I’d like to invite you on a journey—a journey of heroic dimensions—a journey inward where you will be required to tap into your True Self–a journey where you cannot get off easily, by saying you ‘agree or disagree’ with this or that statement or dismiss something out of hand as someone else’s opinion.
This is the hero’s journey, into that aspect of life we call intuition—that place Rumi referred to in his poem:
There is a field
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.
So, let’s see if we can meet ‘out there in that field,’ beyond the idea of who is right and who is wrong about the Terri Shiavo case; about Social Security; about all the great debates of the day. Fasten your seat belt, and come with me as we take another look at Easter’s empty tomb; take another look at the cross that preceded it, and the suffering that preceded that…then we can go back to the stone that was rolled away—the good news portion of the Easter story and the many mythologies in which it is wrapped.
It’s too bad that the word myth is so loaded down with negative connotations in the English language—as it is used in our culture.
At its best, myth is the key that unlocks the secrets of the soul…the place out of which all the religions of the world were formed.
My dictionary of synonyms (The Synonym Finder, J. I. Rodale) has a long list under the word myth which include: absurdity, nonsense, farce, whopper, falsehood, fabrication, claptrap, fantasy, illusion, delusion, daydream, among others.
Myths are stories that dig deeper into the human spirit.
Joseph Campbell had a very positive approach to the subject of mythology. He said that a ‘a myth is a public dream and a dream is a private myth.’
Easter is wrapped with marvelous mythologies.
Easter is about sunrise: a new day. The sun rises in the east.
Easter is about spring: e e cummings put it:
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having…
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
(yes the mountains are dancing together.)
Easter is about letting go of winter and welcoming spring.
Easter got its name from the Teutonic Goddess of spring, Estre.
(The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says:
“EASTER … The English word comes from the Anglo-Saxon Eastre or Estera, a Teutonic goddess to whom sacrifice was offered in April, so the name was transferred to the pashcal feast. The word does not properly occur in Scripture, although the Authorized Version has it in Acts 12:4 where it stands for Passover, as it is rightly rendered in the Revised Standard Version.”)
Easter is about renewal: a chance to start over, after a difficult time with a loved one, or after a mistake at work
For some Christians Easter is about the physical resurrection of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For other Christians, Easter is mixed with marvelous mythologies and mysteries, but mostly it is meant to symbolize the cardinal Christian virtues: faith, hope and love.
For Unitarian Universalists, Easter is about ‘all of the above.’ And ‘none of the above.’ Or, ‘some of the above…depending what you mean by any of the above.’
So I’ll tell you what I think, which is all any Unitarian can do, as opposed to my trying to tell you what you ‘ought’ to believe or think.
As I see it, the Easter story is a re-telling of the Passover story—when the angel of death passed over the houses of the enslaved Hebrew people in Egypt. How did the angel of death know which homes to ‘pass over?’ The door post was marked with ‘the blood of a lamb that had been sacrificed for that purpose.’ If there was no blood on the doorpost, the angel of death stopped took the first-born. It’s not a pretty story. It’s about death. It’s about punishment. You’ll notice how similar it is to the story Christians tell to this day. But I’m jumping ahead of the story.
I remind you that the Passover story is mythology. It’s not history. Easter, first of all, comes from the Passover story. It is also a retelling of the paradigmatic story of Abraham who was told to bring his son (‘his only son’) Isaac to the mountain and sacrifice him to God. He was told to make an altar, put Isaac on it and kill him.
Abraham never hesitated, suggesting he was being faithful by not asking ‘why?’
The story says that God was testing Abraham—obedience is equated with faithfulness. At the last possible second, when Abraham, holding a knife, had his hand raised, ready to slay his son, God sent an angel to intervene, and gave Abraham a sacrificial lamb to kill instead of having to kill his son.
