Saturday, August 20, 2016

No...Heaven is Not an Eternal Golf Game: A Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes

Homily for the
Twenty-First Sunday of the Year
Cycle C

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
August 21, 2016

Quite some time ago I said prayers at the funeral home for a man we’ll call John who, unfortunately, had passed away early in life. It was a sad situation…he was only in his mid-fifties and he was divorced and estranged from his children. There were not more than a half a dozen people at his funeral…a few distant relatives, a few friends, and his one brother. Loneliness and depression had made their claim on John long before the cancer that took him did, resulting in a lonely funeral for a sad man. My heart ached for him even though I had never met him…it ached because of what his life had been, what his life could have been, and it ached for what his eternal life might be. After the prayers were finished, as we were heading out the door, I stopped and shook the hand of John’s brother, who was lighting up a cigarette. I offered him my condolences and told him that since we didn’t have a funeral Mass for his brother I would offer a private Mass for him later that week on my day off and asked if he might like to join me. He looked at me kind of puzzled and said, “Don’t put yourself through all that trouble, Father, it’s no big deal. John’s okay – he can have all the free cigarettes and beer he wants now!” As he laughed, I mustered a smiled and told him that it was no trouble at all and then made my way to the car. As I drove back to the rectory, the heaviness on my heart grew greater as I considered the thought that I might be the only person on earth who will pray for John. A man forgotten while he lived would be forgotten in death, remembered only for his vices in this life. God would take care of him, or at least leave him be to do what he loved, so all is well and case closed.

Now thank God that situations like these are rare, right? Most people get a great grand funeral, with lots of people, lots of flowers, beautiful music, and touching eulogies. Memories are shared, tears are shed, and luncheons are had. There are visiting hours, funeral limousines, the best caskets, amazing head stones, the works! The majority of funerals I do are like this…they fitting send offs for good people. But behind all the external loveliness and beauty of most funerals lurks the same problem that I felt at John’s less-than-beautiful funeral. Who is there in our society, in our culture today, who remembers to pray for the dead? How often do we say that grandpa is playing golf in heaven or that grandma is playing high-stakes bingo? How often do we simply imagine our deceased friends and loved ones being reunited and having a grand old time in the halls of heaven? We so easily reduce the blessedness of eternal life to the ongoing and unending enjoyment of whatever someone loved in this life, and we so easily consider it a given that this is the default that happens to all who have died.

In our Gospel today, though, Jesus is painting a different picture for us of what life, death, and eternity look like and how they relate to each other. Someone asks the Lord, “Will only a few be saved?” and Jesus answers him plainly, not by saying yes or no, but by saying that it’s tough. The gate to eternal life is narrow, He says, and that many think they’re fine to get in but discover only when it’s too late that they couldn’t do it. They trivialized and belittled eternal life by treating it like a booby prize for a life generally well-lived, and as they run foot-loose and fancy free through life, eating, drinking, and being merry, accumulating for themselves many things, they get to the gate only to be disappointed. Why? Not because it’s a heavy gate, not because it’s surrounded by some treacherous obstacle to overcome, but because it’s so narrow. There is room only for the unencumbered human person…to go through it you have to let go of everything you’ve accumulated: every vice and sin, every worldly attachment, and you have to want nothing more than communion with God. Heaven is not in any way shape or form an endless buffet where you don’t get fat, fluffy clouds that you can bounce on forever, or a lovely place with fat little cherubs playing harps. Heaven is so much more than anything we can want or imagine in this life. It is complete and total and blissful union with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and with all of those who have gone before us who enjoy this same union with God. Heaven is a gift, but it is not a given. It is for those who choose it, who want it, who allow themselves to be given this gift through the merits of Christ’s Passion and Death. It is for those who are willing to throw aside everything and to follow Christ through the narrow gate.

When we pass from this life and go before the Judgment Seat of our merciful Savior, we’re going to know immediately – without the pleasure of lying to ourselves or to Him – whether or not we’ve lived this life striving to enter through the narrow gate. For those who haven’t, our Lord will give them exactly what they want: the opportunity to live for all eternity without Him. But for those who have, our Lord will help them, by His grace, to finish the work He began in them. He will help them to let go of their attachments, any residue of sin, and He will purify their entire selves so that they can joyfully enter through that narrow gate into the unimaginable life of eternal communion with God. There they will be completely free to love and to be loved intensely and infinitely by the One Who is defined by Love. There they will be completely free to love and to be loved by all others who love and are loved by God: the angels and all the saints. Heaven is not simply an experience of eternal pleasure, it is the eternal experience of complete love.

As Catholics we pray for our dead because we know that for those who want to enter into eternal life, who want to enter through the narrow gate, the work of holy abandonment and the shedding of all things that would prevent us from loving and being loved in complete freedom is tough, it can be painful, but it must be done. Whatever clings to the soul in this life must be purged either in this life or the next. By our prayers for our beloved dead, we assist them with our love…helping them to experience that anything they cling to pales in comparison to the holy union of love that God calls them to. Remembering grandma or grandpa, telling stories and laughing and crying, it’s all good and healthy, but we must remember to pray them through the narrow gate with our love.

The love that God calls us to is meant for everyone…the good and the bad alike. John, the man with the sad funeral, may have lived a rough life, but the narrow gate is no more narrow for him than it is for you or for me. We all have baggage, we all have attachments, we all have things we need to shed that prevent us from loving God and from experiencing the gift of His love. Today we pray for the grace to unencumber ourselves and to run to the God Who calls us to Himself.

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