Sunday, September 29, 2013

Restoring the goodness in us

Assuming you know something about the prophet Amos and his passion for justice and depending on your status in the community, you either love and idolize him or develop an utter dislike of him or even hate him.

There’s something quite unique about prophets like Amos especially because they’re considered saying stuff on behalf of God. It is this particular connection that they have with the Almighty that makes them the windows through which we feel what God feels.

Applying the term “pathos” as understood and popularized by the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel, prophets were the ones who kind of felt the “feelings” or “pathos” of God; especially in the sadness of the Creator as His creation turns from the goodness of the heart into paths of reversals.

Now, these are kind of “loaded” statements but let me work on that a little bit.

I believe that God expects of His creation, the manifestations of what He saw at creation. Recall that after viewing the works of creation, Holy Scriptures tells us that God saw them to be good.

In other words, God was pleased with the “goodness” that He saw in them. This was taken a notch higher when, after God had created Adam and Eve, and after He had seen all that He had done, God was extremely pleased and saw them to be “very good”.

It must have been a divine “Happy Hour” for God; unwinding after some hard work! It was short lived, though! The bible tells us that something wrong happened; something that impinged on that beauty and goodness that God first saw in Creation.

There was the Fall of Man; there was disobedience, there was Sin and the “goodness” that God desperately wanted to see flourish in His creation get interspersed with an opposite ugliness. At times mild, but every so often, just too radically ugly! And when such “falling on the way side” takes place, God gets upset, I suppose, but then quickly supplants it with pleadings for reconciliation as well as tempered yet blunt reminders of what is expected of His creation. God, I believe, is quite persistent in this regard mainly because of his penchant for righteousness!

Among the ways God had employed in bringing about this much sought after change of heart from those who had “fallen by the wayside” were the Law as handed down through Moses; and then later on, with prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and of course from the one we heard today, the Prophet Amos.

And so, when you hear the words coming from the prophets of old, with them becoming the “voices of God” as God reaches out to His creation, you somehow get into the “pathos” or the feeling of God, of the sadness that comes out from God. And with the words of God spoken through the prophets; words that “disturb” the placid waters of indifference and apathy, the listeners, as I’ve said earlier, either would love them or put forth a strong dislike of them.

It is with this frame of mind that I now invite you to revisit the words of the prophet Amos. Listen now to God’s words.

“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oil, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”  Amos 6:1a, 4-7 (NRSV)

For us to fully appreciate the point I raised about either liking or disliking the prophets, and in this particular case, Amos, we need to remind ourselves that as Sin or the “falling by the wayside” had continued through the years, the once unified, strong, stable United Kingdom that David and Solomon started, eventually split into two; the Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria.

As it turned out, those northern kingdom of Israel became inwardly preoccupied; meaning their source of pride of being “The Chosen” has profusely become almost irreverent. They had little concern for God and His people. There was lessening of sincerity in their worship. Their concern was more about themselves. They have turned indifferent to the plight of the poor and their isolation was becoming more pronounced in the chasm between the rich and the poor. And this was no longer pleasing in God’s sight. In other words, there was the diminishing of the “goodness” that God expected to see from His Chosen People.

And so, what did God do? He called on the Prophet Amos and used him as His spokesperson to make His intent known.

Here again are the words as written by Amos but this time I will use the Common English Bible (CEB) version.

“Doom to those resting comfortably in Zion and those trusting in Mount Samaria who lie on beds of ivory, stretch out on their couches, eat lambs from the flock, and bull calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and, like David, compose tunes on musical instruments; who drink bowls of wine, put the best of oils on themselves, but who aren’t grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  Amos 6:1a, 4-7 (CEB)

God is somehow saying: “How dare you just lie in comfort on your ivory beds, stretching on your couches and fattening yourselves? How dare you indulge in libation and do nothing while your fellow creatures around you are in want? How dare you flaunt yourselves in complacency and indifference and be purely nonchalant about all this heap of misery?

Thus God decided to give, what I call, a “holy jolt”. He says, again through the prophet Amos the shepherd from Tekoa: “Therefore, they will now be the first to be taken away, the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”

And so, if you were to virtually go back in time, how would you regard Amos? If you were one of those wallowing in the lavishness of pomp and circumstance, of course, you would dislike him big time! But what if you were among those who had been less fortunate? Hooray! You have someone to champion your cause!

