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“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”

 Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”
(John 17: 1-11; Acts 1: 6-14)
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West-New York City

Do you ever catch yourself dreaming of heaven?  What will it be like?  Who will be there?  Where exactly is heaven?

Ever since we were kids, we have asked: “Mommy, how far is heaven up in the sky?  Daddy, does heaven really have cotton candy clouds and streets lined with gold? Grandma, will Boomer be waiting for me, with his tail wagging, when I get to heaven?”

As we grow older, our speculation intensifies, though masked in more sophisticated jargon: Who will get into heaven?  Is heaven a state of mind or an actual place? Given that we no longer hold the antiquated three-tier vision—heaven way up there, earth right here, and hell way down there—where exactly is heaven?

I give thanks for musicians, poets, and artists who help us explore these questions with greater imagination.  As our hymn sang last Sunday, the creative souls dazzle us with heavenly “wonder, love, and praise.”

Our choir, week after week, dazzles us with such heavenly wonder, love, and praise.  Since I will be away next Sunday on our choir’s final day before taking a well-deserved summer break, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to our cantor Donald Meineke and our choir for your breathtaking music.  You point us toward heaven as we join the melody of angels, saints, and martyrs singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

During the offering today, our choir will sing In Paradisum, breathtaking music from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.  Listen to the words:

May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man),
may you have eternal rest.

I have used these words at countless funerals.  They magnify our heavenly vision, not only as we gaze upon martyrs and angels, but also as we gaze at Lazarus, once a homeless beggar.  I did far too many funerals for my homeless brothers and sisters while serving in my previous congregation.  I used this text about Lazarus every time.  The words of the funeral Mass invite us to think of heaven differently than we typically do.  Who imagines skanky Lazarus with matted hair and feet wrapped in plastic bags joining Saint Peter and the angel Gabriel as they welcome us into the Pearly Gates?  Those who are homeless might be surprised to find a kindred spirit in such an honorable heavenly welcoming committee.  What a vision, huh?

I have a hunch that most of us look upward when we think of heaven.  After all, the Bible does say that “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  If that’s how it happened, why ever look down?

And yet, we need to listen a bit further, to the angel who asked the disciples: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

This is where Lazarus, “once a poor man,” enters the picture.  With an angel’s invitation, we cast our heavenly eyes, not only up, but also down.  Is it possible to catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth, in this place?

A number of you have been volunteering at Holy Trinity Women’s Shelter in the community room.  I thank you for your devotion.  You have happily helped twelve women call Holy Trinity “home” for six months out of the year. As you have lent a loving hand, you have been blessed to see a few of Lazarus’ sisters.  This vision did not occur by gazing up into heaven, not exactly here where the Tiffany windows dance and the altar mosaics mesmerize; you have discovered the risen savior in our basement—as far down, down, down in this place as you can go; definitely not up, up, and away.  Let us never forget Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  This is artistic imagination at its finest, learning to spot heaven in earth’s surprising people, in the broken, hapless, and forlorn.

We dare not forget a few of the final words Jesus spoke to his disciples the evening before he died: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”   This Jesus Christ, who has gone up to heaven, can also be discovered down here in the shattered and forgotten.

Quite a few years ago, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I baptized our next-door neighbor, Anthony Stokes.  “Little Ant,” as we fondly called him, was a rambunctious sort and an acolyte at our church.  One night, thirteen-year-old Anthony was shot to death by a fourteen-year old right around the corner from where we all lived.  I told Anthony’s grandmother that we would not let her dear grandson’s senseless murder be in vain.  We would rage against our nation’s intoxicating madness for guns, madness, by the way, that continues seemingly unchecked nearly twenty-five years later.  I told her that we would call for life instead of death in our beloved inner-city neighborhood.  And so, when Anthony’s funeral concluded, we processed out of the church, with incense, cross, torches, and a throng of people including our city councilman and Anthony’s football team; we solemnly marched down Monroe Street with the hearse bearing “Little Ant’s” body.  I concluded the funeral liturgy on his row house steps.  Right before I prayed the words of the commendation (“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anthony”), I said to hundreds and hundreds of people, “We need to do our very best to make our city streets as holy as our sanctuaries.”  I could just as easily have said, “We need to see heaven down here on earth as well as way up in heaven.”

For those of us given to speculating about heaven, let us not forget that God offers us the precious opportunity to glimpse heaven right here, this side of the kingdom come.  While Christ is risen and ascended, he is also here today: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.”  Yes indeed, though we say goodbye, we also say hello.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

“Where Lazarus Is Poor No More”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
“Where Lazarus Is Poor No More”
Luke 16: 19-31
September 25, 2016
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

How many times have you been in a dinnertime conversation when you and your cerebral guests have ended up deliberating over who will end up in heaven and who will end up in hell?

