Easter Sermon: A Religion for this World
Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, March 31, 2013
And now I’m going to tell you a story too. But first I need you to tell me something. When you walk into a Christian church, what are some of the things you see? Especially the things up front here, at what’s called the altar?
(People say: cross, crucifix, candles, flowers)
Thanks! Here’s my story.
Once upon a time, in fact, just about ten years ago, there were two people who were Christian and studied Christianity and wrote books together about religion. They were traveling in Europe to some of the oldest churches, the ones that have been around since a few hundred years after the Christian religion began. They were beautiful churches. The traditional shape for old churches is a cross or sometimes a capital T, and this part of the church (gesturing over altar) is called the apse—often it has a high ceiling or dome and the inside of the dome is covered in pictures. The apses at these churches were filled with pictures of Jesus and the saints, the natural world and stories from the Bible. And after a while, these two people started to notice something odd about these pictures.
photo of Sant’Apollinaire apse by Tango7174 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
They went to one, in Ravenna, Italy, that was built in the sixth century. Its ceiling is a gorgeous mosaic of flowers, trees, and birds. In this mosaic, a blue sky stretches behind hills of mossy green rocks. Sheep are in the hills, and the figures of saints, and in the midst of it all is the face of Jesus. But there is no crucifix.
They went to the catacombs outside Rome, which were places people were buried and so they had a great deal of religious meaning. There they saw many pictures of Jesus. There’s Jesus’s birth, and Jesus healing people, and Jesus feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus as a shepherd. But there is no crucifix.
They went to the church that has the earliest image of Jesus of any church apse, Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which also has mosaics, created three to four hundred years after Jesus’s time. It shows Jesus holding a book and talking with his students. There is no crucifix.
They started to wonder what was going on, and they did some research, and they discovered something amazing: there are no images of Jesus on the cross for the first thousand years of Christian church-building. For the first half of Christianity, crucifixion is not a central image. It’s not an image at all.
There are crosses, yes. They just don’t have Jesus on them. He’s doing other things: healing, teaching, making gestures of welcome and blessing. The people who built and worshipped in these holy places knew all about the crucifixion. It was part of the story, a key part of the story, as Dan just related; it’s told in all four Gospels. Jesus died and he died on the cross. That just doesn’t seem to be the part of the story that interested Christians for half of the history of Christianity.
This is quite a shocker to people like me, and maybe you, and most people who walk into a Christian church nowadays. It was quite a shocker to the two people in my story, whose names are Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker and who wrote a book about what they learned, called Saving Paradise. (Parker, by the way, is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the president of our Starr King School for the Ministry.)
Apparently, the crucifixion isn’t as central to Christianity as we have been led to believe. It wasn’t the center at all for those thousand years, until something changed. What made things change is an interesting question, and Brock and Parker go into it at length in their book, but we don’t have time to get into it today. The question for us today is: if the crucifixion wasn’t the center of the religion, what was?
That’s what Parker and Brock asked, and the answer was right there in those mosaics and beautiful apses. It had paradise. A very particular kind of paradise. A paradise that is right here in this world that we live in right now: that is right here in the life we’re living right now.
At its heart, the holiday we celebrate today, Easter, is about how to find paradise.
At its heart, Unitarian Universalism is about the same thing: what paradise is, how to know it when we see it, and rejoice in it, and preserve it, and sustain it.
So what is paradise? There are different ways to answer this question, and the answer we give will have a big effect on how we live.
One answer is: paradise is another place and another time. To be specific, it’s where you go after you die, maybe only if you’ve been good. Another word for it is heaven. It’s a realm beyond the body, beyond the world, beyond the life we live right now, and in this answer, in this way of looking at things, that’s good, because in this way of looking at things, the body suffers and the world is a mess and life is scary, so you want to get beyond all those bad things to the blessed place, the only truly good place. The way you get there is: you die.
If that’s how we think about paradise, then it makes a lot of sense to have the crucifixion front and center. That way we’re constantly reminded that this world is a terrible place where good people are tortured and die; and we’re shown the way out. The way out is to die too; if we do, we’ll be resurrected, the way Jesus was.
For the last thousand years, that’s been the dominant view within Christianity. Not the only one—Christianity is a very diverse and complex religion—but a big one.
