(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, The Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved.
In 1986, the Reverend Bill Schulz, who was President of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the time, commented that many UU’s find Easter to be a difficult and perplexing holiday. He commented that for Unitarians, observing Easter is a bit like attending a party at which the guest of honor is someone you don’t know. You’re in a celebratory mood but you’re not quite sure why.
Despite that fact, Reverend Schulz said Unitarian Universalists are learning how to see Easter as more than just a celebration of Spring. We’re putting an end, he said, to UU Easter sermons that are often titled “Upsy Daisy!”
I’m beginning today a three part message series I’ll continue in April on what prophets from three world religions might teach us. Appropriate for Easter, today I’ll look at what Jesus and the resurrection story tell us about renewal and change. In two weeks, I’ll consider the prophet Mohammad and his ethic of salaam or peace. We’ll here a few thoughts from new attended Sabura Rashad who is a practicing Muslim. And, in three weeks, we’ll celebrate a condensed version of a Passover Seder meal as we look at Moses and what he taught about three essential freedoms.
For today, in talking about Jesus and Easter, I echo Reverend Schulz’s words that we need not celebrate the holiday as one commemorating actual history – the literal resurrection of Jesus’ body. Indeed, as I’ve related here before, there has always been differences about how to understand and interpret the Easter story. Many early Christians believed something entirely different from what most of today’s Christians believe. In the process of compiling the Bible in 325 BCE, those who believed in a literal resurrection of Jesus’ body won the debate – and it is their beliefs that today comprise majority Christian belief.
Other early Christians, called the Gnostics, lost the battle over Easter interpretation. They possessed written accounts of Jesus’ life, like the Gospel of Thomas, which differed from what was included in the Bible. Gnostics understood that Jesus was crucified, he died……..BUT his body remained permanently dead. Gnostics believed it was Jesus’ spirit that was resurrected on Easter, NOT his body. It’s the spirit – the essence of how a person lived and their life legacy – that is what is eternal.
What we must know, therefore, is that there were and are multiple understandings about Easter. For my purposes today, I believe what is important about Easter is that how Jesus lived and what he taught – the essence of his spirit – did not die with him. Instead, there was a resurrection and renewal of his core ideas – that God is love, and that people can be like God in how they treat one another. Instead of worrying about physical death and whether or not Jesus saves souls to spend eternity in heaven, people ought to be more concerned about how they make this world better and whether they love others as much as they love themselves.
The Easter story is therefore a lesson that death may come but how we impact the world endures. What are our legacies of love and service? Just as important, what struggles are we overcoming – ones that will be a model for our children to copy? How are we continually renewing ourselves such that defeats, broken relationships, personal challenges and flaws are buried……….and then resurrected into new lives of wholeness? That is a primary lesson from the Easter story – the sadness and negativity of Jesus’ death story was transformed into something new and better.
Indeed, Easter is a bit like New Year’s Eve – a time when the old in us can pass away and the new can be reborn. For this Easter day, how might we resolve to replace sadness with joy, despair with hope, anger with forgiveness, or hatred with love? What is it in me, what is it in you that needs to be buried and sealed away? And, in a word, how might we then be…… renewed?
To renew and resurrect ourselves we must first take an honest inventory of our hearts and minds. What emotion do we mostly feel about life and others? What emotions lead us in a negative direction? If we are acting in harmful ways to ourselves or others, what underlies those actions? Are we angry, hurt, sad, lonely, afraid? And if so, what is the root cause? Has someone in the past hurt us or told us we are inadequate? Have we been abandoned by a loved one? What causes our fears? Illness? Being alone? Work stress? Money problems?
Whatever it is that we identify about ourselves that needs to change, we have to move beyond denial and excuses. That is easier said then done. But telling the truth to ourselves about our flaws and negative emotions is a liberating experience. As Jesus taught, truth will set us free. No longer need we be burdened by trying to hide or suppress any personal struggle. By self confessing and identifying flaws and hurts, we can find ways to renew ourselves.
There are countless ways to move beyond an inner challenge. Spiritually, we know that meditation is a huge help in clearing away negative emotions. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that acknowledges thoughts as they pass through our minds but does not dwell on them and let’s them gently pass out of our thoughts. Mindfulness then helps build in us a sense of calm because we intentionally do not allow damaging thoughts or emotions to consume our thinking. Fear, for instance, is an emotion that only has power when it is dwelled upon. As President Roosevelt famously said, the only thing we have to fear……is fear itself. Through mindfulness, we can be aware of negative thoughts, but we purposefully choose not to dwell on them as we focus instead on relaxation, breathing, and peace. In the process, our once negative mindset is renewed.
