Aim at Heaven

(Sermon for Sunday August 11, 2013 || Proper 14C || Luke 12:32-40)

C. S. Lewis once said, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.” He said this in a radio talk on the BBC during World War II, and it was later collected in a little book known as Mere Christianity. Lewis’s words aren’t meant as a threat or a platitude, but simply as the truth behind how we orient our lives. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Zelda shooting a light arrow.
Zelda shooting a light arrow.

I suspect Lewis had today’s Gospel reading in mind when he spoke these words; well, more precisely, today’s reading plus the ten verses before it, which the framers of our reading schedule oddly decided to skip. The ones we jumped over are fairly well known: Jesus speaks of the lilies of the field, how they grow; and about the birds of the air, how God provides for them. All of this distills down to one simple request by Jesus to his disciples: “Don’t worry!” He goes on to say that God knows what we need, so we shouldn’t spend all our time and energy chasing after such things. “Instead,” says Jesus, “desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”

Or as C. S. Lewis paraphrases: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’” Of course, we’re talking about priorities again, as we did last week. Aiming at heaven, desiring God’s kingdom – this is the most important priority of our lives. All other priorities build from the sure foundation of desiring God’s kingdom, of being part of God’s dream of bringing all creation back to God. This is the foundation of our priorities because we would find it quite impossible to desire something greater or more eternal than this dream.

Think of it this way. When I was a child I dreamt of being a professional baseball player. (Well, a paleontologist baseball player who also got to drive the garbage truck, but let’s stick with baseball.) My big dream was catching the final out of the World Series while playing centerfield for the Boston Red Sox. My friends and I imagined that ninth inning of Game 7 every time we put on our gloves. Now, wouldn’t it have been a little odd if I dreamt of playing centerfield for Double-A Portland? Maybe more practical, but practicality holds no sway in dreaming. Much like our childhood aspirations, God invites us to dream big – to desire God’s kingdom above all else, to be part of the coming of that kingdom here on earth, and by doing so, to aim always for heaven.

Of course, the world about us entices and cajoles us to set our aims lower. “Heaven is too far away, too much hard work,” say the grumbling, demonic voices of this world. “It’s all pie in the sky, better to focus on the here and now,” they continue, louder and more confident. “You’re not good enough for God’s kingdom, anyway,” they finish with a flourish. These grumbling voices chorus with a multitude of reasons why we should set our aims lower than heaven, but we have limited time, so we’ll focus on these three common ones: laziness, worldliness, and unworthiness.

First: laziness. Ah, my old foe. Out of the three we’re looking at today, laziness has most often enticed me to aim at anything but heaven. I’ve tried to combat my lazy streak myriad ways. One is that a few years ago, I stopped describing myself as a Christian because the label didn’t cause me to act any different than I normally did. Instead, I started calling myself a “follower of Christ.” I chose to do this to remind myself that a follower does something: he follows. This has helped a little, but the old kneejerk laziness is still there. It’s just so easy, so seductively easy to drift through life without purpose or goal. It’s just so easy simply to shoot at the target rather than aim for the middle of the target.

But in today’s lesson, we followers of Jesus hear him tell us to “be dressed for action and have our lamps lit.” Be on the lookout for ways to shine the light of God’s kingdom in the darkness of this world. Be prepared to find God where you least expect it, but where God most needs to be proclaimed. This is the way to aim for heaven, and I assure you, despite the seductive ease of laziness, this is the way to live.

Second, worldliness – the secularist’s call to us spiritual types to get our heads out of the clouds, plant our feet on solid ground, and start using common sense. But what the secularist doesn’t understand is that engaging our uncommon senses fills our lives with joy and purpose. Still, worldly distractions make our aim wild. We worry too much about our security; not that security is bad, but we do tend to overcompensate. We stray too far to the “rich fool” end of the spectrum: he who in last week’s parable wanted to build even bigger barns to store all his stuff. The weight of this overcompensation pulls our aim lower.

But in today’s lesson, Jesus encourages his friends not to worry, but to sell their possessions and give to the poor. He reorients their aim and ours to heaven, where the treasure is unfailing. Your heart will be where your treasure is, he says, so desire to enshrine your heart in God’s eternal presence. The more our hearts soak up the radiance of God’s kingdom, the more generous we will be in the here and now, and the more we will spread that radiance ourselves.

