Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Equality in our Endings — Sermon by Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on August 8th, 2010


Reading   Excerpt from “Love and Death” by Rev. Forrest Church


When grandparents, parents, even children died at home, death was an inescapable presence in our lives. Today, shielded from intimacy with death by the cold, mechanically invasive and antiseptic chambers of hospitals, we lose touch with how natural, even sacramental, death can be. If we insulate ourselves from death we lose something precious, a sense of life that knows death, that elevates human to humane, that reconciles human being with human loss.

The word human has a telling etymology: human, humane, humility, humus. Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another. All true meaning is shared meaning.

I’ve said I didn’t become a minister until I performed my first funeral. When dying comes calling at the door, like a bracing wind it clears our being of pettiness. It connects us to others. More alert to life’s fragility, we reawaken to life’s preciousness. To be fully human is to care, and attending to death prompts the most eloquent form of caring imaginable.

When those we love die, a part of us dies with them. When those we love are sick, we too feel the pain. Yet all of this is worth it. Especially the pain. Grief and death are sacraments, or can be. A sacrament symbolizes communion, the act of bringing us together. To comfort another is to bring her our strength. To console is to be with him in his aloneness. To commiserate is to share her pain.

The act of releasing a loved one from all further obligations as he lies dying—to tell him it’s all right, that he is safe, that we love him and he can go now—is life’s most perfect gift, the final expression of unconditional love. We let go for dear life.



Sermon “Equality Even in our Endings”                             Rev. Pyle


Equality Even in our Endings

Throughout this year as a hospital and hospice chaplain,

I have been privileged to walk with patients

and their friends and families

through the valley of the shadow of death.

For some, that walk seemed more like a run,

and one they were ill prepared for.

For others, it seemed as if they were crawling along

on their hands and knees through that valley,

unable to lift their heads enough to see what surrounded them.

For others, they strode among the rocks and the trees of the valley,

their heads held high, their lives being told

and their legacy becoming known.


Some have asked me if there was any particular religious tradition

that does death better than others…

and frankly I have not encountered any such delineation.

People from all different kinds of faiths have seemed

to encounter death differently.

The only generalization I have been able to find

is that how you have lived your life

seems to be how you and your family encounter death…

only moreso.

If your family life had been conflicted,

chances are so will your death.

If you have been surrounded by support and compassion in life,

chances are you will be so in death.

If you have been alone,

then you may encounter your end in a similar way.

Those who invite people, friends, fellow church members, neighbors,

into their lives tend to be more likely

to invite those same individuals into their deaths.


It is a generalization, but as generalizations go

it is a pretty good one, in my experience of this last year.


Through this summer, I have been exploring

a four-part sermon series with you at the Unitarian Church of Evanston

that encounters what may be some

of the commonalities of our liberal faith tradition.


As the Rev. David Bumbaugh once said

“beneath all our diversity, behind all our differences,

there is a unity of the spirit that makes us one,

and binds us forever together in spite of time,

and death, and the space between the stars”.


I believe he is right… that for all the differences we encounter

among us as Unitarian Universalists,

there is a remarkable similarity.

Sometimes it is hard to name what those commonalities may be,

as our eyes are drawn to those surface differences.

The purpose of this sermon series is to explore

what some of those commonalities may be.

So far, we have explored the possibility

that it is not what we believe that unites us,

but how we believe…

or in other words, that Unitarian Universalism is not

a set of things you have to believe,

but rather a methodology for how you uncover

the beliefs and values that lie within you.


We also explored the importance of the experiences of our lives

in how we make meaning of the world…

that we encounter not only our own experiences

but the experiences of others in a way similar

to how many more Christian centered traditions

encounter the scripture of the Bible.


Many of us even frame such biblical scripture

and other ancient texts not as the divine word of God,

but rather as a collection of human experiences

of those seeking to understand their own relationship

to the divine that is within the universe.


While there is theological content in each of these,

they are primarily commonalities of method…

or similarities in how we uncover and develop

what we believe about life, the universe, and everything.

Yet, I believe that I may just have uncovered

a purely theological statement

that is held nearly universally among Unitarian Universalists.


