The Easter Maybe Crowd on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009
Before I tell you what I see in the Easter Maybe Crowd, I should tell you about my perch. I am minister at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square. Judson is a post denominational, post Christian, doubt friendly, arts friendly, queer friendly, congregation of 200 people whose heart is a little bit to the left. It's a place with a big past, a medium sized present, and a great future, especially if you are somewhat allergic to what most people think is religion. On Wednesday nights congregants gather to make bleach kits to help reduce the harm of drug use. The ordinary American congregation condemns drug use; we touch it with small plastic bags of cotton, bleach and bottle caps. What's wrong with Judson is related to what is right with Judson: we can be arrogant. We also sometimes look down on the religions of our births, particularly that majority of us who are from Southern or Midwestern fundamentalism and have based an entire life on getting away from it. Reactivity joins arrogance from time to time to make Judson a less than Christ like place.
My personal perch is somewhat unusual as well. I am ordained 34 years as a United Church of Christ Minister (Think Congregationalists landing on the Mayflower rock.) I am married to a man who is Jewish and have raised three children both ways. One has just married a rabbi to be and is living in Israel. We spent Christmas Day this year in Bethlehem, Palestine; he wore a T-shirt saying that Real Men Marry Rabbis. I could go on. Suffice it to say that I am a monotheist who doesn't think anybody has the real take on God. I have a small perch, am a theological miniaturist, and represent progressive Christianity at its most immodest. Like Judson I immodestly make modest claims about God's identity.
Judson people often think I am too conservative. I remind myself frequently ever so much of the two-framed letters I once kept on my wall. One was from TIKKUN magazine, rejecting a piece I had sent, saying that my writing was too Christian; the other was a rejection from CHRISTIAN CENTURY saying that my writing was too Jewish. I often think of the great Christian writer Madeline L'Engel, who just died. Editors told her when she first tried to sell her best selling book, A WRINKLE IN TIME, that it was too juvenile for adults and too adult for juveniles. I like these kinds of cracks in the literary and theological pavement. I live in one of them.
Thus, when Judson and I come to Easter, you will not find triumphalism. You will hear us sing the big hymns, "The Strife is o'er, the Battle won, Our Victory Over Death is Done" but we sing them the way we sing blood hymns, with more irony than sincerity. In case you didn't know, most Baptists are comfortable with Jesus' blood dripping from the cross. We are not so washed in the blood of the Lamb.
From this perch I watch Easter Sunday come every year and smile, appreciatively. Very few people (and I don't just mean the Judson abnormals and myself) really believe the Easter story. It is just too preposterous. Death done? Life begun? Immortality? There is neither much evidence nor is the scriptural evidence itself more than a couple of threads. For a long time I knew that most people didn't believe but I thought I did.
I used to call the sort of Christians who showed up in my more normal parishes (I have had 5) "the Easter Only Crowd." Now with more respect I call them the "Easter Maybe Crowd." These are people who come to services only on the highest of holidays, get the best music, wear their best clothes, see the best flowers, take up the best seats in the crowded sanctuary and abandon the rest of to pick up the heat bills, custodial service and high comic drama of church administration a day after. They "skim" the spiritual.
I was pontificating about my superiority once at a retreat. Mercifully, my spiritual coach bloodied me. She expressed concern that I had found a holier than thou perch on the matter of Easter belief and much more. Ouch.
I don't like skimmers. I like people who are more passionate, even if they are only passionate in their reactivity or arrogance. Pale people worry me. Intense people interest me. My challenger changed me. She made room in my pale judgmental regularity for seeker irregularity, in me and in "them." I made room also for the rookie, the amateur, and the partially connected and committed in the inner me. I was self-righteously in a "Me Tarzan, you Jane" modality, when it comes to knowing my way around the religious rituals. My "expertise" did not warm easily to "their" ignorance. I was a veteran, they were a novice. At least I knew what I didn't full believe; these people were tentatively testing their ignorance. Did we really have to sing the Messiah again when the literature also had Buxtehude for Easter? Don't we get enough of Handel's major chords on Christmas in the Messiah? Can't we have a few minor chords too?
As it develops, these "sophistications" were elaborate self-protections. Ouch again. The question that turned and changed me was not about sophistication of ritual; it was about the maybe of my own belief.
In these nearly Ignatian exercises, all designed to invite me down from my priestly and parochial pedestal I discovered lots about my own faith. It was a bit moldy. It required six years of graduate study to understand. It was youth averse. It was risk averse. It was full of pretensions to faith and not belief itself. It required an enormous number of stage props. And it took too long to explain. No body had time for the three biblical passages on the Resurrection and how they differed in the four gospels. No one cared if the Emmaus passage was my favorite. No one could really understand what it meant to be so spiritually scared that the biggest story of my faith was based on so very, very little testimony. Why Emmaus? Because breakfast meetings I can understand. The story of Jesus' appearance to the disciples at breakfast and their being strangely "warmed" made sense to me. It was the right size claim that people felt a presence while cooking a fish at dawn beside a lake.
I still had no way to explain the "resurrection of the body" at all. Neither Nicene nor Apostle's creed explained it for me so how could I explain it to others? When the organ pumped out "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" and blasted away at the consecutive Hallelujahs', I mostly liked the organ and the ascending hallelujahs. I had little understanding of "Risen" except that to sing this hymn you have to stand. When the organ goes to "Thine is the Glory, Risen, Conquering Son. Endless is the victory, Thou Over Death has won," I have similar feelings. The organ raises me. (Judson doesn't even have an organ so that prop is missing.) It wasn't just the majesty of the organ. The fact that Handel composed this big hymn in the 16th century matters to me. I still want to tell you that I am singing with people who have been singing for hundreds of years. If we also do the Palestrina, we can go back even further. Its paced Alleluia assures me that the strife is over, the battle won. The Passover of gladness has arrived. I still want to tell you how linked Easter is to Passover and Maunday Thursday Eucharist to Seder meal, I want to go on and on about the density and layers of the long weekend. I want to tell you more about the density than death, more about the desire for life than life. I don't want to tell you how little I truly believe about the song that I truly sing.
We belt out the news that death has lost its sting. and we support our song with flowers and the like to help ourselves believe what is clearly either not true or only mysteriously so. We imagine that we are going to be brought safe through Jordan and in the imagination of that possibility rise. Am I really a stranger to the Easter Maybe crowd? No, with all due apologies to the foul Falwellians who are now assured I am damned to hell. Their punishmentalist damnation confirms me in my doubt: such hateful certainty actually disgusts me. And what about my co-regulars? Are we really strangers to the Easter Maybe crowd? I think not. I think just the opposite. We are all toe dippers in a mystery as large as the sting of death and as grand. I have learned that the true outsider on Easter morn is me. I stand at the stoned close grave and knock. I stand there with many others who hope it is true and in the hoping make it true.
The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper has been Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church since January of 2006. She is the author of 28 books, including GRASS ROOTS GARDEING: RITUALS TO SUSTAIN ACTIVISTS from Nation Books and is a consultant in a small firm, "Bricks Without Straw", that teaches congregations and not for profits how to do a lot with a little.