Message 55, “Redemption Tales: Living as Easter People”, 4-24-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Woody Allen, the famous comedian and filmmaker, once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work and my reputation.  I want to achieve immortality by simply not dying!” And his plaintive hope, I think, is why many people celebrate the Easter holiday.  We are told that Jesus died on the cross, was buried for three days and then came back to life – he was resurrected – in order to prove the power of God to defeat the ultimate obstacle we all face in life……its end.  Many Christians assert that while the Cross is a great symbol of their faith, without the empty tomb, their religion would be irrelevant.  The promise of an eternal afterlife would be false.

On Easter Sunday of all days, I do not want to argue the merits of such claims – whether or not Jesus’ empty tomb was a historical reality or not.  Nor will I discuss whether or not there is a Heaven that awaits us.  Indeed, we will all one day learn the answer to that question.  What I assert, is that such discussions are themselves irrelevant to Easter or any other day.  Easter is ultimately about life and it does us no good to think about tombs or death.  We each have before us many, many days ahead to consider the here and now, this world and our very lives.  What will we make of today?  How will we learn, grow and change in order to create a better future for ourselves and the world around us?   How can we live as an Easter people?

In the song we just sang, are the words:… in our time there is infinity and in our lives, there is eternity.  As incongruous as those words are, however, lies what I believe is the Easter message and what Jesus himself taught.  In his first words on the public scene, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God is here!  The possibilities of justice, peace, gentleness, humility, generosity, tolerance and equality – the very ethics of the Divine One – are available right now, right here, in each of us.  In our time right now is the infinite possibility to create heaven on earth.

And that is how Jesus lived his life – to defeat the powers of death and destruction that practiced racism, hatred, violence, intolerance, hypocrisy and greed.  As a person, Jesus reached out to the marginalized members of society – to women, to children, to the homeless, the poor, the sick, the depressed, the lame, the lepers and those considered on the fringe.  He taught ethics of compassion, of gentleness, of kind words, of patience, of generosity and of peace.  His call to his followers and to us was to help him usher in the kingdom of God now – to resurrect and change ourselves for the better so that we can then, in turn, bring about a more just and peaceful world.

In my mind, there are two Easters we could potentially celebrate today.  One is the Easter of dogmatic certainty and absolute belief.  We may, in this instance, believe in the man-made Easter of religion which asserts that this day celebrates the historical reality of Jesus’ literal resurrection from the dead.  On this day nearly two-thousand years ago, we can assert that he became the Christ – the One in whom we must believe, in order to obtain immortality.

Or, there is a second Easter which I believe reflects that which the man Jesus actually taught.  This is the Easter of change, of growth, and of re-birth.  This is the Easter that asserts change and resurrection are what life is all about.  Are we willing to alter the way we think, act, or speak for the better?  Are we willing to be more kind, generous, humble and compassionate?  Can we dig into our souls and open up the dark and cobweb filled tombs of our minds and our hearts – to new life and a new outlook?  Abraham Lincoln once said that he did not think much of a person who was not wiser today than he or she was yesterday.  Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author, said on the subject, “Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself or herself.”

To be an Easter person involves, I believe, a willingness to constantly grow for the better.  How might I learn to be more tolerant of others?  How might I understand how I hold onto subtle but very real forms of racism, sexism, or homophobia?  How can I change the way I act and speak in order to be more gentle and loving toward family, friends and strangers?  How can I embrace life itself to find simple joys and pleasures – to alter the way I think so that I am not depressed, negative or frustrated?  I want to become an Easter person – not perfect by any means – but one who is evolving and who is open to personal resurrection.

I once heard a story about a woman named Mable who lived in a nursing home.  She was bent over and confined to a wheelchair   Due to a debilitating stroke, she could not speak, she was partially paralyzed and one side of her mouth hung open such that she constantly drooled.  One day a therapist decided to see if Mable was aware of the world around her and could understand what others said to her.  The therapist patiently explained to Mable how she could point with one finger to letters on an alphabet board and thus spell out words in order to communicate.  And then the therapist asked her how she was feeling.  Very slowly, Mable pointed to a long series of letters on the board which finally spelled out, “I am alive.  There are people who care about me.  My children visit me often.  Life is beautiful!”

Who among us does not hope to evolve to the point where we truly live out the Easter ethic of joy and happiness with life itself?

As I have said in here before, Jesus called us to live by one very simple rule – to speak, act and treat our neighbors – our fellow human beings – as we too wish to be treated.  And if that is an ethic upon which all morality rests – since a variation of the Golden Rule is found in nearly all of the world religions – than it is incumbent upon us to find ways to live that out.  We must walk our talk.  And to do so, we must constantly and closely examine our inner selves to find ways to improve.

Marianne Williamson, a well-known spiritual commentator, wrote in one of her books, Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.” For me, this is another lesson and the meaning of Easter.  It is not to celebrate the notion that death has been conquered and that we will live forever.  I believe Easter is about the present lives and a celebration of our work to resurrect ourselves, our families, our communities and our world.  We seek to redeem them, as I have discussed the past two weeks, in order to turn something bad into something good.  Let my anger be turned to gentleness.  Let my greed be turned to generosity.  Let my compassion help build a more just world.

Before I conclude my message this morning, please stand together, as you are able, to sing with me a traditional Easter hymn, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”  In doing so, I hope we will consider the words as personally relevant to us right now – how will the ethics and teachings of Jesus and of the Golden Rule be risen today in our hearts and minds?  Let us sing together…

My dear and beloved friends, Easter as a holiday is about hope for an unknown future.  It is about embracing life now and the potential within us to be ever-resurrected.  In the bulb there is a flower waiting to burst forth.  In the tomb of our souls, there is a new and even more beautiful person waiting to be born – to love in new ways, to give even more generously, to act and speak with even greater compassion.  In order to redeem this holiday – to resurrect it into something greater than its mere focus on a defeat of death – let us resolve to make it about an end to what is dead inside of us.  Might I challenge each one of us – and I am at the head of that line – to resurrect one part of us in the hours, days and weeks ahead?  Can we take one important area of our lives and see it from an opposite perspective?  If we are liberal in our politics, might we consider our world from a conservative’s viewpoint.  And if we are conservative, can we do likewise?  If we are a person of strong faith, can we think as an Atheist, for just a while?  And as an Atheist, can we consider the beliefs of those who honor the Bible, the Torah or the Quran?  If we have angry thoughts towards someone else, can we think loving thoughts of that person?  If we are depressed, might we seek positive and joyous ways of thinking?  If we believe in a certain way of life, lifestyle, or we eat certain foods, can we undertake a serious effort to see life and how we act from the opposite point of view?  Will we, right now, promise to ourselves to be open to resurrection in how we think, act, talk and believe?  I do not ask for change simply to prove we can.  I encourage change for the sake of empathy towards others, for understanding of different thoughts and opinions and for personal growth.  If I seriously undertake such an effort, will I become a strong conservative, a vegan or a perfectly loving individual?  Perhaps not.  But perhaps I might.  What I seek for myself and for all of us on this Easter is to embrace the power of its meaning.  Let us be open to change.  Let us accept the challenge of growth and learning.  May we – each day of our lives – seek personal resurrection.  And may we do so not merely to be better people but so that we can go out and impact our world for the better.  More love, more justice, more kindness, more humility. More resurrection of our hearts and minds.  In doing these things, we will truly be an Easter people!