Text: Matthew 25:31-46
The sermon on January 26 was offered by Bernie Cochran. Bernie is a long-time member of the Pullen community, and retired chair of the department of religion at Meredith College.
At a Pullen meeting some time ago which included Jack and Nancy, co-pastors, Roger Crook reported that a minister in Durham ascended the pulpit and declared:
“Brothers and Sisters, today I have no word from the Lord for you” – and sat down.
I have a character flaw – actually several – but one which too many of you know – I am unwilling to allow any potential punch line to go unpunched. So I immediately declared:
“That has never happened at Pullen because Jack and Nancy always go ahead and preach anyhow – notwithstanding – they have no word from the Lord!”
They both laughed heartily – if memory serves.
I can indulge in a bit of good-natured levity at the outset because – after the Benediction, I am prepared to receive 1 or more honest responses: “You should have “set” down, you-self.”
A recent cruise chaplaincy experience prepared me for such a possible response. After the Sunday worship service, a passenger confronted me, declaring: “One of the signs of the end time is that false prophets will arise who will make Satanic statements from the pulpit.” He declined my invitation to have coffee so I could hear his point of view regarding my Satanic statement, namely, gay equality is a justice issue dividing families, congregations, and denominations. Nonetheless, as you know, the justice train has left the station – Thank you, Jesus. “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”
Bishop Spong reports 16 death threats – I am shamed to have received only a false prophet and perhaps a few semi-endearing criticisms.
“A better place” – familiar words in obituaries and other references to the destination of the deceased. “We are comforted by the fact that she is now in a better place.” Isn’t it somewhat strange that all of us would prefer to remain in a “worse” place as long as possible?
I find continually persuasive John Cobb’s statement that the irreducible essence of religion is “thinking truth and living love.” This means that our theological journey is just that – moving on from much traditional dogma to embrace re-examined concepts. I’m still on the trail of that memorable bumper sticker: “My karma ran over your dogma.”
Belief in Heaven and Hell has always been central to Christianity. This led Mark Twain to state the dilemma: “Heaven for climate – Hell for company.” My own childhood conversion resulted from my Sunday School teacher’s question: “How many of you do not want to go to hell? Raise your hand.” Since everything I had heard didn’t make hell a compelling option, I raised my hand and was rushed to the baptismal waters.
But questions regarding Heaven and Hell are constant – especially in Rabbi Gellmann’s N & O column. “If heaven is a place of joy and peace, how can that be if some of my family don’t make it?” The rabbi’s answer: “Everyone will make it – except Hitler and a few Hitler types. The unasked question:
“What if some of ya’ll’s family do make it – how can there be peace and joy?”
Bishop Spong has declared that Christianity must change or die. In his book, ETERNAL LIFE, he concludes that Heaven and Hell are concepts borrowed, developed by the Early Church and must be eliminated as dogma. He states:
“The hope of something beyond the grave is only the pious dream of the childhood of our humanity, a dream that we now must abandon in our new maturity” – a coping, comforting mechanism, and widespread need.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, in DIRGE WITHOUT MUSIC, expresses what Stephen Jay Gould called “the cold bath of nature”:
“I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains – but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
Coming to terms with our mortality has always been difficult to confront for all of us.
Marcus Borg raises the question whether the Church has been selling snake oil for 2000 years. How then can he, as a devout Episcopalian, stand in worship and recite the Apostles Creed: “Born of the Virgin Mary, he descended into hell and he ascended into heaven”? Only, as he acknowledges, by muttering softly, after each phrase: “In a manner of speaking.”
If appropriated, what are the sources of such belief? In Judaism there is no carefully developed theology of life after death. In the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible the concept of rewards and punishments is this-worldly. Obey God and be rewarded – here and now. Disobey and receive punishment, now. In later Judaism this Deuteronomic Theology of History was questioned – by Jeremiah and the author of Job, namely, “Why do the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper?” During the Exile, Jews also asked: What about the Torah-abiding Jew who is persecuted and dies, exiled and unrewarded ?
Borrowing from Persian and, possibly Zoroastrian, beliefs, rewards and punishments will also occur in a life to come. If God is just, God’ll get you – or reward you – if not now, later. Gehenna, a trash heap, constantly burning became the symbol of hell, waste management for persons ethically wasted.
