The central symbol of Christianity is the cross- a means of torture and execution used by the Romans to terrorize the Jewish population. Christians turned it into a symbol of hope for millions of people who see deeper meanings in the symbol. My grandmother used to say, “Everyone has a cross to bear.” It helped her to endure a life of suffering and hardship.
The Christian story is the story of life, human life. The Christian story is a retelling of the Jewish story. One of the central stories in Judaism is God’s order to Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
Genesis 22 says, “God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you. So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took . his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.”
After Abraham had made an altar on which to sacrifice his son, and raised his hand to slay him, the story says, “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” and he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”
In the Christian version of this story God provides his own son as a sacrificial lamb- the lamb of God, sent to suffer and die for the sins of mankind.
It’s worth mentioning that Muslims point out that Abraham’s first son was Ishmael, the child of his concubine, Hagar. Notice that the passage from Genesis refers to Isaac as his ‘only son,’ which in the Christian retelling of the story refers to Jesus as God’s ‘only begotten son.’
What do we make of these stories, these religions?
If you were called to offer something to people you care about today–an Easter sermon–what would you say? Did you have some expectation about the sermon you would hear today?
I’ve been on sabbatical for the past three months- a kind of semi-sabbatical, since I didn’t leave town, and since I preached once a month and kept in touch…with Barbara’s help.
By the way, Barbara made it possible for me to do the kind of sabbatical I did for the past three months, and I want to thank her in this public way. She and I have been working together for several years as she moved through the chairs in three different assignments and I feel deeply appreciative of everything she has done and I know she’ll continue to be the best partner in ministry that I can imagine.
With that introduction let me offer the poem I chose for the text for this Easter sermon. It’s an insightful, provocative poem by Robert Frost which he titled Revelation.
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide and seek to God afar
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
Now, why is this an Easter poem? In traditional Christian theology, the doctrine of Revelation is the disclosure of God, the divine being, or the discloser of God’s will to human beings.
Most major world religions have a doctrine of revelation and say that it is the basis for their beliefs, their doctrines, rituals and practices.
Revelation may come in the form of a vision, often accompanied by words, as the legend of Moses at the burning bush, or the legend of Mohammed in the cave hearing a bell that changed into words that became the Koran.
Hindu tradition tells the epic story of Prince Arjuna who saw his charioteer, Krishna, transformed into the true form of divine being- the epic story told in the Bhagavad-Gita.
In a more general sense, revelation refers to the knowledge of God communicated through nature.
Special revelation refers to knowledge of God that comes through specific experiences, such as visions, dreams, or events.
Easter is the Christian story of revelation through resurrection–a dead god comes back to life as proof that he is, indeed, not subject to mortal limitation. The Christian legend says that on that magical, mystical morning the stone was rolled away from the tomb and Jesus, the man who had been put to death on the cross two days before, emerged as the Christ, the Messiah, foretold by the Prophets, to make God’s presence known.
The Easter story, and all the other legends, myths and parables are about us–about what it means to be born, to live and to die; what it means to be a person–a thinking, feeling, failing, and struggling person, making our way through the world from birth to death.
Look again at Robert Frost’s version of Revelation, especially as it relates to Easter. “We make ourselves a place apart.”
The Easter story says that the stone was rolled away and the man who had been placed in the tomb two days before emerged as the risen Christ.
Jesus the man was born of a woman in a humble stable. He grew up, worked with his father as a carpenter. He struggled to understand himself and others. He was befriended and he was betrayed. He suffered. He died.
During his short ministry, which lasted about a year or so, he tried to tell people what he had learned in his short life. He told stories in parables to illustrate the moral lessons he wanted to convey- the good Samaritan who stopped along the road to offer help; the prodigal son who was received by the loving arms of an understanding and forgiving father.
He summarized what he believed to be the key to happiness- a summary which came to be called the beatitudes, the blessings which will come to those who appear now to have the least but will be rewarded later: ‘blessed are the poor.blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.blessed are the peacemakers,’ and so forth.
For Christians, Jesus personifies the good person; Christ personifies God, the Source of Creation, or the mystery of Creation.
Emerson said, “Every man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor.”
The idea that ‘a day comes’ suggests moral development within the individual. The conscience. A step toward humanity.
The Genesis story about God’s intervention with Abraham and providing a lamb to sacrifice rather than his son is an expression of moral development: a day comes when we begin to realize that killing another person in the name of God is wrong, period. It’s as though the voice of God had come to Abraham and said, “Stop the killing!”
The Christian story about a God who sends his son, his only son, as a sacrifice, is a horrendous, violent story, portraying a strange idea of God. It can and must be interpreted as a story of human evolution. Emerson had it right, “…a day comes when we begin to take care that we do not cheat our neighbor.” A day comes when we begin to take care that we do not do violence against our neighbor…a day comes when we begin to see the deeper meanings in all the religious stories, all the myths and legends. A day comes when we realize that we have an accumulation of old ideas, old prejudices, and we let them go. We change. We grow.
For us, as Unitarian Universalists, Jesus is a teacher, a role model, and the story of Easter is our story because it is the story of what it means to be a person, to become a moral person, to develop a sense of conscience, to be willing to sacrifice something for the sake of our children and grandchildren, for the sake of humanity in general.
