Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Message - Jesus Knew Exactly What He Was Doing

Meditation: Sunlight at the Roots 

    Good morning. Let’s take a deep breath together and enjoy this moment. The sun is shining. The air is warm after a long and challenging winter. When the leaves last fell the world was a different place with different expectations. We have emerged on the other side feeling a bit unsure, a little unconfident of what will happen next. Take a deep breath and and sink into the cushion just a bit.

    Take another deep breath and close your eyes. Picture the yellowing light of the still un-green forest. How the sun dances on the ground through the trees. The spring has not yet unfolded the leaves. They still curl snugly into themselves, ready for the greater warmth to come. Bless them in your mind. And breathe.

    Follow the branches down the length of the tree, to the trunk. Follow the swerving lines of bark downward, downward. Observe the tree trunk getting thicker as your gaze draws lower. Breathe.

    Notice the ground at the base. The warmer light almost never reaches here. Just for a few short days in spring. Soon the canopy above will jealously take the light for itself. As it should be. The light was colder when the leaves last fell; the ground hardening itself for the long winter. As it should be. But today the roots feel the warmth of the sun unhindered. From this light, they shiver beyond our notice.

    Breath in this warmth at the root. Feel the roots expanding with the light. Feel the quickening of the forest floor all around you. Hear the shoots below the dead leaves uncurling, reaching upward for their own taste of the light. Hear the renewed life along the ground. As if with one breath, the earth, suddenly, awakens.   Namasté.

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 11:1-4 “The Branch from Jesse” 

Isaiah was a Jewish prophet who lived 700 years before Jesus. This passage is regarded as being a prophecy of the coming messiah.

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Remember that.

Sermon: Renovating Easter 

    Why are we here? We especially. Unitarian Universalists. Why are we here? Why are you here today? Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t be here. But have you thought about why you are? Do you come because you just come pretty much every Sunday, so why not this one? Do you like this particular spiritual occasion?  Like to dress up, like to celebrate the spring by thanking God for it? Or the Universe?

   Do you merely suffer through it, or do you need it? What do you need from this day?

   If you are one who only goes to church on Easter and Christmas you of course are no less welcome. And the question goes to you, too: Why are you here today of all days? There is, of course, no wrong answer.

   We have and likely will again use Easter in the Unitarian Universalist tradition as an occasion to celebrate the Spring, to celebrate in general the concepts of rebirth, renewal, new life emergent. We will dance around the explicitly Christian purpose of this particular Sunday, the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring after the vernal equinox, and frame it in a more generalized way because we don’t always buy into the religious hype of those who would celebrate Easter more traditionally. We aren’t here because we are one of the white sheep.

   So, why are we?

   I cannot answer for you. I know for my part, I want to be here. Here from this spot behind the pulpit. From this spot I am licensed to ask the questions for which I myself need answers too. From this spot in this progressive spiritual community I have the freedom to challenge and reframe religion. To ask it hard questions on days like today.

   But with that freedom comes the responsibility to listen for the answers, if they’re available. And to keep asking when they are not. I will no longer be burned at the stake for questioning God or faith or history or myth, or to call BS. Likewise I will not be stoned to death nor drowned for claiming to have an alternative spiritual opinion. Those dark times are increasingly in our past.

    That is why I am here. Because this day is the litmus test of Christian religiosity. And I want to go deeper. So I will.

Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from death three days after his crucifixion on the hill of Golgotha. Three hundred years later it was officially concluded that this resurrection occurred because he was not merely the son of God, but God himself who walked as a man among us. That’s the main thrust of the concept of the Trinity. God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are three, but not separate. The fancy theological term is called consubstantial, meaning of the same substance. Unitarians don’t buy it. And that doubt has invited a tradition over the centuries that gives license to question authority. To question dogma.

To the concept of one God being three, Unitarians have said: Wait. What? To the concept of only those who are righteous Christians getting into heaven, Universalists have said: Wait. What? And so here we are.

Recently a friend was telling me of a documentary about Jesus where an expert claimed that Jesus didn’t really want the crucifixion to happen. That’s understandable. Part of the story is that he prayed to God to take this cup away from him. Luke says that he knelt down to pray for this. Matthew, however, describes Jesus making a faceplant into the ground in grief and begging. In both stories, however, Jesus tells God to basically ignore him if it’s really God’s will that this terrible thing come to pass. He doesn’t want to die but he’s willing to. And he knows what he needs to do to make it happen. And why.

The expert in the documentary also said, however, that Jesus didn’t expect this to happen. This was not part of the plan. Well, that’s just not true.

Jesus, in my opinion was a very smart man who knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly how to get the word out best. Jesus once healed a leper, and then to insure everyone would hear about it, he told the healed man not to tell anybody. In all likelihood people would have noticed that the man’s skin condition had suddenly cleared up and would want to know his secret. What better method of delivery than to tantalizingly make the answer an actual secret? He can’t have really wanted it to remain a secret, he performed numerous healings in several locations in front of hundreds. Why would he periodically choose to tell someone to keep it a secret if not for wanting the exact opposite? Jesus understood human nature. He didn’t resist it. He capitalized on it.

