The Lord is with us, in good times and bad

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 27 (Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42)

The experience at Massah and Meribah is a recurring theme in the history of the human race. The Israelites have just been rescued from slavery and led out of Egypt by means of powerful signs and wonders. God has humbled the superpower of that age and made mockery of a pharaoh with divine pretentions. They are free, and God has promised to lead them to a land where they can continue to live in freedom.

But now the adrenalin of the escape has abated and reality has set in. They are in a hostile desert — food and water are scarce — and they have no idea where they are or where they are going. With the onset of fear come the complaining, quarrelling and the testing of God that will characterize their entire journey through the wilderness.

People have notoriously short memories when it comes to the graces that God bestows on them. For that matter, this memory deficit also applies to the good that others do for us. Their cry echoes with those of so many throughout history even in our own day: Is the Lord among us? Does God even exist? The attitude of the Israelites at that point is shared by people everywhere: If I am a believer, why should I suffer? When the going gets tough, faith is the first victim. And the Israelites want to go back into Egypt, their place of slavery, because in their minds the life was easier and more predictable and secure. Forgotten is the pain and bitterness of slavery.

People usually want to go back into their own Egypt. Sometimes they imagine an earlier time in which society was more wholesome and nice and people were more civil and kind. They might remember a previous job, conveniently forgetting how badly they were treated by the boss. Or they might want to return to a romanticized period in the Church rather than face the challenges of the present. All of these reactions are long on fear and short on faith. Faith is not doctrine or creeds but an unwavering trust in the presence and the loving care of God. It does not cut and run at the first sign of adversity, confusion or suffering.

Paul recognizes that it is by means of this faith that we are placed in right relationship with God. With this faith comes reconciliation and peace but even more: the gift of the Spirit of God that is poured into our hearts. This Spirit enables us to be loving and faith-filled people regardless of what is going on around us. It is a sure sign that God is with us and that we share in God’s glory.

In this haunting and rather mysterious story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well we learn that God is still providing for our needs but now the focus is on more than day-to-day survival. Jesus has stepped beyond the ordinary in this encounter: He is in hostile Samaritan territory; He is talking to a woman alone. The conversation gets off to a shaky start with her brusque and sarcastic response to His request for water. Jesus does not help the conversation for He speaks in riddles, symbols and metaphors in His attempt to enlighten her. Just as God provided water for one kind of thirst in the desert, God now provides “living water” for a deeper sort of thirst. The Spirit will quench the thirst for God and transcendence and will never fail or give out.

But with this gift of the Spirit there is a challenge. When the woman asks for the legitimate place of divine worship she is told that from now on it is neither Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerizim. God is now to be worshipped in the human heart and soul through the presence of the Spirit. In a sense, the ground upon which we stand is holy for God is present. Worshipping in spirit and truth describes a personal and direct encounter with God. This personal gift of the Spirit must never be domesticated or given into the control of others for it is the gift of access to God that Jesus Himself gives us. Is the Lord with us or not? Look within!

Saved by one man's sacrifice

We are saved by the death of Jesus! All Christians believe this. This is a central tenet within the Christian faith and the center of almost all Christian iconography. Jesus' death on a cross changed history forever. Indeed, we measure time by it. The effect of his death so marked the world that, not long after he died, the world began to measure time by him. We are in the year 2011 since Jesus was born.

But how does this work? How can one person's death ricochet through history, going backwards and forwards in time, being somehow beyond time, so as to effect past, present, and future all at the same time, as if that death was forever happening at the present moment? Is this simply some mystery and metaphysics inside of the Godhead that isn't meant to be understood within any of our normal categories?

Too often, I believe, the answer we were given was simply this: It's a mystery. Believe it. You don't have to understand it.

Following Jesus - According to the letter or the spirit?

I work and move within church circles and find that most of the people I meet there are honest, committed, and for the most part radiate their faith positively. Most church-goers aren't hypocrites. What I do find disturbing within church circles though is that too many of us can be bitter, angry, mean-spirited, and judgmental, especially in terms of the very values that we hold most dear.

It was Henri Nouwen who first highlighted this, commenting with sadness that many of the really angry, bitter, and ideologically-driven people he knew he had met inside of church circles and places of ministry.  Within church circles, it sometimes seems, everyone is angry about something.  Moreover, within church circles, it is all too easy to rationalize our anger in the name of prophecy, as a healthy passion for truth and morals.

The logic works this way: Because I am sincerely concerned about an important moral, ecclesial, or justice issue, I can excuse a certain amount of neurosis, anger, elitism, and negative judgment, because I can rationalize that my cause, dogmatic or moral, is so important that it justifies my mean spirit: I need to be this angry and harsh because this is such an important truth!

Building an Ark

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.

You will recognize these words as the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, If, and they, as much as any scriptural commentary, provide the key to understand the story of Noah and the Ark.

What is the meaning of this story? Are we really to believe that at a certain time in history the whole earth was flooded and that one man, Noah, had the foresight to build a boat on which he had placed a male and female of every living species on earth so as to save them from extinction?  Clearly the story is not to be taken literally, as a concrete event in the history of this planet. Like a number of other biblical stories of the origins of history, it is not an historical video-tape of what happened but is rather a story of the human heart, a story which is truer than true in that it happens again and again inside of our lives. And how does it happen? What is the meaning of the story of Noah and the Ark?

