A Hope for Two Heavens

Ancient Testimony I ~ Mark 8:34-9:1 (NRSV)

January 04, 2009

by Justin Ward

Given that we are about to begin the first week of a New Year, and just weeks away from the inauguration of a new president, I thought it might be fitting to speak about hope this morning. Specifically hope for a heaven that’s both here and now and in the hereafter. This ladder notion might sound crazy and ridiculous, perhaps, but bear with me for a few minutes and at least try to remain open to the possibility. In response to a confession of doubt on my part, a dear friend who recently passed away once said, “Honey, you don’t have to believe it [she was talking about the Pentecost story in Acts], but if you believe in God, you better believe it’s possible.” Regardless as to what you believe about heaven, how can we have hope for anything apart from the memory of what we’ve lost or have yet to find? Undoubtedly hope is one of our most precious gifts, yet, more often than not, we unwrap it in the midst of our darkest hours. I certainly do not wish to be a messenger of gloom this morning, but if we are to speak of hope, I think we have no choice but to also acknowledge our emptiness.

This congregation knows a lot about emptiness, and so I pray we are a congregation also filled with hope. In 2008 this community was devastated by job loss and debilitated by serious health concerns. At least one among us spent the year fighting deportation proceedings and thus the potential of being separated from the people he loves most in the world. Others among us fought what appeared to be losing battles with weight, addiction, and depression, and still others struggled a lot last year because of family members who continued to reject them. In 2008, many of us said “so long for now” to loved ones who departed this world. Much of this year’s heartbreak we saw coming, but too much of it transpired quite suddenly. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion reminds us of something we know all too well: “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

Sometimes it seems that our relationship with faith also changes in an instant. In hindsight, though I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, this appears to have been the case with me.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). I can’t help but feel there’s something unfortunate about this. Though Paul speaks of this transformation as an analogy to the day when we will hopefully see our maker not through a mirror dimly, but face to face, I must confess there are days when I miss thinking like a child, days when I think to myself that God might feel real if only I could be a child again. I miss these childish ways most of all upon learning that someone close to me has died. Perhaps you can relate.

As a child, it was so much easier to believe in heaven—in the hereafter sense of the word. Unquestionably, heaven was the place to which people and pets went after they died, a place where they would be free from pain, where love was overflowing, and where all wrongs were made right. This blessed assurance was perhaps the greatest gift of being raised in a Southern Baptist church. Though I have long since found much to blame on that church, it was there, in the center of the Bible Belt, that I came to believe that Jesus was real, that death was not final, that in his ascension to heaven Jesus had gone to prepare a place for me—and you. Today I affectionately remember this faith of my childhood as the “faith with luster.”

I have not only that church but also my mother to thank for the luster of my childhood faith. God was a big deal not just on Sundays but every day in our house. We said a blessing before every meal, and it did not matter whether we were at home or in a restaurant. Inevitably the person waiting on our table always came back to see if we needed refills mid-prayer; this was always so embarrassing! “Bless our home, Jesus.” Those were the words my mother had us recite as she, my brother, and I left the house for school each morning. At night the three of us gathered for devotionals—this was a time for scripture reading, prayer, a story, and thought for the day. Before bed, Mom always tucked us in and sat next to us as we said our prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Yes, God was alive and well in our house, and we never missed a chance for Billy Graham to remind us! Well in advance of the nights his crusades were televised, my brother, Carson, and I were instructed to make no other plans and to be at the dining room table at 8 o’clock sharp. And there we sat, hour after hour, watching hundreds, if not thousands of people make professions of faith while George Beverly Shea sang “Just As I Am” in the background. By now I’m sure this probably comes as no surprise, but Christmas Day wasn’t what many of you would consider normal, either. Growing up, I was never in a hurry to wake before dawn because I knew it would be noon before we opened presents. The agenda was different in our house: first it was the reading of Christ’s birth, from the gospel according to Luke, and that was followed by singing “Happy Birthday, Jesus,” complete with a baked good covered in candles. I’m not kidding!

In the 8½ years since I left home, not much has changed about my mother or the house I grew up in… but I have. I’m sure many of you can relate. Like me, perhaps you left small-town America for the bright lights of the big city and didn’t look back. Perhaps you found a new, different kind of church or gave up church altogether. The point is, as we develop psychologically and religiously, heaven usually undergoes a dramatic makeover. Some of us come to see it as nothing more than a childhood fantasy, while others—like me—are surprised to end up in seminary, where all talk of the coming kingdom of heaven has more to do with the here and now than it does the hereafter. When it comes to faith, I, for one, miss some of my childish ways. Maybe you do, too. If so, we must then ask if there are ways of thinking as a child—about life, death, and everything in between—that might be helpful for us to carry throughout our lives.

