“Feeling the Truth” by Mark W. Harris
April 20, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship: Easter is Paradox by Richard S. Gilbert
Easter is paradox;
It is the leap over the chasm
between life and death,
Between victory and defeat.
Between joy and sorrow
Easter holds together the reality of crucifixion,
And the myth of resurrection.
The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
Those who lose their lives for others
will be saved.
Those who save their lives for self
will be lost.
Love is real only when we give it away.
Love hoarded melts inevitably as spring snow.
“In the midst of winter
(We) find in (ourselves) an invincible summer.”
Sermon: “Feeling the Truth”
When I was growing up Easter was a big deal in my family. We always went out and purchased new clothes – sport coats and ties for me and my brothers, and especially new dress shoes, which is what I remember the best because they always seemed to pinch and hurt my feet, and I couldn’t wait to get them off. Candy helped assuage the pain. We also prepared a big dinner, which included ham and raisin, sauce. God knows the symbolic meaning of raisin sauce, but I have hated baked ham ever since. I loved the hot cross buns my father made every year, because I could lick off the frosting cross. That was the true transubstantiation of Jesus’ body; none of this dry wafer stuff. It was a big production getting ready for church with a mad rush to get six people out the door with every hair combed, tight shoe tied, and tooth brushed.
One year when I was about ten years old there was an unfortunate confluence of events. You may remember that until recently daylight saving time was usually observed a little later in the spring. So it must have been a Sunday in April, much like today when the hour time change of “spring ahead” was on the same day as Easter. Here we were some half century ago with the Harris family faithfully dressed for Easter Sunday, but surprise, surprise, we had forgotten to change our clocks. Our 11:00 a. m turned out to be high noon, and as we arrived at the white clapboard Congregational church, the parishioners were streaming out the door, resurrected once again, and were now saying goodbye to the round face pastor, and heading for their cars so that they could go eat that luscious ham. I know my parents were embarrassed, mortified even, but still somewhat assured that we had at least made the effort. We sheepishly headed home.
Although I did not grow up a Unitarian Universalist, this story somehow captures the dilemma UUs are confronted with on Easter. We are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Somehow our timing is a little bit off. We celebrate Easter, and yet we don’t believe in it. We like Jesus, but we don’t want him saving us from our sins. Sometimes we don’t even go that far. This year I heard a funny story about a colleague who was a guest preacher in Lexington on Easter, when the minister was on sabbatical. He conducted the entire service, and did not mention Easter once. I asked a parishioner there, “Didn’t you think that was a little odd?” And he said, “Kind of.” Sometimes we just avoid the subject and celebrate spring. This year that seems to work, as the coming of spring has been so reluctant, we may need a miraculous resurrection to make it happen.
This morning we heard a slight retelling of Beatrix Potter’s, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. What seems like a cute little story to us today certainly has its macabre side. Just back of Peter Rabbit’s story was the remembrance of his poor father, who was captured by Mr. McGregor and then eaten in a stew. Regardless of the Oedipal material, there is this painful backdrop for the little critter to consider, perhaps as an incentive to make all children who hear the story behave and stay out of other’s gardens. That’s works for me, but it also reminds us of what hell life can be. This little bunny’s dad was killed and eaten, and now we find him sitting depressed at home, while having also lost his clothes. We see some further adventures with a cat and those smelly onions that cause even more anxiety, panic attacks and fear, but in the meantime, he just wants things to return to normal. And so they do in the end, despite his terrible loss. Mr. McGregor also learns that some things in life just must go unexplained.
This weekend many people are being reminded of a traumatic trial. I don’t mean just the Good Friday experience of Jesus 2,000 years ago. No, I mean the terrible experience of the marathon bombing, the subsequent lockdown and the manhunt here. The recent show of support for the firefighters who were killed brought back some of this same feeling of reflection on issues of public safety, trauma and the power of community solidarity. Yet it is a mixture of feelings. Even though I missed the lockdown, I know when I hear a helicopter overhead it symbolizes law enforcement searching for somebody who has frightened the public with an attack. We all have a bit of an edge, and perhaps lingering grief over losses that we have never healed from. I am bothered when those who have suffered massive injuries sometimes seem to be put on public display to satisfy some hunger for meaning. I think some have been strong, but for others it means a lifetime of pain and suffering. How do they get back to normal? And then others seem to capitalize on the suffering by having the maimed write a book so the promoter can make a buck. News becomes sensationalized and filled with feeling rather than fact to create a sense of solidarity, but it only approximates or even subverts the truth.
