A Faithful Response: Readings and Sermon, March 31, 2024

OPENING WORDS An Eye for Miracles,” Diego Valeri

 

You who have an eye for miracles regard the bud now
appearing on the bare branch of the fragile young tree.

It’s a mere dot, a nothing.

But already it’s a flower, already a fruit,
already its own death and resurrection.

 

MEDITATION From “Sabbaths, 1979, No. II,  Wendell Berry

Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where no path

Is worn but wears its makers out
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons.  The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves

In the risen season.  Past life
Lives in the living.  Resurrection
Is in the way each maple leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection
Outreaching understanding….

 

READING Matthew 27.45-50; 57-61

45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land[d] until the ninth hour.
46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
47…50 And he cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed jesus from galilee and ha provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the monther of the sons of Zebedee.
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathe′a, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus.
58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.
59 And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud,
60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed.
61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, opposite the sepulchre.

 

SERMON A Faithful Response

It is here, or nearly here, teasing us with an arrival flirtation – a late early spring – a spring we need. 

Today is Easter, a holiday for early spring, the most solemn and important holiday in the Christian calendar. 

The timing of Easter is tied to Passover, and Passover has its origins in ancient pre-Israelite spring celebrations of early wheat harvests and the birth of the first lambs.

This year, Passover begins in late April.  Passover commemorates the story of escape from Egypt – the liberation of the Israelite people from Pharoah’s rule.  It begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan.  This year Easter and the holy month of Ramadan overlap, so devout Muslims are fasting and celebrating.  For each of the so-called “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — there is an important holiday at this time.

In the biblical account, Jesus celebrates the Last Supper on the first night of Passover, the day before he is crucified.  By rights, then, Easter should take place on the 19th of Nissan.  But the Christian calendar assigns Jesus’ death to a Friday, and his resurrection to Sunday, so the timing aligns only occasionally. 

When I was a little girl I loved Easter – I loved getting a new dress and shoes, and the baskets and egg hunt on Sunday morning.  I loved the music of the Easter church service. 

My family attended a theologically liberal Protestant church, a Congregational church, when I was young.  And I remember, as a child, hearing my mother comment disparagingly at a sign outside the Unitarian church announcing their Easter service.  “What in the world are they doing, celebrating Easter?”  I think she may have said.  I don’t know why that stuck in my head.  Possibly I was curious and asked for more information.  I didn’t have friends who I knew were Unitarians - or, by then, Unitarian Universalists, until I was in high school.  And then I still didn’t know anything about the it.

There is a UU community called the Church of the Larger Fellowship which is an online community that for years has served people who don’t live close enough to a UU church to attend in person, as well as people who are incarcerated.  Aisha Hauser is part of its lead ministry team, and she wrote this recently in a weekly post:

“As a pluralist faith with roots in the Abrahamic faiths, we honor the holidays that have shaped who we are. While we may not subscribe to the creeds of any of these traditions, we honor the spirit of the holidays and appreciate the lessons learned within them.”1

Why did you come today?  Why here, rather than, with Wendell Berry, a “standing Sabbath of the woods, where the finest blooms of time return?”

What do you need – on this day and in this year? 

A message of hope?  A sense of purpose and meaning?  A taste of spring?  Or maybe something else - maybe a even a glimpse of  “connection outreaching understanding?”- in Berry’s words.

The gospel of Matthew draws the basic story of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the gospel of Mark.  Mark was written maybe 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death, and  Matthew’s version is usually dated 10 to 20 years later.  That means it was  written 50 to 60 years after the crucifixion.  Neither writer could have known Jesus.  Neither gospel is an eye-witness account.  As far as scholars know, no eye-witness accounts exist.   This is the resurrection story from the book of Matthew, chapter 28:

Matthew 28  (RSV)

1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook …..  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  Come, see the place where he[a] lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,[b] and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ …” 

 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

The gospels of both Matthew and of Luke end with the commissioning of the disciples.  They are with the risen Jesus, and he tells them, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and  and teaching  them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Congregational church I grew up in didn’t spend a lot of time on the trinity, except as something we sang about some glorious hymns.  I also didn’t learn much about the parts of the Christian bible that came after the gospels - the letters of Paul, the book of Revelation, or the book of Acts.  Acts comes immediately after the gospels and is, in part, a history of the early church.   In it you’ll find very little about Jesus’ teachings.  There is more emphasis on the person of Jesus, his resurrection, and the salvific power of belief in him. 