This may sound so far distant and perhaps, nothing more than just an historical view of the circumstances of the time and a good biblical reminder. I beg to differ, of course. In fact, the way God used the prophet Amos in reaching out to the indifferent and complacent gets repeated in the story told by yet another great prophet, no less than God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

And this is where we take another look at the gospel lesson for today (Luke 16:19-31); another shot of the “holy jolts”, if I may say so.

Jesus, who has assumed a similar role of being a harbinger of the disturbing but “good news”, tells us that there was this unnamed “rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day”.

Notice the similarity in the description that Amos had once used. But instead of the community-oriented apathy described in the passages in Amos, the rich man’s “distancing” or “self-imputed isolation” in the parable, involved someone named Lazarus. He is described as being “covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores”.

Now, that is some “disturbing” description! “Satisfying his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table”! This means that the rich man totally ignored Lazarus, and with him at the gate of his property, the rich man could not have missed this pathetic sight of dogs licking the sores. And yet he did nothing to him except deny, reject, ignore!

Perhaps, the action of this rich man, sometimes referred to as “Dives” (which is Latin for “rich man”) is so symbolic of the willful ignoring that some of us may be guilty of. I know I’ve been!

 Almost on a daily basis, I’d see a contemporary version of the Lazarus and Dives story. I hate it when the traffic lights at the Redwood Parkway/Admiral Callahan turn red and I had to stop. Reason? There’s usually this “homeless” panhandler who carries a “will work for food” sign or something of that nature, who approaches me and won’t move until the light turns green.

And the guilt trip gets aggravated especially when I’d be wearing my clerical collar. He probably thinks, “Hey, the Padre is here and he’ll give me a buck. Tough luck! I don’t and I usually justify my indifference by saying he’ll most likely spend the money I’d give just for booze or even drugs.

In some sense, I share with those Northern Kingdom folks near Mt. Samaria, enjoying their tokens of affluence and with those who had affinity to “Dives”, in their dislike to their prophets who called attention to the utter indifference against the disadvantaged and those living on the margins of society.

Those calls made by God through the prophets are calls for amending ways of disregard for the less fortunate and they get re-echoed again and again.

We are fortunate that, in some sense, we have “Moses and the prophets” and even more importantly we have Christ Jesus who has modeled for us how those who have “fallen by the wayside” get reconnected with the One who has promised life eternal to those who truly turn to him.

In that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, all those who had been fortunate and less fortunate irrespective of the material comforts they’ve enjoyed or not, join hand in hand in breaking bread at that heavenly banquet.

I invite you, dear friends in Christ, to take a closer look at the readings we have for today. In your spare time during week, read, mark and inwardly digest the passages and ponder on what they mean to you as you continue to walk your faith journey.

Try and see whether your initial dislikes for the disturbing message of the prophets Amos and that of Jesus could transition to an appreciation that our different and sometime divergent stations in life do become tools of isolation, not only from our fellow creatures but also and more importantly, from our great Creator.

May we then realize that there are ample opportunities given and offered us to bridge back the distance that was forged because of those isolations.

May we appreciate even more that being in the “bosom of Abraham” is something we can have, for as long as we continue becoming closer to what God created us to be and by restoring the “goodness” that may have fizzled away as we walk our journey of faith.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Pliable Clay That We Are

While it is true that the images contained in some passages in the Holy Bible maybe difficult to understand, there are more of those that are not. I mean, there are those that may sound very deep, like some of those in the Pauline literature or in the Johanine material but there are more of those that look very ordinary and common and yet, are very effective medium of describing God.

Among the images employed are those of God as a king or a shepherd, or as a sower in the field or as being the Way or the Gate.  Another image is that of God as a Potter. In the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 45:9), we read: "Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ’What are you making?’ or ’Your work has no handles’?"  Then in Isaiah 64:8, we read: "Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hand."

We get reminded of this very same image upon hearing today’s Old Testament Reading (Jeremiah 18:1-11).

In this passage, we learn that Jeremiah was commanded by God to go to a potter’s house and while there, God would speak to him His words. When Jeremiah got there, he noticed that the potter was working on a piece of clay. He also noticed that as the potter turned the wheel, there was some flaw in the pot he’s working on – perhaps one that only the potter could see. But instead of throwing it away as “rejects”, the potter took the clay, worked on it again and eventually reshaped it into another one, perhaps a better looking pot.

 It was at this sight that the Spirit of God spoke to Jeremiah’s heart and gave him this message for God’s people. God said, “Can I not do with you what the potter has done? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand.”

