God will lead us out of the darkness

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 8 (Wisdom 18:6-9; Psalm 33; Hebrews 11:1-2; 8-19; Luke 12:32-48)

What did they know and when did they know it? This old legal question from the Watergate era can also be applied to Wisdom’s retelling of the Exodus story. We are given to believe that the Israelites knew beforehand exactly what was going to transpire. They knew God’s plan, the impending destruction of the Egyptians, as well as their imminent deliverance. But this does not square with the Exodus account itself, and indeed Wisdom is a theological reinterpretation of Exodus written over a thousand years after the event. It also does not explain Israel’s infidelity and lack of faith in the wilderness immediately after their escape.

Character will make you wealthy

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21)

Who is Ecclesiastes? In some translations Qoheleth is rendered the “Teacher” or “Preacher” while others translate Qoheleth as the name of a person. But one thing is clear: he is probably not the sort of person you would invite to a party or an outing.

He often strikes the reader as dour, cynical and world-weary. In fact, a fair number of rabbis were somewhat reluctant to admit this book into the canon of Scripture — it seems to lack joy, hope or a sense of life’s purpose.

God gives us second chances to get it right

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 25 (Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13)

We are all familiar with the fire and brimstone story of Sodom — perhaps a bit too familiar. There are many strange overtones to the story. First of all, despite the alleged enormity of their sin God is somewhat in the dark and has to go down to check things out Himself — never mind His omniscient nature.

Abraham stands before God as if before a human being. Then there is the haggling and bargaining that Abraham engages in. He almost sounds like an auctioneer! And in the course of his haggling he upbraids God and “shames” Him into behaving as God should! We might also ask if it is proper for God to nuke an entire city for the failings of its inhabitants.

Spiritual maturity in Jesus

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 18 (Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42)

Having houseguests isn’t always a joy even for close friends and relatives. Inviting strangers to stay over under one’s roof is almost unheard of today. In the ancient Middle East, offering hospitality to travellers and strangers was serious business — in fact, it was a life and death matter. Once hospitality had been extended, the host was responsible not only for the comfort and well-being of his guests but their very lives.

Christ is the reconciling force of nature

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 11 (Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Psalm 69; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37)

What does God want from us? How should we live? What is right and wrong? These are questions that people have wrestled with for centuries.

People being what they are tend to create answers to those questions that are unbelievably complicated and abstract. Sometimes they are even spiritually, psychologically or physically damaging. Human sacrifice, religious violence or religious justifications for grave injustices are just a few of the darker possibilities.

Do not fear human touch

One of the few times I’ve been seriously ill occurred in Europe. Being away from home, it took a while to find appropriate medical help and by the time I did the pain was out of control. My mind was starting to wander down strange corridors. As I lay, finally, in hospital awaiting doctors, my brother sat beside me, touched my hand and talked to me of this and that. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, the physical presence of another, held and anchored me and kept me from slipping away into that alternate universe.

Human touch can actually change pain and suffering, being a powerful agent of healing. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, once responded to a question about how to help those whose suffering is unspoken, or unspeakable. He replied: Touch . . . human touch can unlock chambers of the heart which might otherwise become a lifelong prison.

But can we touch one another?

May zeal for God's justice be in our hearts

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 4 (Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20)

How can we rejoice when there isn’t much to rejoice about? Calls to be joyful when we are in the midst of tragedy, depression or other difficulties can be hurtful and infuriating. And yet that is exactly what the prophet is telling the people of Israel to do. Jerusalem was in shambles — the exiles returned from Babylon to find ruin and decay. After decades there seemed to be no significant change and the beautiful images from the earlier prophecies began to ring rather hollow. Rejoice — right!

We walk the Spirit's path when we serve others

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) June 27 (1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62)

Recruiting was a bit simpler in ancient Israel. All Elijah the prophet had to do was throw his mantle over Elisha and his life changed forever — no protests, no excuses and no attempts at evasion. It doesn’t appear that there was a long anguished search for self-identity and his “professional” options were rather limited and clear-cut. Perhaps people were more focused on their life that was right before them and clearer on the reason they were alive.

Undoing God's work in an unwise idea

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) June 20 (Zechariah 12:10-11; Psalm 63; Galatians 3:26-26; Luke 9:18-24)

For whom shall the people mourn, and who is the one who has been pierced? Scholarly theories abound, and it is very difficult to even date these oracles from Zechariah. But evidence suggests that they address a broken and impoverished nation that has recently returned from exile in Babylon.

