Citizens of Heaven, While Grounded on The Earth
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
March 19, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the Second Sunday of Lent (Year C) on March 17, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17 – 4:1; and Luke 9:28b-36.

Today, Paul declares that our citizenship is in heaven. He admonishes us not to occupy our minds with “earthly things.” But what exactly does that mean? Well, just after a friend challenged me to think about this in a non-dualistic way, this quotation from Paulist founder Isaac Hecker showed up in my e-mail inbox: “The aim… of the Gospel is not to separate heaven from earth, or the earth from heaven, or to place between them an antagonism; the object of the Gospel is to bring them together, unite them and make them one.”

Our other readings today pick up on this idea of seeing heaven in earthly things. In our first reading, we hear of Abram’s patience to keep faith in God’s promise. Our gospel story, as it is every year on this Second Sunday of Lent, is about Jesus being transfigured before the eyes of some of his apostles. 

Our citizenship is in heaven. Let us acknowledge the moments when we have failed to live up to our baptismal birthright.

While we’re familiar with several of the stories from the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, including Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Ark, most scholars would argue that the main story of our salvation history begins with Abram, our father in faith. Abram’s relationship with God is the primary focus of a whopping 13 chapters of Genesis.  

The story of Abram has inspired billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims for thousands of years. But when you get right down to it, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. At the age of 75, Abram hears a voice of an unknown god calling him to pack up his entire household – his wife, his tents, his servants, and his flocks – and go where the unknown voice tells him to go. Amazingly, Abram does this, without even knowing where he’s going. 

Our passage today takes places a number of years later, and it captures another aspect of this seemingly illogical story. God once again promises to make Abram the father of a great nation. Abram points out the absurdity of this, because he has no children. Our passage picks up as God simply restates his promise to Abram: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Abram stops protesting. What changed?

Jeff Cavins, the author of the very popular Great Adventure Bible Study Program, conjectures that this chapter of Genesis took place in a single day. So, if Abram sacrificed the animals before sunset, did God invite Abram to go outside and count the stars in the middle of the day? [Pause.] If so, Abram could probably only see the sun, which he probably didn’t even understand to be a star. However, Abram knew that the stars were still there, even if he couldn’t see them.

Why do Jews, Christians, and Muslims revere Abram? He doesn’t sound like the typical hero who goes out to conquer a monster, an army, or a country. The Bible simply says: “Abram put his faith in the LORD.” He followed an unknown voice. He believed the unbelievable. Abram trusted in heavenly things. 

Have you ever had faith like Abram? I guess I have, once. It took 4,011 days from when I heard the Holy Spirit’s invitation to when I was ordained, and there were lots of days in between when the outcome was in doubt. But I pressed on.

In our gospel today, we have Peter, an inheritor of Abram’s 1800-year-old legacy. As a devout Jew, Peter fervently believes in this God of Abram. He has heard Jesus’ teachings, witnessed Jesus’ miracles, and proclaimed Jesus’ messiahship. And yet, immediately after experiencing the Transfiguration, Peter tries to separate the heavenly from the earthly. Rather than standing in awe, or asking Jesus to explain what happened, Peter starts talking about turning the place into a pilgrimage site, with mini-buses bringing people up the mountain and a souvenir shop at the bottom while they wait for their ride.

Lent is a great time to check in and ask ourselves if we’re making enough space to recognize the heavenly things all around us. Are we more like Abram, or more like Peter? When God calls to us, do we have the courage to listen? When God manifests himself to us, do we make the time to worship? When God makes a promise to us, do we trust the message and believe? Can we, too, be heroes?

While I absolutely love being a priest, it’s been a slog in my spiritual life for the past 18 months. Even though I witness God’s amazing work every day, I continue to hold on to some mindsets and routines that make my life more of a drudgery than it needs to be. The Holy Spirit is inviting me to a simpler and freer way of living right now, but so far, I’ve refused to give up the comforts of the familiar. 

I’ve been praying with a book by local author Paula D’Arcy. She offers me great wisdom: 

  • Make peace with change. 
  • Get over what you expected. 
  • Accept what has been given to you as a gift. 

But I keep resisting. I’m like Peter, wanting to stay on the mountain where Jesus’ glory comes easy, rather than heading into a valley filled with the gifts that will come from dying to some of my selfish ways. But without Christ’s suffering and death, we would not have experienced the greater glory of the Resurrection.

Can all of us persevere like Abram did on his way to the land of Canaan? Can we continue to dialogue with God, even when God’s plans don’t seem to make sense? Can we make sure that we appreciate what happens along the road for what it is, and not get stuck in one place like Peter? 

Paula’s advice for people going through hard times is simple: “Take time every night to look up at the stars.” [Pause.] Or, as Isaac Hecker said, “The aim… of the Gospel is not to separate heaven from earth, [but to] unite them and make them one.” Or, as a friend of mine said, “Looking up at the stars is a wonderfully grounding exercise.”

Whether it’s cloudy or clear, whether it’s nighttime or noon, the stars are still up there. Whether we are in a peak or a valley in our spiritual journey this Lent, our citizenship is in heaven. Let us, like Abram, put our faith in the LORD.