Friday, July 22, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven: A personal relationship with God

HOMILY FOR THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 24, 2011:

A teacher, a garbage collector, and a lawyer 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 garbage man who was stinking literally to high Heaven, 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, giving the lawyer the once-over, St. Peter turned to him and said, “Name them.”

Our Gospel this week has a Heavenly focus. Jesus gives us these images of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Praying with this Gospel this week, I couldn’t help but think of a time about 10 years ago when I had the opportunity to be at a Wednesday Audience with Blessed 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. The Pope spoke to the tens of thousands of people gathered there from around the world about the Kingdom of Heaven and reminded everyone to keep their minds and hearts on the things of God and not on the things of the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place, he said, but an intimate relationship with God that can be experienced partially on earth. Heaven “is not an abstraction, nor a physical place amid the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with God.”

The Pope’s comments mirror those that we hear from Jesus today. Jesus speaks, as He often does, in parables about the Kingdom. This is clearly one of His favorite topics, particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is regularly speaking of the Kingdom. 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, Jesus 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.

So, what can we know about this Kingdom? Well, the Pope reminded us that it is not “a physical place among the clouds.” We can tend to think of Heaven as some far off place. We might 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, today’s Gospel tells us something different. Jesus compares the Kingdom to some 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.

The point isn’t that the clouds, angels and music aren’t part of the reality, but that they are only part of the reality. The Kingdom that Jesus is talking about is both heavenly and earthly. Jesus makes this also when He gave us the Our Father, “Your Kingdom come…on earth as in heaven.”

So, our Gospel begs the question of each 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?

The answer is right here in this Church. The closest we can ever come to this double 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 the question, again, today is: Where is your treasure? Do we really consider the Church, and our parish community in particular, 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.

The pope 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 and Earth, and through acts of self-giving charity which show us some of the happiness and peace which will reach its culmination in final, complete communion with God.

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

May God give you peace!

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