I know, I know… as my father used to say… “Them’s Fightin Words!”


It is dangerous for anyone to try and lay out

what may be commonalities among the values and beliefs

of a faith tradition that is non-creedal,

committed to the idea of continuous revelation,

and maintains that each member  has the “right of conscience”

to agree or disagree.

It is dangerous because in exploring such commonalities,

I might unintentionally draw a boundary that excludes someone.


As I have said each week of this exploratory summer sermon series,

if you feel excluded, I ask and challenge you to come and tell me.

In seeking the commonalities among us,

I have to know where such exclusions may be.


That being said, I’ve been trying this one out for years,

both obviously and subtly…

and I feel confident enough to share

what I think is a theological commonality

held by a vast majority of those of liberal faith.

I do feel further out on a limb with this thesis…

and if you are going to saw off the limb,

please give me some warning

so I can climb down a bit first…


Ok.  Here it goes.


Whatever happens to us after we die, it happens equally.


Whatever happens to us after we die,

be it go to heaven, or become pure energy

and combine with the universe, or be it reincarnation,

or be it that we simply cease to be…

whatever happens to us after we die, it happens to us all equally.


I framed this idea once to one of my colleagues

in the Army Chaplaincy, who had a very firm belief

that some people went to heaven and some people went to hell,

I framed this theological idea for him this way.

We Unitarian Universalists do not believe in divine sifting.

We do not believe that some divine being has a great sifting screen,

and is sifting the good people from the bad,

so that the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell.


Wherever we go, we all go there together.


Now, like every profound aspect of Unitarian Universalism,

the truth of it can be found in a Unitarian Universalist joke.

So here goes one:

What is the difference between Unitarians and Universalists?

Universalists believe that a loving God would not damn anyone…

Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned.


I guess, because I believe that both are true,

that makes me a Unitarian Universalist…


Whatever happens to us after we die, it happens equally.


It seems pretty simple, right?

It seems like a natural outgrowth

of believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person,

and of accepting that we live in an interdependent web of all existence

of which we are apart.

So often we spend so much thought energy and heart energy

thinking, theorizing, and mythologizing about

what exactly is going to happen after we die

that we miss this elegant piece that I have found so common

among those of our liberal faith.


Whatever happens to us after we die, it happens equally.


What I think we miss is how profound it is…

and how this simple, clear theological idea,

which grew naturally in both the Unitarian

and the Universalist sides of our tradition,

how utterly different it is from much of the rest of human religion…

and how that difference is reflected

in how we live in human society today…


Remember, how we live in this world

is the best indicator I have found to how we will die in this world.


We live in a death defying culture.

For many versions of Christianity and for many versions of Islam,

the primary “selling point” is the idea of eternal life.


Our society celebrates youth,

and has come up with millions of products and services

that can help you hold onto the image of youth,

if not its reality.

We frame the need to create children in this world

as a way to seek a version of immortality,

for our ideas and images if not for our beliefs.

I know that a part of my desire to write,

be it books, sermons, articles, or just about anything else

comes from a desire to have something that will last longer than I will.


There have been three reactions that I have encountered in people

when I tell them that I am a hospice chaplain.

The first, and most wonderful, is when they sigh,

and then tell me how wonderful hospice was for they and their family

with the death of a loved one.

Often these are amazing, touching stories.

When that hospice was the one I serve,

I sometimes get to take those stories back

to the nurses, aides, and social workers.


The second reaction is when someone says

“Oh, that must be so hard.

You must be an angel for being able to do that.”


Now, I’ll be deeply disappointed

in whatever holy, celestial beings there may be

if I am an example of an angel…

but I have learned this reaction comes

out of this myth of fearing death

that we have created in our society.

Many of these individuals seem perplexed and shocked

when I say that I love the ministry,

that it is beautiful and amazing,

that death can be one of the most important moments of someone’s life.

They seem convinced that, to believe these things,

they have to believe I must be an angelic being…

because to realize that death can be beautiful

is frightening to them.


The third reaction to any mention I make about hospice

is the most common… “How ‘bout them Cubs?”


