For well-meaning equivocation, it’s hard to outdo UUs on Easter. The wings of many Unitarian ministers stretch and strain as they try to include all, offend none, and somehow blend Easter, Passover, and jelly beans and Peeps.
Frankly, UU jokes are too common, too easy, too cheap. Having been a UU for decades, I attended and joined knowing what was up with liberal religious sorts, both in history and present. I also came from the stereotypical return-to-church-and-become-UU profile. Raised as a serious Methodist, I was a devote little Christian, but as the Monty Python character says, “Got better.”
Younger folk should be aware that this was before the United Methodist Church. There were separate white and black churches, plus the white ones had both Southern and Wesley branches. Members of the former looked askance at those of us in the latter, also known as high-church Methodist. We were considered almost Episcopalian, which was almost Roman Catholic. Oooooo.
Regardless, my small self always attended both Sunday School and church, joined the youth fellowship, was in the choir and on and on. I knew the comfort of belief in a personal savior, an all-powerful, everywhere present God, life everlasting, Christ’s resurrection, and transubstantiation. To this day, I recall my young self rolling in the mystical sense of transformation in my mouth and throat during communion.
Now I am more typical of American UUs. Few are Christians and around here many of those are former Roman Catholics psychically roughed up by the clerics of their youth. Many say they are or were Jews. Others came from the camp of the amusingly condescending term of UUs unchurched.
Many UU churches specialize in social action, contributing self as well as money to good causes for the life, betterment and comfort of others. Most UUs I have known are not just write-a-check-and-praise-yourself types.
So imagine being a minister on Easter Sunday carrying that many hearts and minds in your arms, not wanting to harm, damn, or offend any subcategory of congregant. This exacerbates the weekly problem of including the Christian and specifically Protestant history of Unitarianism and the everybody-can-find-salvation heritage of Universalism with the current reality that most members are not Christians. Some even are affronted by Christ lingo. Too many UU churches give least consideration to Christian members.
I am to terms with my ex-Christianity in early adolescence. I got there on my own, struggling all the way, coming from a church-going family. It became an oft-told tale among my relatives and chums about confessing this to my mother. She was a long-time Sunday School teacher and her father has been in various offices in churches. She smiled broadly when I told her and said, “Finally, I can stop teaching Sunday School!” She had been doing that for me and was a closet humanist in her own right.
So there you are on Easter Sunday, in the pulpit before of the two most populated congregations of the church year. You make the wheezing joke about the church being open on other Sundays. You know that maybe half the folk don’t come regularly, that many have never been there before, that quite a few don’t understand what UUs are about, and that church members want that spiritual ambrosia. They want a sensitive blend of acknowledgement of Judaism/Passover with another joke about bunnies lugging candy about with cautious allusions to the Jesus story.
So the easiest mix has springtime/renewal concepts, equivocations about some believe a Messiah has never appeared, others that one is out of the question, and others that there was what today’s youth have profanely chosen to term Zombie Jesus. No one group will be totally satisfied — the universe in the pews is simply too diverse and stratified.
How much easier it would be to provide a homily for the religiously homogeneous. On Friday, Jews can hear a pure Passover message. On Sunday, Christians get the powerful message of hope for a heaven and permanent bliss.
Instead, most UU ministers stand before an often prickly crowd. They know they are sure to bore some, offend others, and leave out still others. Ministers tell me that typically congregants will let know them how they have failed on Easter Sunday.
Oddly, there seems to be less pressure on the services around Christmas. Even ex-Christians or lapsed Catholics let the infectious joy of the season compensate for loose talk about a savior being born. That rising from the dead to sit at the right hand of God is another matter.
Jews I know who attend and belong to UU churches seem much more flexible about service content. In most UU churches, you’re not going to find a crucifix or Christian communion. Instead, they tend to have highly adapted versions and even water communions, similar to how they name children instead of Christen them. Even Catholics tell me that is a big improvement over the baptism in their churches that intends to drive the devil out of newborns.
I feel for UU preachers come Easter. I do believe most need to show more guts though. In too many UU churches I have attended, there are subtle or plain derision of Christians as though all of them are intolerant and dull-witted. Yet, I know UU Christians and some of the greatest, most generous, hardest working social activists are in that camp. Fortunately for the UU ministers, that splendid set of good souls are, like the UU Jews, forgivable and flexible. I have heard a few mention in passing to a minister or worship committee member something like, “You know, I am a Christian.” This seems not to whine, but just to remind others that the history and shared religion includes Christians, as well as the astonishing range of Jewish, Sufi, Buddhist, and many other traditions often cited.
This sermon juggling pressure falls on the UU ministers or perhaps they take it on themselves. This seems in stark contrast to the fundy churches that openly deride homosexuals as doomed to a hell and shout often that only one man/one women couples are worthy of producing children. I try to imagine how the many couples who adopt or turn to IVF to grow their families must feel hearing such irrational hate. Likewise, I have heard gay black folk I know say the compartmentalize their religion from the homophobic rhetoric they hear so often from the pulpit.
It seems to be the UU preachers who try to accommodate the worshipers in contrast to expecting anyone coming in the door to shut up and do what they’re told…and sing a psalm of praise. As UU ministers have often said to me with a smile and laugh, they don’t have the threat of eternal damnation and suffering to use.
I have never heard a UU minister speak on the deep and simple joys that Christians feel in their belief in resurrection and hope in their belief of a heaven and relief in their belief that Jesus took away their sins by his death. I don’t believe any of that, but I recall believing it all.
I am pretty sure that UUs would not be hurt and might be more tolerant of the Christians among them and in the larger world if they considered life and afterlife from their view and experience.
Tags: harrumph, harrumpher, Easter, UU, Christians, Jews, tolerance