Shuck and Jive

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter for the Non-Religious: A Sermon

Here is this year's Easter Sermon:

Easter for the Non-Religious
(And for the Religious Too)
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
April 12th, 2009
Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway
Traveled by many remembered by few

Lookin' for something that I can believe in

Lookin' for something that I'd like to do with my life

There's nothin' behind me and nothin' that ties me to

Something that might have been true yesterday

Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more than enough

To just be here today and I don't know

What the future is holdin' in store
I don't know where
I'm goin' I'm not sure where I've been

There's a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me

My life is worth the livin', I don't need to see the end

Sweet, sweet surrender,
live, live without care

Like a fish in the water,
like a bird in the air

--John Denver, Sweet Surrender

I am sure you have heard the statement, perhaps you have said it:
I am not religious; I am spiritual.
I think I know what is meant by that. And, I want to affirm it. It is a statement that comes from the heart. It comes from an appreciation of the great mystery of life. It comes also perhaps from a frustration with organized religion.

Religion, especially the Christian religion, is often presented as a thousand and one impossible things you are supposed to believe before breakfast.
And there is no reason today to provide a litany of all the painful and ignorant things done in the name of organized religion, including the Christian religion. We know them all too well.

If you are non-religious but spiritual, I love you. You are on my team.

I wish I was spiritual, or at least more spiritual. I try to be.

But, I am religious. I am also irreligious, some might say sacrilegious, but when the chips are down, I am religious. I participate in organized religion. I try to make sense of its stories and rituals. I work with a community. At times we are even organized, although I sometimes think of us
fondly as practicing disorganized religion.

Nevertheless, we try through our religion to touch the heart of spirituality.
This distinction between spirituality and religion is sharpest on Sundays like today, when we celebrate the Christian religious doctrine of resurrection. There is a lot of religion on this day: Bible stories, empty tombs, crosses, communion, hymns, -- boo ya. Talk about a thousand and one impossible things to believe before breakfast.

But if we don’t get stuck in the religion, we may discover the spirituality to which religion points. If we can see religious practice as a vehicle, not an end in itself, we can find guidance, inspiration, and a community for our journey.

Sometimes we need people to shake us up.
This is from Peter Rollins, author of a number of books on religion including The Orthodox Heretic. He had this to say about the resurrection:
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.
Rollins touches on the distinction between religion and spirituality. You can believe all the things you want. You can be as religious as the Pope, but unless you can “cry for those who have no more tears left to shed” you are simply religious.

I have to confess, like Peter Rollins, that I am more religious than spiritual.
But I am trying.

I am no apologist for the Christian religion. I am a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of guy. Yet on a big day like this, I think it is an opportunity to talk about a way of viewing the Christian religion.

Christianity has much in common with other spiritual traditions. It contains many stories, legends, symbols and mythologies common to its closest cousins, Judaism and Islam, as well as to Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, and all of the great enduring religious traditions. Like a light refracted through a prism, each tradition presents the Divine Mystery with a unique hue.

Jesus of Nazareth is the unique hue for Christianity.
Jesus was an historical figure. Despite all the legends, creeds, and theologies surrounding him, most historians agree that he existed and that he was executed by established authority.

That is pretty wild. The central figure of the Christian religion was executed by the ruling Empire--by legitimate, established authority. I went into that last week so I won’t reiterate it today. However, that should give us pause as to what it means to be a follower of Jesus in light of modern day empires and authorities.

Why was Jesus executed? I don’t know exactly. This is my best guess.

He was in the way. He was collateral damage like thousands of others. These unfortunates were used as tools for the propaganda of Empire.

"We are here for the duration," said pompous Rome. "Stay in your place and we will let you live. Misbehave and you will end up like these guys."

The story didn’t end with execution. I don’t know how it happened, but somebody started telling stories, tales of Resurrection.
The tales of Resurrection were told by people who were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The unfortunates organized. These stories were their way of saying, "We aren't going away either. There is a new kingdom coming and it is already breaking through."

This new kingdom is an anti-empire run by an un-king. Its way is peace through justice, and justice through non-violence. Its royal court consists of poets and crazy minstrels who think the poor should be filled with good things. The un-king's army is a band of off-key resisters who keep getting in the way as they sing for peace.

Don't look for this new upsidedown world in heaven. It is right here, right now, within and without us. Anyone who is ever left out, despised, rejected, forgotten, spit on, looked over, stood up, washed up, or left behind is in the un-king's cabinet.

