The God of surprises

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

There are so many ways of trying to describe who God is. Depending on the point we want to emphasize, our descriptions of God vary, e.g., the God of justice, the God of compassion, the God of mercy, the God of love, etc. Today's Scripture readings, especially the first and third, seem to suggest that God is also the God of surprises.

Although God often chooses to communicate in certain pre-defined ways and through certain pre-identifiable people, He is not limited to any one way nor by any one person or group of persons. And to make sure that we get this point, He catches us by surprise now and again. We know that this is so because the Scriptures do not lie, and, as I mentioned, in the first and third readings for today, we see God acting in an unpredictable, unusual - surprising - way.

The Spirit of the Lord not only rested on the 70 who were in the gathering presided over by Moses, but also on two other men who were away from that group, who were back in the camp. According to the normal or usual way of proceeding, that should not have happened. But it did, for God is the God of surprises. John told Jesus that someone who did not belong to their company, someone who was not a disciple, was using Jesus' name to expel demons. That too should not have been happening. But it did, and Jesus did not stop him for God is the God of surprises.

Our God is not limited by anyone or anything. He is the God of surprises. That is one of the important lessons we are meant to learn - again - through today's liturgy. And what is equally important is our response to this God of surprises. How, in fact, should we respond?

It seems to me that however we individually respond, the bottom line for each one of us should read: with openness and willingness. You and I need to create and to cultivate a basic attitude of being open and willing to be touched by God whenever and wherever and through whomever He chooses to speak to us. And it is precisely in terms of the "whoever" and "whenever" and "wherever" that God often surprises us.

Are we open and willing to listen when He chooses to communicate with us through someone who is not of our company, e.g., a person whose skin color or ethnic background or religion is different from ours or a person who seems not to believe at all? Are we open and willing to listen to God when He chooses to communicate with us through someone who seems so ordinary: you, your husband, your wife, your child, your parents, your in-laws? I recall once standing in line in a busy drugstore. The pharmacist at the counter had lots of prescriptions to fill, and he could see a long line of people waiting. There was a lady talking with him, who seemed to have so many questions. I remember thinking that if I were the pharmacist, I would be frustrated, irritated, annoyed. But I remember equally as well how he was reacting: He was so gentle and understanding and patient. God was communicating with me through that pharmacist who was teaching me about "how to be patient." Are we open and willing to listen to God when He communicates with us through joy? Through sorrow? Through loneliness? Through His seeming absence?

Yes, you and I need to cultivate, with the help of God's grace, a basic attitude of being open and willing to do what God is asking and to surrender to Him wherever He leads. And again, it is precisely in the "asking" and in the "leading" that God is sometimes the God of surprises.

Pope Francis himself refers to God as the God of surprises. In a homily which he preached last October, our Holy Father pointed to the unfortunate inability of the doctors of the law who encountered Christ to receive his message. "Why did they not understand? First of all, because they were closed. They were closed in their system. They had perfectly organized the law a masterpiece. All of the Jews knew what one could do, what one could not do, how far they could go, everything was organized. And they were safe there … they forgot that God is the God of Law, but he is (also) the God of surprises … they did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new: He never contradicts himself, never says that what he had said was wrong, ever, but he always surprises us. And they did not understand, and closed themselves in the system created with the best of intentions"(cf. homily preached on Oct.13, 2014).

During his current apostolic visit to our country, Pope Francis's way of relating to people reflects a style that is surprising to some among us. He is very relational, positive in his attitude and manner while proclaiming the truth of the Gospel and of church teaching in their entirety.

So, I pose this question: is not God - the God of surprises - teaching us through the Vicar of Christ that we must proclaim the gospel of Christ in its entirety; that we must do so in a manner that is welcoming, attractive, and inviting; that we do so, not in in harsh confrontation, but in open and clear dialogue, presenting the Church's teaching clearly and fully while leaving the door open for further dialogue and discussion?

Yes, there are many ways to describe God - each one reflecting a portion of who God is and all of them together being unable to grasp the totality of God since He is utterly other and beyond the ability of the human mind and intellect to understand fully. He is the God of surprises affirmed by today's first and third scripture readings. With the help of God's transforming grace, let us respond with an open and willing heart, eager to listen. And this response of ours may be surprising - even to us.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015