“Holy Envy” by Mark W. Harris
Easter Sermon – April 21, 2019 – Frist Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – Easter Prayer by Clarke Dewey Wells
God of Easter and infrequent Spring,
Thaw our wintry hearts. . .
Drive the sweet liquor through our parched veins,
Stir the vacant eyes with green explosions
and gold in azure sky. . . .
Lure us to fresh schemes of life.
Rouse us from tiredness, self-pity,
Whet us for use,
Fire us with good passion.
Rekindle thy church.
Restore in us the love of living,
Bind us to fear and hope again.
As we thank with brief thanksgiving,
Whatever odds may be,
That life goes on living,
That the dead rise up ever,
That even the weariest river
Winds back to springs under the sea.
Reading – from “The Real Meaning of Easter” by Michael McGee (adapted from a story by Jim Wallace)
A group of friends of various religious denominations were seated in fellowship discussing the true meaning of Easter one Sunday, when the Baptist said: “I believe we place too much emphasis on chocolate bunnies, colored rabbits, and Easter eggs instead of the spiritual aspects, which is the real meaning of Easter. “That’s what I believe,” said the Baptist. “Me, too,” said the Methodist. “Me, too,” said the Lutheran. “Me, too,” said the Catholic. Me, too, said the Nazarene. – And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter is that Christ died on the cross for our sins,” said the Methodist. “Me, too,” said the Lutheran.” . “Me, too,” said the Catholic. “Me, too,” said the Nazarene. “Me, too,” said the Baptist. – And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter is the triumph of Jesus over the grave,” said the Lutheran. “Me, too,” said the Catholic. “Me, too,” said the Nazarene. ”Me, too,” said the Baptist. “Me, too,” said the Methodist.- And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter is not only what each of you have said, but also that all people who believe in the sacrifice and Resurrection of Jesus are cleansed of original sin through baptism and are restored to the favor of God and many share in His eternal life,” said the Catholic. “Me, too,” said the Nazarene. ”Me, too,” said the Baptist. “Me, too,” said the Methodist. “Me, too,” said the Lutheran. – And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
“I believe the real meaning of Easter, in addition to what has already been said, symbolizes that the bodies of all people will be resurrected and joined to their souls to share their final fate,” said the Nazarene. ”Me, too,” said the Baptist. “Me, too,” said the Methodist. “Me, too,” said the Lutheran. “Me, too,” said the Catholic. – And the Unitarian Universalist was silent.
The group then turned to their Unitarian Universalist friend, whom they recognized as a little strange, and said, “Your silence is a mystery to us. Just what do you believe as a Unitarian Universalist is the real meaning of Easter?” The Unitarian Universalist said: “I believe the real meaning of Easter is the appreciation of life’s renewing cycles, and that for all things there is a season. I believe the real meaning of Easter is the acknowledgement, with its accompanying sadness, of a very human Jesus who was forced to die on the cross because of his liberal religious views and beliefs. But most important of all, I believe the real meaning of Easter is the Celebration of Thanksgiving for the presence of the sacred in each and every living person and thing; for the presence of the sacred in the birds that sing; for the presence of the sacred in the flowers that sway and the grasses which rustle in the gentle breezes of spring. This is what I believe is the real meaning of Easter,” said the Unitarian Universalist. “Me, too,” sang the birds. “Me, too,” waved the flowers. “Me, too,” rustled the grasses. “Me, too,” sighed the wind. – And all the rest were silent.
“Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia!, Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia! Raise your joys and Triumphs high, Alleluia! Sing ye heavens and earth reply, Alleluia!” Those were the words I sang every Easter morning from the time I can remember into my college years, when I could no longer accept the theology of my parent’s church. The lone exception was when Daylight Savings and Easter coincided, and my parents forgot to spring ahead with our clocks, and we arrived at church in our Easter finery, just as the rest of the congregation was exiting for Easter dinner. The kid in me said, “Best service ever!” I thought about having the congregation sing sin the traditional words again today, as the newest UUA hymnal, the gray book has its own version on page 268. It is a bit of a revival, or should I say resurrection that it is there at all, as our previous UU hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, only had the humanist interpretation of the holiday by Samuel Longfellow, which is what we sang today. This very fact shows the confusion Unitarian Universalists have around Easter. We usually celebrate it, but we don’t believe in it.