It’s pure, difficult-to-think-about, mythology. In the new story, Jesus becomes the ‘Lamb of God,’ (God’s son) given by Him as His sacrifice for the sins of humankind. But, like the blood on the doorpost in the Passover story, you have to be ‘washed in the blood of the lamb,’ as they say. The sacrificial blood of Jesus ‘shed for you,’ is a new way of convincing the angel of death to pass over. The oft-quoted passage from John 3:16 summarizes it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s pure, difficult-to-comprehend, mythology.
Go back further: the Easter story really begins in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and as a result they are evicted from Paradise. Jesus, they said, is ‘the new Adam.’
The Garden of Eden story is easier-to-understand mythology: it’s about the loss of innocence that each of us experiences, again and again, beginning about age two when a child realizes he or she can take a cookie from the cookie jar without permission, or even against the rules. Whether or not she gets away with it, it brings a loss of innocence: and the result is that you are thrown out of the Garden—the loss of innocence.
So Easter is an annual re-telling of the story about being human. And what does it mean ‘to be human?’
To be human is to realize that each of us is separate, and we need to make connections with other persons, and that we are dependent on one another; and we are capable of breaking trust…and feeling remorse.
To be human is to have this thing we call ‘conscience.’ It’s to struggle with the questions about ‘right and wrong,’ the knowledge of good and evil.
That’s what happened in the Garden of Eden story: they were told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for ‘on the day you eat of it you shall die.’ The punishment for sin, in the Genesis myth, is death.
How to get around that fate? Christian theology has Jesus became ‘the new Adam.’ It’s a new beginning…spring!
One interesting big of Christian theology says that the wood for the cross on which he would be sacrificed was made from that tree—that very tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. (See Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity.)
Christian theology (doctrine of original sin) says that the sin of Adam is passed on to every person—that we inherited it; it comes automatically with the human package.
The point is that there is deep Truth in all of these mythological stories. They are not true stories, of course. But they are Truth stories.
What’s the Truth behind these stories? Whatever the truths are, they are human truths—they are the essential ingredients in this human experience of ours. If nothing else, the idea of inheriting ‘original sin’ has to do with the thing we call ‘the human conscience.’ It’s about the realization that we make mistakes—that we’re not perfect. It’s about feeling some sense of shame, some feelings of guilt, without which we are lacking a necessary human ingredient.
We say that a person without an active moral conscience—a sense of right and wrong, is a sociopath. One of the fallacies of liberal theology as put forward by some Unitarians is the silly and even dangerous notion that we can be human without having any sense of shame or guilt. A sign in front of a Unitarian church said, “We don’t do guilt.” It’s one thing not to rub your nose in it, to say that you are ‘a sinner in the hands of an angry God.” It’s quite another to suggest that you don’t need to have guilt or shame.
A sense of guilt and shame comes with the human territory. The Easter story gets at that essential core—it’s touches the heart of what it means to be human.
The Old Testament (as we call it) is filled with lots of characters and lots of fascinating stories, from Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, to Noah and his ark, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…to Ruth and Esther, to Jonah, whose time in the belly of the big fish is compared to Jesus in the tomb.
The New Testament uses the story of one person, Jesus, as a model—a summary of that collection of characters, including God Himself.
We don’t know for certain what Jesus said and did, but it’s clear that his fellow Jews accused him of heresy. It’s clear that the Romans who occupied Jerusalem accused him of sedition—clearly he was a threat to society. He was a rebel with a cause—and his ‘cause’ has to do with human freedom and dignity. It has to do with the idea of thinking for yourself; it has to do with your willingness to say what you really believe.
His religious doctrines were not new—they can be found in the teachings of the Buddha and Confucius, and many others who preceded him. And what were his heretical ideas? First, that ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is within you—that you carry the divine seed, and that your ability to love is as much proof of God’s existence as you need, or as you can have; that you don’t need to make blood sacrifices on the altar, you simply have to be a good person. Your religion, he said, is the way you live your life.
He warned against becoming too materialistic and suggested giving away what you don’t need; and he said you should love your neighbor as yourself, and that you should even ‘love your enemy.’ The more you trample on your enemy, the worse the human situation will become, in a personal way as well as social.
