“Easter”                                © Hollis Huston 2011

“What Happened at Easter”

a sermon preached by Hollis Huston

at South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on April 24, 2011

An earlier version of this sermon was spoken at Muttontown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on March 2, 2008

Luke 6:21-25

Congratulations, you poor!  God’s domain belongs to  you.

Congratulations, you hungry!  You will have a feast.

Congratulations, you who weep now!  You will laugh.

Damn you rich!  You already have your consolation.

Damn you who are well-fed now!  You will know hunger.

Damn you who laugh now!  You will learn to weep and grieve.

-- 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)

A Christian friend asked me what Unitarians do at Easter-time.  I thought for a moment, and said, “We get nervous.”  She laughed, and like a good listener she asked what Unitarians get nervous about.  I said, “We have a feeling that we ought to celebrate something, but we can’t quite figure out what it is.”

We Unitarians respond to Easter by celebrating the Spring.  But the joy of Easter, this joy that we envy, is not about regularities of the calendar.  This joy is not about balance and stability.  It’s not about business as usual.  It’s not about something that happens every year because the calendar says it’s time.  It’s about an event that happens uniquely – once – upsetting the entire order of things; or if it happens more than once, it will make life over so completely that, when it happens again, it will be completely different.  It’s about an event that runs against all the trends and all the probabilities.  It’s about an event that no one in Las Vegas would bet on at any odds.  It’s about an event that is so far from routine that it is impossible.  It’s about the impossible.  If we want to understand what the larger religious culture around us is so excited about, behind the Easter parades and eggs and bunnies, behind the miracles and processions, we have to comprehend an attempt to explain the inexplicable.  The trouble is, we can’t believe it.

For atheists, agnostics, or for religious people like us and liberal Christians, who view the scriptures with historical/critical sense, this item called Resurrection is not acceptable as a physical fact.  So if we are to comprehend the excitement that Easter holds for those who celebrate it, we must say to ourselves something like this: “OK, I can’t believe that the moon is a goddess (or that Joseph Smith found golden tablets in the ground, or that a tiny wheaten wafer becomes the body of Christ) – but maybe that’s not the point.  What is that person who tells the story trying to say?  What is the real experience that this person is moved to communicate to me by the means of such strange imagery?”

When cummings says “i who have died am alive again today,” we understand that an expression like this is not a factual claim.  The poet who says he has died and is alive is telling you that he feels he was destroyed and then restored.  The poet isn’t stating a proposition but rather transmitting an experience.  If we are well educated, we understand this.

So let us ask, what is the real point of the Easter stories?  What is the actual experience that the story conveys?

I’m presumptuous enough this morning to attempt the answer.  I’m going to share with you what really happened.  My story will be a series of sentences – affirmative statements in the English language.  Some of these sentences will be wrong, because I am not a scholar, and even the scholars have very little to go on.  The accounts we have to work with are to say the least extremely selective, written a generation or two after the events, by people who had axes to grind.  So some of the things I am about to say, though I don’t know which ones, will be wrong.  But I promise you that everything I am about to say is plausible.

Nothing that I say will be inconceivable, nonsensical or self-contradictory.  Nothing will offend your reason, broadly or narrowly conceived.  I will not ask you to believe in walking corpses.  And yet I will speak of the impossible, happening.  And so I will be speaking of a reasonable miracle.  Because in Latin a miraculum is an “object of wonder,” a thing to be wondered at, since we had no way of thinking it would happen until it happened.

So here it goes.  This is my best shot at understanding what is at the root of the Easter experience.  I’m an educated, skeptical person of faith – and this, as far as I can see it, is what really happened.

Let’s begin with the person.  “Jesus” is an English mispronunciation of a Latin transliteration of a Greek translation of his name, which was spoken in an ancient language called Aramaic.  The name he would have answered to, in the language he spoke – the name by which a Unitarian can speak of him without seeming to assent to Christian “Christology,” is Yeshua.  To call him “Christ,” on the other hand, is to say in ancient Greek that he was “the anointed one” or in ancient Hebrew the “messiah,” which is to say he was the King of Israel, or “King of the Jews.”