God is the potter; we are the clay. Now, that’s not too deep to understand, right? In fact, it is a simple yet very beautiful imagery to depict what God can do to His creation! We are the clay in the hands of God, the Potter. And the great truth is that despite our flaws, God spins us on His wheel again and shapes and reshapes us into something new and better.

I am just fascinated with this imagery and I’m sure Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s people must have felt that way too. I love the idea that we are likened to clay – soft and pliable and unpredictable and God, the Potter, relentlessly reshaping our lives. In his “spinning” he allows the crude and raw clay to evolve into a beautiful piece of art that everyone could behold.

It is this process of “spinning” that we need to pay more attention. As the “spinning” entails constant change in the process of becoming, so it reminds us to look at change from a different perspective.

Change elicits from us two opposing responses. While there are those who display a positive attitude, still, many resist change and are afraid of it. Change is something we don’t like or want. But in the life of faith, change could be a gift from God.

It is a gift that helps us discover more of our potentials and capabilities as people. It is a gift that may initially appear scary as in sailing on unchartered waters. It may also present itself as something bland and void of excitement or something challenging and unwelcomed. And yet, change could, indeed, what God is doing as He spins us in His wheel; getting rid of the flaws He alone must have noticed.

I know of this lady who dreaded the biggest change that could happen in her life; the unwelcomed change resulting from the passing on of her beloved husband.

For the many years they’ve lived as husband and wife, theirs was the sweetest relationship one could imagine. She claimed that her husband was the most loving person who ever lived and she dreaded the idea of them not being together “for ever and ever”.

Well, the dreaded day came; quite unexpectedly in fact. And her “world” came to an abrupt end. As it turned out, she became recluse and hated everything and everyone. She even questioned how God could allow that to happen to her; taking away the very embodiment of a partner in life; snuffing the life of her soul mate. This “clay” ceased to be pliable and she became hardened as a rock. This “clay” seemed to catch self-imputed flaws.

But something close to a miracle took place. God, the Potter took this “clay” into His hands and “spun” her again and again until the clay began to look like a magnificent piece of art. This lady once told me: “I never knew I was capable of taking care of myself,” then she added, “I think my husband would be proud of me.”  And I told her: “I’m sure he is”.

That dreaded change, difficult as it was, freed her from her former preoccupations and now has all the time to share the skills and talents she never thought she had and became a dedicated volunteer at the church she goes to.

Some changes could be viewed as a God-ordained fact of life, and they introduce us to greater gifts and capabilities within us. I am sure you all have your stories about changes that have enveloped and touched your lives and the people you care about!

Talking about change, we have seen changes in the life of our parish. There had been changes we wish didn’t have to happen. Unfortunately, we have a number of members whose physical limitations on their mobility prohibit their physical attendance at our regular Sunday services. And of course there were those who had to literally and physically move on to other places as well as those who have finally moved to their resting places. So in a sense, these are tokens of the little “flaws” that are beginning to be noticeable.

But just like in the “re-spinning” of the wheel, the Almighty has added new “clay” to help reshape our “pot” called Ascension.

We are indeed so grateful for these new “clay”; newcomers who have decided to make Ascension their home parish. Some of the new changes we begin to notice include their eagerness and enthusiasm that would hopefully get translated in full participation in the leadership of the parish as well as the upgrading of the fabric on the affected parts of the church.

The “re-spinning” of the clay of Ascension continues on. We have started a few events in the life of the parish that will hopefully get followed up.  We will also launch our Year-Round Stewardship wherein we will manifest our gratefulness for things we would not have otherwise thought to be thankful for. We will also have a head start on our budget thereby giving us ample time to clearly look at the financial impact of what the other changes have on our parish.

Changes are coming our way! And as we begin to take note of them, the usual questions may arise and the most important question is, “What are we capable of?” Following the imagery of the clay, what can become of Ascension, if it were to be spun again and again, removing the flaw that may ruin its beauty?

The analogy comes short knowing that we have the ability to stay hard and un-pliable; after all, we are an aggregate of individuals with differing opinions and passions. And yet, as God once told Jeremiah, “can He not do with us what the potter does to his clay”? Of course He can and He makes it possible for us to “allow” ourselves to be shaped by Him again and again.

My friends in Christ, there will be more changes that’ll come your way. While there is that usual negativity toward it, you should remember that change is often the instrument by which God exposes the tremendous potential He has created in you and could also lead you to discover more of the beauty and mystery and magnificence of this world and the Great Architect who created it.