The Promise of Easter

The Rev. Alison Cornish

April 16 , 2006

Unless we move the seasons of the self, and Spring can come for us, the Winter will go on and on. And Easter will remain a myth, and life will never come again, despite the fact of Spring. – Max Coots

Opening Words (Elizabeth M. Strong)

Out of the earth

†††††† Rises light,

†††††††††††† Rises life,

†††††††††††††††††† Rises spring.

May we join with the miracle that is springtime, and enter into life with lightness and joy.

Out of the spirit

†††††† Rises faith,

†††††††††††† Rises hope,

†††††††††††††††††† Rises love.

May we join with the miracle that is Easter time, and enter into life with hope and love.

Let us resurrect with spring, let us resurrect with the spirit and enter into renewed life as we gather into our time of worship together this Easter morning.

Reading We’re Not Sure What Happened Daniel E. Budd

We received an invitation from our neighborhood newspaper to place an ad for Easter. Someone suggested to me that, should we advertise, it should say something like, ‘Join us. We’re not sure what happened.’ I was tempted.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone appears whose message we feel offers hope; who inspires us with new ways of living which touch our hearts and lift our spirits in anticipation. We know what it’s like when they fall short of our expectations, or worse, are cut down by the forces of hate and bigotry which too often enter human life.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone has grown profoundly into our own lives, who seems as much a part of our living as our own breathing, whose presence lives in our souls. We know what it’s like when death takes them from us, perhaps prematurely, and the empty place now in our souls is much like an empty tomb.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to feel sorrow and loss, despair, and grief. We know the waves of tears and the thoughts of the past which flow through us, which begin to fill the emptiness with stories and memories, begin to shore us up again with a different presence which will live with us for all of our lives.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to realize, to have it dawn upon us, that what we have known and loved lives on now with and within us, a part of who we are. We know that somehow, in our hearts and souls, resurrection is real: not that of the body, but of the spirit – a spirit renewed, even reborn, in the midst of our lives and our living.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know that there is a difficult hope, a faith, that through the living of whatever sorrow and grief we feel (and will continue to feel on occasion) there is also a growing sense of grace and gratitude, of joy and thankfulness, in the mysterious and abiding astonishment of human being. In that wonder may we find our strength, our own sense of Easter.

Words of Prayer (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 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)

“The Promise of Easter” The Rev. Alison Cornish

A few months ago, I officiated at a small, intimate wedding of two dear friends. The couple was surrounded by their families and a few people who had been close to the groom and bride through the years. The ceremony was simple and brief – a few words of welcome, some thoughts from the minister, the exchange of vows, and a pronouncement.

It was the tears that shimmered in most everyone’s eyes – including mine – that spoke of the long journey to this moment. They were tears of joy, to be sure, but there was something more You see, this moment for this couple was born of loss, of grief that had worked deep into their lives. The groom had lost his first wife of 20 years in an accident that had taken her life in the blink of an eye, on a day so ordinary it warranted no special notice or attention – except that one moment she was there, alive, smiling, doing work she loved – and then, only death. And the bride – her loss was a husband who walked away, out of their life together, and into a new relationship, never looking back. Hers was a loss entangled with betrayal and befuddlement, and also a death – of a promise, and of a future. The bride and groom had known one another for years – they, and their partners – had all been friends together. Never thinking the unthinkable, that they would be left alone, gradually it seemed inevitable that they would choose to spend their days left – together. As I watched them standing side-by-side in anticipation of their vows, the poet’s words came to me – ‘I who have died am alive again this is the birth day of life and love and wings.’ What was before me was no less than a resurrection – death into life. Their love – born of loss. Their wedding, and marriage – a testimony. ‘I who have died am alive again’ they declared, a living, breathing example of the power within each of us to bring life out of death and loss.

