Written by Rev. John Gibbons
“Pomegranates from Heaven?”
“Life After Death?
An Easter Sunday Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, April 1, 2018
At First Parish in Bedford
Two Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Only where there are graves can there be resurrection.”
“Brothers and sisters, this morning I intend to explain the unexplainable –
find out the undefinable – ponder over the imponderable –
and unscrew the inscrutable.”
—JAMES WELDON JOHNSON
from Gretchen Haley
Do not come
to be talked out
of the urgency
you feel pressing upon your life
or to try to ignore this rising rhythm
in your chest,
calling you to
for courage, for clarity
and companions –
friends who will hear the beginning beat
and start dancing along
Come to praise the waking up
to promise to keep going,
Come to rage on purpose
and to grieve in public
Come to call for a new world built on the seeds of beauty
that we scatter
For after the marching,
comes the music,
and the claiming of this moment
with an eye
on the long arc of history
and the good work that remains
ours to do
Like the crocuses
and the small green buds bursting
on brown limbs everywhere
Let us come in that we might
come alive again
giving thanks for this
warm sun and bright hope
of being on this path
Come, let us worship,
Two Readings on Resurrection from the writings of Brian Doyle:
“Could there be a badger Jesus?”
You want to hear a resurrection story? I’ll tell you
A resurrection story. I saw a squirrel get squished
In the street. This was on Ash Street, near where a
Family named Penance lives. Things like this rivet
Me. Religions don’t live in churches. Religions are
Not about religion, in the end; they’re vocabularies.
This squirrel got hammered. I mean, a car ran right
Over it, and the car sped down the hill, and I recall
Thinking that some dog would soon be delighted to
Be rolling ecstatically in squirrel oil, but then, even
As I watched, the animal resumed its original shape
And staggered off into the laurel thicket, inarguably
Alive and mobile, if somewhat rattled and unkempt.
Jesus and Lazarus must have known that feeling, of
Being sore in every joint, and utterly totally fixated
On a shower and coffee and a sandwich. Or walnuts,
Depending, I suppose, on species. Our current form
Is a nebulous idea, is what I am trying to say. Could
It be that resurrections are normal and the one we’re
Always going on about in the Christian mythologies
Is only One a long time ago, when there are millions
Per day? Could there be an insect Jesus and a badger
Jesus and a salmon Jesus? Could there be impossible
Zillions of Jesuses? Isn’t that really the whole point?
“Sweeney’s,” also by Brian Doyle
Hauled an old longsleeved cotton shirt out of the drawer
Yesterday and once again time ground gears and shifted
Back forty years and this very shirt which was then more
Shirt than holes is handed to me by my lean gruff almost
Always quiet tall older brother who is of course my hero
And I gape at him unbelievingly and say Really, for me?
And he nods and so I come into possession of his college
Shirt earned playing football for a tavern or something as
Quotidian as that but not for me, not at all for me—that’s
The point. Whatever we think is quotidian isn’t. The pub
Was called Sweeney’s. It closed long ago. I would not be
Surprised if this was the last Sweeney’s shirt in existence.
I’ll always have his shirt in a drawer. If I touch it, here he
Is in the room with me, smiling at how a shirt can make a
Kid speechless with astonished joy, even forty years later.
Isn’t that amazing? We hardly ever say how amazing it is
That you can freeze time and reverse it and make it caper
And spin it back to anywhere anyone you used to be. Isn’t
That amazing? A snatch of song, a scent, a battered collar,
A ratty old pub jersey. So many time machines. Yes, time
Wins. My brother withered and vanished. Yet here he sits
On the edge of the bed snickering at me as the shirt hangs
Way down past my knees. No religion owns resurrections.
A week ago I was on a panel at Carleton-Willard Village where four members of the clergy were asked their perspective on life after death, the afterlife. Their chaplain prefaced things by recalling the ancient origins of such beliefs among the Babylonians and Egyptians. And then, one after another, we heard from Temple Shalom Emeth’s Rabbi Susan Abramson, representing Jewish tradition; then the Catholic perspective from St. Michael’s Monsignor Cuddy; then imam Shakeel Miah from the Islamic Center in Burlington; and I was there to represent Unitarian Universalism.
