How Big Is Your God?
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine February 26, 2017
How big is your God? This question is going to be posed to us by Fr. Philip Chircop at our Lenten retreat this coming Saturday morning, so maybe it would be good for us to start reflecting on this vital question now. For many people, God is some kind of cosmic figure who designed the universe and set it in motion, and then more or less pulled back. All-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing … but silent, distant, not someone you could ever really warm up to.
In today’s very brief first reading, the prophet Isaiah invites us to image God as a mother who, no matter what, can never forget us, who will always be there to care for us. Those of you who are mothers – or who have had a mother, and that’s all of us – hopefully know something of the power of a mother’s love: nurturing, protective, fierce, all-embracing. Because they are human, our mothers are not perfect; and people who have not experienced a mother’s love, especially in their formative years, often carry that as a wound throughout their life. This is powerfully reflected in this year’s Oscar-nominated film Moonlight, in which we see life through the eyes of Chiron, a young African-American boy: fatherless, alternately doted on and neglected by his crack-addicted mother, confused about his sexuality and his place in the world, seeking out some kind of intimacy and some place to call home, but not knowing how to find or accept it.
Speaking to a people in exile, to a people feeling forsaken and abandoned, Isaiah reminds them that even in their pain and sorrow, they are not alone. God will not – cannot – forget them. “Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand. You are precious in my sight … and I love you.” When we are fearful or lost or frustrated or confused, we are reminded to place our faith, our trust in God alone. In the words of the Psalmist today: “Only in God will my soul be at rest.”
In today’s Gospel, as we continue to make our way through the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus fleshes out the implications of what it is to live in this kind of trusting relationship.
Jesus begins by reminding us what we should NOT put our trust in. “You cannot serve two masters.” How tempting it is, in the society in which we live, to trust in our money, our material goods, our possessions! These are all right and good in their place, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them as part of the gift of God’s creation, entrusted to all of us, to be shared in common, to build up human flourishing. This is what the spiritual tradition of the church calls “ordered attachments”. It is natural that we should enjoy these basic necessities of life: food, drink, clothing, shelter, family, friendship, community, security, work, leisure. We should desire them not only for ourselves and for “people like us”, but for all of God’s children throughout the world, with whom we live in solidarity.
It is when our life is about pursuing this at the price of all else, endlessly accumulating and hoarding, losing our sense of solidarity and sharing, that the attachment becomes disordered, and we end up disappointed. In other words, when we begin to believe that it is the possession of these things that makes us happy. So when you are next driving through upper Westmount, or watching an episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, just think to yourself: “Yes, but they’re not happy. We’re happy!”
Trust in God alone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But simple does not necessarily mean easy. Again and again, in the Gospel today, Jesus repeats the phrase “Do not worry.” Along with “do not fear”, it is one of the most frequently-recurring sound-bytes in the Scriptures. Or in the immortal catch-phrase of the Grammy-award winning best song of 1989, composed and recorded by Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy.” I must confess: when it came out, I hated that song!! First of all, it beat out “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, which I thought was a much better song! But more to the point, it connected me with memories of a priest I knew as a teenager, who whenever I would bring forth a concern, always seemed to respond with some variation on “Don’t worry about it!” And I would think, “Easy for you to say. But someone’s got to do something about it!”
When I became older and (hopefully) a little wiser, I came to understand the value in what Fr. Gerry was saying to me. He wasn’t saying, “Don’t be concerned.” He wasn’t saying, “Fold your arms and do nothing.” He was saying what Jesus says today in the Gospel. Worry is unproductive. In fact, it is counterproductive. It gets in the way. Instead of freeing us to act, it paralyzes us. It makes us focus on the problem, rather than the solution. It makes us focus on our own fears and frustrations, and not on addressing the task at hand. Worry give us ulcers, raises our blood pressure, clouds our vision. Worry is not the solution.
A friend told me recently that when she went for grief counselling after the death of her ex-husband, the counsellor persuaded her to contain her “worry” to those things for which she was immediately responsible, and could therefore act on. To invest worry into things over which she had no control could only lead to a dead end. She had to learn for herself the power of the “Serenity Prayer”: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
We cannot do this all at once. We can only do it, to use another phrase often associated with 12-step programs, “one day at a time.” This too is what Jesus is saying today: “Do not worry about tomorrow – tomorrow will have its own troubles. Today has enough troubles of its own.” Luckily, that’s true not only about troubles, but also about joys. Is it possible that sometimes, we let the troubles of tomorrow prevent us from experiencing the joys of today?