Frost’s poem, Revelation, says something essential about that process- the process of becoming a person in relationship, which is what this process is about…the process we’re engaged in this morning, here in this place, this religious place, this place of moral development, this place of spiritual growth, this place of friendship and support.
Each of us is a single, separate person. And what do we do as a person? First, ‘we make ourselves a place apart behind light words that tease and flout.’
We choose what to reveal. We learn, early on, that it’s a risk. We have what Erik Erikson called a sense of basic mistrust. Gradually we build a sense of basic trust. We want to be known. We want to be respected. There’s an underlying feeling that says, “If you really knew me you wouldn’t like me.”
So we don’t reveal too much, too soon. We need to know that there is a private zone. We need to know that we are in charge of revealing as much of ourselves as we decide. So ‘we make ourselves a place apart behind light words that tease and flout.’
To tease, in this regard, is to give hints about our deeper self, without revealing too much. To tease, in this regard, is to make jokes, keep it light, don’t reveal too much. Big boys don’t cry; strong women don’t cry. To tease is to be witty, to banter, to kid around, because being witty and bantering and kidding around helps to be in relationship at a comfortable distance.
‘But oh, the agitated heart till someone really find us out.’
We want to be known because we need to make deeper connections, we need to love and be loved. We cannot feel loved unless we feel known. We cannot love unless we feel that we truly know the loved one.
We can’t feel known unless we reveal ourselves–enough, at least, to feel known. We have to take the risk–to be authentic.
‘So all who hide too well away must speak and tell us (who) where they are.’
One of the strong symbols of Easter is the stone that was rolled away from that dark tomb…the hiding place.
Easter symbolism is about suffering, and it’s about revelation, self-revelation. There’s something sacred about each person- a divine ingredient, if you will.
Call it the human spirit. Call it the soul. Call it by any name you choose, or choose to avoid putting a name on it. Some say that the sacred should not be named, that it is a violation. That’s what the phrase in the prayer of Jesus suggests: ‘hallowed be thy name.’ It is sacrosanct.
I choose to think of this sacred ingredient as the divine spark of life, or the ‘divinity’ within each person- or at least the potential for that divine spirit.
Emerson said, “That which shows God in me fortifies me. That which shows God out of me makes me a wart or a wen, there is no longer a necessary reason for my being.”
One of the things that makes this Easter different from all the others- at least in my experience- is what happened to us on September 11. The tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crash of the plane in Pennsylvania did two things which are relevant to the Easter story:
First, the disaster sent us running for cover. The people who were at the Trade Center and the Pentagon literally went running for their lives, and the people we call heroes went into those buildings to preserve and protect those lives.
The disaster sent us running for cover. For the first time in aviation history all the airports were shut down. Planes were ordered to land at the nearest airport. Passengers were stranded, but they didn’t complain because they were thankful to be alive.
Everything got put into a different perspective.
Then we had to respond to the terrorists- to what they had done, and to what we now know they are capable of doing. We had to steel our will, and we had to do what human beings have done from day one- we had to do battle. So, when it came to dealing with Osama bin Laden and company, we had to hide that part of ourselves we think of as basic human compassion.
We heard no voices that said otherwise. We were of one mind, a kind of unity that only a huge disaster brings on. No one said that we should not do whatever we needed to do to prevent further acts of terrorism. We were in general agreement that it was appropriate to kill Osama bin Laden’s Al Qada and the Taliban.
We were filled with a towering rage. Suddenly we lost our sense of security, we lost our sense of equanimity. In a metaphoric or theological sense, we lost our innocence. We’re always being evicted from that old Garden.
Many people said they felt that God had abandoned them, and some religious fanatics offended us with their horrible assertions that God was punishing us because of our acceptance of those among us who are homosexual and other liberal ways.
I became painfully aware that rage had replaced any trace of compassion for the perpetrators and their supporters, and I wanted to see them killed. I felt the violence in the depths of my being. As soon as I felt the rage take over I felt a tremendous sense of loss.
Something essential, something I cherish, seemed suddenly gone. In a very real sense, the terrorists and those who helped them- the perpetrators of these horrible, inhuman crimes- invaded and took over my psyche, doing terrible damage to my soul, my spirit.
My personal theology is constructed on the cornerstone of compassion. Compassion is the visible sign of God’s presence in the world. To lose that sense of compassion, which one must do to a very large extent when you are at war, feels like a devastating loss.
The irony, of course, is that we felt a tremendous sense of compassion for the victims of the terrorists attacks, and a sense of national unity, a sense of care and concern for all Americans.
The attack on September 11 was devastating. It took the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people. It destroyed two towers that were powerful symbols of the interconnected world that has evolved during the last generation.
The attack on September 11 shook us to the core and brought a mixture of sadness and rage. It pushed us into deep places spiritually as well as politically and militarily.
In the face of September 11 Easter takes on a new dimension. We can see it as the human story of suffering as a result of cruelty, and we can see it as the resurrection of the human spirit after a terrible time in the dark night of the soul.
To be a person in this world is to make connections with other persons- to love.
To be a person in this world requires risk: ‘we make ourselves a place apart behind light words that tease and flout, but oh, the agitated heart till someone really find us out.’ Then we can say with E. E. Cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: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)