True Lies – An April Fool’s Day Easter Sermon

Before the sermon we explored the Gospel of Mark’s telling of the empty tomb, and the idea that the truth of a story isn’t as important as the truth in a story.

Then, we read Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front 

Then, the Sermon….

As you heard, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are charged with telling this wild story, which means that here we are, for the second Sunday in a row,
dealing with the question of whether or not to believe women.

In the version of the gospel we shared today – which is from Mark, their fear of being believed, or not, keeps them quiet – they never tell. In another version, Luke, they come back from the tomb, and they tell all the disciples what they have seen, and heard – that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And the disciples are confident it’s a trick. Except Peter – who at least thought there might be a possibility…..their words weren’t in and of themselves enough, but they got him wondering – so he runs to the tomb to see the evidence for himself.

Regardless though of who is doing the telling, the resurrection part of the Jesus story
has always been for many, the hardest to believe, in the literal sense at least, even more than all the other miracles found throughout the gospel stories. Unitarians and other literal-minded folks throughout the last few centuries have often struggled with or downright rejected the whole idea as a result.

While we can appreciate Jesus the teacher, or Jesus the radical rabble rouser, or even Jesus the prophet, Jesus who died and then was literally raised from the dead is for many
simply…taking things too far.

And yet, as the Rev. Parisa Parsa points out, this is the part of the story “most strongly attested by the community around [Jesus]. And the prevalence of these stories
preserved by his contemporaries leads [some scholars] to argue that something must have happened that truly defies reason, or science, something more than just a powerful metaphor.”

Unitarian Universalist writer Liz James tells how one of her friends shared the story of Easter in her congregation, just like Eleanor and Sean did. At the end, her friend told her church how we don’t know for sure what the ending of the story means – if Jesus actually rose from the dead, or if loving hands came and got him and buried him somewhere secret and safe, or if the whole thing is a myth that may not be factually true,
but points to something true.

But then, from the second row of the congregation, a young voice laced with obvious exasperation piped up, “Why don’t they just google it?”

I thought this was a fun idea, and so I did google it – “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”

There are 44 million results. A quick scan indicates the results are heavily swayed towards YES. But, I’m guessing this doesn’t entirely settle it.

This is the irony of truth today. The facts are more accessible to us in ways we couldn’t have even imagined a couple of decades ago, so that, in a flash, debate and wonderings about the truth that used to go on over the course of a whole social evening – can be stopped through a quick consult with someone’s phone. (Why don’t you just google it?)

At the same time, truth, has never felt so contested and unclear. Lately, more often than actual news (let alone personal updates) in my social news feed, there have been tips about how to determine if the thing my friends and family have been posting
actually happened, or if it’s instead someone’s idea of a bad joke, or maybe someone’s idea of how to bring down democracy.  These things are hard to discern, and not just on April 1st.

This “post-truth” world causes many of us a lot of worry – a few of you have asked me if we should hold classes about how to de-bunk fake news, or how to tell opinion from facts, and the most popular request: how to win an argument with a relative who won’t accept that the facts are the facts. In each case, maybe you’ve noticed, I’ve nodded along, and then said, probably not.

Before anyone misunderstands where I’m headed with this sermon, let me be clear, I am not against, or even disinterested in the literal truth. I’m all in on Scott Denning’s climate change presentation, and just as much, I find the scholarship around the historical Jesus fascinating. And, as a Unitarian Universalist, I also want to say, I respect the faith of those here and in other religious communities whose commitment to the factual truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a salvific reality.

With that said for today, I want to suggest that something matters more in this story – and in our world – and in our lives – than facts. And actually the best thing, the best good news for our world today – about this story,  is how disconnected from facts it is,
how impossible, how contested. That despite the question that remains these 2,000 years later hardly anyone thinks it can be solved by googling it. This is the best good news
for us because, in a “post-truth” world, when we let the facts go entirely – and release ourselves from even trying to engage the facts as a way to win over a sense of truth (and if you’ve read the articles or tried even a little bit you know it doesn’t work anyway) if we can resign from that battle over facts – then we can get into the more serious, revolutionary, and hopeful battle available to us which is, the battle of imagination.

The battle of imagination is an idea promoted by activist and organizer adrienne maree brown, whose book emergent strategy I carry with me wherever I go because I find it relevant to nearly everything these days.

Brown reminds us that the world we are living in right now, was born in someone’s imagination, these constructs came from someone’s imagination – many someone’s,
this hierarchy – these are not “natural,” not a given. All of this was born in the imaginations of “people who think women and black people and people from other countries and people with different abilities or desires are dangerous and inferior.”
We see the impact of these powerful and destructive imaginings playing out in real life,
and in lives that are lost Stephon Clark being just the most recent terrible, tragic example.

What is powerful about this idea, however is that if this world today was born in imagination, then another world can be born in the same way.

