Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sermon

I was invited to give the Easter sermon at the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. It was my first time preaching on a Christian High Holy Day, and I really struggled with what to say. Here is the text of the sermon I gave:

The transformative power of faith is not rooted in outward signs and historical facts, but in inner awakenings and literary narratives. Only in our day has the human imagination become so degraded as to reduce truth to fact, and myth to falsehood. Only in our day does story pale before history.

The life of Jesus of Nazareth is history. The Virgin Birth narrative is a story that tells us something history cannot: That this Jesus is something new in the world. The death of Jesus of Nazareth at the hands of Rome is history. The Passion is a story that reveals the meaning of that fact: that love and compassion can triumph over fear and terror.

But can the same be said of the Resurrection? Is there history here or just story? And does it matter?

For many Christians history must trump story. If the Resurrection is not as real and as historically verifiable as the Crucifixion then the central proof of Jesus as Christ is denied, and the edifice that rests upon that proof collapses. Without the Resurrection, Jesus is not Christ but prophet; not the Son of God but the Son of Mary; not the Savior of the world but the reformer of the Jews.

I am not a Christian, but a Jew, and as a Jew one might think I would prefer the Prophet to the Christ. Better a dead reformer than a mythic redeemer. But I am not willing to give up the resurrection so easily. I have been to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. I have seen where Jesus was laid, and where Mary Magdalene discovered him gone. I have stood in that tomb and felt its emptiness, and in that emptiness its power. I have spent moments alone in that place, and I have heard the cry, “He is risen!” and I have understood it to mean that you and I can rise as well. I have felt the presence of the man, and have been touched by the power of the myth.

While the Gospels differ in detail, here is basic plot. Jesus dies on the cross on Friday. Joseph of Arimathea has him taken down before the Sabbath, and placed in his tomb. Mary Magdalene, perhaps accompanied by Salome and Mary the mother of Jesus, visits the tomb on Sunday and finds the stone removed from its face and the tomb itself empty.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke an angel or angels appear to the women telling them that Jesus has risen from the dead and is not here. As Luke’s angel tells them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In all three synoptic texts the women are told to tell what they have experienced to the other apostles. And in all three they race out of the tomb in fear. In Mark, the oldest gospel, they are too afraid to tell anyone what they saw, and the Mark ends his gospel with the story unresolved. In Matthew and Luke they do tell the others, though according to Luke only Peter believed them and went to see for himself.

John’s story is somewhat different. In his gospel Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb, and finding the stone removed, races off to tell Simon Peter. Peter and the Beloved Disciple race off to the tomb with Mary trailing behind them. The Beloved Disciple out races Peter, but Peter is the first to enter the tomb. The tomb was empty; they saw nothing.

When Mary Magdalene caught up with them she peered into the tomb from outside and saw two angels in the tomb; angels to which the men were blind. Then she turned from the angels and saw Jesus standing by her. She mistook him for a gardener, and asked if he had taken the body of Jesus. The gardener said, “Mary!” and at once she saw him for who he was, Jesus. And Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

If this is history, then there is nothing for us to do but worship Jesus as Christ and Lord. But if it is myth, if it is a story told that with each hearing we might move closer to Truth, then we have to ask not “what happened,” but “what does the story mean?”

For reasons of tribe, training, and temperament I cannot reduce this myth to history. It is to me myth, and myth eternally unfolding. So I have to ask, what does it mean?

First, what does it mean that Mary and not the men saw the angels and Jesus? Second, what does it mean that Jesus was first seen by Mary as a gardener and only when he speaks her name as her Teacher? Third, what is the meaning of the question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And fourth, what does it mean that Jesus was resurrected bodily and not just in the spirit?

You may have other questions to ask of this myth; indeed I hope you do, and that you ask them. But these are my questions at this hearing.

Why do the women see what the men cannot? Because the nature of the Divine as we experience it is essentially feminine. The embodied God is the Mother God; the universe is God’s body; matter is Mater/Mother. The myth is telling us that if you are to encounter Life you must open to your feminine consciousness, that aspect of your self that resonates to the Whole, that deepest knowing that knows itself to be a part of and never apart from the reality of Life.

