Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
“Being Faithful: Willing to Lose”
Rev. Rod Debs
March 27, 2005
Story for All Ages: Spring is a wonderful time of year. Animals often give birth in spring when it is getting warm and when there are lots of growing things to eat. This morning I have some newborn rabbits to show you. . . .
Let me tell you an old story about the Easter bunny. Hundreds of years ago in Germany, Duchess Roslinda Von Lindenburg fled from war to the safety of a mountain village. The people in the village were very poor. They had no chickens, so they had no eggs to eat. Roslinda had brought a few chickens with her and wanted to share with the people of the village, but she did not have enough chickens for all the village families. She wondered what she could do?
Everyone knew that spring brings new life to plants and animals. In spring plants grow from seeds; baby animals are born; and chicken eggs hatch baby chicks. So Roslinda told the children they should prepare nests in the forest for spring eggs, and she secretly did something very kind that night. When Easter morning came, the children found brightly-colored Easter eggs in all the nests they had made in the forest. The children carefully gathered the Easter eggs, and soon after, the whole village had baby chicks hatching in every home.
The children knew there were no chickens in the village to lay the colorful Easter eggs. But on Easter morning when they were checking the Easter nests in the forest, they had seen a rabbit run away. They decided that it was the Easter bunny who had been so kind and shared the Easter eggs with them on Easter morning.
Message: In 1992, before our daughter Katrina turned eight, we bought a pair of rabbits. In thirty-one days we had five rabbit babies, tiny, multicolored, squirmy kits. What a gift! In the past thirteen years we have enjoyed many litters of rabbit kits.
Each spring is such a wonderful time of year. So much of what we need in life involves commerce with strangers; almost everything comes at a price. But the amazing new life in Spring is free. Amazing buds and blossoms, hatching birds and newborn lambs and rabbits are far more intricate and complicated than anything humans have ever manufactured. Still they are free, gifts that come to us like the air, sunshine and rain, whether we are deserving or not. What a generous time of year!
This morning I want to reflect upon Easter as well as Spring because so many of our Christian friends and family, our neighbors and coworkers are celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection this Easter morning. For many, Easter is about “new life in Christ.” It’s all about Jesus’ death in payment for the sins of all humankind, and about the promise of eternal life made possible by Jesus, raised from the dead. Rivaling Spring, Easter is all about new life for believers who are saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
To understand such Easter beliefs about Jesus, it is helpful to understand redemption in the context of history. Jews of Jesus’ day made Temple offerings, not only of money, but also the blood sacrifice of animals in payment for sins. The tradition of blood redemption can be traced to the practice of making payments of ransom to obtain the freedom of criminals or slaves. Whether ransom paid a ruler, or animal sacrifices to priests at the temple, redemption was understood as necessary for the forgiveness of debts or crimes before rulers including the most high God. God’s justice must be satisfied like that of any powerful ruler.
Do you remember collecting Green Stamps back in the 1950’s. When my parents bought gasoline or shopped in certain stores, we would get yellow or green stamps to paste in the pages of a paper book. Once the book of stamps was full, we could “redeem” all kinds of things, appliances, dishes, all kinds of free house-wares. I remember visiting the “redemption centers” full of products that could not be sold or bought. They could only be redeemed by specified numbers of books of stamps.
Here’s the situation that faced the followers of Jesus: In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, blessed are the lowly, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and peacemakers. Going beyond the commandment against killing, Jesus condemned being angry with and insulting others. Jesus said to return to no person evil for evil but to love your enemies. But when Jesus was summarily executed by the Romans, how would those followers whose lives were transformed by Jesus’ teachings understand his death?
Jesus’ followers, like all Jews had expected their liberator to be like King David, leading armies to drive occupying Roman legions from their land and restoring the nation of Israel, freeing them from Roman oppressors. Jesus’ death was a scandal, not a triumph! Jesus died in infamy on a cross, like thousands of Jewish peasants crucified by the Romans at crossroads across the land. Was Jesus’ death of no more consequence than that of the many thousands of nameless victims of Roman brutality? Jesus’ followers needed to find meaning in his execution.
Despite abhorrence of human sacrifice throughout their history, some Jewish followers of Jesus began to describe his death and resurrection as blood sacrifice of the perfect victim, God’s only son, sinless and without blame, in redemption for all the sins of the world. Impressive spin.
One problem. Jesus did not teach blood redemption. In both word and personal example Jesus taught new life, a new Kingdom of God on earth through following his example of loving-kindness and generous sharing at the common table, everyone welcome, especially outcasts. Some historians credit the flowering of early Christians (originally known as followers of The Way) as due to their generous common table available to the poor and destitute. In Rome, where at least 80% of the population were women or slaves and did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship, in the absence of any welfare safety-net, Christians welcomed anyone, without discrimination, to the common table of sharing and spiritual caring. Greater and greater numbers of Roman slaves and women, including wives of Roman officials who eventually brought their husbands, all shared the common table. Despite brutal, periodic oppression of Christians by Roman emperors, the number of Christians grew. There was no place else to go in all of Rome if you were poor or destitute!
However, in the marketplace of religions of the Roman world, Paul’s spin on Jesus as a god-man was used to trump the pantheon of Greek gods and god-men. Paul’s preaching of blood-redemption had similar appeal to the blood-cult of Mithraism so popular among Roman soldiers. Blood redemption also reflected the ancient practice of redeeming slaves and criminals to satisfy the justice of the kings, This was to become the version of the meaning of Jesus life adopted by emperors and Western empires from the time of Constantine until today. Blood redemption identifies the almighty as a king whose sense of justice must be appeased by human blood sacrifice. A brutal deity.
Though few speak up to contradict this brutal take on Jesus’ life, blood sacrifice, there are many who know through experience the effectiveness of The Way of universal loving-kindness and generous caring and sharing that Jesus lived and taught. Though blood redemption is loudly touted, it’s Jesus’ message of kind and just relationships that actually works.
What then is the meaning we can make of Jesus’ brutal execution at the hands of the Romans? Jesus showed courage to stay true to his principles of non-violent loving-kindness no matter what! Despite ridicule, discrimination, exclusion, injustice and oppression, Jesus remained faithful that The Way of non-violence and forgiveness was more effective than returning evil for evil.
Then too, Jesus addressed the almighty power of the universe as “Abba, Father” or Daddy—Papa. Rather than the nature of reality demanding brutal punishment or glorious reward based on one’s righteousness, the almighty father according to Jesus, required no sacrifice, but bestowed sun and rain on the righteous and upon evil-doers without discrimination. Followers of The Way of Jesus were charged to have no bounds upon their love as God has no discriminating bounds upon God’s
love. All are loved, deserving and undeserving.
The willingness of Jesus to be faithful even at risk and reality of death, is an encouragement to us that we ought not count the cost or draw a line beyond which we would capitulate to the tactics of returning evil for evil.
The Easter message is this: Have courage.
“It is better to suffer evil, than to commit it.” –anonymous
“Never does hatred cease by hating in return.” –Dhammapada