(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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For many of us who are spiritually open-minded, or for those who are non-spiritual but honor humanist ideals, celebrating religious holidays like Passover or Easter can seem meaningless. Since one may not believe in the supernatural miracles that supposedly saved ancient Jews from slavery, or the alleged resurrection of Jesus from the dead, then why do we bother with a Passover family meal or an Easter service?
That’s a legitimate question. And a possible answer should include more than the reply that Passover and Easter are parts of our Judeo-Christian culture. For us as thinking, rational people, celebrating things we don’t believe in should provide some value – or else be abandoned.
I believe the implied lessons from Easter, despite its religious origins, do offer value and wisdom to people of any faith, or no faith. Easter, in particular, is a story with all kinds of truths that Christians and non-Christians can remember and follow.
As most know, Easter is the ultimate day of joy for Christians. All of Christian history, all the books, sermons, prayers and practices of that faith rely on the Easter morning story. As the Bible says, without Easter morning, Christianity makes no sense.
That assertion comes from accepting the Easter story told in the four Biblical books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus’ tomb, the story goes, was found empty two-thousand years ago by several of his women followers. It’s a tribute to them, and to women in general, that they practiced a mostly feminine attribute – they alone were loyal to Jesus as the last to ones at his death, and the first to discover his empty grave. He’s is alleged to have appeared fully alive to the women on Easter morning and to then appear to hundreds of people in the days to follow.
This came, as the story says, after he’d been terribly whipped, killed by one of the most agonizing methods possible, confirmed dead, and then entombed for two days.
The night before his trial, torture and execution, what Christians call Maundy Thursday, it’s said that Jesus assembled his twelve disciples to celebrate a Passover meal. It’s from this meal that the tradition of bread and wine communion began. It’s also at that meal that Jesus learned one of the disciples, Judas, had made a pact with the Romans to betray his whereabouts.
After the meal, Jesus retreated to an olive grove overlooking Jerusalem. This secluded place was the spot where he wanted to reflect and pray in preparation for his anticipated arrest and death.
It’s said he was in such anguish as he prayed that night that he sweated profusely – even to the point that blood oozed from his skin. In his prayers, the gospels quote Jesus as crying out and pleading with God to spare him the next day’s horrors. At some point in the wee hours of Friday morning, Roman soldiers came for him. His hard night of terror would lead to a daytime of intense suffering.
Much of the story about Jesus’ death cannot be conclusively proven, but many details are historically accurate. It’s factual that Romans used crucifixion to execute thousands of criminals and enemies. It’s factual that Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to death, was the Roman governor of Palestine at that time. It’s also factual that Christianity rapidly spread soon after the Bible says Jesus died. It’s a bit ironic that the powerful Roman Empire that killed him was peacefully taken over by Christianity less than three hundred years later.
It’s unlikely, therefore, that the religion was invented. It had to have been based on the life and teachings of a real person. Because of that, most scholars and historians believe a man named Jesus of Nazareth did actually live, he did teach many profound lessons, he did accumulate thousands of followers during his lifetime, and he was executed because he represented a threat to Rome and to religious elites.
So, it’s also likely the stories about the night before his execution and the details of his death are true. It’s only when the miraculous story of Easter morning is examined that scholars and historians object. It is surmised by many scholars that Jesus, like most victims of crucifixion, was unceremoniously taken off his cross, buried in a common grave, and his body was possibly dug up and consumed by wild dogs.
The ensuing dejection of his thousands of followers cannot be underestimated. Jesus was seen as a potential leader along the lines of King David – one who would lead a revolt against the Romans and wealthy elites. Others were strongly drawn to his spiritual wisdom – to forgive, love one’s enemies, practice non-violence, and care for the poor and marginalized. With his death, all of the hopes invested in him seemed to die too. It’s entirely understandable that his followers then remembered him by recounting stories of his life and repeating his teachings. In time, stories about him were written down and embellished to the point that fact and myth were mixed. Still later, admirers of Jesus made him god-like, someone who performed miracles and who could defeat death. The Easter morning story was the primary part of the effort to turn a great human being into a supernatural god.
The apparent myth of Jesus’ resurrection does not, however, diminish its meaning or lesson. It’s often said by Christians that the joy of Easter could not happen without the suffering of Good Friday. And that statement is more than a religious belief. Implicit in it is a fundamental truth for all people – and thus the point of my message today and my message series this month.
Challenges in life are made worse and become pointless unless we find a way to transform our pain, and thereby transform ourselves. Taking the easy way, avoiding or running away from hardship, is to symbolically take the road most taken. As Robert Frost implies in his famous poem, the road less taken, the one still beaten down because it’s way is hard, is the better one. It’s the road that will make all the difference.