Why does Mary see Jesus as a gardener? Because the gardener tills the soil and removes the weeds. This is the task of humanity revealed in Genesis. Jesus the Gardener reminds us to break up the hard packed soil of our lives, to let in the spirit that our body, like God’s body, the universe itself, might bring forth great beauty. But when he calls her name, when he enters into the intimacy of I and Thou, she knows him to be more that the Gardener, he is her teacher; the one who shows her how to care for her own garden.

At this moment Mary and Jesus become the lovers of the Song of Songs. He calls her to his garden and she calls him to hers. At this moment Mary, and each of us if we are listening deeply enough to this myth, realizes that we are each a garden, we are each alive and teeming with life, and that our garden is part of a greater flowering, a greater teeming, the garden of life that is the universe itself.

Jesus calls us to tend our garden, and in so doing to tend the Garden that is Life. How? By not seeking the living among the dead. Yes, I am mixing gospels here, but that is not a problem if we are dealing with myth.

We all seek meaning in the tomb of the dead. We all seek revelation, wisdom, and knowledge in the past. We are obsessed with the known, the conditioned, the fixed, and the frozen. But life lived in the moment is unknown, unconditioned, unfixed, and fluid. The living is not in the past or in the future, but only in the now. When Jesus calls Mary’s name he is calling her out of the tomb of the past and into the garden of the present.

Yet the present itself is quickly made past, if held on to. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to us. That would be another trap. It is not me that matters, but what I teach that matters. This is why she calls him “Rabbouni,” rabbi, teacher, rather that “Adonai,” Lord. He does not asked to be worshipped, but heeded. To worship Jesus is to fix God in time and form, and to miss the greater truth that you are God in your time and form.

What does Jesus ask that we must heed? Many things to be sure, but in the context of Easter one stands out: “Take up your cross and follow me!” Why the cross? Because the way to realization requires the death of the ego, the mind obsessed with tombs, the mind that seeks the living among the dead. And follow him where? Not to Golgotha, but beyond it to the resurrection. Jesus is saying, take up the discipline of love and justice, let the ego that fears both be slain on the cross of service, and then body and soul will rise up, out of the tomb of the past into the eternally renewing present that is the Truth you seek.

And finally, what does it mean that Jesus is resurrected bodily and not just in the spirit? This is the mythic affirmation of the holiness of the physical. How ironic that in a religion that comes to despise the flesh and see in it the root of so much evil, the story of Jesus affirms just the opposite. The body is risen, the body is precious, the body is holy. The Word made flesh is not holier than the flesh that carries it. This is the timeless Jewish affirmation of the Original Blessing of Genesis— It is good!— free from the tomb of original sin in which the Church Fathers will soon encase it.

What else would we expect from a Teacher who loved to eat, drink, and walk? What else could we expect from a Teacher who welcomed women to his table? What else could we expect from a Teacher whose commissioned act of remembrance honors body and blood?

The Risen Jesus challenges us to raise the body, to honor the senses, to celebrate the sensual. The Risen Jesus reveals the world as God’s body: alive, awake, intelligent, and aware. The Risen Jesus puts the lie to those to would separate body and mind, and mind and spirit, and reduce the human drama to mindless claymation or disembodied figments of imaginative delusion.

Easter, tied as it is to the northern hemisphere in which the story unfolds, comes at the beginning of spring, and is the mythic sister to the earth’s own resurrection. Just as God’s body bursts forth in fragrance, color, and delight. So should our bodies do likewise. Where you have taken refuge in despair, you need to hear Jesus call your name. Where your eyes are focused on the tomb, you need to hear Jesus call your name. Where you are trapped in the unfulfilled expectations of the past, you need to hear Jesus call your name.

And when you do you will know that Easter is not history, but myth; not a story of what was, but a revelation of what is, if you would only cease to seek the living among the dead.


Seth Pearce said...


Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks, Seth. This was a real challenge for me, but it seems to have gone over quite well.

Anonymous said...

Rami, Thought provoking and insightful as always! I was surprised that you refer to Jesus of Nazareth, since archeologists have pretty convincingly shown that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus. In fact the first references are at least 200 years later. 'Of Nazareth' appears to be a mistranslation of Nazir. Thanks again, thoughts and insights I will enjoy sharing,

Gordon said...

Rami, I once heard Sylvia Boorstein give the best Ash Wednesday sermon I ever heard, and now I've read you giving the most helpful Easter sermon I've ever encountered.

How remarkable, in spite of history, Jewish generosity repairing the world.

Well done!