Resurrection or Rejuvenation?

An Easter Sermon

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
March 31, 2002


I think continually of those who were truly great..
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

-Stephen Spender

Today, something close to a billion and a half people the world over will be celebrating the bodily resurrection of Jesus, who was called "the Christ". Conversely, somewhere around 210,000, give or take, who call themselves Unitarian Universalists, stand somewhere outside that story. Some celebrate a liberal version of the Christian story without its supernaturalism. Others prefer only to sing praises to the return of the springtime. A few find the whole matter of Easter irrelevant. Some even make fun of it.

Our liberal faith gives us the freedom to take varying theological stands regarding the ancient Judeo-Christian heritage. Sometimes, though, it seems to me we go too far. I would like to suggest that it is not out of keeping with our liberal faith to include some of the classic Christian themes as part of our religious perspective.

I don't suppose you would be surprised to learn that during the 19th century there were great Unitarian leaders who spoke often of the "universal" church. William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker idealized creedless religious communities. They stressed the importance of realizing the creative power of the universe. Parker went on to state that such an ideal church could exist without Scripture or a miracle-making Savior. Notwithstanding the ways his colleagues chastised him for such heresy he was able to distinguish what, for him, were the essentials and the non-essentials of religion.

But care needs to be taken here in our brief historical jaunt. Neither Channing nor Parker meant that the Bible or Jesus of Nazareth should be totally removed from their form of Liberal Christianity in the 1840's.

But that is exactly what Unitarian Universalism has become for many today. Many in our movement reject the relevancy of the Bible or of Jesus for their purposes. And it is my belief that this has done a lot to continue us as a sort of minor blip on the screen of American Protestant religions. Our celebration of "unity amidst diversity" is wonderful to hear and praise. But when we refuse to see the strengths that have been entrusted to us out of ancient times, we tend to lose focus. We become, as it were, a kind of "Tower of Babel" of theists, atheists, humanists, liberal Christians, Universalists, mystics, deists, or even pagans. Yes, we do have those who affirm a pagan world view notwithstanding the long tradition or rationality that has been part and parcel of Unitarian Universalism.

There are also ministers in the Unitarian Universalist tradition who claim we are not in any way "Christian". We have those who say that while they are not trinitarian Christians they do address prayers to the God to whom Jesus prayed and they also follow many pietistic rituals of the the orthodox church. Kings Chapel in Boston is a Unitarian church that observes the entire lectionary of the Christian year but the Book of Common Prayer they use on a weekly basis makes no reference at all to the Trinity. In other words, there are those who call themselves liberal Unitarian Universalist Christians. And by that term they mean that Easter is not a celebration of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is an annual event during which one offers praise for Jesus' life and teachings and the profound changes he brought to religion worldwide.

Out of all this, then, we come to another Easter and find a new and surprising opportunity to consider the word "resurrection" and all it entails. But it is difficult to draw a meaningful definition of the word without some understanding of its implications in a whole diadem of religions that came before Christianity even appeared on the scene.

For instance, in classical mythology "The Elysian Fields" were the abode of the blessed after death. The Garden of Eden appears in the Old Testament as a place of paradise where the inhabitants would enjoy "resurrected lives" of abundance and joy. In a more modern idiom novelist James Hilton posits a paradise on earth located somewhere in the high mountains of Tibet which he called "Shangri-la.".

In Nordic mythology another name for the home of the gods was "Valhalla". Slain heroes were welcomed there and brought there by the daughters of the gods. And then there was what was called the "Holy City", the "New Jerusalem", another parallel to Olympus - places where the souls of the departed were welcomed for eternity to a resurrected life of beneficence.

All of them could be called "Utopias". And even today, in Muslim terms, extremist terrorists truly believe that in dying for their faith in their "Jihad", they will find joy and rapture, bliss and ecstasy in an unnamed realm of eternity as their reward. And, tragically, as we know very sadly, they are quite literally willing to die out of that religious assurance. But what do WE mean? Why do WE celebrate this season, so inextricably entwined as it is with the orthodox definition of the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus? Let me try to answer this vexing question in a new way.

At 84, Dr. Clinton Lee Scott was finally chosen as the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award to Liberal Religion. This award is given each year at the General Assembly held in June. Usually there are over 3000 delegates in attendance at that gathering. Upon mounting the podium to accept it, I recall that Dr. Scott's first words were, "WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG!?"

Dr. Scott once wrote a poem addressed to the question of what meaning Easter has for liberal thinkers. I think he put it perfectly.

Jesus is risen from the dead.
The centuries have not been able to
bury him.
Forsaken by his friends,
sentenced to die with theives,
his mangled body buried in a
borrowed tomb,
he has risen to command
the hearts of millions, and
to haunt our hate-filled world
with the restlessness of undying hopes.

