Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gentle Radical of Our Souls

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 15, 2001

David Larkin tells of the much-revered leader of an ancient Middle Eastern religious movement:
“It was a brief but eventful life. He was conceived by a virgin, he was born in a strange town, he inherited a royal lineage, he escaped mortal danger in infancy, he was tempted in the wilderness, he received a commission to rule the world, he performed extraordinary miracles, he was the victim of a cruel death, he disappeared from the burial vault, he descended into hell, he appeared first to the women in his entourage, he ascended to heaven in a cloud, and his disciples waited for his triumphant return.”
Sound familiar? Jesus, right?
Wrong. Larkin is speaking here of a religious notable from the ancient world named Herakles of Tarsus, a peasant demigod from ancient Assyria. He continues: “The story of the last supper, passion, betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection was a transcript of a mystery drama long familiar to the ancient world.”
“How do Unitarian Universalists celebrate Easter?” someone once asked. “Very carefully,” came the reply.
Most of you have probably heard the joke that the only time that Jesus Christ is mentioned in most UU churches is when the custodian falls off a ladder.
Certainly, at one time, in many of our churches at least, we have seemed to do just about everything in our power to avoid talking about Jesus at Easter time.
We’ve seemed happy to speak about just about anything else... Pagan spring festivals and Easter bunnies and Velveteen rabbits and jelly bean communions and the legends of Osiris and Sisyphus and Dionysius were all okay... I even remember having to endure (way back in my days as a layman) a sermon by a minister on “The Resurrection of Churches”, in which he went on at great length about the importance of proper signage and adequate lighting and convenient parking facilities to church growth.
How inspiring! How spiritual! (Absolutely worst Easter sermon I’ve ever heard, and that now includes 20 or so that I have delivered myself, a couple of which may have been almost as bad, but not quite...)
For too long, many Unitarian Universalists seemed to suffer from a bad case of the “Baptist bends”, where the mere mention of the J-name seemed to send some of our religious brothers and sisters into paroxysms of pain. No, for too long, Jesus seemed to be the unwelcome guest at our Easter table.
None of which seemed to hurt Jesus’s reputation all that much. Guess what? He’s still around, still celebrated, still very much at the heart of Easter for millions of people the world over. Jesus is still remembered, these well-neigh 2000 years after his execution. About a century before, Herakles of Tarsus also (supposedly) lived and died in more-or-less the same area of the world. But nobody remembers Herakles today, except maybe for a few historians of ancient religions here and there.
Why don’t different religions argue about the enduring legacy of people who were much more notable in the time of Jesus, like the pacifist mystic Pythagoras (of triangle fame), or the great scholar Epicurus or the brilliant neo-platonist Hypathia, who grew just a little too big for her britches, and so was murdered by a Christian mob in Alexandria in the year 415? Why aren’t we still debating the validity of the “miracles” of the wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana, who lived around the same time as Jesus, or the significance of the pointed words of Diogenes the Cynic who said things strikingly similar to things Jesus said about 300 years later?
Why do people still remember Jesus? What is it about him that has endured, in spite of everything else that has changed in this world? What was it that made Jesus special and unique?
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he wasn’t “special and unique”-- that he wasn’t one of the “Very Important People” of his time. Jesus was “fully human and fully divine”, according to the traditional Christian formula. Perhaps “radically human” says it a little more clearly for some of us: radically human, and thus able to live out most clearly (and most enduringly) the divine possibilities that are inherent in the worth and dignity of every man, woman, and child.
Jesus has survived because of the radical nature of what he taught. “Radical” not in a narrowly political sense, but in the primary meaning of the term “radical”: going to the root, fundamental, basic. Jesus sought to reduce life to its most basic elements, and to live life in the light of its most basic imperative-- in light of what was really important.
The message of Jesus has endured because he proposed (for his time and for ours and for all time) a fundamentally changed notion of what is of value and what is worthwhile.
