The Easter Journey – 31/3/24

Musical Prelude: This is the Day: Easter Gradual (performed by George Ireland and our Quartet of Singers: Lucy Elston-Panter, Margaret Marshall, Benjie del Rosario and Edwin Dizer)

Opening Words: ‘Love Brings Us Back to Life’ by Peggy Clarke (adapted)

Easter is a day of miracles:
It is life from death,
joy from sorrow,
celebration from mourning.

Easter reminds us
that all is never lost;
That the story continues
as long as we are here to tell it.

So gather up your troubles —
we are going to bury them
beneath the ground
and watch them transform
into flowers of hope,
pushing through the earth,
reminding us on Easter morning that
Love brings us back to life,
calls us from sadness, from grief, from anxiety,
Into a world renewed, and alive,
and filled with joy once again. (pause)

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These opening words by Peggy Clarke welcome all who have gathered this morning, for our Easter Sunday service. Welcome to those of you who have gathered in-person at Essex Church, to all who are joining us via Zoom from far and wide, and anyone watching on YouTube or listening to the podcast at a later date (please get in touch if you’re our there – we’d love to know you’re tuning in). For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m Jane Blackall, and I’m Minister with Kensington Unitarians.

This morning’s service will of course be all about Easter – through reading and reflection, poetry and prayer, hymns and beautiful music, we’ll encounter a range of different perspectives, ways of looking at this powerful Christian story – and I invite you each to engage with the narrative in your own way. In the mainstream churches the build-up to Easter has been going on for weeks now – through Lent, to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and now on to Easter Day itself – and there’s a lot to be said for taking time to move slowly through the Easter Journey and fully experience all its moods. Still, in our own abbreviated Unitarian version, we’ll ponder what we can learn – what strength and wisdom we can draw from this familiar-yet-mysterious story – for our own life’s journey.

But let’s take our customary moment to pause before we go any further. Let’s make sure we’ve really arrived – that our soul has caught up with our body – that we’re grounded and present here and now. Let’s remember why we’re here, together. We make this hour sacred with our presence and intention. We are co-creating this community of the spirit; making time and space for what really matters in life.

Chalice Lighting: ‘For Easter’ by Alex Holt (adapted)

Let’s light our chalice flame now, as we do each week. This simple ritual connects us in solidarity with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proud and historic progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.

(light chalice)

For all those who celebrate the resurrection of Jesus,
whatever your understanding of that mysterious happening,
may this day be another affirmation of divine love and promise;

For all those who see the eternal story
of returning spring and life beginning anew,
may you breathe deeply of a season of promise and hope.

For all who are enduring despair or hopelessness this Easter,
may you find in this time of suffering and darkness
a doorway to light and warmth that offers you freedom.

For all of us: we can do what no one person can do in isolation;
rolling the heavy stone aside reminds us we are far stronger
together in community than we ever could be on our own.

Hymn (on sheet): ‘Life’s Rebirth’

Let’s sing together now. We’ve got some great hymns today, and once we only get to sing once a year at best, so let’s enjoy them while we can. The first one is on your hymn sheet, ‘Life’s Rebirth’. For those joining via Zoom the words will be up on screen. Feel free to stand or sit as you prefer.

A day like many other days
Has seen us gather here to sing
And offer words which reach for thoughts
That lie beyond their capturing;
Yet may those prayers our lives renew:
From rocks of thought a vision hew.

We tell from land to land our tales
Where powers of hope shape life from death,
In differing words that share a dream –
With glorying shout, or whispered breath;
To caves of cold, dark unconcern
We bring our lights of love to burn.

Such warmth can melt a winter’s cold
In human hearts, as flower and field,
And push aside the blocking stone
With which so many a heart is sealed;
May I be never shut inside
The tomb of selfishness and pride.

This day, like many other days,
May see us roll the stone to find
A kindred soul who thirsts for light
Yet to the darkness was resigned;
So may we stretch our hands to lead.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve an opportunity now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. This time we’re going to go to the people in the building first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people on Zoom to come forward.

So I invite some of you here in person to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for. Please do get up close to the microphone as that will help everyone hear (including the people at home). You can take the microphone out of the stand if it’s not at a good height and have it microphone pointing right at your mouth. And if you can’t get to the microphone give me a wave and I’ll bring it over to you. Thank you.

