My dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit on this beautiful Sabbath day. The Archbishop met with the priests at the leadership training conference Fr. Hertges and I attended recently in order to answer a few questions we had. We met with him in a large room at the American Martyrs retreat house in Cedar Falls. I entered the room right at the time we were supposed to meet and noticed I was one of the last ones to show up. The circle of chairs in which the brothers had sat were almost completely full except for the two places right next to the Archbishop. I started to move a chair from outside the circle when I noticed the Archbishop motion for me to sit next to him on his right hand side. So, I casually strolled over to that chair and sat down on his right. Immediately a million different Biblical verses went through my head. From the Gospel of Matthew, “The Lord said to my lord, "Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet" from the Psalms, “I bless the LORD who counsels me; even at night my heart exhorts me.
I keep the LORD always before me; with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken.” To be someone’s “right hand man” is an expression meaning that you are trusted to completely that they will put you on the side of their body with arm that they would normally use to protect themselves so that you can be the one to protect them. I felt important. I was a pastor and I was important. That feeling of self-importance lasted until I realized that actually it was just that my brother priests are kind of like their parishioners. They wanted to be close to the door so they could be the first ones out of the room.
There’s more to this reading than a simple miss manners lesson on etiquette. Jesus is showing us an image of what it will be like in heaven. What is your image of heaven? I imagine if we were to take a poll, we would all have different answers to that question. The perfect game of golf? The perfect house? A good steak cooked medium rate with corn on the cob and chocolate cake to finish? What if heaven actually was being totally devoid of all of that? No house. No car. No golf. And the way the meals are served, you have to sit next to a stinky, sick, homeless person that coughs a lot. That doesn’t sound much like heaven, does it. And yet, Jesus isn’t giving us advice on how we should set up our dinner conversation. Not even a fundamentalist believes that. Jesus is trying to get us to realize the kind of humility that will be demanded of us in heaven. Heaven isn’t a Subway sandwich shop. You can’t pick and choose what you do want and don’t want in heaven. You just get it the way it is and, to paraphrase what our parents used to say, you’ll be happy with it.
So, what’s the good news about heaven? Why would anyone want to go there if you don’t get to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it? Do you remember what you hated most about Middle School or Junior High, depending upon what they called it when you were there? Remember how it seemed like the only way people could feel good about themselves was by ripping apart everyone around them. You can’t just feel good about yourself because you’re a person created in the image and likeness of God who is loved by God as you are. You have to feel good about yourself by noticing all the flaws of everyone around you and making fun of them for it. The crazy thing is that, even though it’s most intense in Middle School, don’t we sort of keep doing that throughout our lives. We should just feel happy about who we are and the gifts we have been given but we spend an awful lot of time complaining about the people around us. I think part of what Jesus is saying is that heaven will be a place where we don’t care about others having more than we do or being treated better than us, a place where status doesn’t matter and where we learn the freedom of being truly humble. A place where “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”