“Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal” (from the prayer for today, printed on the front of your lectionary insert. ) “Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal” (from the prayer for today, printed on the front of your lectionary insert. )
During these Sundays in the season of Pentecost, I have been talking about our lives of faith - our faith journeys. It is assumed that each of us has some degree of faith and belief and that that faith coalesces around the teachings and precepts of Christianity. I have been, to some extent, “preaching to the choir.”
On June 2nd I talked about building on the foundations of the faith that you have, not on something that you wish you had. The following Sunday I talked about the “not so sudden” impact that our life of faith, our Christian persona, has on others. Christianity and the Bible were given an “R rating” on June 30th, for we live a real faith in a real world - and that requires sacrifice. On July 7th I pointed out that we travel on our journey of faith yoked to Jesus, who helps us to bear our responsibilities and burdens. Last week a young girl was baptized into the “story of Christianity,” the narrative of a people of faith. Man is a story telling animal, and we make sense out of our lives through telling stories. Stories can be imaginary or factual, but usually are both. We set our lives in the context of large stories of faith, such as Christianity .
Today I want to ask the questions, “As a person of faith, what is it you really want? Where do you really want to go on your faith journey? What is your desiderata?” These are really tough questions and take a lot of chewing on. Each of us will respond in a different way and have different answers. What are the things “temporal” and the things “eternal” for you? I am not going to try to answer these questions in the next few minutes, but I do want to frame them a little.
If you ever watch a beauty pageant, the contestants are asked what their greatest aspiration is. Someone always says, “world peace.” Dah. Well of course. No one wants “world war.” A nice answer but somewhat lacking. My mother, who worked into her seventies used to say that all she wanted was to go to bed and stay there. She got her wish: one year in Greenwich Hospital and one year in Putnam Weaver Nursing Home. Being bed-ridden was not what she really wanted. Last night Ben brought me some of his finest fleas, which munched on my ankles. I would have “given anything to relieve the itching.” Right? No. Behind what we think we want, such as financial security, health, family, dignity, etc. there are things that are of far greater value. Often we have not faced them or consciously pursued them.
Society also seeks to uncover and to pursue those things which deep down are really worth having and following. Because of the reference to “heaven” in the parables in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, I was reminded of a film I saw in the late l940’s, “Stairway to Heaven.” It was a British film, staring David Niven and had a different title in England. Because of contractual disputes it has not been re-released very often. I turned to my favorite book, The Chronicle of the Movies(1), seeking to find some copy on the film. Alas, I drew a blank. But in thumbing through the book I realized that the history of film is the history of trying to make sense of our lives by telling stories. Film after film is dealing with the question, “what is it that we really want in life? Where is it that we really want to go?” Our society has been asking those questions for a long time.
They were asked in Jesus’ time as well. Some wanted the rise of a new Israel, a nation state with military dominance. Others pictured an apocalyptic fantasy of fantastic dimensions. The Essenes looked for a life of ritual and spiritual withdrawal and purity. Jesus turned those concepts on their head and spoke of the kingdom of heaven which has small beginnings in this life and continues in the life beyond. It begins for people of faith in “things temporal and leads to things eternal.” Like the mustard seed, the kingdom of heaven grows from the tiniest beginnings in the present and, through the power of God, increases. It is like the shot of leaven hidden in bread, which expands, increasing many times. The kingdom of heaven, like a treasure, is of great value. Like a pearl, it is worth more than everything.
Now Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven in earlier passages in Matthew, particularly in what we call The Beatitudes. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful for they will find mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Jesus is saying that those who value and seek the comfort of God, righteousness, mercy, purity in heart, and peace have begun to participate in the kingdom of heaven. Each person may desire and pursue a different value, or a combination of them. Those are some of the eternal values, perhaps not the only ones, which bring us into the kingdom of heaven. They foreshadow the heavenly kingdom and our participation in it.
To live a life of faith is not a matter of trying to guess the right answers, of trying to “guess what the teacher is thinking.” Rather it is a process of understanding and of trusting. It is a process of creating the narrative of our lives by dealing with our experiences and our understandings as they take place over against God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. What is really of most importance to you on a deep existential level, and where you are truly trying to go in your journey of faith will vary for each one of you. For some it may be deep peace, for others a profound sense of mercy, for others the beatific vision, for some great compassion, for some a realization of the meaning of righteousness, and for others something much different. In so far as you are engaged in those eternal values, or truths, you are working out your salvation within the midst of a life of things also “temporal.” You are beginning to participate in the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is emerging now, in time and space, in your life and in ours collectively as people of faith. As persons of faith we participate in it, and it is becoming actualized in us. Our values, our goals, our desiderata are of great value, as part of the kingdom of God. They need to be considered for what they are, pearls and treasures worthy of sacrifice and honor.
So as persons on a journey of faith, consider what you really want and where you really want to go. Take some time this week to become focused and intentional in your life. Know that through baptism you have entered the story of Christianity. Through grace you are saved. Through the sacraments you are renewed and Christ dwells in us and we in Him. Through the Holy Spirit you and I are blessed. In focusing and determining what really counts, in thinking about where you are going, you will continue to move closer to Christ and to God. Considering your desiderata, you will, with God’s help, continue “to pass through things temporal and lose not the things eternal.” May God help us. Amen. - Fr. Gage-
1. The Chronicle of the Movies, ed. Julian Brown, Crescent Books, a Random House Company, 225 Park Avenue South, NYC 10003. 1991.