Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said of the teachings of Jesus as found in the four Gospels: “…the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
In a letter to a friend he added, “A more beautiful or more precious morsel of ethics I have never seen’ it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
He wrote: “There is internal evidence that parts (of the Gospels) have proceeded from an extraordinary man, and that other parts come from very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
While Jefferson occupied the White House, he occupied many an evening studying the Gospels—the summary of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Jefferson published a book he titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. We call it ‘the Jefferson Bible.’ He picked the diamonds out of the dunghills.
The diamonds he chose humanize Jesus. The basic teachings of Jesus are meant to humanize us—to bring out the best in us, as summarized in the Sermon on the Mount.
In this sermon Jesus asserted his Jewish heritage when he said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”
He wasn’t satisfied with the limits he saw in his Jewish teachings, so he asserted, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you…”
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged.”
The Gospel says, “He taught them as one having authority…”
In other words, his authority was not granted to him by the council of elders—he did not ask permission—he spoke as one who had his own authority, which is the essence of our Unitarian Universalist approach. In other words, think for yourself, and, if new evidence comes to you, then change your mind and don’t worry about what Emerson called ‘a foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds.’
My favorite summary of the religion of Jesus is found in the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew 25: 35 – 40. My own edited version puts it this way:
“At the end of the day there’s a still small voice in you that says, ‘You are blessed:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ (You can’t help but ask yourself) “…when did I see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did I see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did I see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And that still small voice within you will reply, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it unto me.’
In other words, Jesus was saying that he realized that God is present in every act of kindness, every moment of forgiveness; that God can be found in the depths of human compassion—that God is that part of us that is the source of our kindness, compassion and forgiveness; God lives in us as that potential and must be ‘brought to life’ by responding with kindness and compassion to those around us.
Those are the gems offered in the parables of the Good Samaritan; and the Prodigal Son, and other parables attributed to Jesus that make up ‘the religion of Jesus.’
The religion of Jesus can be summarized in two words: be good.
The religion about Jesus has been invented by people over the centuries—often well-meaning people who had a wide variety of motives, and who had a wide variety of interpretations of what was passed down in writing about Jesus, by people who heard about his teachings second hand, to begin with…some of what was said and later written was canonized and later called The New Testament.
Jefferson suggested that we all have to pick the diamonds out of the dunghill: mountains have been written and said about what Jesus might have meant—but they all boil down to what I’ve done, which is to pick out what appeals to you, what makes sense to you.
Now I want to tell you about a woman who lived out the religion of Jesus, and who, from a very early age, gradually liberated herself from the shackles of a religion about Jesus—a religion that was fear-based, which she had the courage to question and came to see as repugnant and oppressive; often hateful, rather than peaceful and loving. She managed to keep the diamonds and leave the dung.
Ann Cohen was a member of our congregation. She came to us to find support and comfort on her own personal spiritual journey. She felt that inner sense of authority—she spoke her truth quietly and clearly; she listened to others and considered what they had to say.
Ann grew up in Texas, the youngest of eleven children. At age ten she felt peer pressure to come forward at a religious revival tent meeting and accept Jesus. She said, “I knew it would please my mother.” Her mother died a year later, when Ann was only 11, and she assumed responsibilities beyond what’s expected—taking care of her elderly and strict father with lots of housework.
Ann eventually moved to New York and married a man who was Jewish, going through an Orthodox conversion so they could be married by his Rabbi; she kept a kosher home for him; their 24-year marriage ended with his death, several years ago.
She found that she was more observant than her husband or any of his family. She writes; “After several years I began to lose enthusiasm as I was not finding, in all the laws, restrictions, etc., what I was searching for: dignity and self-worth as a human being…to feel I was worthy of God’s love without having to fear God. I didn’t want a God whom I had to praise and love our of fear! I left the Sabbath services feeling unfulfilled. Not uplifted. Eventually, I no longer attended services, kept the Sabbath, nor kept a kosher household. We only attended services on the ‘high holy days.’
She lost her connection with Judaism when her husband Bernie died in 1990, and after a few years she began to date, feeling pressure from his family to date someone Jewish.
She writes: “A year or so later I was introduced to the Unitarian Church in Westport by a friend. I liked the ‘sermon’ that day and found people to be very welcoming.”
She says, “I felt ‘free’ there. Free in the sense of no dogma, no list of hundreds of laws that must be kept. But free to be an individual. Free to feel self-worth. Free to feel dignity as a human being. Free to believe or not believe certain things. I was glad to find a place that was not based on making people live in fear. It was the one place I had found that I could leave on Sunday mornings and feel enriched, feel stimulated, feel a sense of my worth, feel uplifted. There I found an appreciation of the spiritual – in all things and in all people.”
She writes about taking the Building Your Own Theology class, which, she said, wasn’t ‘easy,’ because it required her to think about what she believed rather than simply saying what she didn’t believe, or no longer believed. She writes, “It forced me to think, to really look at myself, my experiences, what had I learned from them, and to state openly to others what I believe. It took some soul searching and was not easy, but it was very important. This ‘exercise’ gave me courage and a belief in myself.”