And that truth is evident in the story about Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. On the night before he died, he was desperate. His fear was apparent to all who saw him. He clearly knew the excruciating pain and humiliation that awaited him. He could have slipped out of the city before his arrest. But he didn’t. He endured his hard night perhaps as a final lesson for his followers – that real courage is not displayed by fighting with physical or verbal violence.
Often, courage is in how one quietly perseveres with as much peace and humility as possible. Courage is Mohatma Gandhi during his salt march protests against British colonialism. Courage is Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers walking across the Edmund Pettus bridge into bigoted mobs. Courage is one standing with quiet dignity against hate directed their way, it’s someone bravely but peacefully facing a terminal disease, or anyone gracefully bearing any obstacle head-on.
And the triumph of Easter morning, myth as it may be, is testimony to the reality that endurance with dignity pays a reward. Jesus as a human, not as a god, is perhaps the single greatest person in history. That’s not because he fled from his trials, it’s because he didn’t. His resurrection, in that regard, may not have been a literal one, but it’s meaning is true nevertheless. Jesus as a person of history lives onward – as does anyone who selflessly suffers but helps improve the world anyway.
Multiple psychologists assert the truth of this. When any of us are in the midst of hardship, the way to successfully endure and find peace is not to avoid or run away. Instead, experts say we should examine our suffering and determine where it comes from. Even though we will likely attribute our suffering to external causes – a negative person, an illness, a job loss……..that is not why we suffer. Instead, our suffering comes from our fears – fear of thinking we’re inadequate, fear of feeling demeaned, fear of being forgotten after we die.
Once we identify our root fears, then logic and reason can take over. Are we really inadequate? Haven’t we succeeded in numerous ways? Are we really being demeaned by others? Or, is someone else’s negativity their own problem – and not our’s? And, what about our fear of death? What is it about it that we are afraid of? Have we not left our good marks on the world? Have we not loved and served and sacrificed? Have we not sent out ripples of goodness far into eternity – things we’ve done that have improved other lives and that will be paid forward forever?
The truth is that our fears are often illogical. Once identified and rationally considered, we can change how we think about them. It’s a timeless truth that how we suffer has less to do with external influences and far more to do with internal issues of fear and insecurity. Most of us have the power and ability to end our suffering by changing our perception of it.
Added to that fact is the reality that pain is real, but it will end. Indeed, the cycle of life is always one that moves from happiness – to challenge – to suffering – to recovery – and back again to happiness. As much as we know that from past experience, it will help us to remember that through our hard night.
And even when we are at at death’s door, our life will not truly end. We need not fear insignificance. Our lives will go onward due to all we have accomplished in love, kindness and service.
Ultimately, be it in the throes of challenging circumstances, or during our final days, there will always, always, always be scores of things for which to be thankful and from which we can find Easter-like joy.
This path, this challenging road to find lasting contentment, is the road less taken. It’s a road, however, that we instinctively avoid. Flinching from pain, fleeing from hardship, drugging ourselves to numb our pain, these are ways humans have always taken the more traveled road. At that road’s end, however, there will only be an illusion of peace. There will be no contentment, no lessons learned, no insight into one’s soul, no hard won conquest of fear, no Easter like celebration.
I read now from Robert Frost’s poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both.
And be one traveler, long I stood,
And looked down one as far as I could,
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay,
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
For you and me, may we heed the Easter lesson and take the road less traveled. May we consider all that challenges us, all that stings, all that tries our souls. And I pray that from those considerations, a dawning truth will emerge. Life is hard, but we are stronger. Our bodies may hurt and even perish, but we will never die. There is no end, no conclusion to the road less traveled. Instead, it will be a path to find eternal peace and joy that surpasses all understanding.
I wish you a very blessed Easter.
In the spirit of this morning, please quiet your minds and hearts and join me in a guided Easter reflection….
Let us reflect on challenges before our world…
The wars and killing that devastate people and cultures,
The hatred that divides instead of unites,
The injuries to our oceans, land and air,
The struggles of poor and marginalized persons,
The anger of persons discriminated against – who see members of their communities beaten and even killed,
The challenges of the other abled, sick and dying….
Our hearts break for so many, many, many wounds……………….
But through these hard nights of challenge behind us and still ahead of us
Our souls rejoice for all that is good and blessed…
For advocates of peace, justice and equity…
For helping hands who feed, soothe, comfort and care for the hurting,
For diversity of life and humanity – the flowering of many creatures and many peoples each adding their beauty to one another,
For lovers, spouses, partners, children, parents, friends who sustain and support us,
And finally for the hope that remains inside us – a hope we refuse to let die – that good will prevail, that light will conquer darkness, that joy will come in the morning!!!!