This past Wednesday in the front section of the Richmond Times Dispatch there was an almost full-page article on heaven and hell. It was titled Declining belief in heaven and hell bedevils experts? It started out, Belief in hell is going you know where and belief in heaven is in trouble, too. Gallup polls, Newsweek beliefnet.com polls and some Christian thinkers were quoted.
According to the article the results of a 2004 Gallup poll indicated that 81 percent of Americans believe in heaven and 70 percent in hell. And an earlier Gallup Poll indicated that 77 percent of ever-optimistic Americans had rated their odds of making heaven as good or excellent. Few saw themselves as hell-bound. Apparently, these percentages have remained relatively consistent over the past fifty years.
What do you believe? We can conduct our own poll right here right now this morning. Just a simple show of hands. If your answer is yes raise your hand. Do you believe you re going to heaven? (pause for show of hands) Do you believe you re going to hell? (pause for show of hands) Much as you might want it, there s no option for undecided.
For those of you who raised your hands and for all of those who didn t, think about this question as you go about your week ahead.
But, you know, these questions only scratch the surface. The deeper questions, and maybe this is where the trouble lies, are: What is heaven? What is hell? What do we mean by the by the word heaven? What do we mean by the word hell?
According to the newspaper article, this is what worries the experts. The declining belief they talk about is a decline in what folks believe those terms, those locations really are. The trouble, they say, is that people don t know what heaven and hell are like. Images of heaven have become feeble and vague, fuzzy and sentimental. The old hellfire and damnation images are passe. They ve been overused in the past and many folks don t relate to those images anymore.
So perhaps the polls are not really relevant after all. They have no meaning unless the deeper questions have been explored.
If people don t know what heaven is, then their so-called belief that they re going there makes me think of the adage: If you don t know where you re going, you ll end up somewhere else.
Let s face facts. How can any of us, even the so-called theological experts, really know what heaven and hell are like. None of us have died. I don t include near death experiences. By their very description near death they don t count for the real thing. None of us have been there dead that is. Those that have aren t talking.
The interesting theological yet very practical question that emerges in both the Gospels and in some of Saint Paul s Epistles is whether heaven and hell are in the here and now or are they only in the yet to come.
Are these places (heaven and hell) only relevant to us after we physically die or can we find ourselves located, metaphorically that is, in one or the other of these places on this side of physical death? Not to be flippant, but listen to some of the language we use: I feel like hell today. Isn t that heavenly? She s on cloud nine. He looks like death warmed over. I think I m in heaven. He/she put me through hell.
Our passage today focuses on the Kingdom of God. But isn t the Kingdom of God just another way of talking about that location we consider heaven? We ask the same questions about the Kingdom. Where is it? What does it look like? Is it a place, a location that we can imagine? Is it somewhere “up there where God sits on a throne and Jesus sits at God’s side? Are we now just living in some preparation time until we die, then in limbo until the judgment day? Or is it possible to have heaven on earth, to see the Kingdom of God now? Is it possible that the Kingdom of God is potentially available to us, right here, right now?
The Kingdom of God. What is it? Where is it? When is it? The disciples in our passage from the Gospel of Mark don t ask these questions. It seems they don t have a clue even about what to ask. But Jesus wants to answer the unasked questions. It s as if Jesus can see the future and anticipate that future audiences, like us, future disciples, like us, will ask the questions, and that we will be hungry for answers.
Jesus doesn t make things easy. He answers such questions with parables, with what one biblical scholar calls word pictures.
Parables call us to enter a word picture, or a story, to explore its possible meanings, to let the parable work its way with us.
Parables, by their very nature, are multi-layered. They are open to multiple meanings. They invite reflection instead of definition. Parables are like doorways. We enter at risk the risk of transformation, the risk of facing an aha moment that causes us to see something in a new way, that calls us to live another way. Not to overuse the image of the day, but parables are like seeds thrown into the soil of our lives. One of the questions, of course, is the nature of our soil. Is it soil ready to receive the seed, let it take root, grow and bloom? Are we prepared to allow time for seeds to take root and grow?
So what do we have today in the parables we read? Seeds.
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground. But that someone doesn t know how the seed sprouts and grows. The earth produces of itself. Then the sickle comes, to reap the harvest.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed which when sown on the ground is the smallest seed on earth, yet when sown grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.
Explore the world of the image. The Kingdom of God is sown by whom? Are we the someone doing the sowing? Are we the ground into which the seeds of the Kingdom are sown? Are we the seed (individually or collectively) which has the potential of becoming the greatest of all shrubs? Who is the instrument of the harvest? Who reaps it? What might it look like? Who s responsible for the outcome?
As we examine these parables of seeds closely, it doesn t look like Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is only a future idea, a future reality, does it? The Kingdom of God appears to be planted in our everyday world, right now or so it seems from the metaphor. It looks like we re called to be part of the Kingdom of God. Somehow we re in the picture, whether already planted there or we re being prepared for the planting.
The Kingdom of God is both here and now and yet to come. And we are to wrap our minds and hearts around the mystery the mystery of growth that involves a continuum that embraces this very moment and each moment to come. In this word picture (as we look at the mustard seed turning into the greatest of shrubs) the Kingdom of God is a place of abundant life. The Kingdom of God is a nesting, resting, shade giving, nurturing, protective and life giving place.
So what s the message we can take home today? Be like the sower: watch, wait, stay attentive to the kingdom as it is growing in our lives. Be like the soil in which the seed is planted. Be a nourishing, encouraging and receiving place in which the seed can grow. And encourage its growth not only in yourself but in others, too. Be part of the coming harvest.
Keep your eye on the Kingdom the prize, the growing harvest, the kingdom s great abundance and everlasting shelter.
Remember, if you don t know where you are headed, you might end up somewhere else.