Resurrection. This word so entwined with this holiday of Easter is no easy sell to a Unitarian Universalist crowd. In fact, our collective discomfort and unease leads to Easter morning services that often cast wide the net, capturing all the spring holidays that have something to do with rebirth and renewal. Unitarian Universalist ministers wax eloquently on the return of spring flowers and budding trees, the miracle of birth, and the overlapping histories and themes of Passover, Easter and the festivals of the vernal equinox. Sometimes we venture into deeper waters, and actually talk about the life of Jesus, as we did together earlier in our ‘Not for Children Only.’ But when we get to traditional religious language, words like ‘resurrection,’ are scary, troubling, and ‘may not apply.’ (We don’t know what happened, remember?) Too often, the big words of Easter get left on the cutting room floor.

Not today. Hold on to your Easter hats, here we go into uncharted waters.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rob Hardies says ‘if resurrection were just something that happened to a man from Nazareth some 2000 years ago, the story would have been long forgotten. But resurrection is the story of our lives, too, and that makes the Easter tale one of the greatest dramas ever told.’ (Quest, 1)

This idea – that resurrection is the story of our lives, too – is what I glimpsed for a moment in that wedding. It’s resurrection, in Hardies’ words again, that allows us to find hope when we are lost in despair; to find a new path when we’ve encountered a dead end; to go on living, even finding joy again when death touches our lives.

OK, I can hear many of you sitting here saying to yourselves, well, that’s all well and good, Alison. I can accept all that you’ve just said. But do you have to call it ‘resurrection?’ Isn’t there some other word that has less, well, religious connotations?

Perhaps. But bear with me as I offer a partial answer, from the poet and writer, Kathleen Norris, and her reflections on religious language. She writes:

When I began attending church again after twenty years away, I felt

bombarded by the vocabulary of the Christian church. Words such as

‘Christ,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘repentance,’ and ‘salvation’ seemed dauntingly

abstract to me, even vaguely threatening. They carried an enormous weight

of emotional baggage from my own childhood and also from family history.

For reasons I did not comprehend, church seemed a place I needed to be.

But in order to inhabit it, to claim it as mine, I had to rebuild my

religious vocabulary. The words had to become real to me, in an

existential sense. (Norris 2-3)

In her book, ‘Amazing Grace,’ Norris did just that. She compiled a ‘lexicon’ of religious words, and then told stories of ordinary people that seemed to somehow touch the fundamental meaning of these super-charged words. Like Hardies, she holds that we can ‘remove the patina of abstraction [and] glassy-eyed piety from religious words by telling stories about them, by grounding them in the world we live in as mortal and often comically fallible human beings.’ (Norris, 8)

What I have learned from Norris is that religious language is powerful, troubling, and confusing at least in part because the experience it seeks to describe can be powerful, troubling and confusing. But I do believe that by refusing to engage certain words, we miss some valuable opportunities to reflect upon and respond to experiences that escape ordinary description or language.

Profound religious experiences are not easy to define, nor to describe. Without making this overly complicated, what I mean by religious experience is something that involves an encounter with mystery, with the holy – something that engages the whole person – emotions, will and mind, that brings a heightened sense of what is real front and center. A religious experience is what the Gospel writers attempted to describe in writing about Jesus after he died. Whether the astonishment at an empty tomb, or Jesus’ sudden presence in the midst of his followers, the writers were trying to capture something so extraordinary, so powerful, that they chose language that pointed to an idea most profound and mysterious to them, something that was a part of the mythic world of their times – resurrection. That – somehow – all that this person was could not have perished, that the power of his teaching and healing and preaching was too enormous and important to suddenly be gone. In these stories, the writers of the Gospels struggled to describe their grief and awe, their fascination and fear, and their resolve to carry forth their beloved’s work.

In the words of New Testament scholar Luke Johnson, ‘[the resurrection narratives] which gave birth to the Christian movement [described] the experience of the continuing presence of a personal, transcendent and transforming power within the community.’ Johnson, 114)

There is a uniqueness to the story of Jesus’ death, resurrection and the spread of the Christian faith that I have no intention of explaining, defending or appropriating. Norris puts it squarely: ‘Faith does not conform itself to ideology but to experience. And for the Christian this means the experience of the person of Jesus Christ, not as someone who once lived in Galilee but who lives now in all believers.’ (Norris, 4) I have never been a Christian, so I have no such experience of Jesus. But, for me, the fact that the resurrection of Jesus is key to the faith of a Christian does not make resurrection any less universal to human experience. We who have the means to find hope when we are lost in despair; we who are able to find new life, even joy again when death touches our lives; ‘I who have died am alive again’ – these are human experiences.

