“Waterfalls,” written and performed by Dr. Joseph Rivers
Happy Easter! Welcome to Hope Unitarian Church, where our mission is “seeking hope, love and justice, together in community.” Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you are on your spiritual journey and whatever your life circumstance, you are welcome here. To all who are here this morning, Welcome Home!
The flaming chalice, symbol of our living faith, burns brightly. Let’s say our unison words for chalice lighting.
We light this beacon of hope,
Sign of our quest for truth and meaning,
In celebration of the life we share together.
Hymn for Gathering
“Here Together” (for Gathering), by David M. Glasgow (on the Music for Services page)
“Why I Wake Early” from Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
Please join me in reciting our living covenant:
Love is the spirit of this church
And service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
Prayer and Meditation
I invite you to join me in the spirit of prayer and meditation:
What is this new world? Who asked for it? Why didn’t we see it coming? There is sun after rain and dew every morning, yet no one knows anything, post-pandemic. But the Spirit of life abides. This is a time when swords bend into plowshares; when it rains on the just and the unjust alike. We have discovered the Great Equalizer, a virus without forethought or intention. But the Spirit of Life Abides.
We pray for First Responders, everyday saviors in mask and gloves, tireless troubadours of light and hope. While their music is melancholy, the final cadence will find its comforting resolution, because the Spirit of Life abides. We lift up our loved ones during this separation of love and touch. We pray for their safety and mourn for their missteps, but only from afar. Who can tolerate so much isolation? Not one, unless the Spirit of Life abides. In life and death, we are not alone. In health and in sickness, we are not alone. In triumph and tragedy, we are not alone. Today we pray while apart; tomorrow we’ll join hands and hearts and learn to love again.
May we sit in silence and be one in spirit. (90 seconds.) Blessed be!
“Such Singing in the Wild Branches,” by Mary Oliver
It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves –
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
“I Believe,” by Mark A. Miller, performed by Caitlin Norton-Rinck (soprano, alto, and tenor) and Dr. Joseph Rivers (piano) (on the Music for Services page)
Sermon: Easter for Skeptics, April 12, 2020
Rev. Greg Stewart
Last Sunday was Palm Sunday and one of my Midtown neighbors relayed to me the following incident that had the potential of producing a crisis of faith. Five-year-old Kenny stayed home from church last Sunday with his babysitter because he had a sore throat. When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm branches. Kenny asked what they were for. “People held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by,” said a sibling. “Wouldn’t you know it,” Kenny fumed. “The one Sunday I don’t go, He shows up!”
I remember a time when I was delivering a children’s sermon on Easter Sunday that surely tested my own beliefs, not to mention my comeback skills. While I was preaching, I reached into a bag of props and pulled out a plastic egg. I held it for all to see and then asked, “What’s in here?” A little girl named Beth exclaimed, “Panty hose!”
It is easy to get confused when we intentionally lift up the sagas of the season to a level of inspiration that declares them divinely ordained. Leave it to our children to see though the layers of lies that serve as the foundation for bearing false witness. Children expect the truth from adults, endeavor to tell the truth, and only get confused when we tell them something so innately false, so unbelievable, that they must call us on our foolishness.
The phone rings. “Tell them I’m not home,” says the weary parent to the unconvinced daughter who is about to answer the phone. The bells ring. “Tell them this is Christ’s body, broken for you, take and eat,” says the unconvinced priest to the weary laity that have been conditioned to leave such notions unquestioned. In both cases, “Tell the truth,” becomes “Tell my truth.”
The UU minister and former seminary president Rebecca Parker recalls her quandary about whether to join her minister father’s Methodist church when she was a teenager in his confirmation class.
“First of all,” she explained to him, “I don’t believe God sends people to hell.”
“If there is a God,” she continued, “God must be at least as good as you and mother. Neither of you would condemn me to eternal damnation.”
“Furthermore,” she went on, “I don’t believe that Jesus was the only son of God. I believe everyone is a child of God.”
Her father replied, “Do you know what a person who believes like you is called?”
“No,” Rebecca replied,” surprised to hear that there was a name for her heresy.
“A Unitarian,” her Methodist minister father said.
Then he added, “I’m a Unitarian in my theology. I agree with your ideas. You can be a Unitarian and join the United Methodist Church. There is freedom to believe as you see fit.”
This was not the response Rebecca expected. Her youthful defiance now deflated by her father’s acceptance, she replied weakly, “Oh, then I’ll join the church.”
Rebecca Parker remains affiliated with both Unitarianism and United Methodism to this day.
I am not going to tell the traditional Easter Story this morning. If that is what you wanted to hear, then I hope you had both the sense and decency to attend any number of churches wherein that is the only story that can be told. Like Kenny, Beth, and Rebecca, I want my story to make sense, just as I want my religion to do the same. So here’s my version of what happened prior to Easter.
Once upon a time, a child named Jesus was born to an unmarried, blue-collar couple. Although illegitimate by the moral standards of the day, he didn’t let society label him an outcast. Instead, he made decisions, embraced actions, and took risks to ensure his own marginalization. He did so by choice. He could do so because he knew who he was.
I think this is important. If we wear the labels others wish to affix to our faces we will never be truly free. If we don’t face our accusers and confront our abusers we will never truly be whole.
Running won’t produce wings for flight, but risking just might. Only when we transcend their labels, only then can we transform their intentions. So if I can stand here and say, “Yes I’m a faggot, and because I have been attacked I am also a fighter, and because I have been wounded I am also a healer,” then their label of shame becomes my badge of pride.
