What an effort it must have been
To climb down from that cross
So many centuries ago
They thought you were dead forever
It certainly looked like that
You’d prayed your last prayer
Healed your last leper
Driven out your last demon.
They even buried you.
It must have felt so good
To lay your head down
The funeral cloths were soft.
The darkness was comforting
So weary you were
Tired, hurt, bleeding.
You’d seen so much
Suffered so much
Done so much
What harm could it do
To give into rest
For a few days
It must have been hard
To hear the weeping
Of those who had loved you
Of those who had betrayed you
The stone was heavy
But you had to push it aside
Rolling away defeat
What an effort it must have taken
To come back not knowing
What people would think
How they would respond
Would they think the miracle
Was only about you?
Thank you for letting us know
That we each have the chance
The opportunity, the responsibility
To be reborn
Again and again.
Like the earth
Forever and ever
Happy Easter. There are 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. That holiday can hold deep meaning for those who do not identify as Jewish. We weren’t able to hold a Seder this year but next year it should happen.
Oester is the pagan celebration of spring and fertility, usually celebrated at the Spring equinox. 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. She is always portrayed with an egg. The holiday holds meaning for those who do not identify as pagan. It is also a particularly fun one for children.
Easter is the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection. A Christian story, it too holds meaning for those who do not identify as Christian.
The Easter story is a rich one, an important one, and not an easy one to understand. It has been the source of hope and renewal for millions. Millions have fought and died over how it should be understood.
It is good to be celebrating Easter this morning as a Unitarian Universalist!
We can dig into the story, ask some hard questions about it, and – best of all – we do not have to agree on all the answers. No religious wars here.
Easter is most simply a story about a victory of life and love over death.
If Easter had not happened, Jesus would have likely been remembered as simply one more in a long line of Hebrew prophets. 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.
He was 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 ranted about the money lenders in the temple. And, just like the pay day lenders of today, I am sure they made a lot of financial contributions to those who had the power. He healed people and he didn’t 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.
And, who killed Jesus? Was it the Romans or was it the Jews? Or was his death planned all along by God? 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 today. Would the holocaust have happened without that version of the Easter story? And if his death was God’s plan, why would the Jews or even Judas be blamed?
I say it was the Romans, with the strong encouragement of both the religious and secular authorities of the day. It was the 1% trying to protect their wealth and power from a movement that frankly scared them. It is the answer that makes the most sense to me, but you get to decide for yourself what makes sense to you.
The idea that it was God’s plan is worth exploring more deeply, however, as it raises an important theological issue.
The issue even has a name, “theodicy.” The term comes from the Greek and involves the effort to reconcile the traditional characteristics of God as all good, all loving, and all-powerful with the fact of evil in the world. In simple terms, the question is why do bad things happen to good people? If God is running the world, then why does God let those things happen?
I handle that issue for myself by understanding God as a force for good, and not as an all-powerful being. Others believe that even bad things come from God, as lessons, as tests, or as punishments.
It is an issue worth exploring, and the Easter story is a prime example of how the same event can be interpreted in different ways.
Jesus was a good person and a bad thing happened to him.
It is clear that Jesus despaired. He felt that his God had left him, forsaken him. 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 anywhere in the universe. It is not so very hard to identify with the suffering Jesus.
We can also identify with his followers and their grief and fear after his death. Some of us will never forget when Martin and Malcolm were murdered, when the Kennedy brothers were killed, or when Harvey Milk was slain. Many of us wept bitter tears at those times. I know I did.
But Easter, although an upsetting story in so many ways has a miracle at the end. The stone gets rolled away and Jesus comes back to life – or at least his spirit and his message lived on.
Easter can also lead us to reflect on what is blocking our own pathway to a more abundant life.
What is the stone that seals us into a metaphorical tomb? Is it an addiction that has made our life unmanageable?
Is it a relationship that isn’t working, a job that is so tedious that it exhausts you for anything else, an earlier trauma that just won’t heal? Did someone else put that stone in your path? Is it racism, sexism, homophobia, or your social class? What is holding you back from being who you were meant to be?
Can you, do you have the courage and strength to begin to roll that stone away all by yourself? Most of us need some help, because those stones are very heavy and are hard to get rolling. It is also scary, as it can be comfortable in a tomb, safe and protected from further harm.
The resurrection of Jesus can be interpreted as a metaphor, and some see it as a fact. In either case, what does it mean? Does it signify hope for all of us? Did his death save us? Who do we mean by us? What do we mean by salvation?
Very early in Christianity, there was a lot of argument about this. OK, there is still a lot of argument about this.
The earliest Universalists, prior to the 4th century even, were divided over some of these issues, but they were in agreement that if the death of Jesus provided salvation, it was salvation for everybody by the grace and goodness of God. No exclusions.
No restricting salvation to just Christians; it is universal. Not everyone agreed then and not everyone agrees now.
