May 28, 2017

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen.

Polish priest Chester Kozal describes his five year imprisonment at Dachau as his best years as a priest. Following his release from the concentration camp, Father Kozal served parishes in the U.S. and quietly wrote memoirs that were generally ignored for 30 years. When they were discovered and translated years later readers were amazed by his positive outlook and trust. Kozal describes amazing ways humans transcend despair and find hope in hopeless situations. A scholar who summarized his writings entitled her paper, “Finding Heaven in the Midst of Hell.[i]

Quaker Chaplain Sheri Snively, who served with the U.S. Navy in the Iraq War, uses a similar title for her account of the effects of battle on soldiers and civilians. Working alongside Marines in a trauma hospital between Ramadi and Falluja, Chaplain Snively encounters the misery, tension and fatigue which face all combat doctors and personnel. But rather than describing despair or desolation, she conveys a compassionate path to healing in a description of her service, Heaven in the Midst of Hell [ii].

I found both of these titles when looking for a way to describe what I heard from Manchester this week[iii]. The first I heard of the atrocities at the Ariana Grande concert was of an Uber driver in the city, who had started offering free rides to anyone who needed transportation in the chaos. Next I learned of some café owners who had joined others in their neighborhood offering free sandwiches and tea to people dealing with the attack. Others invited in people who needed help to charge up their phones. A little later there was an account of people making their homes available for emergency workers, or for family members who needed a place to stay.

All of this goodness and generosity poured out in the face of violence and despair, creating glimpses of compassion and hope and loving-kindness of neighbors, in spite of the horror and sadness that was so evident.

One witness remarked that while only one individual inflicted such violence on the city of Manchester, hundreds or maybe even thousands responded with love and hope and acts of selfless concern[iv]. Once again we were reminded that goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. People are still finding heaven in the midst of hell.

Suddenly two men in white robes stood by the disciples and said, “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?[v]” Is heaven up in the clouds somewhere, or might we find it by looking a little closer to home?

This month, our Friday morning book group, Soul Food, has been discussing Lisa Miller’s book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife[vi]. Miller, an editor from Newsweek magazine, interviews dozens of people from various faith traditions, and compiles the variety of ways we envision heaven and life after death.

Many Christian interpretations of heaven are based on the account we hear this morning of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts (Acts 1:6-14). Heaven is a place in the clouds somewhere “up there.” God lives there, and we may, too, after we die.

A deeper dive into scripture and tradition shows us that the meaning of the word heaven might not be that specific. When we read in the first verse of scripture that God created the heavens and the earth, most of us don’t conclude that the home of God was being created alongside the planet earth. The word for “heavens” in the Hebrew bible generally refers simply to what we’d call “sky” or “space,” not necessarily the home of God, or the place we will go after we die.

In fact, the idea or concept of heaven has continued to change across the generations, sometimes referring to a physical place in the sky, sometimes a new creation that will be formed after Jesus returns. And, very often, in many faith traditions, as an experience with God, that may be all of ours after we die, but can also be experienced whenever God’s will is done on earth.

It is this description that the gospel of John most commonly claims. Jesus doesn’t talk in John’s gospel about heaven so much as the place we go when we die, but more as the place from which he has come, and the source of the goodness and life he has come to bring us.

In today’s gospel[vii], Jesus prays that we might have eternal life. While we generally tend to think that that means he wants us to go to heaven, if you look carefully at his prayer, he doesn’t seem to be only asking for God to deliver us after we die. Rather he prays that we might have eternal life now. And this is eternal life, Jesus says, that we might know God the way he knows God: not just in heaven, but in our lives now, that we might be one with God now, as Jesus is one with God.

Every Sunday we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This is Jesus’s prayer for us today, for us to know the goodness of heaven on earth.

Is it too simplistic to say that happens when café owners let frightened pre-teens charge up their cell phones on a horrible night?

John’s gospel is stark in describing the violence that confronts Jesus and his followers[viii]. Jesus’ message challenges that of the religious and political leaders of his day. While Jesus comes to bring light and life to the world, they seek to uphold a system of domination. Jesus’ ministry threatens their attempts to control goodness. Water is turned to wine; sight is restored to those who are blind; Lazarus is raised to life from death. The leaders seek to destroy Jesus because his work exposes the weakness of their system of control over others. If Jesus can offer God’s abundant love and eternal life to us now, the forces of empire and terror lose their power to frighten us.

This is the message of the gospel of John, the message of Easter – the light has come into the darkness, but the darkness cannot overcome it. Christ has conquered. He is living. Death has no more dominion over us.

The last verse of today’s gospel emphasizes Jesus’ main hope for us, and maybe hints to our greatest challenge, the risk we face that Jesus is most concerned about. He prays that we might be one – united with God as he was united, and connected to one another as one body. Last week, Pastor Javen preached about the Spirit’s power to create unity among people who seem divided. It is Jesus’s longing that we find ways to be reconciled and drawn together with all of God’s people, even those who might seem most unlike us.

In the face of the world’s evil and domination, Jesus teaches his disciples to love one another. In the night before his death, Jesus prays that the love and reconciliation he brought to the world might become the ministry of the people who followed him. In his prayer for his friends, Jesus implores God to make us one, so that even the world’s violence cannot destroy us.

“People of St. Paul,” the messengers in white robes continue to ask us, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” The goodness of heaven has already been unleashed into your lives. In spite of terror, or stupid acts of hate and despair, or horrific atrocities of violence, be united in this message:  God is love.

God’s will has come to be done on earth as it is in heaven, in our very lives, in our own acts of lovingkindness and bravery, in our own hope for reconciliation, our own determination to care for the least, our own persistence in sharing a cup of cold water, or a sandwich and a cup of tea with those who are frightened, or a night of shelter with those who are homeless. Jesus has come that we might have eternal life, witnessed in our own conviction that goodness is stronger than evil, and hate will never get the last word.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

[i] Fuss-Reineck, Marilyn, “Finding Heaven in the Midst of Hell: An UnCONVENTIONal Survivor’s Memoirs of Dachau,” http://research.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/5/6/5/0/p256502_index.html?phpsessid=97bfa044e7e1f5075b78e692f4b7bdb0

[ii] Sheri Snively, Heaven in the Midst of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain’s View of the War in Iraq, Raven Oaks Press, 2010.  http://books.google.com/books?id=bvmG8-2oBOoC&dq=finding+heaven+in+the+midst+of+hell&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj28KaOoJDUAhUM7YMKHUGPBpkQ6AEIKDAA

[iii] http://www.dw.com/en/manchester-resilient-in-the-face-of-terrorism/a-38948194

[iv] I’m sorry I have not been able to find the radio interview where this was shared.

[v] Acts 1:6-14

[vi] Miller, Lisa, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010,  http://www.amazon.com/Heaven-Our-Enduring-Fascination-Afterlife/dp/0060554762

[vii] John 17:1-11

[viii] Samuel Cruz, “Commentary on John 17:1-11,” Working Preacher for May 28, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3245