Paradise Now


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Our “Questions of Faith” sermon series concludes with the biggest question of them all: “What about heaven?” Hear the words of Jesus Christ as spoken from the cross: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Your heart will be thankful, and you will feel like going on.

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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In paradisium

Jon Bartlett was one of my good friends in Atlanta in the 1990s. He was one of the best baritones I ever heard sing. When Jan DeGaetani, Jon’s teacher died, Jon was flown to New York to sing a memorial recital alongside the likes of Dawn Upshaw. Yeah, Jon was all that.  Jon’s very best friend, Jim, lived down in Naples, Florida, and used to employ Jon and I to sing with the Naples Philharmonic. Doesn’t that sound glam? Well, it was still Florida. Jim, who also went by Carlotta (but that’s another story), employed Jon to sing the Fauré Requiem.

Jon, it turned out, had had HIV for a long time. He was not doing well. A few months after Jon had sung the Fauré, Jon died—alone, in his apartment, never having told most of his loved ones about his declining health. The church played no small role is making everybody with AIDS feel like dirt in those days (but that’s another story, also). I hope you’ll come to the World AIDS Day event[1] where I’ll be preaching on December 4. There’s so much hope now, but not back then.

A few months after Jon’s death, I received a call from Jim. Jim said that he had been grieving Jon and had finally popped in the VHS tape of that final performance. Jim sounded almost hysterical, which wasn’t all that unusual, and he was fighting back tears as he told me this story. As the final movement played on his VCR, the same music you just heard our choir sing, Jon is seated in the baritone soloist chair in front of the orchestra, behaving. The chorus sings: Into paradise, may the angels lead you, and then the saints will show you your new home, the new Jerusalem. Jim told me that, then, just as the chorus sang of Lazarus, there was a glitch in the tape. Some of you are old enough to remember how VHS tapes would sometimes jerk and spasm. (How did we ever live with such inferior technology!) When the tape straightened out, the choir was singing, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…” but Jon was gone, his chair empty. I’ve seen the tape, and Jon doesn’t get up and walk out, he’s just there one moment and, after the image jerks, he’s gone. Gone “in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye”[2]—that’s how fast life changes.

How much more should God need to beat me (and Carlotta) over the head to tell us that Jesus had “prepared a place” for Jon “that where [Jesus] is, there [Jon] is also”?[3] Jesus, the ruler of heaven and earth, took Jon to himself. To be truthful, I confess that it we all knew it was time for Jon to go, his suffering too much, his hulking body worn down to the bones, and time for Jon’s soul to let go and be welcomed, freed at last, alongside Lazarus while the angels sang.  This story is as close as I can come to assuring you that the one life we share, it does not end. And the love we know in this world, it cannot die. Not ever.

 

The Body Politic

In this final installment of Questions of Faith, we ask the biggest question of all: What about Heaven? On this Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) Sunday, we declare that there is only one ruler of earth — do you hear me, election-weary people? — only one ruler of earth, and this same Christ rules heaven.

Now, because heaven, by definition, must remain a mystery to this world, I worry about the people who seem to be in a hurry to educate me all about heaven in detail, about how I need to do this or that to guarantee my address on the streets of gold. I can’t help but think of the words of the African-American spiritual, “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t a-going there.”[4] That line was added as a dig to the slave drivers who had to the gall to teach people about freedom in Christ and then try to practice white supremacy.

That same madness goes on today. This week in California, a swastika was spray-painted on a billboard depicting the all-black cast of “Almost Christmas.”[5] A woman was accosted at Fort Mason and told “no Latinos here.”[6]  The Southern Poverty Law Center reports over 400 incidents of hateful intimidation since the election, most of it in schools and businesses, most of it aimed at immigrants and people of color.

So, I am moved to stand before you, as an out gay man, and say that the session of this church (aka, board of directors) voted to acknowledge the Transgender Day of Remembrance this year, which comes every November 20. This is a first for Calvary. We have been invited to attend a service at Trans:Thrive on Polk Street at 3pm, full information available on the signs around the church, or you may go with me or our very own Jasmine Gee. The Trans Day of Remembrance memorializes the reported 26 transgender murders, mostly trans women of color, and the hundreds of trans people “who have been…injured, raped, marginalized, bullied, and disempowered, not only because of who [God] created them to be, but…because they have dared to claim and live their reality in the open, without shame or apology.”[7]

In the words of Metropolitan Community Church theologian Tom Bohache: “those of us who have privilege [must] utilize it to include others by hearing their stories and celebrating their journeys and protecting their lives.”

