SERMON: Heaven And Hell — It Is a Matter of the Heart, by C. S. Song

From And Their Eyes Are Opened

On that day, when evening had come, he [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.  Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35:41)

World on Fire: This is the title of a book by Amy Chua, an Asian American professor at Yale Law School.  Amy Chua sets out to show how exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability.  Iraq was on fire.  Afghanistan was on fire.  The World Trade Center was on fire.  The Pentagon in Washington, D.C., was on fire.  Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S.A., with a population of nine million from many ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds and traditions, was on fire in 1992.  The world is on fire!  You have spent the past few years in these relatively peaceful college campuses.  But now you are about to leave the secure confinement of the school campus to enter the world – the world on fire, yes even the world of religions is on fire.  I say this not to frighten you but to help you be prepared.

God Dwells in Your Heart

The world has not, unfortunately, been a peaceful place since the dawn of human civilization.  It has always been on fire.  We recall Homer’s The Odyssey, the ancient Greek literary masterpiece that tells the story of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, “returning from Troy to reclaim his threatened home in Ithaca.”  It vividly depicts “a world of powerful kings, like Agamemnon and Nestor, living in vast, wealthy palaces and in charge of huge armies wielding bronze weapons.”

Or take the Bhagavad Gita, a great religious classic of India written two thousand five hundred years ago.  Arjuna, driven by Krishna the charioteer, incarnation of the Divine in human form, is the great hero of the Gita.  He goes through the spiritual struggle of the soul, as he sees “all his kinsmen on the battlefield,” come to fight him.  He exclaims in anguish:

O day of darkness!  What evil spirit moved our minds when for the sake of an Earthly kingdom we came to this field of battle ready to kill our own people?

As the turmoil develops outside him and the storm of doubt rages within him, Arjuna hears the Lord Krishna speak to him: “God dwells in the hearts of all beings, Arjuna; thy God dwells in thy heart, and his power of wonder moves all things, whirling them onwards on the stream of time.

You and I, all of us, are aware that we move in the stream of time.  We call that stream of time life, and live it in different ways.  We call it history, and try to make sense of it.  We call it destiny, knowing that it is beyond our control.  But the Lord Krishna says to Arjuna that his God dwells in his heart, that the power of that God in him moves all things.  This is an extraordinary message.  You do not merely live your life; you can move it.  You do not just try to make sense of history; you can create history.  You do not accept your destiny as something unchangeable, irreversible, something to which you have to resign yourself; you can change your destiny and remake it.

But there is one condition, the Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: “You must be aware that God dwells in your heart.”  Awareness of God within you!  Have you even reflected on what this means?  Have you ever experienced what difference it would make in what you do?  The trees in your backyard, come springtime, are full of beautiful flowers.  It is not your eyes that notice them first, but your heart.  If there is no awareness of beauty in your heart, no longing for beauty in your heart, you will not notice the beauty of the flowers around you.  Intent on staying healthy, you take brisk walks on the riverbank or jog on the beach.  You do not hear trees whispering secrets of life to you, birds singing joy of life to you, water murmuring mystery of creation to you, because you are not aware of trees, birds, river, or ocean water in your heart.

The heart that does not perceive the beauty of flowers is hell, but the heart that perceives it is Heaven.  The heart that does not notice birds sing is hell, but the heart that hears them is Heaven.  The heart that does not hear water humming a melody as it flows past is hell, but the heart that hears it is Heaven.  Heaven and hell: it is a matter of the heart!  I recall seeing a Christmas card with a picture of a desolate battlefield.  The fierce battle had just been fought.  Almost everything is dead, even nature is dead.  The few trees left standing are scorched, with no single leaf remaining on them.  If there is hell, this is what hell is like.  Then I noticed a robin with red feathers on its bosom perched on one of the leafless branches of a scorched tree.  That tiny robin in that great desolation of the battlefield changes despair to hope, death to life.  That robin is Heaven.  It is Christmas.

Heaven and Hell, It Is a Matter of the Heart

Do you remember the story of Jesus with his disciples on a tiny boat on the lake of Galilee in northern Palestine (Mark 4:35-41)?  When their boat sailed out toward the other side of the lake, all was quiet and peaceful.  Evening began to fall on the lake and all around them.  They felt relaxed after the exhausting day with the crowd of people.  They were glad that at last the day was over.  They were happy with the thought that the boat was carrying them farther and farther away from the crowd.  Then suddenly a windstorm broke out.  Waves beat into the boat, filling it with water.  In imminent danger of sinking, the disciples were terrified.  They lost their heads from fear.  It was hell!  The terrified disciples were in hell.

Instinctively, they ran to Jesus for help.  They expected him to be as terrified as they were.  But to their utter astonishment Jesus was fast asleep!  It was Heaven!  Jesus fast asleep in the midst of the raging windstorm was Heaven.  What a powerful contrast between Heaven and hell!  This was a dramatic rendezvous of Heaven and hell.  Hell in the midst of Heaven and Heaven in the midst of hell.

