– You probably have noticed that, this Sunday, we have left aside the readings from Exodus and Deuteronomy – The story of Moses and the story of the journey of the Hebrews throughout the wilderness – to turn to the New Testament, more specifically to the book of Revelation that gives us a picture (if not a description) of the end of times.
We spent quite some time during Bible Study this past Tuesday talking about this text in Revelation, and we also spent some time exchanging ideas about how we think heaven looks like / will look like – an appropriate theme for All Saints’ Day! In this time of anxiety about many things – both for us as individuals and also as a nation – I found it very comforting to think about God’s promises. It reminded me this prayer by Sir Francis Drake I sometimes use as a blessing at the end of the service:
“(…) Disturb us, Lord, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity, and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim. Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask You to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love”
Of course, it may seem paradoxical at first to think that God can “disturb us” with a comforting vision of heaven, and yet this is how I felt on that day: Disturbed from my anxiety by the comfort of the promises God make to his people – not only in Revelation but also in the Beatitudes (our Gospel for today), and I started to wonder when I had, why we had “allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim”. “Falling in love with life” as the prayer puts it does not necessarily mean loving life with a generous love, like when are called to love God and our neighbor (our Gospel last week), sometimes “being in love” with this life (as “being in love” sometimes goes) rather means being infatuated, fascinated, under the spell of what’s in front of us – and then being so focused on and obsessed with something right here, right now that we forget the wider seas and lose sight of deeper dreams.
For a lot of us, today, including myself!, “being in love with this life” could mean being caught in the anxiety of our times, spellbound by fears, obsessed by the troubles our own mind anticipates.
To this anxiety, the Scriptures respond today with the vision (And what John describes in the book of Revelation is very literally a “vision”) of heaven. To this anxiety we may feel when looking in the here and now, and when we look ahead to the days to come, the Scriptures respond with inviting us to look beyond to a time when people will “hunger no more, thirst no more (…) and God will wipe out every tears from our eyes”. In the Gospel, Jesus makes also a lot of promises to the people gathered around him – listen to what Jesus says to the people:
They will obtain the Kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will be filled with good things, they will receive mercy, they will be called children of God, and their rewards will be great in heaven.
Who can surpasses these kind of promises? Certainly not any of our candidates to the elections!
Jesus and the author of the book of Revelation today remind us on where we should set our eyes on. Yet we know that we don’t do it, at least we don’t do it very often. Most of us don’t think a lot about heaven, and in the Episcopal church, we almost never teach about it, right? In many ways, we “allow our vision of heaven to dim” and I am wondering why.
– To me, one of the biggest problems and one of the main reasons why we have, individually but mostly as a church, “allowed our vision of heaven to dim” is that we sometimes assume that thinking of heaven is not helpful and could actually make us forgetful of the suffering around us and unable to deal with what’s going on in the world. By bringing us reassurance, thinking of heaven could lead us to become more indifferent to oppression, injustices and personal failures. Interestingly, this is what Karl Marx described when he famously said that “religion is the opiate of the masses” – by this, he meant that people dreaming of heaven, of an after world of peace, comfort and joy, were willing to endure all kind of sufferings in this world, and as a consequence weren’t proactive to change anything about their condition and they let more powerful people take advantage of them. This is a very serious problem of course. We know for example how the Bible has been used to justify slavery and patriarchal systems. Oppressed people were asked to disregard their sufferings as if they didn’t matter in light of Eternity. And maybe even for us sometimes, when we feel too unhappy, we think we’d be better off in heaven with God.
In those conditions, thinking of heaven could be dangerous, right? If we dream, if we long for the reality to come, maybe we won’t be able to live well in the here and now and in this world, comforted by the vision and the dream, we won’t act upon our reality.
– And yet. Yet if you notice the passage of the beatitudes, you see that Jesus, in the same time that he makes promises for the future, invites the people to do something, and even more, to be something / a new kind of person (The be-attitudes): To be humble, to be meek, to be merciful, to fight for righteousness and to testify to the truth. The promises Jesus makes are an encouragement, a motivator for people to act according to a reality that is yet to come in its fullness.
Jesus encourages people to act conforming themselves to a reality that is yet to come in its fullness for us and for this world, and as they do so, as they act in the spirit of the Kingdom of Heaven, they can start to live into this reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And to me, this is the key. Yes, when all we do is dreaming, when we use our dreams, even our religious dreams, to escape, it’s very hard to act. And yet just think about the way Martin Luther King’s dream sent people out into the world and on the streets. They shared a vision of people united, reconciled and equal in God’s eyes. And so we learn that it’s also very hard to act if we don’t have a dream, a desire, a vision of something better. Karl Marx was actually in contradiction with himself because if he downplayed the Christian ideal as a way of dismissing a painful reality, he still had to create the vision of a new and better society to incite people to launch a revolution and change their lives.
The thing is we cannot do anything if we stop dreaming of something better and if we don’t have hope. And we will act according to what our hopes and dreams. If we dream of a lot of money, maybe we’ll spend our lives working very hard or just gambling! But as Christians, if our dream is heaven – heaven not as a comforting fantasy but as the Book of Revelation paints it with people being reconciled, united and equal – I think it should make us want to start reconciliation now, it should make us want to treat one other fairly.
– And so today my question for you is what is your dream and what is your vision? And how can it inspire you to act today? To me, I often imagine that every person I meet I will meet again in the afterlife, in the presence of God – and it often leads me to think very differently about my relationships. Maybe it’s different for you but the trick is not to think about heaven just to make us feel better in the here and now (even if we sometimes need it!!) but it is to make us be better (people) in the here and now! It is about our way of being with God, with our neighbors but also with ourselves. Seeing what we are meant to be in our glory and not just only in our anxiety.
This may be what it means to be a Saint. It does not mean to be very holy, always doing the right thing, doing it perfectly. It may just mean that we let God’s spirit inspire us. Jesus promises us the best and so we have to give our very best. As Sir Francis Drake puts it may we “ask Him to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love”.