Tuesday, 15 September 2015 00:00

"Heaven on Earth", September 6, 2015


“Heaven on Earth”
Matthew 6:7-18
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 6, 2015
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Who has gone to the Fair?  I’m going tomorrow. Each year, I look forward not so much to the mini-donuts or the cheese curds or anything on a stick.  I look forward to seeing what new gadgets they have at the Eco-booth at the state Fair.  And I always marvel about how much more we can do to reduce our human impact on this earth so others can simply live. The focus for our worship this year is “For the Beauty of the Earth”.  We have new decorations in the sanctuary and fall worship services focused on colors of the rainbow.  So today, we start it all off, by wondering about heaven on earth.

I’m reminded of the song by David Roth which has the same title:

Heaven on Earth

The scene was one morning, about 10 AM, in a conference room somewhere in space
One by one all the celestials dropped in until all of the host was in place
Refreshments were offered, some white fluffy cake and a kettle of warm steamy milk
Everything served up on porcelain plates on a table of linen and silk
"May I bring this meeting to order" was heard and all turned to the head of the room
"I welcome you all to this high-level council, we've plenty of work to resume..."

A steno stood up with a pad in one hand and announced the agenda in rhyme
"There's the matter of buckling Orion's belt and of cleaning the Milky Way's grime
And someone's donated two huge pearly gates and they're stirring up quite the big fuss
For to make matters worse now, the Salvation Army has given the darn things to us
But firstly and foremost, this annual assembly has holy intention and worth
For we're gathered together to work out the plan for the placement of Heaven on Earth"

A poet took the podium and offered a prayer - "Where our vision falls short, may we see,
May we do all we can to insure that all beings will be the Blessed they can be"
Two nurses continued by pleading for peace "And for gentleness" Joan of Arc beamed
And the good Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said a prayer for all those who had dreamed
"The floor is now open, the research committee will render their statements and notes
And when we've heard all the proposals then everyone makes their decision and votes

So one by one cherubs were stating their cases saying Heaven should be here or there
Some lobbied for down in the deepest of oceans, some argued for up in the air
But when all was concluded it was quite apparent that this was a point on which few could agree
'Twas no simple matter deciding just where this Dominion of Heaven should be
At last in the silence a small voice was heard from a humble and timorous man
"My name's Murray Goldberg, I'm still on probation, but I think that I got a good plan."

It seems I've been spending my lifetimes alone in my search for my soul and my source
And I've shunned the distraction of my fellow beings for the fear that they'd throw me off course
But when I get together with one or more others there's nothing that feels so divine
To be in communion with sisters and brothers must surely be Heaven's design
So how 'bout we scrap all the blueprints and plans and instead we install it by parts
And we put a large portion of Heaven deep down in the corner of everyone's hearts

Again there was silence, and then an explosion, unanimous beating of wings and of legs
And the meeting had gone through the night to the dawn, so St. Benedict started some eggs
Harriet Tubman went off for her train, St. Bernard went off walking his dog
"I'm taking a couple of tablets," says Moses, while Murray was simply agog
But from that moment forward the issue was passed with a permanent home by decree
Where two or more beings are gathered in love here the Realm of all Heaven shall be

Pope Francis made history back in June when he wrote his encyclical to the church, which really ought to be addressed to the world.  He said that care for the earth is a moral imperative.  I’m used to ignoring what Popes say are moral imperatives, but I think this Pope is absolutely right.  It’s not only about care for the earth, it’s about a re-ordering of priorities. No wonder politicians are trying to minimize it.

Hear some of the choice phrases from his missive Laudato Si (Praise Be).

"The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."  No mincing words here.

"A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events... Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it."

'These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years."

"Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God's love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God."

He gets pointedly political when he talks about first-world governments:

"Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption."

"It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected."

“A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress."

He sounds like a Baptist preacher.

"We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment."

Enough of Pope Francis for now. You see, care for the earth is more than simply recycling and bicycling.  It’s about transforming how we view the world.  Is this earth our temporary home until we reach heaven-and therefore a stepping stone that can be disposed of-or is heaven actually on earth?  And if heaven is on earth, then what do we do with the hellish conditions of our neighbors?

What does this have to do with today’s scripture reading?  Well, everything. Pope Francis, like Jesus, is calling us to radically transform the way we look at the world and its people. When Jesus encouraged people to pray what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, he was not telling us to piously recite a mantra that will give us stars in our crown.  He was giving us a counter-cultural formula that violated the status quo, declared your allegiance to God instead of the emperor and  proclaimed that we are to participate in God’s work, God’s will on earth, not in some heaven light years away.

Think about it for a moment:

We pray our father who art in heaven.  The Roman emperor was known as the son of God.  And he required homage and taxes to be paid to him.  Even the coins had the image of Caesar on them, saying he was son of God.  Jesus said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but never confuse Caesar with God. God is in heaven and that being deserves our attention. At UBC, we remember that God is beyond the gender categories of this world, so we pray our father/mother.

When we say thy kingdom come, we are declaring that God’s kingdom, or kin-dom will be decidedly different than Rome’s (or whatever empire is in charge).  In God’s commonwealth, there is no disparity between rich and poor.

In God’s kin-dom, there are no wars and rumors of wars.

In God’s kin-dom, there is no racism, sexism, phobias or prejudice.

In God’s kin-dom, the poor are lifted up and the rich are sent away empty.

In God’s kin-dom, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

In God’s kin-dom, the world is protected not exploited.

In God’s kin-dom, the people are celebrated not left to float off into the sea.

In God’s kin-dom, wealth is shared and no one goes hungry, or without shelter, or without dignity.  

In God’s kin-dom, the world is protected and lives matter, especially those lives which have not mattered to the establishment.

In God’s kin-dom, we do not build walls to keep others out, we break down the walls of hostility, welcome the stranger, and set a table for our enemies.

Marcus Borg famously said that heaven is doing just fine.  Our work is to make God’s will be done on earth.  May God’s kin-dom come on earth.

When we pray to give us our daily bread we are proclaiming a simple form of economic justice.  Most people did not have daily bread, then, just as now. If we are going to make heaven on earth, we need to give people daily bread.  Pope Francis addressed this, too in one of his sermons:

“Once our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any leftover food. Consumerism has led us to become accustomed to the superfluous and the daily waste of food, which we are sometimes no longer able to value correctly, as its value goes far beyond mere economic parameters. Note well, though, that the food we throw away is as if we had stolen it from the table of the poor or the hungry!” (6/5/13, Environment)

I remember speaking with Sixto Ulloa in Nicaragua back in 2008.  He told us of the families that supported themselves on the garbage thrown out by the US embassy complex in Managua.

In his very first sermon, Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 saying, “The Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim release to the captives and to proclaim the acceptable year of God.” Quoting this scripture and saying that we ought to take it seriously got Jesus run out of his own hometown. The acceptable year of God is the year of Jubilee, which was supposed to happen every 50 years.  Slaves were set free. Debts were erased, land is returned to former owners and everyone got to make a fresh start.  To pray week in and week out forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors is to proclaim that we need to reboot our world so the have nots can at least be have some things.

Pope Francis even makes a connection between the profit motive and the environment: "We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage, which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention."

"To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practice a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute."

Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are declaring our allegiance to a movement that is counter-cultural, subversive, dangerous and incredibly good news.  Imagine if we took it seriously.  We might have a little bit of heaven on earth.

As this academic year begins, why not take seriously the simple audacious prayer that we say by rote every week.  Pray it with an aim toward making a little bit of heaven on earth.  St. Francis of Assisi, The trees, our lakes, Jesus and the forgotten children of the earth will thank you.