This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.
We all know what heaven looks like, don’t we? It has nothing to do with religion, it’s a part of our popular culture. You go to heaven and you get a long white robe, a halo, a palm frond, and a golden harp. Mark Twain parodied this version of heaven in his book Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. When Stormfield, a crusty stormy old sea captain, finally gets into heaven, after a few misadventures, he gets suited up in proper heavenly fashion, and then goes off to find a cloud:
“When I found myself perched on a cloud, with a million other people, I never felt so good in my life. Says I, ‘Now this is according to the promises; I’ve been having my doubts, but now I am in heaven, sure enough.’ I gave my palm branch a wave or two, for luck, and then I tautened up my harp-strings and struck in….”
But Stormfield knows only one tune, and everyone is playing something different, and after 16 hours of it, it gets pretty tiresome. Stormfield strikes up a conversation with the fellow on the next cloud over, and the fellow says to him:
“‘Are you glad to be here?’
“Says I, ‘Old man, I’ll be frank with you. This AIN’T just as near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used to go to church.’”
So the two of them walk off, dump their robes and harps and halos, and go find something else to do. Now if you want to go to that kind of heaven, and get your white robe, and your golden harp, and your palm branch, and your halo, well, go for it. But I have no interest in going to that kind of heaven, and no particular interest in talking about that kind of heaven.
What if heaven has nothing to do with golden harps, and halos, and white robes, and clouds? What if heaven is not the afterlife? What if heaven is not a place separate from earth? What if heaven is for everyone?
Historically, the Universalist side of our religious tradition affirmed that everyone gets to go to heaven, based on the logical reasoning that if God is indeed good, then God would not damn anyone to eternal torment, since such damnation would be unspeakably evil. This was a radical idea in its day, but the Universalists did not stop there. Many Universalists abandoned traditional ideas of heaven, and began to wonder what it would be like if we could create a heaven on earth, here and now.
Back in 1943, when most of the world was embroiled in war and violence and killing, the Universalist Church of America issued an “Affirmation of Social Principles” which begins as follows: “We Universalists avow our faith in the supreme worth of every human personality, and in the power of me [and women] of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” To progressively establish the Kingdom of God; to progressively establish heaven on earth. Such an ideal does not require a literal belief in either God or heaven; rather, this is a statement that presents us with the possibility that we can truly live out our highest ideals.
Now that we have established what heaven does not look like — no halos, harps, or clouds — we might ask what a Unitarian Universalist heaven might look like. And I have an answer that is of great relevance to us here in Silicon Valley: a Unitarian Universalist heaven might just be the World Wide Web.
Tim Berners-Lee is the fellow that developed the World Wide Web, and as it happens he is also a Unitarian Universalist. Back in 1998 on one of his personal Web pages on the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web site, he posted an essay titled “The World Wide Web and the ‘Web of Life’,” in which he says that although he developed the Web before he discovered Unitarian Universalism, he feels there are parallels between the philosophies underlying each. Unitarian Universalists, says Berners-Lee, “meet in churches instead of wired hotels, and discuss justice, peace, conflict, and morality rather than protocols and data formats, but in other ways the peer respect is very similar to that of the Internet Engineering Task Force. Both are communities which I really appreciate.”
So says Tim Berners-Lee. I would explain it this way: both Unitarian Universalism and the World Wide Web are designed to foster communities based on networks of trust and mutual respect, networks where you are judged by your contributions, not by your age, race, class, or social status. Neither Unitarian Universalism nor the World Wide Web are always successful in fostering those networks of trust, but that’s what they’re designed to do. The fundamental metaphor of each is a web: a web of information and communication for the one, and an interdependent web of all existence for the other. This is an ecological metaphor, which implies that individuals are part of a non-linear, non-hierarchical system; and this metaphor helps us remember that we are all interdependent and interconnected.
I’ll let Tim Berners-Lee tell you how this relates to heaven, although he doesn’t use that word. I’ll intersperse a little commentary among Berners-Lee’s words:
“The is one other thing that comes to mind as common between the Internet folks and the Unitarian Universalists [says Berners-Lee]. The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ‘Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. [Commentary: Just like heaven, the ideal of the Web existed, not as something that would happen later if you were good, but something that could happen now if you put in a little effort.] The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future. It is necessary to Unitarian Universalist philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part. [Commentary: Heaven is like the World Wide Web, it will happen if each of us makes a little effort to make it happen.] Unitarian Universalism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happens is an example of a dream coming true and an encouragement to all who hope.”