Fifty years ago this year, there was a sensational murder in New York City. Kitty Genovese was attacked raped and killed outside her apartment building. What could have been just another crime became a cause celebre. Subsequently the New York Times reported 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens had seen and heard this murder, and did nothing. Over a half-hour of gruesome attack, it was said; no one tried to call or help. It was implied that everyone in our neighborhoods are callous, and no one cares about other people. For some it confirmed our feelings about mean-spirited New Yorkers. Yet for others it became a motivation for public action, and the beginning of the 911 calling system, which was instituted in 1968. Most worrisome of all was what we have come to call the bystander effect. This is the phenomenon where a group fails to help someone who is in distress or trouble. We describe how firefighters run into the fire, but this is the reverse; the people who see trouble and run away. This reminds me of those in the trial of Jesus, who could have easily said “free Jesus,” the one who had clearly been tortured, and was in distress. Yet instead they turned on Jesus, and said “free Barabbas.” So it becomes easy to condemn the crowd in the telling of these stories. Yet are people so cruel?
The Genovese case returns to public consciousness this year because of the anniversary, but also because people remain fascinated by it. Perhaps the public wants to burden itself with the question, did we witness this crucifixion and do nothing? Do we think of ourselves as bad Samaritans? Are we people who don’t want to get involved? These are questions about human nature that the Genovese case raises. The public perception carried by these reports was that humans were uncaring. Yet the perception was wrong. She screamed when she was attacked, and someone yelled at the attacker to leave her alone, and he ran away. Did 38 people just watch? The killer returned and attacked her again. While there was one well-publicized individual who said he did not want to get involved, he did not represent the vast majority of people. There were others who called the police, because an ambulance soon came to the scene, and further, she did not die alone and forsaken. A neighbor held her in her arms trying to comfort her. One other person was too terrified to do anything. So there were a variety of responses with some coming forward to help, while others did not. The reporting startled the public into believing something about their very nature as people. The message is you people are so bad, I must force you to confront your evil, to make you be good. Yet the reporters failed to pay attention to what actually happened, and used their ideological beliefs or emotional response to promote falsehood.
Part of this story shows that we should be careful of those who would manipulate our feelings with story, because the stories they perpetrate may only be based in myth or feeling. Think of how many lynchings took place in the South because it was reported that a black man had raped a white woman. Public explanations of violence, often untrue then set off more violence. How many people blame every Muslim in the Middle East because two young Chechnyan men set off the marathon bombs? We extrapolate a truth based on our feelings about something, and yet do we rationally examine those feelings or accept the story that fits our preconception of truth?
I was talking to a colleague recently about an evaluation of his ministry. He has not been evaluated in the past, and his present congregation is using an anonymous survey that allows individuals to say whatever they please without accountability. While it might be one thing to say, “I don’t like his sermons,“ what especially disturbed him was the comment, “Bill’s absence from coffee hour has been noted.” Well, in fact Bill has never missed a coffee hour. The comment wrecks havoc with public perception because it perpetrates a complete lie, so that people might ask, is he at coffee hour? Is this true?
Yet this person may feel this is true because she feels like he is not paying enough attention to her. And yet her need to have someone pay attention to her may be endless. It reminded me of my experience when I moved here from Milton, and parishioners there pursued the perception that I was not present because I lived here, but in fact, I tried so hard to over compensate, I was there all the time, more than I ever sat in the office before. But it didn’t matter because they had an agenda to create a widespread myth that I was not present. Their feeling of abandonment worked, even though there was little rational truth behind it. Our truths about whether we have been listened to or cared for or not may be baseless, but once we have uttered them, others start believing.
Now you might say that the rational faith of a UU would make it so they would never be susceptible to such feeling, but in fact most of us base our beliefs in feeling whether we think we do or not. It surfaces in statements like “Bill’s not at coffee hour,” or “Mark’s not here.” But the Kitty Genovese story reminds us how important it is to try to know the truth. The perpetrated lie was that people are mean and uncaring, but the truth was that a lot of people wanted to help and some did. We know we are not perfect, but to accept that we don’t care means we let projected feelings about ourselves and others keep us all from the truth. As a Christian growing up, adults told me that Jesus would save me from my sins, or in other words, I would need to be cleansed of the badness in me. That was not based on anything about my behavior but was assumed to be true of my very nature, and that I would have to become something very different to be saved. Yet today I would argue that the central truth about the Easter resurrection is an affirmation of my Unitarian Universalist faith. I am not saved from my sins, but rather I am saved because of my sins.
