Several months ago, I went to hear Mavis Staples and her band perform at Cary Hall in Lexington. Some of you may be familiar with Mavis Staples, a singer, an actress, an activist, and, most famously, a member of the Staple Singers. Decades ago, this family group was known as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers” for the way they popularized uplifting music like the song “Respect yourself.” The leader of the band, Mavis’ Dad, Pop Staples, was a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Staple Singers played a part in the civil rights movement.
I was looking forward to an evening of great music, and, believe me, Mavis Staples did not disappoint. She has an amazing presence and spirit and a way with rhythm so powerful that it roused even a crowd of mostly white new Englanders. But the thing that struck me most about this woman was how much she sang about heaven. Alongside old popular hits and sultry soul numbers, she sang about heaven as if it was so close she could almost touch it; so glorious that she couldn’t wait to get there. In her music, heaven seems like a giant holy party.
Why should it surprise me that a woman of faith would sing so much, and so confidently, so joyfully, about heaven? I think it’s because heaven has developed a bad reputation. Some political thinkers believe that the promise of heaven is only a tool used by the powerful to pacify those who are oppressed – and I agree, it has been used that way. Many humanists feel that a promise of heavenly salvation gives Christians a poor motivation for moral behavior, so we probably won’t behave ourselves – and many of us do not, though I’m not sure this is the reason. Christians ourselves sometimes get self-conscious about our tradition’s version of heaven, partly because passages like the one we heard from John have been used to exclude and to judge others. I think heaven also makes us nervous because it’s just so hard to imagine and understand.
But beyond all these big ideas, I think Heaven has become a cartoon cliché. You’ve seen this cartoon: a bunch of folks in robes lounge around on clouds in front of a white bearded God on a throne, white St. Peter guards the gate, like a cruel Santa Claus, checking his list twice before admitting anyone. No wonder this seems unrealistic to us. And more religious descriptions of heaven can go too far in the other direction, making it sound like an awfully dull or sappy or serious place to spend an eternity.
So it surprised me that this woman who is so alive and engaged and grounded and committed to justice sings so often about a “far celestial shore” where “Hallelujahs rise up from a whisper to a roar.” It surprised me, and it made me wonder if I’ve been missing out on something important. Heaven has never inspired this sort of excitement in me. How is it that you have imagined heaven, if at all?
If we read today’s passage from John more closely, this passage that has too often been reduced to a poster at a sports game, I think there are some lovely things in it for us. Remember that Jesus is talking with his disciples, shortly before his death. He’s broken the bad news that he’s about to die, and he’s offering them reassurance, and instructions, and a reminder of the promises of God. Here is what I hear him saying:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. There is room for you in God’s house. I’m preparing a place for you. And you don’t even have to travel there alone. I will go ahead of you, and come back to lead you there. Once you arrive, you’ll be comfortable right away, because in me, you have come to know God already; God will be like an old friend. While you are on earth, follow my commandments, and accept the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But don’t be afraid about what comes next. You are not alone: in life or in death or in life eternal. I’ll admit, this passage is short on details. But there’s a powerful message there, and one I’m not sure we talk about enough.
It seems like a good week to talk about heaven. It’s not only that this farewell discourse from Jesus is in the lectionary. This Thursday is Ascension day, the day when we remember Jesus rising into heaven, going before us. Monday is Memorial Day, when we remember all those who have died in service to this country. And just last week one of our own beloved saints died; and soon we will be gathering to give thanks for her life and commend her soul to God.
Our culture teaches us to deny death whenever possible. When aging and illness make an appearance, they cause great anxiety in us, and we fight them with every cosmetic and medical weapon we can find. When death comes anyway, we encourage one another to “let go” of the person who has died and “get over” our grief. We expect ourselves, and each other, to bury our sorrow, forget about those we have loved, and ignore that fact that we will eventually, inevitably, die as well.
But Death doesn’t go away when it’s ignored. We can’t conquer it, or bury it, at least not in the way we’re expected to. Thankfully, there’s another option. We can give thanks for each beautiful and temporary life, a gift of God. We can mourn those who die. We can learn to trust that when our loved ones die, they are accepted into the arms of God, still with us, just in a different way; we can develop a new kind of relationship with them. And we can learn to trust that when we die, we will also be accompanied towards a divine and loving embrace. We need not live in fear.
This is the good news of our God. Sure, it’s still a mystery. No, it’s not a reason to stop trying to realize God’s kingdom on earth or acting ethically. On the contrary, it’s a reason to live more fully and honestly and urgently and compassionately with the time we have, and yet also with peace of heart, free of fear. This is the good news of our God. So why not ponder, and imagine, what is waiting for us?
Holy God, relieve our anxiety and replace it with expectation. Help us to trust in your eternal love. Amen.