If people of good will and sacrificial spirit put their minds to it, they have the power to overcome chaos and evil and progressively make real idealistic utopian visions. By working with, not against, the power of the interdependent web of all existence, we can actually makes our ideals come true.
Believe it or not, this same basic concept can be found among the earliest Christian communities, before the creeds and dogmas mucked everything up. Those early Christians were trying to figure out how to live out the teachings of the rabbi called Jesus. Some of the parables of this rabbi named Jesus seemed to imply that heaven was about to burst upon us, not after death, but really soon, maybe now; in fact, some of those parables could be interpreted as meaning that heaven is happening here and now and you and I can be the causes of it [e.g., Matthew 13.33], or that heaven is happening here and now but its growth is obscured from view [e.g., Mark 4.26-29].
These early Christian communities tried to create institutions that would encourage the emergence of heaven in the here and now. (Mind you, the later creeds and dogmas have obscured much of this from our view, but this really did happen.) Twenty years after Jesus was executed by the Romans, Christian communities had a weekly meal that was central to their worship services; I’m not talking about communion, I’m talking about the agape meal. The idea was that the rich folks would contribute the bulk of the food and drink, so the poor people could come to church and eat their fill. People being what they are, sometimes the rich people, who did not have to go to work, would start early and eat all the food they brought before the poor people showed up after work [1 Cor. 20-21]; Paul of Tarsus chastised the Christian community of Corinth for allowing exactly this kind of behavior. But the ideal was that each person would bring as much food and she or he could, and those who couldn’t afford to bring any food could come and get one good meal each week.
This egalitarian communal meal, which was abandoned by later Christian communities, was a way of living out and actually experiencing the connectedness and interdependence of all humanity. This essential interconnectedness of all humanity was what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven [Bernard Loomer, “Unfoldings II,” pp. 2 ff.]. So the communal meal of early Christian communities was a way of teaching the whole community about the interdependent web of all existence, the Web of Life.
This is not unlike what we do with our second Sunday lunches here in our church. On the second Sunday of the month, Susan Plass and Edie Keating and their helpers put together a meal while the 11:00 worship service is going on. When the 11:00 worship service lets out, we all walk over to the Fireside Room next door, and load up our plates, and sit down at a long table with other people from our church. There is a suggested donation of four dollars to pay for second Sunday lunch. I trust that if someone is waiting in line to eat and cannot afford to pay the four dollars, the people next to him or her will say, Go ahead and eat anyway. And I know that some people contribute more than four dollars, because they have the money and they want to make sure everyone else can eat.
But there is more to the Web of Life than giving food to someone who doesn’t happen to have four dollars in their pocket on the second Sunday of the month. You never know who you’re going to wind up sitting next to at one of these second Sunday lunches. I like them because my partner and I don’t have children, so our second Sunday lunches are about the only times I sit down at a meal with children and teenagers. You might wind up sitting next to someone who grew up in another country, and there’s a good chance you’ll sit next to someone with different skin color than yours. You might wind up sitting next to someone who has a different accent than yours — as someone from eastern Massachusetts, I always wind up sitting next to someone with a strange accent unless I sit next to Phyllis Cassel who also grew up in eastern Massachusetts. This is the beauty of these second Sunday lunches — you wind up sitting near people with whom you might otherwise not share a meal. You understand your place in the diversity of humanity, and you understand how we are all connected and interdependent in the Web of Life.
I would like to return for a moment to Mark Twain’s story about heaven. It turned out all right for Captain Stormfield in the end. He left his cloud, dumped the robe and halo and harp and palm leaf unceremoniously along the road, and eventually winds up running into Sam, an old friend of his, who tells him, “‘It’s the same here [in heaven] as it is on earth — you’ve got to earn a thing, square and honest, before you enjoy it….’” — and when it comes to happiness, Sam tells Captain Stormfield that there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven, too, because, says Sam, “There ain’t a thing you can mention that is happiness in its own self — it’s only so by contrast with the other thing…. Well, there’s plenty of pain and suffering in heaven — consequently there’s plenty of contrasts, and just no end of happiness.” But we don’t need some supernatural heaven in the afterlife; we can institute heaven here on earth. We can, if people of good will and sacrificial spirit work together to progressively establish a world of justice and goodness. As Captain Stormfield might put it, “‘That’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve ever heard of, Sam….”