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Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Trouble With Heaven


May 18, 2014 – Easter V
All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

        Will the circle be unbroken
        By and by Lord, by and by? 
        Is a better home awaiting
        In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

In the name of God, Creator, Word and Spirit. Amen.

This is a sermon about heaven  - or, actually, the trouble with heaven.  

So, let me being by putting this into context for you.

In this morning’s Gospel, John takes us back to the time just before the troubles began for Jesus. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and word of this miracle had spread far and wide as people gathered in the City of Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.

If the Pharisees aren’t already angry about this miracle of Lazarus, they have set their hair on fire and run down the street, furious because the miracle took place on a Sabbath! And, Jeeze Louise! Everyone knows you’re not supposed to heal on the Sabbath, much less raise a man from the dead. 

And then, when Jesus and his disciples made their entry into Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, everyone shouted “Hosanna” and treated Jesus like a rock star. It was disgusting! Well, in the eyes of the Pharisees, that is.

In this Gospel scene, Judas has just left the Upper Room to complete his vocation of betrayal. 

Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death, telling them, “Where I am going, you can not come.” Thomas is confused and asks, “Where are you going?”

Jesus, whose heart is troubled by what he knows is about to happen, says to Thomas, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” and describes heaven as a place – his Father’s house – where there are many rooms. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for them there and then he will return to come and take them there himself.

It’s a lovely image for heaven, isn’t it? I know it brings me a deep sense of comfort and solace as it has millions of people throughout the ages who believe the words of the Eucharistic prayer we say during a funeral; that “life is changed, not ended”. 

Many of us hold onto the belief that there is a place for us in heaven where the Spirit will take us when we die and we will spend eternity bathed in the light of Christ and held in the arms of God.

Well, at least, we want to believe that. 

As a Hospice Chaplain, I have learned that there is nothing like a diagnosis with a terminal implication to shake that belief right down to its very core. The one question I get consistently is one about heaven. Is it real? Will I get there? Will I seem my loved ones there?

Or, in the words of that wonderful old hymn, “Will the circle be unbroken? Is a better home a waiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky?”

We want very much to believe, but when we are looking into the abyss, our knees begin to buckle. 

Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled” about the afterlife and yet, our culture seems - even more so lately - obsessed with ‘all heaven all the time.’ 

There are TV programs and movies with titles like “Resurrection” and “Heaven is Real," “Transformation” and "Son of God", and books like “Proof of Heaven”.   

On the flip side, we’ve seen an update of “Rosemary’s Baby” as a TV miniseries.

When we’re not talking about the possibility of life after death or heard the refrain “Religious Freedom” or the SCOTUS decision on public prayer, TV commercials have angels selling us everything from sexy Victoria Secrets underwear to Angle Soft toilet paper to tend to our tushies.

According to a poll of 2,500 Americans reported in the Washington Post last May

-- 62% believe in heaven and think they are going there.

             -- 44% believe in hell as "a place of suffering and punishment where some
                        people go after they die;"

              -- The 56% overall belief in the existence of the devil and 53% belief in
                        hell was consistent across all the four survey age groups;

             -- With regard to what causes evil in the world, i.e., the Boston Marathon
                        Massacre, Sandy Hook shooting and 9/11, older respondents (45-60) feel
                        people are evil while younger  respondents (18-29) feel people are sick;

-  However, nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as "not at all" religious - a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%. -

There’s lots of information and misinformation out there about heaven – and hell, as a matter of fact – and the God’s honest truth is that we simply don’t know what awaits us after we die.  It’s an all too obvious but, I suppose, necessary thing to point out that no one has died and returned to verify and authenticate the words of Jesus.

Except, of course, those who have had an NDE or “Near Death Experience”. The stories of those people pretty consistently report the presence of a tunnel with a very bright light at the end. 

Is that ‘proof of heaven’ or the old understanding of ‘limbo’ (AKA “God’s Waiting Room”), or simply the body’s psycho-chemical response to the traumatic event of a temporary shut down of organs?

We can’t be certain, can we? That’s the problem with heaven. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of what we choose to believe.  And, I suspect, we choose to believe that which brings us comfort and solace as we grieve our loss or consider our own mortality.

I have found two images very helpful to me, personally, as well as to those with whom I am privileged to minister as the hour of their death draws near.

Here’s the first image I have found helpful, one which I hope will also be helpful to you. It came to me, first, as I used to listen to my grandmother as she held her infant great and then great great grandchildren in her arms for the first time. Have you ever noticed that newborns sometimes get very animated in their sleep? Their mouths move and they grimace or smile? My grandmother used to see that and say, “Ah, she’s getting last minute instructions from the angels.”

