"How Far is Heaven?"

Sermon preached by Anne R. Ledbetter
May 2, 2010
Scripture - Revelation 21: 1-6


Revelation is not the easiest or favorite book in the Bible to read.  As apocalyptic literature - a genre characterized by symbols and visions which point to the end time - it sounds totally bizarre today.  Martin Luther admitted his disinterest in the book, and Calvin wrote a commentary on every book in the Bible except Revelation.  The book's author, John, wrote Revelation while banished to Patmos, a rocky island in the Aegean Sea.  Using code, John lambastes the Roman Empire for its social violence, economic exploitation, and religious persecution - including the killing Christians.

Some complain that Revelation is too negative about the present, earthly world and too focused on a future, heavenly world.  But you might think differently if Roman emperors like Nero or Domitian had slaughtered your family, or if Janjaweed militia in Darfur (literally, "devils on horseback") had raped your women, straved your village with jets, then burned it to the ground.  For people in Darfur, Congo or Haiti, a literal hell has come to earth.  And therein lies one key to making sense of Revelation.[i]

But Revelation has not gone unappreciated by many in the church.  Its amazing imagery has inspired more hymns and anthems than any book of the bible save Psalms and the gospels.  Today's passage is often read at funerals and memorial services, probably because it paints a beautiful picture of God's eternal realm.  God dwells in the midst of humanity.  Death is non-existent.  There is no more crying, nor tears, nor pain anymore.  Everything is fresh and new.  What do you think?  Is this your picture of heaven, or do you have a different image of God's eternal realm?

If you walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble on 202, you'll find numerous authors who convey a vivid depiction of heaven in books such as Life after Life or 90 Minutes in Heaven. Often the author relates a personal out of body experience in which he/she died, that is, was pronounced or presumed dead, but was brought back to life.  Most of these books describe a tunnel of light, familiar faces of deceased loved ones, or even pearly gates and pathways of gold.  These books sell very well, because we yearn to know what has happened to a loved one who has died, and because we feel anxious about our own inevitable death.  For some people these books may feel like the closest thing we have to an answer.

About a year ago I was eating out with an elderly member who announced mid-meal, "Anne, one reason I invited you to lunch was to ask you a question, 'what do you think happens when we die?'"  Well, there's nothing like a church member putting the pastor on the spot!  I finished my bite, paused, smiled, and said, "Well, Evelyn, none of us really knows what happens, do we?  The Bible contains some images and many people hang on Jesus' words to his disciples in John's gospel, 'In my Father's house there are many dwelling places... And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again so that where I am, there you may be also.'"[ii] I can't recall whether I referred to today's text from Revelation 21, one of the most wonderful images.  But I do recall saying these words, "This is what I believe - it sounds simplistic, and it's short on details, but here it is.  I believe that when we are born, we come from God - that is to say, we are born out of God's love; and when we die, we return to God whose essence is Love.  That may sound rather vague and ethereal, but it's what I believe, and it's enough for me."  Now this is not to say that I don't savor other uplifting images - images which give me hope and comfort - but I know that they are simply images, yearnings, visions, dreams.  Indeed, one of my favorite images is that of a festive celebration with music and dancing and a splendid feast.  Indeed, I have already asked God to save me a place next to a beloved friend who died a few years ago.  Yes, that will be heaven.

A Benedictine nun remembers when her own mother lay dying in a hospital.  The sister bent down to her mother and ventured to reassure her saying, "Mother, in heaven everyone we love is there."  And the older woman replied, "No, in heaven I love everyone who's there."[iii]

The older woman understood that heaven is not our perfect realm, but God's perfect realm where love, the only rule, flourishes unhindered.  Can you imagine a world where love governs everyday life for all?  No more genocide, no more terrorism, no more gang wars, no more international conflicts, no more ponzi schemes or greed, no more hate crimes or child abuse or school shootings, no more stalemates in congress.  Over thirty years ago John Lennon put it this way "Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.  Imagine all the people living life in peace."[iv] God's realm of perfect love and eternal shalom may often feel like an elusive fantasy, a pipedream.  Heaven seems like a faraway place, an idyllic utopia.