The Jesus I knew as a child was the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount.   He was a champion of people who are not part of the system, of people who don’t belong.  He told stories like the one about the good Samaritan, who went out of the way to help a stranger, a traveler who had been attacked and left for dead on the road to Damascus. He kept company with people - a Samaritan woman, the tax-collector Matthew - who were shunned by acceptable members of society.  He was someone who, scandalously, counted women among his followers and trusted supporters.   Some women even became leaders in the early churches.  (I didn’t learn that in Sunday School.  That came later.) 

Jesus’ example and teachings, I believe, resonate with us today, as we honor the spirit of the Easter holiday and appreciate the lessons that are part of the gift of the Jewish and Christian traditions from which Unitarian Universalism comes.  This is the beginning of the sermon on the Mount:

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when hesat down, his disciples came to him.

2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

HYMN This is the Truth #369

SERMON Part 2

The Easter story is a tale of a miraculous event that inspired Jesus’ followers to have faith in his message and his teachings, and that inspired his disciples to accept their commission instead of fleeing in fear of what the authorities might do to them. 

It is a story that has given hope to countless people for over two thousand years.  We need stories that bring hope. 

About two weeks ago I received an email from a local woman named Nancy Flam who is a rabbi and social justice advocate.  She wrote about an organization called Standing Together, which is a grassroots movement of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel who together are pursuing peace, equality, and social and climate justice. 

They say, “While the minority who benefit from the status quo of occupation and economic inequality seek to keep us divided, we know that we — the majority — have far more in common than that which sets us apart. The future that we want — peace and independence for Israelis and Palestinians, full equality for all citizens, and true social, economic, and environmental justice — is possible.  Because where there is struggle, there is hope.”

Standing Together is one of the groups that has tried to get aid into Gaza, outfitting trucks and waiting at the border, only to be turned away more than once.  But their primary focus is on spreading the conviction that the only viable future is one where Jews and Muslims live together, as equal citizens in an undivided land. 

Where there is struggle, there is hope.

There is a group forming called Standing Together Western MA, a group affiliated with the organization in Israel that hopes to raise support for their work and to spread their message. 

It feels quixotic - idealistic and unrealistic.   Nevertheless, it is a story that gives me hope. 

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God

Today, as it happens, is also the international trans day of visibility, a day that was first observed in 2009 to recognize and celebrate transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people as well as to call attention to the oppression and human rights violations to which they continue to be subjected.   

I have long thought of myself as open-minded, progressive and informed, but I did not know any transgender people or know anything about them until the mid 2000s, when I had a transgender colleague in my chaplaincy training program.  She had been a early leader in educating people about what it means to be trans.  She educated those of us in the her supervision group, and she honored us by telling her own story -  how she felt as a child, her commitment to and struggle with her fundamentalist faith, her marriage, anguish over her daughter’s rejection when she could no longer live as a man, their eventual reconciliation, and her struggles with the denomination that she had hoped to serve as a pastor. 

The website of the Human Rights Campaign says this about transgender day of visibility:  “While we have made significant progress in recent years, with more visibility than ever before, we are still fighting for basic human rights for the community. Today we are experiencing significant political attacks by extremists legislating hate in the states and in Congress. We also face an ongoing epidemic of fatal violence, especially against Black and Brown trans women.”

Still fighting for basic human rights.

Casey, in our story this morning, is just a little boy who delights in sparkly things - skirts and bangles and glittery nails considered inappropriate for him to enjoy and possess.  It’s a simple story about learning and acceptance and love.  The acceptance and love that every child, every person needs. 

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are those who inspire us, by their example, by their resistance in the face of ridiculous odds, and by their sacrifice.  Blessed are those who show us that where there is struggle there is hope. 

And where there is hope, where there are people working together in the midst of and in spite of despair - there is also joy.  As there is joy in the dot that is already a bud, a flower, a fruit.  Already its own decay, its own death, and its resurrection. 

HYMN O Day of Light and Gladness #270

 


Aisha Hauser, CLF, March 2024