Sometimes our lack of substantive Easter content may result in a kind of holy envy. We may say to ourselves, I wish I had a real religion that had concrete beliefs about God and Jesus and the afterlife. Instead, God becomes a big question mark, Jesus is a teacher, sort of like Welcome back Kotter,, and the afterlife is pushing up daisies. This idea of holy envy crossed my mind just a week or so ago. A couple who came to the church for a food card also asked to see me. One of them had recently been released from rehab. They were both recovering addicts, pills and alcohol, and they wanted the assurance that God was there for them giving comfort, but especially strength not to go back to the addict’s life. In the privacy of my office after a conversation about their trials and the presence of God in their lives, they asked if I would pray with them. This is not my usual daily morning activity, but of course I said yes, because after all I am a minister who is called to provide assurance in time of turmoil and pain. In a small circle, we held hands, and I asked God to come into the room and be with us, and after a few words I concluded with Amen. They both seemed satisfied with my prayer, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I could still reach inside myself to feel their pain, and help guide them back to an understanding that a greater power of love and affirmation could be part of the redemption and healing they wanted in their lives.
I have sometimes noted that early in my career I was a UU Christian, a UU who has an avowed belief in God and Jesus, and I often prayed with families, especially in hospital settings, but that has been less of a part of my ministry here, in fact virtually non-existent. Am I envious of my former life or faith, where I could so easily slip into the language of Christian faith? Of course most of us learned that envy is a bad thing. In Catholic tradition it is one of the seven deadly sins. Envy typically means I want what you have, and we sometimes see it manifested as a crime, sometimes a terrible crime such as a childless couple stealing children from others, or more broadly stealing in general where we see something we wish to have, and decide to take it. But it also manifests itself in looking at a neighbors’ new kitchen or paint job, and deciding we need to have what they have. Envy usually ends badly because it means taking from another, and moreover it means you are constructing your values based on what others have or do rather than on what you want. Envy of others is spiritual emptiness.
I am usually not an envious person when it comes to possessions, but there is the question of whether I am envious of my former faith. Wouldn’t it be easier to live with this Blessed Assurance, as the old hymn said. I was quite upset to see the fire at Notre Dame this week. It reminded me of all those British Cathedrals I love like York, Canterbury and St. Paul’s in London, and it made me reflect on the beauty of the building, the history and culture it embodied, and the aspiration of the people to look to and gain strength and comfort from something greater than themselves. To see it destroyed was painful. Yet I don’t wish I was pastor of Notre Dame, a believer in Catholicism, nor am I envious of the relics, such as the famous crown of thorns, which is identified with Jesus’ crucifixion. Nor do I wish I were still Christian. At one time it meant a reminder of my sinfulness, my need to believe in the divinity of Jesus, and his resurrection in order to be saved, and the all-powerful nature of God. Even as a UU Christian I believed in the enduring power of God, the love of Jesus, and the assurance of a right pathway to the truth. I don’t feel envy for the complete package of Christian truth because Unitarian Universalism taught me that faith was an unfolding process, and it was about right action not right belief. I had rejected those beliefs to embrace Unitarian Universalism. But that leads to a deeper question, were there aspects of my own religious past, and other religious faiths that could show me a path to greater spiritual awakening than the one I was living now? Could holy envy actually help me see deeper into what my heart and soul desired in life? Could I be transformed in some way to be more aware of my relationships to the earth, other people, and the interdependence of all of life that points toward the divine? Maybe I needed a holy envy after all.
