“Rolling Away Our Stones” an Easter Sermon Rev. Brian J. Kiely
Unitarian Church of Edmonton, March 27, 2016
As a Catholic child in the 1960’s, Easter was always a big deal in our home. Sure there were the giant Laura Secord filled chocolate Easter Eggs and the family gathering with relatives, but there was also church. I was quite a devout kid when in elementary school. Unlike many of you, I wasn’t the questioning type. I believed deeply in the death and resurrection of Jesus and I knew, in the deepest part of my soul, that on that first Good Friday afternoon His sacrifice had once again thrown open the gates of Heaven for the likes of me. As any good Catholic knew, it was the Crucifixion that mattered- the sacrifice! The Resurrection was just the proof that all that had been promised had been accomplished.
Well, that was long ago. My beliefs have evolved as I have matured. What once made sense and gave structure to the world began to fail as a youth-turning-adult’s world faced new and challenging stresses. The old and simple explanations no longer served. It was a bit like growing out of your clothes or your child-sized bed. Something new and better fitting was needed.
It’s funny. As humans we are expected to grow and mature in our learning of history, politics, commerce, the sciences as we age. We are expected to become more sophisticated in our thinking and judgement. In matters of faith, however, there is not always that same expectation. There are still a lot of people wandering around with the faith of an eight year old, unquestioning, simplistic and filled with certitude. And there are poor religious leaders of all traditions who work at keeping it that way.
Such unquestioning faith can be comforting, I suppose, as long as one’s life remains simple. Unfortunately with age, most of us bump into the complex aspects of living as an adult. We learn the hard way that fewer issues than we had hoped are resolved with the answers of childlike faith. Unitarianism is an evolving religion – one that calls us to keep growing, to ask our tough questions and to seek answers that make sense.
All of that comes into sharp relief when we annually bump into the Easter narrative. What do you do with a once treasured story that just doesn’t work the way it used to do?
I think Sara York – the author of our reading and meditation – must have had a similar upbringing to mine. You can feel her lingering affection for the Easter story. But you can also see her efforts to make that narrative relevant to the life she discovered in her adulthood. It is a nice Unitarian Universalist example of how we are all theologians.
Theology, technically, means the study of God. But as I have sampled the writings of theologians great and small, I’ve come to understand that it’s more of an art of interpretation. We receive the stories, be they Jewish, Christian, Native American or whatever. They are the start place. Some are laws and directives, others are morality tales.
Christian theologians try to structure the messages of their texts into some meaningful code that define ritual, religious observance, church doctrine and policy etc. They write creeds that must be accepted. Wisely or not, theological structures come to define a faith.
They take these tales and sermons and snippets of message and construct elaborate structures on which people are meant to hang their hopes and beliefs and their religious observances. Over the centuries some of these structures have become almost Rube Goldberg-esque as builders have struggled to keep up with the advance of knowledge and the changing world in which we live.
The thing is that all of this is an effort to impose order on the few stories and sayings that survive. It is an expansive exercise in interpretation. Sometimes these structures become limiting. But the stories? They remain, they are beautiful and they strike some deep chord in us.
The story I told about Jesus reopening the gates of Heaven (closed by the sin of Adam and Eve btw) is just an interpretation by theologians as is the idea that the resurrection was proof of the divinity of Jesus. None of those claims are in the Gospels themselves.
Well, before we go too far down that rabbit hole of Christian theology, let’s pull back to that idea of the maturing adult wrestling with life decisions. What might the Easter story suggest?
Somewhere along the way a good many of us stopped believing, if we ever did accept it, we stopped believing in this whole coming back to life thing. It got ranked with the other holiday myths of childhood that we discarded as we grew older and more observant. Just yesterday, one of our church moms, Lauren, was explaining the Resurrection to her four year old son Damon. His response? “That is just not possible! People just don’t come back from the dead. That must be a story like monsters. It’s just not real!” Clearly this lad is more questioning than I was!
And once we gave up that one belieg, we started down a path littered with shed beliefs. Many gave up the idea of heaven and hell, of a patriarchal god keeping track of our activities, the idea that anyone else could save us and most especially the notion that Jesus affects the outcomes of American football games.