Later, I learned that newborns will follow the sound of their mother and, often, their father, seemingly recognizing the sound of their voices. That’s because they do. In utero, babies can hear. They don’t know what they’re listening to, of course, but they hear.

So, that got me to thinking and it stirred my imagination an creativity. 

I like to imagine the whole round world as our womb – the uterus into which we are born from our mother’s womb. 

Every now and again, we get glimpses of that ‘other world’, that ‘other, eternal reality’ that lies beyond this known world of our present reality. 

Like newborn infants, we can’t possibly know or understand what is “out there”. We only have hints and intuitions, whispers and murmurs, glimpses and flashes of knowing.

And so our earthly death is really just a new birth. We are born again through death into the new life of eternity with God who created us and gave us these earthly bodies to wear for all the days and seasons of our lives on this plane.

“Life is changed, not ended” as our Eucharistic prayer says. I not only say that prayer, I believe that prayer. Do I have proof? No. I don’t need proof. I have faith.

The second image is from Henri Nouwen, the Jesuit theologian who was also a prolific writer. In his book, Bread for the Journey, Nouwen writes;

Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die. But love will remain. Love is eternal. Love comes from God and returns to God. When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love. The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us. It is the divine, indestructible core of our being. This love not only will remain but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.

When we approach our deaths let us say to those we leave behind, "Don't let your heart be troubled. The love of God that dwells in my heart will come to you and offer you consolation and comfort.

I choose to believe Nouwen’s words. I do believe Love is eternal – because I believe “all love is of God” – it comes from God and returns to God. And, I do believe that the love in our hearts that never dies comes to our loved ones after we die and offers them consolation and comfort, yes, as well as hope.  It lives on and bears fruit from generation to generation.

Now, if I were to argue the case for heaven in a court of law, I would undoubtedly lose.  The trouble with heaven is that I have no forensic evidence. The only evidence I have is anecdotal.  Circumstantial, at best. I have my belief and I have my faith. And, my faith gives me consolation. Consolation gives me reason to hope. And, hope defeats despair. And defeated despair quickens love. And love, my friends, all love, is of God. It is a gift that can never be destroyed. It lives on through eternity.

The love of God which we hold in our hearts will return to our loved ones after we die and our born into the new life of eternity with God, and it will give to our loved ones solace and comfort and hope.

This is what I believe.  It is my response to the request of Jesus who said, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” even as his own heart was deeply troubled by the death he knew he was about to face.  I suspect it gave him some comfort to know that his life and his death were for naught. Indeed, it was for love. 

And he is the very incarnation of God’s love for us, which we re-member whenever we gather together, to listen to the Word of God and the Teachings of Jesus, affirm our faith and share together in the breaking of the Bread and drinking of the Wine.

For it is in partaking in this Holy Communion that the circle is unbroken, and, like babes in the womb, we all catch a glimpse of that Heavenly mansion where there is a place for each one of us. The trouble with heaven is the same trouble with love. It is this: As the fox said to The Little Prince. “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.”

One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?

       Will the circle be unbroken
        By and by Lord, by and by? 
        Is a better home awaiting
        In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

       Will the circle be unbroken
        By and by Lord, by and by
        Is a better home awaiting
        In the sky, Lord, in the sky?



Brian Davis said...

Elizabeth, once again you knocked it out of the park!

I am Roman Catholic (former Episcopalian) and every single Sunday when I receive the Eucharist, I weep with gratitude and I am overwhelmed with God's love.

That love can never die, I know that without any doubts or misgivings.

The day my protestant grandmother died she told my mother to get off the bed because she was preventing Jesus and my already dead grandfather from getting to her. She saw them clearly and left in peace with great love.

Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Brian. Your words a great compliment which I deeply appreciate.

Jonathan Hagger said...

I am so going to steal your baby in the womb metaphor. Oh, yes.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Steal away, Jonathan, with attribution, of course.

Just don't say that the thought came to me as I was doing some, um, "free association" - which is to say, I was sitting in front of the fire with a great glass of Argentinian Merlo. Some of my best thoughts come to me that way.

Anonymous said...

A very moving sermon. It reminded me of my Mother'death and various people that wanted her baptized in their church in order that she could go to Heaven. The next door neighbor insisted she be baptized in the Catholic church, my Boyfriend at the time insisted she be baptized in his non-denominational church. (My Mother had been raised in a Baptist House but married my Father A catholic man. ) She asked me if I thought she needed to be re-baptized. I said, she could if she wanted to but I did not think it was needed as the Bible does not state you must be Baptized in x church. I was also reminded of the biblical verse about many rooms in our Father's house. Are the many room's needed for the different branches of our faith? Why so much division?
Thanks for the sermon.