Wednesday, 7 August 2013

On Earth As It Is In Heaven: A Sermon

Introduction: I'm sitting in my study, listening to Ennio Morricone's breathtakingly beautiful soundtrack to the 1986 movie 'The Mission'. One of the pieces of music is called On Earth As It Is In Heaven. I'm preaching my way through the Lord's Prayer this summer, and this was my sermon on the same theme. You might want to listen to Ennio Morricone as you read; if the sermon doesn't stir your soul, the music certainly will!

‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.’

What is heaven like? Like most really good, interesting theological questions, this question is most often asked by children. Will my dog be in heaven? Will there be chocolate ice-cream in heaven? How will we recognise in heaven? Won’t we get bored in heaven? These are all different ways of asking, what is heaven like?

Some years ago, I spent a month or so in Singapore. I had been in South East Asia for a good few months, working with churches, by the time I got to Singapore, and I really liked South East Asia in general, and Singapore in particular. I was working with a group of other women for a church, and staying at a Salvation Army hostel, which was much plusher than it sounds. One afternoon, I was strolling around Singapore on my own, when I came across an Anglican church. I wandered in.
I walked around the edges, looking at monuments and stained glass, and reading the plaques, and what crept up on me as I drifted around was a growing sense that I wasn’t in Singapore at all, but back home in England – that something weird had occurred, Dr Who-style, in the space-time continuum and that I was home. Home.  I wasn’t homesick at the time. I wasn’t miserable. I liked Singapore. I was having a great time. And yet, here I was, wandering around a church and suddenly, unawares, finding myself with a deep sense of experiencing a home I didn’t realise I was missing. I wonder if you’ve ever had similar experiences.

So as we come to think about heaven this morning, and to ponder what it means to pray ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, the answer to the children’s questions is, almost without exception, we don’t know. We can’t know what heaven is like, because we are creatures of earth. Even St John who wrote Revelation strained at the very edges of human language to describe his visions of the heavenly places.
Yet – every now and then we get a glimpse of that distant country which is our spirit’s true home, a sense that creeps up on us that there is a home which we are unaware of most of the time – most of us aren’t spiritually homesick – but when we encounter that spiritual homecoming, we know that it is for this that we care created, and it is for this that we are destined.

We might catch a glimpse of our heavenly home when we are in a beautiful place, or listening to spine-tingling music. We might experience it in all sorts of places – hopefully, our worship in church helps us to catch a glimpse of heaven. And what we grasp in these moments is the sense, deeper than words can say, that, as Mother Julian of Norwich put it, ‘all shall we be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’  
That all that is wrong and broken and squalid and evil in our world will be healed, will be redeemed and transformed by the inestimable power of love and justice, that the very centre of the universe there is a God whose very nature and being is love itself who created us and the world out of love, in love, for love, that our heart’s true home is love, and therefore our heart’s true home is the God who is love. We glimpse that everything good in our lives and in our world reflects and points us towards this mind-bogglingly wonderful truth at the very centre of everything.

So we glimpse that, fleetingly, and we wish we could bottle it. We wish we could hold on to that wonderful sense that all shall be well. But what normally happens is that we come out of church, or the music stops playing, or we get home from our holiday, and we realise that all is not well - yet. We switch on the TV and hear the news, or we read the papers and hear about poverty, war, violence, abuse, and all sort of wrongs. We feel the impact of those wrongs in our own lives. We suffer from illness, or someone close to us done, and we realise how fragile our human bodies are. We fall out with someone close to us, and we realise how fragile our relationships are.
So we pray, ‘your will be done – on earth as it is in heaven’. We recognise that this world is not our true spiritual home, and we pray that this world will become more and more like that heavenly home which we glimpse in our highest moments. We pray that all that reflects and points to the love that is God, the God who is love, will become more and more the reality that defines us, our lives and the life of the world. We pray that all that is not God – all that is not love, all evil and self-centredness, greed and corruption – will become less and less the reality of who we are.

The Lord’s Prayer asks us to become visionaries. It asks us to catch sight of something of heaven, and to pray for it to be thus on earth. In his last recorded speech before he was assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King, Junior, said this:  
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

These are the words of someone who lived the prayer ‘on earth as in heaven,’ whose vision of the love and justice of God shaped not only his life but the history of the United States of America. As King’s life shows, it’s a costly prayer to pray. It involves seeing the world, and ourselves, through the lens of heaven. That means recognising all that is wrong, and working towards transforming the brokenness of our world so that it reflects the glory of heaven.   
And what does this prayer really involve? Well, it’s there in the first part; your kingdom come, your will be done.  When we pray this, we recognise that we are not the centre of the universe, but rather, that God is. We recognise that everything self-seeking and self-centred that is in us is not love, because love is all about giving to others. We recognise that self-seeking is at the heart of every conflict, and every war, and that greedy self-seeking is at the heart of so much poverty and exploitation of others.

We pray that we will be changed by our vision of heaven, that we will not be dictated to by the market forces of the world but rather that we will become less and less the centre, and that Jesus will become more and more the centre of our lives, that we will put aside our own desires to serve God. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to become visionaries, and it also instructs us to become humble servants of that vision. St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wrote this prayer, which sums up so much of what it means to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. His words might mean different things to different people, but what they don't mean is that we lose our identity and become insipid, faceless yes-people if we give ourselves to this vision of Heaven. No, it means that as we see our hearts' true home through the eyes of faith, we become ever more who God has created us, and destined us to be. Ignatius prays:
 Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,
    my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
    to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace
    and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.



1 comment:

  1. I love your sentence "The Lord’s Prayer invites us to become visionaries, and it also instructs us to become humble servants of that vision".