23 July 2017
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
“Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” We hear that at the start of every Mass. And it’s basically a reminder that what we’re in search of, what we’re hoping for as Christians, is rather hidden. We hear a lot about the “kingdom of heaven” in Scripture today. But that kingdom isn’t going to just jump out at us; we have to be attentive and look for it.
And so, we acknowledge our sins. We acknowledge that, no, we don’t give as much effort as we should in being attentive to the kingdom of heaven. We acknowledge that, yes, we substitute other things for the kingdom of heaven; things that are easier to attain, things that are more obvious and pleasurable. We acknowledge our sins, and admit that the kingdom of heaven takes effort to find, because so much of it is hidden.
Heaven isn’t going to just hit us in the face. After all, what we celebrate are “sacred mysteries.” That doesn’t mean that heaven can’t be known; it just means that God has to reveal it to us. And he does. But God speaks in a very quiet voice. And he’s speaking about things which we’re only vaguely aware of, which makes it doubly difficult to understand him.
And that’s why at the start of every Mass we “acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” We get quiet again, and focused again, so we can go deeper into what God wants to show us: the sacred and hidden kingdom of heaven, here in the Mass, and out in everyday life.
All of our readings today come back to this idea of “hiddenness.” For instance, the weeds that are sown in with the wheat aren’t just any weeds; they’re zizania (or tares) which are almost identical to wheat. They grow hidden among the wheat, and vice versa, the wheat grows hidden among the weeds.
And then there’s the mustard plant seed, the smallest of all seeds. It’s so small that it’s easily overlooked and underestimated. It sort of falls into the category of being “hidden.” Then we have the yeast which is mixed in with the flour. It becomes “hidden” within the bread dough, and it can’t be removed.
In the Book of Wisdom, we hear about God and his “might” or power. But we also hear how God uses his power not to be “big,” but to be “small;” to be lenient and merciful, and kind. Just like Jesus being born in the manger, God could act with boldness, but he chooses to act quietly, subtly, and with “hiddenness.”
And then, finally, in the letter of Paul to the Romans, he speaks of the longings of the human heart; longings for the kingdom of heaven which generally lie hidden within us; longings which can’t be put into words but which we nonetheless feel in moments of quiet restlessness.
All of our readings today come back to this idea of “hiddenness.” But that’s so often where the kingdom of heaven is. It’s in the mysterious, the hidden, the overlooked and understated. We would say the kingdom of heaven is revealed in the ordinariness of life, in the smallness of life, in the day-to-day activities of life. The trick is to not let the day-to-day become an end in and of itself. When that happens, we could be on the edge of the kingdom of heaven, and yet completely miss it.
“Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries;”—emphasis on that word “prepare.” If we’re going to go digging for buried treasure, we need the right tools. And the first tool we need is a healthy appreciation of the hiddenness of what we’re looking for. Again, the kingdom isn’t going to hit us in the face; it’s much more subtle than that.
Take the parables that Jesus speaks today: we see that the kingdom of heaven is characterized by such things as: goodness (the man sowed “good” seeds); it’s characterized by community (the man had helpers), but there’s a hierarchy within the community (after all, the helpers call him “Master” and we are talking about a “king”-dom). In the kingdom of heaven there’s: truth, clemency, wisdom and patience, trust, justice, security and belonging.
From the parable of the mustard seed and yeast, we see that the kingdom of heaven is characterized by potential (that’s what the seed symbolizes), but potential which is always coming into being. In other words, heaven is a place of overabundance. It’s a hearty way of life, one which is home to the “birds of the sky,” or to put it more poetically, the kingdom is home to “creatures of the heavens.”
And, like yeast, the kingdom of heaven is a powerful agent for change and growth. And once it’s mixed in with life, it’s there to stay. The kingdom of heaven is permanent. And lastly from the parables, we see that the kingdom of heaven is more than is imaginable. What we experience of the kingdom now is like the size of a mustard seed. But the size differential between the mustard seed and the mustard plant is a symbol of how much greater heaven is in its fullness, than what we can experience of it now. In other words, there’s a warning of a sort, not to underestimate the potential of the kingdom of heaven.
When you think about it, all these characteristics of the kingdom of heaven are actually pretty ordinary: goodness, community, hierarchy, truth, wisdom, mercy, security, belonging, and so on. The kingdom of heaven is “hidden in place sight.” But that’s where preparedness and faith come in. “Let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”
With faith and preparedness, we begin to see the ordinariness of life as what it is: little bits of the kingdom of heaven revealing itself to us. For instance, when we experience kindness, there’s a little bit of heaven. Now, we can either brush it off, or just be too busy to notice it. But we’ll have missed an invitation from God to go deeper. And by “going deeper,” we mean acknowledging that kindness, thanking God for it, and just simply enjoying it for a moment.
Or what about when we realize that a truth has been spoken to us. Maybe it’s a truth we don’t want to hear. Again, we can either brush it off, or just ignore it. But we’ll have overlooked the kindness and mercy of God who wants to help. And a little bit of the kingdom of heaven will have passed us by. Again, the kingdom is subtle and understated. But even if we miss it, or rather, “when” we miss it—because we’re going to miss it from time to time—the kingdom of heaven keeps revealing itself to us. Like Jesus, heaven will gently, but persistently knock on the door of our hearts and minds.
The other day, I learned that someone had been knocking on the door at the rectory. But I was in another room, and they knocked very quietly, so I didn’t hear it. When heaven knocks, let’s hope that we’re attentive enough, that we’re quiet enough, to notice it, and let it in. All those little moments of experiencing goodness, kindness, mercy, justice, companionship, truth, and so on; all those little, quiet, almost hidden moments are actually very important. It’s heaven, it’s God asking, “Can I come and stay with you today?”
And that’s what we have here in the Mass. The signs and symbols of the kingdom of heaven are more obvious than out in daily life. But they’re still rather ordinary and understated.
Bread and wine?; they’re pretty ordinary. Even after they’re consecrated, they still look and taste like bread and wine. The Sign of Peace?; it looks like a bunch of people shaking hands. The readings from Scripture?: they’re pretty ordinary words printed on ordinary paper, spoken by your neighbor; it’s all pretty usual on the outside. And so, it’s also pretty easy to overlook those little bits of the kingdom of heaven right in front of us.
The Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ given to us as food from the heavenly realm. The Sign of Peace, an image of the peace among the Communion of Angels and Saints in the kingdom of heaven. And the Word of God spoken to us, the very same, living Word that from before time began was with God and brought all things into being in heaven and on earth.
But it takes awareness and faith to see and to appreciate the subtle presence of the kingdom of heaven among us. Jesus said, “I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.” He came to open up the gates of heaven to us. And, truly, heaven does come to us. But it’s as small as a mustard seed; easy to overlook and underestimate. It’s hidden among the wheat and the weeds. It’s powerful and permanent, like yeast; even though it’s in with the mix.
The kingdom of heaven is subtle, almost hidden. But it’s here. If you listen closely, and look with faith, you’ll see it. It’s here.