We humans desperately want to be infinite.

I’m convinced that this drive towards infinity

has been one of the primary reasons why we developed as we did.

We seem to have a drive to explore and push through boundaries,

to conquer frontiers, to learn and discover the new.

We seem to want to challenge boundaries,

to climb to the top of mountains,

and then to build new mountains to climb.


This drive toward the infinite, it is, I believe,

one of the primary sources of all technological innovation,

of all cultural development,

of all efforts to find spiritual enlightenment.


And, it is why we chafe so strongly at reminders that we are,

at least on this earth and in this form of existence, finite creatures.

It is why so many on this earth find their model for perfection

in an infinite and unending image of God…

the Great I AM, the Alpha and Omega,

the infinite Goddess, the power of Reason,

the infinite thread of human history and experience,

the sacred depths of nature…


The Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part…


I am highlighting this drive towards the infinite

that I see within humanity

not because I believe that it is something

all Unitarian Universalists believe… I don’t know,

I’ve never tested this thought among us before.

I am highlighting it because the theological commonality

I am bringing before you today

very interestingly does not take a position

on whether we humans can find some form of immortality,

one way or the other.


It simply states that whatever immortality, whatever eternity,

whatever infinity may be available to us,

it is available to us equally.


It is interesting to me that while this may be true

when it comes to whatever existence we may have

once we “shed this mortal coil”,

it is not true in the types of immortality

that we seek here on this earth.

It is not true that all of us have the same opportunity

to seek immortality through children.

It is not true that all of us have the same opportunity

to seek eternality through writings or legacies we may leave behind.

It is not true that all of us have the same opportunity to seek infinity in the memories of others.

Money gives some of us the ability

to have buildings dedicated to our memory

in a way others could never hope to.

Popularity and native ability give some of us an ability

to be remembered in the public consciousness

in a way that others are not.

The biological or sociological capacity to have children

is something that is not universally shared among humanity…

and something I have learned this year walking

with some of my hospice patients in nursing homes

is that just because you have children

does not mean they will remember or care for you.


So, this commonality that I have found among us,

that we believe that whatever immortality

we have after we die happens equally,

it does not apply to the forms of immortality that we seek

within this earthly existence.


This sermon was written in the ministerial study

of my new UU congregation in Midland, Michigan.

I wanted the opportunity to “break in” the feel of writing in the office,

then getting up at a place where I was “stuck”

and wandering around the sanctuary, the hallways, the classrooms…

just as I used to do here at UCE.

As I wandered around the fellowship building and grounds,

I was struck by how many memorials,

how many “shrines” there were on the grounds

and on the walls of the fellowship to those who had been members,

and had died.


In one case, there is a picture of a long-time member,

and below that picture is a plaque of all the activist and protest buttons

that she would wear on her clothing each Sunday…

ones that read “Choice!” “Equality Now”

and “The Moral Majority is Neither!”.

In another case, there is a picture and a poem by a member,

dedicated to a man who came early every Sunday

to make the coffee for the members.

It hangs above the coffee urns.


In the sanctuary is a wooden tree plaque,

where each of the leaves is inscribed

with the name of a member who had died.

The rooms are named after those who were gone,

and so is the road leading back to the fellowship.


Even in our religious communities

we are seeking a form of the infinity…

a form of immortality.

We are seeking to be remembered.

And yet, even in this wonderful Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

I will be serving in the next year,

not everyone is memorialized equally…

some have pictures and some don’t…

though all are leaves on the tree,

which is a good start, and better than some other places I’ve been.


Funny… I remember someone else once created a ritual

in their religious community so that they could be remembered…

“Do this, in remembrance of me…”


We do remember each other.

It is part of our task as a religious community.

We do care for one another, even when we are gone from this earth.


As I sat recently at the bedside of a Unitarian Universalist

who was in her final hours of life on earth,

I was able to assure her, with a sense of authenticity and peace,

that she would be remembered.

That it was okay for her to go.

That whatever awaited her, we would be with her soon.

And… most importantly… that she was loved,

and had changed the lives of those around her.


May that be true for all of us.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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