First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Your Resurrection" by Rev. Barbara Merritt Worship Service on Easter, March 23, 3008

First Reading
John 21: 4-8

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked; and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

Second Reading
“Huckleberry Finn”
from an essay by Azar Nafisi an Iranian Professor of American Literature

A small boy named Huckleberry Finn contemplates his friend and runaway slave, Jim. Huck asks himself whether he should “give Jim up” or not. Huck was told in Sunday school that people who let slaves go free go to “everlasting fire.” But then, Huck says he imagines he and Jim in “the day and nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.” Huck remembers Jim and their friendship and warmth. He imagines Jim not as a slave but as a human being and he decides that, “alright, then, I’ll go to hell.”

What Huck rejects is not religion but an attitude of self-righteousness and inflexibility. I remember this particular scene out of Huck Finn so vividly today because I associate it with a difficult time in my own life. In the early 1980s, when I taught at the University of Tehran, I, like many others, was expelled. I was very surprised to discover that my staunchest allies were two students who were very active at the university’s powerful Muslim Students’ Association. These young men and I had engaged in very passionate and heated arguments. I had fiercely opposed their ideological stances. But that didn’t stop them from defending me. When I ran into one of them after my expulsion, I thanked him for his support. “We are not as rigid as you imagine us to be, Professor Nafisi,” he responded. “Remember your lectures on Huck Finn? Let’s just say, he is not the only one who can risk going to hell!”

A mysterious connection links individuals to each other despite their vast differences. No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child left orphaned in Darfur or a woman taken to a football stadium in Kabul and shot to death because she is improperly dressed. Only curiosity about the fate of others, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, and the will to enter their world through the magic of imagination creates this shock of recognition. Without this empathy there can be no genuine dialogue, and we as individuals and nations will remain isolated and alien, segregated and fragmented.

I believe that it is only through empathy that the pain experienced by an Algerian woman, a North Korean dissident, a Rwandan child, or an Iraqi prisoner becomes real to me and not just passing news. And it is at times like this when I ask myself, am I prepared—like Huck Finn—to give up Sunday school heaven for the kind of hell that Huck chose?

“Your Resurrection” by Rev. Barbara Merritt

On Easter Sunday, throughout the world, there are a great many people who in liturgy, song, and ritual announce that “Jesus was crucified, dead and buried—he descended into hell, the third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God. Or so states the Apostles Creed.”

In the free church, you can reject that dogma, or you can believe it completely. But whether you understand Jesus to be resurrected is not the focus of an Easter celebration at the First Unitarian Church.

What I want you to imagine is your own resurrection. What sort of ongoing life can you look forward to? If you go to hell, even just for a day or two, will there be any transformative event afterwards? Does anything important about you survive tragedy, defeat or death?

I, myself, discovered a personal immortality when I was still an agnostic in college. In my junior year at the university, I took an advanced course in the Greek philosopher, Plato. And the professor, paraphrasing Plato, said very simply, “If you identify with what is transitory and fleeting in yourself, then you will have to die. But if you identify with what is eternal in you (in a spirit of love and truth, which transcends the material body) then you will have immortality.” I remember leaving the classroom metaphorically ten feet off the ground. My imagination had been given a spacious new way to consider life and death. And I suddenly understood a new possibility; that death did not necessarily mean the end of the consciousness or the soul.

Many of us might assume that the religious imagination is something that can be safely relegated to scripture and theologies. But if you pay attention, you will discover that all kinds of disciplines are struggling with describing the nature of reality, and the possibilities that await us all.

And not just ancient philosophers.

I heard a lecture a few weeks ago where the speaker said that “ironically, it may be science that eventually may be responsible for the discovery of God.” Even now, scientists in the realm of theoretical physics are imagining co-existent realities, realms that exist apart from the material world. Scientists, who spent a great many centuries tied to a mechanistic model of cause and effect and observable data, are now saying, “Maybe there is more?” Maybe there are things we can’t measure because we have been thinking in too small and rigid a framework. (Maybe, we might consider fishing on the other side of the boat.)

How you imagine the world has a huge impact on how you experience the world.

In the gospel according to Matthew, there is one line near the end of the last chapter describing the disciples experience of the resurrected Jesus: “They saw him, they worshipped, but some doubted.” So apparently even if the risen Christ is standing right in front of you, that does not necessarily mean you are going to give up thinking about the world that way you always have. Our doubts, our fears, our habitual thinking may be hard-wired. Or perhaps we are mentally stuck, only temporarily in a particular pattern of thought. Can anything break us open to what is new and unexpected? I love the description of Jesus’ fishing lesson to his friends after the resurrection. I swear, the more I read the gospels, the more convinced I am that they were written by early Unitarians.

Jesus has already shown himself to his disciples indoors. Then, on another occasion, he has even allowed the doubtful Thomas to stick his hand through his body. John claims Jesus showed himself over and over again to his skeptical disciples; so many times in fact, that they are not even written down.

Then Simon Peter says, “Ok, time to go fishing,” After a night of unsuccessful fishing, Jesus appears to them again and speaks to them from close to the shore directly asking, “Have you caught anything?” And the disciples (who like all disciples, are as dumb as posts) are reported to have come to this conclusion: “The disciples knew not that it was Jesus.”

