Staying Strong from Passover to Easter
Delievered on Sunday, April 16, 2017 at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey
The season that includes Passover and Easter is a fit time for reflection on the struggle for survival and freedom, from the stories in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to the present day: Slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, the arrival in the promised land, the destruction of the Temple, the Babylonian exile, the life and ministry of Jesus, his crucifixion, the stories of resurrection, American slavery, the escapes along the Underground Railroad, Civil War, the end of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the New Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter…
I. The Biblical story of the Exodus is the story behind Passover. In Judaism, it serves as the reason for the admonitions in the Book of Leviticus and elsewhere to welcome the stranger and former slave, for you were once strangers in a foreign land and you were once slaves. It is also served as the message of and model for deliverance from slavery in the United States. Hence, the popularity of gospel tunes, such as Go Down, Moses, which we sang as our opening hymn today. Hence the use of “Our Moses” as a name for Harriet Tubman, the former slave who led many other slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
II. It continues to be a moving metaphor to this day. I have just heard of a book by Dutch theologian Dick Boer, Deliverance from Slavery Attempting a Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation, in which he seeks to generalize from the biblical text a more general theology of liberation.
The Passover Seder is the celebration of a spring feast ordered by God in the Book of Exodus. Its origin is in the passing over of the plague of the death of the first-born in Egypt.
The Exodus story is told, but so are the absence of the prophet Elijah and the Babylonian Exile (6th century BCE). Many Passover customs are not biblical, but date from the period following the destruction of the second temple c. 70 CE. Displacement and exile are at the heart of the Seder, even seven decades after the establishment of the modern nation of Israel.
The Christian narrative eventually leads to Easter, the validation of Jesus as Messiah. Except for a few small groups of messianic Jews, Judaism does not make use of the story of Easter or accept Jesus (Yeshua) as the messiah. Nor does Islam accept Jesus as messiah, though he is the next-to-last prophet before Muhammad. Easter, as a point of fact of historical development, was connected with pre-Christian spring festivals and possibly a goddess named Oester. Like all spring festivals it has elements of rebirth, as exemplified by plant and animal life. Many of the customs of Easter – eggs, flowers, and bunnies, for example – have more to do with these spring festivals than the Christian story of Jesus’s resurrection.
Early Unitarians, who came out of Protestant Christianity, doubted the divinity of Jesus and even – in many cases – his resurrection. The Rev. Theodore Parker (1810-1860) not only doubted the resurrection and denied that Jesus was divine, he made two remarkable statements: one, that Jesus was the greatest religious teacher of all time, but he was still wrong about some things, and two, martyrdom was common in ancient times and, therefore the manner of Jesus’s death was not remarkable. The story of the resurrection was a testament to the truth of his teachings, not a statement of historical fact. How Jesus lived and what he taught was what mattered. In an Easter sermon Parker said to his congregation, referring to Jesus’s goodness, May you be that goodness yourselves. The stories of resurrection were stories of the possibilities of human goodness. In other words, you may have your own Easter.
Some of us can attest to our own Easter moments. A collective Easter is not the miraculous story in the Christian gospels; it is the goal of the transformation of the world and transition to the Beloved Community. It is liberation. Our ancestors may have lived through Exodus. The slaves and there descendents have lived through a modern Exodus, but they still have not arrived at the modern Promised Land. Many live in what MSNBC reporter Chris Hayes calls “a colony within a nation.”
III. The power of the Exodus narrative in Black Christianity is its assurance of ultimate justice -- not immediate justice. The retelling of the story and the placing of present sufferings and injustices in the context of the story is one manner of staying strong from Exodus to Easter. The telling of the story does not achieve liberation; it encourages liberation. The work of liberation is not complete.
The continued struggle for liberation is the continuation of the narrative. Just looking at the narrative in relation to slavery, Jim Crow and Civil Rights, it is an ongoing narrative today, as we struggle to retain the successes of the past – not only in relation to black civil rights, but also advances in the rights of LGBTQI, women, Native Americans, immigrants, Latinos/Latinas, and other marginalized peoples. Within Judaism, many Seders now have an orange to represent Miriam, sister of Moses and a prophet in her own right, the female power in the story of liberation, to emphasize the need for libratory justice for women.
None of us have yet made it from Exodus to the Easter that is collective liberation and justice, that is, the Beloved Community. I would argue that this is true even for those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus. The events of recent years have made that clear for the African American community. After the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, there was the New Black Crow (the criminalization and imprisonment of large numbers of black males), the ongoing unjustified police violence against people of color, and structural injustice in relation to poverty and health care (among others) that made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary. Which, as Patrise Cullors says, continues to be one important part of the narrative.
By this I mean, however we read and interpret and ancient and modern texts and traditions, we have not reached the Promise Land, the broken world has not been transformed into the Beloved Community. We have not experienced Easter as a social and moral transformation, in spite of many years wandering in the wilderness.
