Sunday, October 22, 2017

Between Power & Department (Rerun)

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(Mission Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95(96):1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21
Picture: cc Lucy Fisher

My dear friends, do you like to shop in a department store? If you do, what do you like about it? One of the things that I like is, precisely, the departments. They allow all the merchandise to be neatly organised and easy to locate. If I want to buy a shirt, I can just go directly to the menswear department. I don’t have to waste time wandering among pots and pans or women’s clothes. Everything has its place. Its own proper department.

But what about electricity? And I don’t mean electrical appliances. These usually have their own department too. But electricity does not. It is not confined to a single area. It is needed throughout the store. It provides the power with which to freshen the air, and light up the whole place. Imagine what it would be like if a foolish store manager were to treat electricity as just another kind of merchandise. Imagine what would happen if s/he tried to restrict the flow of electricity to just one department. The rest of the store would be left in the dark!

Which goes to show that, although departments may be good to have in a store, not everything is meant to be departmentalised. Electricity is a power, not a department. And it is helpful for us to keep this in mind as we ponder our Mass readings today. Especially because it can help us avoid misunderstanding what Jesus says to his opponents in the gospel. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trap the Lord by asking him whether it is permissible to pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus says no, then he’ll get into trouble with the Romans. But if he says yes, then the religious authorities will have something to use against him. As they say, damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Still Jesus manages to escape by giving a deceptively simple answer. Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. But what does this look like?

I’m not sure how you feel, sisters and brothers, but I find it tempting to think that Jesus is telling us to keep our lives strictly departmentalised. To maintain one section for Caesar, and another for God. And to keep both these sections separated from each other. But is this really what the Lord means? Is God no different from the goods in a department store? Can God really be confined to a single isolated section of my life?

We are familiar, of course, with the political doctrine that calls for a separation of church and state. And we know its value. We don’t want our Archbishop to take over the job of the Prime Minister. With all due respect to his Grace, that would be disastrous. Nor do we want the government to determine what we Christians believe, or how we practise our faith. Much like how, in a store, we wouldn’t want the sales personnel and the electricians to interfere with each other’s work. But, even so, the fact remains that electricity is needed throughout the store. It is not meant to be departmentalised. Electricity is a power, not a department. Can we not say the same about God?

We see this more clearly in the other readings. In the first reading, the people have been living long years in exile in Babylon. But now, the Persians have conquered Babylon. And Cyrus, the Persian king, allows the people to return to their homeland. But, although it may seem that Cyrus is the one responsible for the people’s good fortune, the prophet sees things differently. For him, even the rise and fall of empires is the result of the powerful and providential hand of God, quietly at work behind the scenes. To the prophet, Cyrus is acting only as God’s instrument. It is God who has anointed the Persian king. It is God who sets the people free. Which makes it very clear that God’s activity is not restricted to any single department. God is at work in all areas of life. As much in politics as in religion. God can use even a pagan ruler to achieve God’s own purposes. Like the electricity in a department store, God blesses the people by freshening their lives and brightening their way. They experience God as a power, not a department.

This is also the experience of the Christians of Thessalonica in the second reading. Paul reminds them that the Good News came to them not only as words. Not only as pious religious sentiments, routinely expressed in church and in prayer, but without any practical effect on the rest of their lives. On the contrary, the Thessalonians experience the Good News as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. The Word of God has a radical transforming effect on every aspect of their lives. Enabling them to live as Christ lived. As it was for the people in the first reading, so too for the Thessalonians. God is experienced as a power, not a department.

And isn’t this an important reminder for us as well? For many of us, life can feel very much like a fully-stocked department store. Filled with so many things, that we have to struggle constantly to ensure that everything is kept in its proper place. When we are home, we don’t want to allow the stresses and strains of the office to affect our interactions with our family. Nor do we want to let troublesome family problems cloud our judgment at work. And this is as it should be.

But still, as important as it may be to departmentalise our lives to some degree, isn’t it also important to realise that God is not a department? God is not just one more thing among the many things in our lives that require management. Rather, God is the Divine Electricity, the Power of Love made manifest in the sacrifice of Christ. The Power we are gathered at this Mass to celebrate. The Power that continually freshens our lives, and lights up our way to Eternity. But, to more fully appreciate and enjoy this Power, we need to avoid trying to restrict God to certain narrow segments of our lives. We need to be willing instead to allow God gradually to influence every area of our earthly existence. To truly give the Lord glory and power. By showing our faith in action, by working for love, and persevering through hope in Jesus Christ.

Not just here in church. But also at home, in school and in the office. Not just through pious prayer. But also through good works that promote charity and justice, reconciliation and peace. And not just in religious affairs. But also in politics and economics, science and technology. And in every other field of human endeavour. Isn’t this what it really means for us to be a truly missionary church?

Sisters and brothers, if it is indeed true that, like electricity, God is not meant to be departmentalised, then what must we do to experience more fully the life-giving effects of God’s Power, in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world today?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Between Exoskeleton & Embrace

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, do you know who Ironman is? He’s the superhero who wears a special suit of armour that gives him incredible superhuman powers. And, apparently, this kind of technology is no longer to be found only in movies and comic books. As you may recall, earlier this year, the Straits Times reported that Singapore is developing a new Ironman-like suit–dubbed the exoskeleton. This suit will allow the officers of our Civil Defence Force to carry weights of up to 50kg without feeling any strain. Which will be very helpful to them, especially when they need to transport heavy equipment up a tall building. Or to lift large pieces of debris in order to free those who may be trapped under them.

