Sunday, April 8, 2012

Flowers or Crosses? (Easter Sermon 2012)

A funny thing happened on the way to this service.  Well, not on the way in the car…, but on MY way in preparing for today’s service.  I had remembered several years ago – 2005 to be exact – I shared this Easter sermon that folks really liked.  It was part of my “Can You Say” series I did for quite a while.  It was called, “Can You Say Resurrection?”  And I thought – “You know, I could take that sermon, and modify and update it some, and that will be just perfect.  After all, it’s been seven years!”  So I turned in my topic to the program committee and we put it in the newsletter as “That Resurrection Spirit.”  And because things are a little harder with me since I broke my wrist, I was especially glad that this one wasn’t going to take a lot of work.  All was fine till this past Monday.  I was finalizing that Easter card that I hope most of you got in the mail this week – and I asked Greg to proof it for me.  It’s always good to have another set of eyes.  He said, “Well – I don’t see any errors, but didn’t you do a sermon on Resurrection last Easter?"

I replied sharply, “No, that was several years ago.”

And Greg, who has an excellent memory, said, “No, I think you preached on resurrection last year.”

So I looked in the EASTER folder and pulled up my sermon from 2011.  The title was “Celebrating Resurrection,” – and indeed, it WAS an update (with some new examples and new ending) of the old 2005 sermon. (Here’s the link.)  Then I remembered it.  Because I remembered that some of you who were HERE in 2005 came up to me last year after the sermon and said, “That sermon was wonderful.  I think it’s the best you’ve ever preached here.”

And I thought --- “Oh, that worked, they don’t even remember it.”

Now, I may get BY with a “redo update” of an Easter sermon done several years ago --- but I don’t think I can do basically the same sermon two years in a row.  Of course, the ministers of Christian churches preach on the resurrection EVERY year, but I figured I better come up  with PLAN B – in a hurry.  Oh, what a dilemma! 

You see – planning an Easter service is one of the most difficult things that UU ministers face.  
Rev. Jane Rzepka
The name of this sermon NOW (to reflect this difficulty) is “Flowers or Crosses?”

Another Rev. Jane had some interesting words to say about this dilemma.  Retired Church of the Larger Fellowship minister, Rev. Jane Rzepka wrote a newsletter column that I found quoted on a blog by another fellow minister, Rev. Thom Belote (thank goodness for the internet).  She wrote this column when she was the parish minister at the UU Church in Reading, Massachusetts.  And she does a great job of explaining our dilemma so I'm just going to use her words here.

She said:
“Every year, I fight the feeling that our UU churches just can’t win on Easter. Our familiar congregation will come through our doors, alongside a number of Easter visitors we’ve never seen before. Why do they come?
1. To hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
2. To not hear familiar, traditional, Easter music.
3. To be reminded of the newness of the spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening days, without a lot of talk about Jesus and resurrection.
4. To be reminded of Jesus and His resurrection, without a lot of talk about the newness of spring, the pagan symbols of the season, and the lengthening of days.
5. To participate in a family service, where children delight in discovering the many roots of our religious tradition.
6. To participate in a dignified service, where adults celebrate the undeniably Christian holiday, Easter…”
 Dot – dot - dot
(And by the dots on Rev. Thom’s blog – I think there was more, but I could not find the original.)

He does share that she closes her column with this hope:
“We each have religious stories, spring dreams, [and] seasonal celebrations… May we bring ourselves and our stories to church this morning and consider the blend a blessing.”

Ah, those are nice ministerial words, aren’t they?  Sounds like something I might say. But sometimes it’s hard to blend that blessing so that it can be digested by everyone.  Now you notice I didn’t say so that it tasted good to everyone.  I know that sometimes we ministers NEED to deliver sermons that might be somewhat distasteful.  But we at least try to make them so you won’t feel like throwing up.

Shortly after I was ordained and installed as your minister, I shared in the Story for All Ages, the story of the old man, his son, and their donkey.  As you may remember – they could not please folks who criticized them for foolishly leading the donkey and not riding.  Then the son riding, the father riding, then both riding all were criticized by different groups.  They finally both picked up the donkey and carried it on their shoulders.  Using that story as my example, I shared with the congregation later in the sermon that if you saw me trying to please EVERYONE, to tell me to get the ass off my shoulders.  So I have preached what I’ve felt led to share and tried to do it in a way that folks could appreciate and learn from – even if everyone wasn’t all that pleased.  But Easter is especially difficult.

