Reading: The Road to Emmaus
There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke about two of Jesus’s followers who were walking along the road to Emmaus just after the crucifixion:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
When they arrived at the village of Emmaus they invited him to dine with them, and the story in Luke says: “When he was 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.”
A common question that is often put to us is, “How does a Unitarian Universalist celebrate Easter?”
The first answer is, “Very carefully!”
We want to affirm the holiday, it’s the essential Christian holiday. We want to affirm what we believe to the spirit behind this special day, what we understand to be the essence and the origin of this holiday.
Sometimes we do that by singing a hymn to spring: Lo the earth awakes again, alleluia!
But we need to go deeper, to do more.
At our best we Unitarian Universalists are accepting and affirming of all the religions of the world…at their best.
Therefore, we try to learn about each of the religions, to be informed, and to understand the origin of the best in all the religions.
You can’t really appreciate what you don’t truly understand. We want to be tolerant of the religions in the best sense.
There’s a negative connotation to the idea of being tolerant. To tolerate another person, idea or religion sometimes means putting up with it, but quietly looking down on it. We have to tolerate adversities—we have to endure adverse conditions or situations in our lives.
That’s not what we mean when we say that freedom, reason and tolerance are the three pillars of our faith. We mean tolerance in the best sense, which requires understanding.
Many of us grew up in the Christian tradition. About one third of the members of this congregation were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition; another third in a variety of so-called Protestant traditions. About one quarter of us were raised in Jewish homes, with or without the religious ingredient of Jewish ethnicity.
Do No Harm
There are some who believe harm was done to them in the name of religion. There are two sides to every coin.
Most of the harm that is done in the name of religion can be avoided. There are sensitive Roman Catholic priests who avoid doing harm; there are sensitive rabbis who avoid doing harm; there are sensitive teachers and parents who avoid doing harm in the name of religion.
We hope, first of all, to avoid doing harm. But that’s not all we want or hope. That’s not as far as it goes.
Harm can be done by omission as well as commission. Some say they want to avoid inflicting religion on their children the way it was inflicted on them, but they fail to help their children to learn about the religions of the world and to encourage them to develop that aspect of life which we call spiritual.
The Congregational Church
I’ve affirmed much about my own childhood and early adulthood in the Congregational Church, and I want to be affirm my own Christian tradition on this Easter morning.
I fear that I may have failed to affirm Christianity the way I’ve been able to affirm Judaism and Buddhism. There’s much about Christianity which I affirm.
I value the experience I had in the Congregational churches I attended during my formative years, and I can say without hesitation they did me no harm; I believe they did me a lot of good.
My church experience was helpful in coming to believe that I’m a good person, in spite of some of the faults and failures that were obvious to me. Those faults and failures were easily apparent to others. But the religious or spiritual aspect of life is, ultimately, personal.
Any so-called ‘inner work’ we do has a spiritual component.
In junior high school I went, on my own, to Easter sunrise services. I liked getting up early, the only one in the house to be up, then walking in the chilly morning air up the hill to Rag Rock in Woburn, singing ‘Christ the Lord is risen today…alleluia.’
The Easter message I heard in my childhood was a message of joy, an affirmation of life.
When the minister said, ‘Christ is risen,’ I knew he meant that the love we feel in our hearts is Christ—our Christ nature. I don’t remember thinking much about it. But I felt it. I knew it on an emotional or spiritual level.
Affirming the Best in Christianity
As a Unitarian Universalist minister I’ve tried to be the best that I saw in those congregational ministers.
I’ve tried to affirm life, to create a sense of joy, and to preach a religion of love and compassion. I’ve tried to preach a religion of responsibility, which is an aspect of the best in the Christian message—best of the teachings of Jesus, summarized in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the lawyer’s question: ‘who is my neighbor.’
In my personal life I’ve tried to accept the challenge put to me in the teachings of Jesus when he said, “Love your enemy.”
It’s easy to love those who love you. It’s rewarding. It’s instinctive. It’s automatic. But ‘love your enemy?’ That’s not easy!