This is what all of you have to face as you enter the world.  The world is never Heaven pure and simple, nor is it purely and simply hell either.  There is always Heaven in hell, and hell in Heaven.  What are you to do?  Turn hell in Heaven!  Is there any other alternative?  This is what Jesus did.  Turning to the raging forces of nature, he said: “Peace!  Be still!”  The effect was immediate.  “The wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

How did it happen? How did Jesus restore peace and calm on the lake of Galilee?  The secret is in what he said to the disciples: “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Jesus, when he said this, was not addressing the powerful windstorm and the menacing waves; he was addressing fear in the disciples’ hearts.  He was trying to restore their faith that had been lost in their panic and consternation.  Fear creates hell in the heart, but faith gives birth to Heaven in the heart.  Heaven and hell are in your heart.  Hell threatens to destroy Heaven in your heart, while Heaven harnesses hell in your heart and turns it into Heaven.

How is this possible?  You must be asking.  How can it be done?  You want to know.  The key is faith.  What is faith, then?  Faith is that power greater than your power.  Faith is that intelligence that is deeper than your intelligence.  Faith is that wisdom infinitely more profound than your wisdom.  Faith is that love that compels you to be compassionate not only to those who love you but to those who are hostile to you.  It is this faith that enables you to turn hell into Heaven within you; it also turns hell around you into Heaven around you.  Heaven and hell: it is a matter of the heart!  It is a matter of faith in your heart, faith in the possibility of Heaven in spite of the reality of hell within you and around you.

Turning hell into Heaven is the power of this faith.  Is this power of faith part of the nurture you have received during the years you spent in the classrooms, in the gyms, in the dining halls on your campus?  I hope it is.  You will enter the world with a lot of knowledge, information, and know-how you have acquired during your college education.  And I hope and pray you are also armed with the power of that faith as you enter the world on fire, striving to become messengers of Heaven in the midst of hell.

 Do Heaven and Hell Exist?

At this point I would like to share a story with you, a story that may give you a clue as to how to nurture that power of faith in you, to develop it and make it grow.  This is a story told by a Japanese Zen master Ekaku Hakuin (1688-1769) in the eighteenth century:

A samurai named Nobushige came to Hakuin and asked:

“Do Heaven and hell really exist?”

“Who are you?” inquired the master.

“I am a samurai,” the warrior replied.

“You, a samurai?” exclaimed Hakuin.  “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard?  You have the face of a beggar!”

Nobushige became so angry that he reached for his sword, but Hakuin continued on.  “So you have a sword!  Well, your weapon is still probably much too dull to cut off my head!”

As Nobushige drew his sword, Hakuin looked right at him and exclimaed: “That is hell!”

Sheathing his sword, the samurai bowed iwth great humility and respect.

“And this,” Hakuin announced, “is Heaven.”

This is a Heaven-and-hell story.  What do you make of it?  Does it not tell you that Heaven and hell are a matter of the heart?

“You have the face of a beggar!” says Hakuin, the Zen master, to the samurai armed with a sword.  What a profound insight into the nature of things! Sword is a symbol as well as the reality of power.  You and I are armed with that sword, the sword of knowledge, the sword of know-how, the sword of a college degree, and perhaps the sword of what is called “the American dream.”  And the people you are going to meet on the street, in the workplace, in the business office, in the advanced academic institutions, are also armed with that sword.

The samurai has trained all his life with his sword.  It has protected him.  It has intimidated others.  It has made people around him afraid of him.  In spite of his sword that gives him power and security, he is afraid.  He can never know when he is going to meet someone stronger, more powerful, than he is, someone superior to him.  He has that fear in his heart.  There is hell in his heart.  Hakuin, the Zen master, sees through all this.  He sees fear in the samurai’s heart.  He sees through the pretension of power in his soul.  That is why he exclaims: “You have the face of a beggar!”

The samurai is provoked.  Who would not be when told pointblank that he or she has the face of a beggar?  The samurai gets angry.  Again, who would not be angry?  He draws his sword to attack Hakuin.  Without wincing a bit, the Zen master, looking the samurai in his eyes, declares: “That is hell!”  That sword is hell.  That power to kill is hell.  And that heart provoked to anger is hell.  The samurai, with the sword drawn in his hand, is hell!  His heart is on fire, and his world is on fire, too.

The world is on fire because the hearts of the people you meet in the street, in the workplace, in the business office, in the academic institutions are on fire.  And your own heart, just as the heart of that samurai, is on fire, too.  That is why the world is on fire.  That is why there is tension between people from different ethnic backgrounds.  That is why there are conflicts among people of different cultures and religions.  And that is why there is clash of civilizations, clash of Eastern civilizations and Western civilizations, clash of Christian civilization and Islamic civilization, for instance.  Where did all these clashes begin?  In political systems?  In ideological differences?  In religious fundamentalism?  Yes, in all these.  But these clashes, originally, initially, and fundamentally, begin in the human heart, the heart that is hell.

