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Heritage Day – The Hope of Heaven

October 28, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2012 – Heritage Day: A Pilgrimage of Hope


Revelation 21: 1-5

 Over the past week I have been asking a question: If I were to tell you I wanted to talk about heaven, what image would that conjure in your mind, and what question would you want to ask? Here are a few of the things I heard:

What is heaven? How do I get in? What will I do when I get there? Will my loved ones be there? And will they be walking on streets of gold or floating in clouds?  Will my parents be old or young? Will my child who died too soon grow to maturity? Will my husband be married to me or to his first wife? One confirmation student wanted to know if we still felt desire in heaven?

I thought about my own questions.

When my grandmother was a child she lost her right arm when she couldn’t get herself off the trolley track in time. When I was a child I wanted to know if she would get her arm back in heaven.

These aren’t (really) unusual questions about heaven. But they must resonate with something in our hearts because they are so common. And within the Christian tradition there have been many answers to these questions.

What is heaven? Heaven is the presence of God.  How do I get in?  By grace; there’s nothing we can do to earn it.  Will my loved ones be there?. . In heaven we will love God and enjoy God forever, surrounded by all God’s people. And what about clouds or streets of gold?  According the John’s Revelation, heaven is a city with a temple at its center and in the center of the temple, is God.

How old will we be and will we still be married?  A twelfth-century Italian scholar named Peter Lombard tells us that we will all be 33 years old, and according to Jesus we neither marry or will be given in marriage. And what about desire; will it cease?  St. Augustine believed that since all desire, at its root, is desire for God, in heaven desire will become joy because we will know and be fully known by our heart’s desire, by God, face to face. And finally, to answer my own childhood question, I have discovered that some of the most fascinating (and disturbing) artwork of the middle ages shows angels delivering lost limbs to saints as they rise from their graves.

Of course, there are other, equally good but very different, answers to each of these questions, each with just as much precedent in our tradition. But of course, that’s the point. We have no knowledge of heaven. Despite what you may hear on daytime talk shows, no one has crossed over and come back. Our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith declares that “in life and in death (and in life beyond death) we belong to God,” but beyond that we do not know. Death is a horizon, and a horizon is the limit of our sight.

It seems to me that we cannot help expressing our hope for heaven, because we grieve for loved ones we have lost, and because we dream of a better world. But though we may not have real answers, real questions – questions drawn from our hopes and needs, our griefs and our dreams – can fire our imagination, feed our prayers, and, yes, lead us to God.

How do you imagine heaven?

I once had the occasion to ask a rabbi friend of mine how Jews imagine heaven, and with the caveat that not all Jews do, in good rabbinic fashion he told me two stories.

In the first, a righteous man, dies and goes to heaven. There he finds himself joining a circle of men and women and children holding hands and dancing in a circle around God singing “Who is this and who am I? This is my God, and him will I glorify.”

In the second story, another righteous man dies and goes to heaven, but finds only an ordinary yeshiva just like on earth, a school where the Torah is studied day and night. But God is nowhere to be seen.  “Where is God?” he wants to know. “All my life I studied Torah, God’s law, the way of God’s people. Here I expected to see God.” One aged rabbi, without taking his eyes from his scroll, replies, “You don’t understand. On earth we studied Torah, God’s law, just as we do here. What makes this heaven is that while on earth we studied in hope, here we know!”

You see, in the first story, the hope is that the righteous are in heaven, but in the second, that heaven is in the righteous. In the former, heaven allows us to worship God in a way not available to us here on earth – directly, face to face. In the later story God dwells within us and we understand, perhaps for the first time, what real life is all about.

How do you imagine heaven? And how does that image shape how you live here and now?

Well, one way to explore how we hope for heaven, and the shape we give to that hope, is to explore graveyards like our own. On this, our third Heritage Sunday, we want to focus particularly on our cemetery: the “Presbyterian Burying Ground.” This is particularly apt because from 1776-1854, an almost 75 year period, we did not have a church building. Our graveyard, not our sanctuary, was the physical testimony to our faith. Each Sunday we sit surrounded by saints who have gone before us; faithful and faulty Christians who hoped for heaven. What shape did their hope take? I thought it might be discovered on their headstones, and with the great help of John Timmons I will make some suggestions. But I hope that if nothing else, these chiseled hopes might lead you to wander through our graveyard on your own some Sunday after worship.

