When I was 6 years old, my mom took me with her to Ohio to visit her cousin that she had been close to as a little girl. It was my first experience of traveling by plane. While I don’t remember it with great clarity, my mom loved to tell the story of how when we began to crest the clouds, I turned to her and said with big eyes, “Mom, are we in heaven?” I suppose my vision of heaven was similar to a lot of children whose imaginations saw God sitting in the clouds with angels flying all around. Later in my life, I remember hearing old time Appalachian hymn tunes based on Revelation describing heaven as having streets paved with gold and a river with the water of life running through it. While these visions are dreamy, they actually differ from Jesus’ descriptions.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, we see Jesus describing the kingdom of heaven to a crowd who had gathered to hear him teach. In this sermon by a lake, Jesus says that “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus’ descriptions are not about heavenly visions, but rather portray heaven dressed in earthy tones: a field, hidden treasure, and a pearl of great value. Just prior to this passage in Matthew’s gospel we hear other metaphors: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like yeast added to flour for leaven. Instead of describing a fantasy, Jesus is clothing the kingdom of heaven in a way that makes it accessible for his audience. In this way, Jesus says that the kingdom is not distant, but rather, directly in front of their very eyes.
This morning we celebrate the patron saint of nuns, Saint Scholastica. She was born in central Italy sometime in the late fifth century. Her twin brother was Saint Benedict of Nursia.
Scholastica and Benedict were not only twins, they also shared a beautiful lifelong friendship. The religious communities they each founded separately were just a few miles from each other. Scholastica, however, was forbidden by rule to set foot inside of Benedict’s monastery. So once a year, Scholastica and Benedict would arrange to meet in a farmhouse just outside the monastery grounds.
Scholastica and Benedict would use this yearly meeting to pray together and discuss the issues of their lives as religious. There are many beautiful works of art portraying this yearly reunion. I spent the retreat day yesterday praying with some. I noticed that the one thing that nearly all these works of art have in common is that Benedict and Scholastica are always face to face, fully engaged in their conversation. My personal favorite example of this was from a fresco in a Benedictine monastery in Germany. In this fresco, the twins are seated at a table with a Bible and a skull in between them. They are both leaning over the Bible and skull with their hands and faces expressive in mid conversation. You get the feeling that they are both trying to squeeze out as much as they can from their one day a year together.
So what can we learn from this beautiful friendship rooted in God between Scholastica and Benedict? I will name three things:
One, a friendship rooted in God is timeless. I think we have all had the experience of not seeing a friend for many years but when you finally do see them, it feels like no time has passed. It’s a wonderful feeling of timelessness and I think Scholastica and Benedict felt this way when they saw each other each year.
Two, a friendship rooted in God has stamina. Every relationship over time has its peaks and valleys and I think it’s safe to say Scholastica and Benedict’s friendship was no different. The fact that they met every year for their entire lives shows how their friendship was able to endure through the ups and downs we are all subject to.
Third and finally, a friendship rooted in God gives us a foretaste of heaven. The yearly reuniting of Scholastica and Benedict is just a sample of the joyful banquet that awaits all of us in the communion of saints. The joy we will feel being reunited with our loved ones is simply beyond our understanding.
So today let us pray with Saint Scholastica and her Brother Benedict, and give thanks for the joys of friendship. Amen.
One of the appealing characteristics of Father Benson, but also surely one of the more baffling for many, perhaps also for you, was his grasp of a heavenly reality, in the midst of a worldly existence. We know the famous story of the old woman, when asked is she could understand his preaching responded, that gentleman just opens heaven to me, and I can look right in.
Over and again, Father Benson calls us to an awareness of this heavenly reality. He writes, [do] I realize to myself that as I pray, I am truly in heaven, and that I ought to be experiencing the joys of heaven? If we would but look to heaven with more consciousness of present joy therein, we should find its power to set us free from earthly difficulty.
It is this consciousness of the present joy of heaven that was a motivating factor in much of his life. Reading Philippians, as we do today, he would have been perfectly comfortable with the notion that our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.
Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages. Amen.
You will know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We have before us an icon depicting God, the Holy Trinity, whose description is beyond words. This icon was actually painted (or “written”) by our own departed brother Eldridge Pendleton.[i]The icon is in the school of Andrei Rublev, whom we commemorate today. Andrei Rublev, born around 1365 near Moscow, became a monk at a young age, and is generally recognized as Russia’s greatest iconographer.[ii]
Some of you may come from a tradition where icons – these windows to God – were very much a part of your own religious formation. For some of us, icons offer new and inviting ways to gaze on God and God’s company. For others of us, icons may seem to skirt the Old Testament prohibition against creating “graven images.” We read in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath…”[iii]However if we read the Scriptures backwards, that is, to take our experience of Jesus Christ, and then look backwards in the Scriptures, we have a new reading of the old. The New Testament Letter to the Colossiansbegins with a description of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God.”[iv]The actual Greek is, “He is the icon [eikon] of the invisible God.” Jesus puts a face, a body, a name, a heart, and hands to the otherwise “invisible God.” Jesus is the icon of the invisible God.
We don’t pray to the icons. We pray in their presence. Rather than always closing our eyes and folding our hands in prayer, we lift up the eyes of our hearts in the presence of an icon. Icons feed the imagination in a very good way. The word “icon” has, of course, been added to our online vocabulary and use. So be it. The ubiquitous use of “icons” in marketing only shows how powerful a “capturing image” can be. There’s no reason for the word “icon” to be completely coopted. We can share. Keep the traditional use of this word, icon, as an important word in the vocabulary of your soul.
What’s heaven going to be like? Do you ever wonder? Have you ever had any glimpses of heaven? For me, one of the times I’ve glimpsed heaven has been those wonderful meals you share with really good friends, where you eat and drink and chat and laugh for hours and hours, and it seems just a few minutes. And you never want the meal to end.
And in Scripture, heaven is very often described in terms of a great meal – a feast – a banquet. And so in our readings today. “On this mountain,” writes Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.” And then in our Psalm today, Psalm 23, we read those lovely words, “You spread a table before me…You have anointed my head with oil and my cup is running over.” And in today’s Gospel we have this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”