Easter sermon with the UCA

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the online Easter service for the Unitarian Christian Association on March 31, 2024 using a lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 16:-8) and a meditation from the works of George Lander Perrin.

I would like to thank the Rev. Sheena Gabriel and the Unitarian Christian Association for having me speak today, and as a board member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, I hope the UCA and UUCF can continue to build trans-Atlantic ties of faith, fellowship and cooperation.

It is a particular honor to speak on Easter Sunday, the high point each year for Christians, when we celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over evil, death and the grave.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom preached his famous Paschal Sermon, which will be heard in Orthodox churches when they celebrate Easter in May, and which included:

If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!

If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.

Yes, Easter is the great festival, the high point — theoretically and theologically at least. But for generations — more than living memory, at least in the English-speaking world — Christmas has taken the first spot. Christmas has the warm family feelings, the feasting, the stimulating consumerism, and promises of peace and joy that overflows a particular religious interest. In fact, I’ve known several Jews over the years who absolutely love Christmas as a warm, generous and family-centered celebration without conflict over Christmas as a religious celebration. That’s perfectly reasonable, and perhaps the majority position. However, you can’t do that with Easter, the chocolate eggs notwithstanding. Easter comes with theological demands that can be addressed, modified or dismissed, but will surely come back each and every year.

For religious liberals and Unitarians in particular, Easter comes (let’s say) with concerns with those familiar theological maxims: Christ died for you; Christ died and rose again on the third day; Christ rose from the dead, and has gone before us to make a place for us; Christ will come again, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. Christ’s kingdom will never end.

Honestly, how many of us think too hard about these acclamations? Perhaps spending a moment to translate the thought into something more approachable, mentally editing them or even flinching when hearing them. And if you have negative former religious associations, these acclamations can take on a disturbing note.

Never mind that these rather conventional statements of Christian faith are now counter-cultural, and we liberals stand in a middle ground of discussing and appreciating the Easter mysteries, without conceding much, and without mental reservations or the caveats that Unitarians past once made. Or perhaps I was wrong before: Easter might drift away into chocolates and bunnies and a ham dinner. But as long as we’re Christians, we will always have to think of it in theological terms.

Now, I’m a bit out of my element. Unitarianism in Great Britain and North America have much in common, including some shared points of history and certain figures like Joseph Priestley. But our cultural, religious and legal histories are distinct. We had another liberal movement, Universalism, my primary tradition, which has been long extinct in Britain, and we never had something institutionalized like Martineau’s Free Christianity. I assume we have much in common, I don’t want to assume similarities that don’t exist.

My point is that I may say something that falls flat, and perhaps even causes offense and if that happens please accept my apology. But I have been in the Unitarian Universalist orbit for nearly forty years, and a minister for twenty-five, and like many of you have a lot of experience in the faith which both invigorates and infuriates me.

So let me dive in.

I think Unitarianism’s great strength is also its weakness. Its impulse is to be honest in matters of conscience, truthful in facts and clear in action. If something seems wrong, misguided or superstitious, it will be called out as such, with varying degrees of front parlor manners and tact. It is both proud of its intellectual honesty, but is sometimes undone by its application. Having put so much into being right, not far behind is a fear that we might be wrong. Wrong in ethics or abstract concepts or (God forbid) wrong in ordinary fact. And even more, not be seen as a fool.

That makes Easter a hazard. So much of it seems unbelievable or naive or mythical. Thus it has to be carefully managed, over-managed, I think. True: we understand so much that the ancients could not, but I also suspect they could appreciate wisdom we cannot. They seem very far removed. Little wonder it’s a short step from pushing back against outmoded theology to rejecting the essentials whole cloth. How many Unitarian and Universalist Christians have you known who either end up practicing no religion, or holding a naturalistic philosophy, or returning to a more orthodox church? It’s a difficult balancing act, but one worth maintaining. We are called back to this current yet ancient faith and texts because they have something to say to us. Let’s let it speak. Like scripture itself, a lot of thought about God, humanity, the created order in the relationship between these was a solution sought to better understand what exists. Theology, in this sense, functions as a theory and is subject to revision. When it gets hardened into dogma, we have a different problem but that’s outside the scope of the sermon.

So Easter has become a commemoration of the original event and centuries of interpretation of it. Some of that is understandable. Each generation builds on what came before. If we had to start from scratch in all of our human pursuits we would have nothing… except frustration. But if we go astray we have to correct our course.

Let’s look back at the text from Mark, surely the earliest of the hero-tales we call gospels. There’s no concern about atonement, vicarious or otherwise, Christ’s place in the economy of the godhead, the fate of particular individuals, or the end of creation. And to celebrate Easter today, we don’t need to introduce them. The women — at the cusp of becoming the first witnesses — asked “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

But the stone had already been moved. It was not a problem for them. Likewise, let’s not invite unnecessary problems. Easter is to be enjoyed, to be delighted in.

Easter celebrates life over death and the connection of heaven and earth without explanation. The answer was there all along. God sought us out before we were, or anything was. The bond between beings — human and divine — is to seek understanding, and (in the old Universalist profession of faith) is a result of God’s nature being love. To be the creator means to be the savior. It is not in God’s nature to abandon us, which we have seen unfolded through the prophets, through Christ and to the present day. But there I am building up theology again, and a particularly Universalist one. That’s not the only way.

Another approach, keeping with our tradition, is to stay optimistic, highlight the poetic and engage with our religion in a spirit of everyday practicality.

Take George Landor Perin (1854-1921), the Universalist minister who wrote today’s meditation. Shockingly little has been written about this nineteenth and twentieth century figure or his wife Florence. They were missionaries to Japan (a story for another time), and later he was a popular preacher in Boston, while she prepared anthologies and calendars of uplifting religious literature. Together, they can be seen as the forerunners of influencers and self-help gurus, while also having an active role in Boston’s relief work. What sets them apart — and this is conjecture — is that they spent little time rehashing the Universalist theological distinctives. Distinctives that made less and less sense, as the paralyzing fear of hell was losing its absolute grip. The Perrins’ work was unabashedly optimistic, both in practical and spiritual terms. Whom did he address? Those of a sensitive nature. How did he couch the “deeper meanings” of Easter. Not with straight-forward teaching, but ideas that point to what Easter evoked: “Victory from the ashes of defeat;” “Hope born from the soil of despair;” “Immortality crowning the grave.”

For us, this may mean we can worry less about Easter, and enjoy it more, for the rejoicing, opportunity and relief it brings. Easter is difficult if we wish to make it difficult.

And may I suggest one more thing? This attitude comes with a little dose of selfishness, but that’s not wrong. If Christianity, and Easter particularly, is not good for you, why should you care? A rich Christian faith should uncover the joy in life and lift you up in times of trouble. It should be better to have it than not have it, or at the very least give you the resources to survive and thrive in order to help others.

My point is that Easter is not something you have to be right about. It’s deep and glorious, reflecting the love from God and dignity to the whole human family. We can worry about the details later. On Easter Sunday, there is room enough for all. Like the father of the prodigal son telling his older brother: “we had to celebrate, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

Or as St. John Chrysostom preached: Christ is risen, and life reigns!

May God bless us this glorious Easter Day.

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