The story goes on. Jesus used both brains and brawn to challenge the oppressions of the underclass of his origins. He refused to settle for anything less than a fully human life and encouraged others not to settle either. As a result he became a threat to the power elite. He did so not with mesmerizing miracles and persuasive politicking; rather he spread a simple formula.
“Don’t let others tell you what to think,” he admonished.
“Instead, learn to think for yourselves. And do it now, because now is all you’ve got.”
This message maintains its relevance because to think for yourself in the face of today’s fascism at home and fanaticism abroad, is to risk more than just being an outcast. It is to risk life itself. Right now.
That’s how the story ends. That’s about it. There is nothing more to it.
Jesus was found guilty of treason, and was strung up and hung up on a cross, nails ripping through tendons and fluids gushing from gashes. Two other criminals received the same fate. This public display of “justice” was supposed to serve as a warning to others, lest they be tempted to base their beliefs on their own experiences and convictions. But as is often the case when acts of cruelty pose as deeds of justice, their plan to suppress truth and freedom backfired. I mean, it backfired!
Oh, I hope someone in Washington D.C. is hearing this Easter Story this morning. You cannot deny people civil rights in the name of national security. The truth will be found out and the truth will win out.
You cannot legislate cultural norms in the name of societal preservation or conservative values. The truth will be found out and the truth will win out.
You cannot invoke the name of God while interfering with a woman’s right to choose. The truth will be found out and the truth will win out.
You cannot declare that a war is over when body bags still line the tarmacs and more troops are deployed to keep filling them. The truth will be found out and the truth will win out.
You do not need a PhD to know that something is very wrong this Easter morning. Every preschooler who sits too long in front of the television will tell you that soldiers are still killing, that right-to-lifers are still interfering, and that love makes a family. Moreover, preschoolers intuit that there is more “homeland security” in a glass of milk and a plate of cookies than there is in all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.
A prophet once predicted, “A little child shall lead them.” Perhaps it’s too bad that so many honest children eventually grow up to be cynical adults. Maybe if we invested more of our time in children and other marginalized people we would not so easily be misled, misused, and manipulated into believing that we are the Chosen People.
In case you haven’t noticed, I do not find the Easter Story very hopeful. It is just another classic retelling of a repeating tragedy. Out of the muck and mire of human existence, in the back alleys and windy hollers, are born babies who would be prophets. They offer us new life, a chance to be born again, a stairway to heaven, only to be killed by those who really hold the keys to the kingdom.
Jesus wasn’t unique. It was some of his followers who were. Not the followers who saw the Jesus Movement as one more way to secure the patriarchy and thus maintain the status quo. No, not those followers.
Not those who took His message of radical socialism and watered it down until it became harmless, tasteless pabulum. No, not those followers.
Not the ones who treated the savior like a savings account—who have earned some capital and intend to spend it. No, certainly not those followers.
I’m talking about those who don’t need God the Father as Child Abuser—after all, what else would you call a parent who requires the death of his so-called son to appease him and give him pleasure. I’m talking about those who don’t need Christ the Suffering Servant to atone for their sins. Instead they take responsibility for their own actions, even if it means hanging with criminals and loving themselves in spite of the labels that result from affiliation with the “wrong crowd.” I’m talking about those who don’t need a holy spirit to cultivate their uniqueness in a culture of conformity. Instead of spirits confined to the houses of the holy, they find no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. The rich diversity of all creation bursts forth with hallowed fruit and it sinks roots in sacred ground.
Later on in her life, Rebecca Parker was advised to pray about her abusive past lest it overcome her productive present. Unlike sagas with literal resurrections, many of us have wounds that never close up and disappear completely. Her husband, David, said, “Try praying. I’ll pray with you if you want.”
“No,” Rebecca said, “God is not any help. I’ve asked.”
“David said, “Your God is not helping you with this?”
“No,” she replied, angry and frustrated.
“Well, then,” David said, “this is California. Get another God.”
That is my Easter hope for each of you. If the Easter Story you know no longer speaks to you, or if it never did, get another story. Start by looking at your own story, the story within, the one that hurts and heals, the one that rings true with you. If the god you worship is not of any help, get another god. Start by looking to the person who is sitting to the right of you and to the left as well. For if the teacher from Nazareth is to be believed, the realm of the divine is already here. It’s in here, not out there. It’s our birthright. Life is already “whole, complete, perfect,” in this very moment. Savor it. The waiting is over. No more crucifixions. No more resurrections. No more literal lies about metaphorical truths. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
To the glory of life!
The work of this church in the world is sustained by the financial pledges and gifts you have made. Please keep them coming as you are able. Consider how the church is helping you through this pandemic, just as it did pre-pandemic. These are tough times for houses of worship, and many are closing their doors forever. Hope Church will be here for you and others if we all do the very best we can. Indeed, the South Tulsa needs us now more than ever.
Unison Offertory Response
Let’s read our Offertory Response together:
We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community.
Extinguishing the Chalice
SLT No. 458
Our chalice is extinguished. Please say these words:
We extinguish this flame
but not the light of truth,
the warmth of community,
or the fire of commitment
These we will carry in our hearts,
until we are together again.
May the love that casts our fear
And the truth that sets us free
Lead us forward, together
Till the Dayspring breaks
And the shadows flee away. Amen.
Take good care of yourself and be a blessing to others! Happy Easter, Happy Spring!
“Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” performed by Chris Powell (on the Music for Services page)