Cracking Open

Sarah Richards
April 16, 2017

Cracking Open

“All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born.[i]” Howard Thurman’s poem “The Growing Edge” seems especially relevant to our times. So many of us are counting on the “upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor”, looking for “the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and people have lost their reason”; we are turning to our sources “of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.” But Thurman’s words, and the experience of the growing edge are timeless. The fundamental human urge to celebrate spring, rebirth, transformation is evidence of the awareness that all around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born—and the awareness or aspiration that might happen within us, too. That we may experience rebirth ourselves. I wonder if, in all of the stories from around the world and over millennia about the theme of transformation, of being somehow reborn, I wonder if it ever happens without some obstacle, some struggle, a sacrifice large or small. I can’t think of any, myself. Eggs, for example—a chick has to break through the shell itself in order to hatch. The expression, “You have to break some eggs in order to make an omelet.” The Christian story of Jesus’ sacrifice to secure the rebirth of all humankind (or all believers, depending on the version) is the dominant example of this theme in Western Culture.

But the celebration of Easter, the most important holiday in Christianity – in fact, commemorating its defining event – is problematic for some Unitarian Universalists. The celebration of the evidence of God’s promise fulfilled—that Christians will be reborn after death is not something many if not most contemporary Unitarian Universalists can identify with.

Instead, we often celebrate spring’s return, and the fertility of the earth, referring to neo-pagan and other earth-based rituals of the season. Which is all well and good—it is true that the Easter egg and the Easter bunny derive from pre-Christian rituals celebrating fertility, after all. In fact, if any of you read the description for this service, you know that last month when I was thinking about Easter Sunday, I was planning to talk about the Easter Egg as symbol of transformation, myself. Humanists often talk about Jesus’ role as revolutionary, as an exemplar for us in social justice work. Again—I say, “right on!”; but Easter doesn’t mark the turning over of the money changers’ tables in the temple. It’s not the celebration of the Sermon on the Mount. So let us not be quick to hop past some of the Christian themes celebrating miraculous resurrection— I’m saying this to myself as a religious humanist as well as to all of you: there are meanings and messages that are relevant to all Unitarian Universalists, whether we are Christian, pagan, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, humanist, a combination or something else entirely.

I know there’s a specific theological term, heck, there is probably a whole school of theological thought and literature on this, but I just want to make a simple connection. Sometimes, our own transformation depends on our own sacrifice or struggle. More often, our transformation has been effected by someone or something else, to whom/what we are greatly indebted. And really, one can’t pay back someone for helping or causing transformation; one can only pay it forward. We might give to our alma mater, because we want others to experience a similar mind-opening education. We might pass on the stories and lessons of parents and ancestors who took risks and made sacrifices in order for us to become who we are. How else do we demonstrate our gratitude for the gifts of transformation, by being vehicles for others’ rebirth?

Reflecting on Holy Week observations culminating in Easter, Sister Ruth Eileen Dwyer poses the question, “Are we any different year by year? Is the world a better place because we both personally and as a community of faith respond to Jesus’ call to be the body of Christ today?[ii]

Whether or not we respond to that particular call, I would argue that we Unitarian Universalists might rightly ask ourselves “are we—personally and as a community of faith–any different year by year? Is the world a better place for our efforts because we both personally and as a community of faith recognize our place in the interdependent web of all existence? Here is something about the resurrection that I think Unitarian Universalists of all theologies can identify with – we are called to awareness of our interconnections, that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. Our transformation is possible through a willingness to see that, and act upon it.

Sister Dwyer presents two “checklists” of practices that can help Christians, and maybe specifically Catholics, make an inventory of how they are living Jesus’ mission—how they are being transformed in this life through their relations with others. These lists are Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. I think that most UUs – and most humans wouldn’t have major problems with the Corporal Works:

  • To feed the hungry
  • To give drink to the thirsty
  • To clothe the naked
  • To shelter the homeless
  • To visit the imprisoned
  • To visit the sick
  • To bury the dead

These actions are transformative for we who do them, and for the greater community. In fact, I see these works as affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and promoting justice, equity, and compassion in human relations—the first two principles of Unitarian Universalism.

