That is part of the problem with us as a people, not just a church. We become very closed minded. Our comfort zones take over and we begin to close out anything that begins to draw us out. That leads to those thoughts that make us start to quantify what it means to be one of 'us'. "We eat meat. Drink beer. Speak English. Carry Guns. If you don't like it get out." says one seemingly popular meme on Facebook. For centuries the popular idea of church was to draw in on ourselves. The Catholics had their own little village around the Parish, the Protestants theirs around their church, etc. The kids didn't play together. The parents didn't talk unless it was work related and they were forced to. All stemming from prejudice, from hate, from injustice.
The vision we have recorded in Isaiah as the author begins to close out this magnificent volume of poetry, prose, and theological insight is a world in which none of these things exist. A world in which their is no pain, no sorrow, no death, no more crying and distress. I heard many a preacher expound on this end of time place in which the lame would run on legs that work, the deaf would hear, the blind see, and all sorrows be relegated to a past that we no longer even remember. What a vision that is, what a dream, what a thing to come.....
The thing is, it's not just a place to come. What Isaiah is describing is the Kingdom of God. What Isaiah is describing is what Jesus was proclaiming when he opened that scroll and declared that scripture was fulfilled in their hearing. What does that Kingdom look like? One of the confirmation students asked a question about it, something along the lines of "How are we not going to be bored in heaven?" They had seen the artwork, heard the descriptions, and for them.. it sounded boring... eating the same meal every day.. talking to the same people.. never on their phones, never watching TV... they couldn't understand it. I told them one of my favorite parables (forgive me if you've already heard it.)
Back in ancient times the stable was directly under the house. A man had two cows that he kept for milk in his basement. They had never seen the outside. They couldn't remember anything other than now.. other than the basement, the water and the hay. One night the farmer who owned the house through a grand party. They had live music, dancing, food and fun. People joined around the tables having a great time. Laughing, giggling, sharing, drinking, and laughing again. It went way into the night. After many hours of all of these strange sounds, scents, and goings on.. one cow looked at the other and said, "What is going on up there?" The other replied, "I don't know.. but that must be some really good hay!" They could only describe it from their own experience.. they had a small glimpse of what was to come.. a minute experience of what would happen if they went up to that party... but they described it in the only way they know how.. from their experience.
That is what Heaven is like. We can't tell you exactly what it is going to be like, but we can describe it as best as we can with words.. even that will be inadequate. A feast, a party.. communion... those are all good starts. So I asked our students to talk about things they liked to do.. how does that make you feel? We came up with a list of adjectives to describe those things and categorized them into two columns: good and bad.
God is good. To be with God means to be good. To be away with him means to experience bad. All of those things in the good column... that's what being in Heaven is like. You know those moments when you're out watching the sunrise and you just get lost in the moment? For that moment you aren't worried about the bills, or the decisions your kids are making, or that rattling in the front end of your car... your content.. you just are.. comfortable.. peaceful.. tranquil.. For some it's that sunrise, for others it's catching that big fish, or listening to their wife sleep peacefully at night. It might be that first kiss, or the last one. Dinner with a friend or a night in at home... it looks different for each of us. What we do know though, is that God is involved in those moments... all good things come from him.
That's what Isaiah is trying to describe to us. We have to avoid that notion though that we should bottle up in a room and wait. Too many Christians are only waiting for the Kingdom to arrive at the end of time. They are hiding in the room fearful of the world, that it might taint them.. that they might be infected by the sin of others... Jesus came though to bust us out of our rooms.. to send us to the proclaim the message to the ends of the earth. The disciples themselves gathered with Mary the mother of God and locked themselves in a room for prayer. The Holy Spirit descended on them in a dramatic and miraculous way and the doors were thrown up! They marched out in the town square declaring the kerygma to the all who would hear, and hear they did! That's our challenge as authentic, intentional disciples. Not to try and hide in our church, but to get out into the world and bring about change... challenging the morals, measures of judgement, values, philosophies, metaphysics, epistemology of the people to become more adherent to those of God. (Evangelii Nuntiandi §17-24)
We don't have to wait till the end of time to experience that. I think that's part of the frustration of Jesus in the Gospel as he talks about how everyone demands a sign.. everyone wants more from him than the message.. they don't want to do it themselves, they just want Jesus to take care of it. He just came from the Samaritans.. the 'other'... the 'they'... guess what? They didn't need a sign. They didn't need a miracle. They just came out on the witness of a woman, a woman who was of ill repute... and they came to believe in Christ. He didn't move a mountain.. he didn't change the world first for them.. they became disciples out of their love for the Scriptures, the message proclaimed, and for Christ himself. Are we like them? Or like those in his own home town who wanted to throw him off the cliff? Do we truly believe what we are given? Are we going out into the world proclaiming and changing the world to be more like the Kingdom of God? Or telling God to do it himself? Church is not behind a closed door. It's not just on Sunday, or just when you are at daily Mass... we are the Church and it's our job to bring God's presence into the world, into our policies, into our politics, into our judicial judgements, into the very fabric of who we are, to all ends of the earth.
Sure, God could and will at the end of time, do it himself... but he's offered you something far more greater and noble.. the opportunity to create with him.. the opportunity to be a witness to truth, justice, and joy. Are you doing that? That's what Lent is about.. it's about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan.. it's reaching out to those on the margins, those hurt by the Church, those hurt by their own actions, in the streets and the hedgerows and saying, "God loves you." It's not just sitting in the room to receive the message yourself, but taking that message out with you to the ones who aren't there.. bringing them closer to Christ. Remember it's not just enough to feed them, clothe them, shelter them... without at some point bringing Jesus to them... It's not going to be easy.. Jesus himself was rejected in his home town.. and many only came out to see him perform, like some street magician... but He has sent us a Holy Spirit.. someone to help us, guide us, and give us the strength and courage to bring this message to others. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving let us grow closer to Christ.. so that we can bring Him, His message, His Kingdom... to the very world itself.. that we might experience those good things.. those things which Isaiah spoke about in some way here and now, and that not only us.. but everyone else might see those things.. and say.. I want that too!
How appropriate that we also talked about Baptism in the early church. How that catechumens fasted for three days, then spent the entire night in prayer separated from the rest of the Church. They were bathed and put on pure white robes. Then as the sun rose in the east, the church doors would burst open and here would come these newly cleaned, pristinely dressed, new Christians through the door into the Church where the others had waited all night.. to receive Jesus for the first time.. Think of that imagery for a moment.. you've been waiting all night in anticipation.. you're in the dark.. and the doors burst open, and in through the arch comes the bright rays of a newly risen sun... and in the midst of that glorious vision you see these beautiful people glowing in their freshness. That's supposed to be you! Is that what people see when you come into the world? Happiness? Joy? Freshness? Goodness? Are you wearing your baptismal robe like a sign of beauty and peace? Or are you hiding it under the grime of the world.
His servant and yours,
"He must increase, I must decrease."