“On earth as in heaven.” As in “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The words “on earth as in heaven” are not in Luke’s version of the gospel for today, nor the phrase “your will be done,” but they are in Matthew’s longer account of the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s those five words—“on earth as in heaven”—of the most-often-prayed prayer for over 2000 years that I’m concerned with today. Jesus left us with a directive to ask for God’s kingdom, reign, dominion to be on earth where we live, and not just in some misty far-distant utopia. It is all but impossible to see “on earth as in heaven” right now, considering current events in our nation and the world. Especially in a crisis, even to hope for God’s dominion on earth is difficult. Has that part of the prayer been answered?
There is a place in the far-away continent of Africa where a sprawling estate sits near the Nile River. It was once the country home and game lodge of the former dictator known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” Idi Amin, who ordered the deaths of 300,000 in his country before he was forced into exile in 1979. This country home abandoned four decades ago, this place that once hosted hunting parties for big game in the surrounding savannah, is now inhabited only by the local population—of animals.
As seen in a recent episode of Nature on PBS, “a family of warthogs has taken up residence in the kitchen, a clan of baboons opted for a room with a view of the Nile. Porcupines have made a den under the stairs, which means the bats that hang out there are reconsidering their roommate choices”—porcupines? or pangolins? “A curious warthog piglet wanders off in the night and gets lost in the maze of rooms. A leopard finds the piglet, usually an irresistible snack, but remarkably, after sniffing and a little prodding, the leopard leaves the squealing piglet unharmed. Inside these walls there seem to be rules against eating other guests.” Even hyenas and lions roam among the rooms. “Once a harbor of dark history,” this place has been transformed into a paradise for wildlife. It has been resurrected by an unseen hand into a higher potential, where natural predators coexist. It has become a peaceable kingdom, on earth as in heaven.
There is a road on the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri, where I used to jog. It was on that road in the 1970s when “on earth as in heaven” became the seeds of my own resurrection. Bob’s two daughters, then ages 14 and 15, had come to live with my 11-year-old daughter, Bob, and me. Our marriage was still quite young, and so was I! Early 30s. Becoming a stepmother to two troubled teenagers completely overwhelmed me. The one big happy blended family idea was sheer fantasy. And so it was that on one of my morning runs I found myself shouting at God: “Why aren’t you helping me? Where are you? If you’re real, then I need your help now, not after I die! I’m just not buying this pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-bye-and-bye-when-I-die business. I don’t care about going to heaven when I die, because I’m in hell right now. I need help, NOW!” Not exactly the pious version of “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but it was probably the most honest prayer I’ve ever prayed. Nothing I could perceive happened to me that day on the road. No mystical revelations or comforting emotional consolations. Nothing happened—except, I kept on running...home to the mountain of dirty laundry on the basement floor. Nothing happened—except that somehow, when I thought my life was over, I kept on living. Somehow, I kept on functioning, not well most days, but still managing to continue graduate school and build my nursing career and endure the difficult home situation. Only after years of reflecting on that period in my life did I assign the meaning of that angry prayer as my coming to consciousness, my awakening to God’s presence and work of transformation in me. Of course, God had been there all along, I just didn’t know it. Not until desperation brought me to the end of myself did I begin to wake up, to begin to hear and see. “I once was lost”—to myself, but never to God—“but now am found. Was blind”—to God’s presence—but now I see.” On earth as in heaven.
Not everyone can identify such a turning point in their lives. Sometimes the process of coming to consciousness of God’s love is so gradual and so gentle that it goes largely unnoticed. God’s ways of growing us are different for everyone. A great deal of harm has been inflicted in the name of pride of being able to name a specific date or place when we were “saved” or “born again.” The thoughtful, loving approach toward evangelism espoused by the Episcopal Church and, more notably, Jesus of Nazareth, does not ask for one single signpost. We speak instead of a journey, and we rely on a very inefficient but far more gracious method of conversion and transformation that is incarnational, meaning that the message comes through people living the gospel of God’s love, just as Jesus did.
But that road in Missouri is where I look back and know that God heard my anger and despair and helplessness. God answered that prayer, not with a dramatic rescue, but with patient, transforming love in small enough doses that I could take it. I use my story as an example of how difficult it is to see our own resurrection, because it has taken forty years of God growing me, until now I am finally able to see something I could never have imagined—a transformation happening in our family. I’m getting to see with my own eyes and experience the meaning of “on earth as in heaven.”
There is another example of “on earth as in heaven” happening now, and that is here in this faith community. As a latecomer to this church, I’m not sure I have the right to interpret what you went through, but I’ll risk it anyway. You may not have realized that this church as a community has taken on the character of our patron saint, Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen was killed because of his preaching of the gospel of God’s love. Stephen was martyred because he lived what he preached. Stephen died for what he believed was right. This community as a group experienced a death. This parish died to who and what it was before. You experienced it as individuals, but it was the death of a collective. Perhaps you thought of it in terms of a divorce, which is the death of a covenant relationship. Only this was divorce or death of many covenant relationships with other Christians. As with Stephen, as with the parties involved in the dissolution of a marriage, there was death. And as Jesus showed us, resurrection cannot happen unless there is first death.
But resurrection is hard to recognize, particularly our own. “On earth as in heaven” is very difficult to see—until it gets personal. Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus as the Risen Christ, until he called her by name. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus failed to recognize Jesus until he performed the simple action they’d seen him do many times of blessing and breaking bread for them.
If you were here fifteen years ago, you may not have named what this parish went through as death. And we need not try to pinpoint the exact date or place when resurrection began to happen for St. Stephen’s Church. My own experience suggests that promised resurrection for this community began soon after the death or divorce occurred: when, as a group, you put one foot in front of the other and kept on going, faithfully meeting each week in homes and saying your prayers together. You who lived through that time may not have been able to see it because of your grief. But gradually the signs of resurrection became visible, and continue to this day.
I’m not sure increased Sunday attendance and a higher operating budget—metrics that fit neatly in parochial reports—are necessarily signs of resurrection. Let’s not linger where it is so comfortable with a temporal definition of success. Rather, I hope we keep praying “your kingdom come, your will be done.” Maybe we can catch glimpses of resurrection in the renewed energy among us. My sense is that this community has faced our history without a nostalgia that yearns for what is past, a nostalgia that often leads to playing church rather than being church. I see resurrection in a community that did not stay stuck in our Good Friday, but has moved on with humble thanksgiving for God’s unseen purposes in that day...the unseen purposes that can be glimpsed in knowing we’ll never be the same again, and trusting that whatever that resurrection turns out to be, it will be better than we can imagine.
Please open your hymnal to hymn 615. We sang the first three verses as the Gradual hymn just before the gospel lesson. I’d like to invite you to read aloud with me, or just listen if you prefer, to all five verses:
1. “Thy kingdom come!” on bended knee the passing ages pray; and faithful souls have yearned to see on earth that kingdom’s day.
2. But the slow watches of the night not less to God belong; and for the everlasting right the silent stars are strong
3. And lo, already on the hills the flags of dawn appear; gird up your loins, ye prophet souls, proclaim the day is near:
4. the day to whose clear shining light all wrong shall stand revealed, when justice shall be throned in might, and every hurt be healed;
5. when knowledge, hand in hand with peace, shall walk the earth abroad; the day of perfect righteousness, the promised day of God.
There is a place—in Uganda, along the Nile River, a place where the murder of animals and humans once profaned God’s creation, a place now resurrected into a peaceable kingdom. On earth as in heaven. If it happened in Uganda, maybe something just as amazing and beautiful could happen in this country.
There is a road—in Missouri, where a desperate young woman angrily surrendered to a God she didn’t really trust only to become conscious of the slow, painful-at-times process that continues to this day of discovering on earth as in heaven. My own redemption never looked like what I expected, and yours may not look like what you expect either. Maybe there is such a road in your life too. There is a church community—more identified with its martyred patron saint than it probably realized. A community that followed even unto death in the footsteps of Stephen, the first Christian to follow even unto death in the footsteps of his Lord Jesus. The path for our transformation, our redemption, our resurrection has been lovingly assigned to us—on earth as in heaven.