Look back at any of history’s major movements for social change, or any happening today you’ll find the work of imagination – social, moral, prophetic – collaborative and creative, imagination that inspires and compels people to act in real life in service of a robust future that, as Brown describes it, is so abundant, “it bursts the seams of the outdated imagination” that can no longer hold us, or hold what we are becoming.

Brown lifts up slavery as one of the best examples of the power of imagination –
because if you were born into a world where Black lives were less than human,
and where Black bodies were enslaved – you could come to think of this reality
as “natural,” a given – but in the imagination of slaves, and their allies,
another idea and another world was born. From this imagination, experiments began,
to try to break free, and then also failures, and then learning from those failures, and then more experiments, until the dream grew was so big, it could not stay in dream land,
and as the musical Hamilton puts it, “the world turned upside down.”

In the midst of their despair and diaspora, the Jews too turned to this imagination – it is the basis for the messianic hope that Christians believe Jesus came to fulfill.

For the Jews, they imagined a change-agent would arrive on the scene, someone who could turn the world around, a king, or another powerful figure – one that would have the capacity to influence the social order.

The early Christian imagination took up this story, but then imagined it still another way – as Jesus was not a King and did not have any particular power. So, in their imagination,
a savior need not be rich, or powerful, but might instead be a poor carpenter’s son without any official authority – and in their imagination they started to see a world where humility and service and sacrifice would be considered the core indicators
of a great redeemer and liberator….

And here we are, over 2000 years later. Their ridiculous imagination grounded in the impossible and never been seen before has influenced billions of people, and shaped the course of entire civilizations.

Brown reminds us however, that imagination can’t start there – in the realm of whole civilizations. Instead imagination’s power matters most in the smallest, everyday ways.

As she says it, “small is all.”

By this she means, there is no such thing as generic “communities” working for social change – there are only real lives – friends and partners trying to survive and thrive in the every day, trying to make clear their humanity, while also struggling with their marriages, and their kids, raising their grandchildren and paying their bills,
and also with dealing illness and addiction, and grief and loss, and also often lonely,
and longing for something more.

Here too, in the small imagination propels us forward, in this tangled blessing of life,
and makes possible this surviving, and thriving. As Jewish Rabbi and family systems specialist Edwin Friedman says it: whenever “anyone is in [crisis,] (whether it is martial, economic, political, or health), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see.”

What is challenging about this, however, is that in these times of personal crisis,
or in the days when the social structures feel especially dangerous, and increasingly oppressive – often then, imagination becomes the most fragile, and often the first casualty – as options close down, and the world tightens around us.

When I was first coming out, my parents were really struggling, and I remember still a feeling like the only options before me were either – losing relationship with my parents entirely, or, spending my life in the closet.

That was it. That’s all I could imagine, and the more I thought of it, the more despair I felt, and the more sure I was that this was it. Luckily, I had a great therapist around that time, that helped me loosen up this stubborn binary, and discover instead a huge variety of complex options, not all of them catastrophic.

When imagination starts to shut down, we often need other people to help us lift our gaze, and shake loose our souls, to walk alongside us, and care for us, and to help remember all the still unfolding and deeply diverse pieces of the truth that are still unfolding.  We need others to laugh with us, and play with us, and most of all to try out with us the wild experiments that will help us discover and sustain a more robust imaginative field.

Luckily, our post-truth world helps us in this as well – as the same conditions that make truth so hard to define have also allowed us to connect with more people, and to learn from more people’s imaginings than ever before.

As an example, Brown lifts up the activists working in Palestine who have connected with the Black Lives Matter activists to provide support, and to share lessons and strategies. This expansive field for partners in imagination not only helps us grow our sense of the possible, but also widens our vision so that it becomes even more likely
that the world we create together can hold us all. Or, at least, as long as we keep making space for different and divergent perspectives, and allow a variety of understandings and experiences to co-exist – even when these stories like our different understandings of the Jesus narrative are contradictory or ambiguous.

As Parisa Parsa says, “If there is any hope for peace in this world, it lies in deepening awareness that we do not have to let go of the complexity of our stories or our lives for the sake of righteousness….” but instead we can keep growing our capacity to hold and manage ambiguity, and even discontinuity, and instead learn to live in the tension.
Because here is the site of discovery, and learning, beginnings and possibilities.

The story of Easter, despite the pastels and the candy in its popular celebration
is a story of a people in crisis, and also, a story of people who refused the pull of despair.
Regardless of the facts of the empty tomb, the story they spun transformed their grief into hope, their pain into vision, and death into life.

On this Easter morning, may we all follow their example, and embrace the wild, the impossible, the unexpected – “Do something everyday that won’t compute. Love the world. Work for nothing. Be joyful, though we have considered all the facts.” Let’s imagine a world beyond what we can currently see, and then go out even further than that.  Until we discover a freedom that can match the greatest longings of a generation not yet born and a joy that will sustain us, and feed us, and carry us home – into this new world risen and redeemed for us all.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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