(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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As we consider today the power of ideas and especially the power of the Easter idea, we’re reminded that there have been a lot of silly ideas throughout human history. Such ideas have often been based more on superstition than on science. But some were just plain silly. In Victorian England, books written by women authors could not be placed on library bookshelves next to books written by men – unless the two were married. High heeled shoes were first invented in the seventeenth century for rich men – as a status symbol so they could physically announce their supremacy. In ancient Egypt, prospective brides were jailed for deception if they used too much makeup to disguise their less than good looks. During Nancy Reagan’s efforts to discourage drug use in the 1980’s, thousands of pencils were distributed to high school kids in New York City. Printed on them was the message “Too Cool to Do Drugs”. Students avidly used the pencils but this motivational idea ended badly. As pencils were repeatedly sharpened down, the message on them soon became “Cool to Do Drugs” and then, simply, “Do Drugs”.
During Medieval times, rabbits were believed to be living miracles. It was observed how fertile rabbits can be. Some female rabbits conceive second litters even when already pregnant with a first. Others are able to conceive without a partner – they have the reproductive organs of both sexes. This ability to reproduce without mating was noted by the early Church and rabbits were quickly seen as miraculous – akin to the Virgin Mary and to the resurrected Jesus. In this way, the rabbit became synonymous with Easter. And the myth of the Easter bunny was born. To make the rabbit festive and appropriate for children, the idea was adapted so that the Easter bunny was NOT portrayed as eagerly reproducing but, instead, as carrying brightly colored eggs. While many contemporary Christians believe the Easter bunny is a secular or even pagan symbol, it began as a pre-scientific but very Christian idea – one that tied the miracle of the Resurrection with the seeming miracle of self-conceiving rabbits.
As silly as many of these ideas are, we nevertheless note the power they have held over people. I have a picture of my youngest daughter Amy, when she was one or two years old, clutching to her cheek an Easter egg she had proudly found. In that innocent image is the joy she felt in her discovery – not in candy or a toy but in an egg of all things! She was inspired by the Easter Bunny idea that her mom and I had taught her. In her hands was actual proof that the Easter Bunny is real!
Hopefully, for Amy and for many of us, this joy of Easter persists. Indeed, Easter and the Easter Bunny are not so much the stuff of mythology but of reality. Today, we celebrate the very real idea of renewal and rebirth in ourselves and in our world. Much like countless adults and children have celebrated over the years, Easter reminds us that evil, death, despair and destruction are not permanent. New life is all around us. Hope fills the air. The promise of a better world is ours to make. This joy of the Easter idea is found in the symbol of the empty tomb. Death is denied. Hate will not triumph. Goodness still thrives. We have the figurative opportunity to live forever. O grave, where is thy victory?
I was recently asked by a member here to share some Bible verses that are good for funerals and memorial services. I had to confess that I recommend very few. Most death related verses in the Bible speak of our hope in a resurrected Christ and the need to believe in him if we hope to go to heaven.
Whether or not you believe in a resurrected Christ, that is not for me to impose on you and not for me to pronounce today. And, it is not the point of a funeral service or of Easter. Both are celebrations of lives well lived that have brought goodness and joy into our world.
At the brief funeral for Jesus on the first Good Friday, however, his followers did not celebrate a life well lived. They were in despair. They were frightened and defeated. The possibility of their own executions seemed imminent. Hate, intolerance and religious hypocrisy seemed to have won. Jesus and his movement were both dead.
But whatever happened on that first Easter, whether a deceased Jesus was once again physically alive or whether the myth of his resurrection was hatched, that does not matter. What does matter for us and for our world today is that Jesus’ ideas were resurrected. For us, it’s not that his body came back to life that has lasting value. It’s that his ideas did not die. The power of good ideas, the power of universally true ideas, the power of just, kind, forgiving, compassionate and generous ideas — these are still alive and well. Out of the ashes of defeat and death, rose the powerful moral force of Jesus’ ideas.
The power of ideas to shape human history is unquestioned. Here we are two thousand years later celebrating either a very real or a very mythic event. But that’s not why we celebrate Easter. It reminds us to seek after what Jesus and others taught and practiced. With its ideas, it confirms to us that there is, indeed, figurative life after death. Much like Jesus, we have the ability through our own ideas or by following those of others to improve the world and symbolically live forever.
Indeed, the world was reminded over the past month that Jesus’ ideas are still very much alive. His ideas have been practiced millions of times but they were recently manifest in the first actions of a new Pope. Since many of us are not Catholic, we do not see the Pope as an earth bound spokesman for God. As an old, white male – the Pope seems out of touch with changing demographics and beliefs.
But we also see in him glimmers of Jesus ideas. He chose as his new name that of Francis – one that no other Pope in history has taken. His name hopefully speaks a lot about his values and how he might help use the ideas of his namesake, and of Jesus, to change the world for the better.
Francis of Assisi, from whom the Pope took his name, resurrected the ideas of Jesus like no other. Born in the twelfth century to wealthy parents, he was a playboy in his youth – enjoying wine, women and the good life. Spending time in prison after his capture as a soldier, Francis of Assisi saw a vision of Jesus who implored him to change the Church and thereby resurrect his ideas. The Church at that time was the most powerful institution on earth. It was vastly rich and its Priests and Bishops lived like princes. In the town of Assisi, Francis saw how the poor lived in a damp, disease ridden swamp at the foot of sun bathed hills on which the nobility resided in splendor – including the Bishops and their elaborate churches. Kept away from them all was a large leper colony.