Easter is connected with the Spring Equinox. Symbols of rebirth, growth, and a blossoming creation are all linked with Easter. Easter is more than the celebration of Spring. But Easter is also more than the mythology of Jesus rising from the dead and flying off to heaven. It is more than
me getting to heaven when I die.

Easter is G-d's ongoing reversal of the violence and injustice of this world.
The resurrected body of Christ bears the wounds of Empire. Jesus didn't die of old age or get trampled by a runaway horse. He was executed by legitimate authority. He was crucified because the powers felt the world would get along better without him or his kind.

The Holy Mystery reversed that decision.

Easter is about a new consciousness and a new awareness. It is courageously awakening to G-d's kingdom on Earth. It is the power of love confronting the powers of violence and oppression. We are the resurrected body of Christ who bear Empire's wounds. We all bear the wounds that are the consequence of the ideology of peace through violence.

The G-d revealed in Jesus is the G-d of peace through justice. Easter is the joyful celebration that the G-d of Jesus is alive in all of us. Easter is an invitation to awaken to G-d's kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.

At least that is what I think. Easter may be more than that. But it isn’t less than that.

Easter is all around us.
We need Easter. In the midst of a world and of humanity hanging on by a thread, we need some Easter hope.

It isn’t hard to see, if we will see.

I see Easter happening in this congregation and in the larger community.
Amidst all of the forces that seem ominous and unstoppable, I see Easter. Do you?

I see Easter in those who daily battle the bureaucracies on behalf of our streams and forests. They sometimes succeed.

I see Easter in those who provide a safe place for those who are abused,

…who spend their Saturdays preparing meals for the hungry,
…who repair homes for our poorest sisters and brothers,

…who care for broken, hurting, and diseased bodies,
…who calm troubled minds,

…who risk their lives to protect the vulnerable, and

…who boldly speak truth to power on behalf of healthcare and equal rights.

I see Easter in those who make music, art and dance and who draw out the creativity in others.

I see Easter in those who take time to notice the beauty of nature and who invite others to notice as well.

I see Easter in those who use their minds to unlock the secrets of our amazing planet and vast universe.

I see Easter in those who struggle with illness yet engage life in the moment, as it is.

I see Easter in those who grieve deeply the loss of a loved one, and through grief witness to the gift of love that is more powerful than the grave.

I see Easter in those who take the time to listen to another’s pain.

I see Easter in those who refuse to give in and who refuse to lose hope about the state of our world.

I see Easter in those who make others feel that they belong and are loved without condition.

I see Easter when grudges are let loose, and hurts forgiven.

I see Easter in those who laugh easily and melt sadness.

I see Easter in those who despite the daily grind of it all, educate our children and open their minds and hearts.

I see Easter when spirits are re-energized, commitments renewed, and when we can see just enough light to take another step.

I see Easter in each and every one of your faces.

I see Easter in children who love bunnies and eggs. Yes, Easter is also about bunnies and eggs and Easter candy--in moderation.

G-d has written the promise of resurrection in the lives of children.
Easter joy is heard in their giggles and joyful squeals. We adults had better take some notice of these children. They are the ones for whom we should be living. They are the ones who will inherit the world we leave them.

So we had better darn well believe in Easter. We had better live and give our lives for a new consciousness that cares for Earth,

…that cares for the poor,

…that cares for peace,

…that cares for children.

All children.
It is all Easter.

Whether you are religious or non-religious, Easter is for you.

He is Risen. Alleluia.

I think John Denver's Sweet Surrender is a good Easter tune. So we listened to it while we participated in communion.


  1. Hi John,

    It seems you're more into repeating what Eckhart Tolle has to say about a new Earth rather than the Kingdom that was established by Christ's physical resurrection. You make it sound as though the First Christians made up a deluded tale because they were angry that their leader had been executed. I guess that suits your pitch, John, and your people.

    Christ is risen.

  2. Thanks Seeker and Snad.

    Hey Stushie, Happy Easter!

    Even though Stushie is being a bit snarky (and on the Lord's Day no less), you do bring up something that has puzzled me for a long time.

    How did these Resurrection Tales (narratives, stories, what have you) come to be?

    For that matter, how did any religious tale come to be?

    But these in particular? I don't know how they came to be or why they took the form they took.

    I do think there was a reason in the telling of them and at least part of that was to move people to organize in communities and provide alternative communities in resistance to Empire. This alternative was the Empire of God.