A different way to understand paradise is this: we were already given a perfect world, right here, in this life. The Bible called it Eden. At first sight it looks like that’s what’s going on in those beautiful mosaics. The grass is lush and green, the birds are flying, there are flowers and trees of many kinds, a river runs gently through … Eden was called a garden—but you might notice, if you read the first few chapters of Genesis, the garden of Eden wasn’t really a garden, not like the garden you might grow around your house, or like the Gamble Garden. Those require a lot of work and attention. In Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they needed, without having to do a thing. They were just fed as babies are fed, fruit dropping into their hands—no weeding, no mulching, no effort on their parts.
The problem with this understanding of paradise is that if you look around the world we have, which is beautiful but does require our work and attention, we’ve obviously already blown it. So we tell stories that explain why things aren’t perfect anymore. We talk about how we messed up; we fouled the nest; we were given perfection, but we were imperfect, so paradise is a thing of the past. And the only way we can get it back is to wipe out everything and start over. Interestingly, the crucifixion has been used to promote that idea too. When, after a thousand years, the crucified Jesus started showing up in the art of the churches of Europe and Asia, another Jesus started showing up there too: the angry judge, who sent some people to the pit that was hell, others to the glorious, walled city that was heaven. In that view, all of the bad people and bad things will be cleared away one day, and the few good survivors will get to live in paradise once again. If you can call it paradise when most people are locked out.
There’s a third way, a third paradise, not of the future nor of the past, but of the present. Brock and Parker saw it in the mosaics of Ravenna and the catacombs of Rome. This third view of paradise envisions it in this world, among the rivers and trees and hills and sky we know. It’s not the long-ago Eden to which we can’t return. It’s in figures like Mary, caring for her baby. Like shepherd saints, who tend the flocks of sheep. And most of all, in Jesus, who is shown healing sick people, feeding crowds, speaking to his students of books and wisdom. It’s not a dead Jesus—Jesus is never dead on those walls—it’s the living one: the rabbi, the teacher, who taught anyone who chose to learn from him that they should love one another and care for everyone. This vision of paradise shows a world that is beautiful, holy, vulnerable like a little baby, full of potential, and imperfect. It’s our world: a paradise that is all around us and within us, and that also needs us. We can destroy it or we can sustain it. We are the shepherds too. This paradise doesn’t ask us to suffer and die, like the crucified Jesus; it certainly doesn’t ask us to kill to avenge that crucified Jesus, the way the church of the second thousand years began to do. It shows us the living Jesus and his care for creation, and it invites us to take care of the earth and its beings, the way he does, and so make this world a continuing paradise.
That’s how we find life in the midst of death. That’s our Easter.
Ours is a religion for this world. And that means two things. One, that it’s a religion of this world. We live as fully as we can the one life we know we have, this “wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver says. We look for heaven here on this “happening illimitably earth” (e. e. cummings). The other meaning is that ours is a religion for, on behalf of, this world. It’s a world that needs us, just as we need it. We are part of a web of interdependence, nurtured by the beings all around us and the other people we encounter, who need us in turn. If we do not depend on them, we have nothing; if we harm them, we harm ourselves.
That’s the teaching of the third way, the vision that comes through in the early centuries of Jesus on those walls and ceilings. When he was walking in the fields, when he was tending his sheep, when he was restoring the temple, when he was speaking to his students as the great Greek philosophers spoke to theirs. When he was a teacher and a friend, not a corpse.
In the third way, paradise is the whole world, not just a part. Long before people knew that the world was a globe, they used circles to show completion, and that’s what we see in those high, arched, domed ceilings. They show the whole world, and all of it is paradise. That paradise isn’t a walled garden. The walled-off heaven only appears in those angry, judgment scenes, the ones where Jesus is sending a select few to the wonderful paradise, the paintings that show up in churches after the crucifixion starts to appear there. If we are to make paradise here, it will have no walls shutting anyone out. It will be for everyone, because otherwise it can be for no one. It can’t be a parkland carved out of desolation, a lovely, clean, green spot that the rich and lucky preserve for themselves by running air purifiers and waste treatment plants that just spew more pollution into the lands of the poor and unfortunate who are shut outside. Paradise isn’t a realm that only some people get into: it’s a community that we create, where all are welcome. Everywhere, everyone, has something of the holy within, and we strive to make holiness blossom everywhere.
The most frequently reported miracle in the gospels is Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and a couple of fish. In four books it appears six times, and it appears in the art of the first thousand years, too. Jesus doesn’t make a way to paradise for us by dying on the cross; he does it by making sure there’s enough to go around. In his life and teaching, he took what looked like scarcity, like not enough, and made a paradise for everyone, which is the only kind of paradise there can be. When we create justice and fairness, we take this world in all its beauty and imperfection, and make it into a forever paradise.