Now your initial reaction might be that this is a ridiculous notion. I am no sinner, so I don’t need to be saved from them or because of them. But if you don’t think human beings are sinners, or whatever word you want to use to describe selfish behavior, then you have not read a newspaper lately and you live in a rabbit hole. We all are quite capable of making the biggest messes in the world. It is not just those terrible Republicans, or everybody but me and my friends. My selfishness, or my drunkenness, or my anger, or my self righteousness have caused a lot of pain to others, but any and all of those acts have never been the final word, or deed. I still have another chance. I still have a chance to say I am sorry, or I love you, or reach out to a person in pain, or live a daily-resurrected faith as a struggling human being trying to make amends or be better. Yet I don’t need to be anything different than who I am because it is the struggling ones who are trying each day to live with integrity. Messiness is precisely what will save me. But the saving continues to occur because it is a process of working with my struggles, and overcoming them, not saying either Jesus will save me from them, OR worse, I never had any in the first place. If you are not trying to be transformed into a more whole person, then you will never understand the Easter message.
We Unitarian Universalists often reject the idea of resurrection because it sounds like a literal raising of a body from the dead, and we define that as irrational. The rest of the culture seems to want to take this irrational belief and make it rational. As a result we have movies that tell us “Heaven is Real,” and we hear amazing stories of boys who go there and come back in after death experiences. We have phone calls from heaven, and life after life. Characters die over and over again, and look at different alternatives for their life. And so like so many things heaven has become a business. As a writer in the Times recently said, “Once the realm of religion, eternal life has now metastasized into a billion dollar industry.” This is all about feeling. And of course, we all have our fears of death, and these ideas give us comfort. It helps with anxiety to believe there is an afterlife, and a big part of the resurrection story today is to assuage that anxiety. But most Jews like Jesus were not particularly concerned about this felt need to live forever.
In Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, he tells him that he has come into the world to tell the truth, but Pilate does not seem to know what he means by this, and when he asks Jesus, what is truth, Jesus disengages. The obvious question might be how does a person come to know what is religious truth. Jesus never asked anyone to know him by feeling, but rather by examples of lived faith. The stories of the resurrection vary, but mostly he does not get up like Lazarus and walk around in ordinary ways. At times he is like a ghost, and even doubting Thomas is implored to touch him in order to prove that there is something real and corporeal about him. This is no rational truth here but rather a tremendous mystery that we cannot comprehend. Later in the Christian scriptures Peter says there are nine qualities a person can possess, and when you have these things then you know Jesus. These are things like goodness, kindness, love and compassion that you can cultivate in yourself. So the idea is that you embrace the resurrected Jesus by how you live your life, and you start right now in this moment by showing compassion, humility and forgiveness towards others.
There is a paradox here in that we cannot rationally understand immortality, or even know if it is possible, but we can embrace it in each moment by becoming like Jesus so that we embody the resurrected man. When you embrace that kind of life you will know peace and tranquility. He does not need to save you from your sins, because you are saved in your sins in being like him, just as he accepted everyone for who they are, offering forgiveness from feelings of shame or unworthiness. Maybe that is how the resurrected Jesus, those who are victims of murder like Kitty Genovese, or the victims of terrorist bombs and others are recalled. Our purpose is to bear witness for the dead, to immortalize their lives in ours, and through this impulse make them immortal. When we speak for the dead their lives live again in us, and we embrace the human longing for immortality both now and forever.
In one of the Downton Abbey episodes this year, the head butler Carson said, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is. “ That makes life sound like a simple collection of what you experience, but I think that acquisition is about becoming those qualities of human transformation that each of us can embrace as our lives unfold, so that each new day, becomes a resurrection day of growing our souls in more beautiful and loving ways. That is the resurrection faith I embrace. I suppose it seems based more in reason than feeling. The difference is that I feel passionate about that bearing of witness for others. I feel passionate about making life more just for all, and I feel passionate about becoming a more loving person. Kierkegaard once said I never become a Christian – I am always in the process of becoming. I hope you too, in your search for integrity and love are always in the process of becoming. It may not be specifically Christian, but I hope it is an unending search for religious truth because whether you identify as Christian, Buddhist or atheist that search for an ever more compassionate you means the resurrected Jesus still lives, in you.
Closing Words (responsive)
“i thank You God for most this amazing day” by e.e. cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely
being doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)