A Unitarian Universalist understanding of the death and resurrection symbolism found in the Easter story.
Today is Easter. Among orthodox Christians, Easter is the most important day of the year, celebrating Jesus’ bodily resurrection into heaven. Death and resurrection are central to orthodox theology and call for joyous celebration.
Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, even those who call themselves UU Christians, typically struggle with Easter. Few believe in conventional understandings of bodily resurrection. And indeed, our people have through the centuries tended to focus far more on Jesus’ life and teachings than on his death and resurrection. Many UUs are inspired by Jesus’ ministry and gain strength from it, me among them. Whatever one believes, the stories recounted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (and several non-canonical accounts) reveal an extraordinary prophet and poet, well worth studying for the ethical clarity, wisdom, and compassion he exemplified. This morning I want to propose one Unitarian Universalist way of looking at what Jesus was calling us to recognize, and of the meaning of resurrection.
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Last week I spoke on Exodus. I looked at Israel’s escape from Egypt mythically, as a prototype or paradigm of liberation. The word “Egypt,” in Hebrew, means “the narrow place.” Thus we contemplated the Exodus as a paradigmatic escape from narrowness and into freedom—an archetype, really, of liberation. The Exodus story has important parallels in the Christian story: as the Israelites passed through water en route to political and cultural freedom, so individual Christians pass through water—baptism—en route to a certain psychic and emotional freedom: freedom (in Paul Tillich’s words) to be. That is, freedom to love; or, rather, freedom to experience coursing through one’s veins the love that “creates and upholds life.”
One way to think of it is like this: while they were dwelling in Egypt, the Israelites were—or at least thought of themselves as being—a bunch of billiard balls. They were the same size and shape, but bouncing off one another and without any cohesion. Their liberation from bondage involved adopting a covenant. This bound them together; now they were like a rack of billiard balls: unified, arm in arm. Jesus’ message, it seems to me, is that whether one knows it or not, all billiard balls are interconnected; we are all subtly and dynamically interconnected aspects of a single web: the Web of Life.
Jesus was neither the first nor the last person to say this; indeed, he was only repeating in a new way what had already been said by the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah. Our Seventh UU Principle—respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—affirms the same idea. The important part is that Jesus said this in a unique way that opened the eyes of many who actually heard him and of countless others over the centuries ever since.
What do we actually know about Jesus? Not very much. Biblical scholars do agree, for the most part, on four things:
- He was an itinerant preacher and healer, the leader of a religious reform movement within Judaism.
- A central part of his message was proclaiming what he called “the Kingdom or Reign of Heaven / of God.”
- He taught in parables and aphorisms, challenging many then-prevalent conventions of holiness and social hierarchy. And, finally, that
- Roman authorities, probably around the year 36 or 37, executed him.
This morning I want to focus on Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of Heaven / of God and on his use of parables. What did he mean? And why that method? Let me venture the following….
Just as today, there were in Jesus’ era lots of preachers running around. He acquired many followers, but he made some enemies, too—especially among the ecclesiastical authorities. By the standards of the day he was something of a blithe spirit; dining and cavorting with notorious sinners, he was no stickler about following ‘the letter’ of Mosaic Law and minor infractions of the Law led to many challenges by scribes and Pharisees—the Franklin Grahams and Pat Robertsons of that era. Jesus always answered his challengers in terms of his elementary principle—that an immanent Reign of God is at the heart of everything. This tactic almost always worked—at least to silence them. Moreover, he had a way of deflecting their animus with parables: simple, memorable stories using humble imagery and often with a surprising or paradoxical twist. His elementary principle, as I’ve said, was the Reign of God. He’d keep coming back to it: the Reign, or Kingdom, of God right here in our midst. It is like leaven, he’d say, or a mustard seed, or a fig tree.
There are at least thirty-six parables attributed to Jesus, depending how you count. Throughout all of the parables there are two common themes: the web of human relations, and an emphasis on the downtrodden. What I’m saying about Easter, as a particular Unitarian Universalist, is two-fold: (1) To be conscious of the web is to live in the Kingdom. And (2) the downtrodden are often more conscious of the web than those who are socially secure.
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Inequality is part of life. The parables imply that inequality is part of the Kingdom, too. People differ greatly in terms of energy, intelligence, strength, artistic and musical facility; you name it! The ability to see patterns, connections, and relationships of all kinds—the intuitive side of life—is distributed unequally, too. And for all its ignominy, a diminished social location tends to enhance one’s ability to see such patterns and relationships. Why? Because of need. Need itself kind of presupposes the web; within this common human web of interrelationship, I have a need, and it can only be responded to from within the web. Anytime your position, situation, or attitude in life estranges you from this web, or from seeing its importance, you’re lost. It’s that simple. The Good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the laborers in the vineyard, the judge and the widow: all of these parables are about the web. The people passing by the man who fell among thieves in the parable of the Good Samaritan did not or could not put themselves in his place; i.e., they didn’t or couldn’t see the web. The legislators currently pushing legislation to unravel the Affordable Care Act or to keep out refugees can’t and don’t want to see the web either. Until you come to the point of recognizing your need of others, you’re outside the web of interrelationship.
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The parable of the prodigal son, which I adopted slightly in this morning’s first Reading, begins with a parent’s younger child leaving home. She partakes of riotous, intemperate living and squanders her inheritance. Eventually, living in squalor, she comes to her senses and returns home. Seeing her “at a distance,” her mother rejoices. Clearly, mom’s joyous welcome is not dependent on her daughter’s repentance since the child doesn’t even have a chance to speak! At this point the plot thickens. The elder sibling comes in from working all day in the fields and—not at all surprisingly—is indignant, which (of course) is very very human. “You can have all you want of mine,” says his mom, “but you can’t take away my parenthood.”