Out in the corner cemetery lie Mahala and Peter Foster, whose epitaph is a personal hope and a prayer for the church: “May we attend the Savior’s call and find in him a home.” This sentiment that our ultimate citizenship lies in another kingdom, is repeated on numerous stones. 82 year old Elizabeth Burns asks us, “Why do you mourn, departing friends, or shake at death’s alarm? ‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends to call [us] to His arms.” “There is a brighter world on high” says the memorial for five year old Emily Elliot; while Jacob Purdy, who together with his wife Abagail offered their home to General Washington during the War of Independence, echoed the Westminster Catechism by telling us “I died to enjoy my God.”

The stones also retain echoes of life’s difficulties, of war, of struggle. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the lord delivereth out of them all,” was the faith of Phebe.  Sarah Purdy reflected the limits of health care on her stone, “Afflictions sore long time I had, physicians aid was vain, ‘til death at last more kind than all, relived me of my pain.” Or as Mark Baldwin put both more succinctly and hopefully, “Farewell to the sorrows of the earth.”

But heaven is not simply the end of hardship on earth. The saints anticipate the joys of heaven. I am “bound for the joys of immortality,” declares Gilbert Tompkins, and Elijah Valentine believed the just “speed to joys on high.” For many, heaven will be a place of reunion and rest. Sarah Roberts reaches out from the grave to speak to her husband George, and presumably to the whole community, “I hope again to meet you on Heaven’s celestial shore, with open arms to greet you,” while 25 year old John Hunt hoped to exchange the “fond embrace” of those he loved, “for better friends above,” and the children of Caroline Martine simply exhorted “Rest mother.” 

But for many others, heaven acknowledges our good life on earth. Phebe Hunt wanted “the memory of the just is blessed” on her stone, and for another Jacob Purdy  “an honest man [is] the noblest work of God,” while Isaac Hunt trusted that “Blessed are the dead who die in Christ.” What kind of people were these? They sound like the people I know in this church. Elizabeth Murrey, a native of Scotland, was remembered as a “Faithful Servant,” Sarah Hatfield was a “beloved mother,” Hannah Marshall “a loving friend.” I wish I could have known the medical doctor, Alanson Prime, whose headstone is straight out through these doors. He died during the tumultuous years of Civil War at the age of 53, and could still declare “In Christ is all my trust.” One of our former pastors, John Smith, who served this church for 30 years, was remembered with the words “By faith he lived, in faith he died, and faith foresees a rising day when Jesus comes.”

But the grief of loss is real: I ache for Trophlies Brown, whose wife Sarah died in 1830, and all he could say was “Empty, ah, empty every place once filled so well by thee.” I hear the lonely grief of Captain Jonathan Paulding Horton, who buried his Margaret, “A tender mother and partner dear” in 1787 who recorded that her stone was erected “by him who knew her worth, and still laments her loss.” Jesus welcomed the little children, wrote the Fosters, on the stone marking the graves of their four babies only one of which lived to its first birthday. Parents are not supposed to live to bury their children, but our cemetery is full of such stories. Joseph, the son of Joseph and Esther Hull, who died at just eight weeks old, “Here sleeps in dust the parents’ fondest pride.” The loss of their 19 year old Charles was devastating and his parents inscribed “How short the race our child has run, cut down in all his bloom, the course but yesterday begun, now finished in the tomb.”

The hope of heaven is our conviction that in life and in death we belong to God and therefore there is nothing we must do to earn God’s love. My hope, this morning, is that by way of illustration I may have freed you and encouraged you to imagine the shape of your heaven, and to let it shape your life while you still live. For in the end, to return to our scripture, it is not the heaven of our imagining but a whole new heaven and a whole new earth of God’s own making that awaits us beyond the limit of our sight.

Meditating on the headstones of children this week reminded me of a five year old who once asked me, “When I died and go to heaven,” meaning when she dies, “how will I get there? Will I fly with wings like an angel, or drive there in a car?” I suggested that I think we take a bus, because there’s got to be room for lots of folks and we will all go there together.

Surely, this sanctuary is a bus-stop, and we did not know it. Amen.


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