Mark 8.34-9.1

Going Up?

(Summertime On Demand – IV)

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this:   the kingdom of God is at hand.”

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started working on a sermon and then come across an entirely random bit of something I’m reading that fits right into my topic. For example, right now I’m reading a crime novel by Dennis Lahane titled Live By Night at the same time I’m writing a sermon on heaven and the afterlife. The dialogue begins on page 37:

“You ever see anyone killed?” Joe asked Emma. She looked back at him steadily for a bit, smoking the cigarette, chewing the hangnail. “Yeah.” “Where do you think they go?” “The funeral home.” He stared at her until she smiled that tiny smile of hers, her curls dangling in front of her eyes. “I think they go nowhere,” she said. “I’m starting to think that too,” Joe said. “What if there is no After? [she asked]  And this” – as she moved closer to him – “is all we get?” “I love this,” he said. She laughed. “I love this too.”

            I’m preaching sermons by request, or “On Demand,” this summer, and one of you had a question about what Joe called the “after” – about heaven and the afterlife. But it occurred to me the other day that, at this half-way point in the series, I am in danger of falling into a trap too many of my colleagues are tempted by, the temptation to believe it is my job to provide answers to whatever questions the curious congregation brings. Like I even have the answers. Well, I don’t, and you’ve probably learned by now that it’s not really my style to tell the congregation what to think or what to believe; I would much rather provide perhaps the tools, and maybe even the inclination, so that we can come to our own answers ourselves. This is why I return to one of my favorite lines by one of my favorite theologians, one which you will hear more than once from me because I think it is so germane to who we are as people who want our faith to be a pulsing, vital reality in our lives and in our world. Karl Barth wrote this: “If the congregation brings to church the great question of human life and seeks an answer for it, the Bible contrariwise brings an answer, and seeks the question corresponding to this answer.” So this morning I’m going to take my cue from Barth and bring, not the answers, but rather, or contrariwise, the questions.

What is heaven – and how did it come to be related to the afterlife? Is heaven in the sky above us – or is it the sky above us? Is heaven all around us? Is heaven even a place? Might heaven be a state of being – being our truest selves – being in union with God – being authentically human? How did the concept of heaven change from its earliest Hebrew understanding of a canopy stretched out over all the earth – from this, to the concept of life after death – particularly since the Hebrews have no concept of life after death?

If this life were all there is, would that change the way we choose to live it? If this life is not all there is, would that change the way we choose to live it? Why? Why would it make a difference? Does heaven exist because I believe it does, or does it exist – or not exist – regardless of belief? Does the idea of an afterlife promote morality? Does it promote charity? Does it encourage love? Does it drive compassion? Did God create us simply to see if we would be obedient, charitable, loving and compassionate? Is heaven a reward?

Does a heaven require a corresponding hell? Does a reward require a corresponding punishment? If heaven and hell are the reward for being good and the punishment for not being good, have we somehow mistaken God for Santa Claus – who sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake; who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake?” Can’t we just be good for each other’s’ sake? Can you and I be the best possible human beings we are capable of being – can we come as close as we possibly can to God’s hopes and desires and dreams for us – indeed to our own hopes and desires and dreams for ourselves - without the promise of a heavenly afterlife dangling before us like some cosmic carrot at the end of a celestial stick?

What do we mean when we say something is “at hand,” as Jesus did at least six different times in our readings this morning? Can we reach out and touch it? See it? Taste it? Understand it? Perceive its nearness? Did Jesus use the phrases “Kingdom of heaven” and “Kingdom of God” interchangeably? When he said “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” did he mean far away in some distant future? And if heaven is where we go when we die, did he mean “You’re going to die soon?” Did he mean that kingdom, or a better term is, that realm, the realm of heaven, the realm of God, is already here? When Jesus said, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power,” was he right? Is the realm of God already among us? Is the realm of heaven already here? Is this, as Emma asked, what we get? Is this heaven? Do we love this too?

If Jean Paul Sartre really believed it when he said “Hell is other people,” might we rebut him and say that heaven is other people? When people who have had near-death experiences or people who have clinically died but then were revived, say they had a glimpse of heaven and then go on to describe it, why does it nearly always look just the way they expected it to look? Are there no surprises in heaven? How will each of us as individuals inhabit the words of the hymn we will sing shortly: “In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity?” Is heaven about going up? Going out? Going home? Going forward? How will we know when we’ve arrived? Will we recognize loved ones? Will we recognize each other? Will we recognize ourselves? Will we recognize God? Will God recognize us?

Have we heard enough questions for one morning? Why am I standing here asking questions when I could be outside washing your cars? Shall we pray?

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