Some of you know that for about a week each summer I try to get over to Ireland to a little area of east Galway where I ride horses over the dark green Irish grass during the day, and sip pints of Guinness in the evening. Over one such pint this past summer I was given, by an acquaintance of mine who had in his prime been a champion equestrian show jumper, a short list of rules to live by. “Sean,” he said to me, “three things you need in life: quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse.” This is a highly idiosyncratic, and slightly eccentric list of priorities; and almost anyone could quibble with it. At any given time in my life I have been lucky to be in possession of two out of the list of three. The horse has been elusive. But so appealing was the straightforward simplicity of the list that I wrote it down and have been carrying it with me ever since. With this advice in my pocket, I started to evaluate my life just a little. What kind of shoes was I wearing? How is my mattress? And what about a horse? What am I going to do about a horse?
The more I look at all three items, the more I start to question how far I have come in my fifty years on this earth. Maybe I don’t have any of the basics that I really need in life. Wouldn’t I be glad to have all three? What have I been doing with my life? And yet, I haven’t done a thing by way of heeding this advice. I haven’t bought new shoes; I haven’t bought a new mattress; and I haven’t bought a horse.
I hadn’t exactly walked into the pub that night in search of advice. I wonder if people like you come to church on a day like today in search of advice. Are you hoping that I will offer three little gems that you can hold onto as rules for life? Wouldn’t it be simple, in a way, if you left here with the news that all that stands between you and salvation are quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse? Oh, if only Jesus had given that kind of advice – how happy we would be!
But Jesus spends nearly every word of the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel teaching about sin and forgiveness – part of which we heard just now. He’s not talking about sins that we commit against God (e.g. I ate meat on Friday; forgot to go to Mass on Sunday, etc), but specifically about sins we commit against each other: offenses against our family, our friends, our neighbors. Jesus provides a detailed, multi-step processes for seeking and granting forgiveness. It’s like he thinks it’s important. I don’t know too many people who take Jesus very seriously on this point. I’m not sure most of us spend a lot of time evaluating our record of sins and forgiveness, to ask what we are doing with our lives. Though, I’m sure some do.
The question Jesus was responding to, when he began his roughly thirty-verse-long discussion of sin and forgiveness was this: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” I don’t think the disciples were merely curious. I think they were angling for a good spot. They were known to do that. But Jesus takes a child in his arms and tells them, “whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And then he launches in on sins against one another and on how to forgive one another. I don’t know how the first disciples took it, but for us, Jesus might as well be talking about quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse. Right, Jesus. Got it. Thanks.
What would people think if they came in here and saw you sitting there silently, looking up at me while I told you how you should “tell it to the church” if you need to resolve a dispute with your friend, your neighbor, your sibling, or your spouse? They would think that they had stumbled into a highly idiosyncratic, and slightly eccentric approach to conflict mediation, and they’d ask why you’d bother listening to me, anyway.
Sitting there in that pub in east Galway, listing to a former champion show jumper impart wisdom about shoes, mattresses, and horses, made me wonder for a moment what I did to prompt that bit of advice, since my friend was answering a question I did not ask. Listening to Jesus impart wisdom about the ways we hurt each other and forgive each other has a similar effect. I wonder why he is going on like this, and I am afraid Jesus is answering a question that nobody has asked him. Or is it just a highly idiosyncratic, and slightly eccentric discussion?
After all, what is the kingdom of heaven?
Now, I know that there are a good number of people in this congregation who think the kingdom of heaven is sort of like going to the Metropolitan Opera, but with lower ticket prices. But for me, I want to suggest that the kingdom of heaven is more like a musical than an opera. To be specific, I’d say the kingdom of heaven is like Act III of a musical theatre production. Because in Act III of a musical, the conflict that was set up in Act I, and reached its climax in Act II, is finally going to be resolved, and love will win the day. In Act III of an opera, everything (and everyone) could still be going straight to hell, with no sign of redemption. But in a musical, everything is going to work out just fine by the end of Act III.
So the kingdom of heaven is like a musical with the most wonderful cast, and the best score, and with choreography that just keeps building and building, and there are more and more dancers on the stage, and you wonder how they could possibly fit more on… and the costumes are stunning, and the lights are ethereal… and the stage is of crystal, and the seats are spacious and covered in velvet, and you can recline in them if you want, and still see the stage, even if there is a tall person sitting in front of you… and the story sweeps you up into it, with the music, and the dancing… and the reprise of the big show-stopper at the end of Act II left tears streaming down your face, and you can hardly image that the big, full-company finale at the end of the next act could surpass it, but you know it will… and you look around and the theatre is filled with everyone you have ever loved, and with people you never knew you loved, but you now discover that you do, and you can’t believe how wonderful it is that you get to enjoy this extraordinary experience with them, and you feel that you are being positively lifted out of your seat by the sheer joy of it… and the sadness and the loss of Act II are still very much present in your mind. It’s because the sadness and the loss were so real, the betrayal so awful, the estrangement so poignant, the suffering so great… because this is not just theatre, this is real… but with the first notes of the entre-act, and the way the strings shimmer softly, as the curtain rises on Act III… you just know that hope is in the air…!