I’ve come to realize, with Chief Yellow Lark’s help, that I ‘seek strength not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy — myself!’
Some said that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the savior who would deliver, or save his people, both politically and spiritually.
The Hebrew Messiah pulls together three things: the ideal of a king from the line of David; the priestly tradition personified in Moses; and the idea of the suffering servant, personified in Job.
In Christian theology Jesus fulfills all three aspects of the Messiah.
Our Unitarian and our Universalist roots go deep into Christian soil. Our early ministers believed they were carrying on the ministry of Jesus, and often referred to Jesus as the Christ.
Certainly the early Unitarians and early Universalists thought of themselves as fully and completely Christian, in the best, traditional sense.
They believed they were living out the religion that was taught by Jesus. They also believed, of course, that much of what was being taught as the Christian religion had become a religion ‘about’ Jesus, rather than the religion ‘of’ Jesus.
The more liberal among those early teachers and clergy believed Jesus to be an insightful teacher, who understood that God is resides in the heart of every person when he or she is loving, kind, compassionate.
Eventually that liberal Christian thought evolved to the point where we Unitarian Universalists do not feel compelled to call ourselves Christians, in an exclusive sense.
We hope to understand, appreciate and embrace the best in all the religions of the world. That’s a tall order, and may border on hubris…excessive pride.
Jesus, they said, is the Christ, the Messiah.
From our point of view, however, the Christ is not and was never meant to be an individual person, an exclusive or chosen or special person.
The birth of Christ is the potential that each of us has to love: let Christ be born in us today, we sing at Christmas; Christ is born in us when we love.
We sing, “Let the Prince of Peace be born in us today,” by which we mean that we want to find that center in ourselves which we call inner peace.
At our best, we Unitarian Universalists want to find that place of inner peace.
At our best we want to embrace all loving persons, and we want to help to influence people to be loving…we want to teach our children to be loving…to be thoughtful, kind, considerate, polite.
We want to encourage our children to think as well as to feel, and to distinguish between those two important aspects or ingredients of life.
We want to help them to distinguish between mythos and logos; to nurture the best of the religious or spiritual sentiment, as well as learning as much as they can about what makes the world run, and what makes us tick.
Christ is Risen: Love Lives on
Shortly after my father’s death fourteen years ago my five brothers and I, and our sons, got together to put on a roof to buy a stone for the grave. It was an easy roof, and a wonderful memorial service.
I was driving alone to the house we were to work on and I had a very strange experience: I heard, rather distinctly, my father’s voice. I don’t remember, exactly, what he said, but it was reassuring…whatever it was.
Later, as my brother Art and I were working on a section of the roof together, he told me that he had heard my father’s voice as he was driving that morning, and I told him that I had heard the voice, too. Later, Bill said something similar, that he felt Dad’s presence very strongly.
In retrospect I believe this to be a very important psychological experience which we loosely call ‘grief work.’
My father was of necessity being transformed, in my mind, from the person I had known and loved all my life to a memory. That transition takes time. That transition requires risk—one has to be open to a process which is not the usual conscious process we’re used to. It requires an acceptance of death, in a new and deeper way.
When we do our grief work in a healthy way, we realize that the person we loved is still there, still available, still a part of our life, but in a different way.
Memory is powerful. My father still appears in my dreams from time to time. For some time after his death I questioned his presence in my dreams, asking him what he’s doing there, since he was supposed to be dead.
I no longer question his presence when I see him in my dreams. I know he’s there, and he’s supposed to be there, and I’m glad to see him.
This is what the risen Christ means: those we have loved, are there, still. Those who have loved love into us are there, still.
Those who have affirmed us, encouraged and supported us are present to us when we need affirmation, encouragement, and support as we travel the rest of the road.
That’s what happened to those two who were on the road to Emmaus—the road to insight. At first, they didn’t see him with their eyes: “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” Luke says.