The idea of holy envy is when we encounter a concept or a practice that completely changes our outlook on things and how we interact with others or reminds us of something we once knew, that held great meaning, but has been lost. Bishop Krister Stendahl, a former presiding Lutheran bishop of Sweden, and later dean of Harvard Divinity School is credited with the term “holy envy”. He proposed certain ground rules for interfaith discussion. One of them is, “Leave room for holy envy” It is a beautiful idea that when learning about another faith we can find something impressive or admirable in their traditions. Just because these discoveries occur should not make us feel disloyal to our own faith. A good example of this is that many Unitarian Universalists have discovered a Buddhist practice of meditation. This may have been born out of a frustration that our liberal faith offered little in terms of contemplation or practice of deeper spiritual truths. We didn’t offer much direction in learning how to pray or meditate, and in fact, we seemed to avoid prayer and silence in our services. And so many UUs began to ask, Am I missing something in my spiritual development? And the same was true for me, and while I may not take up a Buddhist practice or call myself a UU Buddhist, as some UUs do, I have recently come to realize that there is indeed a hole in my spiritual life, which is the loss of prayer. Even as a youth, while I may have despised the theology that made me feel lower than a worm, I still loved closing my eyes, feeling the quiet around me, and letting myself be embraced by the world in stillness. My visitors the other day wanted me to assure them that God loved them, and was there for them providing strength to carry on, but I also realized that I envied the loss of this time in my life, where something greater than myself could provide assurance that everything was going to be okay. Maybe I envied them, because I was giving myself permission to recognize my own weakness, and humility before the world instead of trying to control everything or be perfect.
This holy envy may help us broaden our experiences. Like me you may ask, what aspect of my religious heritage do I miss in my spiritual journey today? It may also prompt you to retell your own story. Some years back I frequently used a memoir by Nancy Mairs called Remembering the Bone House,as a reading in my services. Mairs, who died a couple of years ago wrote about a variety of issues, including her own experience of living with multiple sclerosis, and discrimination against disabled people. In her memoir she wrote about returning to a farm that had once meant a lot to her. During this final visit her friend Jane saw her staring out the window, and asked “What are you looking at?” Mairs responded,” Just the garden. I was feeling the pleasure of being exactly where I want to be.” Her friend was glad to welcome her, and Mairs concluded, “Everyone should have one place where, when she’s in it, she’s exactly where she wants to be. And if she can no longer return to it, well, at least she’ll have been there. That’s something.” Over the years here I have used a table cloth in various religious ceremonies that was given to me by the congregation at Underbank Chapel outside of Sheffield, England. Each members’s signature has been transposed onto it in needlepoint, and the chalice marks the four corners. While not as majestic as the York Cathedral that was only an hour away, little Underbank sat under the bank overlooking one of those beautiful green English fields boxed in with rectangular stone walls. I suppose there is a kind of envy of those who get to be there all the time, but it is a place in my life, where I return to, and remember it is where I want to be. It is envy at not being there, but that envy is rewarded when I remember that I can go there, and feel safe, find peace, feel centered and do so every time I look at this tablecloth, or sing the tune of their introit, which is hymn #83. May this church or some other place spark that in you, as do all of my congregations; Sheffield, Palmer, Milton and Watertown. I suppose the tablecloth is like a relic to me. It represents all the people I loved and their care for me, just as the crown of thorns represents Jesus’ sacrifice for all the people to the community at Notre Dame, and all of Christendom.
Yet some of us may not have envy for these places because they evoke bad memories. They are not the one place where we want to be. You may reject the Christian past you were raised in, or simply feel that all of these mainline traditions insist on truths or practices that you find repugnant, or irrational or staid. And so you say I am spiritual but not religious, and you land here wondering what’s next. You have rejected traditional religion because you have no intention of converting. This is where holy envy can be most meaningful. Think of those things in other religions that have been neglected in your life. When I was in seminary, I remembering attending a Sufi service that included their distinctive dancing, the famous whirling dervish.. While I was not a candidate for conversion to Islam, I saw how my own faith lacked any kind of bodily movement or expression. I saw in this other traditiona practice thatalerted me to something that was neglected in my own. It doesn’t have to be Sufi dancing or Buddhist meditation and a conversion to the entire faith, but a realization that I feel a desire to put more prayer or movement into my own faith practice.. Even if you have no background in religion, you can ask what is meaningful to you on your own journey, and how can you make it manifest in your own life. How can you get to the place you want to be – and what will you see, hear, taste, or smell there. What aspect of these faiths makes you feel blessed, and thus will renew you as a Unitarian Universalist?