This morning I’ll share some of what I had to say on this topic, though the rabbi and I very nearly could have traded scripts: Judaism and Unitarian Universalism are very this-worldly traditions and both are virtually silent about the afterlife. I am somewhat envious, though, of Jewish rituals – sitting shiva at home, for example, where the mourner’s sole responsibility is not to greet or entertain but to mourn. Family members are to pay no attention to their own appearance, thus mirrors are covered. At the cemetery, when a body is buried, families shovel the dirt but the shovels are held upside-down to symbolize the reluctance of the living to let go of the dead. A torn piece of fabric may be worn on one’s lapel long after a death, to remind others and oneself of the loss. Yahrtzeit candles may be lit on the anniversary of a death. Judaism has many rich and meaningful rituals and traditions.
For his part, the monsignor spoke of Catholic doctrines of heaven and hell and purgatory, of divine judgment and reconciliation…and it was all a bit wordy and theoretical but my ears perked up when he got into some speculation as to whether there are any doorknobs in hell. I think he believes there are no doorknobs. I just had never thought about that!
For rich and energetic speculation, however, imam Shakeel was the best of all of us. He’s young (in his 20’s), a fast-talking New Yorker (he apologized for this at the outset), upbeat and cheerful, but my oh my does he know a lot of details about the afterlife! The afterlife begins with a trumpet blast that wakes the dead from their graves. Then comes “The Perspiration” when humans, animals, angels, devils sweat unshaded from the sun. Sinners and unbelievers will suffer and sweat longer on this day, which lasts for “50,000 years.” God will then judge, accept no excuses, examine every act and intention, and some will go to heaven, others to hell, and finally the souls will travel over hellfire on a bridge that for sinners will be thinner than hair and sharper than the sharpest sword. And, well, Shakeel had a lot more details but I especially enjoyed his ecstatic description of heaven and its infinite pleasures. There’s more than I have time to tell (and, I know you’re interested, but he didn’t once mention any virgins) but the pomegranates, Shakeel said, “the pomegranates…(he was almost delirious) the pomegranates are so infinitely superior to the pomegranates on earth, “they are to die for.”
Well, Unitarian Universalism – I’m sorry to say – cannot compete with the pomegranates in heaven.
And so, now, I’ll now tell you some of what I said but, by comparison, it’s really boring. I’ll be brief.
First, a little history: While our tradition has evolved and continues to evolve, and is no longer exclusively or even primarily Christian, Unitarian Universalists got our start on the losing this-worldly side of two big Christian arguments.
The earliest Unitarians looked to the life and teachings of Jesus as those of a moral and ethical prophet and exemplar. Jesus was considered a human being and a man, not as the Son of God or as a resurrected savior. At the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, this humanist view of Jesus was declared a heresy.
The Universalist heresy was to deny that there was any such place or condition as hell, except that which we create for ourselves, and that a loving God would never banish any human being into utter darkness. “God is love.” (In this morning’s newspaper there was an article in which someone interviewed the Pope and he is alleged to have said that there is no hell. The Pope – maybe – said there’s no hell! Well, the Vatican is scrambling to clarify this but, well, hell is no longer what it once was. Things change!)
And, thus, you see that we UU’s are descended from a long line of heretics. The very word, “heresy,” by the way, derives from Greek roots, meaning, “I choose.” Unitarian Universalism is a chosen faith, not a revealed faith. We are an example of “natural religion” or “natural theology,” meaning that we do not depend on revelation or any conception of the super-natural.
We have no dogma or universal creed, but instead believe that what is meaningful about life may be known through the observation and experience of nature and the natural world. If God is meaningful to a Unitarian Universalist – and UU’s need not be and often are not theists – but if a concept of God is meaningful it will be known through our relationships with one another and with all living things, and through our experience of the natural world.
Therefore ours is a very this-worldly faith and while any individual’s belief or conception of the afterlife is respected, we tend to be less concerned about whether there is life after death and more concerned as to whether there is life after birth!
Benjamin Franklin was not a Unitarian but he was a deist with whom we have much in common, and Franklin once said, “There are some people who die at the age of 25 but who are not buried until they are (much much) older – at 75 or 85 or 95!”
In the late 19th century there was a Unitarian catechism written by James Freeman Clarke. A catechism, you know, is a set of religious questions and their official answers. I’m not sure if he was trying to be humorous or just factual when he posed the question “Where do the dead go when they die?” The approved answer in his catechism was, and I quote: ”not very far.” A snarky answer!