Prayer, for me, is another form of meditation. This is not a rote reciting of hopes and desires. Instead, my practice of prayer is an expression of longing for good in the life of others and in mine. Like meditation, prayer for me is soothing and a way to renew my mind with hopeful emotions. Whether I’m angry, sad, or afraid, prayer is a way to communicate with the universe of all things and see life in a larger perspective than my concerns.
Another way to renew ourselves is to forgive. Many people carry life long anger which has a corrosive affect on their emotions and ways they act. To forgive is to intentionally let go of angry emotions toward someone who has hurt you. While one will always remember an offense and it is important to apply appropriate boundaries to be protected from future harm, forgiving another is cleansing to our minds and hearts. It renews us such that we once again hold gentle thoughts about everyone – even ones who have hurt us.
Another way to create personal renewal is to regularly engage in acts of generosity. By working in a soup kitchen or charity, writing a letter of gratitude to someone I know, visiting a friend in the hospital, cooking a meal for a person in need, or quietly listening to someone in distress, I’m able to put in perspective my negative emotions and actions. It’s ironic, but the act of loving and serving someone else is a path to loving yourself. It quite simply feels good to act good………and that is a great way to find personal renewal.
I’ve also found that I can re-focus my life by getting outside, taking a long walk, sitting quietly in a garden, or exercising outdoors. As humans, our tendency is to think of ourselves as above and outside the natural realm. We live in controlled environments that prevent us from feeling a part of nature. But when we return to it, when we put ourselves in its midst and allow it to enfold us, we’re reminded of how insignificant we are. The problems in our lives suddenly become pitifully small. It’s a humbling experience to walk along a beach and contemplate the vastness of the oceans, or gaze with wonder at a night sky filled with stars and galaxies. By doing so, by returning to nature and contemplating its beauty, we can find renewal of mind, body and spirit.
Finally, I’m a strong believer in the renewing power of spiritual enlightenment and being a part of a spiritual congregation. Many of us attend here every Sunday to experience the joys of community and mutual support. I hope we also attend in order to experience a few moments of transcendence and insight. Spiritual examination of ourselves and what we can do to improve the world is a way to find meaning and purpose. It’s also another way to get unstuck from the rut our minds and emotions are often in. Spirituality, in whatever form, is a window into the eternal – a place that is perfectly true and good. For me, that is the realm of the divine – or seat of God. My spirituality is a way to seek that place whether it proves to be a state of my mind, or something beyond my understanding. I believe each person hungers for moments when they sit in utter wonder about the mysteries of life, love and the universe. Often, these are powerful and moving experiences. If we regularly engage in spiritual exploration, personal renewal will follow.
As a minister, I hear about the challenges and struggles many people face. I’ve talked to some about their nearness to death. I’ve comforted others who face dying with great fear – who ask me for some assurance they will go to heaven. I’ve visited the lonely and sad. I’ve listened to those who feel the weight of life and all its stress. I’ve heard others talk about the heartache of a broken relationship. I’ve counseled a few who are caught in a web of substance abuse and addiction through which they see no escape. Mostly, it seems, I encounter far too many people who hurt. I realize that life is never easy.
But the amazing thing I find with every challenge I hear about is that people overcome. In the midst of darkness that seems bleak and devastating, there is always light. The dying often find a sense of peace and move into eternity with grace. Those who are angry and bitter usually find a way to do what they once thought impossible – they forgive and come to love those who have hurt them. The divorced, separated and single find self-confidence and inner peace. In the process, many find new partners or spouses to love and cherish. The addicted often hit rock bottom where the only direction they can go is up – and so upward they go by confronting the pain they had tried so hard to numb. Time and time again, I’m deeply moved by people I know who suffer and yet who renew themselves with determination to live a more meaningful life.
When my mom turned sixty-five, a friend gave her a hand stitched decorative pillow that said on it, “Old age is not for sissies.” My mom is now living out the reality of that expression. In truth, however, that pillow might as well have said, “Life is not for sissies.” Indeed it is not. The Easter story, whether myth or actual history, is one that teaches a profound lesson. Out of the depths of despair, from the valley of the shadow of death, there is always hope……after hope…….after everlasting hope. We are each Easter people – bloodied and challenged – but never defeated and always, always renewing and growing.
I wish us all, this Easter Day, much peace and joy!