'Doers' of the Word are righteous

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time March 6 (Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; Psalm 31; Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27)

A theologian once insisted that “religion is unbelief.” While this is probably a stark and exaggerated statement in need of much qualification there is also a kernel of truth in it.

There is a human tendency to construct a religion as a buffer or barrier between them and God. In this way they can “control” God and keep God away from the innermost part of their heart and soul where God desires to dwell. Religion then becomes kind of a game — keeping God “happy,” obtaining divine benefits, but continuing one’s life as usual. It is the tendency and danger that all of the prophets railed against and it was at the core of many of the teachings of Jesus.

Straining for Sabbath amidst the demands of phones and computers

A comedian recently quipped that today's information technologies have effectively rendered a number of things obsolete, most notably phone-books and human courtesy. That's also true for human rest.

Today's information technologies (the internet, email, software programs like Facebook, mobile phones, IPhones, pocket computers, and the like) have made us the most informed, efficient, and communicative people ever. We now have the capability, all day, every day, of accessing world events, world news, whole libraries of information, and detailed accounts of what our families and friends are doing at any moment. That's the positive side of the equation.

Less wonderful is what this is doing to our lives, how it is changing our expectations, and robbing us of the simple capacity to stop, shut off the machines, and rest. As we get wrapped up more and more in mobile phones, texting, email, Facebook, and the internet in general, we are beginning to live with the expectation that we must be attentive all the time to everything that's happening in the world and within the lives of our families and friends. The spoken and unspoken expectation is that we be available always - and so too others. We used to send each other notes and letters and expect a reply within days, weeks, or months. Now the expectation for a reply is minutes or hours, and we feel impatient with others when this expectation is not met and guilty inside of ourselves when we can't meet it.

We will never be abandoned nor forsaken by God

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 27 (Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34)

All God-language is metaphorical and symbolic, for God cannot be described or contained within any word or concept. In the Gospels Jesus routinely employs similes, metaphors and symbols, using everyday images to give hints and suggestions of the nature of God’s Kingdom. Symbolic modes of speech are useful for sketching the divine in very broad terms.

Jesus commands us to share our love with all

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 20 (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48)

What does it mean to be holy? People often toss the word around carelessly but when pressed to define the term they are at a loss. In the Old Testament the term meant that which is set apart — something special and undefiled.

The Book of Leviticus — certainly not everyone’s favourite book of the Bible — contains some very interesting and challenging commands in its Holiness Code. The passage tells us that holiness is one of the defining descriptions of God. God is holy and God commands the Israelites to be the same. This holiness is manifested in behaviour and attitudes that differ from the typically human and the text is quick to elaborate. Hatred is out, as is the bearing of grudges and the taking of revenge. That alone signals a huge modification of ordinary human behaviour and if practised would result in a very different world. But then comes the big one: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. It should sound familiar for Jesus quotes this passage in the Gospels as part of the greatest commandment.

Christ allows us to witness joy

How many times have you heard “My Favourite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and other songs from The Sound of Music? Probably too many. Wonderful tunes, but so familiar they’re hard to hear.

Their delightfulness was renewed for me by my niece Clare. She knows the songs and the actions that accompany them by heart. She loves to sing along — during “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” she echoes in top voice, “older and WISER!” When the children sing the good-bye song, she waves and bows, with flourish great and smile wide.  

Clare was born with Down Syndrome, in a culture which finds this chromosomal condition so unacceptable that some 90 per cent of babies known to have it in North America are aborted. She has suffered from the prejudice. But she has not forgotten how to revel in the joys of music and dance.

God's commandments give us guidance in living a good life

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 13 (Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37)

“It’s not my fault!” Humans are experts at placing blame everywhere but where it belongs. When they do stupid or wicked things it is far easier to find something or someone to blame than to accept responsibility.

But Sirach will have none of this. His work is part of an Old Testament theological tradition scholars call the “two-ways” spirituality. People are presented with two ways — one leads to life and happiness, the other to destruction and death. On Ash Wednesday we begin Lent with a two-ways passage from Deuteronomy. We are always urged to choose the first but sadly, as our world attests, many choose the latter. People blame society, their circumstances, other people, genetics or even God. But Sirach is clear: we always have a choice. All of these other influences are certainly present and they can sometimes be very powerful, but in the end nothing can trump the human will.

Light will flow from an awakened heart

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 6 (Isaiah 58:6-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16)

What makes a people, society or nation holy or spiritual? For many it is the visible signs of religiosity: crucifixes, churches and places of worship, liturgical celebrations and a privileged place for religious symbols and practices. There is a certain security and comfort in these traditions but often they amount to little more than identity markers and signs of belonging.

Isaiah — as many of the other prophets — questions the manner in which they are used. He makes it crystal clear that the worship of God is properly expressed in justice and compassionate action. He calls for the zealous removal of all forms of economic, social and political bondage that enslaves people. In addition to that he insists on active and hands-on forms of compassion: sharing with the poor and hungry, even to the point of inconvenience and personal sacrifice. Probably the most difficult command is removing the “pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” — both are things we love to do, especially if we are convinced we are right or morally and spiritually superior.