Friday, July 28, 2017

What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world? - A Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes

Homily for the
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle A

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
July 30, 2017

While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in the year 1534, Sir Thomas More wrote a work called A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. It’s a fictional dialogue set in the Kingdom of Hungary during the Ottoman invasions of that century and takes place between a man named Vincent and his uncle Anthony. Vincent finds himself frightened for his life due to the invasions and so he visits Anthony in the hope that he’ll be able to offer him some comfort and consolation. The dialogue centers on Anthony instilling within Vincent the sense that this world is passing and that the only true comfort we can receive comes from Jesus Christ and the hope of eternal life that he offers. One of my favorite parts of their conversation comes towards the end, when Anthony recalls for Vincent one of Aesop’s fables. He tells him the tale of Jupiter, who once threw a great feast and invited all of the small and poor worms to it. All of the worms heeded the invitation, except the snail who stayed at home. Afterwards, Jupiter approached the snail to ask her why she did not come to feast. He told her that she would have been “welcome and have fared well, and would have seen a goodly palace and been delighted with many goodly pleasures.” In response, the snail smugly replied that she loved no place so much as her own home. Angered by her answer, Jupiter decreed that since she loved her home so much, she would henceforth carry it on her back, condemned to bear its burden wherever she went for the rest of her days. Vincent is intrigued by this tale and asks his uncle to clarify what he means by sharing it. Anthony explains that, like the snail, so many people have their priorities skewed – they care only for their house on earth and “cannot, for the lothness of leaving that house, find it in their hearts to go with good will to the great feast that God has prepared in heaven.” And, in so doing, not only do they end up depriving themselves of ultimate goodness and happiness and bliss, they condemn themselves to the misery of carrying the weight of a passing world on their shoulders. This whole Dialogue, as telling as it is, takes on a whole new level of profundity when we consider that its author, less than a year later, would willingly forsake all of the profits of this world and surrender himself to the king’s order of execution, all for the gain of heaven.

In our Gospel today, Jesus places before us three small, but loaded parables…each of which is meant to help us see that the kingdom of heaven is worthy of our urgent and steadfast desire and pursuit. He likens the kingdom of heaven to an amazing treasure buried in a field, to a pearl of great price, and to a vast net that is cast into the sea and then filled with fish. But in each of these parables, He is quick to warn that we can only attain the richness of God’s kingdom if we renounce our own. Like the snail, we have been invited and called into absolute bliss, but unless we are willing to leave our own homes – our own kingdoms – behind, then we will shackle ourselves to this life and deprive ourselves of the bounty that God wants for us to have. Unless we sell all we have so that we can buy the field and its treasure, unless we sell all of our other goods to buy the priceless pearl, unless we leave the shore and cast our nets into the sea, we will never inherit the kingdom of God.

You and I are concerned with many things: our jobs, our wealth, our security, our families, our well-being, etc. We go to great lengths to secure temporal happiness for ourselves and our loved ones. We expend an incredible amount of energy ensuring that this life is everything that it possibly can be. But are we as concerned with and invested in the life of the world to come? Do we pursue the kingdom of heaven with same sense of urgency and abandon? Or do we simply presume that God – because He is good and merciful – will simply hand it over to us in the end? Jesus makes it pretty clear to us today that His kingdom is found without cost, but that it cannot be possessed without the loss of this world. In other words, if we do not desire and pursue His kingdom with reckless abandon, ordering and subjecting all of our other desires and pursuits in this life to the attainment of heaven, then it will never be ours.

So what does this actually mean? Does this mean living a life of meaningless misery, pain, and suffering? Does it mean depriving ourselves of good things in this life? Does it mean “Quaker’s meeting has begun, no more laughing and no more fun?” Not at all! Our Lord wants us to enjoy all that is good in this life, but He wants us to see it all in the light of eternity. He wants us to live in this world, but not to be of it…to live in the City of Man, but to not be consumed by it…to live for the City of God and to pursue it. This means that we subject all things to God’s will first and foremost, and that if it becomes at all apparent that something we desire or love is contrary to His will we are ready to drop it like a hot potato. It means pursuing virtue and eradicating vice; it means growing in holiness and avoiding sin; it means loving God and our neighbor before ourselves. It means being willing to suffer when it is necessary; it means taking up our crosses when we are asked; it means, ultimately, dying to ourselves so that we might rise to new life. We must have the awareness that we have, set before us, the greatest promise of happiness and we must have the focus to keep our eyes set on it over and above all else.

In his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt theatricized the heroic and saintly witness of St. Thomas More as he faced persecution for denying the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. In one scene, we find that the prosecutors at his trial are at a loss to find any hard evidence on which to convict Thomas More for treason, and so they resort to manufacturing false evidence. Sir Richard Rich, a longtime friend and mentee of More, is the chosen vehicle for this act of perjury; he is bribed with power and appointed the attorney general for Wales in exchange for testifying against More. The coward that he is, he takes the stand and offers the false testimony that will ultimately condemn More to death. Recognizing that he is doomed, Thomas More asks only one question of Sir Richard Rich. Noticing that he is now wearing a medal of office, he asks what it signifies. When he learns of Rich’s appointment, he turns to his old friend and asks him the most haunting of questions: “Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales?”

St. Thomas More understood the value of heaven and he understood that all the riches of this world are as nothing compared to it. Will we be like him or will we sell ourselves out for the lesser pleasures of this world? Will we run, no matter the cost, to be at home with God, or will we shackle ourselves to the homes we have built? Today we pray that we will be given the strength, the courage, and the grace to leave all else behind, to leave our homes and the comforts of this earthly city, and to find it in our hearts, unlike Aesop’s snail, to “go with good will to the great feast that God has prepared in heaven.”

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