Unitarian Easter

We Unitarians get our name from saying that God is one, not three, as the Trinitarians say. This raises questions about the status of Jesus. Was Unitarianism a reversion to Judaism? The early Unitarians identified as Christians. For them, Jesus was divine in a special way no one else has ever been. But Jesus wasn't God — only God was God.

Unitarians, going back to Faustus Socinus, in Poland in the late 1500s, emphasized Jesus' teachings and the moral example of Jesus life. The first Unitarians were Christians who emphasized Jesus' life, not his death. A couple hundred years later, Unitarians in New England in the early 1800s began describing themselves with the phrase, "the religion OF Jesus, rather than the religion ABOUT Jesus." It's not the magic trick of resurrection that is the important matter. It is the presence Jesus had, his compassion and his genius for parables and teaching.

By 1841, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was saying that none of the miracles attributed to Jesus had any importance. We are the people who, for almost 500 years, have been putting Jesus' life, not his death, at the center. But Easter is all about his death. So, instead, Unitarian Universalist ministers like me at Easter have been wont to talk about Easter as a springtime celebration. The resurrection is the resurrection of life after the death represented by winter, we like to say. These basic UU Easter themes are so well enough established that it occurred to me that even an Artificial Intelligence program like ChatGPT could competently identify them. To test this, I went to ChatGPT and typed: "Compose an Easter sermon for a Unitarian Universalist congregation." It cogitated upon my request for about one second and then scrolled out this:
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 Al 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 sermon, and arranged them according to principles of grammar — and produced this bland but essentially accurate summary of how our tradition regards Easter. Today, let's dig deeper than that.

There's a story here — several stories -- that have something to tell us, whatever we hold the status of Jesus to be. An insightful and compassionate teacher was put to death. He died on a Friday, too late in the day to bury him. The next day, Saturday, was the Jewish Sabbath. Jesus and all his followers were good, observing Jews, so the body could not be properly prepared and buried on the Sabbath. They had to wait until Sunday for the burial. Until then, the body was placed in a temporary tomb — a small cave cut into the side of the hill. The door was a heavy stone disk that rolled on a track. What happened next is a matter of some disagreement among the writers of the four gospels.

[Four READERS come up and on stage. Each goes to a separate microphone. One reader is labeled “JOHN,” another “MATTHEW,” another “LUKE,” and another “MARK.”]

JOHN: On Sunday morning Mary Magdalene went by herself.
MATTHEW: No. Two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” went to the tomb.
MARK: No. Three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salomé went.
LUKE: It was at least four women: Mary Magdalene, who we all agree on; Mary the mother of James, as Mark said and maybe who Matthew means as “the other Mary.” There was also Joanna, and other women.
JOHN: She . . .
JOHN: took spices to prepare the body for burial.
MARK: Right.
LUKE: Just so.
JOHN: Mary went in the pre-dawn darkness.
MATTHEW: The women went when the day was dawning.
MARK: No. The sun had already risen.
LUKE: I’m with Matthew. They went when the day was dawning.
JOHN: When Mary . . .
MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE: The women . . .
JOHN: Got there, she . . .
MATTHEW: They arrived just in time to see that “an angel of the lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”
MARK: No, they found the stone already rolled back.
LUKE: I’m with Mark on this one. It was already rolled back.
JOHN: Me, too. It was already rolled back before Mary got there.
MATTHEW: The two women saw one angel, the one who rolled back and sat on the stone, and also some guards.
MARK: The three women entered the tomb and saw “a young man dressed in a white robe.” No mention of any guards.
LUKE: The group of four or more women entered the tomb, and did not find the body. “While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.” No guards.
MATTHEW: “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised.’”
MARK: It was the young man dressed in a white robe who said essentially those words.
LUKE: I’ve got that the two men in dazzling clothes said it.
MATTHEW: So the two women left the tomb and ran to tell the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings! Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
MARK: The three women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Some indeterminate time later, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples.
LUKE: The four or more women returned from the tomb and told the eleven disciples “and all the rest” what had happened. Later that day, Jesus appeared to two other women who weren’t in the group that went to the tomb, and these women didn’t recognize who he was at first.
JOHN: No, no. Mary Magdalene, alone, saw no one at all until after she returned from the tomb, and told two of the disciples that the body was missing. Mary and the two disciples returned again to the tomb. They still saw nothing but linen wrappings. The disciples left. Mary stayed, alone and crying. Only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying." Then she turned around, and there was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. She supposed him to be the gardener until he called her name.

