Sunday, April 27, 2014

The problem with heaven

This is the sermon I shared with the good people of Myers Park Baptist Church on April 27, 2014 for their observance of Earth Day.

Nikola called me on the phone last week to talk with me about plans to celebrate Earth Day here in Charlotte. Rarely do I speak with someone with so much passion for a cause she believes in. In the course of our conversation she asked me a question that continues to rattle in my brain. It’s deeply troubling and I don’t know how to answer it. She asked, “Why is it that Christians have so little interest in caring for the environment?”

Actually, it’s a painful question. You’d think that Christians would be leading the charge as stewards of God’s creation. And some are, as you well know here at Myers Park. But generally speaking, most aren’t. 

Perhaps you cringed along with me last week when four candidates for the senate were asked about climate change in a debate and they all agreed that climate change is a myth. One candidate, who is the pastor of a prominent uptown church in a denomination that will go unnamed, scoffed, “God controls the climate.” So, that's his excuse for doing nothing.

What’s even more disturbing, though, is that so many of us who have no doubt that our civilization is headed toward an irreversible collapse seem to proceed as if it isn’t happening. It’s puzzling. After all, the first commandment in the Scriptures is to care for creation. Wait, that’s not exactly true according to Genesis 1. To be completely accurate, the first commandment was to be fruitful and multiply. Through the centuries, that one hasn’t been much of a problem for us. But it’s followed by, “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And this one has been more of a challenge.

Well, unless we think that having dominion over means to overpower, oppress and obliterate. Then we’ve done well. But, of course, that’s not at all what it means. Yes, having dominion implies that there is a hierarchy in creation. But it’s not a hierarchy of self-serving privilege; it’s a hierarchy of responsibility. As that part of creation created in the image of God, humans have the unique responsibility of caring for all that our Creator made to be good. No other part of creation has the ability to preserve and restore creation that humans do. And no other part of creation has the ability to destroy it that humans do. Of all people, surely we Christians know that. And yet, our responsibility as keepers of creation is such a low priority for us. Why?

It’s not an easy question to answer, and no doubt there are many reasons. Today I want to focus on an underlying theological problem so pervasive in our Christian culture that we may not even notice it, much like the proverbial fish oblivious to the water it’s swimming in.  

Last summer I went on a bus tour that started in Phoenix and went to the Grand Canyon, winding its way up to Zion National Park. I did it with my then 34-year-old daughter, Gretchen.

When we had our orientation meeting with the group we would be traveling with for the next eight days, it took me all of one minute to figure out which person on the bus was going to drive me up a wall. Her name was Janis. She was a retired high school principal, so she had at least a Master’s degree. I have to mention that because it makes the things that came out of her mouth even more unbelievable. She had no filter and blurted out whatever she was thinking. Like when we were driving through a town settled by the Mormons and every time she saw a satellite dish on the roof of a house, she shouted out “No Mormons living there!” How did she know that? Well, because Mormons don’t have T.V.s, of course. She was confusing Mormons with the Amish, which she continued to do throughout the trip. I wanted to say, “Really? So, Mitt Romney and the Osmonds don’t own T.V.s?” But I kept my mouth shut because I had decided the first day that the only way I was going to cope with Janis was by thinking of her as a character on a sit-com and just laughing at the things she said. So, I laughed a lot. And turned to my daughter Gretchen and rolled my eyes.

My coping mechanism worked pretty well until one afternoon when it became impossible for me.  There was a man on our bus who was a surgeon from Chicago. He originally came from India and his name was Ram. So, Janis goes up to Ram and she says, “Ram. What kind of a name is that?” Ram explained to her that it was a Hindu name.

Janis’s eyes popped right out of their sockets. “You’re a Hindu?!” She was clearly shocked. Ram told her he was. And then she came back with a question that seemed to suck the oxygen out of the air:  “Have you ever thought about becoming a Christian?”

“Why would I want to do that?” Ram asked.

Everyone on the bus was listening at this point. And as someone who considers herself a Christian, I was desperately searching for Janis’s on-off switch, hoping there might be a way to shut her down. But she kept going. And here’s how she answered Ram when he asked her “Why would I want to… [become a Christian]?”

She said: “So when you die you can go to heaven with all of us.”

Yes, she really said that. And no, I didn’t laugh. Nor did I look at my daughter and roll my eyes. I had to speak. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I couldn’t let that one go. Really? This man should consider abandoning his life-long faith and becoming a Christian? And the reason why he should do that is so when he dies he can go to heaven with all us Christians? Really?! For Ram, I suspect the thought of spending eternity with people like Janis wasn’t sounding like much of a draw.

Actually, her words shouldn’t have come as such a suprize to me. I know that a lot of Christians think that way. I guess I was just shocked to hear one of them saying it out loud like that.

What is the deal with this obsession we Christians have with heaven?

We love to read about it, and sing about it, and speculate about it. The way we imagine heaven usually says a lot about our own unmet desires. We’re hoping that in the next life we’ll receive all the good stuff that seems to elude us in this life. We’ll be with all the people we love, and they’ll love us perfectly. We’ll be able to eat and eat as much as we want and never gain weight. We won’t have to work. We won’t have to listen to rap music or hip-hop. I could go on, but you get my point. And, of course, that’s just a North American’s view of heaven. If you asked people in other parts of the world, they would describe heaven very differently from the way we think of it. But the thing is, most people do think of it. Even though anything we can say about it is purely speculative because there’s only one way to find out what happens after we die, and that involves, first, dying.

