Years ago there was a great emphasis on heaven in the church’s preaching, praying, and singing. In the last few decades there has been a movement toward an increased focus on the church being active in the world right now, and that is good. Unfortunately, along with that focus on the here and now, there has been a diminishing emphasis on the eternal promises of God. Lutheran theologian and seminary professor Gerhard Forde placed some of the blame for this neglect on a protest song that came out of the labor movement of the early 1900’s. The song was The Slave and the Preacher, also known as Pie in the Sky. This song was written by a hobo named Joe Hill. Hill was a Swedish immigrant who, along with many others at the time, could not find work that paid enough to survive, and so he became active in the labor movement. The song is critical of those preachers who told protesting laborers to just be quiet about low wages and all the injustices in this life because everything would be better in the afterlife. However, those fine preachers would not even give a starving man a sandwich.
Joe Hill (1879-1915)
THE SLAVE AND THE PREACHER (PIE IN THE SKY)
Original lyrics by Joe Hill, 1911. These lyrics (and recording) are by Utah Phillips, who like Joe Hill, was a hobo for a time and then a social reformer (1935-2008). The tune is from an old Gospel hymn “In the Sweet By and By.” Hear it at:
Long-haired preachers come out every night
To tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how about something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
That’s a lie
And the starvation army they play
They sing and they clap and they pray
‘Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum:… REFRAIN
Holy Rollers and jumpers come out
They holler, they jump, Lord, they shout
Give your money to Jesus they say
He will cure all troubles today… REFRAIN
If you fight hard for children and wife
Try to get something good in this life
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell
When you die you will sure go to hell… REFRAIN
Well, you will eat, bye and bye
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry
Chop some wood, it’ll do you good
You will eat in the sweet bye and bye… REFRAIN
Gerhard Forde said that the phrase ‘pie in the sky when you die’ has become a way to scoff at this central hope of the Christian faith, dismissing it with contempt for its ‘other worldly’ emphasis. Actually, Christians have a long and rich heritage of working for a fair and just society, along with providing for the poor. Those preachers who opposed such work for social justice in the early 1900’s were wrong. Furthermore, the failure of some Christians does not disprove the truth of the Christian message, and it is unwise to disregard the central hope of the Christian faith in such a casual way. But the criticism stuck and it remains a way to sneer at this hope that is so central to our faith.
There are even Christians who will do such sneering at God’s eternal promises, as did a student in one of Professor Forde’s classes. Dr. Forde was talking about this Biblical hope of our wonderful home in heaven, and the student decided to challenge him. This young man, fresh out of college and eager to display his intellectual sophistication said, “Dr. Forde, isn’t all this talk about heaven just wishing for ‘pie in the sky when you die’?” The old professor looked at him with a puzzled look on his face, was quiet for a few moments, and then he said simply, “Well, young man, what’s the matter? Don’t you like pie?”
God does promise us a better life after our time on this earth has ended, and that is our ultimate hope as Christians. If someone wants to call that ‘pie in the sky when you die’ it is all right with me. I like pie, and I trust that I will like whatever God has prepared for me. I also know that after I am dead I am not going to have much else going for me. I know of no other valid offer on the table, so if someone is going to be handing out pie at that time, I want to be in line. We need not be intimidated when our faith in this eternal hope is ridiculed. This hope of eternal life is what we rejoice in most of all.
Many Christians have been intimidated by this ‘pie in the sky’ scoffing, and there has been a retreat in recent years from bold proclamation of our eternal hope. Many have thought it is somehow unrefined, naive, or even selfish, to get too excited about such a hope. I am not ashamed to be excited about this. My time here in this brief little life seems to be going by faster and faster, and I am now a lot closer to my end than to my beginning. We are here such a short time, so I am very happy to put my faith in such an eternal promise. How could anyone think of such a hope as beneath them, especially when it is offered to them by the Lord God Almighty who made them, and this world, in the first place? (continued…)
Romans 10:9 — If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Micah 6:8 — He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Matthew 25:34-36…40 — (Jesus said), “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…’ Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Out God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.