In 1845 Alexandre Dumas wrote a sequel to The Three Musketeers he called Twenty Years After. Today, I looked back 21 years to see how things might have changed on this 21st Sunday of “Ordinary Time.” I was surprised. No one remembers Melrose Place, but 60 Minutes survives and Star Trek and Friends are still in syndication. Picture tubes have gone the way of phone booths. But it goes much deeper than that. I am relieved to think that God is patient…
21st Sunday of the Year C: 23 Aug. 1998
Our slice of history differs from everything that has gone on before us in one very remarkable way, among many others. We are able, as none of our ancestors were, virtually instantly to view events occurring almost anywhere in the world that are considered newsworthy. And we respond to them emotionally, spiritually, and often even verbally, as some reporter sticks a microphone in our face and asks us for an instant opinion. And God knows we are consequently exposed to a lot of opinions — considered, stupid, wise, barbaric, and so on.
Recently, when polled by CBS about the White House scandal, someone used the term “micro-analysis” to describe the approach of the networks, the politicians, and even the person-on-the-street to what we used to call “current events.” The problem is that we seem to micro-analyze before we have all the facts in. It’s a bit like forecasting weather: have you ever noticed how all those television charts and isobars and radar patterns and predictions about the next seven days hardly ever represent what actually happens? Weather is a chaotic system and resists accurate prediction, especially long term prediction. It can change almost instantly. And so does the political and social weather. But we go on reacting emotionally and mentally, like teenagers on a roller-coaster, even though we can’t do a thing about where we’re going, how fast we’re getting there, or the ups and downs of the route. We like to scream, though.
You may wonder what all this has to do with today’s readings. So did I as I considered the roller coaster week that we witnessed
through television, newspapers, and radio. By Friday, I was exhausted from it all, though not one incident had really affected me personally. And what could be further from presidential revelations, shootings, and bombings, than Tarshish, Put, Lud, Tubal, and Javan? (In case you came in late, these are not characters from Star Trek, but strange places in the ancient world — Phoenicia, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Greece — about the last places where a good Hebrew would ever expect to find people worshiping the true God.)
Oddly enough, these outlandish places have a lot to do with everything. They could easily have been Nairobi, Dar-es-salaam, Kabul, Omagh, or even Washington, D.C. What Isaiah was telling the very patriotic Hebrews of his time is that God doesn’t play favorites the way we do. The people we despise most may actually be closer to God than we are. God can even do the unthinkable and make priests out those scruffy gentiles.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that being transformed into God’s children doesn’t come naturally. It requires discipline. And that discipline is life itself. Who we turn out to be depends on how we respond to the challenges of life, not the easy parts.
One thing Jesus and Isaiah both tell us in these passages from Scripture: expect surprises. What looks chaotic to us is just part of God’s plan. God will be glorified from quarters we would least expect and by people we wouldn’t give a second glance to. Expect surprises. Bad things do happen to good people, just as they happen to bad people. The difference is that some people are able to benefit from them, to find God’s plan in them. God allows tragedies to occur not because God can’t do anything about them or doesn’t care, but because we can do a great deal about them. We can grow and reach greater maturity as individuals and as people by viewing them through God’s eyes and dealing with them as God has shown us.
Look at the response to the shooting of Officer Michael Ceriale last week. Was Chicago made worse by the death of this heroic young man? Or did the outpouring of care, assistance, of prayer, hope, and finally of acceptance awaken something more human in us, a greater resistance to crime and evil? Did the response of Irish Catholics and Protestants in Omagh to the horrible bombing last week push sectarian violence to even greater excesses, or did it stiffen the resolve of ordinary people to work for lasting peace? Is it possible that Mr. Clinton’s public struggle to cope with moral weakness and sin will make him a better Christian, a better husband, even a better president? It could, you know. Are we willing to pray for him? Or will it simply fuel more bitter and divisive partisan politics? Expect surprises, Jesus says. Were the attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan merely vengeful retaliation or a painful step toward the end of terrorism and indiscriminate bloodshed? Does anyone care? God certainly does. Expect surprises, Jesus said.
It is not the events themselves that reveal God’s work in our midst, but how we respond to them. For those responses reveal whether or not the word of God has yet taken root in our minds and hearts.
Yes, our slice of history differs from the past because we are instantly informed of events happening anywhere in the world, and even in space, whether they have any real impact on our lives or not. The great danger that being plugged in to the media of mass communication brings with its real blessings is that we can easily begin to believe that our lives are in fact controlled and determined by these events. In fact, our lives, like those of our grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents all the way back to Abraham are influenced far, far more by events that happened yesterday or this morning in our own households and neighborhoods. Social concern, like charity, begins about where our fingertips end.
The more we get embroiled in the TV world, framing our hopes and frustrations in the picture tube rather than in our own experience, the more we are likely to ignore what is of most significance in our lives. It’s like caring more about what happens on Melrose Place or Friends or 60 Minutes than what is happening upstairs or next door.
But there is an exception. Being informed, well-informed, about national and international events that concern all of us in the long haul is not only an opportunity but an obligation for citizens of the world today. Because we can change things on a global scale. We do it primarily by our votes. The irony of the electronic age is that as more and more information becomes available to us, the numbers of people actually voting in local, national and, now even in international elections, is shrinking. Now that’s something to think about.
In the meantime, as we reflect on the sad and tragic events in Chicago and the world this last week, and pray about them and for those involved in them, it is just as important, even more so, to be attentive to the needs of those nearest us, those sitting right next to us, whether here in church or at the dinner table. How is God about to surprise us?
Let us pray, then, that we will be open to revelation when it happens, open to grace, so that through our willingness to embrace even the most unlikely of divine possibilities, we will join ourselves to God’s great plan as it unfolds surprisingly around us.