Unison Reading, by 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)
Sermon reading from the Gospel of Matthew 16: 13 – 18
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that the Son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.'”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, with which Jesus was certainly familiar is the phrase ‘son of man’ is used as a poetic synonym for the ideal man. In Christian Scriptures the phrase ‘son of man’ is used almost exclusively by Jesus, referring to himself.
Our Unitarian faith has its deepest roots in response to the question Jesus put to his disciples: ‘who do you say that I am?’
We’ve never had complete agreement on the answer to that question, except that we do not say that Jesus was God.
Indeed, during the 450 years of Unitarian history, our emphasis is not on the question of who Jesus was, but what he taught.
Those who say that Jesus is God have evolved a religion about Jesus, which is only natural. If Jesus is God, then he is to be worshiped. That’s what you do with the gods-you worship them, you bow down to them, you pray to them, and so forth.
Those of us to whom Jesus is the ideal human, a fully realized person, emphasize the religion of Jesus, rather than a religion about Jesus.
We are in general agreement with those Christians who emphasize Jesus’ divinity-that our task is to live lives characterized by love and forgiveness.
I introduced our statement of affirmation when I arrived in this pulpit twenty years ago so that we would be reminded of our ideals by saying, ‘Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another.’
I know of no better brief summary of the religion of Jesus than this statement of affirmation, this expression of the ideal way of being with one another.
The ecclesiastical terms for law, as it is used in our affirmation, include: bull, encyclical, canon, dictate, pronunciamento.
We have no creeds or dogma to which members must assent, except the most stringent creed of all: to love one another.
William Ellery Channing, who is considered the father of Unitarianism in America, said that ‘no one can be excommunicated from the Unitarian church except by the death of goodness in his own heart.’
The various aspects of our statement of affirmation sometimes seem at odds with one another. Seeking the truth, for example, can feel at odds with dwelling together in peace.
Indeed, I’ve wrestled with the conflict between truth-seeking, and peace-keeping; between my ministerial task of truth-telling and being a non-anxious presence, a soothing influence.
Let me give you a timely example:
This is Easter Sunday. I would like nothing better than to stand in this pulpit and recite poetry about spring, like the cummings poem we read in unison: ‘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.’
Indeed, that line from cummings’ poem provides the title for this Easter sermon: ‘alive again, today.’
The creedal Christian tradition says that Jesus died on the cross. His body was placed in a grave on that Good Friday and on Easter Sunday morning he was resuscitated–he walked out of the tomb.
There are four different versions of this story in the four gospels, but the bottom line is that believing Christians assert that the resurrection is literal fact.
The story in Matthew says that Mary Magdalene ‘and the other Mary’ went to the tomb on Easter morning: “And behold there was a great earthquake, and an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and (the angel) sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow, and for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.”
The story in Mark says that the two Mary’s came to the tomb and one asked, ‘who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb. And looking up they saw the stone was rolled back.’ and they went in to the tomb and a young man was there and said, ‘do not be amazed, you seek Jesus.he has risen, he is not here, go and tell his disciples.and they went out and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The story in Mark the story says that the women went to the tomb, taking spices which they had prepared, “.and they found the stone rolled away but when they went in they did not find the body.two men appeared and one of them said, ‘why do you seek the living among the dead.and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven (disciples) and to all the rest.”
Then the three synoptic Gospels each tell different stories of how Jesus appeared to people.before he ascended into heaven.
My favorite is from the Gospel of Luke.the story of two men walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, town seven miles outside the city.
The story says, ‘Jesus drew near to them.’ and he walked with them and talked with them.but they didn’t recognize him.
When they reached Emmaus they invited him to eat with them.
“When he sat at table with them he took the bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he vanished out of their sight.and they went and told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
I was brought up in this tradition. I loved Easter Sunrise services and singing ‘Christ the Lord is risen today, alleluia!’
It still resonates with something very deep within me-it allows me to overcome anxiety about death and dying. It’s deep. But it’s poetic. It lives in the place in me where music lives. And ever-renewing nature: ‘a blue true dream of sky and everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes!’
But the rational side says that the death and resurrection of Christ is symbolic, since the Christ nature is about compassion, it’s about an aspect of every human, the part of us that must be actualized, and the task of religion is to nurture this ingredient, to bring it to life, here and now.
Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Peter is said to have called Jesus ‘the Christ.’ Christian congregations today refer to themselves as ‘the body of Christ,’ an obvious metaphor. Peter’s answer was metaphoric, too. He was saying that Christ is the human capacity for compassion, just as John said, “God is Love.”
The death of Christ on the cross, then, is the death of hope, the loss of faith, the absence of human compassion.
We all experience it. We feel it when we wish Osama bin Laden could be found and executed for his crimes, or worse.
But Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He didn’t mean that we should embrace Osama when we find him, and treat him like a loved one who has been lost. He meant that active hatred for Osama bin Laden will kill the Christ nature in us, will destroy that aspect of us which makes us human, which lifts us above the other animals on the planet.
Theodore Parker said, “There has never been an age in which the son of man has not been crucified again.”
The ‘son of man’ is a phrase I take to mean ‘the ideal human,’ or ‘that which is required to live a good life, to be a good person.’
During my lifetime, so far, ‘the son of man,’ the ideal way of being human, has been crucified again and again. ‘The son of man’ was crucified in the Holocaust.
‘The son of man’ was crucified in Vietnam, which is why I cannot think of what we’re doing in Iraq today without thinking of the tragedy of Vietnam-the destruction we inflicted not only on that country and its people, but the disastrous effect that misadventure has had on us as a nation.
‘The son of man’ is crucified by racism, sexism, economic injustice, homophobia.
‘The son of man’ is resurrected by hope. ‘The son of man’ is alive, again, today because we are here to say that we will not lose hope; our determination to bring peace and justice to this war-weary world we will not be crucified by cynicism and despair.
Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The kingdom of heaven is the place within us where hope lives; the place in us that has been nurtured by love; the place in us that suffers vicariously-it’s why we hurt when another is hurting, it’s because we have that Christ-like thing in us we call compassion.
Being child-like is different from being child-ish.
To want to dominate another is childish. To wish to control another is childish. To want to get even, to want to punish the other, is childish.
The child-like quality to which Jesus was referring is our ability to re-gain a sense of trust, to withstand the waves of cynicism that batter us and bruise us, to have it come back, as if it had died, and it came back, and we could say with cummings, ‘i who have died am alive again, today.’
The key to the kingdom of heaven is the child-like quality that allows us to overcome the illusion of superiority, the illusion of separateness.
We are One. God is One. The illusion of separateness is the result of believing that we are self-sufficient, self-contained, self-renewing.
The deeper truth reveals our absolute dependence on one another; our absolute dependence on the earth, on the air we breath, the water we drink and in which we bath-the ecological system of which we are a part.
We overcome the illusion of separateness when we celebrate our inter-dependence; when we are in touch with our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another.
Easter is the story of the cycles of death and resurrection of life on earth, and of the life of the spirit that dwells within each and every one of us.
We live out our religion by paying attention to nature, by finding God in Nature, to check out all the places where God is made visible, like those yellow daffodils outside the sanctuary windows.
This is the resurrection story. It’s our story, because it’s the human story, and it happens again and again.
James Joyce concludes his wonderful autobiographical book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by having his hero, Stephen Dedalus say these inspiring words, with which I’ll close:
“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
So may it be.