[READERS depart]
Different numbers of women, different numbers of young men in white or angels, different encounters between Jesus and his followers. They were written by different authors at different times, to different audiences, for different purposes.

Mark's story is about encountering fear. Three women approach the tomb.When they see the stone rolled back, they are nervous. Is this some kind of trap? "As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed." (16:5) Is he secret police? Is he a Roman agent?
"But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here."' (16:6) These words do not reassure the three women. They turn and flee from this creepy guy.

"So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (16:8) Mark's gospel represents the continuing fear of political repression faced by Jesus' followers.

John's story is about discerning our true nature and true place. Mary goes in solitude to see the empty tomb. No one is there. She returns from the tomb; speaks to some trusted others. Some of them went back with her to the tomb again, but then left her alone there, crying. Then she turns around, and there's the truth, right in front her, but she still doesn't get it. She thinks it's the gardener. But it is the truth, and it calls her name and in that moment she realizes it, realizes herself.

Matthew's story is about the courage to live into your truth in the face of enemies who oppose it. Some of Jerusalem's rulers catch wind of the news that Jesus' body has gone missing. They concoct a story, which they bribe the guards to affirm, that some of Jesus' followers came in the middle of the night and took the body away. People will tell you that there is no new life, no new truth for you to discover. "There is no transformation, no greater wholeness," they will say. But Mary knew better — and so do we, in our hearts.

Luke's story is not about our enemies but our friends. Mary goes to speak to the apostles about this frightening yet promising new reality she has discovered. "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." Says Luke (24:11). Liberation? Wholeness? It is an idle tale, our friends may think. But the truth of your life is not for your enemies to define, nor is it determined by your friends.

Four gospels, four quite different stories, all about a truth, this reality which you are prone to overlook, to mistake for the gardener, but which comes to you when you are alone — this truth that your enemies discredit and your friends find idle — this truth that might even make you persecuted — was personified as a man, Jesus of Nazareth — a teacher, a healer a prophet within the Jewish tradition -- a mystic, and a social radical. He taught a message of transformation — that we have the ability to transform our lives — by loving one another, by loving even our enemies, by living simply and not placing faith in money, material things, status, and power.

Following his model and his teachings is transformative. Jesus lived and taught about a new social order — what he called "the Kingdom of God" — what we might call the Kin-dom of God, or Beloved Community — a society based on love and compassion. People thus transformed become agents of transformation of their communities and of the world, realizing the Kindom of God on earth.

This, then, is a Unitarian Universalist Easter message: Our community can be a community of transformation. That's how we realize the Kindom.

The caption of the cartoon on the front of your Order of Service reads, "As Leon unfurled the piece of paper, he knew he would never again play charades with ministers." On the paper, for him to try to find some way to act out, are the words, "substitutionary atonement."

Because I am a minister, I found this hilarious. And then I began to notice a really good point here: You can't act out substitutionary atonement! It's an unlivable theology. What is "substitutionary atonement"? It's the account of Easter that, somewhere along the line, you probably learned. It goes roughly like this:

The Easter story tells us that Jesus' suffering on the cross is redemptive. He suffered and died that we might have life (i.e., he substituted for us in order to atone for us). Real love manifests as complete submission and selfsacrifice. God required of Jesus -- and may sometimes require of us -- passive acceptance of violence.

That's a very common interpretation of the Easter story. I don't think this is really the message of that story. In charades, as in life, you need to show something -- be active. Easter is about transformation, not passivity; self-realization, not self-sacrifice.

I don't believe people come to church to stay the same. I don't think that anyone joins a faith community and enters into congregational life as a conservative strategy for maintaining their status quo. If we wanted to stay the same, we could just stay home — just stay in that, well, tomb. The Easter message is to be risen, to be resurrected, to be transformed.

