Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 58:7-10; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16

Wow! It’s been quite a week. We certainly have had our fair share of natural adversity to deal with this past week. Already on Tuesday morning, when round one of the ice storm was upon us, I e-mailed Fr. Bede that this was the worst weather situation I had seen in the ten and a half years that I’ve been here. I suspect that a lot of you could say the same. When we are faced with severe adversity, our first goal is survival, just to make it through with as little damage as possible. Sometimes we have to summon and focus all of our strength and abilities to accomplish that. There’s nothing wrong with that, even if it takes away from some of our regular daily practices—including prayer. Survival is a human value, and it is a spiritual value.

I had the same reaction when I first read through today’s scripture selection from the prophet Isaiah: "Then you shall call and the Lord will answer, You shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’" Sometimes I think we forget just how much of the Bible was written in desperate times. Most of the prophetic literature was composed during threats of foreign invasions, the actual approach of armies, or the tremendous social conflict that took place in the land of Israel itself. The same applies to most of the historical works of the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament evidence of desperate times abounds. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John all reflect situations of peril that the early followers of Jesus were experiencing. Many of the New Testament letters also were composed during times of great social conflict and turmoil. Just having had to deal with impending adversities and possibly disasters as we recently did should give us an insight into their state of mind.

Now it’s true that the type of potential catastrophes differed considerably. They were facing human-made crises, while we were coping with natural phenomena. In spite of that difference the state of mind that a potential crisis evokes remains essentially the same---a survival state of mind. In such a state of mind one doesn’t react as one might in an ordinary day-to-day situation. Somewhere in society that state of mind is always around. A famous homiletics teacher once said to a group of seminarians: "Every Sunday when you stand up to deliver your homily, approximately ten percent of your congregation is currently in some crisis situation. They will understand anything you say through that particular lens."

What is a crisis state of mind? It means you use more of your time and energy dealing with matters that will help you to survive. Like we all were doing last Tuesday evening—making sure there was enough food and water, checking all our battery-powered appliances and flashlights, gathering extra blankets and heavy clothing, and so on. Even within my house I spent much of Tuesday attending to matters like that. And, oh yes, a lot more time watching weather reports on television, even though they were often repeating the same things said just a few minutes before. The ancient Israelites did the same things—gathering supplies, checking escape routes and just talking with neighbors and people in the market places about the chances of an invasion by the Assyrians.

I think one of the key things to remember is that when you are in a crisis state of mind (survival mode), you don’t attend to your regular responsibilities with the same mental sharpness that you ordinarily would. You miss things you would ordinarily notice. You are not as attentive to others as you usually are. Even spiritually your prayer life suffers. You don’t have the urgency of mind to bring to it. We need to give ourselves a little leeway in all this. We shouldn’t criticize ourselves too sharply for slips in these regards. It’s good for us to remember: Survival is a human value, and a spiritual value.

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