Yesterday we celebrated the life of the late Doris Phillips, many of you knew her. Her husband Bill is here every Sunday and most everyone in Halifax knows Bill! To help me shape the theme and tone of the celebration I met with Bill and his two sons Dave and Peter. What they shared with me were stories about Doris that described someone who witnessed to a love she felt for nature, for friends, for new experiences and for her kin. I was struck by the difference in this conversation as opposed to many I have about someone who has died. No one in the room was trying to convince me or themselves that Doris merited a celebration, that she had earned some honour, or that this celebration would be a litany of her achievements and accomplishments. Rather, the description offered was one of witness, what Doris saw she engaged, she entered into, she came to be part of life.
In Christopher Morse’s book The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News the heaven that is described is less a building where those deemed worthy go and received their eternal reward and more a given way of living that God gives to us as a gift, here on earth, that we are called to witness and live out. Morse says this gift that we receive often comes in the form of parables, a mysterious story about real persons doing real things that don’t always make sense in our “real” world. Morse says it begs the question, what is the “real” world anyway? If heaven calls us to live differently than the “world” or our current culture demands we believers in Jesus are forced to make a decision, to choose between heaven and what is. Thus Jesus’ words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If the kingdom is coming, if it is real in heaven, then surely our calling as Christians is to witness the reality of this kingdom as it comes to earth as it has in heaven.
Morse writes, “the teachings of Jesus contain the heavenly state of affairs that are at hand not in hand. This is expressed in parables, as Matthew 13:34 explains, Jesus told the crowds all things come in parables, without a parable he told them nothing. Jesus used parables because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” In other words, for us to truly comprehend the message of Jesus one must hear with a new clarity, see with a new vision, understand with a new heart and a new mind.
Morse further points to Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 4, verses 4-6 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” There is also Galatians 1:4 Jesus came to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. “This invasion of God has come to liberate us from the powers of the present evil age…the gospel is not about human movement into blessedness; it’s about God’s liberating invasion of the cosmos.”
And what do these parables of heaven reveal to us about heaven? Morse says that “the imminence of heaven comes in ordinary, earthly realities such as a sower of seed, a grain of mustard seed when it is sowed, leaven in bread, treasure in a hidden field, a merchant seeking pearls, a fishing net, a king seeking to settle accounts, a householders seeking to hire labourers, a royal host inviting guests to a wedding feast, or ten bridesmaids with their lamps going at night to meet the bridegroom.” There is a clear sense in these parables of seeking, of the intent to redeem, of the surprise that comes when it is smallest, the least, the most unlikely, who is being sought and who offers a reflection of the kingdom, of heaven.
Hear these words of scripture:
Matthew 13:16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
Mark 4:9 And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Mark 8:18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?
To know this Jesus, to understand this kingdom, to experience this heaven one must see differently, ear differently than the way we have been taught. There is a required adjustment, a realignment, a new lens, a new heart, a new mind. And we are called, with this new vision, to be discerning and open and watchful of the heaven that is at hand, not in hand.
Karl Barth is arguably the great theologian of the 20th century. His works of theology have stood the test of time and he is frequently referenced by the great theologians of our time. Before he was writing dense texts of theology Barth served as a country pastor and Morse was able to find an old sermon when Barth shared with his country parish his understanding of this heaven. “And when heaven comes to us it brings the higher world down to the lower. It is the kingdom in which the kingship means that the forces of what is in principle the unseen and heavenly world assume form and enter the earthly world and become active in it.”
When I was Lucy’s age I was obsessed with coins and treasurers that had been covered with layers of dirt/earth over time. I had this metal detector and would go to Point Pleasant Park, beaches, public places, and place the detector over the surface I was covering on foot. I would spend hours and hours, unfortunately all I ever recovered were a few quarters and some rather worthless rings and watches. To this day I now walk with one eye to those passing by or coming the other way and the other eye on the ground, looking for “treasure” people have dropped or tossed away. I will tell you I have found a lot of money over the years! But I want you to know the most amazing things, people, experiences I have found were heavenly ones, when I witnessed heaven in my midst, when I saw/heard Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. I remain vigilant, aware of what is going on around me, and eager to engage what God is placing in my path, our path. I pray you will feel likewise, that you will know this heaven and want to engage it, witness to it and celebrate it. Heaven is like a buried treasure, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Indeed, it is. Amen.