Below is the a sermon on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13: 1-9 at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, IL on February 28, 2016. A podcast of the sermon can be found here.
The last time I preached in this pulpit was Mother’s Day, 2004. I was about to pop I was so pregnant. And, as many of you know, the pregnancy had been LOOOONGGG—not a blissful experience to say the least.
Brian Paulson had just arrived in Libertyville a few weeks prior to my family’s move to Tampa, Florida. He and I hadn’t really had much time to get to know each other. He was just coming in and I was on my way out.
After worship we stood out in the narthex and expressed our appreciation for the time we did have. And Brian said, “Well, Marcia, I’m not sure when you and I might see each other again. I haven’t known you very long, but I know I will be able to recognize you in the sweet here after because you’ll be the pregnant lady.”
And I said, “Brian, let’s get one thing straight. If you and I die, and you run into me in the afterworld, and I am pregnant, that’s your confirmation that you have NOT gone to heaven.”
Seems a lovely providential twist to be back here in this pulpit today, at Brian’s invitation, to preach a sermon to fit into the series on the Lord’s Prayer that he is doing. And that my week happens to be that place in the prayer Jesus taught us that says “On earth as it is in heaven.”
“On earth as it in heaven.”
Profound words, radical words.
Wishful thinking? Divine command?
What does this part of the prayer we know by heart kindle in us?
Heaven beckons to us from afar so often in our Christian rhetoric. And summons our imaginations to dream of the perfect world—no more crying, no more dying. all God’s children got shoes, white robes. No more war, no more hate.
Isaiah’s poetry sings to us of such a world—drink for the thirsty, food for the hungry. No cost, no fee. Mercy pouring out, steadfast love flowing freely
Pardon, forgiveness even to the wicked. These ancient writings reverberate with the rhythms of heaven—a place “higher” than earth, with “higher” ways, ways that are hard to come by here on earth.
And we learn a prayer by heart that says “on earth as it is in heaven.”
On earth as it is in heaven.
How? This earth that groans in travail, this planet that is wounded by war, hatred, the brutality of violence—and the oppression of so many across time and geography.
Is Eternity our solace? Our consolation prize—that some day we will not have to carry the weight of the world’s wounds, the world’s cruelty anymore? That someday the hurt will subside?
A Seinfeld episode opens with a scene of George Castanza driving a car. His mother in the front seat, his father in the back, complaining about not having enough leg room and asking his wife to move her seat up. An argument ensues and Frank, George’s dad, finally shouts “Serenity Now!”
“What’s that?” George says. Frank replies, “The doctor gave me a relaxation tape, the man on the tape says when my blood pressure goes up to say ‘Serenity now.’”
George: “Are you supposed to yell it?” Frank: “The man on the tape was not specific.”
We could say the same about our prayer. How can it be that these dichotomous realities—heaven and earth could conflate, could become one and the same?
The Seinfeld episode ends after several of the characters have tried screaming “serenity now” in times of intense stress to no avail. In the end, the stress of life gets the better of them—they shut back down, they explode with anger, they encounter again the disappointment of how people let us down. So the show ends not with a hopeful optimistic message about our capacity to find peace in the tumult. It ends with the absurdity and stupidity of human beings. More specifically, it ends with Elaine calling George an idiot.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways.” We can see this disconnect very clearly in our world. And in case you needed reminding, this election season will jog your memory. It seems insults, threats, and accusations are all the rage these days.
Indeed, God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.
And still we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is our prayer—but what is our yearning, our heart’s desire? What are we truly hungry and thirsty for in this broken world?
Is heaven a release from the trials of this life? Or is heaven a present reality—a way of being that we can taste and see even now, even here?
In all our moving, in all our starting over, in all our losses, changes, and new opportunities, I am gaining clarity about the object of my longing.
Maybe you have, too, in the growing and learning and suffering and discovering you have done in the more than a decade that has past since many of us shared a common life together in this community.
October 13, 2002 I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in this sanctuary. Some of you may remember the music of that day. Ms. Anne Bradley flew on a plane for the first time in her life to come and sing that day—all the way from North Carolina. I remember walking into the sanctuary with her the few days before the service for her to practice with the choir.
The choir practice as already under way with music in hand. When we walked in Ms. Anne said, “What are they holding in their hands?”
I told her they were reading music. She had never seen that.
The first thing she did was ask you all to put it down and learn the song by heart. “On Time God” was the song she taught you.
“He’s an On Time God, yes he is. May not come when you want it, but he’ll be there right on time.”
I have never forgotten Lyle Pauli’s face and Lennie Blair’s face—the smiles of everyone, the movement, and the spirit of the moment. We were singing a song together about God’s provisions—a story across generations, cultures, geographies, situations—we were living into the mystery of how joy and possibility erupt in a moment, in a song. We were learning it by heart.
That moment has helped to feed my ministry from here to Florida, to California, to North Carolina, to Indiana –and the over 35 pulpits I have preached in. In the 13 states I have taught, preached, led retreats, and done consulting in.