There is a New Testament verse that is often quoted that deals with some of this. John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The conservative interpretation of this text has caused a lot of grief. It freaked me out when I was younger. “God loves us, he sacrificed his son, believe this or you will die.” The book of John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and taking it at all literally doesn’t make any sense to me, and it also doesn’t really do it justice.
Are humans so evil that such a sacrifice would be required? The verse itself says God gave his son out of love. Perhaps it was a simple gift, and not a sacrifice.
Maybe the message from God was instead, “Here is this man in whom I have invested my spirit, listen to what he says, believe him, follow him, and life will come to you.”
The Easter story should be one of pure joy, of pure relief. 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. His followers saw him in ordinary people and in each other.
Can we listen to this story of hope? Can we find out how to get our own heavy stones rolled away so we can find our way back to life? Can we learn to do justice and love mercy? Can we love our neighbor as ourselves? Can we see every human being as both our parent and our child? How long will it take us? Are three days enough? Three years? Three decades? Three thousand years?
Those questions are for each of you to answer, each in your own way. But as Unitarian Universalists we are called to life, to be born and reborn again and again.
You can live with your questions, cherish your doubts, and believe what you must, but don’t let anything keep you shut inside a cold tomb of despair, afraid of trying new things, afraid of trying. Come back to Life instead, rejoice in the springtime, and savor the good that you find around you.
Come back to hope and commitment; come back to searching for a better way; roll those heavy stones away. Blessed Be. Happy Easter.
My rage flows boundless
From the molten core of my heart.
Will this go on?
Can one soul take?
Ancient as the earth
The pain of war
Relentless as the wind
The chains that hold us all.
The sea overflows with our grief
For lost hopes
While the ashes of our dreams
Wash up on distant shores.
My rage flows boundless
The fire rises in my throat
Let the lava flow
Let it melt the walls
Release will ease our hearts
And quiet our fears
When the fires cool
Will there be a new land
Children safe at last
We are the ancestors
May we find the courage
To earn the future’s gratitude.
There is a special quality of light
As a new day dawns
The shadows are still deep
Danger can lurk undisclosed
But every budding leaf
Of each new tree is also revealed
Dew sparkles like shattered glass –
Seize the day
Open eyes can
Bring about the dawn
There is nothing more beautiful
Than justice reborn.
Draw the circle wide, that is what our faith is about isn’t it? We try to welcome all to the circle of this congregation and this faith. We try to pay attention to those who have been marginalized and we attempt to truly celebrate diversity in all of its manifestations.
Just saying something doesn’t make it so, however. It will take all of us, working together, to live the words from that song and to live the words of our mission statement: Live your sacred, transform through love, act with courage.
It will also take money, your money. We are beginning our annual stewardship campaign, and during this campaign you will be asked to make a financial pledge in support of this congregation and its mission.
This year’s theme, created by the stewardship committee with some input from the board is:
“Coming Together–Expanding Community–Changing the World!”
There are also three specific goals:
–Affirm Our Commitment to Professional Ministry
–Expand Our Religious Education Programs for Children, Youth, and Adults
–Expand Our Leadership for Social and Environmental Justice
You will be hearing a lot more about the goals and how they fit into the theme over the next month or so, but today I want to talk about money.
Money can’t buy you love, as the song goes, but what is the meaning of money in your life? How important is it?
Say you are walking down a dark alley late at night, and you hear a voice saying, “This is a stick up, give me your money or give me your life.”
Some of us may have heard those words and been faced with that actual decision, but for most of us, that stark choice is only something to think about – or maybe worry about. But the choice is pretty clear; almost all of us would choose life in that situation. You can’t take it with you, as the saying goes.
This isn’t a dark alley. This is springtime in Petaluma. But I’m going to ask you that same question, “Your money or your life?”
A lot of us have lost money over the years and some of us have lost a great deal. Some of us have never had much money to begin with. There are those that have lost jobs, and those that have lost their homes. Financial loss or uncertainty can bring an increased tendency to hoard, or at least to be more cautious with our spending. Some of that is a good thing.
Frankly, almost all of us, even those of us with fairly limited incomes, have gotten into some bad habits over years. Buying more than we need and always getting something new rather than repairing something old.
It hasn’t been good for our pocketbooks, and has been terrible for the environment. The trash thrown out every day in a typical American household could feed and clothe a whole village for a month in many parts for the world.
But when money is tight, we feel insecure. We are afraid of losing more. We tend to hold on tighter.
This congregation, like all congregations has experienced financial worry, deferring decisions that might make a difference in how much you can do, both internally and in relationship to the wider world.
We need to be careful not to hold on too tight to what money we have, however. If we confuse our net worth with our inherent worth, we can find we have lost not only money, but also our life.
It is actually pretty easy to lose both, your money and your life. Maybe not easy in the sense that we will literally die if we lose all of our money. That can happen if someone ends up on the street, without food or shelter. If there isn’t money for medicine or health care, that too can be life threatening.
