Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of the common errors that Christians can succumb to in our beliefs about God and the world come from our desire to escape time; to remove ourselves from history. For example, you can “ask Jesus into your heart” and “get saved” in a conversion experience, but because “getting saved” is something that supposedly happens in a single instant, salvation becomes necessarily detached from the rest of life. Because life is not a single instant, of course, but is lived along the slow and unceasing passing of time -- day to day, month to month, year to year. So inevitably, you’re faced with a big now what? when it comes to actually living the Christian life. And often, the most that you can do is to try to inject the emotions and the circumstances of that original conversion experience into the rest of your life from then on; the task is to somehow sustain that initial drama of getting saved indefinitely. Salvation has escaped time; it has removed itself from history; and now you’re left trying to constantly pull it back down into the nitty gritty of your existence.
But even if you don’t happen to think of salvation in this way, it still is incredibly easy to imagine that our religion floats above time and history, so to speak, in a kind of undisturbed serenity. We are conditioned, in ways that we’re not even aware of, to think of Christianity as something that’s comfortably situated in a nice little box -- where everything is neatly organized and arranged just how we like it -- and this is what is supposed to enable us to handle all of the chaos that swirls around us in the world. Because in case you haven’t looked outside recently, there really isn’t anything out there that is neatly organized or arranged how we’d like it to be. The conflict, the complexity, the confusion of life in the world offers an appealing temptation for us to retreat back into the perceived comfort of a private Christianity. This is, after all, perhaps one of the most popular sales pitches Christians give for why people should join us. Come to our church, we advertise, and your life will make more sense. Your marriage will thrive; your kids will be well-behaved; you might even become more successful. This is Christianity as a certain kind of leisure activity -- a weekend pick-me-up before going back into the mess of things.
The convenience of this advertisement really is appealing, though. Because if our religion is situated nicely in our private life of leisure, we don’t really have to ever think about what Christianity or the Gospel or the Kingdom might have to say about our public life of work, education, culture, the economy, or politics. Christianity is what we do to get away from those things, which is another way of saying that those things ought to be left to play by their own -- rules that are separate from the rules that govern our religion. Those things are in a different box.
Now, everything that I’ve said so far might seem to conflict with the words of our Collect this morning, which ask that God would give us mercy so that we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal. “Things temporal” are all those things that we experience within history, and here, we are praying that God would help us “pass through” them in order that we may keep our sights fixed on “things eternal.” That sure does sound like what I described earlier, the idea that we should just not be too concerned with all the complexities of life in the world and instead just focus on eternity.
But consider the various metaphors that Christ employs in our Gospel today. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, is like:
...a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
...like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
...like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
...like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
...like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
These all use very different imagery to make their point, but there is a common theme that connects them all together -- and that is time. The mustard seed has to grow; the yeast has to leaven the flour; those who find the treasure and the pearls have to go and sell all they have in order to buy what they’ve found; the fish of every kind that have been caught in the net have to be sorted. Each of these examples imply some kind of process, some degree of patience and discipline. The one who finds the treasure hidden in a field directs all of his efforts to the end of acquiring it; in the words of our Collect today, he has not lost sight of things eternal. He passes through things temporal -- that is, all the other things that he could possibly pursue instead of the treasure in the field -- by selling everything he has to get it. Nothing else matters half as much as the treasure that he longs to possess. The same goes for the merchant who finds the pearl of great price, no doubt after seeing countless other lesser pearls that didn’t merit his attention. This is the pearl -- the pearl of great price -- the pearl that demands nothing less than everything the merchant has in order for him to afford it.
But unlike the form of Christianity that I described earlier, consider how none of the characters in Christ’s parables are just waiting around for whatever it is they desire to just happen. Passing through things temporal while focusing on things eternal doesn’t look like making ourselves as comfortable as possible as we wait for heaven or something. Nor does it look like maintaining a respectable practice of private Christianity -- the Christianity of that nice little box -- while making sure that it doesn’t get too mixed up with the rest of our lives and vice versa. On the contrary, passing through things temporal requires subjecting every aspect of our lives to the standard of eternity; we have to allow the yeast of grace to leaven the full measure of the flour. And that requires us to “sell all that we have” in pursuit of eternal life, whether figuratively in terms of our total devotion or maybe even literally, as the radical poverty of St. Francis puts on full display.
In short, passing through things temporal has nothing to do with an imaginary escape from time or history, which is impossible. The Christian life is fully present, fully embedded in the material and embodied life of the world; it’s just that it is a form of life that renounces all the attachments and allure of lesser things as our reception of the gift of eternal life becomes ever more complete, ever more purified. So destroy the neat little box of leisured Christianity; expose the full measure of your life to the leavening power of the life of God that has been given to you, for it is only by being so exposed that we can truly beg that God would increase and multiply his mercy upon us so that he may bring us into the midst of those things eternal. Amen.