Do you ever wonder why the idea of heaven is so important to us? Is it because we have such a fear of dying? Is it because we’re so self-centered that we can’t imagine a universe without us?

Or is it because we have to believe that someday we’re all going to pay for what we’ve done in this life? Or what we’ve not done. Is the possibility of going to heaven the Great Carrot in the Sky for us as people of faith?

The Christian church has a long history of using the promise of heaven as a way to control people. Often with a special emphasis on instilling within them a fear of the alternative, hell. In the time of Martin Luther, fear tactics were used by the Church to collect money in exchange for get-out-of-hell-free cards called indulgences. The most beautiful cathedral in Rome was built on the fears of people who didn’t want to go to hell.

Perhaps even more damaging has been the idea that we don’t need to change anything, but simply accept things the way they are and trust that someday we’ll all be rewarded for our trials here on earth. That was the gospel preached to slaves in the American South. They could be satisfied with their lot in life and be the best little slaves they could be because one day they’d get their pie-in-the-sky by-and-by.

When faith is so focused on the afterlife, then the task of evangelism, sharing the good news about Jesus, is all about helping people get to heaven. The evangelist will do everything possible to win people for Christ: persuade, pressure, and even beat them down until they submit to being saved. No tactic is too extreme because, after all, it all comes from a place of love. Love for the poor sinners who are bound for hell if the evangelist doesn’t save them. I often wonder how Christians can be so zealous about saving individuals from hell in the next life and yet exert so little energy toward saving humanity and the rest of creation from the preventable devastation of our environment. Ironically, in the process, we are damning our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren to a certain hell here on earth.

Can you see how the Christian faith has become all wrapped up in and around the idea of heaven? The history of where this came from and how it evolved through the years is long and complicated. Very little of that history has any connection to the Scriptures.  It’s surprising how little the Bible actually says about heaven. Even the little it says is open to a variety of interpretations. Our ideas about heaven aren’t derived as much from what we read in the Bible as they are from what we read into the Bible.

In the Old Testament, you will be hard pressed to find anything about it. And in the New Testament, while there is mention of heaven, it is far from the central focus of Jesus or life among his early followers. If you could conclude anything from a study of the Bible, it might be that heaven is the icing on the cake, but certainly not the cake itself. And it’s entirely possible to enjoy the cake without any icing at all.

Recently, I reviewed a book that is about to be released by Paul Meier called In Living Color: Heaven. One of the things I really like about this book is the way the author taps into the language Jesus actually spoke: Aramaic. This often changes the meaning of texts that I thought I understood from my English translation of a Greek translation of an Aramaic translation of the sayings of Jesus. It’s not surprising that the original meaning can get lost along the way.

So, here’s one of those texts that is at the very core of understanding who Jesus was and what his ministry was about. Matthew 4:17: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus came preaching the message that John had preached before him, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is has come near.” 

Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of heaven in the gospel of Matthew. In Luke it's called the Kingdom of God. Matthew substituted the name of God for heaven, because to use the name of God like that would have been blasphemous to his Jewish audience. But assuming Jesus himself used the word God instead of heaven, he would have used the Aramaic word for God, Alaha (which sounds a lot like Allah). In Aramaic, that word for God meant Oneness or Sacred Unity. And when you think about it, that’s not a bad synonym for heaven, is it? A state of Oneness or Sacred Unity.

The word repent also takes on new meaning if you go to the spoken language of Jesus. In Aramaic, the root for repent “suggests something that returns in a circle or spiral to its origins or its original rhythm.” It is flowing back to what existed in the beginning, to God, to Alaha, to Unity. It is returning “to the image of God in which you were created, the time when all things were working together in perfect harmony, the way it started in the Garden of Eden.” When we do that, the Kingdom of heaven is surely at hand, Jesus says. (Meier, p. 20)

Jesus preached that God’s time for bringing unity and harmony to this earth is now. Not someday after you die. Now. And then, Jesus proceeded, over the next three years of his life, to show his followers what that looks like. He didn’t spend his time with them preparing them to go to heaven someday after they died. He taught them about bringing heaven to this earth while they were yet living. Even when he showed them how to pray, he taught them to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Fifteen hundred years later, when Luther wrote his Small Catechism, he explained this petition of the Lord’s Prayer by saying that surely, God’s will is done on earth, whether we ask for it or not. But when we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we’re asking that it might also be done in and among us. Prayer is more than wishful thinking or turning everything over to God and letting ourselves off the hook. It is committing ourselves to work with and not against God in bringing creation back to the Unity God intended from the beginning.

Of course, this has everything to do with the care of creation, doesn’t it? Because until we get over this obsession we Christians have with heaven, we will never be convinced that how we treat the earth really matters. We will continue to be so “heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good.”

There’s a hymn that was in the old Lutheran hymnal that goes like this:
I’m but a stranger here, Heaven is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heaven is my home;
Danger and sorrow stand, Round me on every hand;
Heaven is my fatherland, Heaven is my home.

Within the words of that hymn we find an answer to Nikola’s question, “Why is it that Christians have so little interest in caring for the environment?” It’s not the whole answer, by any means. But it’s a huge part of the answer. When we stop looking to heaven as our home and start looking at our home here on earth as heaven, perhaps then Christians will shift their focus toward caring for what our Creator has entrusted to us from the beginning. I’m praying that happens. And soon.

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