But the real danger, for most of us, is to have hard economic times change us in ways that cause our spirits to die.
If we let fear take over, then we can lose all the joy, all the possibilities, all the opportunities for generosity that can still be very much a part of our daily lives. We can become so cautious that we are always saving for some future rainy day despite the fact that it is already pouring outside and the roof is leaking buckets. We can let opportunities slip by us because we are convinced things will only get worse.
Loss is a funny thing. It is never fun, but it can also make us appreciate what we have, can help us get our values clarified, and our priorities more in line with who we want to be in the world. People who have faced a life-threatening illness know this very well. I have never heard someone on their deathbed say that they wish they had spent more time with their money. And although some may wish they had more money to leave to their loved ones when they die, most know that it is the love they leave behind that has the most value.
Instead, many people who have suffered serious illness come to a realization about what is really important in life. They treasure more of the moments, they enjoy the sunshine more deeply, and even, sometimes bad weather.
Some, who have lost a loved one to death, also come to take better care of their remaining relationships.
Life is indeed short, no matter what we do or don’t do. A line from one of our hymns says:
“For all life is a gift, which we are called to use to build the common good and make our own days glad.”
Make our own days glad. Now, you have all heard the saying that money can’t buy you happiness. Money can’t buy you love. A certain amount is necessary of course. Survival needs: clothing, shelter, food. Some money for some comfort items beyond the basics helps. It is nice to be able to go to a movie, eat out once in a while, or take a trip. But how much money do we really need?
I found this poem by Kurt Vonnegut, most famous for his book, Slaughterhouse Five. He wrote it after his friend, and fellow author, Joseph Heller died. Heller wrote Catch 22. Those of you who didn’t read the books may have seen the movies.
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22′
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!
“The knowledge that I’ve got enough,” we really need to stop awhile and think about what that is, what it means. The larger consumer culture is always telling us that we don’t have enough, that we need a bigger house, a newer car, the latest fashion, and the most sophisticated electronic device that doesn’t even exist yet.
The question, “what is enough?” has been a pretty personal one for me. As some of you know, I worked for the Social Security Administration for 25 years. It was a very secure job, and one that paid a fairly good salary. I could have kept working there another five years and would have received not only the additional salary, but also a much larger pension.
My “net worth” would have been much higher than it is today if I had done that. But I was tired of working there; it wasn’t much of a challenge anymore even though I still loved the work in many ways. The early retirement pension that was offered seemed like it was enough to get by on.
Instead of just staying on the job, I spend four years in seminary and am now been a minister. It is not a decision that I think I will ever regret.
Life, my life and your life, is about much more than money. What makes you feel more alive and what gives your life its purpose and meaning?
I suspect it is not really the size of your bank account, or even of your shrinking stock portfolio, if you were lucky enough to ever have either one of those.
Money does have value, but I would maintain that the true value of money lies in how you spend it, not in how much you earn or in how much you have saved. I had to pay quite a bit of tuition for seminary, but what I learned there and the calling I have found as a result is priceless, way beyond the actual dollar value that could have paid for a very expensive and fancy car.
The money I have given to the various good causes I have supported over the years is also worth much more to me than anything I have ever spent on furniture, for instance. Furniture is nice, nice furniture is even nicer I suppose, but expensive furniture doesn’t have the kind of value that is really important.
That gets to some of the questions I am trying to ask today. Are you spending what money you have on something of real value, either for yourself or for someone else?
As I said, you will be getting a lot more information about the stewardship campaign, including an invitation to share some food and talk about what this congregation means to you and what level of financial commitment you are both willing and able to meet.
I want to ask you all of you to consider pledging at the “sustainer level. It will be in the chart you will receive later, but note that the amount varies by how much income you have. If your income is around $10,000 per year, you can consider yourself a sustainer of this congregation for $250 a year. If your income is $100,000 a year, it will cost you $5,000 to say the same thing.
The stewardship campaign will be going on all month. Spend some of that time reflecting on how much this community means to you and how much you are willing and even eager to commit to ensuring that it thrives.
Is it a matter of your money or your life? Some churches make promises of a penthouse suite in the celestial kingdom if you pledge generously to their church.
I don’t believe what you give to a church will make a difference to you after you die. But what it just might do is help save your life now, today.
True generosity always comes back to the giver. Giving might save your life, give it more meaning.
It also might save someone else’s life.
Put it all on a scale in your mind’s eye. Your money or your life, your money or someone else’s life, how do they balance out? I am not asking anyone to give more than they can or should. If you are struggling now to meet your basic needs, a token amount is just fine.
But think about what you spend your money on, and what is really valuable in the long run. Most of us have enough money, much more than we usually realize. What we don’t have enough of is love, community, and justice.
Pat Francis will speak later about how this congregation saved her life. She isn’t the only one here who has that story to tell. There are also a lot of other people who need what we have to offer. Can we draw our circle wide enough to include them?