I return to the writings of Henry David Thoreau often. His ideas and the way in which he lived were radical for his time. During the last hours of his life, Thoreau was questioned about his beliefs by a concerned neighbor, who asked, “Have you made peace with your maker?” “I never quarreled with my maker.” Thoreau replied. The neighbor persisted, “Aren’t you concerned about the hereafter?” To this Thoreau answered, “One world at a time.”
Great advice. One world at a time. We’ve all wondered about the hereafter or what most of us from the west might call heaven. Some even claim to have been there and have returned. Some value the hereafter or heaven more than life here on earth and live and love accordingly. I side with Joseph Campbell, who says that “it’s silly to think that our little egos are constructs that will continue throughout eternity.” He believes that what we consider our individual lives are merely bubbles on the surface of life.” Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Michael McGee tells an amusing story. He says, “ I like the “Mother Goose and Grimm” cartoon showing St. Peter at the pearly gates with a line of people in front of him going through a security check, taking off their shoes and putting their purses and laptops on the infamous conveyor belt. A big sign in front of St. Peter reads, “Expect Delays.” He says, “That's just not right, is it? But many people believe they must delay going to heaven until they die, which is really a shame, isn't it, when heaven is right here beneath our feet every moment of every day. What a waste to wait for it.”
As a child I was raised Roman Catholic and enrolled in Catholic school. I left Catholicism without any major injuries and still find some of the rituals comforting as they connect me to my family. However, I can remember being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer before I was able to confidently read. Some of the words “our father who art in heaven” and “thy kingdom come” remind me of feeling afraid and guilty most of my childhood, looking skyward and wondering if I was being watched or if I would be struck by a bolt of lightning. You see I just didn’t recite these words. When I was old enough to understand I began thinking about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer especially the bit about “on earth as it is in heaven.” I asked questions. I couldn’t understand a vengeful God. Coincidentally this is also around the same time the frequency of my time in detention increased, I was copying the Bible by hand on a daily basis as a punishment, and my parents were asked to come to school quite often. I was considered a behavior problem by second grade because I asked questions and refused to buy the message wholesale. How Unitarian Universalist of me!
I agree with the Rev. Sarah Schurr of Alaska, and many modern scholars, who comments on the kingdom of God and heaven on earth: “I do not think this is what Jesus was talking about at all. Jesus lived in a time and place where his homeland had been conquered by the Romans. Suffice it to say these were tough times for the Jews. The Romans, who had no respect for the Jewish God or the Jewish people, made their own rules for the land with little regard those they had conquered and kept at the bottom of the economic system.” This assessment makes sense. Jesus looked forward to the day when it would not be the Kingdom of Rome that they had to live in, but a kingdom where love and fairness was the foundation of the state. The land would have God’s laws and not the laws of Caesar. So you might think of “The Kingdom of Heaven” being Jesus’ way of saying, “The time we look forward to when our society is no longer messed up and we live can in peace and prosperity.”
The well known Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Marilyn Sewell said this in an article in the Huffington Post: “Unitarian Universalist theology is of this world, not of the next. Jesus, in fact, taught that the Realm of God is within and, contrary to most Christian practice, his teachings were centered on relationship, not salvation. Unitarian Universalists do not emphasize an afterlife. For one reason, we simply don’t know anything about it. No one as yet has come back to report. But we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.”
Going back to the 2nd century, the term Universalist has meant those who believe in universal salvation. Whatever heaven there is, we all get to go. Whatever happens, it happens the same to all of us. No one is left behind. Our liberal message has always been that no one, no matter who they are, has to fear going to hell. The great Universalist preacher John Murray used to encourage lay preachers to, “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.” I think this is one of the most affirming beliefs of our faith and one that I think really helps define us. We believe that whatever positive afterlife there might or might not be, all have inherent worth and dignity. We all matter.
