Getting There

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on December 9, 2012.

My wife was a travel consultant for a number of years and specialized in guided tours and sometimes I got to go along. And we never went anywhere without doing a good deal of research so we would know where we were going.

I knew someone else whose husband liked to surprise her, plan a trip and not tell her where they were going. The marriage didn’t last.

Why would you go on a trip and not know where you were going.  Why would you go if you didn’t know enough to know you wanted to go?

I ask these questions because it’s Advent again; a new year beginning; and Episcopal Churches turn color.  It’s been green for ever.  It’s time for a change. And the change to blue or purple has enormous significance. Green was all around for the last six months: grass, trees, on our level everywhere we looked.

But blue is different.  You have to look up – or down if you’re near a lake. But most blue for most of us is up: it’s the color of the sky, of the heavens; it’s the color of heaven. And we use it to make a point.  There is one link between green and blue, between earth and heaven, and that link is Jesus Christ: he came from heaven to take us to heaven, indeed to make this earth a bit more like heaven.

So we’re starting again in Advent, a new year, and we are asked to imagine, to envision, a new heaven and a new earth.  And it seems to me that we don’t spend near enough time thinking about that, thinking specifically about heaven.  So here we are, all of us, en route to a country we’ve never seen and you’d think we’d be curious.

How many books have you ever read about heaven?  There’s one Ann McGurk gave me a couple of weeks ago called The Boy Who Returned from Heaven. It’s an interesting story but not really very helpful. He says he heard choirs of angels and all that but what hymns did they sing? Episcopal Hymnal or something else? And what else is there for those who can’t carry a tune?

I don’t know about you, but I have lots of questions, more every year and I want to use these remaining three weeks of Advent to try to answer some questions about heaven: what it is, where it is, how to get there, what to do when you get there. All those questions we never ask and I think we ought to. What’s it like?  Is it really eternal rest? Won’t we get bored pretty fast?  Well, I’ll get to that later.

Today let me just talk about getting there. Before you get to any destination you have to plan how to go, what you need for the trip.  Let me begin by telling you first about a man named Samuel Yellin. I spent twenty-two years in a parish that had a good many furnishings made of wrought iron forged by Samuel Yellin. There was a great hanging candelabra they used at Christmas. The wrought iron altar cross and candle sticks were made by Samuel Yellin and the candle sticks by the font and an alms box at the back. They had an Advent wreath made of wrought iron by Samuel Yellin, and so on. Samuel Yellin, by the time of his death in 1940 was generally recognised, and still is recognized, as the greatest artist in wrought iron this country has ever known. He did wrought iron screens for the library at Yale and the Library of Congress and decorative iron work for a number of major American institutions. He was a man who loved his work and he said once, “I love iron; it is the stuff of which the frame of the earth is made and you can make it say anything you will.  It eloquently responds to the hand at the bidding of the imagination.  When I go to rest at night, I can hardly sleep because my mind is aswarm with visions of all the gates and grilles and locks and keys I want to do.  I verily believe I shall take my hammer with me when I go, and at the gate of Heaven, if I am denied admission, I will fashion my own key.”

Now, that’s a statement to meditate on. There’s a marvelous confidence – even cockiness – chutzpah – about it.  But is it a supreme statement of faith or is it the same human pride that God shattered at the Tower of Babel when human beings first made the attempt to get to heaven by their own efforts?  So how do we get in to heaven?  What kind of key do we need? What key will we have when that day comes for each of us?

This is the time to ask those questions. Advent is heaven-season.  It’s the time of ends and beginnings;
the time to clarify our goals: where are we going and what do we have to do to get there?
What kind of key do we need?  A key, in Biblical terms is power; it’s the ability to control. There’s a place in the Old Testament that looks ahead to the coming of Christ where God says through the prophet Isaiah , “I will give him the key of David…” And what he means is that the promised king will have David’s power, David’s power to control and direct human lives, to close them in or open them up. So, in the New Testament, when the risen Christ says, “I am the key of David,….” (Rev.3:7) he means, “I have that power: the power to open heaven itself to human lives.”

Now, if that’s true; if Christ has that power – and it’s the basis of our faith that he does – why would Samuel Yellin need his own tools or his own key? Why would any of us need to concern ourselves with the use we make of the gifts we are given?  I think we all realize that Samuel Yellin was speaking in metaphor, not in literal, factual terms. After all, in the language of poetry, the tools of his trade would probably be less usable at the gates of heaven than at the gates of hell.  If you want molten iron, that’s where they’ll have it. “Down below,” as they say, he’d be more likely
to have molten metal to work with. But we all know his words were metaphor and what he was really saying was this; “My hope of heaven, my hope of eternal life, is based completely on the way I have used my gifts.  I was given great gifts, and I have developed them to the full, used them unselfishly to the glory of God. I have lived with integrity.  I have been what God meant me to be.  If that’s not enough, I have no other hope.”

And surely God does want just that of each of us. You and I don’t have the particular gifts of a Samuel Yellin, and most of don’t have gifts even of that quality in some other field, gifts that possess us almost more than we possess them.  But we all do have gifts. Your gift may be the gift of music or graphic art; it may be a gift of language or leadership; it may be ability in law or business, in teaching or selling or nursing or keeping records or running a small business. Some have a gift of parenting, and no gift is more important than that. Some of us, I imagine, have several modest gifts instead of one great one: modest gifts of friendship, some ability to keep a desk in order, some skills in producing a warm meal for a small family, gardening skills, abilities as a volunteer. Some of us, perhaps, do several of these things pretty well. But whatever the gift, it is a gift, and our responsibility is one of stewardship; how we use the gifts God gives us, and how we return to God, offer back to God, the result of that gift.

And when we think that way we might remember that the faith we profess here is incarnational: to use a fancy word. It has to do with the whole of life, not just an abstract, spiritual part of it but all of life, the stuff we run into every day, not just on Sunday.  The keys we forge are made not only in worship and prayer – though that’s part of it – but they’re made primarily where we live and work seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.

Each of us, day by day, forges his or her own key but at the end we will neither take it with us nor leave it behind, but it will be there ahead of us and it will open the gate or not depending on how well we have forged it day by day over the years. That’s what Samuel Yellin knew, and yes, he was brash. But maybe no more so than St. Paul when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of victory, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award on that day…” (2 Tim.4:18)  In fact the Prayer Book itself has a prayer that speaks of the “confidence of a certain faith…” It’s right to be confident, right to be secure in our faith, if we have been good stewards – and if we also know that finally the Lord Christ himself IS the key,

For that’s the paradox.  We are called to be good stewards and offer back gifts well used. And yet, it is not the gifts but Christ who will open the door. And he will find us there as men and women who have always acknowledged that the gifts are his, the endurance is his, the response of faith is his grace working in us. If we have done all to the glory of God it was only because God enabled us. The key to the kingdom of heaven is Christ himself, Christ in us who works day by day to forge us, to shape us, into his image. And those who have opened their hearts to him, turned to him in faith, lived by that faith, expressed that faith in their daily lives, can be confident that Christ will forge in them a key that will open every door to the end of life and to the life beyond.


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