(in person candles)

And if that’s everyone in the room we’ll go over to the people on Zoom next – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in the church.

(zoom candles)

And I’m going to light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, but which we don’t feel able to speak out loud. (light candle)

Time of Prayer & Reflection: based on words by Vivian T. Pomeroy

Let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer. This prayer is based on some words by Vivian T. Pomeroy. You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, in whom we live and move and have our being,
we turn our full attention to you, the light within and without,
as we tune in to the depths of this life, and the greater wisdom
to which – and through which – we are all intimately connected.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the
silence and stillness at the very centre of our being. (pause)

This bright spring morning, this Easter Day, we thank you, God –

For the stir of the Spirit within us;
For the courage equal to every new day;
For the hopes which rise out of the failures of yesterday;
For the resolve which lifts its head above wrong and woe
and affirms its right to repent and begin again;

For the life which cannot be holden by death;
For the healing which comes to wounded hearts in time;
For the sunrise which is eternally greater than our fires and ashes;
For the joy which breaks in, we know not how, and when least expected;
For the disappointment which opens us to better desire;

For the darkness where the roots grow deep down;
For the shining thread of valour and goodwill never lost
through all the strange wanderings of humanity;
For all the labours of those who have sown that others may reap;
For the high calls to duty and service in our own day;

For the goodness which is at the heart of the world;
For the spirit and example of Jesus and all the saints;
For all we love and have ever loved in this precious life;
For the longing we express through our prayer. (pause)

So in a few quiet moments let us take some time to pray inwardly the prayers of our own hearts;
calling to mind all those souls we know to be suffering this day, whether close to home, or
on the other side of the world. Let us hold all these sacred beings in the light of love. (pause)

Let us also pray for ourselves; we too are sacred beings who face our own struggles and muddle
through life’s ups and downs. So let us take a few moments to reflect on our own lives, and
ask for what we most need this day – comfort, forgiveness, or guidance – to flourish. (pause)

And let us take just a little longer to remember the good things in life and give thanks for them.
Those moments in the past week where we’ve encountered generosity, kindness, or pleasure.
Let us cultivate a spirit of gratitude as we recall all those moments that lifted our spirits. (pause)

Spirit of Life – God of all Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close, we offer up
our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness,
and we call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen

Responsive Reading: ‘We Don’t Know What Happened’ by Daniel Budd (adapted)

As we move into our exploration of the Easter story I want to invite you to join in with a responsive reading by Daniel Budd called ‘We Don’t Know What Happened’ – I think we read this more-or-less every Easter – but it seems so fitting for us as Unitarians to start here – to get ourselves into the right frame of mind to be receptive to the varied perspectives on Easter we’re going to hear this morning. If you’re in the building you’ll find the words in your order of service; they’ll also be on screen. I invite you to join in with the responses printed in italics.

We’re not sure what happened. But we know what it’s like,
when someone appears in our life whose message we feel offers
hope, whose way of being inspires us with new ways of living.

We know what it’s like when they fall short of our expectations,
or worse, when they are cut down and cast aside
by the forces of hate, bigotry, and closed-mindedness.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like
when someone has grown profoundly into our own lives,
who seems as much a part of our living as our own breathing.

We know what it’s like when they are taken from us, perhaps
prematurely, by unwanted change, or by death, and the
empty place now in our souls is much like an empty tomb.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like
to feel sorrow and loss, despair and grief. We know the waves
of tears and the thoughts of the past which flow through us.

We know that memories and stories begin to fill the emptiness;
we integrate their gifts to us, and our lives are shored up with
a different presence, which will live with us all our lives.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to
realize, to have it dawn upon us, that what we have known and
loved lives on with us and within us, forever, a part of who we are.

We know that somehow, in our hearts and souls, resurrection is
real; not that of the body, perhaps, but of the spirit — a spirit
renewed, even reborn, in the midst of our lives and our living.

We’re not sure what happened. But, we know there is a
difficult hope, a faith, that through whatever sorrow or grief
we are feeling, there is also a growing sense of grace
and gratitude, of joy and thanksgiving, in the mysterious
and abiding astonishment of being fully human.

In this wonder, may we find strength,
within our own sense of Easter. Amen.