I remember hearing this story from the late Rev. Peter Gomes, Minister at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. It, like this sermon, is about heaven. The story begins as a man was being given a tour of heaven and hell. They begin in hell where he sees hundreds of hungry people in a room full of banquet tables. The banquet tables were filled with delicious food, with amazing aromas, and all the people have spoons. The spoons have long handles, just too long so the people in hell could not feed themselves -- they could not get the food into their mouths. So they were eternally tortured by their hunger in a room full of delicious food. The man on the tour asked about heaven. The tour guide said that heaven was much more pleasant. The room looked a lot like this one but everyone there was very happy at their banquet. The man asked, “in heaven do they have shorter spoons?” The tour guide said, “No, the spoons are the same and the food is the same. But in heaven, they feed each other.”
Of course you might know the old joke about where Unitarians go after we die. We don’t go to heaven. We go to a book discussion group about heaven. It is so often said that Unitarian Universalism is all about this life, not seeking after some future reward in the afterlife. We aren’t just marking time until after we die, when the good stuff starts. We are called on to create a heaven on earth. Here with our lives and with our own deeds. And, like the people with the longs spoons, we don’t create it for ourselves. We create heaven on earth for all to experience. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call on us to work toward a world of peace, liberty, and justice for all. If we can do that, we can fulfill the promise of our Universalist ancestors and heaven can truly be a reality everyone.
Universalist minister Hosea Ballou argued with a Methodist colleague over the issue of eternal damnation. The Methodist asserted “If I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven!” Ballou answered, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you!”
During World War II the Universalist Church of America issued an “Affirmation of Social Principles” which begins as follows: “We Universalists avow our faith in the supreme worth of every human personality, and in the power of men [and women] of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God. To progressively establish the Kingdom of God; to progressively establish heaven on earth. Such an ideal does not require a literal belief in either God or heaven; rather, this is a statement that presents us with the possibility that we can truly live out our highest ideals.” The Universalist side of our tradition affirmed that everyone gets to go to heaven, based on the reasoning that if God is indeed good, then God would not punish anyone to eternal damnation, since such damnation would be unspeakably evil. This was a radical idea in its day, but the Universalists did not stop there. Many Universalists abandoned traditional ideas of heaven, and began to wonder what it would be like if we could create a heaven on earth, here and now.
Best known as the author of Brave New World, humanist and pacifist Aldus Huxley once wrote, “It is because we don’t know who we are, because we are unaware that the kingdom of heaven is within us, that we behave in the generally silly, often insane, sometimes criminal ways that are so characteristically human.” In case you are having a hard time with the word kingdom -- let me share the word that the theologian Matthew Fox proposed in its stead the word is kindom. Like meaning we are all kin, we are all related and we need one another.
A story that demonstrates heaven on earth is told by the Buddhist writer, Jack Kornfeld, who describes a large Buddhist temple in Thailand where an enormous and ancient clay Buddha stands. Though not the most beautiful of Buddha’s, it had survived for over five hundred years. But he was showing his age, so the monks who tended the temple decided to clean him up and repair some of the cracks that were widening with the years. As one monk was cleaning and patching he came across a crack that was so big that he took his flashlight and peered inside. And what he saw amazed him: there in the middle of this aging, crumbling, great statue of the Buddha, at its very heart, he gazed at another Buddha, a glorious golden Buddha, one of the largest and most luminous gold images ever created in Southeast Asia.
The Rev. Michael McGee sermonizes using this story saying, “This brilliant Buddha is a metaphor for the essential nature of each one of us, that part of us that at times lies dormant beneath the protective layers of pretense and defensiveness. When we're able to peer beneath our roles and responsibilities, our masks and prejudice, we are stunned to find at our heart a genuine goodness and spirit, which some call our Buddha nature and others call Christ Consciousness and still others call the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Buddha's message was that all you have to do is open your eyes to see heaven; we only need to wake up to nirvana. But that's not easy; to open our eyes we must also open our hearts, and that takes practice and discipline. And we must acknowledge that life is not heavenly for many people; there is poverty, disease, death, injustice. So we must ask ourselves, does suffering prevent us from experiencing heaven on earth?
The time is now, the task is ours, the joy we feel is to be shared. We are the kindom of love and hope and courage and possibility. And we are always on a journey to build anew.
May it be so.
Heaven on Earth, a sermon delivered on Dec 8, 2013 by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB.