Heaven in Our Hands

Rev. Douglas Taylor

March 27, 2022

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/kgQ9NjPFB0A

We Unitarian Universalists do not spend a lot of time talking about heaven anymore. It used to be a significant talking point. Historically, as we distinguished ourselves from other Protestant Christian denominations a few hundred years ago, we talked about heaven and how to get into heaven quite a bit. The early American Universalists spoke out about God’s love and how we were all God’s children and all of us would be reunited with God in heaven in the end. The early Unitarians spoke of how our deeds and actions were the measure to determine if we were good people and that as good people we would receive our reward in heaven.

Modern Unitarian Universalism is a pluralistic faith with a range of beliefs and practices. The central doctrines of the past are not as important to our identity as they once were. We gather around shared values more than common beliefs today. I contend, however, that our various beliefs and values still point strongly toward an idea like heaven, an idea like love.

I would talk more about love today, but allow me to linger a moment on the topic of heaven as we begin. We all have some ideas about heaven, ideas we may or may not believe yet we recognize all the same. What is heaven? Setting aside the pastoral aspect of that question for now, consider it from a metaphysical framework for moment. What does the concept call to mind for you?

Maybe you think of Heaven as a place. Perhaps the cartoons of people standing on clouds is the image you conjure in your mind. Or maybe you are a traditionalist and think of heaven as a garden, or a kingdom, or a city on a hill. It is possible you think not of a place or location at all. Perhaps you imagine heaven as an activity. Perhaps heaven is about playing a harp or being at rest or a least being free from suffering. Is that what comes to mind for you when you think about heaven?

Maybe the idea of heaven is less specific for you, maybe it is not a place or an activity so much as a sense of reward for being good or being saved. That is certainly in keeping with how people sometimes speak about heaven – as a motivation to behave ethically in this life. Or, consider the way people speak of seeing loved ones in heaven or how loved ones are looking down at us from heaven – this imagines heaven as a relationship more than a location, although location does seem tangled up in there again, doesn’t it. But it is more than a place – it is the place where we are with loved ones again, it is the place where we are with God.

What is heaven? There are differing answers to that question. We are a pluralistic tradition now. There isn’t ONE answer we are expected to nod to and accept.  However you think of it – whether you believe in heaven or not – as a place or relationship, as rest or reward, you certainly have some concept in mind when you think about the word.

I suggest, while we Unitarian Universalists do not spend a lot of time talking about heaven, we do spend quite a bit of time talking about something similar. We talk about being good people and helping to make the world a better place. And there is a direct connection between these topics.

A few years back there was a television show about heaven that I found quite interesting. The show was talked about in my colleague circles quite a bit. The Good Place is a 4-season show on one of the online streaming channels. It is funny and clever, certainly irreverent and yet at turns poignant and even profound. If you haven’t watched it, I do recommend it. The premise is this: 

Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, is “welcomed after her death to the Good Place, a highly selective Heaven-like utopia designed and run by afterlife “architect” Michael as a reward for her righteous life. She realizes, however, she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect past behavior while trying to become a better, more ethical person.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Place

Early on, in the first episode, Eleanor asks who was right about the afterlife? Michael, the architect, answers her saying “Hindus are a little bit right, Muslims a little bit. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, every religion guessed about 5%” But more interestingly, the show highlights moral philosophy while being entertaining. The show talks about Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard without watering them down. Really the show is about ethics and how to be a better person. Ultimately, it is a depiction of the afterlife as a place of learning.

One of my favorite quotes from the show is this: “What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is, if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”

I love it when a conversation about heaven and the afterlife circles around to ethics and how we can help one another become better people in this life. I love that a conversation about heaven can lead us to a conversation about how we can make a heaven of this life we are living even today. Really, when any conversation about beliefs turns toward a conversation about ethics is a good conversation – as we heard in our reading this morning: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reflection/who-cares That is the heart of what I am lifting up this morning! The image of heaven we UUs evoke today is one of a community rooted in love and justice for all.

