Always, Always Something Sings: Easter Sunday

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 03/31/2013

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b, NRSV

I believe I say this every single time I get up to preach on Easter in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, but here I go again, I can’t not say it:  What a difficult, exciting privilege it is to preach about Easter from a Unitarian Universalist understanding.  This story is so rich for us, so meaningful for us in so many ways.  It’s an honor for me to tackle it again as I do here, every other year.

If for no other reason, Easter is meaningful for Unitarian Universalists because it is precisely here in the Christian story – by story I mean here within this particular biblical Christian story as well as here in the story of the whole history of Christianity – it is precisely here, at Easter, that Unitarian Universalism has traditionally broken with mainstream Christianity. 

It’s tricky.  Unitarian Universalists have no problem hearing about Jesus the wise teacher, especially when Jesus is talking about loving our neighbor and justice for the poor. 

We can, as good UUs, easily partake in the nice Christmas story, too, especially when we can also talk about how every night a baby is born is a holy night. 

But Easter – with the miracle of the assassinated Jesus coming back to life and the follow-up mainstream Christian interpretation that this miracle was performed by God as a permanent atonement for our sins – Easter is the holiday where we UUs tend to depart from the Christian story.  As we have done for centuries.

Imagine for a minute all UU theologians of every stripe and every age gathered together in a vast banquet hall.  At Easter time, you can hear from each corner of this huge UU room, because suddenly every UU’s got something to say. 

One group protests, “But we believe in the inherent worth and goodness of human beings!  We don’t need anyone to atone for us!” 

Another group right next to them just chants “Made in the image and likeness of God!  Made in the image and likeness of God!” over and over, while the youngest in that group wonder out loud, “Why would a loving God kill his own Son in order to save me?” 

True Unitarians, who were named so because they believed in one God, not the three of Trinitarianism, just stand there wearing their UNITARIAN t-shirts.  They think that’s already said it all. 

Our UU rationalists, bent over their bibles with red pencils in hand, point out that no case of coming back to life has ever been documented by science. 

The folks who got told by the National Council of Churches that Unitarianism was not Christian enough for membership want us to remember their experience. 

Our pagans and other earth-oriented UUs are nestling incubating eggs and little bunnies, and are asking, “Isn’t it all about spring, anyway?”

And some of our UU Christians stand together in this hall, holding the gospel of Mark, rather than Matthew of our reading today, and they remind us that Mark is likely the oldest of the gospels, and the part of Mark that is the very oldest ends with Jesus crucified and then missing from the tomb, and the story ends right there. No resurrection at all.  That’s the original gospel of Mark.

And here we are, too, we modern UUs, we’re in this big room with all the other UUs of yesteryear, some of us bringing our own histories and complicated relationships with Christianity and some of us with none of those relationships at all.  We modern UUs in the banquet hall may be shouting less than our historical friends, but we’re probably wondering at least what all the fuss is about, even if we don’t really care all that much about how the argument turns out. 

Here we are, in our giant metaphorical room, intersecting with the Christian story of Easter, and intersecting with all the ways Unitarian Universalists and our theological ancestors have interpreted that story over thousands of years.  Where are we to begin to talk about the Easter story, today, in the midst of all of this noise?

Well, as you Sugarloafers are likely all too aware, my default is always to ask what meaning any religious story is trying to impart to us, and to see if that meaning has value for where we are today.  I would do this for any story that I use for religious reasons.  But I believe the attempt is all the more important for a story like this one, this Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus, the story that has been so central for our religion’s self-definition. 

But the thing is, with stories, you have to take the whole story, as told, into account.  You can’t pick just the parts you like and pretend the rest didn’t happen.  When R. comes up here and tells a story, he doesn’t tell you to just ignore big parts of it if they’re too new or if they make you feel weird.  No, when R. tells a story with a part in it that seems real unusual, he usually then invites you into that part particularly, that very part of the story that you’d otherwise be tempted to write off as crazy or impossible to believe. 

In fact, that is why societies share some meaningful things using stories and not always by using, say, scientific journals, or statistics.  Because some meaningful things, some things you really need to know, are really, really hard to grasp.  They are really weird.  And that’s true for Easter, too – especially so, I’d say.

So, let’s do it.  Let’s look at the Easter story as one that is trying to impart meaning to us, some sort of meaning that is ours to grasp.  What meaning could the Easter story, as told, be conveying to us, Unitarian Universalists, with so much history with and removal from the story’s tradition? 

This may be one of those sermons with a whole lot of build-up to a relatively easy answer, because it is my belief that we cannot do much better in explaining Easter than the lyrics to the hymn we sang this morning:

A promise through the ages rings that always, always, something sings.
Not just in May, in finch-filled bower, but in December’s darkest hour, a note of hope sustains us all.
A life is made of many things: bright stars, bleak years, and broken rings.  Can it be true that through all things, there always, always, something sings?
Entombed within our deep despair, our pain seems more than we can bear.
But days shall pass, and nature knows, that deep beneath the winter snow a rose lies curled – and hums its song.
Something, something, always sings.  This is the message Easter brings.  From deep despair and perished things, a green shoot always, always springs
And something always, always sings.

I could just stop there.  It’s that good.  But I guess I’ll elaborate.

