Easter Again

easter stone

Video posted (here)

Opening words (here)

Reading (here)

Sermon text:

It is Easter again. The holiday rolls around like clockwork at around the same time each year. That is a good thing. We need Easter in our lives, and once a year is not too often.

 There are also other holidays at this time of year. The Jewish Passover celebration is one of liberation, of freedom from slavery. The ritual meal, the Seder, recalls the time the Jewish people spent in Egypt as slaves, and tells the story of their escape to the Promised Land.

Oester is the pagan celebration of spring and fertility. It is where we get the name Easter, and it is also where the Easter Bunny comes from. Rabbits don’t normally lay eggs, but the Goddess Oester was in the form of a rabbit, an animal known for its fertility.

Easter is the story of Jesus, his death and resurrection. It is about finding hope in the midst of terrible tragedy and death. Most simply it is a story about a victory over death. It is good that the story is set in the springtime of the year. It is convenient that it coincides with the ancient pagan celebrations of fertility and rebirth. But Easter is much more complicated than the fact that the crocuses are blooming and the earth is ready to be reborn.

If the mystery of the resurrection had not happened, Jesus would have likely been remembered, if he was remembered at all, as simply one more in a long line of Hebrew prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and so many others who called their people back to God, to faithfulness, and back to caring for others, particularly for the poor and oppressed.

I recently read the book Zealot, the life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth written by Reza Aslan. The author is Muslim and he got a lot of undeserved flack on Fox news with the interviewer asking how he dared to write about Jesus since he is not a Christian. It was a ridiculous criticism. You don’t have to be something to write about it intelligently. The book was good, and I would recommend it, although there was not much in it that was completely new to me. He did an excellent job of writing about the political situation in Galilee and Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

Jesus was one of many prophets, healers, and revolutionaries who were active at the time. Most of them were also crucified, which was the standard Roman punishment for rebellion against the state. He was not the first of such zealots, nor was he the last. The Jews rebelled against the Romans 70 or so years after Jesus. They lost that struggle, that armed revolt, and their temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Jesus was mostly a teacher and a healer, traveling around preaching to ordinary people with a fairly ragtag group of followers. He made some people mad. The occupying Romans certainly weren’t happy with him; some of his followers thought he was the messiah, a new king that would free his people and bring Israel back to her glory.

The established religious authorities weren’t crazy about him either. He broke their rules time after time. He ranted about the moneylenders in the temple.

And, just like the payday lenders of today, those moneylenders made a lot of financial contributions to those who had the power.

He healed people and he didn’t even charge them for it. He fed the hungry, also for free. Yes, he must have made a lot of people mad.

So who was Jesus? Was he a man, a malcontent, a prophet, a lunatic, or a God? Find your own answer to that question, and cherish the freedom you have to do so. There is, I think, some truth in all of those definitions.

As the story goes, Jesus went to Jerusalem the week before Easter. On Palm Sunday he entered on a donkey and crowds of the poor welcomed him.

On the other side of town, at the same time, there was a procession honoring Pilate, the Roman governor. A different crowd greeted him and cheered him on.

Jesus then had a meal, a Passover Seder, and afterward he was betrayed by one of his followers, a man named Judas. A quick trial of sorts followed and then he was hung on a cross, tortured, and died. It was a common form of execution in the occupied territories of the Roman Empire.

So who killed Jesus? Was it the Romans or was it the Jews? Or, did God plan his death all along? People have died because of the various answers to that question. Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, but still Jews have been blamed for his death by many Christians over the centuries and even by some today.

Would the holocaust have happened without that version of the Easter story? And if God planned his death, why then would the Jews or even Judas be blamed?

My money is on the Romans, with some strong encouragement of both the religious and local secular authorities of the day. It was really just the 1% trying to protect their wealth and power from a movement that scared them.  It threatened their power and their privilege.

The idea that Jesus died because it was God’s plan is one that generates more questions. Did Jesus die for our sins? Why would God kill his son? Are humans so evil that such a sacrifice would be required? Is God so cruel that he would require such a terrible death for someone who was doing so much good?

The idea that Jesus died for our sins was a fairly late development in Christianity. His life, and his resurrection were celebrated, but the crucifixion was not glorified. Crosses did not show up in the early churches for almost 1000 years. (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/107992.shtml?utm_source=f)

The theology of the atonement: that Jesus died for our sins continues to be a mainstay of conservative Christianity. Universalists have always challenged that, as it is not in keeping with the concept of a God of love.

Whatever the cause, Jesus clearly suffered. He cried out in despair and he thought that God had forsaken him. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is an emotion that I think all of us have felt at one time or another. Even if we have never believed in God, there are times when most of us have been alone and afraid and have felt that there is no help for us left anywhere in the universe. We cry out in despair, in anger and frustration. It is not so very hard for us to identify with the suffering Jesus.

We can also identify with the grief of his followers, his disciples, the women and the men. How they must have wept as they laid him in the tomb! All of us have known grief and loss.  He was their leader and their minister. He was the one who healed them, fed them, and loved them. They believed that he would bring about a new world order, the kingdom of God on earth. Then, suddenly, all was lost. He was captured and executed. Jesus was dead and so too were all their dreams. There would be no better world. There would be no justice and no mercy.

Out of this time of grief and total despair, the miracle of Easter was born. Easter makes no real sense unless we understand that it comes after Good Friday. It is only the winter that makes us long for and appreciate the spring. Real laughter comes only after the tears have been shed. What is dead must be laid aside, so that hope can walk through the open door of the tomb.

Jesus came back to life, when all had believed him dead. Literally true or not, his followers believed that they spoke with him again. If nothing else, his message lived on in their hearts. The love of God was stronger even that the heaving stone that was placed in front of the tomb.

Easter, for us, can be a time that is about coming back to life, about rolling away whatever stone is our blocking our way. The stone could be fear. It could be shame or regret.

It could be anything that is in our way, anything that is keeping us from living lives that are full of meaning, and of joy.

The Easter story brings relief at its end. There was suffering and there was death, but out of it came new life and new hope. Jesus reappeared after only three days. The tomb was empty. He came back to life.

Can we listen to this story and believe that we can follow his example? Can we find out how to get our own heavy stones rolled away so we can find our way back to life? Can we do justice and love mercy? Can we love our neighbor as ourselves?

Can we see every human being as part of our family? How long will this resurrection take us? Are three days enough? Three years? Three decades? Three thousand years?

It is Easter again.   It is time once more to resurrect our dreams, our hopes, and our energy.

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