The glorious victory and radiant future promised by the exilic prophets has not materialized, and the Jewish nation is torn apart by dissension within and threats from without.

This famous oracle speaks of a time when the people of Jerusalem will come to their senses and have their own hearts broken with the knowledge of their own injustice and sin. Even repentance itself is a gift from God, and the spirit of compassion and supplication promised by God will begin the process of healing and renewal.

On the roadway to Paradise

An unforgettable look emanated from James’ eyes as he told of the sacrifices he’d made to raise his son alone; neither boasting nor with shame, simply a narrative. He’d given up much to keep his son John, including his own family, who couldn’t accept the child. John had just been accepted into medical school — for which purpose James had for years been working overtime, postponing his own education. A look of shining peace, joy fulfilled, pain not gone or forgotten but changed, beamed from his eyes and radiated from his whole being.

In times of sorrow and suffering, joy can seem a far-off dream, an illusion. I’ve mentioned the word “joy” to people and seen the look of incredulity, as though I’d mentioned flowing waters to a Saskatchewan farmer in the midst of the 1930s drought. Could such a thing be?  Could it be for me?

It’s a trick of sorrow:  sometimes it can make joy seem imaginary. But could joy be present within the suffering that makes us sad? Joy can seem to forget sadness; but isn’t sorrow somehow present in joy, too, changed but recognizable, like the grown-up woman whom we last saw as a small child?

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain….

(Kahlil Gibran)

James’ joy in John’s accomplishment was pure and filled the room. Yet the pain — physical, mental, spiritual — that preceded it, and helped bring it about, was somehow present too.

Christian tradition reminds us we dwell in a place where sin and suffering are ever-present; that we’ve been exiled from paradise, an angel with a shining sword guarding the gate so we cannot return. Christianity maintains joy is the eternal reality, sorrow and pain the passing ones. So often it seems the other way round; our preaching, teaching, writing, witnessing, can be the other way round, dwelling on pain and letting joy fade away.  “Rejoice!” was the angel’s greeting to Mary, at the sin-shattering moment of the incarnation. Her “yes” to God’s overshadowing her brought with it the shadow of suffering, a sword that pierced her heart even as (because?) her heart was big enough to bear God Himself. Was that sorrow a masked version of the joy the angel brought her?

We don’t dwell in paradise. But does it dwell within us? One of our earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyons, has a unique depiction of Adam and Eve. He describes them, and therefore all humanity, as living “in the roadway to paradise.”  He portrays them as children in the garden, destined to grow, develop, change; created in God’s image, with the capacity to become ever more like God. That destiny doesn’t alter when they move from Paradise into the roadway. What changes is that now, their capacity for God is to be fulfilled within a world of suffering and sin. Now sorrow is part of joy; pain is part of learning to love.

It may not be what we would choose. Had Adam and Eve consulted us, we might have said, “No, stay in paradise, we don’t really want sorrow and suffering even if they do lead to joy and wholeness. Let’s have the joy without the sorrow.” But there’s a surprising delight in being in the roadway to paradise, in discovering here (rather than in a paradise with no shadow of suffering) our capacity for God. Joy and sorrow are inseparable, writes Gibran; “together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” Within their relationship is the mystery of how God is intertwined in our lives.

Irenaeus reviews Old Testament history, in which humanity is tripped up over and over by sin and sadness, seemingly lost. He retells the story through incarnation eyes, showing how Christ enters into that lostness, and by taking it up and making it his own, redeems it, “recapitulates” it (Irenaeus adopts this word from Ephesians 1:10). Christ brings the incarnation into the human story, thereby re-opening humanity to the divine. Thus a history of pain and sorrow and brokenness becomes moreso a history of joy and love and fulfilment. This is how Christ recapitulates human history; and each of our histories, if we will let Him.

James was telling his history with incarnation eyes: a story not of sadness only, but of sorrow taken up into joy. If we were to allow Christ into our sorrows, might they too be taken up into joy?

Those who do God's Word are justified

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) June 13 (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3)

There is nothing as painful as the knowledge that one has let God down. God had been very good to David — He plucked him from insignificance and obscurity and anointed him as King of Israel, saving David from his enemies in the process. God heaped blessings on David and was prepared to do even more.