Taking Jesus’ ideas to heart, Francis of Assisi radically changed his life. He renounced a great inheritance and symbolically stripped himself naked in front of his father as a way to shun a life of wealth. He embraced poverty as the only way for him to care for others. He founded the Franciscan order of monks whose simple mission was and is to practice and follow the compassionate ideas of Jesus. The greatest of those ideas was summed up in one of Jesus’ teachings – one that Franciscans still consider their inspiration: “Those that will be great among you, let them serve.”
The centerpiece of Jesus and Franciscan ideas is to build caring communities. Instead of exalting the needs of the selfish individual, it is the community that is foremost. One gives up self-interest and replaces it with pure love and service for others.
Francis and his fellow monks worked with and served the poor. They purposefully reached out to lepers with assistance and compassion. Lepers were only allowed into villages at night and they had to ring a bell to announce their presence. Most people ran away or hid themselves from the terribly deformed lepers. Francis and his monks instead ran to them.
Serving as a religious advisor to crusading soldiers fighting Muslims in Egypt, Francis secretly met with the Arab Sultan to seek forgiveness and peace. The sultan was impressed. On his return to Italy, Francis ordered that Franciscans no longer evangelize to people of other faiths or seek their conversion. He encouraged, instead, peaceful co-existence and mutual respect for Muslims and non-Christians. . Indeed, Francis of Assisi taught that it is by one’s actions and NOT by one’s words that the ideas of Jesus are conveyed.
And Francis deeply believed in the inter-connectedness of all creation. He is often called the Patron Saint of the environment. Expressing ideas that are remarkably similar to those of native-Americans, Francis of Assisi spoke of fire, the moon and the stars as his brothers and sisters. He literally preached to and tended birds and animals as fellow creatures in need of care.
Above all, Francis of Assisi valued deep humility in himself and in Franciscan monks. Status, wealth, and power were to be avoided. Humbly serving and giving to others is the path to a legacy that endures far beyond earthly life.
Such ideas were not originated by Francis. He adopted them as ideas taught and practiced by Jesus. A thousand years after the death of Jesus, when the Church had become an institution that executed in one month over 80,000 heretics and Jews, when its Priests and Bishops lived in opulent palaces, when it sponsored wars to convert Muslims by violence, when it refused to offer baptism, communion or compassion to lepers, Francis of Assisi showed that the timeless ideas of Jesus were not dead. They had lasting power. In Francis of Assisi they had been resurrected.
And those ideas are still alive today – perhaps in the actions of a new Pope. We may not agree with all of this Pope’s religious doctrines but we can hope that through him the great ideas of Jesus will be resurrected in the Church today. Pope Francis is said to be a humble man. He is said to want simple food and lodgings. He is said to have told fellow Cardinals that their first priority must be to serve the poor. He is said to have scolded Priests who refuse to baptize infants born to unwed mothers. He is said to have encouraged his fellow Argentine Bishops to endorse Civil Unions for same sex couples. Just last week he is said to have encouraged love, understanding and learning from those who are not Christian. He is said to have recently stated that authentic power comes to those who serve others instead of the self.
Adopting the name of Francis and saying nice things are good. But, as Francis of Assisi taught, we hope in the coming years that Pope Francis’ actions speak louder. Nevertheless, once again, the world is witnessing the power of ideas to endure. Ideas have power when they are universally true to all people. They have power in how they touch human lives for the better. They have power when they are continually resurrected in people like us.
We celebrate Easter this year and every year because we value the ideas of Jesus. We celebrate it because it affirmed then, as it does now, that light prevails over darkness, good defeats evil, love conquers hate, forgiveness is greater than bitterness, compassion is stronger than indifference and heaven on earth is a better vision than the hell of poverty, war and injustice.
We celebrate Easter because we know that Jesus ideas are resurrected in us. Because they are, we will influence the world long after we have breathed our last. We are people who reach out to family, friends and strangers with unconditional love. We are people who work with our words and our hands to serve and care for others. We are a people constantly seeking the better in ourselves – yearning to release the angel deep inside. Our legacy of giving, our legacy of compassion, our legacy of quiet humility, our legacy of gentleness and forgiveness – these are the fruits of our lives well lived. Such is the currency of eternal life granted to each one of us. Such is the currency that granted Jesus and Francis of Assisi enduring life. The ideas of service to others that we practice will carry forward – granting us a resurrection and an eternity far more real than if our bodies or even our spirits lived on. We do not serve to selfishly gain an afterlife. We serve for the sake of others. We serve for the sake of creating and building a heaven on earth right here and now for our generation, and for the thousands of generations yet to come.
Two weeks ago, a member here at the Gathering reminded me and several of you about the enduring power of Jesus’ ideas. When an elderly member, having with her only a thin coat, said how cold and deeply chilled she was, Danny took off his own heavy winter coat and gave it to her. “Here”, he said, “it’s yours to keep.” Forgive me Danny for calling attention to your quiet act of goodness. Francis of Assisi once said, “Remember that when you leave this earth you can take with you nothing that you have received – ONLY what you have given.” That! That is the beauty, power and greatness of the Easter idea.
May each of us live now and forever more with peace and joy…I wish you a happy Easter.