Sunday, August 30, 2020

Pandemic & Priorities

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 62(63):2-6,8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Picture: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York

My dear friends, have you noticed how a crisis can reveal our true priorities? I recently stumbled upon a viral video clip of two men having a heated argument on a bus. Perhaps you’ve seen it too. It seems one of them was not wearing his mask properly, and the other, the bus captain, refused to move the bus until he did so. At one point, the passenger could be heard shouting, it’s my life! These words might seem to indicate that the passenger values his personal comfort even more than his own life, let alone the lives of others. So hasn’t the pandemic uncovered his true priorities?

Similarly, in both the first reading and the gospel, we see priorities being uncovered by a crisis of persecution. Jeremiah is imprisoned for delivering an unpopular message from God to the people. Jesus predicts that he will soon have to suffer and die at the hands of his enemies, before being raised up on the third day. Yet, although Jeremiah complains bitterly about his troubles, both he and Jesus somehow find the courage to submit. Each is willing to lay down his life. Not for the sake of comfort. But for the sake of the mission that each has received from God. As with that passenger on the bus, a time of crisis reveals the true priorities of Jeremiah and Jesus. For them both, God comes first, even before life itself.

Which may lead us to wonder how the right priorities can be cultivated in us. And, if our priorities are too selfish or short-sighted, how might they be changed? Here in our fine city, the obvious way is, of course, through stiff penalties for non-compliance. No mask? $300 fine. But our readings propose a different approach. In the case of Jeremiah, for example, the motivation for putting God first comes not so much as an external imposition, but as an inner fire raging within the heart, a burning thirst drawing the soul closer to God.

The second reading offers us a helpful way to kindle this inner fire, to attend more closely to this God-seeking thirst. Think of God’s mercy, St Paul writes, and worship him… by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice… Regularly call to mind the merciful love that God has shown us in the Cross of Christ, and continues to show us, especially here at the Eucharist, but also in our daily lives. By doing this, we allow the spark of God’s great love for us – so undeserved, and so often taken for granted – to set our own hearts on fire.

Pondering God’s mercy towards us can lead to the proper ordering of our priorities, so that love for God and neighbour gradually takes precedence over all else. Even over our own comfort and convenience, our own liberty and life. Surely, this is a timely reminder for us, even as Covid-19 continues to test our faith and hope in God, as well as the mercy and love we have for others, particularly those most vulnerable.

Sisters and brothers, as individuals and as families, as a nation and as a community of disciples of Christ, what must we do to allow God to properly order our priorities today?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Messy Food, Mercy Table

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Psalm 66(67):2-3,5-6,8; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Picture: cc Amanda Westmont

My dear friends, do you like messy food? Food that can never stay obediently in one place? Like a delicious bowl of laksa, for example, which you can’t truly savour without splattering gravy all over yourself, and perhaps onto your neighbour as well. Or a sloppy hamburger, the juicy contents of which you can never quite manage to keep from falling out onto your plate, or into your lap, however hard you may try. And yet, true lovers of laksa and hamburgers don’t let such things discourage them. They understand that messiness is part of what makes their favourite food so enjoyable.

Perhaps that brave Canaanite woman in the gospel is thinking of food similar to these, when she begs to be fed from a table to which she has not been invited. Or so it seems at first. When Jesus tells her that he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and that it is not fair to throw the children’s food to the house-dogs, she still insists on enjoying the scraps that fall from their master’s table. Clearly, she believes that the food she is seeking is so messy to eat that even the scraps that fall unavoidably from the table will be large enough to satisfy her hunger, to meet her need.

So what is this deliciously messy food? … We find the answer in the first words the woman addresses to Jesus. The reading translates them as Sir, Son of David, take pity on me… But in the Greek text, the woman utters words similar to those we used earlier, in the penitential rite, Eleeson me Kyrie. Have mercy on me, Lord.

Mercy is the food that the woman begs from Jesus in the gospel. And, coincidentally or not, mercy is also the word that appears no less than four times in the second reading. Mercy is what God offers to both Jew and pagan alike. For St Paul, it seems as though God’s mercy is so messy, that its morsels can’t be prevented from falling off the table, first from the Jews to pagans like us, and then back to the Jews again.

The messiness of God’s mercy is, of course, shown most clearly in the Body of the Crucified and Risen Christ. The same Body that is broken to feed us at this Eucharist, and into which we are transformed, as we leave this holy place. Isn’t this how God fulfils the promise made to faithful foreigners in the first reading? To bring them to God’s holy mountain, and to make them joyful in God’s house of prayer?

My dear friends, like a delicious bowl of laksa, or a juicy hamburger, mercy is a messy food. To truly enjoy it, you cannot help but spread its sloppy goodness to others, especially those who need it most. Isn’t this a timely reminder for us now? In this time of crisis, it’s surely important for us to care first for those with whom we have a closer connection – our family, our community, our country… Even so, perhaps we also need to consider how to allow our blessings to overflow to feed others too who may be hungry.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to better enjoy the messiness of God’s mercy, and to share its tasty goodness with others today?

