Standing on the Shoulders of Others

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 4, 2012

Revelation 7:9-17 GNT

When our son was seven and our daughter was three, we made our first trip to Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom.  One of the highlights of the day was the parade of Disney characters, and in the evening the electric light parade.  So that she could see, I put our daughter, Kristin, upon my shoulders.  And from that vantage point, she could see the parades just fine.  That is a memory I will cherish forever.

But in a deeper, philosophical sense, I can only hope that someday Kristin and our son, Nathan, as well, will feel that in some ways they are standing on my shoulders.  That as a father, I have provided them with support, guidance, assistance, and other attributes that have helped make them who they are.

As we look back on our lives, one of the things we discover is that each of us, in one sense of the term, stands on the shoulders of others.  We are not self-made.  We are who we are today because of those who came before us, both blood kin and others who have had a profound influence on our lives.  At the risk of mixing my metaphors, it reminds you of that Bette Midler song that I have heard played at funerals and memorial services.  “Did you ever know that you’re my hero.  You’re everything I wish I could be.  I can fly higher than an eagle.  You are the wind beneath my wings.”  Such is an appropriate thought to ponder on this All Saints Sunday—we are held up by others.

Now, I realize that the United Church is not part of a tradition that recognizes saints as such.  But no matter.  Today is also a day that can remind us of all those loved ones who have gone before us who have had a positive impact on our lives.  Those who helped make us who we are.  Those whose shoulders we stand on today, as it were.

The saints, by the way, was what John the Revelator was referring to in that passage that was read from the book of Revelation—the faithful ones who had died.   That faithful number of souls that spans all centuries, all cultures, and all continents.

There is another thing about those who have gone before us that we are reminded of on this All Saints Sunday: We are linked with those who have gone before us, even though we are separated by physical death.  The theological term for this is the Communion of the Saints.  As Frederick Buechner and Morrie Swartz suggest, there is a spiritual tie that binds us beyond the passage of death.  In Swartz’s words, Death ends a life, not a relationship.  And as Buechner put it, even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.  The Communion of the Saints—that’s what it means, practically speaking.  We not only stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before us.  They continue to stand with us, even beyond death.

There has been in the past few months a flurry of works focusing on the afterlife.  There was the bestseller, Heaven Is for Real, by the young boy who supposedly died and came back to life and described dead relatives he could not have known about.  But then more recently there has been the account of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, whose brain “died,” but then he came back to describe an indescribable life beyond.  Dr. Alexander’s story has been told on Good Morning America, in Newsweek magazine, in a recently released book titled Proof of Heaven, and other places.  Before his experience, he was always a skeptic about so-called near death experiences.  Then in 2008, after suffering a horrific headache, he spent seven days in a coma during which time the neocortex, the human part of the brain, was inactivated.  It had shut down after contracting a very rare bacterial meningitis.  His higher-order brain functions were non-existent.  During this time, he claims, he had a near-death experience.  According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is no way that he could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness  during that time, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent journey he experienced.  It took him months to come to terms with his experience.

Toward the beginning of his adventure, he was in a place of big, puffy, pink-white clouds that showed up against a deep blue-black sky.  He heard and saw silvery bodied creatures that sang joyful songs.  And there were butterflies—millions of butterflies.  Then he realized that someone—a young woman—was journeying with him.  The woman had a three-part message for him:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

Dr. Alexander later observes, “Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. . . physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event.  There is no true separation.”  Before his experience, these ideas were abstractions to Dr. Alexander.  “Today they are realities.  Not only is the universe defined by unity,” he explains, “it is also “ (he now knows) “defined by love.”1

Now, you probably are wondering what I think about all of this.  To be honest, I really don’t know.  I am inclined to believe that this life is not the end, that there is some form of blessed existence on the other side of death.  But that is not really the point of today’s sermon.  The real point of today’s sermon is that we are still connected—in some spiritual or metaphysical way, at least—with those who have gone before.  As Dr. Alexander noted, “physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event.  There is no true separation.”  So the idea that we are still connected with our loved ones who have passed on seems to have much more credibility.

I personally have never seen or heard a deceased loved one speak to me.  But I could cite several former church members—sane, level-headed, people—who have shared such stories with me, and I had no reason to doubt the stories they were telling.  I will share just one.  Several years ago, I was asked to baptize a baby.  He was the fifth of a family of five children.  Following the service, Molly, the mother of the baby, shared with me that when we all assembled at the front of the sanctuary for the service of baptism, her father appeared at the back of the sanctuary and stayed there and watched, smiling, throughout the ceremony.  Her father had died several years prior to that, but she said that she saw him standing there as clearly as anyone else in the congregation.  Who was I to question her story?  Even if Molly’s father didn’t really appear to her as she described to me that he did, as Frederick Buechner contended there still was that connection that lived on, even across the chasm of death.  If I were to ask each of you by secret ballot to indicate if you have had an experience when you felt like you sensed the presence of a loved one who has died, some of you, no doubt, might likewise indicate that you have.  As I noted above, the idea that there is, indeed, some kind of connection with loved ones gone on does seem to be more credible than rationally-minded folk might have once thought.  And it is a credibility that even is backed by science, the idea that everything in the universe is connected!

So when you consider these two ideas—the idea that there is a connection that endures beyond death, and the idea that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us—All Saints Day does, indeed, take on new meaning, doesn’t it?  So perhaps a couple of questions that might be pondered this day would include, On whose shoulders do you stand this day?  And who has passed from this life to whom you still feel a connection that defies even death?  For these loved ones—these saints, if you will—we can express our gratitude this All Saints Sunday.  Amen.

1Newsweek, October 15, 2012.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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