Hymn (on sheet): ‘Now the Green Blade Riseth’

And let’s take that spirit into the next hymn, ‘Now the Green Blade Riseth’, which you can find on your hymn sheet, or up on the screen as usual. It’s a beautiful tune this one, but we only get to sing it once a year, so perhaps George can play the tune through before we sing.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again,
like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, Love by hatred slain,
thinking that never he would wake again,
laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again,
like wheat that springeth green.

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
he that for three days in the grave had lain,
quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again,
like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Love’s touch can call us back to life again,
fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again,
like wheat that springeth green.

In-Person Reading: ‘Arise Ye Who Are Living’ by Bill Darlison (read by Brian)

This piece, the conclusion of a longer Easter sermon by Rev. Bill Darlison, opens with a short quote from Balzac: “The Angel of the Resurrection says not ‘Arise ye who are dead’ but ‘Arise ye who are living’.”

Bill Darlison continues: The person on the cross is you. It is I. It is Everyman, and Everywoman. Crucifixion is not just an archaic and barbaric punishment for a few unfortunate lawbreakers; it is a condition of life. Crucifixion is the perfect metaphor for the human situation because, unlike most types of execution, it delivers a slow, lingering, painful death. What’s more, it takes place for all of us on Golgotha, Calvary, ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha is Aramaic for ‘skull’, Calvary is ‘skull’ in Latin) which is itself an image of life stripped down to its skeletal essentials. We are all poised in pain on the cross of life. None escapes, and all attempts to insulate ourselves from life’s pains are fruitless. Even the rich and famous, even the super talented and super beautiful, even the spiritually advanced, suffer the pains of loss, of vulnerability, of mortality.

And, just like Jesus, each of us is crucified between two thieves – one on the right and one on the left. The Gospel text may not tell us their names, and the original story, as found in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us that one of them repented; but the Gospels are clear about their position; and it specifies that they are thieves – not just any old criminals. In Greek, they are called two bandits, men who steal with violence. What do these bandits steal? They steal our life. They are the past and the future, the twin thieves of everyone’s life. The past is on the left, the future on the right. The past consumes us with regret, remorse, revenge, nostalgia, habit; the future eats away at our life with anxiety, uncertainty, procrastination, fear.

‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans,’ said John Lennon, not originally, I might add, but memorably enough. Life is what happens while you are regretting the past and afraid of the future. When, then, is the transformed life? Jesus told the repentant thief: TODAY. ‘I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ We enter into the life of promise today. Now. It’s now or never. By destroying, or transforming, those twin thieves of our lives we enter into a whole new way of being, resurrected life, when the tomb which held us fast is broken open, and we discover a new relationship with life, and a new understanding of its pains.

This is the consistent message of the world’s spiritual traditions. This is the perennial philosophy. This is what Easter means. The message of Easter is not that once upon a time a single individual’s death paid the price of sin and he was rewarded by having his corpse reanimated. It is, rather, that Everyman and Everywoman can and must wake up from the unlived life and save the world from the corrosive effects of sleep. The story of the literal crucifixion and literal resurrection from physical death of a single human being is biologically impossible, historically implausible, and, in the way that it is often presented, it is morally questionable. But the story of our own resurrection from spiritual death WHILE WE ARE STILL ALIVE is the most important and liberating message we will ever hear.

Meditation: ‘Easter’ by Theresa Novak

Thanks Brian. We’re moving into a time of meditation now. I’m going to share a short Easter poem by UU writer Theresa Novak to take us into 3 minutes of silence. The silence will end with a bell. Then we’ll hear some very special music for our continued meditation. So let’s do what we need to do to get comfortable – adjust your position if you need to – put your feet flat on the floor to ground yourself – close your eyes. As we always say, the words are an offering, you can use this time to meditate in your own way.

What an effort it must have been
to climb down from that cross
so many centuries ago.

They thought you were dead forever.
It certainly looked like that.
You’d prayed you last prayer,
healed your last leper,
driven out your last demon.
They even buried you.

It must have felt so good
to lay your head down.
The funeral cloths were soft.
The darkness was comforting.

So weary you were,
tired, hurt, bleeding.
You’d seen so much,
suffered so much,
done so much.
What harm could it do
to give into rest
for a few days.

It must have been hard
to hear the weeping
of those who had loved you
of those who had betrayed you.

The stone was heavy
but you had to push it aside;
rolling away defeat
banishing hopelessness
overcoming fear.

What an effort it must have taken
to come back not knowing
what people would think.
How they would respond?
Would they think the miracle
was only about you?

