Easter–“By My Side”
This passage comes to us from Karen Armstrong, a former nun whose departure from her convent in the 1960’s led her on a spiritual and religious journey around the world that has yielded more than 20 books, including the bestselling “A History of God.”
From “The Spiral Staircase” Karen Armstrong writes:
“…I have discovered that the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ of the ‘meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human–hence the imagery of the perfect or enlightened man, or the deified human being. A passing Brahmin priest once asked the Buddha whether he was a god, a spirit, or an angel. None of these, the Buddha replied: ‘I am awake!’ By activating a capacity that lay dormant in undeveloped people he seemed to belong to a new species. In the past, my own practice of religion had diminished me, whereas true faith, I now believe, should make you more human than before.”
(Sing) Where are you going?
Where are you going?
Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold
And needs warmth
Where are you going?…
Does this tune ring any bells for you?
It comes from the 1970 Broadway show Godspell–a hippie rock musical about Jesus’ life and death and life again, his parables in between–and this song is sung by the woman whose story is taken from the bible. Accused of adultery, the worst of crimes, and condemned to stoning. She sings it to Jesus right after he intervenes on her behalf by saying to the condemners “the one who is faultless may cast the first stone.” The condemners relent for none can claim fault-less-ness, and her life is spared. And as he leaves, in Godspell, she sings that song to him: By My Side, By My Side…
That’s the title, ‘By My Side’, and the words are regularly scrambled. Some Godspell productions sing By Your Side, others By My Side. Even the writer of the song would sometimes mistakenly change the words. Or mix them up. And it gets even more confusing when towards the end of the song, words are spoken about the great betrayer of Jesus–Judas–and followed by more By My Sides…Just who is singing to who gets very blurry. In the end, it doesn’t really matter and needs no explanation. Judas, the scorned woman, the people who scorned her, Jesus himself–all of them could sing this song, and have the song sung to them.
By My Side, can you take me with you? Finally glad that you are here by my side. My hand is cold and needs warmth…
This is what it’s all about my friends. All the complicated theological acrobatics and religious text interpretations; biblical theory; exegesis…all the words. All the arguments. This BY MY SIDE sums the whole ding-dang thing called life, our deepest need, God is Love, Love of Earth and Moon and Stars, love of each other and ourselves…sums it all up. By My Side. I am not simplifying or reducing or slicing or dicing right now. I am magnifying.
Jesus is all about the By My Side. The relational. It’s what’s so gripping about him. Not above than, apart from, on high.The relational. Like, dirt under the fingers relational. Because you know relationships are messy. And Jesus knew it. Loving the hell out of this world and its people is dirty business my friends. And this guy Jesus, he brought the big love–because he was someone who hung with the untouchables–at that time, WOAH–that’s who was at his table.
He even had a way of turning things around on the persecutors so that they too had a chance at humanity and love. Are you faultless? Yeah, none of us are. Jesus was the great defibrillator. Waking up all the hearts. And he resisted the dogma of the time that said that only a chosen few were worthy of love.
The story of Jesus is a piece of art–rich with symbolism, seen and unseen mystery, personal and collective wisdom, and liberation, alive, meant to meet the moment. Beheld this way, as a piece of art, we begin to understand why his life and death and resurrection holds up. Oh, it still holds up. For all of us.
Let’s unpack that word resurrection before going on. Do this: replace it with ‘made new.’ Made New can look like a transformed life, sure! But more often ‘made new’ looks like a change of heart or mind–that’s available to us all the time. This new-ness isn’t about some omnipotent God trying to make me nice or good, just more alive, and open to the life around me.
It’s a fresh start. Fresh eyes. Resurrection is a new lens, standing at a different angle. Made new.
The utterly resplendent Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains ‘being made new’ or resurrection like this: “It happens to all of us…God/Love simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our hatred, our violence, our selfishness, our arrogance, our addictions, and…keeps loving us back to life over and over…”
So if lack of love and lack of care; lack of kindness or a lack of a willingness to be changed or opened/transformed by one another or the stranger, is death, symbolic death, then aren’t we all in the resurrection business? Defibrillators in our bags? At the ready?
I think we are. For this is no time, nor was the time of Jesus, for a casual faith. Those are our UUA president Rev. Susan Frederick Gray’s words, this is no time for a casual faith. Let us all resist that. Casual, sleepy faith.
