Sermon: How Do You Want to be Remembered?
How Do You Want to be Remembered?
An Easter Sermon
© The Rev. Joseph M Cherry (2019)
When I attended a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, my favorite service of the year was the Sunrise Easter Service. I loved to watch the light gathering in the sanctuary at St. Peter’s in Macomb, Michigan.
I sang in the choir with my girlfriend Melissa and her parents, the four of us making a quartet. Melissa’s parents were farm people, and I have always been a morning person, so having church at 6am was not a hardship for us. Melissa on the other hand, I’m not sure she was every fully awake until half way through the service, not in the four years we did this.
I joined the church because of Melissa and her family. I hadn’t really attended church much as a child, and there were aspects of church life that I found very appealing. I loved the sense of community, I loved the potlucks, I loved singing in the choir.
The theology, though, was never something I could embrace. At some point in my attending St. Peter’s I made a pact with God, or God as I understood God to be. I promised that while I wasn’t sure about many things, I would never say things I that my heart and mind didn’t agree were true. So I never said the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Instead I would be silent.
A house of worship just seemed like the wrong place to lie. As a compromise I offered what I hoped was and what would be seen as a respectful silence.
As Unitarian Universalists Easter Sunday is sometimes an awkward dance. In our sanctuaries on Sunday there are people for whom the story of the resurrection of hope is deeply meaningful, and just down the pew from them is someone who has been wounded by the story. There are people skeptical to the point of irritation about the story, and those who have never really been exposed to the story with any intimacy. There are those who find the story to be allegorical, and those who find unhelpful.
And yet, here we are all together this Sunday, and many Sundays, navigating many belief systems, and through our fellowship, demonstrating in a very real way to the rest of the world that people who believe differing things can exist concurrently. Not even to merely exist but to thrive, not because we all agree, but because we understand that truth is complex. It is not a light switch, where there are only two positions on and off, right and wrong.
Our congregation is a place where when we find ourselves with divergent ideas, we know that we can offer if not agreement, a respectful silence.
In 1867 the roots of this congregation called it’s first minister. Our Cleveland Unitarian ancestors called Rev. Trowbridge Brigham Forbush to serve the Unitarian Society of Cleveland, long before we even had a building of our own. He served this congregation for 8 years and moved to the First Unitarian Church of Detroit. While he was there he presented a 10 part lecture series on the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, which the congregation published in 1881.
In his opening sermon which he called The Real Jesus and the Ideal Christ, Rev. Forbush begins:
A truly great man grows ever greater down the ages. He is like a mountain peak whose shadow falls wider and farther as the sun sinks behind it. There is a more discriminating appreciation, an acknowledgment perhaps of limitations, a separating of the accidental from the real; but true greatness never becomes less. Though we may discover flaws in his philosophy, Plato grows grander as he grows old. Shakespeare has an enthusiastic regard, almost a reverence, to-day, which he was far from winning as Queen Elizabeth's playwright. Washington, loved and respected while living, now wears the [halo] of sainthood. The rugged features of Lincoln begin to shine beneath the red crown of martyrdom with a divine radiance. Were this a rude age and we a barbarous people, a few generations would trans form our heroes into demigods.
We not only forget the imperfections and better understand the virtues of our great ones, but we steadily idealize them. The farther they recede from us the brighter grows the halo about them and the more grandly do their figures loom in the purple distance. The ideal is not the reproduction of the real; it is not history with the dark shades left out; it is imagination weaving the garments of fancy around an historic figure, giving to the historic face features of its own tracing. And oftentimes the ideal may be truer to the best of the individual, truer to his highest principles and noblest purposes, truer to his hopes and aspirations, than the actual life which he lived.
Here Forbush lays out one of histories greatest struggles: how to remember people as they were in life, not as how we wished they had been. He offers us the examples of Plato, Shakespeare, Washington and Lincoln. For many people in the congregation when he gave this sermon, Lincoln would’ve been in their living memory.
Though Forbush talks of a “rude” age, meaning an age that is less sophisticated than his own, or even our own, these phenomena happen still. Elvis, John F. Kennedy, stories of their deaths being faked, or not real have abounded since they died, and not just on the pages of the National Enquirer.