Now, I guess at this point, Jesus could have preached a sermon to them, or scolded them, or pointed in a vigorous manner at himself. Instead, he asked for them to do something differently, to lower their nets on a new side of the boat. Now you can just hear the rational arguments: Why change? (Same water on the left as on the right; same Sea of Tiberius; the fish didn’t bite last night, or this morning—why would they bite over there, when nothing is going on over here.) We human beings have strong convictions that we know exactly how the universe operates, and if we only keep doing what we have been doing, eventually things will improve. But Jesus says, “No, do something new.” Change your orientation, imagine that a stranger on the shore might know something that you don’t. And when the disciples moved to the other side, it wasn’t only their nets that became full of fish; their eyes opened, and their hearts awoke and they understood that there were miracles in every direction.

Easter is a story, an important story, about how all of us can see things we’ve never seen before, how we can move past the old, imprisoning assumptions, and beliefs. How the world keeps getting larger, if you pay attention.

Huck Finn is a resurrection story in this context. Huckleberry Finn absolutely believes that he will be “damned to the everlasting hell-fires” if he breaks the law and help a runaway slave. It is not his beliefs that change—he knows about hell (he’s tasted a little of it here on earth.) But he is willing to take the leap of action and say to himself “it doesn’t ultimately matter what I believe. What matters is how I act. And I love my friend Jim, and I will act on his behalf.” As Professor Nafisi observed in the second reading, “the magic of imagination creates this shock of recognition.” And from this empathy, this connection with one another, even with strangers on the other side of the globe, we may just risk hell and then find ourselves entering heaven.

It is not ultimately about what we think; it is about what we actually do.

An eloquent speaker illustrated our predicament to me recently when described a scenario something like this:
“You love your physician. You admire her skill, her devotion to her patients, and her formidable training. You consider the medical building in which she works to be somewhat of a shrine. You gently touch the threshold of the doorway as you enter, in acknowledgement of the great work of healing that occurs in the building. You listen attentively to everything your doctor says to you. You appreciate the thoroughness of her check-up, and the intelligence with which she lays out a plan for your treatment. You believe that she is the “bees knees” a stellar professional. You have faith in a noble and great physician. The one thing you won’t do is take the medicine she prescribes.”

Now, such a foolish patient can only be pitied. But you’d be surprised how many people believe that a church building is sacred ground: that one should listen to the teachings of the saints, that one should hold in very high regards the creeds and rituals and ethical teachings of synagogue and churches and temples. But they can’t quite see that it might be necessary to act differently…to change…to enter into relationships in new and transformative ways. Maybe just believing in the goodness of churches will make a difference? Maybe some one else can do the spiritual work required? Maybe I need to only admire good and trustworthy people and don’t actually have to become one myself?

Which brings me directly to the topic of Your Resurrection. Not Jesus’, not your neighbor’s, but yours.

My colleague and dear friend, The Reverend John Robinson, put it eloquently:

The congregations sing, “Christ the Lord is ris’n today.” Is!” “Today!” They do not sing “Christ was raised one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-six years ago, today.” No, they sing a present fact, a fact that is known in the human heart and spirit that opens itself to the life and wonder of this world around us. Each moment of our lives is a rebirth, if we are but awake to the living that breaks in around us each moment.

The musician listens for the pure note and tunes his or her instrument to it. All too often we hear and tune our lives to the dissonant cacophony of shouted claims around us: to earn more, to spend more, to seek the comfortable, the easier, to the shouts of the television and politicians and causes, to the warnings and fears that beset us. Too seldom do we set our tune to the clear true note which rings still within us.

But each year we are reminded that something “is ris’n,” (call it Christ or what you will), in our lives “today.” To know it we must listen, be awake to be alive.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, wrote that “the splendor and grace of Easter is meant to raise us, to open our imaginations.”

I don’t know what your personal resurrection means. It might be completely in the realm of the material world. Today, you might commit to be an organ donor—to give the gift of life and sight and hearing to someone who lives on after you die. Today, you might decide to give a scholarship to encourage the next generation to learn, to contribute, to have hope. Today, (or as soon as the ground thaws—say, late May) you may plant a tree, or write a check to UNICEF, or work for the political candidate that you believe can improve the world.
Your personal resurrection may be the way you get up from your pew this morning. Hopefully, with a willingness to fish in a new way—willing to take a second chance—willing to change the way you act. Deciding that, “all right then, this may just take me to hell,” but I’m willing to risk it all to help a friend, to close the distance, to make my love real, incarnate, visible, and constant. “I’m willing to keep changing.” “I’m willing to risk it all.”

The Worcester poet, Stanley Kunitz, in a few lines of his poem entitled “The Layers,” describes the lifelong journey from hell to an ongoing and constantly surprising resurrection.

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Small deaths, large deaths, great losses, small defeats; they will not be the end of you. Not when you remember that you are in the resurrection business. Always turning your imagination in the direction of radical change, real joy, and the triumph of the spirit.
When we sing together as a community about joy and resurrection, and the “triumphant song of life,” we are doing more than providing a thunderous alleluia chorus. We are also bearing emphatic witness to one another’s struggles. This is not just about my resurrection. In truth, we can’t do this resurrection work alone.

We are calling out to one another: “Have courage! Keep going! Sure, you might go to hell, but it will be worth it. Keep acting on behalf of love and hope, and on behalf of truth and goodness.” And somehow, a mystery will sustain us all. A miraculous abundance will astonish us, and we will find ourselves in the presence of God.

Today there is every reason to be joyful.


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