Friday, March 29, 2013

In His Memory: A Easter Meditation

When I searched for Easter at the library, the first three sources listed had to do with bunnies and children’s stories.  Not that those aren’t important. Chocolate and lambs and eggs and bunnies are all ancient symbols of fertility in keeping with the original intent of Easter, the pagan celebration of the earth goddess Ostre whose holiday was appropriated by Christians in the second century. Easter can be confusing.  Some of you remember the little Unitarian girl who was attending a Lutheran pre-school.  The teacher asked her little class what the holiday of Easter was all about.  One little boy raised his hand and “Isn’t that the day we have fireworks?”  “No” replied the teacher “that is the fourth of July.”  Another boy raised his hand “Isn’t Easter when we eat turkey?”  “No” again said the teacher “that is Thanksgiving” Growing more impatient, she heard from two other children, about Christmas and Halloween.  Finally the UU girl raises her hand, “I know” she says “Easter is when Jesus died on the cross, was placed in the tomb, and on the third day the stone was rolled away, and he emerged and if he saw his shadow there would be six more weeks of winter.”

Bunnies and groundhogs aside the Christian meaning of Easter is clear: Jesus has risen! Easter is the primary story in much of the Christian church. This morning, I want you to lay aside your own skepticism as to the factual truth of this event and journey with me into the powerful metaphors it has to offer. The Christian Easter story is a powerful one. The march of Jesus into Jerusalem, the show down at the temple, the last supper, his betrayal, his arrest and his trial are all powerful symbols of our own lives. I ponder the brutal crucifixion and those who stayed by his side (all of the women if you remember), I think of his cry of anguish and the death. I think about the tomb he was laid in, and the huge stone that was placed over the entrance.  After the Passover feast the women went to the tomb to anoint his body only to find the great stone guarding the entrance rolled away and man….dressed in white…and he said unto them “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here…” (Mark 15-16). 

We actually don’t know what happened to Jesus and his body.  Crucifixion was a brutal tool of execution and oppression by the Roman Empire.  Jesus died on the cross, not as atonement for our sins, but for his radical and seditious message that the first shall be last and the last shall be first in the coming Kin-dom of God.  It is highly unlikely that the Roman authorities gave him a trial before the Jews, even more unlikely that his body was laid in empty tomb.  Much more likely, Jesus was dropped into a common grave, in the so called Potter’s field which was occasionally set on fire to dispose of the corpses.  Much more likely is the lament in the Gospel of John by Mary Magdalene, his closest disciple who cried.  “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13).  Her anguish, so familiar to so many of us, is the anguish of a world lost in her love for the man who showed such promise.  I can imagine Mary wailing that Proverb of Ashes from the Book of Job to the disciples: “Your words are only proverbs of ashes; nothing but clay.”  A fitting agony in a field of carnage, at the base of a cross which had taken the life of the one she so loved.

So the question becomes this on Easter Sunday:  If Jesus body is lost to history, a proverb of ashes, what did his life mean?  What was truly resurrected in his memory?

I would offer you this:  Jesus embodied the hope that all will be well again.  That suffering will pass and life restored in this or another to come.  I offer you the possibility that we are made new by being together through our struggles towards a new day, a new season, a life yet to be lived.

Happy Easter, John

Friday, March 22, 2013

Jesus Saves

Much of Christianity today is marred with the belief by the general public that Christians only care about whether your soul is going to heaven or going to hell.  The fact of the matter is that many Christians believe in the more welcoming message of Jesus; that those who are suffering will find peace especially if we do our best to bring the world of love into being.  Too often we equate Christianity with the hate filled messages of the Westborough Baptist Church which believes that homosexuality is a sin punishable by hell fire for eternity.  Sadly these misguided adherents picket the funerals of people they don’t even know and proclaim the deceased if gay is going to hell.  That emphasis on the saving nature of Jesus – either you believe and are saved or you don’t and you are dammed – is a much later development in Christianity.  Many, if not most Christians I know, believe in a kinder Jesus, a Jesus that shows compassion and radical acceptance.  Christianity is in the process of recovering this older version of Jesus.  “For many younger Christians the “born again” experience is only a beginning. What follows is a long term process of applying the teaching of Jesus into the here and now” wrote David Kirkpatrick in the NY Times (“The Evangelical Crackup?” 10/28/07)

Still this punitive message of Salvation isn’t without history. 

Jesus and Satan had a discussion as to who is best at writing theology. This goes on for a few hours until they come to an agreement to hold a contest, with God as the judge.

They sit themselves at their computers and begin. After having each read 437 books they are pretty sure of their ability to write their papers. They type furiously for several hours straight. Seconds before the end of the competition, a bolt of lightning strikes, taking out the electricity. Moments later, the power is restored, and God announces that the contest is over.

He asks Satan to show what he has come up with. Satan is visibly upset, and cries, "I have nothing. I lost it all when the power went out." "Very well, then," says God, "let us see if Jesus fared any better."  Jesus opens his word processing program and there is his paper - in all its perfectly sourced glory. Satan is astonished.

He stutters, "B-b-but how? I lost everything, yet Jesus' paper is still there! How did he do it?"

And God replied, "Jesus saves." (thanks to Katie Culbert, for her paper “Jesus Saves” Meadville Lombard Theological School, March 2013)

In fact, Jesus saves is an older understanding of Christianity one brought about from the idea of original sin promulgated by Augustine in the fourth cent.  The earlier message was one of forgiveness and re birth, the lamb and the baptism, the heroic in the face of adversity.  The early churches were small communities held in people’s homes.  The service included a baptism, a cleansing of those who are new, a washing of the feet of the strangers, much like the new pope will do this Thursday in an Italian prison.  The first pope to ever do this.

This kinder Christianity of the first and second century was made real by desperation so many felt at the hands of a brutal empire.  Tax rates for peasants were upwards of 60% of their earnings and harvest.  Rents from the rich extracted the rest.  There was no health care, pension or disability of any kind save what families could do for those in need.

Jesus brought a new message of redemption and with it an early religious movement bent on reversing the social order:  the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  He proclaimed that the kingdom of God was coming to earth, “like the son of man on the clouds of heaven” meaning for everyone.  We too often jump to the later Christian understanding of a harsh and punishing God who sends babies to hell because they have not been washed in the blood of Jesus but the early Christian movement and the Christianity that I believe is being resurrected is very different.  Imagine the poignancy of hundreds of poor Palestinian Jews lining the dusty road into Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna” literally “save us” to a gaunt young man seated on a donkey riding straight faced into the center of the city, eyes set with firm determination to face his death.  His donkey rode across a road of palm leaves (thus today Palm Sunday) a traditional sign of royal honor meant to lessen the dust of the road.  Here was the ‘messiah’ literally the anointed one who would bring forth the kingdom of God on earth.  Its been up to us to bring about this kin-dom ever since.

With Grace and Grit, John