Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this period of gradual unfolding,
When we are slowly coming out of our year-long lockdown,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
For this short hour.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed
In a world where, too often,
bigotry masquerades as faith,
and hatred masquerades as doing the will of God,
we kindle this flame of hope –
hope that, in our worship and our fellowship,
we will witness to a better way.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
as we begin to come out of lockdown,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
We hold in our hearts
all those who have helped us
to come through this difficult time,
and all whose lives have been touched,
in whatever way,
by painful events, in their lives,
and in the wider world,
of which we are all a part.
Reading As we would have tomorrow be by Sydney H. Knight, from Songs for Living
Tomorrow’s world will ask much of us; tomorrow’s paths are unexplored. We have no maps of future time, and there are few signposts. Tomorrow we shall travel in a strange, new place, where none has ever been before. Tomorrow waits for pioneers.
And we expect much of tomorrow. We ask for a new world, happy and glad, a world free from hunger and war; where human life is held sacred, and none shall be cold or miserable.
The kind of world that we shall see tomorrow – what will it be like? It will be like the men and women who shall live tomorrow. It will be like us; for we are the people of tomorrow.
In tomorrow’s unknown world, adventurous people will be needed, brave and strong to forge a better life; people warm in heart, who will hear every cry, who will let none go hungry; who will reject all violence, who will not tolerate injustice, whose love will reach across streets and continents; people who will care.
We are the people of tomorrow; and tomorrow can be happy only if we are happy; only if we ourselves are strong to uphold goodness and mercy; only if we care. The map of the future is in our own hearts; we are the signposts of the future way.
Let us live as we would have tomorrow be.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading Eternal Martyr: For Good Friday from Sacred Earth by Cliff Reed
We remember today the eternal martyr: who offends the bigotry of others and threatens their selfish insecurity; who is the repressed conscience and the uncomfortable truth – integrity amidst corruption.
He is crucified, she is shot; he is gassed, she is burned; he is poisoned, she is hanged; she is raped and beaten, he is tortured and broken.
You are with your martyr, O God, in the pain and anguish, giving courage and strength; the peace of death and the triumph of the spirit’s resurrection.
We give thanks for the eternal martyr and what was bought with his death, her blood. But we confess our part in his murder and her torment.
And should we be called to martyrdom, help us to be worthy of our calling.
Prayer More in Anger from Carnival of Lamps by Cliff Reed (adapted)
God of our hearts, we come to you in anger and sorrow
at the evil in the world, at situations – maybe known to us and touching us –
where injustice masquerades as law,
where the abuse of innocents masquerades as its guardianship,
where violation of the deepest bonds masquerades as their protection:
situations where arrogance masquerades as service,
where slavery masquerades as relationship,
where malice masquerades as love.
We share the fury of Jesus at those who make an idol of imperfect law,
who impose burdens where they should bring relief,
who cause the downfall of little ones.
We seek assurance that truth will prevail,
that human suffering will be relieved,
that beyond the present darkness, there is light.
We ask for strength and endurance
for those bearing unjust burdens.
We ask for courage in standing for the right.
We ask for grace that righteous anger
will not give way to hatred.
We ask for wisdom and clear sight
to follow always the path of righteousness.
This we ask in the spirit of Jesus
and of all your messengers,
Reading The Risen Christ from Carnival of Lamps by Cliff Reed
Jesus didn’t want to be worshipped, he wanted to be listened to.
He called men and women to follow on the path he trod, not to build shrines and idols wherever his feet fell.
Jesus didn’t work miracles to prove he was divine,
he did works of love to show that we can do them too.
Jesus didn’t say, look at me, he said look to God and help me build the Kingdom
in this world and in the human heart.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross to buy back souls with blood,
he went to the cross because the path of love sometimes leads that way.
and when it does, we must take it, as he did.
The risen Christ was neither corpse revivified nor spectral counterfeit.
He is the community where compassion dwells,
with justice, truth and loving fellowship.
Time of Stillness and Reflection A World Awake from Spirit of Time and Place by Cliff Reed
Source of love,
help us to love when it is hard to do so.
Source of courage,
help us to endure when we are afraid.
Source of inspiration,
breathe into us when we are dried up.
The world cries out for love to heal its hatred and indifference.
The world cries out for courage to heal its cowardice and weakness.
The world cries out for inspiration to heal its soul-hunger and its withered hopes.
Source of vision,
show us the vision of a better world.
Show us the vision of a better world:
a world awake to its oneness,
a world of colour, song and comradeship,
a world of fairness, joy and festivals.
And give us the faith to feed the vision and to make it real. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address What Easter means to this Unitarian.
I have noticed over the years that many of those Unitarians who have come to us from a Christian background, including myself, often go through phases in their beliefs. If they have been hurt by the church or chapel they came from, they will sometimes become what I call ABC Unitarians, who embrace the ideas and sacred messages of other faith traditions but are very uneasy about Christian ones. What does ABC mean? Anything But Christianity. I was certainly one of these Unitarians when I first discovered our wonderful faith.
But over the years, as I have learned more about the less conventional, more mystical and contemplative traditions of Christianity, such as the Quakers, and have read the wise words of liberal Catholics such as Richard Rohr and John O’Donohue, I have realised that Christianity can be a wonderful faith. And it is a deep part of my cultural Christian heritage, which I am grateful to be once more able to embrace.
Some years ago, I had an e-mail discussion with an attender at Northampton about Christianity. Let me share one of his points with you, which I definitely agree with. He wrote, “A part of our Christian baggage is the recognition of diversity and revision, and sometimes tolerance of these things. We may change our clothes and play different games. But, we need to look after the body upon which we hang these clothes and which we use as an instrument to play our games. We are in danger of losing the communal memory of Christian myths, the Christian rhythm of the week, and the Christian cycle of the year. These are valuable in themselves, whatever meaning we attach to them. They have not been replaced by alternatives in our secular society.”