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Beyond the Shell

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: 1 Kings 19:9,11-13; Psalm 84(85):9-14; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

Picture: cc Runaway Juno

My dear friends, have you ever wondered why something as soft and smooth and sweet as durian should come wrapped in such a hard and thorny and scary-looking shell? I don’t know the exact answer to this question. But, thankfully, even without knowing why durian has such a hard shell, I can still enjoy eating it all the same.

And what is true of durian may well be true of God as well. At least this is what we find in our Mass readings today. In each of them, the presence of God comes wrapped in a tough shell of trial and tribulation.

In the first reading, Elijah experiences God’s coming as a gentle breeze, but only after the prophet has endured first a typhoon, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. And it’s worth noting that these natural disasters, which engulf Elijah externally, also mirror the interior symptoms of burnout that the prophet has been feeling for quite some time.

Similarly, in the second reading, Paul writes about his own interior trial, his own sorrow and mental anguish, at the thought that his fellow Israelites might be cut off from the grace of God. And yet, at the beginning of the reading, Paul seems eager to assure his readers that the turmoil he endures is also an experience of God. What I want to say now… I say… in union with Christ… in union with the Holy Spirit…

We find this same close connection, between the sweetness of God and the bitterness of tribulation, also in the gospel. Quite strikingly, the reading tells us that it was Jesus himself who made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead… And it was also Jesus, who then scared them out of their wits, by coming toward them, amid a raging wind and the turbulent tide, walking on the waters like a ghost.

Why did the Lord do this to his friends? Why does God sometimes insist on coming to us wrapped in struggle and strife? Why does God allow Covid-19 to afflict our world? Curiously, the readings seem less interested in answering this question why than in addressing the question how. How to find God in times of turmoil and terror? How? …

When suffering engulfs you, and God seems absent, try to be like Elijah… Enter the cave of your heart, and wait there in patience and hope for the signs of God’s coming. For his appearing is as sure as the dawn (Hosea 6:3). When the waves of doubt and despair, and of death and destruction, threaten to drown you, try to be like Peter… Cry out to the One who has the power to save you. Let him hold onto you firmly. Let him strengthen your faith, and deepen your trust. Then sail with him across the turbulent waters of life, in the boat that is his Body, reaching out to help others as well.

Sisters and brothers, even before we discover why life is often so tough and thorny, we can still learn how to penetrate its hard shell, and savour the sweetness inside. In our own lives, as individuals and families, as a Church and as a nation, is there perhaps a durian that needs opening today?

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Between Engine & Wheels

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 144(145):8-9,15-18; Romans 8:35,37-39; Matthew 14:13-21

Picture: cc Kyle McKenzie

My dear friends, do you know what an axle is? It’s that crucially important part of a car that connects the engine to the wheels. The axle transmits the energy generated by the engine to the wheels in order to make them turn. Without the axle, even if the engine may run, the car will not move.

I mention this, because what we find in today’s Mass readings looks very much to me like the parts of a car. First, the second reading tells us about the amazing engine that is God’s love. So irresistible is its power that no created thing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is this same amazing power that Jesus invites his disciples to share with the crowds gathered around them in the gospel. Now the Lord could probably have quite easily fed the people on his own, right? Yet he chose to say to his disciples, give them something to eat yourselves. Why did he do this, if not to show them that, if he himself is the engine, then they are meant to be the wheels?

And the call Jesus issued to the first disciples in the gospel remains our call today. We too are meant to be channels of God’s love, reaching out to feed others with the spiritual food that God provides for us so freely and abundantly in Christ. The same food that we are gathered here at this Mass to enjoy. And to do this not just in word, but also in deed. Not just in church, but wherever our steps may take us in the world. To be the wheels that keep turning to bring God’s love especially to those who may be most in need of it right now.

But that’s not all. In addition to an engine and wheels, the readings also describe for us something that looks like an axle. Except that this axle is not so much an object as it is a practice, or a discipline. We find it most clearly in the first reading, where God appeals to all who are thirsty to come to the water! To come to the Divine Engine that alone is the Source of everything that is good and true and beautiful. To come to the One who is Goodness and Truth and Beauty itself. To come… and drink… and eat… and live…

Except that this is not our usual kind of eating and drinking. It is not the compulsive consumption that our modern society engages in so routinely everyday. The kind that can be done half asleep. Indeed the kind that is precisely what keeps so many of us asleep. For what is perhaps most striking about the first reading is how often the word listen is repeated. Listen, listen to me… Pay attention… listen, and your soul will live… To eat and to drink is really to listen closely to God. To receive God’s Word and to ponder its practical implications for our lives. To allow God’s love to take root in us, that we might bear good fruit in abundance. And isn’t this also what our world needs most today, disturbed and disrupted as it is by deprivation and division and disease?

Sisters and brothers, if we are indeed called to be wheels, then what must we do to also become better axles today?