Saturday, November 03, 2012
Heaven in the Eye of the Storm!
How Near is Heaven?
Heaven often seems so far away. Many think of it as a place we go to when we die. I live in the Christian hope of heaven as our ultimate resting place. But the fact that we have such a blessed assurance is not in and of itself what I find most comforting.
This week’s events remind us of the urgent need for us to place heaven within the context of the lives we’re living at this time and and in this place. Hurricane Sandy unleashed her fury on the Jersey Shore, New York City, Long Island and as far away as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and even in Cleveland, where many of my friends were astounded at the power of Mother Nature.
We were reduced in so many ways to sticks, sand and rubble. Untold thousands have lost everything. Power is still out for hundreds of thousands. And worst of all, there are those who have lost their loved ones to Nature’s wrath.
Heaven indeed often seems far away. I remember a moment in Fiddler on the Roof. It is at the conclusion of the wedding scene where the Czar’s soldiers disrupt the proceedings by summarily burning the town and desecrating the synagogue. The people are left shell shocked and Tevye looks to heaven pleading as if to say as the Psalmist says; “Why? Where are you? Why are you so far away from our plight”. Then the people run up to Tevye pleading for some counsel. Finally, he shrugs his shoulders and with a sideward glance at God, he says, picking up a solitary chair; “Clean up the mess!”
Thus heaven slowly and surely makes its presence known. There is an enormous mess for us to clean up. It will take first responders, Red Cross, National Guard, Churches, and pure neighborly love and care and human regard one for one, multiplied many times over. And yes, we will rebuild even bigger even better.
When Cindy and I visited Ireland in the summer of 2009, we visited the remains of Clonmacnoise. I wanted to see the high crosses there. They are an amazing sight. Standing twelve feet high, intricately carved with scenes of biblical stories, they are, for me one of the wonders of the world.
What I didn’t know was that the location of this ancient center of Christian practice was a crossroads of the east west passage from Dublin to Galway along a moraine formation left by ancient glacial retreat, and the north south passage carved out by the Shannon River. Given the reality of this geographic determinant, the heart of this center of human learning, healthcare, hospitality, and spirituality was destroyed 27 times between the 8th and 12th centuries, AD. Each time, it was rebuilt bigger and better than what was there before.
The human spirit is a marvel when indwelling within, there is the presence of heaven. We are an indomitable species who will never die so long as we know that our Redeemer lives!
This notion was at the core of today’s Gospel dialogue. One of the scribes saw that Jesus was answering the questions put to him by the Sadducees, yet as they continued their disputes amongst each other as religious folks often do. And so he puts this question to Jesus; “Which commandment is the first of all?” In other words; “How do you read the Law? What is your guiding principle? How do you advise us to live our lives?” It was a common question among the learned of the day. And thus the Rabbis argued and thus we still do.
But Jesus answered the question in a most interesting way. First he quoted the Shema from today’s First Lesson; that ancient proclamation; “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Notice here if you will, the word “strength”. It is placed there to indicate that we will have to put our backs into it. This is no detached spiritual exercise. This is a way to live! Notice too, if you will, this is exactly what we do as we help one another recover from Sandy or any other of life’s many shipwrecks and disasters. Rescue, recover and rebuild, we’ll have to put our backs into it. We’ll have to deploy our human and financial resources into place to effect the rebuilding of our broken lives and homes.
You see why the Shema is so central to the human spirit. The Shema, meaning “Hear” as in “Hear O Israel”, is required to be said every morning and every night by every Jew.
Then Jesus adds to the Shema, yet second piece of Godly admonition, almost as if by some kind of surprise. He was asked for one commandment, yet he insists on adding a second, as if by way of clarification. Here the mind of Christ turns to a hitherto obscure half verse of Leviticus; 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus would have known the words well. They came from his heart, they inspired Moses, and then Moses wrote them down.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This, of course, we see before our very eyes. I’ve been tuned in to WNBC over the internet, and also track the recovery efforts referencing the New York Times, compliments of my trusty iPad. We’re glued to the media coverage. And we watch our government respond in heroic and transformational ways to the plight of millions.
I must add that government is not within the beltway in DC, or our State Houses, or City/Town Halls. It is in the lives of each and every human being who puts themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of others. We are flesh and blood. When we see human lives broken and in distress, we cannot help but put our backs into it, and rescue, restore and rebuild the lives of our neighbors, together. God told us to live our lives this way.
When I set about to build a homeless shelter in Saint Albans, West Virginia, I found myself embroiled in controversy and conflict. Nobody wanted that shelter in their back yard. But now as we approach the 10th anniversary of the opening of the shelter, it has become a prized asset to the community. I was unable to stand by and watch homeless veterans suffer from want of warmth, food, and shelter. How can we turn the other way in the face of such human need? For me it is impossible. Given the Law of God, to do so would be disobedient.
Still, to me the most astounding note in today’s Gospel is struck when the scribe embraces the teaching of Jesus and says that, yes, to love God and to love our neighbor is to know that “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” given and offered in the Temple. It is as if to say, that without organizing our lives around the needs of others, any other sacrifice is little worth. Then notice what Jesus says; “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
How near then is heaven? It is closer to us than our very lives. It is in the doing of the kingdom of heaven that we find the closeness of God. With all our hearts, and minds and souls and strength, we discover God’s presence.
We do have to think about it too, I’ll grant you. It took a while to discover 25,000 people were stranded in Hoboken, more still in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Within hours the National Guard was there, rescuing people.
And then there was the thing about the Marathon. Good heavens, Staten Island has no way in and out other than three roadways. Even the Staten Island Ferry is stranded. How in the world could Staten Island host tens of thousands of visitors, when her own citizens were homeless, hungry and cold? Thankfully, Mayor Bloomberg reconsidered his previous decision and canceled the event for this weekend. To give the man his due, he has been working under enormous stress, and errors in judgment are to be expected.
So now heaven is here. Heaven is hard at work. It requires us to love with all our hearts, and minds, and souls, and strength. But when we engage in such a work, we know that we are not so far away after all. For the kingdom of heaven is very near indeed.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.