The Texas band Los Lonely Boys has given voice to this sentiment in their popular song How far is heaven? Guitarist Henry Garza wrote the lyrics as a prayer when his son died of sudden infant death syndrome.  The song expresses the pain he felt and his deep desire to escape this world and see his baby boy. The song goes, "How far is heaven? Lord can you tell me, cause I've been locked up way too long in this crazy world, how far is heaven I just keep on prayin' Lord, Just keep on livin', how far is heaven?"[v] Garza's lyrics resemble a modern psalm of lament, asking God how far is heaven from this world gone awry.  As the nightly news reminds us of war and corruption, death and disease and a contagion of disasters, we understand why some might even say that our world may resemble hell more than heaven.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the person who asked God about heaven and hell.  God said, "Come, I will show you hell."  They entered a room where a group of people sat around a pot of stew. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving.  Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but each spoon had a handle so much longer than their own arm that it could not be used to get the stew into their mouths.  The suffering was terrible.

"Come, now I will show you heaven," the Lord said after a while.  They entered another room, identical to the first - the pot of stew, the group of people, the same long-handled spoons.  But there everyone was happy and well-nourished.  "I don't understand," said the man.  "Why are they happy here when there were miserable in the other room and everything was the same?"

"Ah," God said, "Here they have learned to feed each other."[vi]

We are well aware of places in our world where people are famished and starving.  We know situations in our own lives where self-interest overshadows concern for one's neighbor.  But our baptism reminds us of our identity as children of God, or as the apostle Paul declares, citizens of heaven.

Heaven is God's perfect dream - a plan to be realized in the fullness of time - a realm of light, love and joy.  Christians believe God has shown us the path toward that dream in Jesus.   Scripture teaches us that heaven is not first and foremost a promised future, but God's overarching vision (or plan) begun in Christ - a realm of shalom to be pursued passionately by those who love God.

As people of faith, we hold the tension of the present with our hope for the future.  In the most troubled spots in the world, a spark of God's Spirit will ignite in people of faith and maintain a steady glow.  Each spark of love for neighbor as self adds harmony; each spark of justice adds peace; and each spark of love for God adds joy.  Many people of faith and people of many faiths share the vision of the new heaven and earth;[vii] and this gives us continued hope for our world.

The Eucharist is rooted in memory and embodies our hope - as we remember that last supper Jesus had with his disciples and eagerly await that day when we will feast with Christ in God's eternal realm.  But, my friends, this feast is also an immediate joy and amazing gift, providing us with a taste of heaven!  For at the table we gather as equals - as forgiven sinners, as children of God, as those whom Jesus calls friends.  We gather in all our differences of age, gender, race, sexuality, fitness of health, economic condition, political affiliation, denomination - we gather as those who hunger and thirst for God, and who - with God - hunger and thirst for God's perfect realm of love.

How far is heaven?  It's as near to us as this table where we feast on the abiding grace and love of Christ.  It's as close as the hand of a neighbor who reaches out in care and concern.  It's as immediate as the Spirit of God within us, urging us to love our neighbor, to work for justice, to forgive our enemy, to show compassion.  How far is heaven?  Not far at all.  In fact, it's right here, right now, as Christ invites us to a family feast of love and grace.

[i] Dan Clendenin, Reflections on the Lectionary, www.journeywithjesus.net 19 April 2010.

[ii] John 14: 2

[iii] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.)  p. 369.

[iv] John Lennon, "Imagine" 1971.

[v] Henry Garza, "How Far is Heaven" 1996.

[vi] Author unknown, "Long Handled Spoons" I remember this story from a sermon I heard years ago, and found the tale through a Google search.

[vii] Amelia Chua, "Tending the Holy" Disciplines (Nashville: Upper Room, 1998.) p. 137.