A dear friend and colleague shared a story about how his ministry in this our Unitarian Universalist faith was shaped. I asked him if I could share this with you by the way–he enthusiastically said YES–he tells a story of going on a camping trip with his mentor, a man he so, so admired and loved. And this was towards the beginning of his ministry. And that first night, sitting at the fire they had made, his mentor turned to him with tears in his eyes. Tears in his eyes over the rising number of refugees, over unabated racism, over the fractured state of civil society, and over the unprecedented level of isolation and disconnection that we are all sleepily living our lives out in, and his mentor said with those tears in his eyes, “Ian, we need more chaplains. What are you doing to create more chaplains?” And this question overwhelmed him. Ian said that at the time he lived in a paradigm of certifications and diplomas and only saw chaplains as a professional position in, say, hospitals and the like. He could not see how he could create a world of chaplains. In time, he arrived at a truth that now guides his life and ministry which is that “you don’t need a diploma to companion others or to sit with them, all you need is a willingness to love and to listen.” My friend Ian then said that what this world needs is a “transformation of values so that we can risk loving the hell out of it.” Companioning people, sitting with them, listening to them transforms us all. Brings us all back to life. Made new.
This transforming of values and risky, inconvenient love IS church. It’s the bedrock of our Universalist theology. Our Universalist forebearers carved this on their walls and over their doors: All souls are loved; All souls go to heaven; We will love the hell out of this world; Come in, welcome, sit by my side. By My Side…You are loved here.
We need more chaplains! Bearers of this love and companioning. And you are the chaplains!!! You’re them!! We are them!!
And we chaplains need the story of Jesus: A master chaplain whose very purpose was to bring to life, make manifest, the chaplain in us all. To make caring, loving companions of us all. More human. That’s all a chaplain is, or tries to be, more human.
In Karen Armstrong’s words, this was our reading today: “…The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human…” That is the religious quest.
And this isn’t clean business. I love the beauty that is the modern-day celebration of Easter–with its flowers and bonnets; new clothes and white tights. And patent leather shoes. But Easter has very little to do with all this tidy-ness. It’s a story about “dirt and confusion and inelegant human beings and Love/God not adhering to expectations at all” (Bolz-Weber). And right alongside all of this, hope.
The risk and the reward of trying for Love and Humanity is that we get proximate to the unpalatable, the dirt and the mess, and know it as ourselves. And are, in some way resurrected by this up-closeness and messiness: made new. Made more whole and more human. That’s the hope part.
No more stones, for who among us is fault-less?
The same pastor I mentioned earlier, Nadia Bolz Weber, in 2018, reshaped Jesus’ beatitudes, these were the blessings he imparted (Blessed are the meek, the poor….) to his followers–the outcasts–all who would listen, not long before he was killed. And Bolz-Weber re-shaped them into what she calls “New Beatitudes for a Hurting World,” and I am going to close by reading them to you now.
She prefaced them by saying, “Maybe the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus’ lavish blessing of the people around him on that hillside who his world—like ours—didn’t seem to have much time for; who felt that a blessing just wasn’t in the cards for them. I (this is Bolz-Weber talking) imagine Jesus standing among US offering some new beatitudes, New Beatitudes for a Hurting World:
Blessed are the agnostics.
Blessed are they who doubt,
those who aren’t sure, those who can still be surprised.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction
Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart,
because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are those who still aren’t over it yet…
Blessed are those who no one else notices,
the kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables,
the laundry guys at the hospital, the sex workers,
and the night-shift street sweepers.
Blessed are the forgotten,
blessed are the closeted,
blessed are the unemployed,
Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
Blessed are those without documentation.
Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
Blessed are the burned-out social workers
and the overworked teachers
and the pro-bono case takers…
And blessed are the kids who step
between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me
when I didn’t deserve it.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they totally get it.
You–blessed are’s, blessed is’s–are of heaven…”
Maybe all the Amens, Hallelujahs, Dona Nobis Patchems, prayers for roots and wings and set me frees and Spirit of Life come to me, come to me, maybe they are all a plea for a blessed are, blessed is MADE NEW–resurrect and return me to my and yours and our humanity PRAYER. May Jesus’ warm hand in our cold ones return us all to ourselves, wake us up so that we might sit by one another’s side and be chaplains to the world!
MAY IT BE SO and Happy Easter!
HOW THE EARTH AWAKES AGAIN!!! Let’s sing this now #61.
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.