For Christianity the resurrection of Jesus became the model for our own everlasting life. Most serious biblical theologians – translation: those who agree with me – do not accept the historicity of Jesus raising the dead or being raised. In response to the question raised by Job: “If people die, will they live again?” Spong states: “My answer is yes.” But if heaven and hell are rejected, how so? The best he can do is to declare: “We are finite but share in infinity, mortal in immortality, a being but share in being itself,” – a somewhat amorphous sense of oneness with the universe, it seems. Sex – absent, now harps, wings, crowns, pearly gates, all gone. Hymnology remains, Larry – in a manner of speaking.
Spong’s concept of eternal life is a possible lose/lose conclusion. It won’t satisfy Billy Graham who, at 95, fully expects to meet Ruth any day now – nor satisfy those who reject any concept of eternal life.
May I suggest a possible win/win alternative? Belief in eternal life is either true or false. Some conclude it is a mystery. But doesn’t that just mean that it is a mystery whether true or false? Are you telling me that heaven doesn’t exist? No, I said it’s a mystery. Then you’re telling me it possibly exists. No, no – I said it’s a mystery. It seems that mystery loves company.
If false, we have lived a life of illusion, even if comforting. Rabbi Gellman’s priest cohort once concluded that if a psychic gets in touch with the dead and assures us that our loved ones are blissfully happy and eagerly awaiting our arrival, why shouldn’t we offer such comforting assurance? Grieving relatives face desperate loss. They need comfort. Why be heartless and deny their deepest need? But, is psychic or tooth-fairy comfort, religious narcotics designed to dull pain, bought at too high a price?
Some people might respond: “ I’ve lived my whole life doing charitable deeds in order to get to heaven and refrained from doing certain things in order to miss hell.” Shouldn’t we do them because they contribute to justice, truth, and love – or refrain because they harm others and ourselves?
We don’t need to spend energy refuting obituary statements of comfort. We simply need to decide for ourselves where truth lies. Some are free to be “fiddlers on the roof” – “tradition” is hard to overcome. Others may be seekers – still open to sorting out the options, pondering, like the Virgin Mary. Others will embrace the concept expressed in the Jewish toast – l’chaim, to life – embracing, celebrating life now, not later. Troubles, yes, demons lurking, in a manner of speaking, but, l’chaim, to life.
Increasingly, funerals have become celebrations of the life of the deceased. We endure in memory – and in the causes for which we fight and the energy devoted to creative, ennobling pursuits. Memory, as when Pullen recites the names of local and international saints at each All Saints day worship service or in Judaism, when family remembrances are preserved in written form and memorialized in YIZKOR, a sacred memorial service. Nancy has a commendable gift of including family recollections and memories which become a central theme in the memorial service.
Win/Win means that if we dismiss heaven and reunion with loved ones, or even an uncertain immortality we have lived without illusion, a commendable, though rare, lifestyle. If, however, my conclusion is incorrect and we have lived to make THIS WORLD “a better place,” – a life of “breaking good” – no deity with whom we might wish to spend eternity would exclude us from eternal life for erroneous but honest truth-seeking. Possible loss? – comfort gained by illusion. Possible gain? – a world on its way to becoming “a better place.”
In Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment – a parable, not an actual future event – people are separated, like sheep and goats, good and bad. On what basis? Not correct belief – the Virgin Birth, raising the dead – but, rather, in answer to the question: “what did you do? I was hungry, sick, poor – what did you do to make this world a better place?
Raleigh and, God knows, NC are in need of being made “a better place” – fighting for justice, racial equality, women’s equality, gay equality, championing the cause of the poor – changing the world. Today, 85 individuals own more wealth than the other 3.5 billion world-wide. Charity will only provide a band-aid for millions of malnourished children, families losing the battle against poverty. The system?
You or I cannot do this alone. You need to be a member of an organization involved in making this world “a better place.” I’ll suggest a name: Pullen. Every cause that Pullen supports for peace and justice magnifies the strength of our individual efforts. We accomplish more together than alone.
In February we celebrate 22 years of a congregational decision for gay marriage that continues to help change the world. You know the history, the pain and the joy of standing up on the right side of history and of justice. In Alaska I met persons who knew about Pullen’s voice and actions for social justice.
Finally, may it be said of each of us at our memorial service – soon or late –
“He, or she, lived a life characterized by being thoroughly committed to making THIS WORLD – by a variety of means – A BETTER PLACE.
Outright heresy or thinking truth and living love? You decide.