You see that hunger we have, that longing—it is for belonging, for a place to be seen and heard—to feel at home, loved, accepted.
And so often we feel exiled from such a home—a place we can trust, a place we don’t have to be guarded, to protect ourselves from insult or injury. Such a freedom, such a safe place to land can be hard for us to even imagine.
And so we fill our lives with things to try and fill the void—possessions, distractions, frenetic activity, habits that don’t give us life but simply alleviate a degree of the discomfort. The trappings of our busy lives can turn the volume down on our yearning—but they do not satisfy our deep need to be at home with God, with ourselves, and with each other.
Maybe these things hide our doubts about our own worthiness for a way of life that embraces us for who we truly are, for who God made us to be. Do we really believe we could abide in a place like that—a place that sees us and loves us for who we truly are?
So we assign it to a different reality, a reality not like ours—the sweet hereafter, the place beyond the clouds, with golden crowns and white robes, and angelic music.
But still we pray, maybe by rote, maybe without believing it could really be true—on earth as it is in Heaven.
And Luke’s gospel passage could be mistaken for an excuse to separate earth from heaven—we’ve messed up too much, we’ve run out of time. Judgment is coming. Repent, and do it quickly.
In this passage, some people come to Jesus with horror stories about terrible stuff Pilate had allegedly done to some Galileans and about all the people killed when a tower fell. Jesus calls them on their question: Are you asking me this because you think the people who suffered these injustices and tragedies were worse sinners than everyone else and that’s why they are dead?
Jesus quickly rejects such a view of divine retribution. That kind of punitive calculus isn’t the way God works.
Jesus clearly says you need to look at your self, you need to turn toward God. Not out of fear of retribution, but because time does run out—life does reach its end—and you have no idea when that will happen.
What is your relationship like to God, what is keeping you from turning toward God?
The kingdom of God is not a game of chance.
Life in Christ is not about appeasing a nefarious God. It’s about tasting eternity now—in the way God made us, in the way Christ transforms us, in our deep connection to all that lives and breathes.
Jesus turns to a parable—of a fig tree not living up to its possibilities—not bearing any fruit.
Stories just like this one circulated in the Mediterranean world during Jesus’ time, but they had a different ending. In one, the palm tree was cut down and destroyed, no questions asked. But, in Jesus’ parable, the gardener asks for more time. The gardener believes in the capacity of the fig tree to bear fruit. “I will give it more of what it needs—more fertilizer, more water, more attention.” “Give it another year.”
Luke: not retribution, but mercy. More time to get what you need, more time to find your true capacity in this world.
Death will come. Reaching death without realizing our true nature, that we share in God’s eternal nature means that the taste of eternity will atrophy within us—the futility of life, the burdens of not enough or self-loathing will steal the mystery of knowing eternity from us.
But the one who shows us our eternity—doesn’t wait for us at any pearly gates in a world that doesn’t touch this one, he walked on dusty roads, and touched people who felt invisible and hopeless, he drank wine and ate bread with friends, he told people that he saw divinity in them, he spoke truth to power, and wept in the midst of loss and grief. In our distortion we can exile Jesus from our lives—and miss what he’s telling us about ourselves.
Eternity has nothing to do with time or duration. It is our mysterious participation in God’s eternity.
Jesus shows us our eternity—and it looks a lot like this moment.
Jesus is here, he’s out there, he’s in here. He’s whispering in your ear, “I’m here. I see you. I hear you. I’ll help you find the courage to lay down that burden. I’ll witness to your tears. I’ll be the thread that keeps you connected to this life, to your true identity: you are God’s beloved.”
Jesus makes his way into gatherings of the earnest and the broken, the wanderers and the wonderers.
Jesus shows himself in the lives of people willing to trust the in-breaking of God’s ways into this world. Eternity Now!
Eternity transcends and is immersed in this moment. It is the golden thread, shimmering with your divine spark, and mine, and ours. It is our connection to the one who made us, knows us, sustains us, delivers us.
Eternity kindles in us the capacity to let go of our grasping, the yearning, the exile, and be awash in our place in this world.
Nothing can make God disentangle from us, we are held in Divine embrace, and that thread of vitality, winding, dancing, breathing, knitting its way through our distortions, our illusions of being unworthy, unfit for God’s family—to tell us we are at home in God’s eternity now.
That last day in this pulpit, back in 2004, I remember so many other things. Jan Schuett bringing the children into worship to say goodbye. The Communion set you gave me that I have used a communion tables all around the country—so many hands have touched that cup of salvation. And Becky Nelson singing my favorite hymn, I believe it was for the offertory. It was a beautiful surprise—my shepherd will supply my need.
Just listen to words of the last verse:
The sure provisions of my God, attend me all my days
Oh may your house be my abode
And all my work be praise
Then will I find my settled rest
While others go and come
No longer a stranger or a guest
But like a child at home.
For old times sake, what do you say, let’s sing that verse together now (hymn # 803)
Eternity now, brothers and sisters in Christ, Eternity now.
Thanks be to God.