So, this is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox – it must be Easter. The name comes from the Saxon goddess of Spring, Estre.
Easter is about Spring – new life.
Pablo Neruda. the Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet has a line in his poem On Keeping Quiet: “Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems to be dead in winter and later proves to be alive.”
Easter celebrates the resurrection of life in the Spring, and it is a reminder that we need ‘little resurrections’ at various times…those ‘seasons of the soul’ when our spirits are down and, as Robert Frost says in his wonderful poem, Birches:
“…So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”
The Easter story says that Jesus ‘got away from earth awhile.’ The story says that he was put to death by the Romans who occupied Jerusalem. He died on Good Friday and was laid in a tomb, the entrance to which was closed by a huge stone. Two days later, on Easter Sunday morning, they saw that the stone had been rolled away and the tomb and it was empty.
(It’s interesting to note that each of the four biographies of Jesus, the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, has a different version of what happened on Easter morning …reminding us that it’s not about what happened in a historical sense, it’s about what is happening, now…what is happening to you, at this time, in the life that you are living.)
Christians believe that Jesus was God taking on human flesh and that he died for our sins and that he rose from the dead.
My task today is not to tell you what you should believe about Easter but what I’ve come to believe – that’s what this free pulpit is about.
Easter is our story because it’s the human story. It’s about spring following winter; it’s about joy following sorrow; it’s about a new beginning following an ending…such is life.
It’s about hope…and we have to have hope – we have to hold on to the notion that things will turn out okay – whatever that means in each of our lives from year to year.
Easter is about Nature, but not just the trees and birds and bunnies, but about our human nature, including what we call our religious or spiritual nature, and our spiritual nature is what motivated our ancestors to create the religions of the world – to give us hope.
We need religion, or something like it, to help us to deal with the difficulties of life – the losses, the sorrows, the un-certainties and disappointments.
We need religion, or something like it, to help us to celebrate the seasons and cycles of our own lives and of the lives of those we love…birthdays, graduations, weddings, retirement and memorial services: we need to mark those special transitions…to celebrate. Religion helps us to do that.
A growing number of people don’t affiliate with any particular religious group, but they say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
We know what they mean — we get it — and we respect it; many of them help to support a particular religion because they are not opposed to religion per se, and they understand the famous line from Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The human spirit must be fed; the soul must be nurtured.
The introduction of our Unitarian Universalist statement of purposes and principles says:
“The living tradition we share draws from many sources; direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life…”
That sounds like ‘spiritual but not religious.’ “…moves us to renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
It is beyond belief – the mythologies are not about belief, they are about understanding; they are about some kind of ‘direct experience’ that allows us to appreciate the Easter story, the Passover story…and all the religious stories our ancestors came up with to ‘move us to a renewal of the spirit.’
Our worship, then, must be a kind of wedding between the rational mind and the emotional heart; between science and religion…between the spiritual and practical. At a wedding there is a joining together of hearts…a sacred bond or connection.
Some of us nurture the spirit with art, music, the beauty of nature…and poetry, which lifts the spirit…or, as e e cummings said in his Easter poem, it ‘lifts us from the no of all nothing.’
i thank You God for most this amazingday:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
The miracle is that we are here, on this earth…’alive again today…
It’s too much for us to grasp, but on a deep level we realize that we have been ‘lifted from the no of all nothing’ – ‘human merely being’…
We can doubt all the creeds, we can dismiss all the religious dogma…but the paradox is that we can’t ‘doubt unimaginable You.’
Descartes put it almost the same way as the poet: dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum: “I doubt therefore I think, I think therefore I am’
That’s exactly the way God is in contact with Moses at the burning bush – when Moses asks ‘who should I say sent me?’ the voice comes out of the bush…or from the depths of Moses: I am that I am…I am becoming…I will be what I will be’
That’s God the verb; that verb comes alive in Nature…in the Spring/Easter.
‘lifted from the no of all nothing’
Religious stories – the mythologies that speak to the inner life of the spirit – help us to feel connected to Nature, or to one another, and to feel connected to ourselves – to feel a sense of wholeness, to feel like we belong here, on this earth, and to feel connected to loved ones, to family and friends…to a community of caring people…to feel accepted and acceptable…to feel forgiven for our short comings and mistakes and the faults and failures that can haunt us and undermine us…if we don’t find the forgiveness we need.
