Saturday, July 26, 2014

Heaven on Earth

HOMILY FOR THE 17th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 26, 2014:

A teacher, a tax collector, and a politician wound up together at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter informed them that in order to get into Heaven, they would each have to answer one question. St. Peter addressed the teacher wanting to make it easy and asked, “What was the name of that ship that crashed into the iceberg? They made a big movie about it.” The teacher answered quickly, “That would be the Titanic.” St. Peter let her through the gate. St. Peter then looked at the tax collector, and decided to make the question a little harder: “How many people died on the ship?” As fortune would have it, he was a big fan of the History Channel and answered, “1,228.” “That's right! You may enter,” St. Peter said. And then, turning his gaze to the politician, St. Peter said, “Name them.” 



Have you ever thought about what Heaven is like? Maybe you, like me, had the chance to see the movie Heaven is For Real recently, or perhaps you read the book. It is a purportedly true story that answers just that very question and in the affirmative. Most of us, at one point or another, think about this eternal question. Is there a Heaven and what is it like? And this is the question that Jesus explores in our Gospel today. Jesus also gives us an affirmative answer about Heaven and even some insight about what it is like giving us several images to help explain the Kingdom of Heaven.

Praying with this Gospel reminded me of a very special experience a little more than 10 years ago when I had the opportunity to be at a Wednesday Audience with Saint Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. At that audience, the Holy Father reflected on the same passage we have before us today. He said to us that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a destination always awaiting us, but an intimate relationship with God that can be experienced – at least partially – here on earth. He said, Heaven “is not an abstraction, nor a physical place amid the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with God.”

The Saint’s comments mirror those that we hear from Jesus today. Heaven is clearly one of Jesus’ favorite topics, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. In His very first sermon recorded in Matthew, Jesus said simply, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In the Sermon on the Mount, He declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” and “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Over and over again – a total of 51 times in Matthew – Jesus uses this favorite phrase of His: the Kingdom of Heaven. It should also be a favorite of ours as well.

So, what can we know about this Kingdom? Well, Saint John Paul reminded us that it is not “a physical place among the clouds.” And, don’t we all often imagine Heaven in some pretty extraordinary and supernatural ways – streets lined with gold, great and glorious mansions, all the food you can eat and not gain an ounce! We imagine some sort of celestial castle nestled in the clouds, twinkling stars and bright rainbows. Angels everywhere, zooming around God’s throne; the air alive with the sound of magnificent music.

But, Jesus simply compares the Kingdom to very down-to-earth things. No castle, no clouds, no angels, stars or rainbows or music. Rather, Jesus presents us with a farmer sowing seeds, weeds growing in a wheat field, a tiny mustard seed, a piece of yeast and today – a buried treasure, a merchant’s find of a precious pearl and a fishnet thrown into the lake. Now that’s not meant to burst our bubble or lower our expectations, but to remind us that the Kingdom is both heavenly and earthly. Jesus also makes this point when He gave us the Our Father, “Your Kingdom come…on earth as in heaven.”

So, our Gospel begs the question of us today - where is our treasure? And what might our treasure be? Is it in gold or riches, in power or fame? What is Jesus talking about, this buried treasure, this pearl of great price which we are supposed to have found? Where do we find this unique mix of heavenly and earthly reality?

And the answer is right here in this Church. The closest we can ever come to this dual dimension of heaven and earth is the Church and the Sacraments. The Church itself is the sign of our intimate union with God in heaven and with all humanity on earth. The mission of the Church is to proclaim and establish the Kingdom of God among all people. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church “becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that Kingdom of God.”

So, where is your treasure? Do we really consider the Church, and our parish community, to be our buried treasure and our pearl of great price? We are far luckier than the individuals in the Gospel today. They had to first sell all they had and buy the field where the treasure was buried and to buy the pearl. But for us, the Kingdom of Heaven is a free gift from God. Jesus is the one who found and bought the precious pearl and the buried treasure – and He paid for them with the price of His own life on the cross – all FOR US. But far from hiding and hoarding His treasures, He now and forever shares them with us freely. And, every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we enjoy a taste of Heaven right here. The dividing lines between Heaven and Earth are erased; God comes downs and makes our gifts holy; we sing with angels and saints, “Holy, holy, holy.”

Our treasure, our precious pearl of membership in the Church as the chosen and beloved People of God is the gift that all the money in the world cannot even begin to buy. Our prize of the Sacraments is nothing less than God’s immense and intense love leading us to our ultimate prize - eternal life.

Saint John Paul said, “When this world has passed away, those who accepted God in their lives and were sincerely open to His love…will enjoy that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human existence.” And it is possible to get a taste of Heaven on earth through the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist which is such a profound meeting place of Heaven on Earth, such a great foretaste of the happiness and peace and communion which we will one day know perfectly with God in Heaven.

Where is your treasure? “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.”

May the Lord give you peace!

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