Sunday, June 07, 2009

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Bridging the Distance

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Psalm 33:4-5, 6, 9, 18-19, 20, 22; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20
Picture: cc coolm36

Sisters and brothers, I think many of us are familiar with the song From a Distance, which was popularized especially by Bette Midler in the 1990’s, around the time of the first Gulf War. Do you remember how the song goes?

From a distance the world looks blue and green,
And the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
And the eagle takes to flight.

From a distance, there is harmony,
And it echoes through the land.
It's the voice of hope. It's the voice of peace,
It's the voice of every man.

From a distance we all have enough,
And no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
No hungry mouths to feed.

Do you like the song? I did when I first heard it. And, judging from its no. 1 spot on the Billboard charts at the time, many others did too. Which isn’t surprising. It has an alluring tune. And, more than that, it’s words also touch a deep chord in all of us, something that is perhaps felt more strongly especially in times of war and conflict -- a heartfelt yearning for harmony and peace.

But the song is not without its flaws. It seems to move the listener in a particular direction, doesn’t it? It seems to invite us to step back from our immersion in the messiness of worldly affairs, so that we can see, from a distance, the harmony beyond the chaos. Which may be a wise thing to do from time to time. But what then? Are we to remain looking down on the world only from a distance? Is that even possible? Not only does the song appear to advocate an escape from the world, it also seems to say that this is what God does. You will remember how the song ends by repeatedly telling us that God is watching us. God is watching us… from a distance.

As attractive as this picture may be to some, the Christian image of God is very different. Whereas Bette Midler’s song may seem to advocate an escape from the messiness of the world, our Christian belief in the Holy Trinity presents us with a God who moves precisely in the opposite direction. In the Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit – we find a God who continually immerses God’s self into our chaos. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, likens the Son and the Spirit to two hands that the Father reaches out to save us. And in our readings today, we find at least three ways in which the Hands of the Father do their work.

In the first reading Moses reminds the people of Israel about the mighty deeds of God in their behalf – of how, with strong hand and outstretched arm God freed them from slavery in Egypt. In doing this, it was as if God was pointing a finger at them, choosing them and setting them apart to be God’s very own people. I’m reminded of those old army recruitment posters where the old man with the goatee and the top hat points a finger at the reader: Uncle Sam wants you! What God has done for Israel, God has also done for us. Especially through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God has chosen us. God has set us apart: I want you! And, as we prayed in the psalm response just now, how blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own!

Not only does God choose us, but also, through the twin Hands of the Son and the Spirit, the Father draws us to him and empowers us to respond. As Paul reminds us in the second reading: You received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry “Abba, Father!” Or in the words we addressed to the Father in our opening prayer: you reveal yourself in the depths of our being, drawing us to share in your life and your love.

To these two actions of pointing and drawing, we need to add another: that of sending or commissioning. Which is what we find Jesus doing in the gospel. All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations… I am with you always, until the end of the age. Notice the direction in which God continues to move even as Jesus prepares to ascend into the heavens. Not content simply to watch from a distance, the Father continually reaches out his twin Hands to span the distance between us, promising to remain intimately present to us and in us, even until the end of the age. And because of this consoling divine presence, we too are moved in a very specific direction. Instead of stepping back and keeping our distance from the world, we are instead sent deeper into it to bridge the distance between God and God's people.

And this is a commission that does not go unheeded. I’m reminded, for example, of the recent article in the LA Times about the increase in volunteers joining the Peace Corps, including 25 year-old New Hampshire native, Alexandra Hodgkins, who is spending a couple of years helping the poor in a Panamanian jungle. But it’s not just the needy in faraway places who need a helping hand, is it? What about that 41 year-old man, for example, whose picture appeared on the front page of today’s Santa Barbara News-Press, threatening to set himself alight with gasoline because he hasn’t been able to find a job.

Sisters and brothers, with the world as messy as it is, it is indeed tempting to distance ourselves from it. But that is not what our God – Father, Son and Spirit – does. And, as Christians, that is not what we are called to do. That is not the song we are called to sing. Our song – the song of the Trinity – moves in the opposite direction. Its exact words will vary from person to person and from situation to situation. But perhaps it may sound a little like these lyrics popularized by Simon and Garfunkel in the 1970’s:

When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I’m on your side, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate this solemn feast of the Holy Trinity, which song are we singing, in which direction are we moving today?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Pentecost (Mass During the Day)
Off the Island

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; 1 Corinthian 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

Sisters and brothers, in the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a gung-ho, jet-setting FedEx systems analyst who gets marooned on an uninhabited island when his plane crashes in a storm. He tries to paddle his way to freedom on a life raft. But the waves are too strong for him. No matter how hard he tries, he keeps getting swept back to the isolation of his island prison. Four long and difficult years pass, during which he struggles to stay alive. Then, one day, another storm washes ashore what looks like a wall from a portable toilet, something that anyone else would probably dismiss as a piece of junk. But not Chuck. His time on the island has helped him to see with new eyes. After staring at the thing for some time, he realizes the invaluable opportunity that it represents. He makes a new raft. And out of the piece of discarded debris, he fashions for himself a sail. Using the broken restroom to harness the power of the wind, he finally succeeds in escaping the island and returns to society a changed man.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t the experience of the Holy Spirit very much like that? In a sense, isn’t Pentecost also about getting off a deserted island? We see this most obviously, of course, in both the first reading and the gospel, where the breath of the Spirit drives the disciples from their fearful isolation in the upper room, giving them a mission of reconciliation. As the Father sent me, so I send you… Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.