And here’s the spiritual Works of Mercy list:

  • To admonish the sinner
  • To counsel the doubtful
  • To comfort the sorrowful
  • To instruct the ignorant
  • To forgive all injuries
  • To bear wrongs patiently
  • To pray for the living and the dead

Now, we may have some problems with the “admonishing the sinner” phrasing, but most UUs that I know have no problem speaking up when we think someone has done something wrong.

And the last one, “pray for the living and the dead,” might not be meaningful for everyone—but when I think of the Buddhist Metta meditation that we often sing, “may you be filled with loving kindness, may you be whole,” and when I think of the many ways we remember those who have gone before us, this work of mercy seems familiar. And again, I see most of these spiritual works of mercy included in our first two principles. We might even extrapolate an expanded checklist from the other principles, too:

For example, what are the works of body and spirit that we regularly do “to accept one another and encourage spiritual growth in our congregations?” Listen deeply to those with whom we differ, serve as teacher for religious education at any age level, consistently do individual or communal spiritual practice?

How do we individually, and together pursue a free and responsible search for truth and meaning?

And what about making the world a better place? What about UU checklists for institutional and systemic transformation? What do we do every day to promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large?

We don’t vote or have a protest march every day, but there are opportunities to support, critique and encourage our elected representatives here at CUF, in other community groups, unions, as well as in every level of government. I know many of you have recently increased the frequency of such works in your lives, and so have our community and country.

How do we work for world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? How do we act, individually and collectively, with respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part?   What and how we consume and throw away, how we extract and use natural resources—these are just a few of the daily habits that can indicate progress or otherwise towards environmental sustainability—global transformation.

All of these corporal and spiritual works require some degree of effort, small or great, some amount of time, attention, commitment. Sometimes, they involve discomfort, struggle, and sacrifice in order to effect transformation. Two weeks ago, I relayed the news of the UUA president’s resignation, and a call to renew efforts to transform not only our UU leadership, but our culture to be truly multicultural, anti-racist and equitable for all. In that short time, there have been many, many works of the body and spirit led by UUs of color and supported by white UUs in service to that call. Three interim co-presidents of the UUA, including former president Bill Sinkford (who, incidentally, preached here at this building’s dedication in 2004), have been appointed to lead until a new president is elected at GA in June.

Sinkford told UUA staff, “I hope you can take away from my presence that we can not only survive this period but thrive in it and through it, if we are willing.”[iii]

We’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable, to open ourselves to the growth pains of systemic transformation. To add some different daily works to effect change. CUF has joined well over 400 congregations in answering the call to present the UU White Supremacy Teach-in, on May 7. I’m excited that we’re a part of this growing edge, a step towards institutional, and systemic transformation.

It seems that I haven’t mentioned Easter in awhile, and nothing about Christ’s resurrection. I might have gotten carried away by the idea of an annual review of the UU checklists of corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I return to the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice making possible the rebirth of souls has wider meaning to Christians and non-Christians alike. And very importantly, we are told that Jesus-God made that sacrifice out of great love for his children. Love is the power that makes transformation possible. We each and together have agency, and we are dependent on people and structures and natural–and for some, supernatural–forces greater than ourselves for who we are, and who we become individually, and collectively.

Whether God or humans or something else is the source of love which effects transformation, rebirth is worthy of celebration, of inspiring awe and gratitude. It is worthy of our works of mind, body, and spirit in constant awareness that “All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born.” Friends, in this story, we are the Easter Eggs, willing to crack our hearts and our minds open to hope in moments of despair. May we on this Easter Sunday, look to the sources of our transformation, and be joyful. May we look to the ways we contribute to transformations of our selves, our society, and our world, and be lovingly resolute. Happy Easter!

Amen.

[i] http://www.uua.org/worship/words/quote-reading/howard-thurman-quote accessed 4/17/17.

[ii] https://spsmw.org/2009/04/20/easter-transformation-in-the-christian-life/ accessed 4/15/17.

[iii] http://www.uuworld.org/articles/interim-uua-co-presidents?utm_source=uuworld&utm_medium=front&utm_campaign=picks accessed 4/15/17.