 

Luke 23

Jesus and his original followers knew the sting of persecution and intimidation. The Early Church met in secret, fearful that what happened to Jesus could happen to them—all the toxic backlash against an itinerant Jewish prophet who wanted to expand the boundaries of religion to include the outcast and unwanted, women, non-citizens and resident aliens of the Empire. Jesus flew in the face of the political, racial and religious power-brokers of his time, and then his followers proclaimed him Christ, Messiah, Chosen One, heir to the throne of David. The dominant culture reacted with hateful actions to these too hopeful, too joyful, too uppity religious zealots and, eventually, called them Christians as an epithet because Christians would not acknowledge the Roman leaders but rather Christ as the ruler of heaven and earth. So, that’s how politics has been a part of our identity from the get-go, Christianity originally a movement intending to reform patriarchy, religion and racism— too much too quickly, said the authorities, and then the crowds acquiesced with cries of “Crucify him!”

 

Calvary

And this brings us to today’s lesson from Luke, standing at the foot of the cross, at Golgotha, The Skull also known as Mount Calvary[8]—the place of crucifixion. This is where we worship Jesus, at Calvary, the place his public execution. The name of the congregation celebrates worldly defeat as heavenly irony. The dying thieves of either side of him did not understand. They derided him, as they hung beside him, “Aren’t you afraid?” And he didn’t answer that question. “Why don’t you save yourself and us?” But his reply was to love them, just as he loved his executioners. In fact, “Today,” says Jesus. “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”

 

Paradise Now

I have learned that the manner in which a person all dies is pretty much the same manner in which they have lived. If we have lived lives of victimhood, that’s how we will die: complaining and blaming. But if we have lived lives of loving and helping, of forgiving and assuming good intentions, that’s how we will leave this world. Which way, do you think, might be the road to paradise?

The Greek word for paradise actually means “a garden” or more literally “a park.” It’s the same in Islam, the Arabic word for heaven is jannah which means “a garden” verdant and full of flowing streams. The Qur’an teaches that “Allah[9] promises believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow…beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting bliss.”[10]

When I am asked, “What about heaven?” I hear, embedded in the question another: “What about death?” How are we to live in this world in which everyone we’ve ever loved will, eventually, pass away? This church has taken some hards hits this fall, unexpected deaths and separations from loved ones, people who, by any reasonable standard, should still be here today.  Some of you have told me how much you’re dreading Thanksgiving, seeing that relative that voted the wrong way or didn’t both to vote, mixing families that might be happier on separate planets, and then the raw pain of dealing with that empty chair which was filled just months ago. Today at one, Elizabeth Heuser and I will begin a grief support group.[11] We’re here for you when you’re ready.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer[12] put it this way:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. [Through gratitude] one bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”[13]

Gratitude is healing. Perhaps Thanksgiving has never come at a better time. What are you truly thankful for?

 “Grateful” by John Bucchino[14]

I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got a warm place to sleep
Some nights I lie awake counting gifts instead of counting sheep
I’ve got a heart that can hold love, I’ve got a mind that can think
There may be times when I lose the light, and let my spirits sink
But I can’t stay depressed when I remember how I’m blessed
Grateful, grateful, truly grateful I am
Grateful, grateful, truly blessed and duly grateful

In a city of strangers I’ve got a family of friends,
No matter what rocks & brambles fill the way, I know that they will stay until the end
I feel a hand holding my hand, it’s not a hand you can see
But on the road to the promised land this hand will shepherd me
Through delight and despair, holding tight and always there
Grateful, grateful, truly grateful I am
Grateful, grateful, truly blessed and duly grateful

It’s not that I don’t want a lot, or hope for more, or dream of more
But giving thanks for what I’ve got makes me so much happier than keeping score
In a world that can bring pain, I will still take each chance
For I believe that whatever the terrain our feet can learn to dance
Whatever stone life may sling, we can moan or we can sing
Grateful, grateful, truly grateful I am
Grateful, grateful, truly blessed and duly grateful

 

[1] You’re invited to “Where Our Hope Is” SF Interfaith Council World AIDS Event, Sunday, December 4, at 4 pm, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, Dolores at 16th Street, San Francisco.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: 51 “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

[3] John 14:3 Jesus says: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

[4] <https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/15/update-more-400-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election>

[5] View the picture at <https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/15/update-more-400-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election>

[6] <http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/No-Latinos-here-man-tells-nanny-before-10616082.php>

[7] Rev. Tom Bohache, Metropolitan Community Church, used with permission (November 18, 2016)

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvary

[9] Allah is Arabic for God. Christians in Arab countries call God Allah, also.

[10] Qu’ran 9:72, accessed online at <http://islam.about.com/od/heavenhell/tp/Heaven-In-The-Quran.htm> (November 19, 2016)

[11] Remaining meetings of our Holiday Grief Support Group, December 4, 11, 18 at 1PM in the Library. All are welcome to this group where feelings are witnessed in confidence.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran theologian famous for his anti-Nazi social justice advocacy and eventual execution by the Nazis. After the recent desire for authoritarianism has been so forcefully expressed by the American people, it’s time for us to be reminded of Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace.”

[13] <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/283627-there-is-nothing-that-can-replace-the-absence-of-someone>

[14] Sung with Peter Webb, tenor. See calpres.org

 

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