But there is still this compelling story hanging around about a guy, an underdog, killed by the Romans. And the amazing thing is – this guy is still remembered and celebrated 2,000 years later. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
On top of that there are the obvious seasonal connections to rebirth. There are stories in a good many religions about the rebirth of a hero who has travelled to the underworld and through some self-sacrificing bargain with the gods, brought the dying world back to life. The story of Jesus certainly wasn’t unique. And it wasn’t first. It had been told for centuries, especially around the Middle East.
Why have so many humans, so many cultures, so many religions developed or adapted stories of rebirth and celebrated them in the Spring? Well, the greening of the world and the sprouting of seeds are pretty obvious connections, but I think there is more.
Carl Jung theorized that there are a number archetypal characters and concepts floating around our collective unconscious. They are part of our basic inheritance as human beings, hidden away until something – an image, a story, a deep seated need, triggers them into consciousness. I would suggest that sacrificial death and resurrection qualify as archetypal images. And no matter which story you believe or disbelieve, we all have to deal with the questions they raise. What is the meaning of life? Is there some purpose in our living and dying? Do we continue on in some way? Is there any reason for hope?
Perhaps that’s the biggest one.
It’s said that the difference between us and animals is that we know we will one day die. I think that is a slight on our animal friends, but no matter. Knowing that WE will one day die, why should we dare hope? Why don’t we just give up when tough times come our way?
The fact is, we don’t, not most of us. We find some way to carry on, to live. But at times we do have our doubts, at times we crawl into a tomb of our own making and hide away.
Why? Well most humans make a series of life decisions, some of which aren’t the best or wisest choices. We form unhealthy relationships, we bow to pressures from others, we settle for a job that doesn’t saps the life from us…or we rebel against conformity just for the sake of rebelling. There is no end to the number of bad decisions available to us…and some of them are pretty attractive.
And along the way other stuff just happens to us that arrives unbidden and is not our fault. Lost jobs in hard economic times, illness, the death of someone we love. Again, lost of possibilities.
The question we all have to face some times in our lives, is what do we do with those things that have left us feeling hurt, lost, afraid and maybe even hopeless? Do we give up or give in? What do we do with this?
“In the tomb of the soul, we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regret, worries.
“In the tomb of the soul, we take refuge from the world and its behaviours.
“In the tomb of the soul, we wrap ourselves in the security of darkness.”
There sure are times when that security of darkness is a pretty attractive place. How many times have we wanted the world to just go away? I know I have had that feeling often. There are periods when that tomb of the soul feels safe and protective.
The first part of the Easter narrative, the Crucifixion is an archetypal rendering. It reminds us that we all die sometimes, we all get buried sometimes, and that it’s very, very hard. But it does not have to last forever.
I often speak of the need to honour our grief. Every life encounters shocks and loss and hardship. Being brave and pressing on regardless might seem like a good strategy, but science is showing pretty clearly that we ignore those hard knocks at our peril. Our growing awareness of the effects of PTSD, anxiety and depression are signposts. We need time to sit with our grief. We need time for our souls to winter a bit. We need to lie fallow. There is a place and time for the dark tomb of the soul.
But it’s not a forever place nor a forever time. That’s the resurrection part of the story.
In the other reading, Sara York says that the thing that made the Jesus story special wasn’t rising from death, but from deadness.
“What do I mean from deadness? I mean the things inside that kept the disciples away from Jesus’s funeral – fear, cowardice, lack of conviction and purpose. And I mean the same things in our own lives that prevent us from feeling alive – things like fear, cowardice, and lack of conviction and purpose. And things like loneliness, grief, and boredom that numb us to life.”
Sooner or later, we are called upon to live – again. On Sunday morning the women or the disciples -depending on the account, find the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. The time came and Jesus found a way to roll back that big stone and stepped out into the sunshine of a new morning.
That’s the message I want to offer you this Easter morning, not the story Damon calls a monster tale. The decision to roll back that stone – whatever it may be – the decision to roll back the thing that is keeping you locked in your tomb is yours and your alone. There might be an angel or two available to give a hand – family, friends, therapists, a pet, but they won’t push until you do. The decision to roll back the stone – the power to roll back the stone and live again is yours and yours alone.
I long ago surrendered the belief that God would do it for me. But it took me time to realize that God not doing it does not mean it can’t be done. Transformation is always a possibility. It is a power we have if we choose to act on it – a power of possibility.
“Grateful for the darkness that has nourished us, we push away the stone and invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us – possibilities for new life in ourselves and in the world.”