Community Unitarian Universalist Church April 15, 2001
Daytona Beach, Florida

One Person's Search for Easter
A Sermon by Lloyd H. Dunham

The pageantry of Easter at the church of my youth always impressed me. I didn't really give it much thought.
I accepted what was. It was a given. It was fun because as a boy soprano I often got to sing a solo.

I was living a neatly compartmentalized life:

those fascinating math and science classes at school
fit neatly in one box ­
and my religious practices
fit nicely in another box.
If my pastor said it,
If my church taught it,
Then that settled it.
The tomb was empty.
Jesus was resusitated!

I really didn't start to ask many questions until I arrived at college in West Virginia. Our Bible professor,
dear old Dr. Brown, (he probably wasn't really very old!) opened our eyes to many new thoughts and questions.
He gave us permission to think critically about scripture.

Each time Easter came around I heard again the amazing stories and assumed it was all historical fact ­
Still it didn't trouble me as it should have.

When I shifted my career from religious education to preaching in 1974 I was faced with what to say on Easter Sunday. The church was always crowded on Easter ­ But why? Did they all believe the traditional story or were they hoping I would speak to their doubts? What would they think if I told them there was no empty tomb?
Maybe it didn't matter what I said As long as there was impressive pageantry and good music. More than ever before I really had to sort out my own beliefs and faith.

While I had deep doubts about both the Christmas and Easter stories I had a profound belief and trust
in the teachings and example of Jesus. The only way I could make sense of it was to use a metaphor of a sandwich. Jesus' story was like a sandwich. The stories of his birth were like one piece of bread. The stories of his death and miraculous appearances were like the other piece of bread. In between was the essential portion,
without which there really was no sandwich. It was out of that metaphor that I came to regard the birth stories
and the stories of the empty tomb as quite secondary to the life that was lived between his birth and death..
The "meat" of the sandwich for me was the actual life and the teachings of Jesus. I have come to believe that the stories that bracket his life are stories put together to call attention to one who was very special.

Western Christian theologians have over the years imposed western style linear thinking on thoroughly Jewish midrash writing of two thousand years ago. The facts or heresay were woven together with cherished traditions
to form legends and myths that had great power for first century people. When those stories were heard as historical accounts they lost the intended purpose and meaning. As a result orthodox Christians have been drawn into creeds that have little basis in the events they are trying to portray.

As I have searched for meaning outside the rigid creeds I have long looked toward Unitarianism. When Laurie & I were serving a Dutch Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York in the early 1960's, a local Unitarian minister decided that the whole Easter thing was a big joke and justified publicly poking fun at the Christian churches on his "Wayside Pulpit" bulletin board. I soon found that he did not represent the best in the UU!

My respect has recently been commanded by retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who speaks from within the Christian church. He has said that if his Christian faith depended on acceptance of an empty tomb
and the physical resurrection of Jesus he would have to turn away from the Church and the faith that has been his home for his entire life. He notes that with him would be virtually every contemporary reputable Biblical scholar, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.

The Church has made the legends and myths into literal accounts! The ancient followers of Jesus had used these forms to express their deep faith as best they knew how.

It seems obvious that something happened among Jesus' followers in Galilee after his execution. Bishop Spong finds evidence that after the crucifixion Jesus' disciples went back to their homes and back to their familiar way of life. He suggests that Peter had been deeply moved by the man Jesus. Peter knew how Jesus had transformed lives, how he had lived what he taught. This enormous impact on his life convinced him that there was more! He gathered some of the twelve to talk about what had happened. They shared a profound faith that Jesus still had a living presence in their lives. Specifically what occurred we will never know but whatever it was, it was powerful enough to change the course of history in significant ways.

Bishop Spong believes that it may well be that six months after Jesus died Peter and the other disciples returned to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles to triumphantly declare the continued reality of Jesus in their lives. The Feast of Tabernacles sound more than a little familiar. There would be a procession for days around the altar in the temple by people waving palm branches and shouting "Hosannah!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Virtually every detail of the Palm Sunday story can be found in the Feast of Tabernacles as defined in the Hebrew Bible.

The prophets Zechariah and Malachi along with Psalm 118 list elements of the passion story:

The ride of the king into Jerusalem on a donkey
The waving of palm branches
The shouts of hosannah
The payment of thirty pieces of silver
The cleaning of the temple
The people looking upon the one they had pierced
The Lord suddenly coming to his temple.

Some Christians accuse Bishop Spong of heresy. I welcome his careful scholarship and his thoughtful and reverent expressions. He frees me from rigid doctrine (which I find lifeless) to trust in a caring and loving God
for those things I cannot know or see. What does that mean for resurrection? For me it means that I can trust God to exceed my best human hopes. I don't know what that might mean. It is enough to trust the God to which Jesus pointed us.

In conclusion I offer you Bishop Spong's own words, as he says:

"For Jesus (life after death) seemed to mean something like communion with God.
It meant being in touch with something that transcended all of one's human categories, including transcendence of the self.
It meant having one's eyes opened to see dimensions of life not normally seen and to have one's ears open to hear melodies and harmonies not normally heard.

"This means I no longer look for God or for ultimate meaning in some distant place beyond this world. I rather seek these realities in every moment and in every relationship..

"For me heaven is an invitation into life, which, when explored deeply enough, when lived fully enough, when engaged significantly enough, is a way of passing into transcendence.
In this way finite moments slip into being infinite, timeless moments.
I also believe that human life can be lived so deeply, that love can be experienced so powerfully,
that incarnation in fact occurs again and again.
God is not a heavenly man, an external force, or a judging parent.
God is the creating spirit that calls order out of chaos..
God is the love that creates wholeness, the Being at the depths of our being, the Source from which all life comes.

"This is the God I see in Jesus of Nazareth,..

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This sermon is a reflection on the work of John Shelby Spong in his book RESURRECTION: Myth of Reality? Published in 1994. Spong is the retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, NJ.