Rejoice at God’s generosity, kindness

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 18 (Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)

An ancient Greek philosopher once observed wryly that if horses could draw they would draw gods that looked like horses. Or put another way — God created humans in God’s image and humans returned the favour.

The God that we believe we worship is often something of our own creation or projection, looking and acting suspiciously like us. But through the prophets God reminds us very forcefully that God is utterly unlike humans. God’s “ways of thinking” and God’s ways are not merely an extension of our own but of a completely different order. How often we hear from people what God wants, thinks, likes or will do in the immediate future. This is more often than not a projection of the speaker’s prejudices and opinions and those of the group to which he or she belongs. Isaiah urges people to seek God while He is still near so that they can encounter this totally other God.

    Feeding off sacred fire

    “See the wise and wicked ones, who feed upon life’s sacred fire.” That’s a lyric from a song by Gordon Lightfoot that tries to interpret the struggle going on in the heart of the  mythical hero, Don Quixote. Goodness separates him from the world, even as he understands that wickedness has the same source.

    And there’s perplexing irony in this, both the wise and wicked, saints and sinners, feed off the same, sacred source. The same energy that fuels the dedicated selflessness of the saint who dies for the poor fires the irresponsible acting-out of the movie star who proudly boasts of thousands of sexual conquests. Both feed off the same energy which, in the end, is sacred. But it’s easy to misinterpret this.

    For example, one of the major criticisms made of religion is that it too frequently uses God to justify war and violence. We commonly see terrible violence being fueled by faith and religion, as is the case with extreme Islam today. But Christianity is hardly exempt. In the Crusades and the Inquisition we have our own history of violence in God’s name and there is more violence than we have the courage to admit still being done today by Christians who draw both their motivation and their energy from their faith. We can protest that, in these cases, the energy is misguided, perverted or usurped for self-interest, but the point remains the same. It’s still sacred energy, even if perverted.

      Embraced by a fast-food angel

      We wanted late-night refreshment. A lengthy search uncovered one place open, a fast-food restaurant with golden arches. We thought we’d just be getting beverages; we also got a glimpse of the eternal. Serving customers was a young woman and man. As we imbibed our tea, she said loudly enough that we could hear clearly: “It’s not that God doesn’t talk to people. It’s that we’re always feeding the flesh. So the flesh gets big, and the spirit gets small and can’t hear God speaking.”   

      Why doesn’t God speak to people? Or if He does, why so obscurely? Has God been speaking in ways I haven’t been hearing? Perhaps the young woman knew that the opposition between flesh and spirit is not dualistic. It’s not that body is bad and soul is good; this idea has always been considered heretical. Rather, it’s “spirit” in the sense of all that belongs to God and leads us to God; “flesh” in the sense of what drags us down, away from God.

        Forgiveness a way of life

        24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 11 (Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)

        Forgiveness is what we hope for and expect when we have done wrong but are often reluctant to grant to others. But today’s readings are definitely in the “hard sayings” categories for they lay down the law: forgiveness is not optional or something that would be nice but fundamental. Unwillingness to forgive is responsible for much of the world’s fear and violence. It imprisons us with those we hate.

        Many people naively believe that all of the teachings of Jesus were utterly new and never before heard. Actually, most of His teachings are either paralleled in or derived from Jewish tradition. Forgiveness is a case in point — much of what we see in the reading from Sirach is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew. Sirach insists that forgiveness is a package deal — if we expect forgiveness from God we must be willing to extend forgiveness to others. Harboring grudges and desiring revenge is not dignified with psycho-babble but called what it is: sin. A constant remembrance of the shortness of our life, as well as the commandments and the covenant with God, should be enough to dampen anger. We all stand before God — we all have fallen short of His glory — and we all need and hope for mercy and forgiveness. Hatred, anger and the desire for revenge never accomplish anything positive but merely sow the seeds of further conflict and violence. With wonderful divine irony the readings for this Sunday, all having to do with forgiveness, fall on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror.

          We are the agents of our own destiny

          23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 4 (Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)

          Mind your own business! That is our usual reaction to someone who scolds, nags or reproves us for our behaviour — and in most cases it is the proper response. There are many people who enjoy their self-appointed role as executive director of other people’s lives but are rather lax in managing their own.

          But this passage from Ezekiel refers to something entirely different. Ezekiel has been appointed by God as a sentinel or watchman for all of Israel. His job is to warn of potential danger or disaster and to turn people back to God’s ways. He is the conscience of the nation. Ezekiel writes this in exile — the temple had been destroyed in 587 BC and the people were doing a lot of soul-searching. The language seems jarring and violent but it represents the worldview and religious mindset of a culture 2,500 years ago. The people would have seen God’s actions in everything, even the nation’s destruction. And the cause of disaster was always human sin and the divine sanction that followed.

          Today we would be very reluctant to speak of someone dying for their sins, especially when it is implied that this death is at the hand of God. And we would not blame a nation for being the victim of aggression — the nations that were invaded by the Axis powers in the Second World War were not being “punished” for their sins. But God still raises up men and women to act as sentinels — to warn us when we stray from the path of divine principles and enter the spiritual wilderness of selfishness, violence and fear. The warning is not to avert divine punishment but the consequences of our actions — and let there be no doubt, there are always consequences. We are certainly responsible for our own lives and actions but let us not harden our hearts to the advice and warnings of men and women of principle and integrity or the loving guidance of trusted family and friends. The life we save may be our own or that of our community or nation.

            On not bracketing essentials during moral battles

            Today, both within society and the churches, we are finding it ever more difficult to resolve our differences because our conversations are shot through with non-civility, name calling, character assassination and disrespect.

            What’s particularly worrying is that we are doing this in the name of truth, cause, the Gospel and Jesus. We are giving ourselves permission to hate, demonize and disrespect each other in God’s name. Our cause seems so important to us that, consciously or unconsciously, we give ourselves permission to bracket some of the essentials of Christian charity, namely, respect, graciousness, love and forgiveness.

            This is wrong: No cause allows me to exempt myself from fundamental charity, even if I see myself as a “warrior for truth.” There is a Gospel imperative to fight for truth and ultimately we all need to be prophets who fight for what is right; but even war has its ethics. Even in war (perhaps especially in war) disrespect may never be rationalized on the basis of claiming that God is on our side. Indeed, if God is on our side we should radiate respect for others.

              Don’t conform to the world

              Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 28 (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)

              Most of the biblical prophets were less than thrilled with their calling from God and Jeremiah was probably the most reluctant of the lot. Upon being called he offered a barrage of excuses, but God was unmoved. A call is a call, and if it is from God the necessary strength and inspiration will be given.

              Jeremiah had a particularly difficult assignment: he was to prophesy to the nation about the Assyrian and then the Babylonian threat with a ringing call to repentance and rejection of idolatry. But his exhortations and warnings fell on deaf ears. Those in power were surrounded by professional court prophets whose specialty was telling the rulers what they wanted to hear. This is a danger for all who are in positions of power and authority. Their message usually consisted of soothing reassurances that all was well and nothing more was needed to ensure the safety of the nation. No one had time or patience for Jeremiah’s apparent doom and gloom predictions. He would suffer a lifetime of ridicule, rejection, physical abuse, imprisonment and even an attempt on his life. He lived to see his terrible predictions come to pass as the temple and city were destroyed.

                Authority must be exercised with justice, integrity

                Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 21 (Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

                People and institutions do not readily or easily relax their steely grip on power. Like this shadowy figure Shebna they come to believe that they have a right to office and position and that power once given is eternal. Shebna was denounced by Isaiah for arrogance, pride, court intrigue and engaging in power politics to counter the Assyrian threat.

                Those addicted to power have not yet learned the lesson that our friend Shebna is about to learn: all legitimate authority is from God but it is conditional. The condition is that it be exercised with justice, integrity and mercy and that it always be above reproach. If it is not, God can and often will raise another person or group to power. We have seen this played out in our own lifetimes: dictators sent packing, brutal regimes brought low and corrupt officials disgraced. No one is exempt or immune — this applies equally to the political, economic and religious spheres. And when an institution, political or religious, fails to live up to God’s expectations it too must suffer and be purified. The key is accountability, not only to the people but to God. All power or authority is given for service to humanity and the common good and is not an innate or unlimited right. In this passage power was transferred to David and his descendants but they all fell short of God’s expectations, sometimes egregiously so and with catastrophic consequences.

                  Into the darkness, where we can let go

                  In a retreat I led, we talked about healing broken relationships: not just fixing something, but the new life that can come out of broken places. In the process, a real life is established, for underneath the relationship that broke is a life in need of deep healing.

                  Forgiveness can’t happen unless we’re willing to let go of winning or losing, being right or wrong. (Fortunately, God forgives — thereby unlocking the door to the process.) This is not to say there isn’t hurt and responsibility, and we may need to sort out what we’re responsible for and what we’re not.

                  What needs to be let go of? It’s almost never what you think; the surprise of it is part of the joy.

                  Some hours after this discussion, I was in the garden weeding, during free time after lunch. A participant was on the porch changing a diaper. She lingered, enjoying the beauty of the woods, the sunshine, others’ presence. She broke a long silence by asking me, across the garden: “But how do I let go?”  

                    There are no favourites in heaven

                    Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 14 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

                    Who are God’s favourites? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Human beings have always had a distressing tendency to want to possess or control God, making God the champion or protector of an ethnic group, nation, class or religion. People have difficulty imagining God blessing those considered to be enemies or undesirables. And yet the “distressing” message is repeated often in Scripture: God does not play favourites and God is there for all people.

                    Often it is the encounter with people and groups who are different that acts as a catalyst for rethinking images of God. Those Israelites who went into exile in Babylon had to live among (and at the mercy of) an alien people with very different views of the divine. Although they struggled against this environment they also were affected by it and began to broaden their theology and their image of God. In Third Isaiah (chapters 55-61), which was written at the end of the exile, we begin to see a more universal understanding of God. In this passage an image of a holy mountain and temple in which all the peoples of the Earth are welcome makes a startling appearance. Israel’s God can be everyone’s God — right conduct, desire and worship is the only entrance requirement.

                      In God, all is possible

                      Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 7 (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33)

                      What would we expect to see if it were announced that the Lord was going to pass by? Nurtured on many of the stories from the Old Testament and years of Hollywood biblical epics, we would be waiting from a spectacular display of power and energy. That was most likely Elijah’s expectation, and sometimes that is how we expect to find the presence of God in our lives — with lots of flair and excitement. When that is not forthcoming it is easy to slip into pessimism and negativity, thinking that God has abandoned us or that God plays favourites.

                      Elijah witnessed a parade of flashy and powerful earthquakes, wind and fire. But guess what — God was not in any of these. God is not to be identified with natural phenomena — God is much more than that. God is quiet, unobtrusive and subtle; God is non-violent. The Hebrew word is translated in different ways — a murmuring sound, a still small voice, a gentle whispering breeze, and here in this translation “sheer silence.” The “correct” translation can be left to the scholars. They all say fairly much the same thing: quiet, gentleness, stillness, something just beyond our conscious awareness like a dream struggling to be remembered. When Elijah experienced this he covered his face for he knew that he was in the presence of the Holy One.