The years bring him increasingly
to life.
The imperial forces that tried to
destroy him
have long ago destroyed themselves.
Those who passed judgment upon
are remembered only because of him.

Military might and political tyranny
still stalk the earth;
they too shall perish,
while the majesty of the carpenter-
bearing his cross to the hill
will remain to rebuke
the ways of violence.

Did you notice? There are no words in the poem about any sort of "bodily resurrection" or of any concept of a "personal salvation". He does not intimate that one has to embrac a supernatural doctrine that flies in the face of reason. His words were written for us - here - now. And we can embrace the truth of Dr. Scott's poem and not be in the slightest degree in conflict with the truths of the scientific world.

To illustrate further what I mean, let me share a brief quotation from a book I have found to full of wisdom. It is titled The Seven Mysteries of Life and was written by a man named Guy Murchie. Dr. Murchie's resume boasts a panolpy of professions - astronomer, phycisist, anthropologist, artist, musician, etcetera, etcetera, and so forth. He titles the seventh mystery as "divinity" or "the divine". In that chapter he wrote this:

" we drift wonderingly into transcendence, discarding at last our mudane selves to the tomb of earth, gratefully receptive to the beauty of mysteries still hidden beyond the horizon of mystery, let us try not to forget that only god's eye has the capacity to see god – yet, by (god's) grace, the stars can really smile, if we only knew..."
Murchie, G, 7 Mysteries of Life, p. 627

What I am suggesting, then, and what I think Dr. Scott was saying in his poem is that in crucifying Jesus, they killed him. They caused his body to be no longer operable. He was no longer present to living beings in a physical sense. But I need to tell you that in looking at the record of his death and world events that have followed, his spirit was not rendered inoperable. It has lived as an ideal in the hearts of millions.

There are a lot of kinds of death, you know. I call some of them "little deaths". They are actually quite commonplace. Someone betrays our trust. Work claims our inner being and we forget how to play. Success is achieved and there is a sort of hollow sound that comes even with all that success. In all this, the zest for living, the excitement of residing in the questions of life diminishes. And we are claimed by our own, self-made tombs of "non-existence".

So to "die" in this sense is sort of to give up on yourself. It is to say things like, "I'm no good". It is to cop out on values you once held in high esteem. It is to refuse to believe that you are loved by others. It is no longer having the ability to look into the face of physical death and yet say, "Yes!" to life!

Physically, death is really a process that happens by degrees unless it is met by violent means - accident, natural cataclysm, human destruction, war. "Brain death" is only a final and dramatic state since it is irreversible. But a good bit of what one might call "dying" goes on in our lives before we leave this world. And the same may be said to be true of the human spirit. And this is precisely where another word beyond the word "resurrection" comes into play for us. I speak of the word "rejuvenation".

The love that was evident in the life of this man they called Jesus - in his teachings, in his deeds, in his example - could not be put to death. Like the bulbs in the earth that create the daffodils, it was rejuvenated. It came to life again. It came to life in the same place in which his spirit lived before he died. In the hearts of his hearers, his disciples, his followers. In the same way, winter's cold wanes with the ascending sun and the earth comes alive in the same places where it died. In the branches, the blossoms, the forests and meadows. The lightness of being created in t he green of early spring tells us this in so many, many ways.

So, too with the human spirit. Easter can become a time wherein the human spirit can again become rejuvenated. Easter continues to proclaim good in the midst of evil and tragedy. It brings people together - not just for religious purposes - but for humane and lively purposes, too.

In this time of violence, war and vexing political questions emanating out of our county's "on-again, off-again" foreign policy; in this time when religious wars in the mid-East; in this time in which so many young men and women, not only from this country but from many countries, are there "in harms way", we are met again with the dilemma of celebrating the good 'midst the cold of evil, killing, child death and famine. It takes a strong faith in Life for one to look into the face of these spectres and yet say "YES!" to the gift of the live we've been given. It takes courage not to give up hope; not to give in to despair.

Rejuvenation, then, is the word I would prefer to use in finding meaning in Easter for us as Unitarian Universalists. The rejuvenation of the message of Jesus' life and teaching; the rejuvenation of the individual human spirit brought low by life's vicissitudes; rejuvenation of the very ground upon which we stand which contains in its humus layer the beauty and the fragrance of the springtime.

So we've been given another chance. Another chance to rejuvenate the great truths about love and justice taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth and for which he was willing to die without taking the lives of others. Let's do it in the coming year as a congregation Let's find ways of doing it as individuals, too. And....let's do it with joy.

Pray with me: O Spirit of Life, as the earth is rejuvenated into life, so may it be with our divided, often destitute spirits. Let the winter-time of doubt dissolve with all the frozenness ofour refusals to open our hearts to the wider meaning that Easter brings. Deepen our faith that evil shall be overcome; that good at last shall triumph. Let not the spirit of Easter come to earth, O Dearest God, without coming into our hearts.