“What Is Your Final Destination?”

“What Is Your Final Destination”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, September 16, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


A Thought to Ponder

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

–Philip Larkin


Opening Words

“The Future,” by Wendell Berry

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.

Song (sung by Joe Cleveland on banjo)

“Holy Now,” by Peter Maye

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isnt one  

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now 

Read a questioning childs face
And say its not a testament
Thatd be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say its not a sacrament
I tell you that it cant be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now



“Marriage Is a Bungee Jump,” by Walter McDonald

Marriage is a bungee jump off some box canyon
in Colorado, concession manned by a minion
from the fifties high on weed, beard he hadn’t brushed
since high school. The ropes felt new enough 

and he swore he measured them, the fall to the rocks
a lovers’ leap eighty stories long.
He made us sign a waiver and pay in cash.
Folding the bills away, he slouched back to the shack 

and high-fived a friend who passed the bottle back—
Done it again, like cupid. We heard a match strike,
the sizzle of hemp. We checked the ropes, the stiff knots
tied by someone who flunked that lesson in scouts. 

We’d checked the charts, the geology of cliffs
and canyons, but no one knows which fibers split,
which granite ledges crack. On the edge of hope
for nothing we’d ever done, we tugged at the ropes, 

both ropes, blessing the stretch and strain
with our bodies, a long time falling to the pain
and certainly of stop. Hand in hand we stepped up
wavering to the ledge, hearing the rush 

of a river we leaped to, a far-off
cawing crow, the primitive breeze of the fall,
and squeezed, clinging to each other’s vows
that only death could separate us now.

The Sermon

Just four Sundays ago, I preached a mini-sermon in our Transylvanian partner village of Abásfalva and I guess I’ll start by preaching it again now. “If I repeat myself,” my old professor said, “I repeat myself.” But then, just so you get your money’s worth, I’ll enlarge upon it.

What surprises me and is so remarkable about our Transylvanian partnership is that being there is a whole lot like being here; not far but near. Those villagers are members of our congregation – and we are members of theirs. The heart and head and hands of our congregation are not contained like relics in some casket but are everywhere we are: in Abásfalva and at the VA, and at Carleton-Willard, and in Lowell and Boston, in our homes and on our streets; we are kin to every kid and crone.

Everything and everyone is holy now.

Our essential and primary spiritual task is to reconceive our sense of self such that our self is not individual and atomistic and separate but wholly inseparable from other selves and lives, “dedicated to the proposition that behind all our differences, beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one, and binds us forever together in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.”

So…in Abásfalva I began by recalling that when I went to the airport in Boston, the clerk behind the counter at the airport asked me a question. She asked, “What is your final destination?”

I told her “Bucharest” but that was not really my final destination. I could have told her the city of Sinai because that is where we would sleep on our first night. Or I could have told her Abásfalva, though I’m pretty sure she had never heard of that village of 400 people. When she asked my final destination, I could have said Kolozsvár or Deva or Budapest because those too were places we planned to visit. Or I could have told her that I really hoped my final destination is Boston or Bedford because, I hoped to eventually return home.

“What is your final destination?” is really a theological question. I could have said that my final destination is heaven or, perhaps, hell – though I don’t believe in any hells except those we know here and now.

Or I could have said that my final destination is a little way up that hill (and I pointed) to the Abásfalva cemetery. Some day I do hope some portion of me will be buried there. (That part of my sermon, by the way, really got their attention – though not as much as the attention I’ll get next year when I go shopping for a tombstone and get my name and birth-date-hyphen engraved on it!)

Of course, were I preaching this sermon in Bedford, which I guess I am, I could point out there to our memorial garden which will also be my final destination. I have multiple destinations!

(I told them) the orthodox religions are very concerned about our final destination – heaven, hell, where we will spend eternity.

But Unitarian Universalists are not so worried about our final destination. We are not so worried if there is life after death but is there life after birth? How, as the poet asks, will you spend your one wild and precious life?

(I didn’t go into this because it wouldn’t have translated well but for you I could digress into YOLO. There’s a lot of buzz these days about YOLO, the acronym for you only live once.)

Last year, I reminded them, the Unitarian headquarters in Transylvania produced a CD titled, “Az Unitarius Osveny,” which means “the Unitarian Path.” It was not called “the Unitarian heaven” or “the Unitarian hell” because for us the most important thing in life is to be on the path of life together today.

We all get off the path sometimes, we get lost, and what we do here together is to help one another find it again and to get back on the path to a joyful and meaningful life.

Someone once asked, “Where do Unitarians stand?” and the Unitarian said, “We do not stand! We move!”

In this life we certainly know times of heaven and hell but we have not yet reached our final destination.

In Romans chapter 12, Paul said, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

I am so thankful to be with all of you (I told them there and then and I say unto you here and now), here on the path of this wild and precious life. We have not yet reached our final destination!

Can I get an amen? Thank you! Sushi! Wasabi!

So that was my homily and it comes pretty close to what I want to say to you now. But so you get your money’s worth…

At the outset of another church year, standing up here feels not so much like a stroll on some idyllic primrose path, but more like stepping off the platform of some dizzyingly high bungee jump, some minion high on weed watching from the safety of the sidelines.

“How are you?” you ask. Honestly, I’m scared. Not brimming with ideas. No jokes to crack, no points to punctuate. Not clear and confident about my direction or ours. It’s kinda lonely up here and I’m a little dizzy and – though you may not believe it – short of breath. A church year is a long time. I’m scared you will find me out. You call this thorny thicket a path?

Someone took a photo of me last Sunday beating on one of those taiko drums and I look rather wild-eyed and weird; and one of you had the audacity to send me that photo, simply captioned The Village Idiot.

What if that’s true?

Did I mention there’s a reporter here covering us, a Breakthrough Congregation, for the UU World Magazine! I’m not going to point him (or her) out because I’m not sure what you might say to her (or him). How would you like a reporter to cover your life? Well, she/he is. And taking notes about YOU – right now!

But here’s the thing: I’m pretty confident that all of us are scared and lonely and unclear and unconfident and hurting and a bit dizzy. All of us, 100% – maybe not always but sometimes and probably a lot of the time and, well, maybe always.

You probably remember the author Anne Lamott. She has a way with words. There was the lost child who said, “Take me to my church because if I go to my church I can find my way home from there.”

Also sticking in my memory is when she said “I (sometimes have) such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” I’ve had such awful thoughts myself.

Well, anyway: She has a new book titled Some Assembly Required and she tells about the birth and first year of her first grandchild, Jax.

Jax’s father is Lamott’s son Sam who is barely out of his teenage years, and Sam decides to tell his five-month old son the secret of life. So Sam “writes” to him:

“You will go through your life thinking there was a day in second grade that you must have missed, when grown-ups came in and explained everything important to the other kids. They said: Look, you’re human, you’re going to feel isolated and afraid a lot of the time, and have bad self-esteem, and feel uniquely ruined, but there is a magic phrase that will take that feeling away. It will be like a feather that will lift you out of that fear and self-consciousness every single time, and through life. And then they told the children who were there that day the magic phrase that everyone else in the world knows about and uses when feeling blue, which only you don’t know, because you were home sick the day the grown-ups told the children the way the whole world works.

“But there was not such a day in school. No one got the instructions. That is the secret of life. Everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map. This lack of an instruction manual is how most people develop compassion, and how they figure out to show up, care, help and serve, as the only way of filling up and being free. Otherwise, you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others, so no one will know that you weren’t there the day the instructions were passed out.”

Remember the words from Rumi?

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. 

When I’ve heard that poem, I always imagine taking down some dainty musical instrument, maybe a recorder. But maybe you should take down something like a pipe organ. Whoa, Jennifer! Thank you – thank you Brad, all of you, ALL of you – for taking me to church!

“What is your final destination?” is a theological question and, at the outset of a church year, we need be reminded that the only reason we do anything in this church, the only reason we think and feel and laugh and sing and shout sushi! and wasabi! and rage and cry and conspire and tilt at windmills, fire streamers and fly clownfish and spin disco balls and pray and participate in communion using our historic silver and act utterly lost sometimes and act so wisely sometimes and act like village idiots sometimes and make promises and break promises and make new promises again and again and again…the only reason we do these things is because we take time seriously.

We look to the future – perhaps with hope, perhaps with dread – but with uncertainty certainly.

“Religion,” remember what Forest Church said, “is the human response to being alive and having to die.”

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh.

And now, because you come to church to improve your mind and heart and become a better person and inform yourselves theologically, I’m going to teach you the meaning of the term “realized eschatology.” Eschatology is the study of final destinations, end-times, heaven, hell, resurrection, that sort of thing. “Realized” is used in the sense of “made real” or “already accomplished.” “She realized her dreams.” So a realized eschatology is the view that anticipating or dreading the future is actually irrelevant because it’s all happening today, our favorite day.

This takes us back to Berry:

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with (his) daily praise.

In Christian theology, realized eschatologists hold that what Jesus did, and told his disciples to do likewise, is more important than any hope or expectation of a savior or a messiah.

This by the way is one of the reasons our 16th century Transylvanian forbear Francis David was imprisoned and died: Prayers should not be said ‘in Jesus name,’ he said. Leave Jesus out of it. Go and do likewise! Do something! Cut the weeds, pick up stuff.

Everything is holy now.

Hey, ya want something to do? Here’s something new. You can, if you want, sign on to the Choose Compassionate Consumption initiative that is now being promoted by our UU Service Committee. Go to the UUSC website where you can make a promise, saying:

I have power as a consumer and I pledge to use that power to promote workers’ rights.

Before buying a product or service, I will ask myself:
Does my purchase support a just economy?
Was the item/service produced with respect for workers’ rights and the environment?
Who is profiting from my purchase?
Are workers depending on my tip to enable them and their families to live with dignity?
Does this purchase reflect a respect for the interdependent web of all existence?

Everything is holy now, including of course, the food we eat.

In particular this initiative aims to raise our awareness of restaurant workers who are dependent upon tips and whose minimum wage has remained at $2.13 since 1991. Can you believe that – stuck for 22 years! Is it any wonder that I hear from others who work in restaurants that almost always some one of their fellow restaurant employees is also homeless?

UUSC has partnered with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) to advocate that restaurant workers be paid a decent wage and be treated fairly. And today you can take home a Diner’s Guide, “a consumer guide on the working conditions of American restaurants,” that rates local restaurants in all our towns, from Capital Grille to McDonalds, from Quiznos to that new Chipotle Mexican Grill that you’re looking forward to opening down the street where Friendly’s used to be. The Guide even includes small tip cards you can leave for workers and managers saying that you expect restaurants to treat their workers as well as they treat you their customer.

Everything is holy now.

What is your final destination? Beats me. But I sang this to you last year and if I repeat myself, I repeat myself:

We are going
Heaven knows where we are going
We’ll know we’re there

We will get there
Heaven knows how we will get there
We know we will

It will be hard we know
And the road will be muddy and rough
But we’ll get there
Heaven knows how we will get there
We know we will 

We are going
Heaven knows where we are going
We’ll know we’re there.

It is reported of a Zen master that he had done a painting in the king’s palace, and the king was asking again and again, “Is it complete?”

And he would say, “Wait a little more, wait a little more.”

Years passed and the king said, “It is taking too much time. You don’t allow me even to enter the room” — because the Zen master would lock the room and then paint — and the king said, “I am getting old. And I am getting more and more excited as to what you are doing inside the room. Is not the painting ready yet?”

The master said, “The painting is ready, but I am watching you — you are not ready. The painting was ready long ago, but that is not the point. Unless YOU are ready, to whom will I show it?”

Then it is said that the king became ready and the painter said, “Okay, the time has come.”

They entered the room — nobody else was allowed in the room. The painting was really wonderful. It was difficult to say that it was a painting — it looked real. The painter had done a painting of hills, valleys, and they looked almost three-dimensional, as if they existed. And by the hills there was a small path going somewhere inside.

Now comes the most difficult part of the story. The king asked, “Where does this road lead?”

The painter said, “I have not myself traveled yet on this road, but you wait, I will go and see.” And he entered the path, and disappeared beyond the hills, and never came back.

Carl Sandburg wrote: “And if you start to go to that country remember first you must sell everything you have, pigs, pastures, pepper pickers, pitchforks, put the spot cash money in a ragbag and go to the railroad station and ask the ticket agent for a long slick yellow leather slab ticket with a blue spanch across it.

And you mustn’t be surprised if the ticket agent wipes sleep from his eyes and asks, ‘So far? So early? So soon?'”

Hand in hand we step up
wavering to the ledge, hearing the rush
of a river we leap to, a far-off
cawing crow, the primitive breeze of the fall,
and we squeeze, clinging to each other’s vows…
not even death could separate us now. 

Wake up. Let’s go. Step off. Plunge. Our final hymn is “Wake Now My Senses.”

Closing Words

“The Real Work,” by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.