Sunday, July 27, 2014

Things that Pass and Endure

Collect of the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

In today's gospel, Jesus is still in parable mode. For the last several weeks we have gotten an uninterrupted discourse from Jesus. First it was the parable of the sower, and then it was the parable of the wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and the leavened bread. Now we get three more parables to explain to use what the kingdom of heaven is like. Last week, with the parable of the wheat and weeds, we learned that when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven he is referring to the Church he will establish, and not the pearly gates and streets-paved-with-gold, because he says the kingdom of heaven is like wheat and weeds, good and bad, mixed together.

Some missals have beautiful art throughout
Today we hear about what it is worth doing to obtain this Church, this kingdom of heaven. Jesus gives us two examples of people who would sacrifice everything to have that one thing. According to Jesus, no price is too high to find this kingdom. And to understand this, I want to look at the Collect from this Mass. Now, what is the Collect? It's the prayer I say from the presider's chair near the beginning of mass, when I say "Let us pray." I open this mysterious red book (called the Missal) to a mysterious page, and then I say a short, concise prayer. This missal actually contains all the prayers for celebrating mass throughout the whole year, the Eucharistic prayers, the special seasons like Easter and Christmas, and most of what you need for Mass. Most of these Collects are ancient prayers, and what we are using here is a translation from the original Latin version.

[personal opinion follows; to avoid, skip to the next paragraph :)] As an aside, when we started using a new translation a couple years ago, for many of us it became more difficult to listen to these prayers because the language became loftier, more ornate and fancier. That is primarily because we want to offer to God the best of what we have. When we pray as a community with words, we want to offer our best and most beautiful of words. We want to offer our Shakespeare, not our research papers. The new prayers do that, they speak for us with words more beautiful than most of us could compose on our own. The flip side is that they require us to pay closer attention. Not that the prayers of a child aren't beautiful, or that our own bumbling private prayers aren't beautiful to God, but the prayer of the whole Church requires beauty of a different kind.

So I want to look closely at today's Collect and see how we can apply it to Jesus' parables about the kingdom of heaven. The first part of the Collect is a salutation like the opening of a letter, it says who the prayer is to, except it's expanded to also talk about what God is like. It would be like opening a letter with "O God, coolest guy I know," except this opens with "O God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy." That's far more beautiful than "O God, coolest guy I know" and it's beneficial to us, the ones praying it, because it helps us to call to mind that God is the source of all our protection, he is the only foundation on which we can base our lives, and he is the source of all holiness. Now, each of those is a homily in themselves, and we haven't even gotten to the actual request of this prayer yet, that's just the greeting.

The first of our requests in the prayer is what comes next. "Bestow in abundance your mercy upon us." We should always be asking for mercy, especially in Confession, because we know that we are sinners. But the part that I really want to talk about, the part that will help illuminate this gospel passage, is what comes next: "...[G]rant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure." We want God to show us how to use the good things of this world that pass away so that we can hold fast to things that last forever. God has given us the world, and the world is fundamentally a good place because God made it, but the world is passing away. So we are to use the good things of this world to help us find God, and we need to rid ourselves of them inasmuch as they don't help us to find God.

The merchant seeking the pearls was quite happy with his money and his mediocre pearls, until he found that one pearl, that pearl of great price, and then his money, his belongings, his other mediocre pearls, all seemed worthless. He got rid of them all in order to have this one pearl. That pearl of great price represents the kingdom of heaven. This merchant figured out how to appropriately use the goods of this world. As our prayer says, he knew how to "use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure." And if you need another model, Mary is an excellent model and help in learning how to focus on something that endures.

My friends, this is what we learn from this gospel and from this Collect. The world is good and everything in it is fundamentally good, and God can be found in the world. But the devil is at work in the world too. There will come a point when we have to tear our eyes away from the beauty of creation to focus on the Creator. We have to sell all we own to buy that field, or that pearl of great price. There is danger if we don't. The danger is that if I value the passing things of this world more than those things that endure, I will pass away with them when they go.

So what passes away, and what endures? Love endures. And as long as this world endures, the Eucharist too will endure. Jobs, houses, cars, they're useful, even important, for a time, but they pass away. Blessedly, bills and deadlines pass away too. Most of the things we build our identity on pass away. Also, whenever we fight with the ones we love, most of the things we fight over, that seem so important now, will pass away too. But love endures. So build your life around the ones you love, around God, Church, family, and friends. Let go of the things that pass away, and hold fast to the things that ever endure.

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