Join us online at Rev. Furrer preaches on the regenerative myth of eternal return—on the renewal of earth and each person’s heart. Join us for an Easter even hardened skeptics can appreciate in the midst of an epidemic.
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit”
Easter is one of those holidays that many Unitarian Universalists find difficult. The whole business of bodily resurrection it just too unnatural for people like us, weaned as almost all UUs are, on skepticism and natural science. So it is that most Unitarian Easter sermons focus on the resurrection of the natural world every spring, and on the resurrection of our spirits after a long winter.
The rebirth of the natural world in the spring is marvelous, indeed. Even before calendars, our ancestors knew that the longer days meant melting snow, softening soil, and a renewed growing time for the plants and animals around them. Once people understood how plants and animals reproduce, once they became gardeners and tenders of flocks and aware of the results of their own lovemaking, they consciously participated, as partners with the gods, in the great life process. Planting time became a victory over death. Symbols of new life were held sacred: the seed, the flower, the egg, the organs of human sexuality, the newborn of all animals, and especially the rabbit.
The 7th Unitarian Universalist Principle—“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”—makes clear what 21st century urbanites sometimes forget: our integral connection to the world of nature. Indeed, we’re more than just part of the natural world; one the songs in our hymnal make it perfectly clear, “we are the earth, upright and proud.” [# 303, Singing the Living Tradition] So it’s not surprising that the seasonal dynamics we observe in nature also happen within us.
Our human potential to overcome personal loss or failure and to begin anew thus becomes another Easter theme common among religious liberals: the blossoming of new awareness out of a wintry heart or imagination. As I wrote in my most recent newsletter column, dark times in our lives are succeeded by brighter ones. Life, as we all know, is made difficult by its manifold calamities: loneliness, brutality, hatred, selfishness, insecurity, abandonment, fear, cruelty, and suffering. And yet, while destructive forces often carry the day, there are countervailing forces: forces that may appear to be dead, but that rise again. Invariably. For UUs, Easter celebrates renewals of this kind–renewals of the human spirit. Consider:
- Countries crushed under the tyrant’s rule rise up to claim freedom and self-government.
- Truth silenced by court order, police force, or military might eventually comes to light by the dogged efforts of women and men who will live by no other standard.
- Natural beauty paved over, redeveloped, upgraded, and sold on spec—no matter how tawdry—reveals itself and shines through.
- Love buried beneath years of loathing and abuse somehow rises again (as though a stone were suddenly rolled away), takes us by the hand, and leads us into risk and caring once again.
- Courage imprisoned in the dankest and dreariest of dungeons—Guantanamos both of the world and of the heart—springs anew every day in the souls of oppressed people. And…
- Efforts on behalf of justice (though it can sometimes be denied, delayed, twisted, and corrupted) even now bring people hope.
* * *
There is a third way to think about death and rebirth that’s compatible with the thinking of many UUs: the rational mysticism of people like Joseph Campbell, late mythologist and PBS celebrity. I had the opportunity to hear Campbell lecture once, shortly before he died. He spoke in New York City’s Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. His presentation was from the notes of one 5 X 7” card, flawless, and about an hour and ten minutes long. Then for about a half hour he answered questions. One of the things he said—I was particularly impressed when I realized later that he was suffering at the time from the cancer that was soon to take his life—was about this idea of resurrection. “The purpose,” Campbell declared, “is to identify not with the body which is falling away, but with the consciousness of which it is a vehicle. This is something I learned from my myths,” he went on.
Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is the vehicle? If you can identify with the consciousness, you can watch this thing go like an old car. There goes the fender, etc. But it’s expected; and then gradually the whole thing drops off and consciousness rejoins consciousness. I live with these myths—and they tell me to do this, to identify with the Christ or the Shiva in me. And that doesn’t die, it resurrects. It is an essential experience of any mystical realization that you die to your flesh and are born to your spirit. You identify with the consciousness in life—and that is the god.” [Quoted in Sunbeams, 1990, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley]
Walking around my neighborhood (as I’ve been doing now, regularly) the daffodils are coming up everywhere. Daffodils are perennials. Just as this season’s flowers will die within a week or two, the bulbs from which they sprang will bring forth new flowers year after year after year. And it’s not just flowers. Individual human beings are much the same. We die, but humanity survives and carries on. One hundred years from now probably everyone on this ZOOM will have passed away, but this community will be carrying on; babies will be being named, youth will be bridging, people will be gathering every Sunday. Death and change and transformation are indispensable to life. However absolute death may appear when peered at through the keyhole of an individual’s self-centered hold on biological existence, it is in fact but one great and awe-inspiring instrument in the orchestra celebrating everlastingly the triumph of life.
* * *
When more orthodox folk confront me with “You mean to tell me that Unitarians don’t believe Jesus was divine?” I always reply, “UUs wouldn’t deny the divinity of anyone.” “But no special divinity?” “No more special than you or me or anyone else in the process of fulfilling their human potential.” UUs see Easter as a celebration of the miracle of divine potential in everyone. Wow! Hitch your wagon to a star, as Emerson once wrote, and go for it!
That sentiment—celebrating the divinity within everyone—is what I had in mind when I borrowed from Bob Dylan for my sermon title: Love Minus Zero / No Limit. The idea that love is limitless; that it’s us (as individuals and collectively) who are responsible for the limits we place on love: on who we love and how deeply we love and how radically we’ll allow ourselves to be guided by love in all we do and say.
My love she speaks…without…violence.
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful,
Yet she’s true….
Few of us understand how powerful love really is; that we actually have the power to act-each-other-into-well-being when we put our heart to the task. And because we don’t understand, we also fail to recognize depth of our power to thwart life and damage community and maim each other. This is why we here at East Shore have a covenant—a sacred contract binding members act lovingly with one another, not wantonly or cavalierly. But we have to hold each other accountable to our covenant or it’s as good as useless.
My love winks, she does not bother, She knows too much to argue or to judge. [Bob Dylan, 1965]
* * *
Biblical scholars believe uniformly that no account of Jesus’ life was written by an eyewitness; every version we have was written years afterwards. The oldest account—written thirty years after the events described—is the gospel of Mark. It’s also the shortest account and a key source for the authors of both Matthew and Luke. It’s important to note that Mark, in its earliest form, has no resurrection narrative; it’s open-ended and must be completed by the hearers and readers of the tale. The original narrative, which we read responsively moments ago, ends with the women who had gone to perform Jesus’ funeral rites, meeting a young man who tells them “Don’t look here; go back to Galilee, as he told you,” after which they fled in terror. What are we to make of this?
Whatever else we know or may think we know about Jesus, his story makes it clear that he affected those around him profoundly. Some people loved and revered him; others believed he was the harbinger of a new era.
Still others felt threatened—so much so that in the end he was put to death.
By all accounts we have, Jesus’ execution affected his followers as much as anything he said or did in life. How to make sense of it? Here was a totally relational person—one whom theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison and her feminist allies ask us all to emulate—and what happens? Put to death by the state with the complicity—complicity—of religious authorities. Amazing! The gospel of Mark—oldest and closest to the events it seeks to describe—can be thought of, it seems to me, as an effort to explain how such a thing could happen. How is it possible, Mark asks, for such a person to have come to such an end? What stupid forces in the universe there must be to thwart such a life? Even more, what limitless resources nature must contain to be able to bring forth such a life? These are the issues, it seems to me, with which the author of the earliest account of Jesus’ life must have been wrestling. And when he reaches the end of his account, what does he say? Now that you know what happened; now that you see what can happen to people who love that radically and creatively; now that you see how threatened we are by love and all it asks of us—Now go back and read the whole story again, and again, and again.
Pick up the pieces and start over. That’s all we can do; each time (let us hope) with more insight; each time with more compassion; and each time with more willingness to risk love.
So may it be. Shalom. Amen. And hallelujah!