Yes, it’s true what we are meant to grow up. In one of our scripture readings for today, Paul writes to the Ephesians with his prayers for that community: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17). If you’ve been out on your own for any length of time, you can attest that the wisdom Paul hopes we will acquire often comes with age and life experience. So in a sense we must become adults if our faith is to mature and become authentic, and if we are to know God more personally. But Paul also has another prayer: “…that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he [the Father] has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). Reading this, I am mindful of the heaven I came to know as a child, a heaven that’s become more and more difficult to believe in as I’ve gotten older and seen more suffering in the world. But in this letter to the Ephesians, Paul seems to be saying to you and me that wisdom—the product of adulthood—and the glorious inheritance in the saints—that magical place of which we first learn about as children—are not mutually exclusive. At once he prays that we will come to know God better through wisdom but without forsaking the hope that we are bound for a glorious place where we will claim our great reward: an everlasting peace, together with the Lord.

Not since I began my seminary studies have I purchased Christmas cards like the ones I did this year. I suppose I’m testing as to see whether my faith can get its luster back. On the cards was the picture of a church—perhaps that of my childhood church or yours—located in a country village covered in snow. Underneath the church was a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “…the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Could it be that this verse contains some truth for us? Or is it just a nice thought to go along with a Christmas card that sparkles? Though not one of us can be absolutely certain of what the future holds or what it will look like, we can be full of hope. Paul writes, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5).

As you are probably painfully aware, living a life of faith does not mean we always get what we hope for—at least not exactly when we want it. In this economy, despite Ivy League educations and stellar resumes, some go upward of a year or more before finding steady employment. We long for love and do everything we can to find it, and still sometimes we don’t meet that man or woman of our dreams for years—or ever. We pray for the travel safety of our loved ones, and still sometimes planes go down. If we truly believe that God hears our prayers, that in God’s time no prayer goes unanswered, what then do we say to that person who goes a whole lifetime without ever finding meaningful employment or a long-term relationship, or to the family of a young person who dies in a motor vehicle accident? I think it’s precisely because so many of our deepest longings often go unrealized that we must keep hope alive for the heaven to which we were introduced as children.

While hope requires that we acknowledge our emptiness, I think it also encourages us to embrace that part of ourselves that will always be longing for more no matter what, that part of us that was created to yearn for something beyond our earthly existence. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? That feeling deep inside that sometimes keeps you awake in the quiet stillness of a dark night, the one that persists despite landing your dream job, the perfect mate, and a great piece of New York real estate. Augustine called this our “restless heart,” that part of us that will always be longing until we are wrapped in the loving arms of our Creator. There is hope to be found in this persistent longing! C.S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience of this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” These words were of great comfort to me recently, after the passing of my friend Florence, who died before I could say goodbye. The good times we had, as well as the hope that she and I will someday meet again—this is what keeps me going. Indeed it was Florence who once said, “You don’t have to believe it, but if you believe in God, you better believe it’s possible.”

I guess I do still have hope for that heaven of my childhood, though on some days more so than others. If it is to withstand the test of time, perhaps our faith needs to lose its luster, at least for a little while. But aren’t we so grateful for those moments in which it comes right back to us? What a gift to have a child ask us to explain what happens to someone after they die. Though we may not realize it at the time, I think our responses say a lot about what we wish to hear, revealing some of those things for which we are longing most deeply: truly unconditional love, freedom from pain and anguish, and justice that prevails, to name but a few.

Without hope for a heavenly hereafter, what are we to think when our loved ones die? That’s it? The end? Game over? The hospital patients with whom I worked as a chaplain last summer would have none of that. In the midst of terrible pain and sadness, it was only their faith, their hope for a world beyond terminal diagnoses, that was comforting during the darkest nights of the soul. Keeping this faith must not have been easy; I imagine my patients also struggled with doubt. I also think they recognized the unique position they were in to encourage the faith of others. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes that “[f]orces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” The patients with whom I worked this summer consistently responded in faith; in turn they encourage my faith and yours to believe “that the One whose love has begun so good a work among us here and now will not fail to bring it to fulfillment at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

A friend of my family recently lost his wife of 26 years, who was also the mother of his two children. Her name was Michele. She became ill last June, and by October she was gone. She was just 45 years old. In a message posted to family and friends shortly after Michele’s death, Scott shared from a heart that was broken, yet enlightened with the hope to which God has called us. This is what he wrote: “As I sit begging God for words that do not come to me, I feel the softness of Michele’s touch on my arm, loving me and helping me get through this very moment. How she can reach me and my heart from glory, I do not know but am grateful for. Michele has gone to heaven and now is cradled in the arms of her father. Her pain is gone along with the suffering of a weakened body. At about 1:00 this morning she was called home. I miss her.”

I realize it’s the first Sunday of the New Year, and that perhaps you expected a different sermon to celebrate the occasion. If you’re familiar with the lectionary, you know I’ve departed from this week’s suggested texts. Instead I’ve chosen one heard every few years on All Saints Day, and another, the passage from Mark, which is most often read during the liturgical season of Lent. Both are to some degree concerned with death: one with celebrating the lives of people who have died, the other with Jesus, as he first predicts his death and resurrection. I have good intensions for choosing both. If in fears about death we might come to see, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, the hope to which God has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, might we also be able to make the most of this life, living fully for something that will really matter long after we’ve departed?