For the prodigal child’s mom relationship not individuality is primary and a priori. Not so for the older brother. He’s lost his relatedness and speaks of his sibling as “your daughter.” When his long lost younger sister returns, the older brother’s need is tremendous. He’s threatened because he feels unappreciated and without status in the eyes of his mother and because he’s lost his relatedness to his sister and his mom and even himself. This, too, is very human. As we’ve probably all discovered, when attempting to restore a broken relationship we often run into all sorts of other problems. Speaking to her son, the mom was clear: “Look: from my viewpoint, a child I thought was dead has come back and this is one of the happiest days of my life.” What she doesn’t say clearly enough is that “You, my dear son, are an equally great blessing to me.” The best you can say for the older brother is that he’s brought to the edge of discovering his need, and therefore his relatedness. The younger child’s return has busted everything wide open. Nothing in that household will ever be the same again. The web is not a simple thing; all the strands now have to be rewoven.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus has many angles and directions. Essentially, it asks the question: whence does your motivation, in terms of the Kingdom, derive? If you’re not moved by the condition of Lazarus, what’s the appearance of someone returning from the dead going do for you? Throughout the parable, the rich man is unmoved by the human condition. Even in Hell, he fails to get the point: he still wants the poor man to serve him and relieve his torment. He continues to plead, —“I don’t want my brothers here”—and doesn’t even say he’s sorry to Lazarus. If you’re only moved by your own suffering, Jesus seems to say, then you’re a long way from the Reign of Heaven. Without compassion, there is nothing inside you that can make the bridge. “Why didn’t the prophets persuade you, not to mention Lazarus? What good is a resurrection going to do?” One can see the last judgment as an extension of this: Jesus as a symbol of the relatedness among things; “whatever thou doeth unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou do it unto me.”
The parables’ recurrent concern with the downtrodden is important. This is because some experience of brokenness has to occur before the Reign of Heaven can open up in a person, before the depth of life can be revealed and understood. Neither the rich man nor the prodigal child recognize their need and call out until they’re in pain. Need betokens a dependence in some fashion and this presupposes the web of relationships.
Every person is dependent on a set of relations between themselves and others. If you act as though you’re independent of the web, then you’ve lost the Kingdom; you’re in Hell insofar as you can’t respond to the needs of others and won’t be responded to by them—because you can’t see the web. The older brother’s understanding of reality would make sense if all of life’s variables and experiences could be dealt with accordingly. But they can’t, because if we use the older brother’s belief system then the mother will have to give up her motherhood—which she cannot do. From the older brother’s point of view (the Libertarian point of view, incidentally), relationships are a function of the individual. From her mother’s point of view, individuals are a function of the web; for her the interrelated web is a priori.
Until you recognize the depth of your dependence, and need, you can’t make it to the new understanding. Furthermore, it’s going to cost you plenty, since your understanding of reality (from the older brother’s point of view) must be wholly sacrificed if the new understanding is to take hold. If everybody held the older brother’s view, then we would all be impoverished, and although sacrificing the elder brother’s viewpoint for the mother’s costs him plenty experientially, all will eventually be enriched.
Being in the relationship web: this is the Pearl of Great Price.
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Spending two weeks with my daughter and her family this past January reminded me of my years as a young dad. Well I recall reading bedtime stories and singing lullabies to Meredith when she was little and how much it meant to both of us. I remember, too, a practice I made, from time to time, of telling her during that same bedtime hour about all the people who were waiting for her to be born, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her cousins, my students at the school where I was then teaching up in San Rafael, the people in her mom’s and my theater group, her mother’s friends—and I’d name all of these people—my friends, our neighbors in the houseboat community where we lived and where she was born, the women in her grandmother’s quilting group, and on and on: this whole matrix of love and concern that was waiting for her, not even knowing yet whether she was a girl or a boy, or what her name was going to be, but looking forward to meeting her, and loving her, and waiting expectantly for her arrival. “Show me your face before your parents were born,” asks the Zen master. That face is the web.
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Jesus was put to death because the authorities, threatened by his outreach to the poor, decided that he must be a revolutionary—and had him summarily executed. My sense is that neither Jesus’ parables nor his overall teaching are about social justice per se; they’re about relationship. They’re about withdrawing our projections and (in the words of Annie Dillard) actually “noticing each other’s beautiful faces and complex natures.” Jesus praises the downtrodden and disinherited not because they’re better than the well-to-do, but because the broken and poor are the ones most likely to experience and express need. Staying within the web means realizing that regardless of inequality (which apparently exists within the Kingdom, too) the rich and successful are just as dependent on the web as everyone else is.
Maintaining a sense of one’s self while remaining connected is never easy. Being in relationship is hard work, especially emotionally. Abandoning the elder brother’s point of view—the idea that you’re a wholly independent agent—is costly; it’s a kind of death. Or ego death. Restoring relationality can be thought of as resurrection. Rebirth, in the here and now “kingdom” or “reign” of Heaven that’s strewn all about us here on Earth: alive, awake and fully engaged within the interconnected, interrelational Web of Life.
Let us pray.
Spirit of Easter:
Help us to grow. Help us grow in our capacity to experience and express our needs to one another. Help us reach out and hear those who reach out to us. Help us to cease sacrificing others, learning instead to cultivate our own sacrificial hearts. And help us see the Reign of Heaven right here in our midst, among those with whom we dwell.
So may it be. Amen.
 UU Principles and Purposes; 1st Source (“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”)
 Luke 10:30-37
 Luke 15:4-7 and Matthew 18:12-14
 Matthew 20:1-16
 Matthew 18:2-8
 Luke 15: 11-32
 Luke 16: 19-31
 Matthew 25:31-46
 “…Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And the Lord will answer them…
 Matthew 13:45-46