1 Samuel 3-10, 19
1 Cor 6:13-20
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Several years ago I was sitting at Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti when a man sat down next to me to talk. His mind was on Heaven. I had known him for years as a longtime volunteer at the Franciscan Apostolate in which I was now serving. He was someone of exceptional goodwill and a close friends of Fr. Rick Freschette, CP, the physician and living saint who practices medicine among the poorest of the poor in Citee Soleil, a most dangerous area of Haiti. I sat in the airport looking into his face — a broad face with twinkling blue eyes, a well-practiced smile, and ruddy complexion in which I saw his Irish ancestors. He had lived most of his life, being now in his late sixties, and I knew him to be always an open personality, down-to-earth, and kindly.
He got right to the point: "Father," he said, "I just can't believe that God would keep anyone out of Heaven."
And I thought to myself, "Surely, here is a man after God's own heart — who sees good in each person, who lovingly serves the poor in Haiti when he can. We knew him to give freely from his resources. And now his concern was for the eternal welfare of his fellow citizens on earth.
"What a wonderful prospect!" I replied. "As the great Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, 'Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?'"
"Yeah, Father! That it! Everyone is saved!"
"But Ned," I replied, "Heaven is as at least as deep and complicated a subject as people are. Here's what I mean: Are there any rough neighborhoods in Heaven? You've been in Newark and Detroit and Baltimore and Philadelphia. Are there any rough neighborhoods in Heaven?"
"Father!," he laughed at my foolishness. "It's Heaven! There's no rough neighborhoods in Heaven!"
"But, Ned, if everyone goes to Heaven, that means that are just as many bad people in Heaven as there are on earth .... in fact, many, many more, for no one in Heaven ever dies."
"No, no, no, no, Father!" he laughed again. "There's no one bad in Heaven! ... because God makes everyone good!"
"Hmmmm. God makes everyone good. Ned, that doesn't sound like Heaven to me. It sounds more like a wealthy boy's playroom filled with robots that he controls from his remote."
"No, no, no! Heaven's not filled with robots! Heaven is .... Heaven!"
"I don't know, Ned. It seems to me there are only two alternatives: if God opens the Gates of Heaven to everyone, no matter what they're like, then Heaven is going to be full of thugs. If God makes everyone good, then Heaven is full of robots. The question is, which do you want? Thugs or robots?"
After a period of silence, I said, "You know, Ned, you've opened up a door into understanding the ways of God. And you've done something else: you've begun to explore the destructive nature of heresy, of all heresies. In this particular case, Univeralism is the heresy that claims all people go to Heaven. But to follow down this path is to reveal our God as being not the all-wise, all-loving God, Whom we adore, but rather as a kind of puppet master. We've already seen that if God were to bring all the citizens of earth into Heaven, then it makes no sense for there to be a Heaven, for we'd already be in it ... except that it goes on forever. No different from own world ... including all the cruel perversion, crime, and, yes, rough neighborhoods. Yet, for Heaven to be sanitized, God making everyone good ... we would be living in a police state where mind control is practiced. Everyone would be stripped of their dignity, of their own ideas and choices and creativity, of their freedom. And, here, we enter a Twilight Zone where a mad king sits alone and controls his lifeless creatures in an enormous playroom." G.K. Chesterton, the Anglo-Catholic-turned-Roman-Catholic said, "Hell is God's great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice." Imagine that: Hell is the inevitable result, not of a decision to impose certain punishments upon bad people, but rather as an outcome — an outcome of being assured the life of feelings, of choice, of freedom, of .... all that goes into truly, heavenly life. God has made us to be like Himself — to love, and love is always freely chosen; to create, and creativity is always an outcome of total freedom; to live forever, and what would eternal life be if it were not first endowed with freedom?
That conversation between two sincere hearts, shared in a spirit of creativity, of freedom, and of love, was really among three, including our Lord, Who is always present where two or three are gathered together in His name. And it comes back to me frequently. From time to time, I will hear someone say in sage and self-assured tones, "God is control." And I think to myself, "Well, after a fashion.: If the twentieth-century — with its nuclear weapons; its vast evils of holocausts and two world wars; its public pornography and widespread drug use; its average of one million aborted children per year (from 1970 to 2000); its destruction of personal dignity, family life, and the holiness of the Church — has taught us anything, it has taught us that God will not wrest control of the world away from us. For to do so would be to abridge His gift to us of freedom rendering us robots in the mad king's playroom or, at best, nervous citizens living in a police state. As Psalm 115 teaches, "The Heavens are the Lord's Heavens, / but the earth He has given to the sons of men." He has granted us the precious gift of complete freedom, and upon this gift everything must depend.
What is the path to Heaven, then? What is the nature of our salvation? This is the real subject laid before this morning in our lectionary readings. Our God is a calling God. And His essential nature is relationship, as the Holy Trinity reveals of Him, then it follows that He leads us through relationship, calls us into relationship ... with Him.
Or to say it differently, if He does sweep everyone into Heaven, whatever our manner of life and thinking and being and doing might be, then how are we to spend eternity with Him? And the answer is simple: we spend eternity with Him and with the Watchers and Holy Ones but becoming more and more like them and Him day by day. Do you remember the thirteenth-century prayer of Richard of Chichester:
Day by day,
O dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see Thee more clearly.
Follow Thee more nearly.
Love Thee more dearly.
Day by day.
We are born into a great adventure. From the time of our youth, it is obvious. We are born into a great spiritual journey. From the time of our adolescence, we feel it pressing upon us with its wonder and urgency. Really, nothing but that is good enough. And there are those present this morning who responded in their adolescence and continue on that wonderful journey. We must respond! We must take this journey! But how do we do this? Where do we begin? In which direction do we go? Why, none of these decisions is ours to make. He calls us! Our task is to listen. Our task, like Samuel's, is to listen! "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!" Like Andrew's and Peter's and John's and James', our task is to follow. He will teach us! "Teach us, Rabboni, for we are listening!" And what will He teach us? Well, .... no body of teachings, no canon for living, no manner of life, in the history of humankind, is more widely known, and might say, practiced, than the life in Christ. Everyone knows!
If we should choose to follow Him as billions of billions have, then He will help. No, He won't wrest control and direct the course of our personal histories, but once you have conformed your life to His commandments, once you have decided to walk in His holy ways (and it is a process), once you have made His Book of Life your daily life plan, soon you will become aware of His presence in your life, for He will write messages to you on the walls of your daily experience. He will protect you and will supply your needs .... yes, and even bring about miraculous things. He will not cause you to win the lottery — indeed, His own condition of life on earth was as simple man (a very simple man). In fact, He ordered His followers to deny themselves and pick up their cross daily, but He will protect all the ones who are willing to do this and who are journeying toward Him. If He has chosen you to be His instrument, the instrument to bring about the work that He purposes, then He will prosper you in doing these works, for they are His works. In fact, that is famously His constant concern: the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
I will never forget the words of a very wise nun, who was my spiritual guide in seminary.
I was on my way out of her office after a long heart-to-heart chat.
As I walked to the door and placed my hand on the door knob, she said,
"Remember, Stephen, following God is the last great adventure."
My words for all of you today are,
"Embark on this great adventure,
for to miss it is to miss your life and all it was meant to be."
How many times have we prayed in the Psalms,
"Behold, O Lord, Your servant comes.
And he seeks to do Your will."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Ghost. Amen.