Heaven Knows

Luke 20: 27-38

The high school I went to had a forensic team. I don’t know whether schools even have forensic competitions anymore. Forensics was a fancy name for formal debating done by school teams in structured competitions. It was kind of like paddle tennis, but instead of balls, you used words. You scored points in verbal volleys back and forth over the net of some assigned topic.

Jesus frequently engaged in debating according to the gospels, usually with the Pharisees. It seems he was pretty good at it and not easily caught off guard by questions that were intended to stump him.

In the passage we just read from Luke, a group of Sadducees approached Jesus. The Sadducees were a sect within first century Judaism. The Sadducees were religious rivals of the Pharisees, with the Sadducees being the more conservative theologically. They relied on the first five books of our Bible for guidance, what they called “the Law of Moses.” And in those five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – there was no mention of life after death. So the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, as Luke pointedly lets us know at the start of today’s story.

The Sadducees were masters at debate and used the “Law of Moses” to score theological points for their side. When they heard Jesus teaching in the temple, they hatched a plan to challenge him with a very tricky question. With a crowd of people listening, they quoted a law from Deuteronomy. This law specified family obligations owed to a childless widow: If a deceased husband had a brother, it was the brother’s duty to marry the widow and produce children in his dead brother’s name. It was, all in all, a compassionate law, but the Sadducees made it ridiculous by multiplying it out and turning it into a riddle.

The Sadducees posed a hypothetical situation in which a man died leaving no children. The man had seven brothers. Each one in turn marries the widow according to the law and then dies without producing any offspring. Finally the widow herself dies. The question they put to Jesus then was: “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?” The question, of course, was nonsensical. All the Sadducees wanted to do was to trip Jesus up and cast doubt on the idea of resurrection. You can almost hear them trying to stifle their laughter. “Let this guy from Nazareth try to get out of this one!”

It’s interesting that in constructing their resurrection riddle, the Sadducees made the basic assumption that life in the hereafter in heaven would pretty much be a continuation of this world. We sometimes like to think of heaven that way, don’t we? For golfers, heaven might be like having a free membership to Augusta or Pebble Beach and never having to wait for a tee time. For lovers of classical music, heaven might be imagined as a place where you could go to different concert halls to see and hear the likes of Mozart and Beethoven performing.

How might you imagine heaven?

I think it’s fair to say, that while none of us know what awaits us in the beyond we call heaven, we do have a reluctance to leave behind the good stuff of this life we know on earth. Which was precisely the problem of one Fergus McDermot O’Donnell – according to a wonderful story told by Father Andrew Greeley in his autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest (p. 502-506). It is an Irishman’s story, so it’s a little more than a bit long, and I ask your patience. Father Greeley told it more or less like this, saying, “You must imagine it being told with a thick, if quite phony, Irish brogue.” So here it tis…

Fergus McDermot O’Donnell was a very good and great king of the Kingdom of Kerry in the west of Ireland. There was such peace and prosperity in the Kingdom of Kerry during the half century that he ruled; his subjects were of one voice in calling him “Fergus the Good.”

But at last he grew old as we all must, and his health failed, and he knew he was going to die. So he summoned his counselors and his warriors, his poets and his priests, and ordered his servants to carry him out to the meadow in front of his ring fort. There he said a tearful goodbye to his wife of fifty years, his children, his grandchildren, and a little blond-haired great granddaughter of three years. Then, as life was slipping away, he looked out at the green hills, the golden fields and the silver lakes of the Kingdom of Kerry and, in the moment before he commended his soul to God, scooped up in his right hand a clump of the thick, rich Kerry turf.

Well, the next thing he knew, he stood before the gates of a very big city with great ivory walls and a great gold and silver gate. In front of the gate was a man, dressed in white robes and wearing a triple crown, peering at the screen of a laptop computer.

“Now who would you be,” asked St. Peter barely looking up, “and what might you be wantin’?”  “Well, says the king, respectful, but unafraid, “I am King Fergus McDermot O’Donnell, King of Kerry, and if it’s all the same to you, I wouldn’t mind it a bit if you would let me into that city.”

St. Peter then keyed several entries into his computer, only to see the screen suddenly go blank. This forced him to start over – and proves that even heavenly infallibility stops where computers begin. Eventually the screen revealed the information that King Fergus McDermot O’Donnell was a most acceptable entrant, most acceptable indeed. And scarcely were those words flashed on the screen when the great silver and gold gates began to spring open on their hinges. It was at that moment that St. Peter spotted the clump of turf in the king’s right hand, causing him to manually override the computer and temporarily re-close the gates. Said St. Peter to the king: “While the grace of God has seen to it that you don’t have to come here with clean hands, you do have to come in with empty hands. Didn’t anybody ever tell you: ‘You can’t take it with you?’ And so what would it be that you are holding so tightly in your hand there? “Tis nothing but a wee bit of Kerry turf, the better to remind me of home,” answered the king.