One of the problems with Unitarian Universalism, and we see this especially at Easter, is an attitude of close-mindedness and ignorance about other faiths. We reject it all because we take the whole package of original sin, and triumph over the grave in Christianity, and see other faiths as old, ritualized or empty. We actively look to shut out any good that can come from a tradition or our own past and develop a closed attitude towards learning about and appreciating aspects of other faiths where they could speak truth to us. Holy envy means we would recognize and appreciate goodness in places that many of us have shut out.
A few months back Andrea and I planned to have lunch with our former intern Jolie Olivetti, and we were scheduled to meet her for the chapel service, and then go to lunch. We arrived early and sat in the chapel at Brigham and Women’s Hospital waiting for the service to start. During that waiting period two different Muslims came in and said their noontime prayers. Watching the devotion of these Muslim men made me realize that I should take my prayer life more seriously, similarly to what happened with the recovering addicts more recently, there seemed to be a message in my life to take spiritual development seriously. What if I had that kind of discipline and devotion in my life? In thinking about what would make us more devoted to spiritual fulfillment, we might ask, what would that be for us? If we have great anxiety about our health, might we join a clergy support group for those who have a metastasized cancer, like a friend of mine who I recently had lunch with? Could a deeper reflection upon Buddhism help us let go of our need to control everything? Might we feel a desire for service fulfillment and take up a prison ministry, so central to those who truly follow Jesus.
One failing of Unitarian Universalism can be that in our quest to find truths to live by, we can end up acting like we either want to possess all religions or none, and sometimes this holy envy can be a kind of shoplifting. I’ll be a Muslim today and a Buddhist tomorrow. Let me get my singing bowl and practice chanting. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Possessing an artifact of another faith is not the same as possessing the spiritual reality. The point is, I cannot have what is someone else’s truth, but I can, when I listen, learn from it, and make my faith deeper. Going to Mecca holds no special meaning for me, but if I see the power of such a pilgrimage perhaps I can learn from that.
Taylor retells the story of Rabia of Basra an 8thcentury Sufi mystic who was seen running through the streets of her city one day carrying a torch in one hand, and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to burn down the rewards of paradise with the torch and put out the fires of hell with the water, because both blocked the way to God. She prays, “ Allah, if I worship you for fear of hell, burn me in hell, and if I worship you in hope of paradise exclude me from paradise. But if I worship you for your own sake, grudge me not your ever-lasting beauty.” Too often the story tells us, we act from fear of punishment, or hope of reward, saying I’m not good enough, or conversely, I don’t have enough, when we could simply rejoice unconditionally in the everlasting beauty of God or of life. Too often we who work all the time don’t bother to take off time at midday to pray or reflect on the wonders of life. Too often we don’t realize our dependence on others, and so we don’t stop to ask for strength to get through the day and all our trials because we believe we are totally in control, and can do it ourselves. Too often we don’t take time to listen to the birds sing, or see the flowers bloom, and feel the gentle breezes of spring. The hearts that are open, and the flowers that bloom are there to feel and see.
How can we learn to be right where we want to be and not be anxious about tomorrow? “Remember the lillies,” Jesus said. We are envious of those who look to today, and the life that is rising in our midst that we don’t even see. That is the UU gospel of Easter. It is not the gospel of a belief about a dead man coming back to life, it is the gospel of life coming back in each of us when we love life now and live it to its fullest. I am envious of those who listen in silence. I am envious of those who see beauty all around them. I am envious of those who love the earth in mind, heart and body. I am envious of those who fight injustice by putting their bodies on the line. The message of Easter is looking at how we can break free of a prison of self. Can we have the courage to live more fully, to take some risks with our lives? To take that dead soul and act. Give me new life. Let me express my love and appreciation for others; for life itself. To begin that journey, may we be filled with holy envy.
Closing Words – from Patrick O’Neill
Easter is an impossible story written for everyone who has ever felt the sting of death and wishes for something more.
Easter is a story for anyone who loves life so much that they pray for more life to follow.
Easter is a story for people who can envision a loving divinity who will not be conquered by evil.
It’s a story of love that never dies.
of immediate objects that get tossed aside;
of happy endings in a tragic world;
of faith rewarded and vision restored and hope justified.
That’s what Easter is.