Evil should not be responded to by more evil; violence should not be responded to with more and greater violence. Revenge compounds the problem.
He challenged the rabbis and temple priests; he challenged the Roman occupiers; he spoke truth to power. His ways have not been tried and found wanting—they are wanted and waiting to be tried.
George Bernard Shaw put it succinctly: “By every argument, legal, political, religious, customary and polite, he was the most complete enemy of society ever brought to the bar. It can be argued that Christianity died on the cross with him.”
Which brings us back to the Easter story—the story of the cross, with its wood from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and all the other marvelous metaphors and mythologies summarized in that ancient story.
I don’t mean to suggest that I think I’ve exhausted all the meanings of the Jewish-Christian story. Indeed, I’ve come to realize that a single lifetime is hardly adequate—especially a lifetime with so many demands on our time: the need to earn a living, and all that implies; the need to attend to loved ones—to family and friends; the need to pay attention to the world, with all its suffering, heart-ache and injustice; the need to absorb the news of the day without absorbing so much that you sink under the weight of it all.
We’re here in this house of worship not because we feel the need to engage in competition in the religious market, but because we recognize the need to nurture that aspect of life which we call ‘the religious,’ or ‘the spiritual’ aspect.
One of the classic textbooks on mythology, The Sacred and the Profane, by the highly regarded Mircia Eliade, puts it this way:
“Religious man experiences two kinds of time—profane and sacred. The one is an evanescent duration, the other a ‘succession of eternities,’ periodically recoverable during the festivals that made up the sacred calendar.”
Easter is one of the festivals that make up the sacred calendar. It’s not about history and geography—it’s about that aspect of life we call the religious or spiritual life; it’s about the inner life, the life of the soul, if you will. Or, to put it a little differently, it’s about the human spirit; that is to say, it’s not about what you think, it’s about what you feel…it doesn’t have to be rational; it doesn’t have to ‘make sense.’ It’s closer to the emotional life than it is to the intellectual.
All the religions have come from the human experience of being alive, being a single, separate person in relationship with other persons, and knowing that we are all mortal. So religion deals with death, and the Easter story is the prime example—the paradigm, the archetype, the quintessence of what it means to be human.
All the mythologies, then, are Truth stories.
Jesus becomes the paradigm for what it means to be human; what it means to be mortal; what it means to suffer and to die.
The week leading up to Easter, Holy Week, is about all the internal struggles we humans endure; it’s about suffering; it’s about compassion, which is the human response to the suffering of others.
Compassion is proof of the indwelling God.
The life of the human spirit—that portion of it that we refer to as the religious or spiritual—cannot be explained; it cannot be defined. It can be nurtured, however. Which, presumably, is why we are here this morning.
My hope is that this time together helps to nurture that spirit by acknowledging that there are eternal truths in the Easter story, and suggesting that you know the deeper meanings of the mythologies—not because I can reveal those truths, but because we can take another look at the old stories and see them with fresh eyes, and feel them with a renewed heart and spirit.
That’s why mythology works so well; the myths it get to the core of life…under the surface; they touch those things which ‘no ears have heard, no eyes have seen,’ but which we all feel ‘down there, where the spirit meets the bone.’
Jesus went to the Temple for Passover, tipped over the tables of the moneychangers, and said, ‘This is supposed to be a house of prayer, but you’ve turned it into a den of thieves.’
It’s one thing to steal people’s money—to lie and cheat, to dissemble and deceive to get more money than the other guys. It’s quite another thing to turn the temple—religion—into a den of thieves, stealing a person’s sense of dignity and creating a climate of competition by conjuring up a god who plays favorites.
The people are dragging religion into the modern world, and, of course, institutional religion resists change, but for this world to survive religion must gradually change.
On the other end of that spectrum of change is our need to see the deeper truths that are wrapped in the myths, and when we do, we experience ‘a succession of eternities.’
Now you can remove that seat belt so you’ll be ready to stand and sing the closing hymn!