Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 8, 2007
“Life from Death
Rev. Catherine Torpey
Jesus Christ is risen today—the traditional exclamation of Christians all over the world—and you will get to sing those very words as soon as I finish this sermon.
The tune of this Easter hymn is very uplifting and upbeat, and I find myself singing it in the car or the shower all during the year. The problem is that I can never remember any of the lines after the initial “Jesus Christ is risen today, a-a-a-a-a-leluia,” so, somewhere along the line—and this is the absolute truth—I came up with a second line to the song, which is how I always sing it in those moments in the shower or the car: “Jesus Christ is risen today, a-a-a-a-a-leluia; Least that’s what them Christians say, a-a-a-a-a-leluia.”
That might clue you in that, I, like many of you, am not convinced at all that Jesus Christ is risen today—not in any literal sense.
My colleague in Westport, Connecticut, the Reverend Frank Hall, says that when someone asks him, "How does a Unitarian Universalist celebrate Easter?" He answers, "Very carefully!"
I have had folks tell me that they absolutely hate Easter and always have, even as kids growing up in Christian churches. Some folks just react strongly against the whole Jesus being resurrected story. Indeed, I recently saw a rabbi on television who was brought into the program to argue with a Catholic priest about the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. “Why on earth do you Christians go on and on about Jesus’ death, and all the blood poured all over everything? Why don’t you talk about his life—that is what mattered!”
The priest answered that the rabbi was absolutely right, that it was Jesus’ life and teachings that matter. And as humanists, or atheists, or agnostics, or even as Christians, we can all agree that Jesus was a Jewish prophet and teacher whose life and teachings can inspire and motivate us to live lives of greater meaning and joy.
Nevertheless, the death and resurrection story of Easter has shaped Christianity the way that the Passover story of the parting of the Red Sea has shaped Judaism — the Bible certainly takes these events literally, but I would argue the important meaning in them is actually obscured if we focus on their historicity. Kelly read part of the account found in the gospel according to Luke. The other three gospel accounts of the resurrection differ slightly in terms of who discovered the tomb empty and when, and whether Jesus hung out with the disciples and what his body was like. But it cannot be denied that from the earliest days of Christianity, it was central to the story of this prophet that death had not been the end of him. His disciples had seen him after his death, and this experience had drastically affected the way they interpreted everything he had said and done during his life. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples had determined that Jesus had not been the Messiah after all. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” they told the unrecognized Jesus. But the man in which they had put all their hopes was dead, and so, therefore, was their plan that he would overthrow the oppressive government. Their savior had not saved them. They were stuck; their leader had been executed; all was lost.
Except that all was not lost. Central to the Easter story is that just when all seemed lost—and in fact because of that horrible Good Friday—the victory of life was won.
As they walked along the road, the two disciples had made the decision that this man was a visitor. They had decided what the truth was about this man, and so no matter what he said, and no matter how much their hearts burned within them because of the things he was saying, their minds were closed to the miracle before them. None of us ever do that. One day a couple of months ago, I was driving on a major highway, and I noticed that the man in front of me had a tire which was wobbling so much that I was very fearful that it would almost certainly go flying off at some point. I maneuvered to get my car near his so that I could alert him. It was one of the few circumstances in my life where I’ve been glad to be in a major traffic tie-up. He was one of those drivers who liked to zip about quickly. I was able to get myself in front of him in the right hand lane. I then slowly so that he would, I hoped, go around me on my left. Traffic had gotten so backed up that he couldn’t have zipped by me because of cars blocking him on every side. My plan worked—he pulled to my left. I was ready. My window was rolled down and I waved my hand at him and hoped that my body language was showing that I wanted to say something to him. When he either didn’t see me—or was purposely ignoring me—I beeped my horn and waved a friendly wave, figuring he’d roll down his passenger side window to see why I was accosting him. But like those men on the road to Emmaus, he could only think of one possibility of who I was and what my purpose was. He slammed on his brake and wildly gestured that I should go in front of him if I was so determined not to let him proceed. I saw that he had misinterpreted my kindness for rudeness. I tried pointing to his tire and mouth with exaggeration: “Your tire.” I felt that my indications were obvious, but he began acting quite belligerently and couldn’t understand why this crazy woman wasn’t just going in front of him since she seemed determined to not allow him to pass. Mind you, I was making absolutely no effort with my car to block his way forward. I had to give up, as he had clearly presumed the motives for my behavior and I could not communicate to him my concern for his safety and his life. For me, this was a sad reminder of how we can so often reject the love, the kindness, even the miracles, which are right there in front of us. We can walk away, convinced that we have been mistreated when in fact we have been loved. We can see a stranger where a friend exists. So, too, the disciples, walking on that road to Emmaus, wishing beyond yearning that Jesus were still with them, were completely blind to the truth before them.
Their hope for liberation was never to come true because Jesus had been put to death by the authorities, hung on a cross like a common criminal to suffer a torturous death.
There is nothing else in the Christian story that confirms so powerfully the truth—the absolute truth—that life can triumph even over death. That the darkest, most hopeless situation can in an instant be transformed into fullness of life, connection, meaning.