Almost everywhere I go, persons of color and white people see my Black Lives Matter button and say how much they like it. I buy these ten or twenty at a time and give them away. Most recently I gave one to an African American woman who rang up my first purchase at the newly opened Whole Foods Market on Broad Street in Newark. She immediately pinned it to her WFM apron and said she would wear it all the time. A few weeks earlier, I was celebrating my birthday at Hat City Kitchen in Orange. Between sets, one of the musicians told me he liked the button. I have more, I said, would you like it? Yes. And I gave another to a white employee who was in the conversation. Both immediately pinned them on to the vests they were wearing. I told them, with a little pride in the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, that my congregation was the only congregation in the town with a Black Lives Matter banner on its building. I mentioned that there was some discussion of how long it would hang. I said that my opinion was that it and other BLM banners needed to be up until we had dismantled structural racism. The musician said, That will probably be about another 400 years. I hope he is not right, but he could be.
IV. Staying strong is essential to the struggle against racism in American society. As the Rev. Charles Franklin Boyer stated in his address to the UULMNJ plenary yesterday, Unitarian Universalists are strong actors in the struggle against the elements of structural racism that our legislative network and Rev. Boyer work on: mass incarceration, education, and criminal justice reform among them.
We are good at staying strong for the struggle in society at large.
However, there is currently an uproar over the appointment of senior staff within the Unitarian Universalist Association.
What happened was this. There was an open position for one of the five Regional Lead positions. The two finalists included a woman of color, who was a director of religious education and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees, and a white male, who was a parish minister and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees. The woman was told by phone she was not the one chosen, while attending the recent Lives of Black Unitarian Universalism gathering in New Orleans. The reason given had to do with “fit”, which is often a coded way of telling women or people of color that they are not wanted -- no specific concrete reason needed. The region to which she applied has no people of color on staff.
Aisha Hauser, director of religious education at the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, WA, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association Nominating Committee, and a former member of this Society was among the first to publicly criticize the hiring decision and call it out as “white supremacy.” Numerous white ministers signed a letter of support and a half-dozen ministers of color wrote to the UUA Board and President. The president of the UUA, the Rev. Peter Morales, responded with a letter that insensitively accused the people raising the issue of “self-righteous hysteria.” In his letter he also stated that DREs didn’t have the administrative experience that ministers had. That only inflamed people more. (I can tell you for a fact that the generalization about administrative experience has no basis in reality. There are strong and weak administrators among ministers and among DREs; you cannot generalize based on the job title.) A white female minister about my age said to me, “That’s how they talked to me when I was young and one of the few women ministers, and raising issues about women ministers’ access to good positions.”
A few days later, Rev. Morales resigned as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Within days UUA Vice President (Chief operating Officer) the Rev. Harlan Limpert and the director of congregational services (who approved the recent hire), the Rev. Scott Tayler, both resigned.
This chain of events has made it clear that we have work to do on ourselves, as a liberal religious movement, as an association of freely gathered religious communities that would be free spaces in a repressive world, as would-be builders of the Beloved Community.
The UUA Board of Trustees has begun to address the issue. It has agreed to a thorough review of hiring practices and named a former minister of this Society, the Rev. Sarah Lammert, to serve as Interim Chief Operating Officer of the UUA. She, in turn, has appointed an African American woman and religious educator, the Rev. Jessica York, to be the Interim Director of Ministry, the Rev. Ms. Lammert’s current position.
We are experiencing a shakeup of up the structural racism that we inherited from our history as a white Protestant denomination and addressing how that structural racism leads to white supremacy, i.e., the apparent impossibility for people of color to move into high level staff positions in the Association.
This uproar is not a problem. It is an opportunity to align our internal practices more closely with our stated principles.
The Lives of Black UU organization has asked member societies of the Unitarian Universalist Association to have a Teach-In on White Supremacy during Sunday service time on either April 30th or May 7th. The boards of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and the Liberal Religious Education Directors Association have all endorsed the call. Since you will be hearing the ministerial candidate on April 30th, ours will be on May 7th. The Unitarian Society of Ridgewood is among at least 240 societies already signed up for a teach-in. [As of April 26th, the number of teach-ins had reached to 603, more than half the member congregations of the UUA.]
The need for this internal work does not mean we forget about the issues in the larger world. With the retrenchments in the Justice Department on voting rights and supervision of police departments with civil rights complaints; with the seating of Judge Gorsuch* as a justice of the United States Supreme Court; with the assaults on Planned Parenthood and GLBTQI rights, and other retrenchments, there is much work for freely gathered religious communities such as USR to do within the walls and beyond the walls.
The work on white supremacy internally and in society at large demands a commitment to continue support of Black Lives Matter and the internal work of Unitarian Universalism to bring us closer to our own denominational Easter. A great opportunity is at hand.
VI. The work goes on – internally and externally. We are slowly building the Beloved Community in spite of recent setbacks. Easter understood as moral and social transformation – is a long way off. But we can take steps toward making it real.
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If you want to hear the sermon, you may listen to the podcast at www.uuridgewood.org.
Cell phone: 646-515-4729
Rev. Tony Johnson is a Minister of Religion, in Fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. He was ordainedin 1977 by the Unitarian Fellowship of Burbank, California and holds Certificates of Final Fellowship in both Parish and Community Ministry and is an Accredited Interim Minister. As a Parish Minister he serves congregations in transition for one-to-two-year periods. As a Community Minister, he works with community organizations and serves individuals without congregational affiliations.
Whatever the setting, his ministry is defined by the Gospel of Solidarity, the teachings that human beings deserve equitable treatment and justice and that people are at their best and strongest when they stand in solidarity with each other.