Turning Hell into Heaven

This takes us back to what happened in the Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 3).  It is a sad story involving Adam and Eve, our human ancestors, and the poor snake.  But the fact of the matter is that the story involves all human beings, you and me, and hell within all of us.  The Garden of Eden is the paradise; it is Heaven.  But there is hell in the paradise, hell in Heaven.  Hell does not break out when we question whether we can eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, (Genesis 2:1-2).  Hell breaks out when we refuse to take the responsibility of what we have done and start blaming others for the catastrophe that has happened.  We say to God: “The [person] whom you gave to be with me [he/she] gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” (3:12)

Is not this accusation commonplace in the family, in the workplace, in the business world, and above all, in the court of law?  The desire to take advantage of others: is this not hell?  Manipulating to put others in disadvantage: is this not hell?  Implicating others for what one has done: is this not hell?  And the effort to exonerate oneself from the responsibility for the adverse turn that events have taken: is this not hell?

“You have the face of a beggar!” the Zen master says to the irate samurai who has drawn sword to attack him.  The Zen master sees the beggar in the samurai’s heart.  That beggar in the samurai’s heart is hell.  That hell in his heart is about to burst out and commit an act of violence.  It is a tense moment, a moment of life or death for the Zen master, and a moment of hell or Heaven for the samurai.  It is a moment of crisis for both the Zen master and the samurai, a moment of truth for both of them.  Silence prevails.  Imagine yourself in that situation.  You can almost hear a pin drop.

It is the Zen master who breaks the silence.  He faces that moment filled with the danger of death.  He exclaims: “That is hell!”  The exclamation takes the samurai by surprise, breaking his aggression.  It brings him to his senses.  It makes him realize he has created hell because his heart is hell.  It stops him in the nick of time and forces him to rein in the hell in his heart at the edge of a precipice.  He puts his sword back into its sheath and bows to the Zen master with great humility and respect.  Then he hears the Zen master announcing in a calm and gentle voice: “And this is Heaven.”

How can you turn hell in your heart to Heaven in your heart?  You will ask this question again and again, countless times as a matter of fact, as you continue your journey of life after leaving these campuses.  There are times when you will be filled with remorse for the mistakes you have made; you are frustrated, filled with self-reproach.  You cannot forgive yourself.  Hell is in your heart.  But in the midst of hell, you must still listen.  Perhaps someone close to you is staring you in the eye exclaiming: “That is hell!”  When that exclamation brings you out of remorse and self-reproach, you may hear the gentle announcement: “And this is Heaven.”  Heaven and hell: is it not a matter of the heart?

Or you may be underestimated by your employers, misunderstood by your colleagues, mistreated by your friends, or done injustice by strangers.  You are humiliated, chagrined, and crushed.  Your heart is hell with grievances, hostility, and hatred.  You can neither eat nor sleep.  Hell is in your heart.  You are fortunate if you hear someone looking deeply into your heart and exclaiming: “That is hell!”  When you hear that exclamation, do not resist or oppose, do not shout in self-defense, for maybe after that exclamation you will hear a small voice, gentle and calm, announcing to you: “And this is Heaven.”  Is not Heaven and hell a matter of the heart?

But if you do not have someone exclaiming to you to bring you to your senses, if you do not hear a gentle voice saying to you there is Heaven in your heart, what can you do?  Let hell rage in your heart?  Let it consume your energy?  Let it confuse your mind?  And let it crush your spirit?  When you are faced with a hopeless situation such as this, then remember how the great educator in ancient China called Confucius said to his some three thousand pupils: “The way of a superior person is threefold, but I have not been able to attain it.  The person of wisdom has no perplexity, the person of humanity has no worry, the person of courage has no fear.”  If a great philosopher and teacher such as Confucius was not able to attain the wisdom that could free him from perplexity, and humanity that could liberate him from anxiety, and courage that could save him from fear, who am I to be able to attain it?

Confucius was aware that he had not attained these things, and so he spent all his life trying to attain them.  For him this was not just a journey of knowledge.  It was a journey of the spirit.  In this spiritual journey he excelled, knowing that Heaven and hell is a matter of the heart.  This is a great tradition of the spiritual quest for wisdom, humanity, and courage in China.  But the tradition is not limited to China.  You will find it also in Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian countries.  You and I are part of these great spiritual traditions of humankind, the traditions of transforming hell into Heaven in the human heart and in the human community.  As you leave this place to enter the world on fire, you also join in these great traditions.

You may forget what you have learned in college and university.  You may be excited by new discoveries in your new journey.  But remember: Heaven and hell, it is a matter of the heart.  Also remember: the greatest contribution you can make to these great traditions of humankind is to make efforts to turn hell in your heart into Heaven in your heart.  Then you will realize from time-to-time that there can be possibilities of peace in the world on fire.

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