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Love and Freedom

Easter Sundays in my childhood were a sweet mix of Spring celebration, family tradition, and very special church.

The Spring celebration meant there was an Easter basket waiting for me when I got up. Through the cellophane wrapping I could see chocolate eggs of varying sizes with different fillings, jelly beans of many colors and a large hollow chocolate Easter bunny that would soon lose his ears!  As much as I would have loved chocolate for breakfast, the basket was set aside and saved for the afternoon.  (Is there a basket or a chocolate bunny waiting for you?)

The family traditions were waffles for breakfast, hot off the griddle, followed by getting dressed in Easter finery for church.  Easter was the only Sunday of the year that meant new clothes.  I got a new dress, a new hat, new shoes and new gloves to be worn first on Easter and then only for Sunday at church thereafter.

Very special church on Easter meant special music.  The choir sang bigger and stronger, with a joy appropriate to the Easter message.  There were Easter lilies all around the sanctuary.  And often there was a baptism  full emersion  during the service.  It was also special because of the Sunday School lesson for that day.  There was no story from the daily lives of ordinary people showing how Jesus had touched them, taught them, changed them in some way.

The Easter story was told . . . and it was complicated, especially for a young child.  There were prayers in the night; a friend who turns against you; being arrested, questioned and beaten by those in power.  There was suffering and death.  And then there was this miracle.  Three from among Jesus’ followers went to the place where he was buried.  When they looked inside they found only an empty tomb.  Jesus’ body was not there.  Soon after, one of the three who loved him most deeply and believed in him most strongly, a woman named Mary Magdalene, saw and spoke with Jesus.  And in the Gospel of John it is said that Mary Magdalene then went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!”

As sweet, as complicated and as powerful as Easter Sunday was for me as a child, there were other lessons l learned in church, lessons that didn’t rely on Easter.

When I was 4 or 5, I remember singing a song – maybe some of you remember it, too – Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so . . . . As I sang, I learned Jesus loved me.

In another song, I learned it was not just me. Jesus loved all the children of the world.  Maybe some of you remember this

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Then I learned it was not only for Jesus to love all the children.  I was to do the same – love them all, red and yellow, black and white as the song said – just as Jesus did.

When I was older, a teenager, trying to make sense of my faith in the world of the 1960’s, a faith tried by the assassinations of King, Malcolm and two Kennedys, the struggle for civil rights and a seemingly endless war, these few words in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25, verses 35-36) gave shape to the love I was to show to others. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

More recently, words from the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, speak of the shape of love.  Bishop John Shelby Spong writes, “Jesus is … for me the conduit through which the love of God was loosed into human history. Jesus lived the love of God. This love was and is … embracing love, inclusive love. It is a love that overflows every human boundary, a love that overflows every human boundary.  That is why Jesus was portrayed by the Gospel writers as stepping across the racial divide to heal the Samaritan; or as stepping across the cultural divide to engage the woman at the well in conversation; or as stepping over the cultic purification laws to embrace the lepers….”(1)

I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, without clothes, sick, in prison and you reached out to me  a love that overflows every human boundary.

“The world in which we live,” writes the Rev. Gordon McKeeman,”continually reminds us that the barriers that separate us  nationalisms, regionalisms, colors, creeds, sexual orientations, genders, languages, cultures  are the sources of our richness but also of our pain, frustration, cruelty, oppression and violence. Diversity is a given. Oneness (community) is an achievement.”  (2)

Oneness (community) is an achievement made possible by love that overflows every human boundary.

This holiest day in the Christian tradition celebrates the resurrection of Jesus following three days of grief and despair by those who knew, loved and followed him. It celebrates the hopeful promise of that miracle. It is also a time to remember stories from Jesus’ life and ministry, stories of a love that overflows every human boundary.  It is by these stories and as a teacher that he lives on.

I struggled with many things I was taught about Jesus.  Those earliest lessons in the language and practice of love remain.

This sweet, sacred time of year is also the time of Passover, when the Jewish people share the age old story of their liberation from slavery and their passage into freedom.  Told reliably, generation after generation, it is a fundamental part of the language of a people, celebrating physical freedom from bondage and the beginning of a communal religious journey.

Unitarian Universalism also carries a language of freedom – freedom of belief, freedom for the individual religious journey.  No one need pretend to believe something.  No one need hide doubts or questions.  No one need feel guilty about not believing.  No one need feel guilty about not coming to church.(3)

Sometimes we say ours is the “freedom to believe anything you want.”  It is not.   Freedom is always subject to limits  the dictates of reason, of conscience, of the heart; the necessity of living in community; the need to ensure the safety of others as well as ourselves.  (4) Within limits, we have freedom here to find our own path, to bring our whole selves, to express doubts, to ask questions.  We have freedom here made possible by mutual respect, respect both given and received.

To be of use to us, to endure among us, our freedom must be bound to love and bound in a particular way.  The Rev. Alice Blair Wesley says this.  Freedom is essential if we are to have in our lives one community among all those of which we are a part, where we can  with honest though sometimes conflicted hearts and minds  examine together our own deepest loves . . . to see whether we are living by right loves, or by some misplaced, inappropriate love for less than worthy realities.  Freedom in the church is not of much use or value unless here  here – it is used to explore, together, the realities of our lives we find most worthy of faithful love.

We are blessed  and entrusted – with many sources for our faith.  We carry a language of freedom.  We carry a language of love. With love and freedom bound together we help each other find, over and over again, in a thousand varying times and settings, what is our own worthiest love and . . .  what it loves now requires of us . . . in what we do, in our actions, in the way we live”(5). . Together we find what love and freedom require of us as we put our will to work in the world, as we put our skill to work in the world, as we put our dreams to work in the world.

Notes:
(1)Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes, Bishop John Shelby Spong p.332-334
(2)Starr King Scholl for the Ministry President’s Lecture, Rev. Gordon McKeeman, UUA General Assembly 2004
(3)Carrying the Language of Freedom, Jane Rzepka, CLF Quest Mar. 2013
(4)Freedom is a Funny Word, Michael Schuler CLF Quest Mar 2013
(5)Minns Lecture 1, The Spirit and Promise of Our Covenant Alice Blair Wesley p.12, 17-18