The world that Yeshua ben Miriam was born into was an empire, a basileia.  The Mediterranean Sea was ruled by Rome, and the cosmopolitan culture of the empire’s eastern end was Greek culture, spread throughout the region centuries before by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander.  If you wanted to be anybody in the basileia, you had to deal with and to speak with the pagan Greeks.  But Yeshua, and those who heard and followed him, were Jews who spoke Aramaic.

The empire was supported by worldwide commerce.  Elite cosmopolites colluded with the empire to seize the land of subsistence farmers, amalgamate it into huge estates, and produce cash crops.  They rich got rich by transforming poor farmers into itinerant day-laborers, crushing them in taxes and debt until they could only walk away from their land.  Meanwhile the Temple in Jerusalem extorted its own taxes – legitimized as tithes and burnt offerings – from the people, in the name of Israel’s God.  The high priests and scribes and their partisans the Sadducees grew rich as the people became more desperate.

Into this world stepped Yeshua, who preached to destitute and illiterate Jews in the provincial language.  He spoke in parables – deceptively simple stories couched in the harsh realities of impoverished life.  These stories named the oppressions of those who heard him; such people, poor and wretched, sick and humiliated, flocked to him.  And some gave up their former lives, their desperate place in the social structure, to accompany him on his vagabond life.

He summed up his preaching in a phrase that threatened to explode the world.  The basileia tou theou.  Literally, this means an alternative empire, the empire of God.  Now, none of us here like empires and some of us aren’t fond of the word “God.”  But if we’re going to understand what happened in Yeshua’s life and teaching, we must step outside the small circle of our own attitudes.  As Emerson said, we have to draw a larger circle.  The empire of Caesar was for Yeshua’s audience a hopeless and corrupt place of terror and darkness, where virtue was despised and injustice rewarded.  So the basileia tou theou, the Divine Domain or Kingdom of God, was a different empire and a better one – God’s empire, and it was in some sense “close at hand.”  So close that everyone needed to repent, that is, turn around, reorder their minds.  When Yeshua preached about the empire of God, the divine domain, it was taken by Roman authorities as sedition; and by the Jewish Temple administration as a threat to their cozy and profitable deal with the Romans.

So Yeshua went to Jerusalem, where his enemies lay in wait for him; and they killed him.   Easter commemorates both his death and his strange victory over death.  A historian must note that we have no account of these events outside of the Christian gospels, all of which date from a generation or more after Yeshua’s death.  But the outline is very plausible.

It seems that he had a reputation.  The populace honored him as he came into the city.  The accounts say that the crowd threw their cloaks on the ground so that he wouldn’t have to touch the earth, and that they cut down branches from trees – palm trees – for the same purpose.  This story is the basis of Christian observance of “Palm Sunday,” which was last Sunday.  The people chanted slogans as he went by, calling him “Son of David,” that is to say, the heir to Israel’s ancient kingdom.  There is no record that Yeshua claimed the throne of David, or called himself a King of the Jews.  But if this event actually happened, then he stepped into the proclamation of others.  And anyone claiming to be a King of the Jews -- which was to say a rebel leader against the rule of Rome -- would have been marked for death.

Soon he went to the Temple, a huge commercial center, where people came to buy sacrificial animals for slaughter on the altar, and were required to change their money into a special currency in order to do that.  And it was widely believed that the priests and their servants gouged and cheated people.  Yeshua overturned the tables of the money-changers, and – obviously with some help from followers – drove out all the merchants and businessmen, charging that they had turned a house of worship into a “den of thieves.”

By now he had appeared as a threat to both of the powerful constituencies who might have reason to hate him.  The Roman governor might have seen him as an insurrectionist.  And the wealthy Jews who profited from collaboration with Rome had seen him as a threat to their arrangements.  And those powers did what we might expect.  They put him to death as a traitor against  Caesar, and Rome.

