Sunday, March 27, 2011

revenge of the turkey... before the accident

3rd Sunday of Lent (A)
Like Turkey or Chocolate
Picture: cc schmish

Sisters and brothers, do any of you cook? Or, even if you don’t, perhaps you’ve spent some time helping out in the kitchen. If so, you may have noticed how different foods react very differently to heat. When I stick a turkey in a hot oven, for example, the soft meat will gradually toughen up. And if I leave it in too long, the whole bird will dry out. It’ll become as hard as a stone. Maybe hard enough even to give someone a serious injury if I threw it at him.

But things are quite different if I put a solid bar of chocolate in a skillet, and heat it over a stove. In contrast to the turkey, the hard chocolate melts. And, once melted, it can be used to make a delicious dessert, or to bake a scrumptious cake. Quite a contrast, isn’t it, the effect of heat on turkey and on chocolate?

And this contrast that we see in food can also be seen in people too. Take the people in our Mass readings for today, for example. All of them are experiencing heat of some sort. Yet they react quite differently. Consider the Israelites in the first reading. They’ve been wandering in the desert for some time. It’s very hot. And they’re very thirsty. How do they react? Very much like a turkey left for too long in a hot oven. They become hardened. They start complaining against Moses and against God. So angry do they become, that Moses begins to fear for his life. Any more and they will stone me! But how does it happen that the people could be so harsh towards Moses? He is the hero who led them out of slavery, the instrument that God used to help them across the Red Sea. Like a turkey in an oven, the Israelites have allowed the desert heat to dry them out. In their craving for water, they’ve lost touch with the deeper desires that motivated them to flee from Egypt in the first place. They’ve forgotten their yearning for freedom. They’ve misplaced their thirst for God.

Contrast this experience of the Israelites with that of Jesus in the gospel. He too is suffering from the heat. We’re told that it’s about noon, the hottest time of the day. He’s tired from traveling, and probably thirsty too. He finds a well, but he doesn’t have a bucket to draw water for himself. So Jesus does something that was considered very inappropriate in those days. He asks a strange woman for water. And not just any woman, but a Samaritan. As might be expected, instead of giving him what he wants, the woman starts arguing with him. At this point, another person might have been irritated by the heat and the woman’s reluctance. Maybe even to the point of losing his temper, and taking what he wants from her by force.

But Jesus is more like a bar of chocolate than a turkey. Instead of being hardened by the heat, his heart melts with compassion. Instead of quarreling with the woman, he enters into a spiritual conversation with her. Instead of forcing her to give him a drink, he helps her to find that inner spring of living water welling up to eternal life. And he is able to do this because, unlike the Israelites, Jesus remains very much aware that it is not just for water that he is thirsting. As much as he may desire a drink from the well, what he craves even more is to do what his heavenly Father has sent him to do. My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, he says, and to finish his work. And, as is written in the first letter to Timothy, the Father’s will is for everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (2:4).

Much more than a drink of water, what Jesus is thirsting for is the faith of the Samaritan woman. So much so that, quite strangely, even by the end of this long gospel reading, we find no mention of Jesus ever having had a drop of water to drink. Somehow it just doesn’t seem as important anymore. And not only Jesus, but the Samaritan woman too. Whereas, initially, she was suspicious of Jesus, after speaking with him, we’re told that the woman gets so excited that she forgets the reason why she went to the well in the first place. She even leaves her water pitcher behind, and runs off to tell other people about her experience. Like Jesus, she seems no longer interested in water. Other thirsts have become even more important. And, like Jesus, the woman’s heart, which had earlier been hardened by many failed relationships – we’re told that she’s had five husbands – has now begun to melt. The stone of hurt feelings has been transformed into a spring of new life, a fountain of living water that refreshes not just the woman, but her fellow Samaritans as well. They invite Jesus, a Jew, to stay with them.

Quite a contrast, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? The hostile hardening of the Israelites versus the compassionate melting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. A contrast that is very much like the difference between a turkey in an oven and a bar of chocolate on a skillet. And, more importantly, this is a contrast that we can still experience today. Sure, we may not be living in a desert. But we remain exposed to heat of various kinds. Some of these may be more personal in nature. Like the Samaritan woman, we may face disappointments in our relationships, or challenges in the workplace, or troubles in school. How do we react? Also, on a national level, as we remain affected by an economy that is still struggling to recover, or when terrorists continue to threaten our security, what is our response? Do we allow the heat to harden us and to dry up our deeper desires for justice and peace and love? Or do we find opportunities to reach out to others?

As followers of Christ, we know what our reactions should be. We know, that especially when the heat is on, each one of us is called to act with compassion. For this is what we ourselves have received from the Lord. This is the grace of our baptismal commitment, which we are preparing to renew at Easter. This is what we are celebrating in this Eucharist. The deep, abiding, and unconditional love of God for God’s people. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading: God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Sisters and brothers, how are we reacting to the heat today? Like turkey or chocolate?

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?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Unknown Bug
Ash Wednesday
Bugs in the Light
Picture: cc Ken-ichi

Sisters and brothers, if you were to go for a walk in the woods and turn over a rock that was lying on the ground, what do you think will happen? Very likely, you will see lots of tiny insects scrambling about, desperately looking for a place to hide. These little guys like to live in places that are damp and dark. So that when the rock is lifted, and the sunlight shines upon them, their first reaction is to run away. 

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but I find this image of bugs scrambling to escape the light, a useful one for helping me to appreciate the reason why I need Lent. As you know, in a little more than forty days time, we will be celebrating Easter Sunday. Slightly more than six weeks from today, we will celebrate in a special way that incredible moment when the stone was rolled away from the tomb, and the brilliant light of the Crucified and Risen Christ shone out upon the world. As an important part of our celebration, we will also be renewing our baptismal promises. We will be recommitting ourselves, not just to live and to walk in the marvelous Light of Christ, but also to share it with others.

There’s just one problem. If I were to be completely honest with myself, I have to admit that there’s a part of me that will find it difficult to rejoice at Easter. When the stone is rolled away and the Light of Christ shines out, there’s a part of me that probably won’t be rushing out to welcome the Light with open arms. Instead, this part of me will be desperately trying to run away and to hide. For I know that even though the Light of Christ gives life, it can also be very uncomfortable. To remain in the light also means being willing to forgive and even to love those who have hurt me. It means taking time to care for those who need my attention: my family, my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors... Remaining in the light means being willing to take up my own cross daily, and follow in the footsteps of the Lord. Sisters and brothers, as embarrassed as I am to say it, like those bugs living under the rock in the woods, there is a part of me that prefers the damp and the dark to the light.

Which is why I need these days of Lent. This is a special time. In the words of the second reading, this is the very acceptable time. This is the day of salvation. During these holy days, together with all of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I will ask the Lord to wash me from my guilt, to cleanse me from my sin, to create for me a clean heart. I will allow the Lord to prepare me to walk in his Light.

I will do this especially by engaging in the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But I have to be careful. For, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, it is possible to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. It is possible to pray and to fast and to give alms only so that others will see me and think highly of me. But when I do this, I remain engulfed in darkness. When I seek only the harsh glare of public approval, my heart becomes hardened in selfishness. What I need, instead, is to seek the approval of the One whom the prophet Joel speaks about in the first reading: The God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment. Under the gentle glow of God’s compassionate love, I can learn to allow my heart to melt, and even to break. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God.
With a broken heart, I can learn to welcome the Light of Christ.

Sisters and brothers, in your life, are there any stones that need overturning, any bugs that need rousing, this Lent?