Sunday, March 20, 2011

Couch Potato
2nd Sunday in Lent
Called from the Comfort of the Couch
Picture: cc Banalities

Sisters and brothers, do you like interruptions? Let’s say you’re relaxing on the couch in your home. Maybe you’re watching the game on TV, or talking to your friend on your cellphone, or even taking a nap. Then you hear a voice – a very insistent voice – calling to you from the kitchen. It’s dinner time, and your mother, or your wife, wants you to help set the table. Or maybe you hear the doorbell ringing repeatedly. It’s your neighbor. She needs to borrow some flour, or sugar, or whatever it is that neighbors borrow. In any case, your peace is disturbed. Your relaxation is interrupted. How do you feel? What do you do? What will it take to get you off your couch?

I imagine that the people in our Mass readings for today had to struggle with questions similar to these. Of course, it’s unlikely that Abram and Jesus and his disciples ever relaxed in couches exactly like the ones we find in our homes. But, even so, it’s quite clear that each of them was called to leave a place of comfort, and to embark on an uncertain, even dangerous, journey to somewhere else.

When we meet Abram in the first reading, for example, he is living in a place called Haran. This is where Abram’s father, Terah, had settled with his family many years ago. And now, Abram is already seventy-five years old. He has accumulated many possessions and a large household. Haran is like a cozy couch into which he and his family have settled. They are comfortable here. Then, suddenly, a voice disturbs their peace. This is no ordinary voice. It is God, calling Abram to uproot his family, to leave the comfort of Haran, and to go elsewhere. Where? God will not say. It will be revealed only later. We can probably imagine what it must have been like for Abram to receive this call. Difficult enough to have to get up from a cozy couch to help a pesky neighbor. What more to have to leave your home for an unknown place. And yet, Abram obeys. With his family, he leaves Haran, and travels as the Lord directed him

In the gospel too, we find Jesus and the three disciples resting in a comfortable place. Their couch is not Haran, but the mountain of transfiguration. Below the mountain, there are lots of people waiting to disturb them. Many of these are admirers, begging to be healed of diseases, and to be freed from unclean spirits. Others – like the scribes and the Pharisees – are enemies, looking to pick a fight, trying to get Jesus into trouble. Down below, things are messy and noisy. But up here, on the mountaintop, there is peace. And not only peace. Here, there’s even an intense experience of the glory of God. Here, Jesus’ face and clothes shine out brilliantly, like a giant spotlight. And even Moses and Elijah arrive to show their support. Is it any wonder then that Peter wishes to remain on the mountain? Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will build three tents...

But even while Peter is still speaking, he and the others hear a voice that disturbs their plans and frightens them so much, that they fall to the ground. Again, as in the first reading, this is no ordinary voice. It is God, calling them to listen to Jesus, the beloved Son. And, we may remember what Jesus has told them. In the passage immediately preceding the Transfiguration, just six days earlier, Jesus had predicted that he would have to travel to Jerusalem to suffer greatly... and be killed and on the third day be raised. On the same occasion too, Jesus had said that whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it (Matthew 16:21ff.). Perhaps this is part of the reason why Peter and his companions are so afraid when they hear God’s voice. For to listen to Jesus is to be willing to accompany him as he descends the comfortable mountain of transfiguration, and climbs the cruel hill of Calvary. Or, in the words from the second reading, to listen to Jesus is to bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.

But how does one receive God’s strength? To answer this question, it is useful for us to reflect more deeply on Abram’s experience in the first reading. In asking Abram to leave Haran, God tells him that if he obeys, not only will Abram himself be blessed, but through him, God will bless all the communities of the world. In saying this, God is reminding Abram of two important things, two crucial truths, that will help him to see his situation in a different light. First, even if Abram may be comfortable in Haran, God reminds him that there are many others, living elsewhere, who are not enjoying the same comfort. There are those who still do not know the One True God, from whom alone we all receive the fullness of life. It is only by leaving Haran that Abram can help to reveal God to the nations.

But that’s not all. By promising to bless Abram, God is also reminding him that his situation in Haran is not as ideal as it may at first seem to be. For even if he may be living an easy life, Abram is painfully aware that he and his wife Sarai are childless. And this is a great sorrow for them, a sorrow that God promises to change into joy. But only if Abram leaves his home. For to stay in Haran is to remain barren. And to leave is to bear much fruit, even to the extent of becoming a great nation. These then are the two truths that God uses to strengthen Abram: God reminds him that if he doesn’t leave, not only will he be contributing to the sufferings of others, but, comfortable though he may be, he will not be truly happy.

And we too need to remember these truths today. For the call addressed to Abram and Jesus, to Peter and James and John, is addressed also of us. We who call ourselves disciples of Christ. We who have been baptized in his blood. We who, even now, gather around the Table of the Lord. We too are called to leave our comfortable couches and to follow in the footsteps of Christ. And our couches are as many as they are addictive. For instance, even if the financial situation has not been good, there are still those of us here, myself included, who benefit from a global economic system that favors some people and leaves out many others. A few days ago, I noticed a long line of people outside the Apple Store Downtown. They were eagerly waiting to buy the newly released iPad2. And yet, according to the UN Millenium Project, as of 2006, out of a global population of just under 7 billion,  2.7 billion people struggle to survive on less than two dollars per day. There are also those of us here, again including me, who still live in ways that contribute to global warming. The polar icecaps are melting at an alarming rate. And yet, we cannot help but continue to drive our cars and to consume electricity, often without a second thought. Of course, we cannot adequately address these problems as individuals. But the least we can do, especially in this season of Lent, is to allow God to teach us the same lesson that Abram learned: That if we choose to cling to our comfort, not only will we cause others to suffer, but our lives will remain self-centered and barren. 

Sisters and brothers, what will it take to get us off our couches today?

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