This question was apparently asked at dinner parties in Jesus’ day as well. There was the assumption that those with well-paying jobs, thriving children, and lovely homes had a leg up on entering heaven.  Well informed dinner guests thought these successes more than enough to achieve heavenly ascent.  Their opinion was strikingly similar to the old adage, “God helps those who helps themselves”—which, by the way, ain’t in the Bible.  It also sounds analogous to works-righteousness, that exasperating belief Martin Luther railed against in which good works are thought to earn us our way into heaven.

The rich fellow in today’s gospel wrote the commercial, “I got into heaven the old fashioned way: I earned it!”  He was certain that his swanky accoutrements-planes, mansions, and boats—or at least camels, tents, and arks—were his divine ticket into heaven.

And then there was the other guy, the pitiable one named Lazarus.  You know Lazarus, of course you do.  If you don’t, you can find him any night sleeping on Holy Trinity’s doorsteps.  Now, I am simply presuming that your dinner guests don’t reckon Lazarus to be heaven bound.  How could he be with matted hair, oozing sores, teeth rotted from crystal meth, and a Pit Bull on a chain?  Shockingly, at least according to Jesus, it is this sad sack, not the one in the Armani suit, who ends up with box seats in heaven.

I am pretty new around here so I have been doing some neighborhood research.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the average Manhattan home price is $1.87 million—the guy sleeping on the church steps has definitely figured out where the cheap seats are.  Now, please don’t get me wrong.  We are gaga over living in our lovely renovated Central Park apartment which you have divulged has a rental value between $50,000 to $60,000 a year.  What freaks me out about Jesus’ telling of today’s parable is that, contrary to dinner party astuteness, the rich fellow ends up in Hades not in heaven—and here I thought I was finally living on the right side of the tracks!  After contemplating today’s gospel reading, I have been wondering where I might end up when the final trumpet sounds.

Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus is such a surprise.  Reminds you, doesn’t it, of that carpenter’s son from Nazareth who kept popping off about the first being last and the last being first.

Now, if you are feeling a bit agitated right about now, not to worry.  I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that Saint Peter will examine our financial portfolios when we arrive at the Pearly Gates—then again, whoever knows?  I do have a hunch, though, that this is Jesus’ way of saying exactly what our second reading from First Timothy says, “For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it…”  When our final day arrives, we will leave empty-handed, not in a Learjet; our hope will be built on nothing more than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.

I often ask people to write their obituaries before they die: how do you wish to be remembered?  The New York Times writer and NPR NewsHour correspondent David Brooks, in his excellent book, “The Road to Character,” provides assistance in obituary writing as he discusses resume virtues and eulogy virtues: “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success”—these are the virtues the rich man thought would secure his place in heaven.  Brooks goes on: “The eulogy virtues are deeper.  They’re the virtues that get talked about at funerals, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.”

These eulogy virtues have to do with what we deem as ultimately important.  You might say they are a vision of heaven according to Jesus, a place where the least and lost, the humble and kind, are held in highest esteem and where honor is meted out to people, not because of their power, possessions, or brashness, but simply because they are unassuming children of God.

Whenever I think of my funeral, what I want sung at the very end is what is always sung at the end of the traditional Requiem Mass; it is called In Paradisum (In Paradise).  (Dagmar always tells me, “Write down what you want at your funeral so I don’t forget!”)  In Paradisum is the remarkable vision the church has passed down from age to age.  According to this ancient wisdom, when we arrive in heaven, the heroic martyrs will welcome us and the holy angels will usher us through the eternal gates; that is, of course, exactly what we expect.  What will likely come as a much greater surprise is that the person who will give us the biggest bear hug as we enter through the heavenly gates will be none other than raggedy ol’ Lazarus himself.  Who would ever imagine that the skanky guy sleeping on our church doorsteps is on the executive board of the heavenly welcoming committee?

Maybe the homeless folks who sleep right outside here are God’s gift to us.  They teach us that the freer our hands are of all that seems so important, the better chance we have of grasping onto the kingdom of heaven when God offers it to us.

Hear now the church’s astonishing vision from the Requiem Mass so when you arrive in paradise and smelly old Lazarus plants a juicy kiss right on your lips, slaps you a little too hard on the back, and says, “Welcome into heaven, good friend,” you won’t be too surprised.

“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival
and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once poor,
may you have eternal rest.”