She later writes, “My experience at the Unitarian Church in Westport negated all the previous Protestant preachings about my going straight to hell and burning forever for not believing as they said I ought. I could not believe in a God who would do such things to one He has created and professed to love. Thanks to Unitarianism, I believe I can live life positively, and not live life in fear. Fear causes one to be paralytic. … To me, God is Love. Belief in God makes me want to do good – not because I fear some consequence if I don’t. I think good deeds done because one wants to do a good deed is much more precious and meaningful than a good deed done because one feels one HAS to out of fear of hell.”
“I received so much more from the people at the Unitarian Church in Westport than I gave.”
A couple of years ago Ann was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had surgery at Mass General Hospital in Boston; then she had 6 months of aggressive chemotherapy in Stamford and soon after she moved back to Texas, after 43-years in the New York area. Her doctors told her she might have a year and half or two years to live.
She asked me to help her to plan her funeral; we spent a few months doing the planning, writing back and forth, talking on the phone; lots of emails.
At the beginning of that process she wrote: “I recently read the following: ‘Confirmation of the worst news brings with it, paradoxically, a clearing of the mind: one knows what one must do.’
She said, “I felt this was exactly the case with me. Though my first silent reaction was, ‘So soon?’ then I gathered myself to do what I felt needed to be done — and what I wanted to be done. That is what planning my funeral is all about. In addition, I felt that I wanted to make the ‘legal process’ of death as simple as possible for my family…’Advance Directive for medical care,’ out-of-hospital Do Not Resuscitate documents, Powers of Attorneys, funeral-home pre-planning arrangements. But, of course, I need to be honest about it and say it is also about my having control. I think I have had so little control for so much of my life that it is only in these last 12 years I have been able to be independent – and I like it.”
Ann asked for my suggestions, but she knew pretty well what she wanted for her funeral; and she knew very well what she did not want. She said she did not want people talking about the next life, but to focus on this life, and about her life.
She chose readings and music and said she was confident that I would be able to offer a memorial statement in her honor which would honestly reflect her life, emphasizing the positive without denying the struggle—the negative.
We finalized the plans after she wrote her own epitaph which she sent to me on March 17. As an epitaph she wrote, “Her spirit of adventure takes her on the ultimate journey.” She explained why she wrote that epitaph: “Travel has been a love of my life these past 14 years since Bernie died…I now miss ‘getting up and going’ when and where I want. I have traveled alone in Europe a couple of times.”
I told her I would come to Texas to officiate at her funeral service, if my schedule allowed.
Back in November she even sent money to pay my travel expenses: she covered all the bases.
Two weeks ago I got a call from Ann’s nephew, Gary and his wife Peg. They told me, in a very kind and sensitive way, that I should know that the decision-makers in the family (most notably Ann’s brother, Jerry) had decided that they would not allow me to officiate at her funeral. Jerry, with whom I had previous correspondence in which he thanked me for helping Ann to carry through with her own wishes, was told by his Baptist minister that Unitarians are a ‘satanic cult.’
There was a strong odor coming from Jefferson’s dung heap!
Pressure was being put on Ann, in her final days, to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior—her worst fear was happening to her; the narrow-minded, fear-based, divisive religion about Jesus would deprive Ann of having her final wishes honored.
Not everyone in Ann’s family agreed. In addition to Gary and Peg, Ann’s nephew Chuck called me and politely but firmly said, in his Texas drawl, “Reverend, I have two important questions, and I hope they don’t sound too harsh, but I’ve got to ask.” I assured him that he was entitled to ask any question he had.
“First off, are you a satanic cult?”
I referred to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, all of whom were Unitarians. I mentioned other notables. I spoke of our roots in the Jewish-Christian tradition, and explained how we had grown branches from those solid roots. He understood.
Then he said, “The second question is this: will my Aunt Ann go to heaven?”
I referred to the Universalist branch of our tree and said, “I’ve known your aunt for some time; I know the kind of life she lived, her devotion to family and friends, and I can assure you without question that there is nothing that could separate her from God…she was well connected.” Here I referred to that important passage from Matthew: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty…”
The next day I read a copy of the email he wrote to his family, urging them to abide by Ann’s wishes. In addition to saying that it’s simply the right thing to do—and how wrong it is to deprive her of those final wishes. (I had sent copies of some of her correspondence.)
His effort to change his uncle’s mind, and some others in the family who were unwilling to honor Ann’s dying wishes, did not succeed, but at least he tried, and for that he deserves a great deal of credit. I congratulated him and told him that I could see that his aunt Ann’s influence was ‘alive and well.’
I especially liked his saying that he was assured by Ann’s minister that she was going to heaven, and would be there soon, and she would be ‘waiting at the gate for each of you, and she will look you in the eye and ask why you refused to fulfill her dying wishes, and I wonder how you’ll answer!’