We see the ancient stories as mythology — the stories that connect us to one another, as part of the human family, and the stories that help us to feel whole…to feel ‘at home’ in the world…to feel forgiven, to feel understood…
Mythologies help us to acknowledge and affirm the wonder of it all…the miracle of it all…the mystery of it all.
Easter is the central Christian story of forgiveness. The story says that God took on human flesh, becoming fallible, in the form of Jesus Christ, who taught the most basic lesson of all – to love one another. He suffered and died as a sacrifice for human frailty and sin, and he rose from the dead.
It’s called good Friday because that’s the day God sacrificed His Son to save the people from eternal punishment for their sins: aka vicarious atonement.
It’s also called Holy Friday. It’s preceded in the liturgical calendar by Maundy Thursday…the night before, when Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover with a seder meal, the so-called Last Supper. In Jewish tradition the new day begins at sundown, so Good Friday actually began at sundown on Thursday.
The word Maundy, for Maundy Thursday, comes from the Latin for ‘mandate,’ or rule, or commandment. The story says that on Maundy Thursday Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and he says: “ A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you.”
I’ve been thinking about Miguel Cervantes’ wonderful character, Don Quixote, who introduces his play within a play be saying:
“I shall impersonate a man.”
The Easter story says that God impersonates a man – he becomes the flesh-and-blood man, Jesus, and he suffers and dies, but before he died he did all he could to be of help in the world.
Don Quixote de la Mancha struggles and suffers; he sees a Goliath-like monster who is threatening the people, but Sancho, his squire, sees only a windmill, and tries to dissuade Don Quixote from fighting it
Where Pancho sees a simple peasant woman, Aldonza, Don Quixote sees the beautiful and pure Dulcinea. In the novel Don Quixote never meets her, though he saw her very briefly in the village – he creates an ideal, almost super-natural woman in his mind.
Aldonza begins as someone who has no sense of self-worth — she has a very poor self-image, but the Christ-like Don Quixote’s belief in her, Aldonza begins to believe in herself as someone of worth and dignity and finally takes on the name Dulcinea.
Don Quixote was determined to right the wrongs of the world…to fight injustice: ‘to fight for the right, without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause…and the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove, with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star.’
Don Quixote is a Christ-like figure. And who or what is Christ?
Believing Christians say that Christ is Lord…God in human form…that he has always existed, that he will return to judge the living and the dead…etc.
The liberal view of Jesus as ‘the Christ’ is that he was a perfected human being whose teaching emphasized the worth of every person; that he was born in the natural way and that he came to understand the divine nature that lives in the heart of every person.
It’s Don Quixote’s influence on the self-depracating Aldonza that transformed her into Dulcinea.
Lincoln called it the better angels of our nature; it’s about those human attributes of compassion, kindness and empathy. The traditional Unitarian view is that Jesus is a model of what we might be – a source of inspiration and a reminder of the kind of person we want others to be, and therefore that we ourselves want to become…a good person.
You don’t have to believe in transubstantiation, that the elements of the communion service, the bread and wine, are transformed into the body of Christ, literally, to appreciate the deep truth in the Mass – the service of worship, the central piece is the Eucharist, communion. The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving.
When the play opens, Cervantes has just been thrown into prison during the Spanish Inquisition. (Those accused of having beliefs that were not in compliance with the church’s teaching were questioned and often tortured; one of the most popular forms of the Inquisition’s torture consisted of stuffing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had the impression of drowning—waterboarding.)
Cervantes’ hero was arrested by the Inquisition and thrown into a dungeon with prisoners awaiting trial for a variety of crimes. In order to keep his fellow prisoners from taking his possessions, the most prized of which is his unfinished novel, he asks them to let him perform a play for them, and they agree – everybody likes theater.
He tells them the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha, a man whose mission in life is to right the wrongs of this world.
“To dream the impossible dream; to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go, to right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar, to try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star…”
This was the song I chose to have sung at my ordination in 1972…let’s sing it…
To dream … the impossible dream …
To fight … the unbeatable foe …
To bear … with unbearable sorrow …
To run … where the brave dare not go …
To right … the unrightable wrong …
To love … pure and chaste from afar …
To try … when your arms are too weary …
To reach … the unreachable star …
This is my quest, to follow that star …
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far …
To fight for the right, without question or pause …
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause …
And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest …
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star …