In the steeple of First Parish there is a bell and on the bell is inscribed this quotation, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” That is also inscribed on a rock in our Memorial Garden where many have chosen to bury the ashes of their loved ones. Living in the hearts we leave behind is a very Unitarian Universalist conception of immortality. That is our hope.
And if there is a single commonality among the perspectives expressed by the rabbi, the monsignor, the imam, and me – that commonality is hope. For some hope abides in other worlds and for others in this; but none – no one – can live without hope.
What do I have to say about hope today?
Of course, spring is hopeful.
And surely it is hopeful – it is more than hopeful, it is awesome! – to see so many children and young people lead marches for their lives, for all our lives.
So many have been so inspiring but I really loved it when, in the middle of her passionate speech in Washington D.C., Parkland survivor Samantha Fuentes – overcome by nerves and emotion – choked and threw up. Did you see that video? Then she laughed and said, “I just threw up on international TV and it feels great!” She then finished her speech and ended by called attention to her murdered friend Nicholas Dworet who would have turned 18 on the day of the march, and she then led the hundreds of thousands in singing “Happy Birthday.” That’s hope; that may even be resurrection.
That we are a sanctuary church is a hopeful thing. With Maria, we live in hope and not in fear; with her, we live in hope that her family may be reunited in safety; and we pray for a resurrection of human decency.
And surely it was hopeful this week when a Boston judge acquitted 13 people – including our parishioners Brown Pulliam and Diane Martin – for their civil disobedience in protesting the W. Roxbury fracked gas pipeline. For what appears to be the first time anywhere, the judge ruled that their illegal actions were a necessity to put a stop to the greater threat posed by global warming. Remember too that their civil disobedience was to lie in pipeline trenches, as if dead, in imitation of the anticipatory graves that have been dug in some drought-plagued places in the world – knowing not that deaths have occurred but knowing that they inevitably will occur if the use of fossil fuels is not diminished. That this week our climate was granted legal standing in court is a hopeful thing, and could herald a this-worldly resurrection of our earth.
Finally, my thoughts turned to hope this week when I read the obituary of Julie Yip-Williams who died at her home in New York of colon cancer at age 42. She wrote a blog about her struggles but her struggles began when she was born blind in Vietnam from which she and her family escaped in a rickety fishing boat.
Her obituary says she “wrestled with hope, which she cursed as an ‘illusory sentiment.’ Cancer crushes hope, leaving a wasteland of grief, depression, despair, and a sense of unending futility,” but she added, “Hope is a funny thing, though. It seems to have a life and will of its own that I cannot control through the sheer force of my mind. It is irrepressible, its very existence inextricably tied do our very spirit, its flame, no matter how weak, not extinguishable.”
When Julie was born, congenital cataracts caused blindness and to her grandmother, the family’s matriarch, and meant that she was an unwanted burden with no future. At 2 months, Julie was sent to an herbalist with instructions from her grandmother: “Kill her.” Rejecting the offer of gold, the herbalist refused. Julie was returned home to her angry grandmother. But then her great-grandmother got wind of things and commanded that Julie be left alone, “how she was born is how she will be.” Julie did not learn any of this – what she called The Secret – until after her grandmother died when she was 28.
In 1973, she and her family escaped Vietnam. ”We were lucky because our boat did not sink as so many other did. We were lucky because we were not forced to engage in cannibalism, as some other refugees were.” Well, eventually, she went to Williams College and graduated from Harvard Law. Today she is survived by her husband, two young daughters, her parents, and her brother and sister.
In a blog entry, Julie addressed her daughters, saying blunt things about loss and the unfairness of life. “You will be deprived of a mother. I wish I could protect you from the pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it. Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you. Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways.” And she wrote, “Rejoice in life and all of its beauty because of it; live with special zest and zeal for me.”
That is hope and may even be resurrection.
We are lucky because we have survived another winter and we now witness another spring.
We are lucky because we have not died by gun violence.
We are lucky because we have not been deported.
We are lucky because we have not died by drought.
We are lucky because our boat has not sunk.
We are lucky because we have not been cannibals nor been eaten by cannibals.
We are lucky because we feel pain.
We are lucky because we carry others’ strength and compassion and love.
We are lucky because it is our opportunity to rejoice in life and all its beauty.
May we resonate with this Buddhist evening prayer:
Let me respectfully remind you: life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Awaken! Awaken! Do not squander your life!
Pomegranates, it seems to me, are a lot of work. All those pesky seeds! Frankly, I hope they’re better in heaven.