The Easter story, in fact the entire mainstream Christian story, is a tale of triumph over despair.  It’s a story of a good thing, a gift to the world – a man so loving he was called divine.  A divine man willing to teach others how to live well.  This divine gift to the world, the man who had the most to teach us, the person whose message would make the most difference to us struggling human beings – this divine man was destroyed by human wrongdoing. 

How shortsighted!  How tragic!  How damaging! 

One would think, after that, that we human beings would just be ruined, that there would be no hope for us.  We were given help for our violent, misdirected species, and we misdirectedly, violently ruined it, as might have been expected, frankly.  Was the chance lost?  Is it all over for us?  It would be reasonable to assume, yes, it’s all over.  We, Humanity, we lost our big chance when we murdered Jesus.

The Easter story, the Christian story, however, says no, no matter how much we may have deserved it, we did not lose our chance.  The Easter story says that a promise was given, from that time to this one, a promise rings out that in fact there’s no such thing as losing your big chance forever. Something always, always sings.  No matter how bad the circumstance.  No matter how dark the outlook.  No matter, even, how complicit we are in creating that darkness. 

With the Crucifixion, human beings destroyed the best personification we’d ever seen of Divinity.  And yet, all was not lost, not in the slightest, despite this great mistake, despite our great sin.  Not only is everything not lost, but we broken, misguided human beings have been left with a blessing.  We were left with a blessing despite all the turmoil, despite all the pain, despite all the error:  Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 

What are we to make of that?

From deep despair and perished things, a green shoot always, always springs.  A note of hope sustains us all.

One critical way in which Unitarian Universalists do differ from Christians, sometimes, is in our orientation to this-worldly concerns.  It’s not enough for us to relive an ancient story again and again, dwelling on its details, riding its emotional waves, learning the lessons of another age.  No, for us, it is important to bring our religious stories into our age, into our lives.  This may be the more modern juncture where our critical UU look at the Easter story delves from the mainstream way of looking at it.

Because when I hear the story of a divine man who was unjustly, tragically killed and yet rose again to bless the world, when I hear that from perished things a green shoot always springs, not just in May but in December too, it makes me start to wonder about the things in my life that are dead, or at least appear to be so. 

Knowing the Easter story begs a question of us, don’t you think?  When you know, when you’ve learned from the Easter story, that something always, always sings, then it impels you to take a look at your own snow-covered, perished things.  It impels you to take a look and ask what’s under there, humming its song of hope, of spring, that you never knew to listen for before, because you never guessed that such a thing as rebirth was possible?

Are you someone who needs to be reborn?  Is this your Easter?

Another default for UUs is to think that everything in the world that changes has to be dragged about through our own efforts.  In fact, I am guilty of telling you that, point blank, right from here.  “Be the change you want to see in the world,” I’ve said so many times, using so many other words.  Unitarian Universalists like to believe in our own agency, our own power and our own control.  It helps that we tend to be privileged, educated, powerful people who have the capacity to control much of our lives.

But the good news of Easter is that, in this story, you aren’t God.  You don’t need to worry about doing the resurrecting.  You don’t need to do anything at all.  You may be in your darkest hour.  You may be…dead, in some or in many ways.  It may be all bleak years and broken rings for you, for right now at least. 

And yet, despite this, something always, always sings.  That is promised.  It has been promised through all the ages and it will always be so.  Spring always follows winter.  Jesus was brought back from the dead, brought back from the deepest consequences of error and anguish.  And so it is for you, for all of us.  This is what Easter says to us.  It simply is, according to the story.  It simply is.  A promise.  Always.  Always.

You’re a UU.  Today, Easter Sunday, you may find yourself engaged in some rituals you haven’t particularly fully signed on for.  You may hunt for colored eggs, and maybe you’re wearing a big hat, and something in you hoped it might be sunny and spring-like out, and possibly you’ll cap off your day with a ham and scalloped potatoes.  If you’re a person who is engaged with or has emerged from the Christian tradition, that’s not unexpected behavior.  Those activities are the trappings of Easter, just like having a Christmas tree is the trapping of Christmas.  But the tree is not the reason for the season, and the eggs and the hats are the markers of Easter but not the point of it all. 

Our whole religion has also emerged from and been engaged with the Christian tradition.  We can celebrate Easter, if we want to, and still be true to our UU selves.  We can embrace our skepticism and our questions and our reason-based view of the world.  We can still work hard to make sure that our lives and the lives of those around us are the best they can be.  The Easter story doesn’t ask us to stop being what we’ve worked so hard to be, in my opinion. 

It’s Easter.  If we look at the lives we’re living today, whether they’re finch-filled bower lives or they’re dark-December-hour lives, and we find that we are filled with at least a pinpoint of joy because we know that a song - a green shoot - hope, has been promised to us no matter what we do or what is done to us, then we have understood what the Easter story is telling us. 

When we remember that light has been promised in the midst of the dark, we’ve understood the purpose of the Easter story, no matter how closely we are related, or not related, to the people who usually tell it.  Hunting eggs and wearing bonnets and eating ham or no; being Christian or just learning the stories; the song, the green shoot, the hope, the promise:  it’s for all of us.

May you each have a particularly joyful Easter.