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Dazzling Stranger: The God in Disguise

by Rev. Elizabeth Lerner
Service at UUCSS on April 8, 2007


Sermon

What can Unitarian Universalists, who explicitly reject the doctrines of original sin and Jesus’ death as redemptive of all humanity, what can we possibly say when this annual celebration of the miracle of Jesus’ saving resurrection comes around? Some of us speak not at all about Easter but of larger themes: new life in spring and the renewal we all feel, the grace we all receive thereby. Some speak about all that we don’t believe – we can rattle on for an entire Easter Sunday service iterating what we don’t believe and why, as if that will uplift or illuminate anyone or anything about what we do believe. I hear stories of such services and am reminded of nothing so much as Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Having spent many years now searching bible stories and other sources for insights and lessons and beauty and meaning, I can honestly say that there is no story, no book, no psalm nor gospel chapter, that does not contain something worthy of our attention, something we would be foolish to disregard or disdain. There is always something to speak to us – any of us. And that is as true for accounts of Easter as anything else, despite the inherent conflicts that exist between our faith stance and that of the gospels’. We are never so wise as when we are humble, and never so learned as when we look everywhere for lessons.

Each year, engaging with these texts shows me a new angle, a new point. This year, what leaps out is a familiar archetype for we participants in Western civilization – regular people are carrying on in their regular lives, when they come into unexpected contact with something greater than themselves: divine presence, divine opportunity, experiences of grace or possibility or greatness that can change them, that will change them, if they are paying attention. And it often happens through words, explicit connection and wisdom we receive not from introspection and our own enlightenment, but from another’s vision and perspective. The words seem another form of grace – they come from beyond us and their import is beyond our capacities to either create or summon.

That dynamic goes back to ancient times. We can trace it even to Graeco-Roman mythology in the story of Baucis and Philemon related by Ovid in the Metamorphosis. In that story the gods Jupiter and Mercury come disguised as poor travelers in order to test the virtue of people in a particular village. Everyone turns them away from their doors except for one impoverished and aged couple, Baucis and Philemon. They offer the last of their meager stores to the guests – and see to their shock that as the wine is consumed, the jug refills, though the fruit and rusks are eaten, the plates never empty. Baucis and Philemon realize their guests must have some divine nature they are concealing and resolve to offer their very best – their treasured goose. But as they pursue the goose to catch and cook it, the bird flees to the shelter of Jupiter’s lap, whereupon the gods reveal themselves and tell the couple that they alone have offered the sacred gift of hospitality so that they alone will be given divine favor. Upon being told that their cottage will be changed to a temple, the old couple ask two boons: to serve as priest and priestess there and never to have to live without the other. So they serve many years at the temple, until one day as one turns to the other, they see not their beloved life partner but a sudden tree, rooted already and dreaming, peaceful in the earth. Even as they see this, they themselves felt their feet begin to change and root, their skin to crisp and change to bark, their arms to rise as strong branches. As their feet root, they merge also with the bottom of the other tree, two trunks sharing a common base, forever joined.

We’ve spoken in this church about our experience of having visitors and new members come and offer us opportunities to grow and change and become more what we wish to be. The dynamic exists as much on an institutional level as on any other – but it is the personal that is our focus this morning, the chance to reflect not as a group, but as an individual. Sometimes it’s harder to do this work as an individual – to take ourselves seriously enough to pay attention to yearnings and then to seeming answers that come regarding the yearning. We may feel foolish or surprised at our own interpretations, perhaps very challenged or uncomfortable by an opportunity or choice we begin to perceive, perhaps very overwhelmed or unready by a chance that is revealed to us.

The individual struggle with taking ourselves seriously – but not too seriously – is also timeless and attested to again and again in history and myth. Jesus himself must’ve had such experiences as part of growing from a carpenter, son of a carpenter, in a rural backwater of Judea, to a powerfully charismatic preacher, bent of making a change in the very capital of his land, and in the very faith of that land, facing all the power structures of his own culture and of the Roman Empire. He did this with enough success so that of the many prophets, preachers and messianic figures who moved that time and place, Jesus alone created a movement and legacy that endured. And then he presented a similar opportunity to others; to those who encountered him he was such a stranger, coming to Jerusalem from Galilee unknown with a message you could take or leave. Plenty did leave it – witness the failure, in his lifetime, to convert or at least impress enough people to keep himself safe from harm.

And the ones we’re focusing on this morning are those regular folks, particularly the followers from Galilee who joined in his movement and his message, and then were unprepared for the suddenness of his death at the apex of his achievement, certainly unprepared for his story to resume after its gruesome seeming ending.

Part of the richness of the Easter story lies in opportunities to learn from its elements as allegories. So I’m not proposing that Jesus did rise from the dead and appear to others, nor that a dazzling stranger, angelic or otherwise, did proclaim his resurrection. My concern is to examine the allegory of the Easter story’s ‘dazzling stranger,’ the individual who appears unexpectedly to offer us insight and opportunity when we do not expect it and therefore might perhaps ignore it or dismiss it.

Sacred truths are not made so by their messenger, but by their message, their content. It does not take an angel to tell us something we need to hear. I cannot count the number of times I have been speaking out of despair, love, fear, anger, hurt, exaltation, inspiration… and the response from another, sometimes someone very familiar to me, sometimes someone I do not know at all – has changed everything for me – changed my whole understanding of what was happening, or what I was struggling with, or what I was trying but failing to understand. Sometimes people have spoken comfort, sometimes hard truths, sometimes strange perspectives, sometimes missing information – and has changed me and helped me in crucial ways. And that is not unusual. What is unusual is that I have begun to realize that the more I pay attention, the more often it happens. It used to seem that it happened very rarely. Now it doesn’t happen all the time – but it’s not rare either.