“Well, whatever it is, you can’t have it here. Against the rules, you know. I don’t make them, but neither can I change them. Drop the dirt and follow me,” countered St. Peter.

Thus commenced a small (but most respectful) argument, following which St. Peter and the king agreed to disagree. Thus, also, were the gates left shut, with the king on the outside, still clinging to his precious clump of turf. But not for long.

A few minutes later the big silver and gold gates swung open and God himself strode out, big and tall. The Lord God embraced the king, slapping him on the back as good friends do. Then in a rich baritone voice, he said, “Faith, it’s good to see you, Fergus me boy; we’ve been waiting up a long time for you. Come on right in, we’ll have a wee talk about how difficult it is to be king. Just toss aside that little bit of Kerry turf and come on in. There’ll be the singing and dancing and the telling of tales all night long.”

But even for the Lord God, Fergus McDermot O’Donnell was not about to drop his handful of Kerry turf. He could be a most stubborn man when he got his back up. But the Lord God can be devious, and will stop at nothing to get us into the heavenly city. So the gates parted and God emerged a second time, dressed as an Irish countryman in a gray suit and brown sweater, neither of which appeared to have been cleaned or pressed for forty years. He approached Fergus McDermot O’Donnell, engaging him in pleasant conversation. There was the promise of a warm, cozy fire and a few sips of something Irish over ice (which, said the Lord in a disguised voice, “doesn’t hurt you up here.”) Then the Lord God added: “We can get on with this conversation if you’ll just drop that little bit of dirt and come inside.” But the ploy failed to take into account the stubbornness of the king, and his absolute devotion to this last remaining vestige of Kerry.

So one last time did the Lord God appear, this time disguised as a blond three year old little girl looking for all the world like the king’s great granddaughter. Said the colleen to the king: “O King Fergus, they’re having such a wonderful party inside for all the little kids, but I can’t go unless I can find a grownup who will take me. Would you ever think of being my grown up?” Deeply moved, the king inquired: “You can’t find another grown up?” “No, not at all,” she answered. “So if you’ll just put down your silly old sod, we can both go to the party.”

At this point the king lashed out, saying, “I’ll not be taken in by your tricks. You’re not a wee lass. You’re the Lord God in disguise. And I won’t come in without me Kerry turf, and don’t repeat the rules, I know them by heart.” And with tears in her eyes, the little blond colleen went back into the heavenly city and the gates clanged behind her. Night came, and with it the dark. And with the dark, the cold. And with the cold, the rain. And with the rain, the turf began to crumble in and turn to mud. Which made King Fergus McDermot O’Donnell, King of Kerry, west of Ireland, feel like a fool. And old, cold fool. So darned if he didn’t swallow his pride, stroll over to St. Peter (who was nearly asleep at his computer by now) and toss the remainder of the turf on the ground.

Whereupon the gates swung open and the king walked through…with dirty, but empty, hands. And do you know what he found inside? Sure, you do. Inside the gates, waiting for Fergus McDermot O’Donnell were the green hills, the golden fields and the silver lakes of the Kingdom of Kerry.

You can see the point of the story coming a mile away, of course. But that doesn’t diminish its power once it gets there. The issue here is not the literal truth of the story’s heavenly vision. No one is pretending that heaven is a replication of Kerry, Killarny, or even Keokuk (Iowa) for that matter. The point of the story seems to be that heaven will preserve and enhance those qualities, those experiences and those relationships which are, and have been, most precious to us.

Which brings me back around to Luke’s story. Remember where we left off? The Sadducees had challenged Jesus with a conundrum about the hereafter. But Jesus, good debater that he was, responded to the deeper question contained in their foolish question. Giving one indication of what heaven is like, he replied in effect, that in heaven we’ll experience a different way of being. That heaven was not going to just be more of the same strung out forever. He said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

You’ll notice that while Jesus does say that marriage will cease to be as we know it in heaven — he does not say that the love we know will cease to be. The Bible is very modest about describing what heaven may or may not be like. But very much implied in scripture is the notion that beyond this life, in new life with God, there will be other ways of expressing love, experiencing love, giving and receiving love.

The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Corinth, “I 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.”

“We will all be changed in the twinkling of an eye.” A wonderful phrase that hints at how our way of being will be different in heaven. In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells of a Benedictine sister keeping vigil at the bedside of her dying mother. She seeks to comfort her mother saying, “In heaven everyone we love is there.” But her mother gently tells her, “No, in heaven I will love everyone who is there.” (p. 367) The mother somehow knows that heaven will not merely be the fulfillment of her desires. Somehow she knows that she will be changed, and love will abide all around.

The Bible does not give us literal details of heaven, but it does give us a sure and certain promise. We are promised new life with Jesus in that house of God with many rooms. And for me, no promise is more comforting, and none more certain, than when we die God will carry us home and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever…where I do believe we will see our loved ones and know holy love.

What will it be like? Can’t say. What might it look like? Don’t know. What kind of room and dining arrangements will there be? Heaven knows. We’ll just have to wait to find out.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.