Because of our diversity – many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations just choose to ignore Easter all together.  And many of them use this occasion, instead, to have a Flower Communion as the main part of the service.  There is an old UU joke that tells about church signs on Easter.  Most of the signs on Christian churches say something like – “Hallelujah, Christ is Risen,” and the UU sign says “Hooray, the Flowers are Pretty.”

And in fact, until I started preaching here while preparing for ministry, our Easter services – or at least the ones I remember – were basically our Flower Communion services.

The music presents another dilemma.  Do you sing songs about Jesus’ death and resurrection (whether considered in a metaphysical or metaphorical sense) – or songs about the seasons changing, flowers and renewal? Our UU hymnal has both.  In fact, the song that we sang before the reading is an old tune with two sets of words in the UU hymnal.  We sang words written by 19th century Unitarian poet, Samuel Longfellow.

"Lo the Earth Awakes Again, Al-le-lu-a!"

But if you look in the Easter section on page on 268, you’ll see the same old tune – with words by Charles Wesley:

"Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Al-le-lu-a!"

Since there are words in that song are more about graves and crosses, I thought singing it might be pushing it a little, even for those who identify as Christian here.  You know – don’t tell my friends at Trinity Episcopal – but I have a hard time enjoying some of those wonderful concerts they have there – because dead Jesus is hanging on that cross right in front.  I just try to acknowledge that he’s there (and tell myself its okay) then not look up.  That site just isn’t one that turns me on. (Update NOTE:  My friend Pat, upon reading this blog, has informed me that this is "the resurrected Jesus in front of the cross, not dead Jesus ON the cross." -- Ha! -- my bad.)   I was even frustrated when I realized that the scar on my arm from my surgery looked like a cross.  Shari Barr looked at it for me and shared how I could re-imagine it as a sword and myself as a woman warrior.  Sorry Shari, that one doesn’t appeal to me either.  Maybe I will just get a tattoo to camouflage it.  (Nah)

I had to rethink my problem with crosses though when I received an email this week from one of our former members.  She discovered Unitarian Universalism while living in Statesboro and rejoiced at our openness and inclusivity.  She wanted her family to be in a congregation where they could be exposed to and appreciate differing beliefs and ideas.  She was active here for a few years then moved to another community in a different state.  And one of the first things she did when she got there was find the UU church.  This community also had a small fellowship like ours.  And though she always wrote that she missed us, she did feel this would be a supportive community as well – and she did join.  Her email to me this week was one of sorrow though.  The congregation is going through great turmoil regarding the lack of tolerance of some folks.  It seems that this was brought to head by a situation in one of the RE classes.  A little girl whose parents identify as UU Christian was in the class.  And at some point – perhaps before they ate or after some kind of blessing – the little girl crossed herself.  And the RE teacher reprimanded her with, “We don’t do that here at UU.”  Whoa.  Now if her parents had taught her do little bow and say “Namaste” – the teacher may have thought that was adorable, whether or not it was part of her own practice.  SO – this congregation is now in crisis, because this incident has opened up much painful discussion, and some are considering leaving.

Now, I’d like to say – well that would never happen in OUR congregation!  But then I have to admit, that I would – myself – at least be surprised at UU members teaching their children to cross themselves, which primarily symbolizes recognition of the Trinity.  (You are supposed to be saying or thinking – “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while you do it.)  After all – we evolved from Unitarians – not Trinitarians.  But we are NOT really Unitarians anymore.  The former Unitarian congregations kept the name – but discarded any creed when they combined with the Universalist congregations in 1961.  And although we may have members who do have a Unitarian or Universalist theology, we are now a different people.  We’d like to think we have continued to evolve to accept different religious beliefs and practices.

Perhaps Easter – the central holiday of the Christian church – is the time to reflect on our difficulty in sometimes doing this.  I do like Rev. Jane Rzepka’s idea of a blended blessing, but we also do need to ADMIT that we do STRUGGLE sometimes with this --- and there is often a tension.  I hope, though, that we can lift this up as a holy struggle, a holy tension, one that makes us stronger and better people.  And if we cannot do that in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, then how can we expect to help heal a divided and hurting world?

I’m very proud that this congregation is known for its inclusiveness and acceptance of others.  In fact, some of our members are forming a group to explore what it means to be a Christian in a Unitarian Universalist context.  Even so, if you really think about, I believe that I, and perhaps you too, have much work to do.  May we lift up this holy struggle and holy tension, and address these with amazing grace, and with deep and abiding love.

(on a lighter note)
I ask and hope for all of these things in the name of that Trinity that I think we can ALL agree upon,
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Happy Easter!!