And that’s not just true for me. My friend Vanessa, also a UU minister, tells the story of returning to her parish from a trip feeling terribly burdened by things the church and she were struggling with, feeling anger and despair and terrible responsibility for what was happening. Everything she was feeling must have been showing in her face and bearing. A stranger came up to her as she sat in the train station and said kindly and seriously and intently: “Whatever it is, it’s not so bad. Trust me.” Then they walked away. And they were right, she realized. She didn’t think ‘who the heck is he to tell me what’s bad and what’s not, like I don’t know whether I should be upset or not!’ Instead she listened to what he said and turned it over in her head – and she realized he was right. She was getting carried away by the challenges before her, but they were not dreadful, they weren’t so bad. This could be done and she would manage regardless and so would the church. She got her perspective and her balance back from that stranger. It may seem an innocuous story, but it’s not to her. It’s an important memory, and an enduring lesson – because she pays attention to it. And she is still grateful to that stranger, whoever he was, for what he said and the grace she felt she received from him.

We Unitarian Universalists are thoughtful people, often downright skeptical people, and that’s generally the mode in which we’re more comfortable. What kind of person listens to every stranger who comes up to them, saying whatever lunacy they have to say? Even people we know well sometimes have a lot to say that doesn’t work for us – so we’re certainly not inclined to credit those we don’t know, dazzling or not. We are not a credulous people.

That’s okay. For a lot of us, being a credulous people feels like just being sheep, and religion, in particular, has asked that too much of us already. But where is the line between being credulous and being just open. If we go back to the stories in the gospel, you will recall that in some of them, Jesus’ followers don’t believe he rose from the dead – they deny the words of the dazzling stranger, of the women who met him or Jesus – in some instances they deny Jesus himself when they see him again. On one level that’s fine – many of us in this room don’t believe he rose again either, so we’re firmly allied with those skeptics. But here’s the thing – in the context of the story, the followers are rejecting the truth, denying what they’ve been told by important sources, denying what they’ve been told by close friends, denying even what they would wish to believe.

What about the times in our lives, when someone has told us a truth we needed to hear? What was our response? I’m sure all of us can find, without too much trouble, instances when someone, stranger or friend, told us something we really needed to hear, and we didn’t honor it as we should. I’m sure we can also think of instances when someone told us something that struck us right away as important and true; we heard it very, very well – we knew this mattered for our living. We may remember the sense of being struck by what was said, by how right it was, by how much we hadn’t perceived before what had just been shown us with some words, and how now that we knew what we knew, something was going to be different moving forward.

It may help if the source is a dazzling stranger – nothing like a transcendent essence and luminescent clothing to drive home that what someone’s saying is important. And it probably helps if what we hear is more in the order of sacred truths than home truths – the former are generally less personal and therefore easier to take. But the story of Baucis and Philemon reminds us that the sacred does not always reveal itself at first glance and critical messages come in all forms so that we may heed or dismiss them at will. It is entirely on us to welcome them in and offer them our best – or keep our doors and minds closed to them that we might not see what might be seen.

I wrote in my brief newsletter column about taking time to smell the flowers at this time of year, and I meant it, just for the simple grace they offer as they endow the world with colors and shapes and fragrances that delight. But – imagine me now in dazzling robes if you please – that message is just the beginning. Because we need strength to do more than just plod along and keep fulfilling our responsibilities. We have souls and our souls, require and deserve inspiration. Inspiration comes in more forms than I can name, though many of them are homely and familiar: work, family, friends, church, faith, nature. We do not live in the reality of the bible, expecting resurrection for ourselves or anyone else. We have this life, full of grace and torment, gorgeousness and wonder and dreariness, and veils of tears that we pass through, and through, and through and also waves of joy. We aim to live fully, to suck the very marrow of life, as Thoreau said – to be wise, generous, fulfilled, content. And this is possible, but not if we are not paying attention to whoever comes with an unlikely tale, an unexpected truth, an unlooked for reprieve or challenge. It is not possible if we fill our lives and ourselves so full, in trying to do our best, that we leave ourselves with no slack for when our best is really required or really possible. We have not left space, time and energy in and around us to allow us to listen to the word, wisdom of a stranger… or a friend. Conversely, it is also not possible to pay the right kind of attention if we are not trying enough; we may leave so much slack that slackness becomes our way of being and the fine-tuned life that sounds as richly as plucking a well-tuned string is a distant dream.

There is so much living to be done, and so much life offers us, and so much it requires of us, that it is easy to overlook something so small and subjective as being open, being receptive. But openness and receptivity are critical – for an individual’s change, for changing the world. We scoff because we don’t want to seem naïve; we reject because we are tired of trying, we ignore because we are burned out by failing, and we do any of this at our peril. One of the gifts of Easter is that whether or not we believe in the Easter miracle itself, we are still reminded that the miraculous does happen, we have each experienced the miraculous in our lives. Lest we become jaded or just unmindful, we have this holiday to call us together and remind us of hope and what matters and how we must honor what matters in our living. This spring as always stretches from the bunnies that frolic to the garlanded crosses that stand as bleak reminders of cruel ignorance and breathtaking commitment. All of it, any of it matters. Let us remember to keep ourselves open to messages of sacred import that come our way. Despite the provocative title of this sermon, my concern is not really the messenger but the message. If god exists at all, and speaks to us at all, it is surely in disguise. And if insights come not from a concealed divinity but from that essence of grace and good that the humanist honors, even in this wounded world, dazzling strangers or committed friends, news stories or a page in a novel, pay attention and take in what matters, what you might change and be changed by in turn. I don’t know what you will find living with openness and attention – or what I will find. But I do know we will find something and it will matter. Happy Easter. Amen.