P.S. If you'd like to see the whole story as Fr. Larry tells it, click here.
Homily: 2nd Sunday of Lent – Cycle A
One of my favorite preachers is Father Larry Richards and in one of his most well-known talks he tells the story of a man from Crete, which is one of the islands of Greece. This man, he says, was a great man and he loved his land. Not only did he love his land, but all the people of his land loved him. Whenever somebody died, he was always the first person to come and offer condolences. Whenever a new baby was born, he was always the first person to come and offer congratulations. And all of this because he so deeply loved his land and his people.
Finally, when he was ninety-nine years old, it was time for him to die. Surrounded by his ten children, he asked them to carry him out to the secluded spot in the back of his farm, which was his favorite spot to pray, and to lay him down on the earth. There, as he closed his eyes for the last time, he clenched in his hands the dirt of the land he so dearly loved and he died.
He awoke to find himself standing at the gates of heaven and when God came forth to welcome him in, he first asked the man what it was that he had in his hands. “This is Crete,” he said, “it is all that I ever loved in the world.” God looked at him and said, “Sorry, no dirty hands in heaven.” Upset by this, but unable to let go of the one thing he held so dear in his life, the man turned away and God went back into heaven and closed the gate behind him.
As the story goes, God would return two more times to implore the man to let go of the remnant of his beloved land so as to enter into heaven. At the first, the man still refused to let go. But at the second, the man found that the dirt in his hands had become so dry that it was now slipping uncontrollably out of his hands. So, at God’s prompting, he opened his hands and just then the Spirit of God blew forth a strong wind that swept away every last remnant of the man’s beloved land. Then, taking the man’s hand, God led him through the gates of heaven. And when the man entered heaven what do you think that it was that he saw, but the land of Crete laid out completely before him.
I share this story with you today because it is a great story and a great reminder that God never takes anything away from us, but rather only asks us to let go of some things so that he can give us more. I also share it with you because I think it demonstrates for us just how short-sighted our vision can be at times. This man thought that he had everything that he had ever wanted in the land of Crete and thus he let the vision of his life become limited to the years that he spent on earth. He couldn’t imagine heaven being anything better than what he enjoyed on earth and so he tried to take his greatest joy on earth with him into heaven. He had lost the vision that God promised to give him the “fullness of joy” in heaven and so stubbornly clung to the passing joy of the earth until it finally (and literally) passed out of his hands.
In a way, this is the same lesson that Jesus is giving to his disciples Peter, James, and John in our Gospel reading today when he invites them up onto a high mountain to reveal to them the fullness of his nature. Now, when the Scriptures speak of going up onto a “high mountain” they are always referring to the place where man encounters God. There, Jesus reveals the fullness of his nature—the divine nature that coexists with his human nature—in order to point to the transcendent end of his being on earth (that is, to the fact that his coming in this world wasn’t meant for this world alone, but rather to re-open the possibility for man to enter the glory of God in the next world). The disciples, however, are slow to see the meaning behind this and focus, rather, on clinging to the event in this world.
“Well, this is nice,” Peter said, “why don’t we build some tents and stay here?” Jesus, however, intended for this to be a lesson that would extend their vision beyond an earthly end and towards the end that he came to establish: that is, the return of man to perfect communion with God. Thus the cloud (which, in biblical terms, always connotes the presence of God) descends upon them and overshadows them, and the voice from the cloud speaks to them, and it is then that they realize that something otherworldly is happening to them and they fall down in reverence and in fear of the absolute power that has overshadowed them. Thus we see that Jesus didn’t take them up on that mountain to have a “nice” experience or to show off his divine nature to them (good as that was!), but rather to have an experience of the absolute holiness that he possessed and that he was calling them to enter into.
I think that if we look at our own lives that we, too, will find that our vision of what we are here for has become somewhat limited. If I asked you what you thought the prevailing moral norm is that governs our society, many of you might say “To love your neighbor as yourself”: and that’s good! But if I asked you to tell me what that means in real life, I suspect that the answer many of you might give would be “To be nice and try to get along with everyone.” Well, this is fine if all that you are concerned with is trying to have a peaceful life here on earth. If, however, we are placing our vision on our eternal end in heaven, then we need to take just as seriously Jesus’ other, very strong moral mandate: “Be yourselves holy just as your Father in heaven is holy!” This goes beyond being “nice” and sometimes means that we will have to act rather harshly with others. It reminds us that while harmony in this world is a goal, it isn’t our end. Our end, rather, is the vision of Jesus’ glory and being overshadowed by the presence of God!
My brothers and sisters, Jesus did not say “just be good and nice to each other and you’ll be fine.” Rather, he said “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all the rest will be given to you.” And what is God’s righteousness? Well, nothing short of the absolute holiness that he revealed to Peter, James, and John on the high mountain that day! Don’t just be nice, then, but be holy! And what does that mean? Well, it means overshadowing the world with God’s presence: with his uncompromising love for each and every one of his creatures, most especially our brothers and sisters who live among us.
Friends, this time of Lent is a time for rediscovering this incredible gift that God has given us in restoring our humanity to full glory in Jesus; and for reconciling ourselves with, and re-conforming ourselves to, that truth so that we might overshadow the world with God’s love and one day enjoy the Easter glory of Jesus in heaven; the glory that we encounter in sacrament here in this Eucharist.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 15th & 16th, 2014