Thursday, July 30, 2009

How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place, Lord, Mighty God!

Today’s First Reading describes the construction of the Dwelling, the tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Moses did everything exactly as the LORD commanded him. He put in place the pedestals, built the framework, inserted the crossbars and set up the posts. Then he spread the tent over the Dwelling, and put a covering on top of the tent, just as the LORD commanded him.

He then took the Tablets of the Law and placed them in the Ark, and put the atonement cover over them. Then he brought the Ark into the tabernacle and hung the curtain, shielding the Ark of the Commandments, as the LORD had commanded him.

Then a cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling. Moses was unable to enter the meeting tent, because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling. Whenever the cloud was lifted from the Dwelling, the children of Israel would continue on their journey; but if the cloud did not left, they would not go forward. During the day, the cloud of the LORD was seen over the Dwelling, and at night, fire was seen in the cloud by the people of Israel during all stages of their journey. (Exodus 40:16-21; 34-38)

This reading not only tells us in great detail how the Ark of the Covenant, the Dwelling place of the LORD was built, but also its purpose: to guide the children of Israel, who had been slaves in Egypt, on their journey to the Land of Promise. It was not only an awesome sight, but a confirming sign of God’s providence. It should call us to ask this question: In what ways have I been aware of the presence of the Lord, the Dwelling, in my life during the past twenty-four hours? Have I allowed the Lord to lead me? In what ways have I felt unworthy to enter the divine Presence, and in what ways have I allowed it to shine forth in my words and actions.

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Today’s gospel brings us to the conclusion of the discourse on the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus presents to his disciples, mostly in the form of parables. The last parable is presented in language that must have been very familiar to Peter, Andrew, James and John, who owned and operated a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus compares the Kingdom to a net that was let down into the sea, and collected all sorts of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected all the good fish in buckets, but threw the bad away. That is how it will be at the end of the age. Angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous, and threw them into a fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Then Jesus asks them a question: “Have you understood all these things?” “Yes,” they reply. And he said, “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.

When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved away from there.

In this concluding passage of Jesus’ discourse, he reminds us that God does not act like a fisherman separating good fish from bad fish, or like a judge who acquits the innocent and condemns the guilty. God allows both, and it is only at the end of time that there will be a final judgment. In the meantime, there are good and bad together, both among us, and within us.

Preachers and teachers are wont to draw clear lines between good and evil. That is not hard to do in a classroom or from a pulpit, but the line that is drawn separates what is objectively right from what is objectively wrong. On either side of that line, there is a great spectrum of virtuous thoughts, words and deeds on one side, and vicious thoughts, words and deeds on the other, with the most egregious and the most praiseworthy at the end zones, and the least significant on both sides of the midfield.

But it is not so within the human heart, where a constant conflict goes on between the desire to serve God and the temptation to satisfy our lower nature. And so we find this principle at work within us: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. In my inner self, I delight in God’s law; but there is another law at work in the members of my body, one that wages war against the law of my mind, and makes me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my body. What a wretch I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:21-25)

The holiest of God’s servants, from Paul of Tarsus to Teresa of Calcutta, struggled with this conflict throughout their lives, and sometimes expressed doubt that they would be saved. So, if you feel conflicted, you are in very good company! Do what they did: Praise God for the temptations – and even for the failures, which afford God your Father in Heaven  opportunity to exercise divine mercy.

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