Third, and most menacing: unworthiness. Aim at heaven, instructs C. S. Lewis. Desire God’s kingdom, says Jesus. And yet in a cold, dank corner of our minds, each of us has a small raspy voice endlessly intoning: “Not you…Jesus doesn’t mean you…you’re not good enough for heaven…you’re not worthy enough to spread God’s kingdom.” This feeling of unworthiness is so common and yet so far from God’s reality. It is a feeling that shackles us, that keeps us not just from aiming at heaven, but from aiming at all.

But in today’s lesson, Jesus intimates that worthiness has nothing to do with the equation. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Another translation says, “Your father delights in giving you the kingdom.” If God delights in this act of giving then God surely isn’t putting up barriers of worth that would keep God from showering the radiance of God’s kingdom on all people. The more we accept that God’s delight in us is what makes us worthy, the more we can participate in spreading the kingdom.

These three – laziness, worldliness, and unworthiness – can keep us from aiming at heaven. But Jesus Christ proclaims to us today that none of these has the power we think they do. The power lies with God, who delights in giving us God’s kingdom and hopes with all the radiance of heaven that we desire to receive the kingdom. When we do, we enter into the great, eternal dream that God has for all of God’s creation, and we join with God in making that dream a reality. So aim at heaven and you’ll get the earth thrown in.

Fully human

The following post appeared in the Advent issue of Episcorific (a ‘zine for and by the 20s and 30s of the Episcopal Church). You can download the full magazine in .PDF form here.

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The trouble with being human is that most of us aren’t very good at it. We are way better at being couch potatoes or social butterflies or unique snowflakes or chickens. We explain the very act of making more humans by referring to the birds and the bees. A frightened human is a scaredy cat; an insufferable one is a less polite term for donkey. We may exist as humans, but we spend a lot of time filling the roles of other species.

And these other species are darn good at being themselves. Bees fly around collecting nectar and pollinating flowers. Trees keep soil from eroding. Grass scrubs the air of carbon dioxide. Cockroaches allow husbands to feel manly. If evolution teaches us one thing it’s that species thrive when they don’t try to fill the role of some other species.

While we are busy being butterflies and potatoes, we forget that in reality we are human. And who really wants to be human? Our skin isn’t very well adapted to our climates. Our young can’t fend for themselves for at least twenty-two years. Our bodies break down with alarming frequency. And to top it off, I can’t think of another species on this planet that kills its own kind with as much regularity and aplomb as we humans.

But somehow we have survived down through the ages amidst the dangers of saber-toothed tigers, drought, pestilence, war, and deficit spending. We have survived, but, as Tennyson writes, “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven.” I’m not even convinced that we’ve ever been that old strength. I don’t think that we’ve ever lived into our humanity to the greatest extent possible.

And here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t come to show us a new way to be human. Jesus came to show us how to be fully human. The Gospel makes a big deal about Jesus’ own humanity. Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus’ birth. John shows Jesus tired, angry, and sad. In all four accounts of the Gospel, he is brutally murdered. And why present God the Son as such a frail collection of bones and tissue and synapses? Well, he couldn’t be the “Word made flesh” without flesh. And he couldn’t be our hope and our salvation without fully identifying with our lives, however “nasty, brutish, and short” they may be (thanks to Thomas Hobbes for those appropriate adjectives).

So Jesus is fully human – not some ghost or apparition or hologram. And he’s fully divine. 100% of both. This 100% of humanity is the real miracle here. It’s impossible for God not to be 100% divine (God wouldn’t be God without the perfect batting average). But it’s very possible (indeed, likely) to be less than fully human. Jesus succeeded in realizing this unlikely full humanity, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so special. His life and his example teach us to be fully human.

If we aren’t fully human now, what takes up the rest of the space? In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains this question well. Lewis calls us “toy soldiers.” We begin as automatons – clockwork beings in need of winding and direction. But God doesn’t want toy soldiers. God wants sons and daughters to love and adopt as God’s children. Jesus’ example and his grace enable us to move through the messy, painful, joyous process of outgrowing our clockwork. Only by becoming fully human, can we fully embrace God’s love for humanity. If we can recognize God’s love for humanity, perhaps we can love other humans, as well.