For many today, and certainly for our Unitarian and Universalist founders, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection was that it was a concrete promise of our own life after death. William Ellery Channing stated that his was “the foundation of our hope of immortality.” I, for one, do not see it this way. It doesn’t make sense to me that Jesus, in fact, was resurrected in the manner that the Bible relates the story. And I have a secret for you. A huge portion of Christians in congregations all around us who celebrate Easter this morning don’t believe the story literally either—and an even larger percentage of Christian ministers don’t believe it literally.
But, as my colleague Lisa Doege said recently, “The truth about Easter—and Passover, too—is simply this: the facts don’t matter. None of it matters. It doesn’t matter that Easter is layered on top of ancient pagan spring festivals. It doesn’t matter that the miracles of the Passover and Easter stories seem unlikely to twenty-first century minds. It doesn’t matter that some of us want to celebrate the rebirth nature offers so generously this time of year, and some of us want to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and some of us want to celebrate the liberation from bondage that is the heart of Passover. None of it matters, because the meaning of Easter and Passover are much simpler and far more profound than the confusion and the controversy and the proofs about the sequences of events.
“The true story of Easter is this:” Lisa continues, “the human calendar is filled with Good Fridays and Easter mornings, days of death and days of resurrection. The true message of both Easter and Passover is that the human spirit is capable, in ways not short of miraculous, of triumphing against all odds, and indeed does so again and again, as long as we live upon this earth.
The story of Jesus’ resurrection is the story of something that seemed to be a sound defeat being turned, in fact, into a complete victory. It is the story of Major David Rozelle who had his right leg blown off by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He actually returned to active duty using a prosthetic leg—the only soldier to do so in modern times. But not only has he returned to the work he loves and believes in, he will be competing in an Ironman competition this May, where, competing against able-bodied men and women, he’ll swim a mile and a half, bike 56 miles and run 13 miles. He has become a spokesperson for Operation Rebound, where he helps others who have lost body parts to move beyond recovery to empowerment.
But the human calendar is full of Good Fridays on which we die and it is full of Easter Sundays on which, somehow, we are resurrected. For many of us, those resurrections go unseen by others, who also did not see our Good Friday moments. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be a story of resurrection. Saying “no” to something that means spiritual death to us is a resurrection. To refuse to participate any longer in something that is unethical—it is a resurrection—the Lord is risen! Saying “yes” to something that means life is a resurrection. To reach out to that person who we know it is good to reach out to—it is true, the Lord is risen! To laugh after a period of mourning for a loved on who has died—hallelujah, I am risen! These are the moments which connect us to this resurrection story, which connect us to a sacred, eternal story of God, who has experienced such death and resurrection first hand. Our small moments of agonizing death and unexpected resurrection are unnoticed sometimes even by the very people who live in the same house with us. But the story of Jesus’ resurrection reminds me that the secret nature of these victories can make them even sweeter. Jesus appeared in an almost mischievous way to the disciples to whom he wanted to appear—like Harry Potter walking around with an invisibility cloak poking his head out to his friends, “Psst, I’m here.”
I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park twice. The second time I went was in 1995, seven years after the enormous fire that had eaten up one third of the park in 1988. I recently saw a photograph, taken from space, which showed the smoke from the fires cutting a swath through the entire 360 miles from western Wyoming to eastern Wyoming.
Almost 10,000 fire fighters came from all over the country to try to put out the blaze as it went into its third month. $140 million dollars was spent, and 1,000,000 gallons of fire retardant were used, but the Yellowstone website says that all of those efforts were fruitless. All of the fires ran the courses they would have been expected to run without the fire fighting efforts. In the end, it was only the fall rain and snow that stopped the fires. The summer of 1988 was Yellowstone Park’s Good Friday.
And if you remember the news reports that summer, the reason so much time and money was spent on fighting the blaze was because so many people did not understand the “natural burn” policy of the park. Environmentalists have come to know that fires are a natural and necessary part of the life of the planet. Until they threaten human life or property like homes and businesses, the natural burn policy allows the fires to go unabated. But there were outraged cries long before the fires became a threat to property. Just like those around Jesus, who pointed fingers, who angrily cursed the defeat of Good Friday, saying, “We thought this was the Messiah”—many cursed not only the fires but those who allowed them. We seldom welcome our Good Fridays.
But some ecologists insist that these fires had been ready to go for decades. There is a life cycle in forests. In a forest’s final stages, it is ready to burn. So much wood has accumulated, so much of it dead and dry, that the only way for new life to be nourished is for the old, dead wood to release its nutrients through fire. Like Thoreau’s hay, which is dead grass making a way for new grass in springtime, the Good Friday at Yellowstone was necessary for its resurrection. And resurrection came at the park on – of all days – September 11, 1988. That is when the rain and snow began, which put the fires out within a month.
And life came from death. By the time I was there seven years later, the bright greenness of new life was evident everywhere under the frightening hulks of charred pine. It was the heat that had released the seeds from pinecones. It was the ash of the fire that provided nutrients for new vegetation. Trees that didn't fall became feeding grounds for insects, and the insects in turn attracted many woodpeckers. The holes left by woodpeckers attracted many birds that used them for nests.
Death and resurrection is a natural part of the earth’s cycle, but the Jesus story reminds us that it is miraculous nonetheless. You have had your Good Friday, where all hope was lost. Now it is Eastertime. Alleluia, we are risen.