So… yes, I want to say that the kingdom of heaven could be like a musical… but it’s a musical you can’t get tickets for yet, although you’ve heard great things about. It’s like Hamilton, but better.
In one version of my musical (working title: The Kingdom of Heaven) during Act I there is a scene in an Irish pub where a young, handsome innocent abroad is told by a mysterious character with a thick brogue that there are three things you need in life: quality shoes, a quality mattress, and a good, safe horse. A production number ensues (I’ve Got the Shoes Right Here).
In another version of the show there are terrible floods in Act II, or a hurricane slamming into Florida, or the Caribbean. In another version there is an earthquake in Mexico, and in another version forest fires are raging across the west. All the while in each of these versions, the director of the EPA is gleefully cutting red tape while he sings a song in a minor key.
There’s a version in which a white supremacist drives his car into a crowd in Act II; another in which North Korea builds a hydrogen bomb. There’s even a scene in which the pastor of a church bolts the church doors from the inside as disaster victims, or homeless people, or the hungry and the poor try to get inside. You get the idea.
There are versions with more poignant, quiet scenes of more personal betrayal in Act II, too, where children lie to their parents, couples are unfaithful to one another, disease cuts life short, addiction destroys relationships, accidents leave people broken beyond repair, and where over and over again a solitary figure is found on the stage, evaluating life, wondering if he’s gotten anywhere in the decades that have been given to him, standing all alone, down stage center, in a small pool of light, singing a song that might as well be Where is love?
In one of my least favorite versions of the show, a young father is shot and killed on the streets of Philadelphia by two criminals trying to steal his car while his two-year-old daughter sits in her car seat, still inside the car.
These first two acts are admittedly a little operatic in the scale and acuity of their disaster, betrayal, and pain. But throughout, a mysterious and misunderstood figure has been promising that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and urging forgiveness of one another by any means possible. He even sings about forgiveness in a song called Seventy Times Seven, but by the end of the song no one is listening. And by the end of Act II, this unnamed, mysterious character seems like a tragically comic figure, woefully delusional, on whom we can only look with cheap pity.
Writers and dramatists understand why Act III is so important. Because Act I may present you with an equestrian offering advice in a pub; and Act II may lead you through disaster, betrayal, and hurt. But Act III is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. Maybe in Act III the delusional, mysterious character who has been preaching forgiveness in Act II will turn out to be the same funny guy who gave kooky advice in the Irish pub in Act I. Who knows?
But Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven is a promise that Act III will come, and that it will be worth the wait. In fact, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven is that Act III is already in the making, has begun in some other sphere: the sets, and the songs, and the steps; the forgiveness, and the redemption; the salvation, and the hope are already being built, written, choreographed, orchestrated, and sung, even if you and I have not gotten there yet.
And in one version of Act III, the big finale may be a reprise of a song that was introduced earlier – Where Two or Three Are Gathered – in which the mysterious figure reveals himself to be the Lord of Love and Life, and in which minor characters who have wronged one another are reconciled to each other, as they help to repair the damage done by natural disasters, and they seek to care for those who have been maimed by war, and they work to clean and care for the planet that his supported their lives.
In that version of the show, the finale begins around a table, where the various injured, insulted, impaired characters have gathered, having seen their hopes shattered that they would ever be among the greatest in heaven or anywhere else. In their midst is the mysterious figure, who urges them to seek forgiveness from one another and to offer it freely. And as they do, a feast appears on the table, and wine flows, and the tempo of the music picks up, and the lights begin to brighten, and the song is taken up. And you can see that everyone on stage is wearing quality shoes, and somehow you just know that at home everyone has a quality mattress, and you feel certain that for those who need it, there is somewhere, in a stable, a good, safe horse.
And you realize that it hardly matters who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, just as long as we don’t get stuck in Act II, and the promise is real. And the opening chords of Where Two or Three Are Gathered can be heard from the orchestra… and you thank God for Act III, and you sit back, and let the music wash over you, ready to forgive, and ready to be forgiven.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 September 2017
Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia