Endings and Beginnings
April 1, 2018
The story is being told in countless thousands of Christian congregations today. As varied the content of the Sunday services may be from one Christian congregation to the next over the course of a year, they are all on the same page today. The exception to this is the Eastern Orthodox churches who calculate their date for Easter with a different formula that does Western based Christianity.
With a few variations the story is found near the conclusion of all four of the New Testament Gospels right after the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. In Luke’s version some women come to the tomb where the body of Jesus has been placed to anoint his body. What they find is not exactly what they were expecting. The big boulder-like stone that had been placed over the entrance to the crypt has been rolled away and there is nothing, or nobody—as in “no body”—there. Well actually there are two figures present. A couple of rather otherworldly types are standing where the body had been. Think “Men in Black” except these figures are clothed in a glowing white. And they say to the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead. He is not here. He is risen.”
That’s the story. And while it is being told in practically all Western-based Christian congregations today, they don’t all tell it in the same way. There is a range of interpretation that spans the broad spectrum of Christian theology and teaching. For the fundamentalist, or more traditionalist kind of believer, one has to accept the idea that a corpse returned to human life if one is to be a so-called “true Christian.” Towards the more liberal end of that spectrum more non-literal, or symbolic, or metaphorical, or even allegorical interpretations are permitted. However one reads it, it is a powerful story.
Those of you who have become familiar with my spiritual journey during our time together know that I traveled that entire Christian spectrum before finding my way to the UU ministry. And yet this story stays with me, somewhat in the manner of a tune you can’t quite get out of your head however much you try.
I approach that story now—as I have for some time—not as an account of what happened to a deceased body, which so far as I’m concerned, remained deceased. It’s about what happened to the followers—disciples as they were called—of the one who had been put to death. Remember, these stories were not written in the way we read them now until one and two generations after the events they purport to describe. They are not history as we understand history today, but stories that had been told and re-told within the ranks of a fledging movement that began as a sect within Judaism before becoming a free-standing religion of its own that in time came to be called Christianity.
The actual events behind those stories will never fully be known, just as the central figure behind the stories—a man called Jesus of Nazareth—will never be fully known either. To take a quick side-bar trip here: One of the more recent, and for me more fascinating, takes on who this mysterious and somewhat shadowy figure we call Jesus was, is found in a book by Reza Aslan called Zealot.
Dr. Aslan, who has spent most of his life in California, was raised Moslem, converted to Christianity as a teen-ager, and then embraced the Sufi version of Islam. He’s also become an outstanding and well recognized religious scholar. In Zealot he portrays Jesus as political, rebellious Jew who was calling for an end to Roman rule in Judea and for the end of a corrupt priesthood. All of which would have been plenty enough to have gotten him killed by the Romans with the tacit approval of some of the religious authorities of that time and place. Zealot, as I’m sure Dr. Aslan would acknowledge, is far from being the last word, or the last line of speculation, on who Jesus was and what he did, but it is a good and worthy contribution to what Albert Schweitzer called “the quest for the historical Jesus.”
Back to my point now about the resurrection being about what happened to the disciples rather than to an executed Jewish prophet. Let’s consider the story from this angle: Jesus, the Zealot according to Dr. Aslan, is put to death. His closest followers, understandably enough, are literally scared for their lives thinking that any one of them could be next up on one of those crosses, and they take off. (I should note that they leave it to the women to attend to the body.)
Then a bit later these followers—most of them—regroup. And they find themselves at a point where they have to make a decision. It’s not unlike a decision, in one way or another, that most of us have to make at various points in our lives. They had to decide: Are we at an ending or at a beginning? Of course, it was some of both. But they still had to decide which way they were going to go: Ending or Beginning? They, most of them anyway, opted for a Beginning. They could have taken the ending option, and gone back to whatever they were doing before Jesus recruited them for his mission, and finished out their lives.
But they took the Beginning option instead with the outcome, over a certain stretch of time, being the emergence of a major world religion. How positive or negative of an outcome that has been is the subject of a near 2000-year debate which I will not take up here. Whichever side you come down on with that one, what we now have, by way of a global religion, is the result of a frightened group of people who still opted for the challenge of a Beginning rather than the defeat of an Ending.
The resurrection stories, cloaked as they are in myth and legend and in the mind-set, or world view, of the first century of the Common Era, are really about the choice the disciples made to go for a Beginning. In some fashion, those first followers still sensed the presence of their fallen leader—still urging them on—and they answered the call to make a Beginning out of the Ending they’d experienced.
A century or two later when the Church was looking for a time to observe, commemorate, and celebrate this Ending and Beginning event, they chose the date, or the time of year, of the much earlier pagan celebrations of the ending of winter and the beginning of spring. A time named after a fertility goddess called Eostre, which became our Easter. This gives us the rather odd combination of fertility symbols like eggs and rabbits alongside bare crosses and empty tombs. So it goes. (Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut.)
Moving on for a few more minutes now, let’s think on endings and beginnings. There are all kinds of places we can go with this one. The one that most vividly comes to my mind right now is about what those high school students in Parkland, Florida did, and have done, in the wake of the horrific act of gun violence in their school that took the lives of 17 of their classmates. I cannot begin to imagine how frightening of an experience it was for them, and how devastating the losses were for the families and loved ones of the students who perished.
Some of those students at that one high school even as they mourned the ending of the lives of their classmates, opted for a Beginning. And it was a Beginning that very quickly engulfed our country. We do not know the full outcome of their efforts right now, my deepest hope for which I’ll expend whatever efforts I can, is that we may well be at the Beginning of an effort that will call us, and call our leaders at all levels of government, to our senses when it comes to ending the senselessness—the evil senselessness—of gun violence. Endings and Beginnings.
There are less intense, but still very important, moments our own lives when we find ourselves at an Ending and Beginning moment. The loss of someone we love, the end of a relationship, the loss of a hope or vision we’d been clinging to that is just not going to work out, or simply the awareness of the loss of time passing in our lives. These are endings we cannot avoid, or deny, or try to easily dismiss. It doesn’t work that way. But the Easter message, as I have come to see it, is that Endings—real as they are—do not have to have the final word unless we give them that final word. The Easter challenge is one that calls us to face our Endings, and then choose our Beginnings.
Let’s bring this Ending/Beginning dynamic even closer to home. I do so with this major caveat: Nobody is getting crucified, nobody is even dying, when it comes to where I’m going now. But I do know, as I’m sure you do as well, that over the next couple of months we here in this congregation are going to be in an ending and beginning space of our own. And there will be some sadness involved when it comes to the End part. I know that. But the greater excitement will be about a Beginning. We will be bringing this three-year interim ministry time to an end, as you anticipate the Beginning of a new chapter in your life as a congregation with a newly settled minister. I, and we, will have more to say about this in the weeks ahead; but for today I cannot really speak about Endings and Beginnings without at least taking note of the ending and beginning that we here will be experiencing before this church year comes to an end.
I’m going to finish up by saying a bit about the person who gives us our quote for today in our Order of Service—the late Ric Masten. He is primarily known in UU circles as the author and composer of the song “Let It Be A Dance.” His story, however, is far bigger than that one contribution to our movement, important as it is. Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the early 2000s Ric had a wonderful troubadour ministry within our UU family, appearing in over 500 of our UU congregations, many of them more than once, during that time. I’ll be offering a sermon of remembrance for Ric on Memorial Day Sunday. Consider this a lead-in.
I met Ric towards the tail end of his troubadour ministry. Beginning in 2005 he and I collaborated on a book about it. We got the book out in late 2007 and did a book launch at Ric’s home church in Carmel, California that following January of 2008. Ric passed away five months later.
When we started on the book Ric knew he was on limited time. He’d been given a diagnosis of inoperable prostate cancer. He knew the final outcome was not immediate, but would eventually be terminal. After being hit with the End piece of his diagnosis, Ric chose to make it a Beginning. The Beginning of what he called his Prostate Cancer ministry. He wrote a number of what he himself called his “Cancer Poems” and made numerous appearances on behalf of cancer support groups, and reached out to numerous persons who were dealing with the same thing he was facing. Ric called it “the ministry for which I’ve been preparing for all my life.”
One of his poems in this genre is called Endline. It’s mostly about messages that were exchanged on a chat-line he was on for persons battling cancer of one kind or another. His closing lines in this poem refer to:
“an explosive statement
Found in an e-mail message
Beneath the signature
Of a cancer combatant’s name
A perfect end-line, wily and wise
Quote: I ask God
‘How much time do I have before I die?”
“Enough time to make a difference,” God replies.
That, I would submit, is who we are on this Easter morning, and on all the remaining mornings of our lives. We are people who, with whatever endings we may be dealing with, still have enough time to make a difference if we can also embrace a beginning. We are people with time to make a difference in the lives we are living and the world in which we are living them.
Give thanks for that as you celebrate a Happy and Joyous Easter.
April 1, 2018
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