This rang very deep bells with me. I was brought up in the Christian mainstream at a little primary school, sang all the C of E hymns and followed the rhythm of the Christian year. They are a part of who I am, a part of my deepest life. At the age of 17, I first saw the Franco Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as Jesus. In recent years, I have watched it each year in the run-up to Easter and always find it incredibly moving. Is this hypocritical of me? If I don’t believe that Jesus was the unique Son of God, should I celebrate Easter, which is all about such unlikely elements as God becoming man, and rising from the dead? And yet the story of this man’s life moves me immensely, as stories of other great spiritual leaders do not (or not in the same way). So I have spent some time pondering just what Jesus, the man and his teachings, mean to me, a 21st century Unitarian.
One thing I struggle with is the literalism of the Biblical account of Jesus. Because I was brought up in a Christian society, the story of his life, as told in the Christian gospels, is a deep part of my life. Like ghosts, I think the amount of evidence for his existence is too strong to be discounted. I definitely believe that there was someone called Jesus who lived in 1st century Palestine, who was a teacher and a prophet, and whose life and teachings touched those of many. But I cannot believe that he was the divine Son of God, except in so far as we are all children of God, nor that he was begotten of a virgin, nor that he rose from death and ascended to heaven.
The conventional Christian view of Jesus is an interesting one. The Apostles Creed is used by many denominations throughout Christendom, but it says very little about what Jesus did, as opposed to what he represents. Let me share it with you:
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, descended to hell, on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
As Forrest Church, late minister at All Souls UU Church in New York, points out, “What does this creed affirm about Jesus’ life and teachings? Not one thing. It states merely that he was born in an unusual way and died in an unusual way, telling us nothing about the fact that Jesus lived in an unusual way. This is what was important about Jesus. … The power of his love, the penetrating simplicity of his teachings, and the force of his example of service on behalf of the disenfranchised and downtrodden are what is crucial. The Apostles Creed … entirely miss[es] this point. It seems to suggest ‘if you believe in Jesus, you can live forever,’ not, ‘if you believe in Jesus, you can live well.’”
I completely agree with this. What matters to me are the teachings and message of Jesus that have come down through the centuries, that have inspired so many to live better lives by following his example. I don’t believe in him, as my saviour or whatever, but I do reverence him, or at least reverence the Jesus depicted in the gospels. The more so if he was fully human, as I do believe. His example is one I would strive to follow, all the days of my life. The readings and prayers by Cliff Reed that we heard earlier show how important the teachings and message of Jesus can be, inspiring us to become our best selves.
Historically, Unitarianism grew out of Christianity. The early Unitarians still believed in Jesus as divine, but not equal with God. By the end of the 18th century, Theophilus Lindsey, the first Unitarian minister in England, could write, “the holy Jesus was a man of the Jewish nation, the servant of this God, highly honoured and distinguished by him.” I like Alfred Hall’s reflection on the humanity of Jesus, “Unitarians believe that in regarding Jesus as a man, they pay him the loftiest tribute possible. If he had been God, there would have been nothing to wonder at either in his life or his words, for all things are possible with God. But when we say he met temptation to evil and conquered it with the strength of a man; when we say that, by the diligence of his search and the purity of his heart, he discovered truth which has helped millions of his fellows, we render him the highest praise.”
Today there is a wide spectrum of beliefs about Jesus within the Unitarian movement. Some Unitarians have rejected Jesus completely – won’t even say the Lord’s Prayer – and are distinctly uneasy if the readings in today’s service include a passage from the New Testament. Their belief in the oneness of God (or the Spirit of Life) is so strong that they view anything that smacks of Christianity with deep suspicion. At the other end of the scale are the Liberal Christians, who cheerfully take communion, sing many Christian hymns with only minor word changes, and reverence Jesus above all other teachers. Yet others regard Jesus as one teacher among many and look equally to the prophets of other faiths for inspiration and guidance. And that’s great – it is one of the strengths of our Unitarian tradition that such a diversity of belief can not only be tolerated, but wholeheartedly accepted.
As I said, the most important things for me about Jesus are his teachings and example. This man, born over 2000 years ago, somehow saw to the heart of things. To quote Alfred Hall again (pardon the non-inclusive language), “Jesus has shown what spiritual heights are possible to man when he is faithful to the noblest ideals. … In the teachings of Jesus there is a note of joy, the belief that life is good and the provision which God has made for it generous, if men would use it aright, and the definite, ringing message that God cares for every human being, and loves each one with a love that will never let him go. … He has also taught us that the basis of human society must be that of generous good-will. He emphasised this so strongly that he urged men to love their enemies. In other words, he declared that each individual is to have the highest motives in his dealings with his fellow-men, and every group in its relationships with other groups must be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect.”
It’s quite a message.
For me, this message of Jesus – love God, love your neighbour and don’t forget to love yourself, and transform your love into loving actions to make our world a better, happier, more kindly place – is a crucially important one in this mad world of ours. We need to remember the wise words of Sydney Knight, “We are the people of tomorrow; and tomorrow can be happy only if we are happy; only if we ourselves are strong to uphold goodness and mercy; only if we care. The map of the future is in our own hearts; we are the signposts of the future way. Let us live as we would have tomorrow be.”
If Easter reminds people of these great truths, then I’m all for it.
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
to the message of Jesus –
that the Kingdom is at hand,
but that it is we who must bring it
from aspiration to reality,
by standing up for the good, and against the evil,
by acting from a place of love and integrity.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley