Rabbi Mendel wanted to know what heaven and hell were like. The prophet Elijah came to him, the story goes, and took the rabbi to show him. Elijah led him into a large room where a big fire was burning and where there was a large table with a huge pot of steaming stew on it. People were sitting around the table with spoons that were longer than their arms, and because they could not eat with these spoons, they sat around the table and starved. Rabbi Mendel found this room and what he saw there so terrifying that he quickly ran outside. Then Elijah took Rabbi Mendel into another large room where a big fire was burning and where there was a large table with a huge pot of steaming stew on it. Around this table sat people with spoons that were longer than their arms, but no one starved there; they were feeding each other.
I have long loved this story for its simplicity and wisdom. There’s a big, welcoming fire, a table with room for all, and plenty of food. The only difference between the two scenes, and what a vast difference it is, is whether or not we realize that all thrive and flourish once we begin to see and respond to each other’s needs. Hell is the insatiable desire to take what I need from the pot; hell is solitary starvation. Heaven is receiving the gift of life and sharing it; heaven is communion.
John the Seer of Patmos wrote a letter to seven churches in seven cities in the Roman province of Asia, in what is today Turkey. His letter was included in Scripture as the book of Revelation. John was not a man of few words when it came to describing what is ultimately real in life. He left the pithy tale of spoons too long to feed ourselves for others to tell, in less troubling times; in his own day the air was too thick with fear and foreboding and the threat of persecution, and so he reached deep into the rich treasury of the biblical prophets for his images and he made full use of the whole palette of Jewish apocalyptic tradition to add color to his grand portrayal of what is ultimately real in life.
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
It doesn’t get any grander than this. The center aisle stretches from heaven to earth and here comes the bride, the new Jerusalem – this is what is ultimately real in life: the faithfulness of God; the covenant God has made with humanity; the holy city where God is at home among humans.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
What has passed away, is the world oppressed by sin and death. What abides is joy; what abides is life that is nothing but life. The consummation of creation and the fulfillment of God’s every promise is the city where God and the peoples of the earth are at home.
Perhaps you are surprised that John’s last vision of ultimate destiny for humanity is not some idyllic paradise garden but a city. Perhaps you are surprised that at the end of our long exile east of Eden humanity doesn’t go back to the garden but through the gates of the new Jerusalem. To me this suggests that God doesn’t replace human civilization and its complexities of social, economic, and political life, but redeem our efforts to live in community.
For many of us, the big story of this past week was the death of Prince, but I want to tell a much humbler tale. I want to tell it and lift it up for God’s redeeming grace to touch it, or rather touch us and our efforts to live in community.
On Thursday morning, work crews from Metro Parks arrived at Fort Negley Park and began clearing out the abandoned portions of homeless encampments, leaving alone the portions still occupied. Some of the campers hadn’t left after a deadline set by Metro for the encampment to disband last Friday. It’s a very difficult situation for the workers, the campers, and the people trying to find housing or shelter space for them. “I wish they would leave this open,” said 22-year-old Nora Braud, who camps at the site with her father and husband. “We go to work. We come back. We go to bed. We don’t bother nobody.” But Metro wants to go ahead and build new trails and an outdoor classroom for the Adventure Science Center after having delayed action for months.
It’s a very difficult situation. More than 2,200 people live on the streets in Nashville. 24 percent of homeowners and 46 percent of renters in our city pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing and are considered cost burdened; they are much more likely to have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. In the past six years, Nashville’s population has grown by almost 7 percent. Housing prices are going up and the wages of the working poor are not. 14,000 individuals and families in Nashville are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing. Samuel Lester is a street outreach worker with Open Table Nashville. Witnessing the events at the camp on Thursday morning he told the Tennessean,
It’s heartbreaking to hear their stories and see the trauma they’ve been through and then see the destruction of the little sanity they’ve found. We want to see them in housing. Compared to living on the street they have a little community here, shelter ... people to watch their things. We know where to find them. But once they are dispersed it’s very difficult to get in touch with them.
I’m not telling this story and sharing these numbers to assign blame or to shame those of us who have plenty of room in our house for a homeless couple and their cat. I’m telling this story because many forces are shaping our life in this community, powerful forces that can make our acts of compassion seem so insignificant; we want to build a city where the poor aren’t constantly pushed to the margins and out of sight, but our efforts seem so small compared to everything else that’s going on. I want us to remember that heartbreaking as this story is, it also points to what is ultimately real; in Samuel’s words, “They have a little community here, shelter ... people to watch their things. We know where to find them.” Small efforts to build community and help each other out often are disrupted by other forces, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. We know that it matters a lot when we dip our spoon in the huge pot of steaming stew and reach across the table.
The Lord says in John’s vision, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” This is not a new thing the Lord is about to do. This is who God is and always has been and forever will be. The Giver of the water of life. Life is God’s love overflowing into creation and filling our hearts to draw us into communion with God. All our giving happens in response to God’s unceasing gift. Every small effort to build community with love. Every dollar given to provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and good water for all. Every hour given to strengthen the fellowship of believers where God’s vision of life is received, explored and embodied.
John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. In chapter 19, the bride is described as “clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” and John adds, “the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:8). The holy city is God’s gift, he tells us, but part of its beauty are the acts of compassion we have offered in our lifetime, part of its splendor are our steps toward neighborly justice. None of that is ever wasted; it becomes part of the city architecture; it becomes jewelry for the bride. And if the city of the redeemed is the world’s ultimate destiny, then every thought, move or deed in some other direction, no matter how disruptive and powerful it may appear, is out of step with reality and finally wasted. What abides is the city that reflects the love of God in glorious splendor.
 See Dorothee Soelle, The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984), 159-160; modified.