Yet again, after he had raised a girl from the dead in front of a crowd he immediately healed a number of blind men on the side and warned them sternly not to tell anyone. “But (according to Matthew) they (promptly) went out and spread the news about him all over the region.” He knew what he was doing. He may have even enjoyed it.

He also knew that his message was going to upset the apple cart. He knew that his teachings would pit child against parent, brother against brother, man against his household. New ways against old ways. They were commanded to honor their parents but have received new orders to turn their backs on them, if necessary. He taught that we have personal power. That we could tell a mountain to jump into the ocean and it will obey. He knew what kind of enemies this philosophical shift would create.
He also knew the old prophecies and knew how to quote them for effect. Perhaps they really were about him. Perhaps they were a tool by which Jesus either manipulated the people or deliberately fulfilled them to make known his true identity. It depends upon which you believe.

Jesus waltzed straight into a synagogue on the Sabbath and broke the rules against working on the holy day of rest by healing a man’s hand right there in front of the Pharisees, who promptly went out and began plotting to kill him. Jesus knew what he was doing. He knew the impact of martyrdom. He knew what his death at the hands of his own people and of Rome would do. It would galvanize the followers of his little peace mission into a movement with enough momentum that it might never be suppressed. He sacrificed himself for his message, on purpose. He took one for the team. The great giving tree.

As he went through the area healing the ill from amid the hundreds who followed him, he continued to warn them not to tell others. Could he have been so ignorant to believe that he wouldn’t be the talk of the town? He couldn’t. So it had to be on purpose.

    He began to prophesy not only his own death but that he would rise from it three days later as Jonah had emerged from the whale after three days. Nobody understood him at the time, but he said it nonetheless. And on more than one occasion. Presumably so they would get it later when everything had come to pass. Because he knew what he was doing.

    He taught in parables because the prophecies said to do so. He rode into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover on a donkey because the prophecies said he would. That he did it at the exact same time as the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate was also entering the city from another gate, thus drawing away all the crowds to greet Jesus who were otherwise expected at the Prefect’s entrance was to purposefully enrage Pilate’s ego. To snub him. To let Pilate know in explicit terms that the people were choosing a king for themselves. He was doing this on purpose. He didn’t enter the temple and with rage flip over tables, coins flying in all directions, to make a soft-footed entrance. He did it to make a point. To announce his presence and to say to the officials: come and get me.

    Several years ago the Gospel of Judas was translated. It said that Jesus asked Judas to betray him. That he would be reviled, regrettably, but that this must happen for the will of God to come to pass. Just like most of the authorized scripture, the truth of this apocryphal Gospel of Judas is by no means certain. But it brings to light an interesting thought. Was Judas really a villain? If he reluctantly did this at the behest of Jesus, was he wrong? Perhaps. But traditional Christianity makes quite a big point that the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection was already ordained to happen. If that is so, how could mainstream Christianity view Judas’ part in that plan as anything but necessary? How can they plan a trip, buy the resort tickets, save their money for tshirts and then blame the driver for taking them there? Sometimes there is a purpose to what, on the surface, looks like simple greed. But we almost never know the full story. We should be careful when we vilify.

    This day is meant to be a celebration of resurrection and renewal. Interestingly the Greek word for renewal used in the Bible has a root word which actually means renovate. That’s a very important distinction. To renew something is not the same as to renovate it. To renovate is to repurpose. To take the old and make new things with it. The resurrection celebrated in Christianity is about that same concept. The renovation of the human spirit. The recalibration of humanity based upon a teaching to be kind to one another. Not just everyday kindness, but radical compassion. To seek out those we hate and find a way to love them. Not just tolerate them. To visit the prisoner, no matter the crime. To support the widows and orphans though we could conclude that they are someone else’s problem. To take our rage and turn the other cheek. To serve our neighbor as if they were God Itself.

    That is what the prophet Isaiah was speaking of in his prophesy so long ago. That someone will come who, with the words from his mouth, will change the world. Not with swords or bombs, but with words. Ideas. Concepts that, with the tragedy and humiliation of being nailed to a giving tree in front of everyone, would have his words as the wind at their back to find their way out into the world and comfort those who don’t know where to turn in their darkest hours. Words about love.

    There is sometimes beauty in tragedy. There is almost always compassion in the wake of it. There is often the drive to make valuable to the world the worst of humanity, that their crimes not be experienced in vain. That we make silk purses from sow’s ears and rainbows from the rain.

    Let the Judases of our lives be remade in our own hearts into something transformative, a catalyst for regrowth, renewal, renovation of the old ways. Let the light in at the roots. Jesus was not how we have portrayed him to be. That Jesus is a myth. Let us renovate that in our minds. Perhaps he was the Son of God. We don’t have to know that or believe that in order to remind ourselves that this spiritual master was really a spiritual tactician, an activist, a diplomat. A prophet of a new way of thinking and being. If we are brave enough to try it.

    Renew yourselves with this thought. Renovate your thinking. To resurrect something is not to merely raise it from the dead. It is to transform it for new use in a new time.


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