Sermon at UUFE by Bob Cleg
Text: Mark 16:1-8
I grew up in a Baptist church where it wasn’t a stretch to think dead people could come back to life. Years later, I realized the statistical impossibility of that happening. In focusing my concept of religion on a physical and biological impossibility, I had put all my Easter eggs in one basket. So, when that Easter basket hit the ground, and all the eggs broke – well, for the next forty years, I had little to do with organized religion.
But since I came in from the theological wilderness a few years ago, I can see that I was being a literalist the whole time. I was taking the words in the Bible literally – setting them up like bowling pins, and knocking them down with a bowling ball of literal scrutiny. I was treating the Bible like it was a technical manual for life. That’s what I’d been taught it was, but that’s the wrong standard. The Bible is poetry; it’s literature; it’s myth, and narrative, and ethics. In many places, it demonstrates what not to do. Ever since I stopped taking the Bible literally, I’ve found myself quoting it more and more, for the truths that are in it.
The Gospel of Mark, which I read from this morning, is the only gospel that doesn’t end with the explicit claim that Jesus came back to life. In our reading, I stopped at Mark 16:8, and I called that, “The end of the gospel of Mark.” A number of very old manuscripts of Mark do exist – most of which contain another 12 verses past where we read. But in the best and oldest manuscripts, Mark ends where we stopped: at verse 8, with women running from an empty tomb “in terror and amazement,” telling no one. The authentic Mark makes no explicit claim that Jesus beat death. But it doesn’t say Jesus didn’t come back to life, either. It just…infers that he is alive, then it leaves us hanging – with this ambiguity: The body’s missing, and there’s no proof whether it got stolen, or wasn’t really dead, or came back to life – or what?
Mark offers us a version of what today is called the Schrodinger’s cat paradox. Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment from physics. A thought experiment is an experiment we do in our head, but not in real life, so rest easy: No cats will be harmed in the process of this thought experiment. Now, in the Schrodinger’s cat experiment, we have a big box – maybe it looks like this one [show Aunt Nita’s box] – and there’s a cat inside, which we can’t see – yet. The cat is either alive or dead, but we can’t know which, until we look inside the box. And we’re not allowed to shake it to find out! We have to open the lid and look. And whether the cat turns out to be alive or dead depends on who looks, and when we look – because it’s a quantum cat, so the observation itself determines the answer.
It’s the same way with the tomb in Mark. The author leaves it up to the observers – to the members of the Jewish Christ-cult – to decide for themselves whether Jesus of Nazareth really went and got himself resurrected. And if he did, is that resurrection a physical one? Or is it metaphorical? And what does it mean, to them? And while we’re at it, does this story, and its uncertain ending, have any meaning that’s relevant to us – to Unitarian Universalists in Easton, Maryland, on an Easter Sunday, 2000 years later?
I just suggested that resurrection can be physical, or it can be metaphorical. That non-physical use of “resurrect” is actually the original meaning of the word. For centuries, the secular Greek word resurrectio simply meant “restore,” “revive,” “recycle;” “to bring something that was lost, back into use.” When the author of Daniel wrote that “God will vindicate the martyrs by raising them up from the dead,” he wasn’t claiming a biological resurrection for the Jews who died in the Maccabean revolution. He was saying their corporate ideals and truths would be restored and live on in the Jewish culture. Which is exactly what happened – that resurrection of culture is still celebrated as the Jewish Festival of Lights every December. Later on, when Christian leaders redefined resurrection as an individual and physical event, not a corporate rebirth, they “literalized, narrowed, and constricted [resurrection], turned it into a creedal belief, and in the process forfeited its great [cultural] claim and hope.”
For us, in 2018, the challenge posed by Mark’s uncertainty, and the need for a resurrection of corporate ideals and truths, is as relevant as when Mark was written. In the last two years, the social justice landscape has changed a lot. Things seem a lot more high-charged now. If things keep heading in the direction they are now, standing for UU principles could get even more dangerous as we go along. Principles like justice, equity, and compassion, like democracy and world community, like a free and responsible search for meaning, don’t seem as popular in society as they were a few years ago. I’m not saying those principles are completely dead, but most of you would agree we’re in a bit of a rough spot these days. I would argue that to some extent, our UU principles need a bit of resurrecting in 2018. It might take a lot of commitment – a lot of real, live blood, sweat, and tears – to completely resurrect those principles.
Recently, my wife and I watched the movie, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.” This is the story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, a Unitarian ministerial couple left their children with parishioners and went to Europe on the eve of WWII as official Unitarian social justice missionaries. Before long, they were smuggling Jews, gypsies, intellectuals, and dissidents out of Europe, living in danger of being locked up in a Nazi concentration camp. As we watched, I wondered how close America is to being a place where doing or saying the most basic “right thing” can get us locked up – and whether, on some issues, we’re already there? Where would I draw the line? Where would I risk having my property confiscated and being incarcerated?
As we watched the movie, I found myself doing my own thought experiment – which is what Mark is out to have us do. Mark, just like the movie, evokes the terror of sacrificing our own lives trying to resurrect principles we think are worth dying for. Add to that, he evokes the uncertainty of not even knowing whether losing our lives will actually succeed in resurrecting our cause. Mark holding up the fate that Jesus met, Mark asks us to ask, “What will I do if the consequences of living in a way that resurrects [UU] principles, get a whole lot worse?”
As an example of the value of the metaphor of “rebirth, new life, [and] resurrection” in modern times, let’s look at life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was martyred in Memphis, fifty years ago this coming Wednesday:
Martin Luther King was a prophet. He was vilified and persecuted. Just as much as Jesus, King was a martyr. But Jesus was supposedly raised from the dead, and not Martin Luther King. Or is that true? In the original sense of “resurrection,” Martin Luther King was raised from the dead. King’s prophetic words and martyrdom helped raise a nation to a new standard of justice. King exemplifies a resurrection in which all the people together will ultimately experience the victory of Truth over Injustice.
If you follow the news, you know the battle is not finished. The resurrection, the revival, continues as an ongoing process. It is up to us to corporately resurrect the ideals of Amos who stood up against agribusiness in Israel in 750 B.C.E. It is up to us to corporately resurrect the ideals of champions of social justice – champions like the Maccabean children and Jesus of Nazareth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, Pete Seeger and Rachel Carson, Martha and Waitstill Sharp and Martin Luther King. Not all of these people died as martyrs – some did – but all of them did sacrifice opportunities, comfort and security, and even marriages, so they could “do something that [really] counts.”
Giving up a few things for other people sounds romantic and selfless, but when you realize service is what makes you happy, it’s self-serving, too – and that’s ok. A couple of personal examples: A few years ago, I was volunteering at a jobs office that helps people find jobs after periods of incarceration or addiction. I loved volunteering at that jobs office; I realized I wanted to do that work full time. Fast forward two years: Last summer I found myself forming a nonprofit called Justice Jobs of Maryland that will do the same thing. One of my board members warned not to use my home address as the corporate address. She said, “No matter how good a thing your cause is, some nut job out there won’t like it. You don’t want put directions to your front door on the internet.” To some extent she’s right – not everybody wants incarcerated or addicted people to get jobs in their town. The question was, do I really believe everyone has a right to a job, or not? I checked with my wife – she lives in that house on Nyasa Bend too – and we submitted the paperwork with our address on it. This June, Justice Jobs will open for business.
Another example: Years back, I told myself I was done with demonstrations, and that I would do my resistance work in other ways. But recently, I’ve decided that some issues just demand me to show up, and so I have. Maybe the stakes are higher today than a few years ago. Maybe being a few decades older helps me see it’s as good to die doing something that counts, as to die sitting in a chair. But one thing’s for sure: I’ve never felt so alive as when I have something worth dying for.
These changes have happened to me primarily because of our Unitarian Universalist Principles, which opened me up to a much broader primary purpose than I ever had before. Being a Unitarian Universalist has given me the strength of purpose to say and do things that I would have been afraid to say and do only a few years ago. Being a Unitarian Universalist has been for me, so far, primarily the ‘inside job’ of preparing myself, should the need ever arise, to lay my life down for principles that are just and right, so that those principles might be live on in my corporate heirs. This is the thought experiment Mark calls us to do, which grows in us the inner capacity to stick with the ‘outside job’ of “justice, equity, and compassion,” if and when the chips go seriously down.
I no longer read much of the Bible literally; I’m no longer upset by words like resurrection and its sibling, kingdom of heaven, which is just another way to say beloved community. If Christianity has truths that will strengthen my models for social justice – well, we may have some tough times ahead, and I need all the help I can get. In our text, the young man at the tomb said Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee.” If you remember only one thing from this morning, I’d like you to remember that this congregation’s “Galilee” is the Eastern Shore of Maryland. With that geography in mind, I invite you to reflect on Mark’s question: How are we called to resurrect the good news of our UU Principles – the good news that, if we all work together, we can help each other through this thing, called life?,