Musician Tupac Shakur was assassinated in 1996, but in an album posthumously released in 2002, Tupac recorded these words: Expect me like you expect Jesus to come back. In an article from the Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Beca Grimm chronicles the belief that Tupac would return from the dead on July 7, 2007, or 07/07/07. A belief, according to Grimm, was held by many of Tupac’s fans in all sincerity.
Given enough length of time, even with records that are written, any personality might, according to Rev. Forbush, rise to the level of a demigod...
But that doesn’t mean Jesus, or anyone else, actually WAS a demigod.
How often have you heard the phrase “We shouldn’t speak ill of the dead”? What must we do then, only speak of the parts of someone’s personality that we enjoyed? What about their difficult parts? Their sharp edges, are we to pretend they didn’t exist?
If we don’t talk about the things about a person that was difficult to deal with, we do two things, at least. We intentionally mis-remember who they were, and we deny ourselves, or others, the ability to deal with any hurt or trauma they may have suffered in their relationship with the deceased.
When we have loved someone up close, we know their faults and their weaknesses as well as their strengths and gifts. When we love someone from afar, their humanity is less present for us, because we are not nearby to notice things like how Person A might have terrible breath, or how Person B might be a very bad tipper in restaurants. We wouldn’t know that Person C has the annoying habit of finishing the last of something and leaving the empty vessel in the refrigerator, or worse yet, putting back the empty jar into the fridge.
I want to be clear that none of these habits belong to the person I live with, which is why I used them.
But if you admire an artist, a politician, a teacher, a story-teller from afar, you aren’t exposed to those parts of their reality, and so it is easier to see them as having a greater potential to lift humanity. Jesus was such a person. As was Tupac, and Lincoln and Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Someone having the potential to lift humanity gives us hope that we might, too, in our own small way, help lift humanity, and our own selves, up from where we are today.
And so we tell their stories, and as we tell their stories, the rougher part of their own reality may get buffed away.
How many of you have seen artistic renderings of Dr. King with a halo around his head? I know that I have. He was murdered 51 years ago.
The same span of time has passed between with Dr. King was assassinated as passed between the time Jesus was crucified and first gospels were being written.
Unitarians have long struggled with this idea of the divinity of Jesus. While not in a direct and straight line, this has been our question since the earliest centuries of Christianity. When Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, it was to get all of his empire to practice the same version of Christianity. He called the Council of Nicaea in 325. There was a great debate between those that viewed Jesus as the subordinate Son of God, a man who lived a certain lifespan, and those who believed that Jesus was the Son and God and was eternal, present at the point of the creation of the universe and would be present at the end of it, too.
In this debate Arius, a priest who believed in Jesus as the subordinate Son of God, in this debate, he lost, and it became Catholic teaching that Jesus is the co-creator of the Universe, part of the Holy Trinity. This is where we get the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
You hear the phrase:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.
The key here is consubstantial, of the same substance.
But our man, Arius, he did not agree with this. He thought that Jesus was a Son of God, but not God of the very same substance.
Because he stood up and defended his position about Jesus in front of 300 bishops and Emperor Constantine, because this was recorded, this heretical idea, of Jesus as man, not God gave birth to the Arian churches, which survived hundreds of years.
Which help early modern Unitarians to articulate our beliefs in the 15th and 16th centuries, our direct theological ancestors.
Easter is in a fundamental way, about hope.
I hope you can see how a man who inspired others, with out without the miracles he is supposed to have done, how a person who worked his whole adult life for the benefit of others, how the story of a person like that should be celebrated.
I hope that you can see those people with whom you live in closest proximity to you, can be seen by others beyond their domestic annoyances.
I hope that you can see that you, yourself, in a life lived in service to others, are working in the same vein as that Rabbi from Nazareth did some 2,000 years ago. That you can see that a human being, this man named Jesus, had all the same human failings that you probably do, and yet he did the work for as long as he could.
I hope that you know that what you can do is enough.
Enough to bring comfort to the afflicted,
To afflict the comfortable, To bring justice to our fallible world, To bring love to your neighbors.