And nothing happened.  The people did not rise in revolt.  The Heavens did not open.  The reign of God did not begin.  In fact, no one noticed.  Yeshua had died in pain and in humiliation and in obscurity.  His followers had lost their master and their dream.  And they also lost their self-respect, because they themselves had behaved disgracefully – abandoning the master in his danger, scattering and hiding and denying their allegiance to him.  The story says that Peter himself, the chief apostle, denied knowledge of Yeshua three times during the night of his trial.

The movement had failed, and the apostles had failed.  To them it seemed that they had given up their lives and recreated themselves for a dream that was nothing – a dream that they themselves had degraded.  It seemed that they were fools without the courage of their foolish convictions.  Their bodies were alive but their spirits were dead.  There was nothing to do but go home and apologize and try to take up their old lives.  If they could.

And here’s where things got strange.  They couldn’t go back to regular life.  The vision of Divine Domain was in their hearts and they couldn’t pluck it out.  Wherever they went they heard the voice of Yeshua.  Or they had a dream about him.  Or they saw him in the way you or I might see a deceased parent or an old lover, in hallucinogenic detail, with words and sounds and smells and touch.  Or they met someone who seemed to speak to them the way Yeshua would have spoken.  And they said, “That was him.  He’s still with us.”  If you or I had a similar experience we would schedule extra sessions with our therapists.  We might say Damn the man! He might as well still be alive!  And that is how they described the experience to themselves.  He had not died.  He had been raised from the dead.  He was still alive.

The movement that had come to nothing was reborn in them.  They had been so changed that they were fit for nothing else in the world.  And their vision had to take account of the fact of their failure, had to admit its own death.  Failure was the point; if they hadn’t failed, they would not now have the chance to succeed.  Yeshua is the only seminal religious figure in human history whose life was a failure – who died in misery, pain and obscurity.  And Christianity, the religion founded in his name, is the only religion therefore that proclaims a paradox – that victory is born from hopelessness, life from death, power from utter obscurity.  It says to those who suffer, “In your suffering is your salvation.  In your slavery is your liberation.”  Yeshua didn’t just say as other religions do “You should be kind to the poor.”  He said “Congratulations to the poor,” for “you are heirs to the Kingdom.”  God loves us specially when we are suffering.  Whatever you think about this distinctively Christian paradox, in whatever way and to whatever extent your mind can or cannot contain it, the paradox explains the power of primitive Christianity to seize the minds and hearts of converts.

The apostles told stories.  And those who heard the stories passed them on to others.  And at each telling the stories changed a bit, to be more convincing to the hearer, more meaningful to the growing communities that shared them.  And at a later stage some literate people in various isolated communities began to write them down.  And their writings always reflected the actual trials and emergencies, internal and external, that those communities were passing through.  And at a still later stage, as these communities began to call themselves “Christians,” they began to write into their accounts the meaning of Yeshua’s life as they understood it.  But I’ll stop there, because we’re not talking about Jesus Christ.  We’re talking about Yeshua ben Miriam.

So now I ask you, what do you think about miracles?  Fundamentalists think that somehow the body of Yeshua was aroused to life again.  But many other Christians who can’t sign on to such a vision, would say something like this: “I’ve seen hope reborn out of despair, with no rational justification.  I’ve seen peace break out where there was nothing but a cycle of hatred and revenge.  I’ve seen a scoundrel like Oskar Schindler turn into a hero.  I’ve experienced the love of God (though I don’t understand it) when I didn’t deserve it.”  These are miraculous rebirths.  A teacher of mine, Hal Taussig, who is both a parish minister and a biblical scholar, says, “I don’t think the Resurrection is a fact.  But I think it is the truth.”  And e. e. cummings says, “i who have died am alive again today.”  And that is what happened at Easter.