“The Next Place”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 12, 2018

John 14 (excerpts)

 

It is an age-old question.

It is a question that has been around for as long as there have been people to ask it.

Even before we had words to express it, even before there were religious or spiritual traditions that attempted to answer it, our long-ago ancestors must have wondered just as we do.

What comes next?

What happens when we leave this place?

What does the next place look like, sound like, smell like, feel like?

What happens when our earthly lives come to their end, when our mortal bodies return to the dust from which we came?

What happens, that is, when we die?

 

Some of us, formed as we are by the Christian tradition, may imagine the next place—we might call it heaven—inspired by imagery from scripture.

Perhaps a return to Eden as the book of Genesis describes it:  a garden filled with every good thing to eat, every beautiful creature, everything and everyone blessed and beloved of God, a pastoral paradise, uncomplicated by sin, doubt, separation, or the knowledge of good and evil.

Perhaps the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23:  a place where fear is banished and God is present and the table is set and the cup is filled to overflowing, a place where goodness and mercy follow us, where we dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.

Perhaps the sparkling, jewel-encrusted city of Revelation:  the New Jerusalem, coming down as a bride adorned for her beloved, with twelve gates in the walls, and the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God through the middle of the street of the city, watering the roots of the tree of life.

 

Some of us, formed as we are by the culture in which we live, may imagine the next place inspired by the American popular imagination, by the image I don’t think I was ever actually taught in Sunday School but picked up somewhere along the way:  fluffy white clouds, bright golden light, deep blue sky, winged angels and chubby cherubs hovering ’round, Saint Peter in his flowing white robes, welcoming new arrivals with open arms.

Some of us may imagine the next place in the way Warren Hansen describes in today’s children’s book:  peaceful and familiar, and yet nothing like anything we’ve ever seen… a place of utter freedom and absolute belonging… a place that is quiet and yet full of song… a place where we can enjoy solitude and yet never be alone… a place where we will simply be our truest selves, without any of the things that divide and separate and harm and oppress and pit us against one another in this life… a place in which we are not weighed down by material things, a place to which we bring nothing but love and light, memories and magic.

Some of us may have other images, or other conceptions altogether of what happens when this life comes to its conclusion.  Some of us simply may not know, may not have any particular image of what the next place will be.  It is an age-old question, and like most age-old questions, if there were a clear, obvious, easy, right-with-a-capital-R answer, some smart person would have come up with it somewhere along the way.

 

Some years ago, when my grandfather was dying, my mom went to spend time with him in his final days.  He was in and out of consciousness; there were moments when he was unresponsive, and others when he was quite lucid.  At one point, he opened his eyes from apparent sleep, and he looked at her, and he said, “I have to go.”

“Where do you have to go, Dad?” she asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I don’t know.”  A few moments went by.  He spoke again:  “I have to go.”

My mom—who, I have to say, is really rather brilliant (even if I am biased)—took her dad’s hand, and she said, “Dad, is it safe there, where you have to go?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Is it comfortable there?”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to go?”

“Yes.”

“Then Dad, it’s okay.  We want you to be safe and comfortable.  We’ll take care of Mom, and we’ll be all right.  You can go.”

And it wasn’t long before he did go, before he departed this place and went on to the next.  And though we found some comfort in his seeming assurance and clarity, and though we found some relief in the end of his struggles and sufferings, we were also left, as I know you also have been, with questions.

Those same, age-old questions.

Those questions that have been around for as long as there have been people to ask them.

What comes next?

What happens when we leave this place?

What does the next place look like, sound like, smell like, feel like?

What happens when our earthly lives come to their end, when our mortal bodies return to the dust from which we came?

What happens, that is, when we, or our loved ones, die?

 

The Bible, though it does contain many references to heaven, does not actually spell out exactly what happens when we die.  It does not provide a blueprint, or a diagram, or a topographical map of what the next place will be.  Like generation upon generation upon generation of faithful and curious people before us, we can wonder and speculate, imagine and hope, but we cannot know in this life exactly what the next life will be.

But here is what we do know.  Here is what Jesus promises to his friends in the reading we heard today, when the disciples ask him that same, age-old question.

Jesus promises that death is not the end of the story.  It is an end, but it is never the end.  It is a change, a shift, a transformation, a conclusion to this chapter and a beginning to the next.

Jesus promises that death cannot separate us from God’s love.  Death cannot separate us from Jesus.  And because we cannot be separated from God, and because our loved ones also cannot be separated from God, then somehow we are all yet together in that eternal presence.  Death cannot separate us from the ones we cherish.  Love is stronger than any other force in the universe, and even death itself cannot stop love.

Jesus promises that wherever it is that our souls go when we die, whatever the next place turns out to look like, sound like, smell like, feel like—it is a place where we are united in the heart of the very heart of God.  The Creator who knit us together, the Spirit who brought us safe this far, the Christ whom the tomb could not contain, will not abandon us now or in the hour of our deaths, but will carry us on into the next place:  that place of many dwelling places, that place where there is room for us all, that place of safety and wholeness and togetherness and love.

 

And here is what else we do know.  Here is what else Jesus promises:  that this kind of unity, this kind of love, this kind of safety and comfort, this kind of life, does not have to wait until after we die.  Jesus also says, “The kingdom of heaven is in your midst; it is among you; it is within you.”

And when we live according to Jesus’ teachings, when we know his commandments and keep them, we live into that realm here on earth.

When we receive God’s grace and live lives of overflowing gratitude as a response… when we extend olive branches of healing and cross bridges of reconciliation…

When we know our own belovedness and the belovedness of every other child of God… when we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly…

When we do whatever is in our power to make sure that our communities are places where, as we prayed earlier this morning, “the widowed find a partner; the orphaned find a parent; the fearful find a friend; the wounded find a healer; the penitent find a pardoner; the burdened find a counselor; the miserly find a beggar; the despondent find a laughter-maker; the legalists find a rule-breaker”…

When we attend to the needs of those who are most vulnerable, when we show up in solidarity with those who are on the margins…

When we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves…

Then we live into the promise of Jesus:  that God’s realm will come, not just in the next place, but in this one; that God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

May it be so.

 


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