What on Earth will you do? (For Heaven's Sake)
“What on Earth Will You Do? (For Heaven’s Sake)” October 22, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole Luke 17:20-21, Micah 4:3-4, and Isaiah 25:6,8 Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
I was casually watching TV this week when a song came on in the background. The show was almost over and there was a happy scene of two little love birds right before the credits rolled. The song went like this…
“Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth They say in Heaven, love comes first We'll make Heaven a place on Earth Ooh, Heaven is a place on Earth”
Familiar song, right?
Now the TV show and the song both had absolutely nothing to do with religion per se. They were about a love story, both of them. But it got me thinking, especially because we’re in the midst of a series about the Lord’s Prayer right now. And this week we’re up to the line: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth as it is in heaven. That sounds a lot like, Ooo, Heaven is a place on Earth. But what does an 80s pop song have to do with the Lord’s Prayer. To get to the bottom of this burning question, I asked my very helpful friend Google. “Google, show me other “heaven on earth” occurrences.” And Google did not disappoint.
Up first, a “Heaven on Earth” paint color from Benjamin Moore. A lovely shade of blue, right? Almost a sky blue we could say.
Next there was this offering of bath soaking salts from relaxing sounding spa company called … “Heaven on Earth…. Organics”
Not to be overlooked in the search for heaven on earth, there was also this radiant Italian wedding dress.
And then this ultimate gift destination offers their signature gift packaging for your most special presents…. Just think every gift you give could be packaged in a sky-blue bag that says “Heaven on Earth.”
And then, of course, a travel destination that will have you drooling. Who can argue with sheep?
Not to be outdone, you can bring a slice of Heaven on Earth right into your high school with the “Heaven on Earth” Complete Theme prom package for a dazzling décor. It even comes with pearly gates.
I tell you, Google kept going and going. Did you know there is even a variety of rose that has been cultivated and trademarked called “Heaven on Earth”?
And then this one was my all-time favorite. Heaven on Earth brand pickled okra. You might laugh, but this one seriously gave me pause because I absolutely love pickled okra.
There is clearly a pop culture fascination with what heaven on earth should look, sound, smell and taste like. But here’s the thing. If you were to walk into any number of churches across the country this morning and ask the faithful regulars, “where is heaven?” A very large percentage of church-goers would probably not say in a jar of pickled okra or an organic spa. They would point…. up.
Why is that? Why do we as a society like to cheaply suggest heaven is found in a marketable experience on earth but when it comes to the serious question relating to heaven in relation to God, we are very quick to distance ourselves. Heaven is up there. In the sky. Where you can’t reach it and you can’t see it. A far-away place full of mystery. A place you can only get to after you die or have a near-death experience. Heaven is for real, but it’s for later. Not now.
This is the prevailing thought among Christians today.
This is why I still remember the moment… where I was sitting and how the sun came through the window in the room at that exact minute when I heard someone say two words I’d never heard before and will never forget. Realized eschatology. What, huh? Realized eschatology. Eschatology being a super fancy word for the end of the age and realized, well, realized being a regular word that means now(ish). Not later, not in the future. But now in the real life, present moment.
When these words are combined, realized eschatology is the idea that heaven, a place traditionally thought of as coming at the end of our lives, is actually a state of being brought into the present moment by the rebirth Jesus gives us as we seek to follow his teachings. You see how this stands in contrast to both extremes I showed you? Heaven is not an experience you can buy and it’s also not confined to the sky, light-years away.
I was a college student when I first heard about this concept. And I remember feeling like the whole world began to click into place. Suddenly it made sense. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, not secure a place in the afterlife. Jesus taught us to feed the hungry and heal the sick because that is the right thing to do, not because it earns us the reward of eternal life.
Jesus taught us to pray, God your will be done, your household values of love and justice, come here to earth so that this giant household of earth and all earth’s peoples might resemble your household in heaven.
It started making sense to me.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ (Luke 17:20-21).
The kingdom of God is among you.
The choir sang a hauntingly beautiful song just now that almost sounded like a chant. It’s called “There is one among us.” The words go like this: There is one among us, whom we do not know. Host of highest heaven, present here below.
God has come close to us. God has been incarnated, brought into the flesh of a human like us. Jesus walked this earth with us. Creating heaven among us, eating with outcasts, playing with children, sitting with unwanted women. And most of the time we don’t even know that heaven is as close as this.
This is a song from the Iona Community in Scotland where I visited in August. Iona was a home to early Christians who held very firmly to the idea that heaven could be realized on earth. Through justice and mercy, beauty and being present to the moment, this kind of awareness prompted people to say that Iona, and other places where heaven felt close and among us, was something of “A thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.”
You’ve probably been in a beautiful place sometime in your life where you felt close to God. Perhaps you might have even thought to yourself, this must be heaven. I hope we’ve all felt those thin places, either with people that we love or a place where we love to spend time. I believe God wants us to see the thinness around us. In beauty. In people. In places. And yet I also believe Jesus modeled for us how we aren’t just casual observers of this gift, but active collaborators in bringing God’s will to bear on this earth. That our actions have consequences. By how we choose to treat other people and God’s creation, we have the potential to bring heaven closer. We could turn our swords into plowshares, this is a choice we can make.
Yet most days the earth feels thick with earthly fog. A far cry from the household God has in mind. There is a heaviness of values based in greed, apathy and selfishness. We get distracted by pretty things that cost lots of money promising us a heavenly experience instead of chasing a real heaven where our money could be used to help lift someone out of poverty or turn our attention from our own needs to the ones around us who have been forgotten. We see this play out in the news as we watch warzones where the humanity in our neighbors gets reduced to what their religion is or which side of the border they live on. But this is not just a problem of far away. In fact, even the church itself for such a long time has used the very promise of heaven as a way to exert power. Believing that some people will get in and some people won’t has made a convenient case for basing a religion on fear and judgement.
But when he taught us how to dream and hope through prayer, Jesus empowered us to believe heaven is not a place to strive for after death, not an exclusive club for only some people, not an experience we can buy either through good behavior or lots of money but a place to live into here on earth. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. A state of being where we are collaborators with God to turn violence into peace, scarcity into abundance, outcasts into neighbors and judgement into love. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven is the thesis statement for the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer. It all hinges on this. How do we bring God’s household values into this world? The whole rest of the prayer will lay out “how” and we’ll get into that in the weeks to come. But for today this is the important part. We must start believing heaven on earth is possible. This is bold and audacious. And that’s what makes this prayer radical.
In 1974 Johnny Cash recorded the song “What on earth will you do (for heaven’s sake)?” It’s a twangy song, the kind of music you’d probably want to listen to while eating pickled okra. I like how this song seems to get it. How heaven on earth is about us reaching for God’s better world and making it possible in the ordinary things we do day in and day out. The lyrics go like this:
Did you walk another mile, turn a frown with a smile? Did you lift the lowly heart about to break? Would you also give your cloak to one who took away your coat? What on earth will you do for heaven's sake? Did you feed the poor in spirit and befriend the prosecuted? Will you show the bounds that all the chains can break? Did you sow the proper seed? Are you keeping out the weeds? What on earth will you do for heaven's sake? Will you be one of the meek, did you turn the other cheek? Would you give a little more than you would take? Did you shine your little light upon the children of the night? What on earth will you do for heaven's sake?
Will you pray with me?
from New Zealand Book of Prayer
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe; The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world; Your heavenly will be done by all created beings; Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trial too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.
Grace and Peace,