Sermon for November 10, 2019

Audio includes readings and choir anthem, “Draw Me In the Spirit’s Tether”

Order of Worship 2019 November 10

“If you don’t believe in any religion and don’t fear the Resurrection Day, at least be free in this world.”
–Imam Hussain

Dhammapada Buddha
Whoever has no longing
For this world or the beyond,
Who is unbound and without longing,
I call a brahmin.

Having no attachments,
And, through understanding, free of doubts,
Whoever is established in the Deathless
I call a brahmin.

Whoever here has overcome attachments
For both merit and evil
And who is sorrowless, dustless, and pure,
I call a brahmin.

Whoever, like the moon,
Is spotless, pure, clear, and undisturbed,
In whom the delight for existence is extinct,
I call a brahmin.

Whoever has passed beyond this troublesome road,
This difficult path, this samsara, this delusion,
Who has crossed over, gone beyond,
Who is a meditator, free of craving and doubt,
Without clinging, released,
I call a brahmin.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, Living A Life That Matters
Let me suggest that faith in God begins where human self-sufficiency ends. When we realize that we can do many marvelous things but can’t do everything, and especially that we can’t control the most important things, then we recognize our need to turn to God….

Do we yearn to matter to the world?

We matter, not because of our achievements but because we are loved by God and loved by the people around us. That love may not shield us from pain, death, and loss, but it will make them more bearable, and that will be enough.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

David Ray Griffin, The Christian Gospel for Americans
“People who have had near-death OBEs [Out of Body Experiences] typically report them to be wonderful experiences that transform their lives. However, this existence outside the body, assuming that it continues beyond bodily death, should not be equated with ultimate salvation. Insofar as ND OBEs [Near Death Out of Body Experiences] are accepted as foretastes of life after bodily death, they should be valued because they free people from the fear of death and provide promise that they will have time to be sanctified.

Also, salvation should not be understood as being saved from an everlasting hell (as if there were such a place). This does not mean that life beyond bodily death is either impossible or unimportant. But there is much more to salvation than continuing to live after bodily death. Rather, it involves transformation into people who love God with all their heart, soul, and might and their neighbors as themselves. For Americans as for Jesus, salvation is ultimate fidelity to God instead of to one’s empire and/or other idols, such as fame and riches.

Besides providing time for souls to be sanctified by developing fidelity to God, life after death would also give us more time to make greater contributions to God.”


Resurrection of the Soul

I don’t think I have told this story from the pulpit. Some of you have heard it. Our son, Zachary, died by suicide when he was 25, seven years ago. An event happened about two weeks or so after his death. My wife and I had rented some movies and were watching them in the loft of our house in Tennessee.

She and I were talking about it just the other day. She remembered the specifics of the movies that we had randomly rented. I don’t need to go into the details of the movies we watched. They were all chillingly relevant to our grief and through these movies it seemed as if it were a clear message to us from Zach that he was OK.

Then both of us smelled cigarette smoke. Zach used to smoke on the deck and sometimes we would smell it in the house. This night, a couple of weeks after his death, both Bev and I smelled this cigarette smoke. I went all through the house trying to find it. Of course, there was nothing.

I have held on to this event, neither accepting nor rejecting its reality. It didn’t fit the possibilities of my world-view. While resurrection is certainly a central doctrine in Christianity, I haven’t interpreted it literally for a long time. It didn’t fit my modern, materialist understanding of existence that our consciousness could exist outside the body. That materialist view is not unusual for ministers. Many modern, liberal ministers think in a similar way. I just talk about it.

Some of you may remember just a few months after I arrived, on Palm Sunday, we had protesters yelling at us, in part because of an essay I had written for the “Friendly Atheist” blog that was titled, “I’m A Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.” In that essay I had indicated that because human consciousness was a product of brain evolution, consciousness was connected inseparably to the brain, and thus could not survive the death of the brain. Thus no afterlife. I thought the stories of life beyond death etc. in all our religions were mythology and that is it.

This view is certainly prevalent in the modern academy. As I said, it is unusual for a minister to have these views and especially to talk about them. But I did. And I did it here. It raised some ripples, but I think my views resonated with many. More than just the particular view resonated, the conversation about God and our modern views of the world, and life’s meaning I think was welcomed by many.

The point that I am making is that the openness to entertain and discuss the things we are not supposed to talk about allows people to explore paths previously unavailable to them, and ironically, in my case at least, it allowed me to come full circle, or perhaps a full spiral, as you never are back in the exact same place, toward the possibility of God as real and our consciousness surviving death as a real possibility too. This is without the need of miracles or the supernatural.

One can imagine God, a cosmic mind, setting the equations for a universe that ultimately through 14 billion years of evolution brings about human beings with brains so large that we have time for excess thought and that thought itself can become its own thing, consciousness, soul, etc., that possibly could exist independently of the body. Could that happen?

I thought no. I thought stories about consciousness outside of a brain were impossible. Stories. Zach and his cigarette smoke two weeks after his death is something inside my head, even though, both Bev and I smelled it. But still, that isn’t possible, so evidence to the contrary cannot be processed. That experience with Zach just sat there. I neither accepted it or rejected it. That is about as best as you can do when faced with that kind of cognitive dissonance.

We cannot accept evidence that challenges our world-view until our world-view becomes more pliable or expansive.

This expansion of our world-view happens it seems suddenly. But when you look back you can see that it evolves over time. People come into your life, or experiences come into your life, and you are changed without quite knowing it, a bit at a time, or maybe a jump here or there. We can be grateful for those people and for those experiences, even when at the time, it may have been uncomfortable.