Thank you for letting us know
that we each have the chance,
the opportunity,
the responsibility,
to be reborn.

Period of Silence and Stillness (~3 minutes) – end with a bell

Interlude: Rutter – Requiem: Out of the Deep (performed by George Ireland, Abby Lorimier, and our Quartet of Singers: Lucy Elston-Panter, Margaret Marshall, Benjie del Rosario and Edwin Dizer)

In-Person Reading: ‘We Keep Rising in Love’ by Molly Housh Gordon (read by Patricia)

This reading, by UU minister Molly Housh Gordon, opens with some words from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, verses 1-5: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”

Molly Housh Gordon continues: The women were there, to the very end. They watched as his body was taken down and wrapped in linen and placed in a tomb. I imagine them wailing, keening… or perhaps their limbs felt as heavy as their hearts. Perhaps you, too, have experienced that spectrum from raging to frozen grief.

The earliest telling of the story ends in bewilderment, for the women of the story and for the reader alike: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Could Jesus really rise again? Could it really be that the violence of empire and the pain of loss would be denied the final word? In that ancient telling, we don’t get an answer. There is no resolution. There is no certainty. There is only a seed of complicated hope and the persistence of human love to help it grow.

What strikes me about the ancient text is that it was not only Jesus who rose up that morning. It was also the women who loved him, who rose up from the pit of their grief to tend to him. It was also the movement that his teaching sparked: a community who rose up to spread his message of power in weakness and the victory of love.

Is new life possible? Is love stronger, even, than death? The question itself invites us to rise up, and to live as though it were true—to make it true in our living.

The lesson for the women, for the forces of Empire, for us is this: You can crush Love down, bury it, cover it over, but it will rise. It will reach for the sun, and we will reach for each other.

Love will have the final word, even if that word is just a question, a wild possibility, a whisper to rise and follow wherever it may lead. Communities formed and nurtured in love will rise up for and with each other again and again.

If we’ve learned nothing else these years, it is this: Even when everything is uncertain, even when we are grieving, even when the loss keeps coming, even when we are forced apart, even when we are bone-weary, we keep reaching for one another. We keep rising in love.

She concludes with a few wors of prayer: Source of love, rise as the spring in our overwintered hearts. Help us stretch from the dark and nourishing soil to the bright and nurturing sunlight. Help us reach one another. Love us back to life in all its fullness as we blossom and unfold amid days that will always contain beauty and terror alike. No matter what else they may hold, may each day contain impossible, inexorable, blooming love. Amen.

In-Person Reading: ‘Resurrection Every Day’ by Rex A E Hunt (adapted)

Today is Easter Day.
Today we celebrate life over death.
This day we celebrate changed possibilities,
and give thanks for the Spirit of Life
visible in Jesus,
visible in each one of us,
visible in people in all walks of life…

As we do celebrate, we also acknowledge
that all we have are the stories,
shaped and reshaped and told orally,
by people of faith from generation to generation.

No logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection.
No videotape of an empty tomb.
No seismograph of an Easter earthquake.
Just the stories.

That in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs.
That in the midst of darkness, a light shines.
That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth.
That when all seems gone, hope springs eternal.

Jesus died.
He was killed—murdered—because of what he said and for what he stood for.
Those close to him, we would claim, were both surprised and shattered.
Stricken with fear and grief, they were in no mood to be
looking for that ‘silver lining’
that supposedly comes with every cloud.

But some people did think about his death.
And all we have of that time and that thinking, are the stories,
shaped and reshaped and told orally by people of faith
from generation to generation.

Yet it is in those stories, they were saying something important,
not about his death, but about his life.

True, his death mattered to them.
But only because his life mattered more…
Especially when they heard him say something,
or do something, that moved them, deeply.

So they began to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life.
And they came to see he stood for something so important
he was willing to give his life for it.
That something was the vision of life
called the realm or empire or kingdom of God,
the vision we might now call ‘beloved community’.

And they came to reaffirm their own commitment
to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.
They believed that “in his words were God’s words.”
and that his vision of a new realm, a new empire,
a new kingdom, cultivated by him among them
long before he died, no executioner or cross could kill.

Jesus was dead.
But he was not dead to them.
His spirit was still coursing through their veins.

