models for the rules of association and socialization. Table fellowship [is] a map of economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation.” (Crossan)
And for Jesus, the table was open. While John the Baptist had fasted, feasting is more Jesus’ style – and the table was open. While John the Baptist had emphasized a coming future kingdom, Jesus departs from this.
“It is not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now.”
And that kingdom – that kin-dom – is one of abundance and equal sharing.

The gospels so closely associate Jesus with meal time that the Eucharist became Christianity’s sacrament. In the miracle story of the loaves and fishes, there are hundreds gathered – and all end up eating. Jesus takes the bread, blesses, breaks and gives. Those are the four basic moves of the life he represents: take, bless, break, and give.
Take – receive. Open to take what experience and the world bring.
Bless – or, that is, be grateful. Pause for a moment of gratitude.
And then break into parts for giving back.

And consider this parable, from Luke 14:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers and sisters or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses.

The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’

Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’

Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master.

Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’

And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’

Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’"
Now that’s an open table. And consider what a horrific mess that would be to the standard hierarchical values of the time.
“If one actually brought in anyone off the street, one could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, and ranks all mixed up together. Anyone could be reclining next to anyone else, female next to male, free next to slave, socially high next to socially low, and ritually pure next to ritually impure." (Crossan)
What a social nightmare that would be! Crossan comments that:
“The social challenge of such equal or egalitarian commensality is the parable’s most fundamental danger and most radical threat. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s miniature mirror, the table, as the place where bodies meet to eat.”
And Jesus lived out his own parable. Open commensality is the model of the Kin-dom of God. The nondiscriminating table represents the nondiscriminating society.

This was a great annoyance to those who regarded open and free association as a thing to be avoided. First century Mediterranean culture emphasized honor and shame – and Jesus’ open table was profoundly subversive.

Two messages are clear. One is the radical egalitarianism of the open table. The other is that it happens right here and now – among the people around us today. When the table is open, that is the kingdom, the kin-dom, of God -- and the kin-dom of God is, as Jesus says, within you. The Greek preposition here means both within and among. The kin-dom of God is within and among you. “It is not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now.”

But that was all just too radical for Paul – the erstwhile Pharisee and persecutor of Christians who had a conversion experience. But Paul never broke bread with Jesus – didn’t really grasp the open commensality. And here we come back to the Easter story, for the emphasis on Jesus’ bodily resurrection community is an invention of Paul. For Paul, the end of the world was not merely imminent, but had already begun – and Jesus’ resurrection was but prelude to a general resurrection. Thus, for Paul, the Sunday of which we are today celebrating the anniversary was the beginning of a religion of the end-times.

But Paul’s form of Christianity was not, for some time, the only form of Christianity being practiced. As Crossan explains:
"What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith, but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both…. It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, hope, and love.”
At the center of this story of new life is a story of a beloved person’s death. For those who, unlike Paul, were followers of Jesus while Jesus was still alive, Good Friday represents the transition to Jesus as an absent presence in their lives.

If Easter is fundamentally about continuing, about carrying forward the absent presences in our lives, then, for our Easter exercise today let me invite you now to call to mind an absent presence in your life – a person who was beloved of you who has died. Close your eyes, if you like, and call an image to your mind’s eye – of a person whose being is interwoven into yours. They live on not merely in your memory, but in the very cast of your mind, and the habits of your heart. Writes Wendell Berry:
“The dead remain in thought as much alive as they ever were, and yet increased in stature and grown remarkably near. The older I have got and the better acquainted among the dead, the plainer it has become to me that I live in the company of immortals. We live in their love, and we know something of the cost. Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love and grief.”
The very absence of those who have died somehow puts them with you in a way they never were before. You even somehow know them better than you did before – or imagine you did. And imagination is all we have ever had of another person. Even when they were alive, we imagined what and who they were. We did not understand them – for we do not understand even ourselves, let alone another person. So beyond understanding, we have imagining. And beyond even imagining, we have love.

That exercise may give you a sense of the absent presence that Jesus became for his followers when he died. Moreover, some dim echo of that absent presence continues in us when we, too, are inspired by the vision of the open table, of radical hospitality and radical equality, of the kin-dom of God that is among us.

Recall the Passover point with which we began: that the project of freedom is ongoing. We may now add that the absent presences are with us on that journey – and that somehow our quest for freedom is also, finally, their liberation.

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.

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