None of the other “Very Important Parts” of life were all that important to Jesus. Not power and control over other people. Not domination and exploitation of the weak and oppressed. Not manipulation and “spin”. Not “being seen” with the coolest, the hippest, the most socially acceptable people. Not political power. Not accumulating lots and lots of capital and real estate and stuff. Not lording it over others. Not intimidating others. Not judging others. Not “watching out for number one”. Not getting the biggest tax break we can. Not building the biggest church in town or in the denomination, or building a giant political movement to force our opinions down the throats of others.
No, more important than any of these, Jesus said-- most important of all was our radical humanity­, which meant our claim as sons and daughter of the Divine-- as sons and daughters of a God whose greatest gift to us is love.
Jesus proposed a fundamentally new arrangement in human relations which was very troubling to the Powers-That-Be of his own day (remember: he was executed by the Romans not for blasphemy [a religious crime] but for treason [a political offense]). I think it is a new paradigm that would be no less troubling to the Establishment of our own time.
Jesus had a vision of a human community where we overcome all that separates and divides-- where we do not remain stuck in outward, superficial forms of age and race and gender and nationality and lifestyle-- but go deeper-- look deeper-- to our basic, radical humanness-- where we do not live according to the old law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth”/”what’s in it for me?”-- but rather, live every moment in a spirit of love-- forgiveness, reconciliation-- with one another.
The theologian John Dominic Crossman has written:
INDENT“This was precisely the point [the earliest Christians were making}: Where, they asked... do you find the divine particularly present? Is it, for example, in Augustus, a Roman emperor backed by fabulous colonial wealth and massive political power, or is it in Jesus, a Jewish peasant child poor enough to be born in someone else’s stable. Choose.” END INDENT
“Choose!” the Jesus story cries out to us:
Choose where you find God. Choose where you find Life.
Do you find it in the same old/same old model of violence and domination and control of Augustus-- and of all the big and puny Augustuses that have come since?
Or in the simple, radical message of Jesus of Nazareth: the message that
“We’re nothing without love, without love...
We’re nothing without love...”
and that the love of God for us and our love for one another is all that is “really important” in this world.
Clinton Lee Scott has written:
Jesus is risen from the dead.
The centuries have not been able to bury him.
Forsaken by his friends,
sentenced to die with thieves,
his mangled body buried in a borrowed tomb,
he has risen to command
the hearts of millions, and
to haunt our hate-filled world
with the restlessness of undying hopes.
The years bring him increasingly to life.
The imperial forces that tried to destroy him
have long ago destroyed themselves.
Those who passed judgment upon him
are remembered only because of him.
Military might and political tyranny
still stalk the earth;
they too shall perish
while the majesty of the carpenter-prophet
bearing his cross to the hill
will remain to rebuke the
ways of violence [and despair].
Every year when I was growing up, my dear old grandmother used to greet us all on Easter morning with the traditional Ukrainian Easter greeting: “Christos voskres.” “Christ is risen.” To which the traditional reply is supposed to be “Voeezenyu on voskres.” (“Indeed, he has risen.”)
But being the non-conformist, pain-in-the-backside sort that I sometimes was (maybe still sometimes am), I would always reply to her “Christos voskres”-- (in Russian I had learned in high school-- the fact that it was in Russian and not Ukrainian only added to her chagrin)-- “Mwi tozhye”-- “We, too”. (“We, too, have risen.”)
And she’d always look at me quizzically, and pat my cheek, and shake her head at this youngest, probably oddest grandchild of hers. But she loved me anyway...
You know, I was never sure why I said it, why I said, “Mwi tozhye”-- “We, too.”-- when she said “Christos voskres.”
But the older I get, and the more I learn about deaths and resurrections, and the things this life can do to us, and what it costs us, and what it gives us in return, and the infinite surprises and joys it always offers us, the more I understand why I said it. "Christ has risen. And so have we.
Whenever we choose to love one another. Whenever we choose to push back all of the human-made boundaries that divide us from one another, and reach out to one another in friendship and compassion, and love. Whenever we offer our hand to someone who is wounded-- or offer our attention to someone who just needs someone to talk to-- or dare to speak up for those too easily marginalized and disparaged and ridiculed and oppressed. Whenever we dare to let down our guard and being the real, radical, true, free spirit we are.
Whenever we glimpse or taste or sense (even in an instant) the holy and whole person our Creator intends us to be, then we have risen with Christ. And then we, too, reflect the divine glory of our brother, teacher, friend, Jesus of Nazareth.
Christos voskres. Mwi tozhye. Voeezenyu mwi tozhye. Indeed, we have risen.
May the blessings of a happy, healthy Easter be with you all.

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