His challenge to the family resulted in the following letter, which I received on Monday. It reads:
I understand that one of the nephews in our family has called you & related to you that Ann’s brothers & sisters have decided on a Christian funeral rather than the one planned by her. We realize that on the surface this seems to be an act of deception on our part.
The way we justify this action in our minds is as follows:
As you may know that Christians believe in the diety (sic) of Jesus. To have any other belief as part of Ann’s service was not something we were willing to do. We believe that when we die we are in the presence of our Lord Jesus. Ann was saved when she was 10 years old. In childlike faith she accepted Jesus as her Savior. Our Bible teaches that she can not full (sic) (fall from) grace.
At the time of her funeral she will know the truth according to the new testament (sic) on which our faith is based. She will know that Jesus is who he says he is.
It is on that basis that we get the inner peace we need to do this.
We trust you will respect our decision that it is not necessary for you to be at Ann’s funeral. Jerry Henry
I responded immediately:
April 11, 2005
Dear Mr. Henry;
I am in receipt of your letter explaining why you are refusing to honor Ann’s dying wishes. You are entitled to your view, and I will, of course, abide by your decision, though it would not be honest of me to say that I will ‘respect it.’ I don’t. Ann planned her funeral in careful, considered detail, and by so doing she ‘took charge’ of her dying, the same way she had taken charge of her life. Her planning served its purpose.
She knew that she was embraced by God’s love. She understood the message of Jesus as ‘universal love,’ leaving no one out of the Kingdom. She lived her religion; her life was characterized by kindness and compassion. She knew what Jesus meant when he said, ‘As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me.’
I do not want to deny you ‘the inner peace’ you need, now, which you wrote about in your letter. That would be wrong of me. I must say, however, that it is wrong of you to deny Ann the inner peace she needed while she prepared for her death. I only hope that you were not successful in your effort to deprive Ann of her dignity in her final hours. I want to believe that she held on to her integrity to the end, in spite of the pressure you and others put on her.
There are those in this world who tarnish the name of Jesus by claiming that he punishes those who embrace Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. These are the same people who intentionally, maliciously slander Unitarian Universalists, calling us a ‘Satanic cult.’ Shame on them! They know in their hearts that they are sowing the seeds of hatred—exactly the opposite of the most basic, essential teaching of Jesus.
This kind of religious competition is a malignancy on the heart of humanity. That kind of hatred is precisely what Jesus preached against. The Jesus Ann knew embraced all of God’s children. All! She had no fear, except having her personal faith slandered. She had an honest, sincere and mature belief in an all-loving God–a universal faith. She knew, as Jesus taught, that nothing could separate her from God’s all-embracing Love.
I’m very sorry not to be able to complete Ann’s final wishes. I’m glad I was able to walk the final mile with her in faith and love. We became very close during this difficult time. I will cherish her memory and I will continue to be inspired by her courage.
She was a most remarkable, wonderful, loving, sensitive, caring and thoughtful woman. She was a strong, independent woman. I cherish the trust she put in the partnership we formed. I will remember her, always.
In spite of our disagreements, I sincerely wish you peace of mind as you mourn her passing. May the spirit and courage she demonstrated in her final months and hours be and abide with you and your family, now and always. Truly, Frank Hall
Post Script: At least some of Ann’s plans came to fruition: her advance directive or ‘living will’ was honored; she died in at home with hospice care.
Also, at the risk of sounding self-serving or congratulatory, I want to say that I have not felt anger toward the members of Ann’s family who were unable to bring themselves to the place where they could honor her wishes. I felt badly for them; even, at the risk of sounding patronizing, I felt sorry for them.
There’s a famous line attributed to the dying Jesus that came to mind: ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’
Since they haven’t asked for my forgiveness I won’t presume to offer it.
My purpose today has simply been to honor Ann’s wishes here at the place where she found inner peace and the courage of her own convictions…the place where she was assured of her basic and essential goodness…her sense of self-esteem and self-confidence.
She demonstrated what I consider to be heroic qualities of the quiet brand; her quiet heroism has been an inspiration to me, and I hope it has inspired you and reminded you how important this religious community is to so many people.
Ann chose a few readings for her service, one of which is the 23rd Psalm that she wanted recited at her grave. I’ll close with another of the readings she chose—the one about a successful life, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Successful Life, Ralph Waldo Emerson (attributed)
“To laugh often and love much. To win and hold the respect of intelligent persons, and the affection of little children.
To earn the praise of honest critics and to endure, without flinching, the betrayal of false friends.
To appreciate beauty always, whether in earth’s creations or men and women’s handiwork.
To have sought for and found the best in others and to have given it oneself.
To leave the world better than one found it, whether by nurturing a child or a garden patch, writing a cheery letter, or working to redeem some social condition.
To have played with enthusiasm, laughed with exuberance, and sung with exultation. To go down to dust and dreams knowing that the world is a little bit better, and that even an single life breathes easier because we have lived well, that is to have succeeded!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (attributed)