A congregation must be about facilitating and bearing witness to one another's personal transformations. A congregation must be about transforming its members, transforming itself, and transforming the world around it. I don't believe you're here to stay the same. Of course, you're not here to deny who you are, either. The transformation is not about rejecting yourself. The transformation — or call it the resurrection — is about becoming more fully who you are: you transforming into you.

At work in this process is the interplay between what you have in common with the others of your community and what is unique to you. We have shared Unitarian values, and we encourage each other in living up to them. Becoming who you are is, in part, a matter of getting better at exemplifying the values we share. It's also, in part, recognizing and living into the truth that only you see — as, in the Gospel of John, Mary, in her aloneness, comes to recognize Jesus.

This is no easy thing, becoming who you are. But why isn't it easy? Why should it be hard? Nurtured by learned and shared values, supported by the love of family, friends, community, should not becoming who we are be a flourishing as natural and abundant as the flowers in spring? It's hard because we carry shame. We are afraid. We have, in various ways and in varying degrees, been silenced from the full expression of who we are.

You want to know what Easter is really all about? Here's what Easter is really all about: it's about making the courageous choice to break the silence, tell your truth, rise up out of shame. It's about bearing witness to the stories of others as they seek to break silence imposed by perhaps greater fear and shame. This, finally, is where the Easter story takes us. The death from which we may rise, from which we can help others rise, is specifically an entombment in fear and shame.

Look, crucifixion was designed to inflict optimal physical pain, dragged out over many hours. The executioners sometimes even gave wine mixed with morphine to the victim, not to ease his suffering, but to keep him from passing out from pain so as to have to endure it longer. More than that, crucifixion was designed to humiliate. The person was stripped naked — lifted up to public view, gasping, fully exposed, utterly powerless. At the moment of death, his bowels would loosen, for all to see. It was violence, as extreme as the Roman imagination could conceive, designed to instill fear, and to make anyone associated with the victim feel ashamed of themselves. For some of Jesus' followers, it worked. Theologian Ron Rolheiser writes:
"Many of them abandoned Jesus and scattered after the crucifixion. They simply couldn't connect this kind of humiliation with glory, divinity, and triumph."
In their fear and their shame, they fell silent about the promise of a new social order, a Kindom of God. Others, though — women, at first — broke silence. They broke silence first to simply lament what had happened. Giving voice to our lamentation is the beginning of reclaiming our own dignity and worthiness in the face of our loss. They broke silence to remember, to say a name, against all the shaming, fear, and humiliation that would bury it in silence. They broke silence to begin to tell stories that represented that the hope found in this man's teachings lived on. They broke silence to transcend fear and affirm community, to overcome violence by sustaining hope.

Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock write in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire:
Crucifixion was used against the underclasses and slaves and was regarded as so shameful that even victims’ families would not speak of it. It functioned to fragment communities, tearing the fabric of even the strongest bonds of connection and commitment. The Passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, love, creativity, and truth-telling. In telling his story, his community remembered his name and claimed the death-defying power of saying his name aloud....

The Passion stories brought testimony before a higher court of appeals than the bogus trial of Jesus they indict. The purpose of such writing is assuredly not to valorize victims, to praise their suffering as redemptive, to reveal ‘true love’ as submission and self-sacrifice, or to say that God requires the passive acceptance of violence. Such interpretations mistakenly answer the abusive use of power with an abnegation of power. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion, in marked contrast, asserted that the answer to abusive power is the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life – to do deeds in Jesus’ name....

To break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress those who advocate for justice is life-giving. Just as Jesus, in John’s Gospel, stood before Pilate and said, ‘you have no power over me,’ the Passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’ movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement the choice to tell the truth and live by ethical grace. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of imperialism, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life.
They transformed humiliation into the strength of connection and in so doing resurrected life from death. Against all violence to body or to spirit, against all fear and shame endured by us and by others, against all the protective strategies we ourselves devise to be safe, there is rising to accept and affirm and speak who we are.

There is yet the possibility of transformation into who we are, unobscured by fear or shame. There is yet the possibility of justice, an end to violence, a new social order, a Kindom of God. Here is a livable theology, a teaching that we can act out. Here is the message and the hope of Easter. Someday, maybe A.I. will say that. But only we can mean it.

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