When Our Reach Should Exceed Our Grasp, or What's a Heaven For? (Rev. 21:10 - 22:5)

Or What’s a Heaven For?

William McKinney

A Sermon Preached at South Congregational UCC, Centerville, MA

May 5, 2013

Text: Revelation 21:10-22:5

When Michael McSherry asked me to be with you this morning he warned that you would be pretty exhausted. After all, you have come through Holy Week and Easter and the selection and call of a new pastor. Maybe you, like Michael, deserve a couple of weeks off!

But Michael was concerned that you not lose this moment to celebrate what you have done and to reflect on what lies ahead. So I would like to think with you this morning on this Sunday-After. I was surprised to see that one of the Lectionary readings for today comes from Revelation and that it seems just right for a moment like this one. It focuses our eye on the future.

My friend James Hopewell was an Episcopal priest with a PhD in anthropology who served as a missionary in Africa. He returned to the States to teach in theological schools and was assigned the task of helping seminary students understand congregations. He had been out of the country for a while so in a sense American congregations were somewhat new to him. He approached the task in a fresh way by viewing congregations in the way would try to understand tribal villages in sub-Saharan Africa.

What Jim Hopewell discovered is that local churches have an ability to construct distinctive ways of understanding the world around them. Somewhat unconsciously, they construct what anthropologists call world views. These aren’t doctrines or rules and they are rarely written down. They don’t have to be recorded or named but they are shared and taught.

I’ve been working recently with a church in the Middle West that has been experiencing some nasty conflict. There are divisions over music, staff performance, money, who is welcome in worship – and who is not -- and lots of other things. As I talked with members and heard them talk with one another I became aware that the members were not simply in disagreement with one another, they are almost living in different worlds.

Hopewell identified four characteristic ways churches build a world that make sense to them.

One he called a Canonic or Tragic world view. Here the world is headed toward a fixed ending that is largely beyond our control. We do what we need to do to cope with events but there is little we can do to shape them. The best approach is to follow the rules and await our fate.

A second world view he called Charismatic or Romantic. We can’t do a lot to control or shape our fate but we wait faithfully for God or other forces to intervene and change direction. This is a world that expects radical ups and radical downs. It’s volatile and unpredictable.

A third world view is more hopeful. He called it Gnostic or Comic. It proceeds with an assurance that all things are working toward a satisfying end. Our job is to go with the flow, to savor the journey.

The fourth is rather different. He called it Empiric or Ironic. We may not know where things are heading but we are called to watch for empirical hints of what the future looks like. Think of Walter Cronkite as the high priest of this view: Show me the facts. Tell me the truth and I’ll deal with it. “That’s the way it is.”

My friend Jim Hopewell went on to write an important book called Congregations: Stories and Structures, which was designed to help people in congregations understand the diverse narratives that shape their life together. It’s a quirky little book that incorporates insights from literary theory, anthropology and case studies. Everyone who reads it ends up being a little bit confused because it gives no hint what one should do with its insights. He has no “44 answers” to propose about what a congregation ought to do to be better.

But he does lay on our hearts a new set of questions: How does this congregation view the world around it? Why do people stay together despite their differences and conflicts? What is this congregation’s shared story and how does it reflect the broader biblical narrative in which it also participates?

I bring this up because the world view we create for ourselves has a lot to do with how we approach the Book of Revelation.

If you view the world through a charismatic or perhaps a gnostic lens, this is the sort of text you might put at the center of your gospel. The heavenly picture John paints bears little resemblance to the known world of his own time or to ours. It is a picture of divine intervention and of divine discontinuity. There is nothing incremental about this picture. “[The] city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp in the Lamb.”

John’s vision is, to be frank, well, fantastic, beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations. It is not of the world as we know it. From the world view of a lot of us it is, well, odd – even embarrassing -- which is why we don’t talk much about it from the pulpit or around the dining table.

I need to confess that I have a rather checkered record when it comes to the matter of heaven.

Almost twenty years ago a writer called my office at Hartford Seminary and asked for an appointment to talk about a book project she was working on. The book was about heaven and she wanted to talk to me as a sociologist about what people believe about heaven. We had a good talk about polling data and what you could call the sociology of heaven.

Toward the end of the conversation she asked me, “Well, what about you? What do you believe about heaven?”

And I made a terrible mistake, perhaps the worst mistake of my professional career.

“Gosh,” I said. “I don’t have a clue. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about.”

I took her to visit with other faculty members who I knew had thought more about heaven than I had.

Six months later, on Easter Sunday, I picked up the Hartford Courant Magazine and read, “I was sitting in the office of the dean of Harford Seminary, Bill McKinney, and asked him what he believes about heaven. “I don’t have a clue,” he said. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about.”

Thinking she was doing me a favor, the author had shared an advance copy of her article with the pastor of one of the largest and most prestigious churches in Hartford, who began his Easter sermon with guess what, my quote. The following week calls came from several pulpits demanding my resignation.

The writer could not have been more embarrassed and the pastor who quoted me on Easter Sunday was extremely apologetic. He took me to lunch and we had a good laugh about dealing with journalists. He gave me a humorous photograph that remained on my office walls for many years.

Until today I have avoided commenting on heaven. I learned that the topic of heaven is one that inspires a huge conflict of world views. My personal faith depends less on bold, audacious visions of future worlds than on day-to-day living. I totally get the Jesus of the gospels when he connects to real people on the journey. I can spend hours reflecting on his teachings and his parables and on Paul’s pastoral epistles.

Similarly, in my work with churches I tend to be research-oriented. I help churches to get in touch with the empirical reality of the challenges they face.

I believe, however, that in the life of congregations there is one moment when heavenly thinking ought to be our singular focus and that moment for South Church is today.

Last week you voted to call a new settled pastor to lead South Church into its new future. This brings to a close a long and not always easy journey. You have been discerned, studied, profiled, interviewed and “interimed” almost to death. You have chosen a new pastor with a national reputation as a theologian and pastoral leader, one who writes significant books on pastoral leadership.

You may be tempted to take a break for a bit, and there are still a thousand details to attend to. But I would urge you to use this moment to think heavenly thoughts and not just practical ones. It will be a long time until South Church again reaches the place where the slate is truly clean.

Robert Browning’s words come to mind, to paraphrase, "This is the moment when your reach should exceed your grasp, for that’s what’s a heaven is for."

There will be lots of time down the road to develop practical strategies for congregational renewal. You’ll need concrete plans, complete with spreadsheets and budgets and time-lines. You’ll have buildings to keep up and stewardship campaigns to complete and church school teachers to recruit, and they are all important. You will want to say farewell to Michael and thank him for his work during this interim period.

But this is also the moment to contemplate the really big, the heavenly questions: How many hurting people can this church touch with its ministries? Can we make a difference in what our Statement of Faith calls lives of aimlessness and sin? Can we provide a contemporary glimpse of the pearly gates for people who have given up? Can we make a difference in this fragile ecosystem of which we are a part? Can these old bones live again?

These are heavenly questions. They exceed our grasp, and they should. And this After-Sunday is the moment for wrestling with them.

May God bless you and your ministry in this place, in this moment.