“Just over the hilltop”
“And Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…. I go to prepare a place for you…. So that where I am, there you may be also.’”
A musician named Ira Stanphill wrote a song in 1949 based on the King James Version of today’s gospel passage. Maybe you know Ira’s old gospel hymn, “Mansion over the Hilltop,” or maybe you haven’t yet heard these words:
I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop
in that bright land where, we’ll never grow old.
And some day yonder, we will never more wander,
but walk on streets that, are purest gold.
The idea behind these words is delayed gratification, a postponed reward for being good here on earth. In the afterlife, this thinking tells us, we each will get what we deserve: a mansion and streets of gold.
I’ll bet you have encountered this kind of “eternal reward” thinking. Sometimes this thinking is used as an excuse to not do the right thing by people. Sort of, “I might not do right by you here and now, but God will fix things for you after you die.” On the other hand, this “eternal reward” thinking looks pretty attractive this week, given the bad things that are happening in the world we are in.
See, I like to think that we are all working hard to make God’s Kingdom a reality right here on Earth in the here and now. I like to think that, as time goes by, people get more enlightened, less phobic, kinder, gentler—you get the picture. But, if so, the forces of darkness are fighting back. School children are coming home scared. People of different faiths are afraid for their lives. Some Christians are even threatening or harming other Christians. Old hate organizations seem to be getting new visibility and new energy.
So, you might be wondering right about now, what does a heavenly mansion “right over the hilltop” have to do with THIS mess our world is in or with Ralph Malcolm? What does a heavenly hilltop city have to do with US?
I wasn’t fortunate enough to have known Ralph. Most of you did. And the glimpses of Ralph that I’ve gotten through your stories is of a man who knew Jesus, a man well-loved by his family and many friends, and respected by his co-workers and trusted by his neighbors, a man on whom you could count. Maybe I haven’t gotten the picture quite right—not a complete saint, perhaps (because who among us is?)—but close enough. A man loved by God his Creator, recognized by Jesus his Redeemer, and motivated by the Holy Spirit to do and be good.
I know this about Ralph, knew it from the moment I met his deeply grieving wife Betty and the roomful of loving neighbors: This is a family that is rich beyond measure right here on earth. This is a family that doesn’t need the lure of gold streets and fancy heavenly mansions to say “yes” to God here in this life. Yes, they are deeply and rightfully grieved at Ralph’s loss. But they know—we know—that we will see Ralph again right over that hilltop, right over yonder, where Jesus has prepared a place for Ralph and for each of us.
I can guess this about Ralph: I’ll bet he didn’t know just how close heaven was to him when he went to bed last Tuesday night. I’ll bet he didn’t think to look right over that metaphorical hilltop and stare death in the face. Few of us do, unless forced to.
But Ralph’s unexpected and untimely death should cause each of us to examine OUR lives to ensure that we know Jesus. Why? So that we, too, can—like Ralph—go forever to a place where sighing and fear and intimidation and pain and death are no more, and where the only measure of our eternal reward is that we will be with Jesus.
I was going to stop here. But I simply cannot. There is another piece of the Ralph-story that needs to be shared, a piece of the Ralph-story that Ralph himself did not know.
Church of the Resurrection has been discerning its future. We started when our average age was 70. Two years later, we still have roughly 100 in church each week, but our average age is now 72. That hilltop seems pretty close for us! So we have discerned new missions: we have begun a food pantry, and we will gift our city with over 100 units of affordable housing as our legacy. The catch is that we will have to vacate this property as a worshiping community, beginning about 2020, to build the housing. I expect that we will thrive wherever nearby we end up worshiping.
Why am I telling you this at Ralph’s funeral? Less than a month ago Church of the Resurrection voted overwhelmingly on this course of action. However, the temptation was to just continue as we are. Do you know that very recently we have had four members die? Ralph was the fifth, shocking US to the core. After all, we might understand 101-year-olds dying, and 98-year-olds, and 87-year olds, and even 75-year olds—but a vitally healthy 62-year old? We now know that we cannot “remain the same” because things change. And yet we grieve!
We are bound together. Ralph’s story and the whole Church of the Resurrection story merge into one when viewed from this perspective: We’ve each got a place, a new place, prepared for us by Christ Jesus himself, just over the hilltop, however close that hilltop might be for us, a place where we will all be one, with each other and with God.