I have changed quite a bit in my five years here. It was only two years after Zach’s death when we moved here. That grief was still fresh. Over the course of the five years, both my parents died, a granddaughter was born, and my understanding of what is important to me and what I think I am called to do has shifted. All of this has been rather public.

To those of you for whom my ministry has been hard to take, I am sorry. I am sorry for pain I have caused and for expectations you had of me that were not met. But I am grateful to all of you, and to Southminster as a whole, for being present and bearing witness to whatever it is that is happening. I hope that some good came out of my ministry with you. And I hope that we can part ways with an appreciation for those aspects of our relationship that were holy and sacred. I hope we can wish each other well on whatever paths God will lead us.

Back to resurrection.

The scripture texts are today’s lectionary readings. You remember the musical, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?” I titled a previous sermon on this text from Luke, “One Bride for Seven Brothers.”

In this story, the Sadduccees are trolling Jesus. They don’t believe in resurrection, perhaps like modern-day materialists like myself. So they offer Jesus a mocking story. It isn’t a real question. It is ridicule in the form of a question. A man dies before having a child with his wife. According to law, the brother of the man who died is required to take the woman as his wife. The next brother dies, also childless, until seven brothers die and she dies. So in the resurrection, say these smart alecks, which brother gets the bride? Whose property will she be?

Jesus answers that the resurrection isn’t like all the power games on Earth. No husbands, no wives. It is a different existence altogether. Then Jesus adds that God is God of the living, meaning that even the dead are alive now in this resurrection.

Is it possible? Is it possible that my consciousness, my soul, whatever it is that makes me, me, whatever it is that makes you, you, can exist beyond the deaths of our bodies?

Is it possible that the cigarette smoke from Zach was truly from Zach and not just a product of my wife’s and my collective imagination?

Now for me, it isn’t enough just to believe it because we are supposed to believe it, or because it feels good to believe it. For me I have to be shown. I don’t think I am alone in this. I am simply speaking for myself. But I think it requires an expansion of world-view in order to accept evidence that contradicts it. When that happens, then the evidence provides bedrock for whatever this expanded world-view will construct.

There is a great deal of literature regarding out of body experiences. Near Death Out of Body Experiences in particular, and those experiences that have been verified in some way. These experiences are verified when they can provide information that could not have been known otherwise.

David Griffin talks about this in his book, The Christian Gospel for Americans. He recounts a number of these Near Death Out of Body Experiences in which this experience could be verified. I will just give one example. Maria.

“When a migrant worker named Maria was visiting friends in Seattle in 1977, she had a heart attack. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest, from which she was resuscitated rather quickly. The following day, she was visited by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.

Anxious to tell Clark “the strangest thing,” Maria told her that during her cardiac arrest, she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team working on her body. At one point in this experience, Maria said, she found herself outside the hospital where she spotted a blue tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor. Maria added that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe are was worn. Wanting to know whether she had actually seen the shoe, she begged Clark to try to locate it, and Clark, who years before had herself an NDE [Near Death Experience], agreed. Describing her effort, Kimberly Clark said,

“I went up to the third floor and began going in and out of the patients’ rooms and looking out their windows, which were so narrow I had to press my face to the screen just to see the ledge at all. Finally, I found a room where I pressed my face to the glass and looked down and saw the tennis shoe!

Having retrieved the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations about the shoelace and the worn little toe area. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” Clark said, “was if she had been floating right outside.” The shoe, she said, “was very concrete evidence for me.”
{Griffin, The Christian Gospel for Americans, pp. 356-7.}

Maybe it is possible that the consciousness of Zach, my son, did survive his death. The cigarette smoke story that I have been holding at arms’ length over these years could be real. Possibly.

Perhaps if that is real, then despite ourselves, despite our limited knowledge, we have a great cloud of witnesses, a community of saints beyond this earthly existence rooting for us and aiding us along the way.

Perhaps if that is real, then this universe may have been guided by a cosmic mind and the universe could potentially have meaning throughout all of it. Perhaps morality and meaning is not just something human beings have made up over our short existence on Earth, but is a real thing we are now evolving to a point of being able to experience. This experience perhaps could transcend even death.

Perhaps if that is real, then the universe itself is meaningful and good. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.” Perhaps morality is built within the universe itself. Perhaps the sufferings of this present age, the evil we face, that has grown to the point of threatening our existence, is not overwhelming. Perhaps God is real and God cares and is rooting for us, and guiding us, both in this life and the next, to engage with our entire mind, body, strength, and spirit for what is beautiful, true, and life-giving for all creation.

Perhaps if that is real, then not all is lost as we face the perils before us. Perhaps we can, with courage and confidence, do what we can and must. Perhaps as God took a risk in creating us out of chaos, a power that has its own agency for good and ill, that as God took a risk in creating humans and takes risks for the beautiful and the good and the true and the just, that we can feel empowered to take a risk too, and follow this Spirit where ever She leads.

Perhaps if that is real, my parents and my son are still very much alive and are working in their new realm on our behalf. Perhaps all the departed saints of Southminster, some of whom I have been fortunate to have known, are rooting for you and for this congregation this very moment.

I never would have entertained any of this when I came to Southminster five years ago. My philosophy or theology wasn’t a bad one as far as materialist philosophies go. But it has changed. I have changed. Changed not by you, but among you, by Spirit working in this place. I trust that many of you may have been changed or are being changed by Spirit, too. I trust that Southminster will continue to be the incubator in which Spirit changes lives for the better for many, many years to come.

With Gratitude.