In the gospel according to Mark, Jesus speaks of what makes a true disciple. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). In other words, being a good steward of life entails that we not cling to life out of fear of death; only when we are willing to die for the gospel will we be living life most fully. This is a bold statement for Mark’s Jesus to be making, and we must be very careful with it. Of course life is sacred, and it can be quite wonderful, so most of us aren’t in a hurry to see it end. I don’t think we should be, and I don’t think Jesus is saying we should be in a hurry, either. But because we are here for just such a time as this, I suppose most of us are longing to make the most of these temporary, fragile lives. The author of Mark’s gospel really seems to get this, and so Jesus’ words are an invitation, a suggestion as to how we might live life most fully. That we are blessed to know our time on earth is short, and that we know something of the hope to which God calls us, these are gifts of our faith that help us to get on with the business of truly living as if each day might be our last.

When we live our lives most fully, might we also have hope for the day when this world looks just like heaven? Our faith tells us that not only are we bound for heaven, heaven is also on its way to us. Listen to these words from the Lord’s Prayer: together we pray that “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” [emphasis mine]. What’s more exciting is that we don’t have to just sit back and wait for heaven’s arrival; we can live in such a way that it gets here faster! In Mark’s gospel, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1).

I suspect that when heaven and earth meet, the question as to what happens when we die will matter far less than it does now; for if one day we can say that we are living in heaven on earth, what more will there be to hope for?

When you think of heaven, what does it look like? And in this New Year, what might God need you to do so that this world looks more like heaven in 2009 than it did in 2008? You might begin thinking about this question by asking yourself, “Where do I feel most alive in the world?” Or in other words, “What brings me the most joy?” What Jesus says is true discipleship Frederick Beuchner calls true vocation. “True vocation,” Buechner writes, “is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” It’s interesting to note that the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to call.” And religious leaders aren’t the only ones called to a vocation. Each one of us has the responsibility to find theplace where our deep gladness responds to a deep need in the world. When we continue to pray about our vocations, we might one day realize that we must break sharply with our current lives and take up entirely new ways of living in the world.

Again I ask: When you think of heaven, what does it look like?

When I dream of heaven on earth, I imagine a place where the Ruby Rims of the world can just be who they are without constantly having to defend themselves; a place where people take time to listen before they make assumptions about people whose sexual orientation or gender identity is different than theirs. In such a world, people might be pleasantly surprised to learn that a man who likes to dress as a woman has something unique to reveal about the divine, something we might otherwise never come to realize, wearing the same boring outfits day after day.

Since leaving home 8½ years ago, I’ve come to realize that my deep gladness comes from media and ministry. Part of this deep gladness I’ve discovered at Judson, having been invited last May to come and work in a church where I could do both these things: media and ministry. When their power is used in the right way, the Church and the media are institutions with tremendous capacity to do a lot of good in the world. For the most part, however, these institutions—more than any others—are what hinder sexual minorities from becoming full participants in society. As a reminder, half of the money raised to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling to allow same-sex marriage in California was provided by the Mormon Church. The media continues to eat this story up, but why aren’t they banging down Ruby’s door? I suppose they’re concerned people might realize they have much more in common with a drag queen than they thought. Then the ratings drop, followed by the profits. Unfortunately, what sells in this country is the notion we are somehow different than our neighbor.

The short film you saw a few minutes ago doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes about gay people, as most media does; rather it seeks to honor one individual’s whole personhood by showing all their different sides. Who knew a drag queen had faith in something more than makeup? Well, when was the last time anyone asked?

If you’re interested in this dream of creating a television show that ministers to sexual minorities in fun and thoughtful ways, I encourage you to speak with me about what makes you really happy, because I just might have a job for you. It takes more than one person to create and sustain a television show; indeed, it takes a village. I need you. And there is a deep need in the world for media that ministers on a regular basis to sexual minorities who are struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality. Not knowing how, too many young people die trying.

My dream for heaven on earth has me on a journey to become what my friend Macky Alston calls “the gay religious Oprah.” What’s your dream? What needs to happen in 2009 for that dream to move closer to fruition? And how might this community of faith be helpful to you in the process?

I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid hope for one heaven just isn’t enough for me. That’s because I do find in myself a desire that no experience of this world can ever satisfy, namely that I might one day be reunited with dearly departed loved ones in a place where there’s love overflowing, freedom from pain, and justice prevails. Though this world is far from perfect, I sure do love living here; and so I hope it’s a little while longer before I learn what finally becomes of my otherworldly desires. For now let us be grateful to be alive with hope for things not yet seen face to face, but through a mirror dimly with the eyes of our hearts.

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