In reflecting on the meaning of the Easter myth for Unitarian Universalists, my colleague Alice Blair Wesley says ‘you can’t kill the holy spirit of love by killing a body. It will rise up all the stronger in other people’s bodies because they have seen and felt and known ultimately the cost of love in action.’ It’s exactly this that I see and hear in nearly every memorial service in which I participate. It is there, when those gathered in the presence of death tell their stories that express an abiding trust in love’s immortality and power. It is there, in the recollections about someone loved, and in the recounting of what in this person has lodged in others. For that is the meaning of immortality – carrying forth within us the spirit of the one we loved – having our times together firmly planted in our own hearts – letting their spirit enlarge our own loves. It is how the part of us that dies when someone we love is lost finds life again. I cannot find any language more apt for this then ‘resurrection,’ with all that it means.

I have been following a very public story recently that speaks resurrection to me. It’s the story of the surviving staff from ‘Windows on the World,’ the restaurant formerly located on the 106th and 107th floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center. On September 11th, 2001, 73 Windows employees and some 100 customers died. Of the staff, only those who weren’t working at the time of the attacks survived. These surviving workers struggled in the wake of the disaster. They struggled to face their grief and despair at the multiple losses with which they were confronted – friends, co-workers, livelihoods, success, a promising future – all lost. Most of the Windows workers were immigrants to this country. Many workers, in search of new jobs, encountered a world with renewed hostility to Muslims. Some faced long periods of unemployment, while others battled depression and illness.

Eventually some of the surviving workers – including waiters, cooks, food runners, busboys and dishwashers – banded together to launch a new restaurant. Opened this past January in Greenwich Village, ‘Colors’ takes its name from the wide variety of personnel who not only work, but cooperatively own the new restaurant. It is New York City’s first employee-run restaurant, and its menu features cuisine from each of the 20 countries its owners represent. Each worker will share in the profits. Moreover, the restaurant is sponsored by a nonprofit organization which raised money to help restaurant workers – again, mostly immigrants – who lost their jobs after 9/11, and which eventually grew into an advocacy organization targeting restaurants that don’t treat workers fairly. Each of the new owners of Colors is committed to donate time to this advocacy work.

Fekkak Mamdouh, a Morrocan-born former Windows waiter, says of their venture, ‘after 9/11, the only thing that keeps us going is belief in each other.’ Executive chef Raymond Mohan, born in Guyana, says ‘this is the new American food. It’s cooked in a kitchen where everyone is equal, no yelling, no screaming. And you actually own the dishes you’re washing.’ Clara Miller, who helped to gather the consortium of lenders to raise the necessary money, says ‘[Those] committed to financing this important project have diverse interests ranging from support of social enterprise and entrepreneurship to worker justice, cooperative businesses and improvement of immigrant conditions a forward-looking effort that builds on the remarkable ëhuman capital’ of these survivors and also serves as a fitting memorial to the Windows on the World workers who died.’ Talk about a transforming power in the community!

Resurrection. I can think of no other word for it, this death into life. This resurrection gives me hope when I despair that our post 9/11 life as a nation has been reduced to assigning blame and seeking vengeance. This resurrection points to a new path in economic justice and the empowerment of immigrants in the face of initiatives that have reached dead ends at all levels of government. This resurrection promises every death, no matter how horrific, is capable of yielding new life. In that tiny wedding, in this grand new culinary venture, it’s the holy spirit of love arising all the stronger – even from broken hearts and lost lives. That’s the resurrection I’ll claim – that’s the Promise of Easter.

Closing Words (Fred Gillis)

May the Love which overcomes all differences,

which heals all wounds,

which puts to flight all fears,

which reconciles all who are separated,

be in us and among us

now and always.

References

Rob Hardies, ‘Finding the Living Among the Dead,’ Quest (Vol. LXI, No. 3) 1-2.

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999).

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998).

Alice Blair Wesley, quoted by permission from uuma-chat listserv

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