Our contemporary Unitarian Universalism reveals a theological challenge for us to live our values of love and inclusion – that heaven is in our hands. As poet June Jorden once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Two weeks back, a member of our congregation, Ruth Blizard delivered the sermon and she reminded us:

Many churches today still reject persons of color, require women to submit to men, believe homosexuality is a sin, and contend that only those who believe exactly as they do will be saved. Our tradition of universal salvation offers hope, acceptance and sanctuary to those doomed by other religions.

 She went on to clarify key points in our history which have led us to become who we are today – a justice-seeking religion of inclusion for all.

Then one week ago we heard a sermon from my colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg. He asked us about the evidence that we are living by these values and beliefs we espouse. He asked how people would know we are Unitarian Universalists from our actions, what is the evidence.

Today I notice the clear line from our historical theology of heaven into our contemporary mission to live our values in the world. We are trying to make this life rich and full and rewarding. We are working to build a just and compassionate society today, to manifest our heaven right here. We’re still a pluralistic community. We still have multiple answers to the question ‘What is heaven?’ and we are trying to build it together now.

Of course, it is hard to build anything at the moment. We are living in the long slow return from the pandemic disruption. Our society is simultaneously post-pandemic and still smack in the midst of the impact. We are picking up some pieces of the old normal and yet hundreds of people still die every day in our country from Covid-19. This is exhausting. And, we are working to manifest our heaven together in the midst of this mess.

The image we put out there, our version of heaven, is one of inclusion, of justice, and of care. As such, over these past two pandemic years, we have sought that balance between keeping people safe and staying in touch with each other; of protecting the most vulnerable among us and also resisting the deadening impact of isolation.

But that’s just the point. We are not waiting to receive a reward, to have a final rest when life is done. We are in it already. This is how it works. There is a line from Thoreau’s Walden in which he writes: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” (from The Pond in Winter) or as I’ve stated in my sermon title – in our hands.

It is always happening and it will keep happening over and over around us and within us and among us. Ever-unfolding anew each moment. It is not an ending. That’s one of the interesting pieces we offer – it’s not an ending … it is now. Or as Peter Mayer sings about it: “everything is holy now.”

Over the past few months, a handful of us have been in a UU theology class together, reading and discussing the book House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker. This has been a multi-congregational offering, co-led by myself, Rev. Darcey Laine of the Athens and Cortland UU congregations and Rev. Jo VonRue of May Memorial UU in Syracuse.  

I mention this class for two reasons. First, it is an example of what I’m talking about. Not that this class is an example of heaven. Nothing so grand. Instead, it is a small example of the community we are trying to create; one not confined by the usual limits. In this case, the usual limit of one minister teaching to one congregation.

The second reason is that the text we used offered a chapter about what I’m talking about this morning. In the first chapter, Rebecca Parker wrote about eschatology, the aspect of traditional Christian theology in which we find the topic of heaven. Parker wrote:

Radically realized eschatology … begins with affirming that we are already standing on holy ground.  This earth – and none other – is a garden of beauty, a place of life.  … Our religious framework can shift from hope for what could be … to hope that what is good will be treated with justice and love and that what has been harmed will be repaired. [House of Hope p 12]

So I say we are in it now. As Parker said, “We are already standing on holy ground.” As Peter Mayer sang, “Everything is holy now.” Even with this pandemic confounding our living. Even with war and oppression, injustice and destruction plaguing our days. Still, we can bring love and hope with us into every situation. Still, we can make this time and this place a little more like heaven; because that is what we do. We are the ones.

(Sing) We are the ones, we are the ones, we’ve been waiting …

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  

The vision we put out there, our version of heaven, is one of inclusion, of justice, and of care for all. We have heaven in our hands, at our feet, in our hearts and minds. We can make this place even better. Even now it already is, and with a little effort on our part, it yet can be.

In a world without end

May it be so.