Likewise, when we believe in this vision of what’s possible –
a new realm a new empire, a new kingdom –
we too can reaffirm our commitment
to the values and vision,
and a ‘resurrection’ invitation,
to live life deeply and with zeal.
To be embraced by life, not scared of it.
In all its particularity.

Because life can not remain visionary!
It must be concretely practised.
It must be ‘a way of life’.

Because resurrection is not just a collection of stories
about a so-called once-only event in the past.
Resurrection can – and does – happen every day!

Hymn 268 (grey): ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’

Time for our last hymn, it’s number 268 in your grey hymnals, a straight-up traditional Easter hymn: ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’. See if you can set aside any theological inhibitions and embrace the spirit of everyday resurrection in the here and now. I encourage you to sing the alleluias with gusto!

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

Hearts are strong, and voices sing, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
As he died his truth to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Living out the words he said, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!


Thanks to Ramona for tech-hosting. Thanks to Charlotte for co-hosting and welcoming everyone online. Thanks to George, Margaret, Lucy, Benjie, Edwin and Abby for splendid music this morning. Thanks to Brian and Patricia for reading. Thanks to Juliet for greeting and David for making coffee today. For those of you who are here in-person – please do stay for a cuppa and cake after the service – today it’s berry lime drizzle – that’ll be served in the hall next door. If you’re joining on Zoom please do hang on after for a chat with Charlotte. At 12.30 today Hannah will be offering her community yoga session here in the church – I heard great things about that last time – that’s free of charge and open to all.

We also have our regular online ‘Heart & Soul’ Contemplative Spiritual Gathering, tonight and Friday at 7pm, this week’s theme is ‘Self-Awareness’. We gather for sharing and prayer and it is a great way to get to know others on a deeper level. Email me to book your place for that.

This week we have the in-person Poetry Group on Wednesday night, led by Brian, have a word with him if you’d like to come along and let him have a copy of any poems you’re planning to share. And Sonya will be here as usual for her Nia dance classes at lunchtime on Friday.

Next Sunday our service will be led by our very own Jeannene Powell with help from my friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Rory Castle-Jones, minister of Gellionnen Unitarians, in Wales. And the next Many Voices singing group with Gaynor and Tati will also take place next Sunday, they’re absolutely brilliant fun, you’d all be very welcome. It’s primarily an LGBTQ+ group but all friendly allies are absolutely welcome and congregation members can go free of charge.

And the week after that, on Sunday 14th April, we’re going to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of this congregation – me and Sarah will be co-leading a special service – and there’ll be a congregational bring-and-share lunch after. Save the date and look out for Liz with a sign-up sheet so you can let her know what food you’re planning to bring for that.

And if you want to join us for next month’s ‘Better World Book Club’ – that’s meeting on Zoom at 7.30pm on Sunday 28th April – we’re exploring ‘What’s in a Name?’ by Sheela Banerjee. Please do pick up a flyer if you’re here in-person as we’ve lined up all our books until August.

One last announcement: We’re going to be sending out an email to all members in the coming week asking you to re-affirm your membership, we do this once a year normally, in the run-up to the AGM. Please do fill in the Google Form without us having to nag you about it! Thanks. If you’re someone who’s been coming to church for a while and you’re interested in becoming a member please do have a chat with me or a committee member. It’s not about money, there’s no requirement to donate, it’s about pledging your support and sense of belonging, and it’s good for morale for those of us who are keeping the show on the road if you feel able to say ‘yes, I am a member of this congregation, this is something I am proud to be part of.’

Details of all our various activities are printed on the back of the order of service, for you to take away, and also in the Friday email. Please do sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch, look out for each other, and do what you can to nurture supportive connections.

I think that’s everything. Just time for our closing words and closing music now.

Benediction: based on words by William R. Murry and Judith G. Mannheim

Let us go forth, this bright Easter morning, with the faith that life is worth living,
That defeat and adversity can be transformed into victory and hope,
That love is eternal, and that life is stronger than death.

May we find joy this Easter, a joy born of life well lived.
May we have love this Easter, bringing healing and new growth.
May we have peace this Easter, a peace that gives us reason to sing.

And may our faith inspire us to live our lives
with dignity, courage, hope, and love,
as we meet the days to come. Amen.

Closing Music: Rutter – Requiem: Sanctus (performed by George Ireland and our Quartet of Singers: Lucy Elston-Panter, Margaret Marshall, Benjie del Rosario and Edwin Dizer)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

31st March 2024