But the story is much bigger than that isn’t it? The island prison from which the Spirit frees us extends far beyond the confined space of the upper room. For, as we know, Pentecost is only a part of the bigger story of Easter, the story of how God rescues us from the different islands on which we tend to get marooned by the stormy selfishness and shortsightedness of sin – our sin and that of others. Pentecost is about being freed from islands of anger and resentment, for example, where our hearts remain bound by the perceived misdeeds of others. Or islands of loneliness and addiction, where we are held captive by our own desperate cravings. Or islands of greed, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider. Or islands of blindness where we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the truth that may be found in those who are different from us. Sisters and brothers, have you ever been trapped in a prison like these? Anyone who has will know first hand, as Chuck Noland knew, how powerless we are to free ourselves. We need help. And Pentecost is about how the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness, just as the wind helped Chuck. It is about how the Spirit is able to bring together in Christ people who have been torn apart, even people who speak different languages, even people who exercise diverse gifts. In the words of the second reading: As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.

But for us to get off these islands, we need to learn to harness the wind as Chuck did. How do we do that? How do we tap into the power of the Spirit, when we can no longer hear a noise like a strong driving wind, nor see tongues as of fire? Again, it’s helpful to consider Chuck’s experience in the movie. Notice how, even though we might expect the wind to have been blowing on the island periodically all the time that he was there, it wasn’t until four years had passed that Chuck finally managed to harness it. He could do it only when the time was right. And for the time to be right, two things had to happen. First, a sail had to be sent. And second, Chuck had to learn to recognize and to seize the opportunity when it presented itself to him. Both these things were necessary. Without the broken restroom, Chuck couldn’t harness the wind. And without having been transformed by his time on the island, he probably wouldn’t have recognized what looked like a piece of junk as his ticket to freedom. In order for Chuck to harness the wind, the time had to be right.

We find something similar when the Spirit comes in the first reading. We know, of course, that the Spirit has been and is always blowing among us. Recall how, in Genesis 1:2 for example, we are told that already when God created the heavens and the earth… a mighty wind swept over the waters. But still, in order for the disciples to allow this same wind to blow them out of the upper room, the time had to be right. Notice how the first reading begins: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled… Before the disciples could harness the wind, the time had to be fulfilled, a sail had first to be sent, and they had also to learn to see things differently. For them to feel the powerful liberating effects of the Spirit, Christ had first to live, to die, and then to be raised. Christ is the sail that the Spirit washes upon the shores of our separation from one another. But it isn’t easy to realize this. As we know, like the piece of debris that Chuck found, Christ too was dismissed and discarded by those he came to save, a stone rejected by the builders that God used to renovate the face of the earth. It was only after having accompanied him on his mission, after having been shamed by their own cowardice in the face of his Passion and death, and only after having been consoled by him after the Resurrection, that the disciples were finally able to see clearly enough to accept Christ as the only means by which they could harness the wind. As we heard in the second reading: No one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.

And isn’t this what the whole season of Easter has been about? In taking time to ponder the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, we’ve been learning to recognize, in our own lives, the different ways that Christ may be inviting us to use him as our sail – to embrace his way of love, even to point of laying down our lives – so that the Spirit might free us from our islands of isolation. Through our celebration of Easter, we’ve been learning to recognize the crucified and risen Christ in the different ways he comes to meet us. Think, for example, of the person who finally stopped complaining about having no shoes after meeting the one with no feet.

I’m also reminded of this story someone sent me recently:

The local news station was interviewing an 84-year old lady because she had just gotten married - for the fourth time – having survived her three earlier husbands. The interviewer asked her questions about her life, about what it felt like to be married again at 84, and then about her new husband's occupation. "He's a funeral director," she answered. "Interesting,” the interviewer thought. He then asked her if she wouldn't mind telling him about her first three husbands and what they had done for a living. She paused for a few moments to reflect on all those years. After a short time a smile came to her face and she answered proudly, explaining that she first married a banker when she was in her early 20's, then a circus ringmaster when she was in her 40's, later on a preacher when in her 60's, and now, in her 80's, a funeral director. The interviewer looked at her in astonishment, and asked why she had married four men with such diverse careers. "Easy son," she smiled. "I married one for the money... two for the show... three to get ready... and four to go!"

Sisters and brothers, the Spirit of the Lord is already blowing upon the waters, eager to rescue us. How ready are we to go?