This is the deeper meaning of Jesus’ advice today to “consider the birds of the air, the lilies of the field.” If we allow ourselves to be consumed about worry, to focus on what seems to be lacking in our lives, we can easily miss the blessings that are right there in front of us, given to us by a provident God who knows our needs. And that means being ready to meet the blessing of God in unlikely and unexpected places. To be open to a God of surprises, who is always bigger than the little boxes in which we tend to place and limit God.
This coming Saturday morning, we will have a precious opportunity as a parish – and as a diocese as well, for we have sent out the invitation at large – to have our vision of God expanded by means of the teaching and witness of Jesuit Father Philip Chircop. Originally from the Mediterranean island of Malta, Fr. Philip is based in Toronto and now serves the Canadian Jesuit province. An internationally-known retreat master and spiritual director, with a love for art and poetry, and a delightful sense of humour, he is always seeking fresh ways to proclaim the Good News and engage people on a journey of transformation in Christ.
Anna and I, as well as several of our parishioners, were blessed to encounter Fr. Philip on a six-day retreat this summer at the Villa St-Martin on the theme of “Near Occasions of Grace”. Now we’ve probably heard about the necessity of avoiding “near occasions of sin,” but how often do we consciously place ourselves in the path of “near occasions of Grace”? Fr. Philip invited us to delight in a God who comes to meet us in unexpected places: our senses, our foolishness, our not-knowing, our imperfection, our ordinariness, our restlessness, our desire to be at home: all of these, he taught us, are potential points of entry into the mystery of love and the fullness of life.
You may be thinking – that’s not the way I’m accustomed to thinking of God, imaging God, experiencing God. Maybe you’ve never even stopped to ask yourself about what your default image of God is! This Saturday morning, Fr. Philip will be leading us on an exploration of this vital and potentially life-changing question: HOW BIG IS YOUR GOD? Healing Our Images of God.
Here is a taste of what Fr. Philip will be sharing with us:
“We become the God we worship and adore. Spend enough time in the presence of a God who is a punisher, a judge, a police-officer waiting to catch you in a sin of weakness, and you will also become a punishing and judging person, waiting to catch your neighbour doing something wrong. By the same token, if we spend time in the presence of a God whose name is Mercy, a God who is compassionate, forgiving, slow to anger and abounding in love, we will be transformed into more merciful, compassionate, patient and loving people.
Who is the God you’re falling in love with? Is your God perhaps too small, created in your own image and likeness? A pocket-sized God that neither excites nor challenges? Has your God grown since you were a child? Can we let go of the some of the unhealthy, toxic images of God that block our spiritual growth, and be shaped instead by the life-giving images found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures?”
We were able to get Fr. Philip on relatively short notice – the waiting list is usually over two years! – because he is also preaching a Lenten mission to which the entire diocese is invited, collaboratively organized by three West Island parishes: St. Luke, Jesus Light of the World and St. Thomas à Becket. At 7 PM each evening, this Thursday through Saturday, Fr. Philip will lead a mission on the theme “GO BUILD MY CHURCH!” On Thursday, he will invite us to become part of “A Church that Rocks and Rolls”: alive, vibrant, a movement more than an institution. On Friday, we will learn what it means to live as “A Church on Fire”: allowing the fire to be kindled within us, Spirit-filled artists, who create with passion, zeal and enthusiasm. Finally, anticipating the end of our Lenten pilgrimage, we will embrace the call to live as Easter People: joyful and contagious Christians, ready to go out and change the world!
So as your pastor and your episcopal vicar, I strongly encourage you to come and experience this special blessing we will be privileged to experience through Fr. Philip Chircop’s ministry. I can guarantee that whether you take part in the retreat day here at St. Monica’s on Saturday, or in the mission Thursday through Saturday evening at St. Luke’s, you will be moved, inspired, and hopefully transformed!
As we begin our Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday this week, let us let go of our worries, our preoccupations, all the things that get in the way of living in a loving and trusting relationship: with God, and with one another, in our human families and our church family. Let us open ourselves to an ever-expanding vision of God, who loves us with the heart of a mother and the strength of a father. Let us be renewed in our ‘Yes’ to the Lord’s invitation to live as Easter people, as living members of the Body of Christ, as the “faithful and trustworthy stewards” to which Paul refers in the second reading. Then we will truly know that our God is indeed an awesome God! Amen!