r m p






After the End


OT: Psalm 137:1-6

NT: Romans 7:1-4


We stand together this morning at a new beginning, or very nearly at a new beginning. I believe that it is the hour at which Mary Magdalene and her sisters arrived at the tomb of the Nazarene: it is the hour before sunrise. Dawn will come soon. But at this precise moment we are not yet at square one. Where do we stand, you and I? We find ourselves after the end. Something has finished, and the new thing has not yet begun. And in this strange twilight moment, it is we who will decide what it is that will begin.

I will read you a passage from an ancient scripture written for such a time as this. It is the Bardo Thödöl, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is a text that the Buddhist lama reads to the hover­ing spirit of the dead to guide him from this incarnation to the next. The premise is that the soul, suddenly cut loose from its physical mooring, is cowering in confusion, disorientation, fear. It needs the steady voice of the expert to guide it past the imaginary dangers it fears and into a wise choice of a new incarnation or, it may be, past the clinging bands of desire and into ultimate Nirvana.

The time has come for you to find your path in the reality of the spirit. Your physical breath has stopped; the perfect clear light of the Infinite Potential of the first phase of your transition into the spiritual reality has begun to manifest. Your physical breath has stopped and you begin to experience the spirit reality; barren and void like space. Your immortal, infinite spiritual awareness begins to awaken, clear and empty; perceiving no horizon or center. You must immediately recognize this void as yourself. You must stay centered within this experience.

Let me take you back a few months, to August, to a sermon given in our old sanctuary, the Living Room. Do you still remember the Living Room? I'm sure you do. I'm sure you feel this morning at least a little like the Levitical singer who wrote Psalm 137: you are at a loss as to how you can praise your God in a foreign land. But of course, as he did, you will learn how.

I am thinking of a sermon given by Jennifer Boger. She observed, in her characteristically Proustian way, that the history of  First Baptist Church had essentially come to an end with the recent sale of the building. Whatever continued pale existence we might eke out would be no more than a footnote to the history of the church of Fosdick, Cohoe, of Don Morris.

At this, I recall taking umbrage, if the truth be known. I chafed at what seemed one of those Twaynian premature rumors of our death. And yet she was from one point of view correct. Indeed, she made it so by speaking it forth. When I left that morning I sensed that for me the end was at hand. There were tremors I could dimly sense. I find myself even now reeling from the after­shocks of the eruption that finally came--from where, I still do not know.         

But the end of First Baptist Church as we knew it has come. The burdens of the past have been shed. The joys of the past, too, have fled, eventually to be replaced by new ones, unthinkable from our present position.

And our present position is that described in Romans 7. Think of it, Paul says: when death interrupts, all bets are off. What would have been immoral and illegal when you were alive and saddled with all manner of responsibilities becomes an option when death has severed the cords that bound you. The widow is free of her husband. Perhaps she had dreamed of being free of him, and now deliverance has come! Just so, Paul says, with a confused analogy, the death of Christ has cancelled our obliga­tions to the Mosaic Law.

But I cannot help but think of a different example. I think of the old gangster movies where the crook seems to have been killed. Everyone thinks he is dead, but in fact he survived. The statute of limitations runs out when you're dead! Your options are open! The crook takes a new identity and starts over with the wide world before him! Will he go on to seek another criminal career? Or will he go straight? His destiny is in his hands! His essence, as Sartre said, is his own decision.

And yours is in your hands today. Where will you go? What will you do? As an individual? As a congregation? Will you take the opportunity to become a traditional Baptist church? What sort of clergyman will you choose? What will you decide this church is about?

In all the years I have been associated with this congregation, I never felt it was a particularly pressing matter to define our identity, to stipulate a mission statement. I felt it was super­fluous. It wasn't broken, so I didn't think there was any point in fixing it. I felt that a self-study would mean paralyzing introspection, an autopsy. And to do that, the patient has to be dead first.

But now the patient is dead. In a short while it will be reborn. But as what? You had better take care to decide!

As for me, as you know, the coming of the end has made clear to me that my future lies outside the bounds of the Christian religion altogether, though hardly outside the religious path. Our friend, Dr. DeLayne Ryals, once told me that he felt perhaps our church ought to recognize it had evolved past being a Baptist church. I think he was quite right about some of us. But time has told that others want to hold onto that Baptist identity. May God bless both! But it is for you to decide which rebirth to choose.

Anything is possible! Anything can happen! That has become clear to me in ways joyous as well as sorrowful. I advise you not to take anything for granted! I counsel you not to shrink back into the past which no longer exists. There is no refuge there for you. You have only the future. You do not even have the present. The present is the twilight state after the end and before the beginning.

It is a threshold, and you must cross it. It will be a risk, but life is risk. It is venture, as you know from the Parable of the Talents. To play it safe is doom. The only safety lies on the other side of risk.

I have thought much in recent weeks of the relationship between you and me. You know that I have resigned, but we have both been holding onto each other out of insecurity. I did not know what my next step will be, so I hesitated to make a blind leap out of the nest. You perhaps wanted to minimize the turbulence of having everything change at once.

But that has to end today, this morning. My wounds are deep. Every day I live in fury. And I cannot pretend there has been a reconciliation with some of you that will never occur. I am done right now. My family and I will move out of the parsonage as soon as we can. We are right now actively looking for housing. I trust I will continue my association with many of you. I have learned that friendships go deeper than mere religious bonds, and that the one may survive the severing of the other.

It is best this way. Your church can never make a new start while I am here. So be it; let us both embrace the consequences of our actions.

[This sermon was in fact never delivered.]





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