    I don't know what the experience was, or the variety of experiences, that moved people to organize, to declare themselves "in Christ"--but whatever it was it worked for a while at least.

    Deluded and angry? Maybe to some extent. Sometimes that is a good thing--like Reinhold Niebuhr's 'sublime madness of the soul'

    “…justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” p. 277 Moral Man, Immoral Society

  3. John

    I agree and disagree. Certainly the resurrection is an in your face to the powers that be. I said that this morning. Oops. Yesterday morning. The religious and political authorities killed Jesus because he wouldn't say what he was supposed to say or do what he was supposed to do or even be where he was supposed to be, according to them. So they killed him, figuring that he would then be safely in the grave and that they could control him when he was dead. Problem was, Jesus wouldn't stay dead.

    And that creates all kinds of problems and opportunities for the Church. If we are resurrection people then we have to do all the things you talked about. That's what resurrection people do. And we aren't afraid of what is going to happen to us. After all the worst that the authorities could do is kill us, right? And that didn't work with Jesus!

    So while I would have said something about physical resurrection I agree that personal a social action are a direct result of Jesus' resurrection.

    BTW, this is a total aside: do you know where the phrase: "let a thousand flowers bloom" comes from? It was a movement in the late '50's I think, by Mao encouraging intellectual ideas and growth. Right after came oppression of those same intellectuals.

    Being resurrection people is dangerous in this world. But as the authorities discovered with Jesus, you just can't keep a good man down.

    Love ya

  4. Hey Bob,

    I googled "Let a thousand flowers bloom" and you are right. A form of that goes back to Mao. Wow.

    I didn't know that or I had forgotten it. I have often thought of it (and liked it) in terms of celebrating creativity, diversity, and individuality.

    In my google search I see the phrase is used popularly in that sense too.

    In the sermon I was thinking of celebrating many spiritual paths instead of insisting that my tradition is the only true one.

    But I am glad you pointed out the Mao setting. I wouldn't want people to think I was referring to his bloody history.

    I guess we agree that Easter faith involves personal, social, and political implications.

  5. I think it is fair to say that the early members of the Jesus movement were angry, because probably the vast majority of people living in Galilee and Judea at that time were angry. They were under the yoke of Roman imperial oppression. They were a subject people that was exploited economically and oppressed politically, with the threat of mass murder, torture and execution hanging over their heads.

    As an example, at around the time Jesus was born or an infant, after the death of Herod, there was a rebellion in Galilee against his successor Archelaus, which the Romans responded to with brute force. Sephoris was burned to the ground, and that was only a few miles from Jesus's home town of Nazareth. The memory of this bloody event must have been fresh in Jesus's mind and the minds of his family and friends as he was growing up there.

    We know there were frequent uprisings against oppressive Roman authority over the decades, culminating in the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. It seems likely that almost everyone in the region who was not a collaborator with imperial Roman authority almost certain resented Roman rule.

    Angry? You betcha.

    As for deluded, it appears that many early Christians had mystical or visionary experiences of a resurrected Jesus after he died--including Paul, who describes his own visionary experience as being in the same vein as those of the ones who preceded him. The fact that more literal stories of Jesus walked developed and were placed in Matthew, Luke, and John later on represents the literalization of the message of hope that these early followers of Jesus felt (the fact that these stories differ in details shows their evolving character). Unless one believes that hope is delusional, I don't think that they were deluded.

  6. Thanks, Seeker.

    "Deluded" is obviously a weighted word that I don't use. I was playing off Stushie on that.

    I do like Niebuhr's phrase, "sublime madness of the soul" which is holding on to that hope of justice and peace amidst all the forces against it.

  7. Certainly those who think that the hope for peace and justice is deluded, or at best naive.

    I was watching a music video today for a French song that is a tribute to John Lennon ("Imagine de John Lennon"). It's all in French. :). The female video singer in the video recreates Lennon's bed-in for peace, and at one point a journalist asks her if all those high ideals are "naive". She responds by citing people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Visionaries have often been called deluded or naive, but without such visions we might as well give up in despair.

  8. By the way, as Dominic Crossan likes to point out, referring to Jesus as "Lord" was High Treason at that time, because under Roman Imperial theology, it was Caesar who was "Lord" and "Son of God". Using the same terms that Roman theology expected you to applt to Caesar, but applying them to Jesus instead, was a direct challenge to Roman imperialism.