In her Palm Sunday sermon Barbara Fast told us about her experience visiting a transgender patient in the burn unit of the hospital where she was doing her Clinical Pastoral Education work last year. “Shelly,” as she called her, was in the process of changing genders from male to female, and she had been badly burned in a camping accident. In and through her pain she asked chaplain Barbara: “Does God love me?”
The most basic ingredient to what’s best about Christianity is the message: God loves you. That is, “You are lovable and capable.” Or, as the Desiderata says, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars, you have a right to be here.”
The Story of Ruth
In September, 1972, I was beginning my first senior ministry in Attleboro, Massachusetts. I was 32 years old, and quite frankly, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, in the beginning, when that place was ‘without form and void,’ to paraphrase another Genesis story.
I decided to gather names of people who hadn’t been to church in awhile, people who were shut in, or living in nursing homes, or simply staying away.
I started asking around, and I made contact with as many as could. One day I telephoned Ruth Gould. When she answered I said, “Hi, Ruth. I’m Frank Hall, the new minister here at Murray church…”
She immediately began to cry. I asked if I could come to her house. She had a tiny basement apartment in the low-rent district. I sat with her, noticing, of course, her very ‘modest’ (euphemism) place, and her prominent, extensive arthritis.
She wanted to tell me why she had burst into tears. She explained it this way:
“Someone from the church came to us when they were raising money to build the new church sixteen years ago, and my husband was sick and out of work and we couldn’t make a pledge, and no one from the church ever contacted us for anything again. I was sure it was because we didn’t contribute any money to the building fund. I felt terrible, but I’ve been praying all these years that someone from the church would call on me. I’ve been alone since my husband died fourteen years ago. But no one ever called. Then you called and said you were the new minister and I knew my prayers had finally been answered.”
Her tears brought tears to my eyes that day. Something important happened to me, something I knew I would never forget.
With help from Bill Nerney, an active member of the congregation, we got Ruth into Pleasant Manor Nursing Home. Ruth was named ‘resident of the month,’ her first month there…she was so happy…so appreciative, in spite of her terrible arthritic pain. Then she was named ‘resident of the year.’
She came to our home for Thanksgiving Dinner and Christmas Dinner several times, in a wheel chair. Ruth had the most amazing spirit. An old wound had been healed, and an important, necessary chapter in my ministry was written.
Ruth knew, deep in her arthritic bones, the truth of the message of love and forgiveness that Jesus preached.
The Christ spirit was alive, in her. That spirit is, after all, a sense of appreciation for being alive, appreciation for the opportunity to love and be loved…and the opportunity for forgiveness.
I’ll always remember Ruth, and I’ll never forget to let people who haven’t got the means think no one will contact them because they can’t give money. Ruth often comes to mind when I’m trying to remember why I’m doing what I’m doing with my life, and why our Unitarian Universalist congregations are such an important part of the wider religious community.
We’re called on to open our doors and hearts to those who may have no other place; we affirm their worth and hope to nurture their spirits without compromising their intelligence.
I’ll never lose the (necessary) anxiety I’ve had ever since that encounter with Ruth that someone without money will feel un-wanted or un-needed…or un-appreciated.
When you put on your best bib and tucker and sing, “Lo the earth awakes again, Alleluia!” on Easter Sunday morning I hope you will feel the deeper meaning of the Christian message-at-it’s best: Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen in every act of love; Christ is risen in every act of kindness and in every moment of compassion; whether you are able to reach out to offer a hand to the wounded person or not—the fact that you have that sense of care and compassion is the essence of what it means to be a whole and holy person.
Our Unitarian Universalist roots dig deep into historical Christianity, but more importantly they are alive and well as we live lives that exemplify, from time to time at least, the spirit of Jesus, the lessons in those parables, and the realization that the Christ nature must be made real in us again and again.
Yes, love is the spirit of this church and service its law, and when it is…when love is the spirit, when service is its law, then you know that Christ is risen!
Whitman says it well in the closing lines of his poem ‘Song of the Open Road,’
Comerado I give you my hand, I give you my love more precious than money. I give you myself before preaching or law. Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?