Imagine that. Something that wraps around your body, giving you strength to bear heavy burdens. That’s what an exoskeleton can do. Doesn’t it sound incredible? And yet, my dear friends, isn’t it true that although probably few, if any of us, have actually worn an exoskeleton, this kind of experience is not really new to us? Haven’t you experienced something similar? Something that wraps around your body, giving you strength to bear heavy burdens? Think, for example, of the last time you received a hug from someone you love. Someone who cares about you. When you were going through a particularly difficult time perhaps. How did you feel? What difference did it make? Isn’t it true that a simple embrace, the feeling of being held and cherished and supported by a loved one, can help us weather even the most serious of storms? My dear friends, it may not be very high-tech, but isn’t an embrace very much like an exoskeleton? Something that wraps around your body, giving you strength to bear heavy burdens.

Something that wraps itself around us, giving us strength to bear heavy burdens. Sisters and brothers, I think that this is also what is at stake in our Mass readings today. As you’ve probably already noticed, there is something here that is quite unmistakable. Both in the first reading and in the gospel, as well as in the psalm, reference is made to a banquet. A banquet of rich food and fine wines prepared for people to enjoy. And it probably seems very puzzling, especially to us who live in Singapore, and who love so much to eat. But the people in the parable refuse to come to the banquet. They pass up an opportunity for free food. Good food. So stupid, right? And I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but it’s tempting for me to feel that I am not at all like these people. That I wouldn’t do the same thing. After all, am I not here, so early on a Sunday morning, to participate in this Eucharistic banquet? Have I not accepted the Lord’s invitation? Surely, I have. Or have I?

To answer this question, we need to remember what food is meant to do for us. That more than just filling our stomachs, it is meant to nourish us. To give us strength to face the challenges of life. Isn’t this what attendance at the banquet is really about? Not just the fulfilment of a weekly obligation. Not even just to give face to the host. But to receive and renew our strength. To experience what St Paul writes about in the second reading, when he says that there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. To receive the energy I need to face the challenges of life. But how, we may ask, is this strength being offered? How does it need to be received? What does it really mean to come and to participate, truly participate, at the banquet of the Lord? After all, isn’t it true that a banquet can be a rather impersonal thing? I can treat it like a common buffet, for example, and just keep shovelling food into my mouth, without actually paying attention to anyone else. What does it mean to truly come to the Lord’s banquet?

The first reading is helpful. For here, in addition to providing the people with food, the Lord of hosts promises to do something more. We’re told that the Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek… Isn’t this such an intimate and deeply personal action on the part of God? That the Lord should place a hand on my cheek, and wipe away my tears. And perhaps I might even imagine God wrapping God's arms around me. Supporting me in the warmth of God's embrace. Isn’t this what we prayed for in our Collect just now? May your grace… at all times go before us and follow after us and make us always determined to carry out good works… In other words, may we always be surrounded, enfolded, embraced by your loving presence, O God. May you wrap yourself around us like an exoskeleton. Giving us the strength we need to help others.

And where do we find the answer to this prayer if not in Jesus? Isn’t this what it means to attend the banquet? First of all, to come to Jesus. Especially when I may be undergoing one difficulty or another. When I may be weak and struggling and weeping. To come to the Lord in my pain and confusion, and to give him the opportunity to tenderly wipe away the tears from my cheeks. To wrap his gentle arms around me in a loving embrace. To become my exoskeleton. Giving me the strength I need to bear the burdens of life.

And isn’t this where the chief priests and elders of the people fail? As much as they may faithfully fulfil all their religious obligations, they refuse to allow themselves to be vulnerable. To acknowledge their weakness. To come to Jesus. And could this also be where the guest without a wedding garment falls short? Even if he may show up at the banquet, he treats it like an impersonal buffet. He refuses to allow his tears to be wiped away. Or to enter the  intimacy of the Lord’s embrace.

All of which might lead us to to reflect on our own experience of prayer and the Sacraments. When we pray, when we come to Mass, when we go to Confession, to what extent do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable? To acknowledge our weakness? To let the Lord wipe away our tears from our cheeks? Enfold us in God's embrace? Strengthen us to to face the challenges of life? And what is the measure of all this, if not our ability to remain hopeful and even joyful in the midst of trial, and also to continue to reach out to care for those most in need of our help?

My dear friends, very soon the officers of our Civil Defence Force will have exoskeletons to wrap around their bodies, giving them strength for the important job of rescuing those in harm’s way. What must we do to continually wrap ourselves in the warmth of the Lord’s embrace, so that we too might help rescue others in need today?

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Bridge of Trust

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Ian Sane

My dear friends, do you know what we call a situation where someone hands me some money for safekeeping, or for some other purpose, but I keep the money for myself instead? I put it into my own personal bank account, for example. Or keep it for my own use. We call this a breach of trust. Treating property, entrusted to me by someone else, as though it were my own. Failing to use it for the purpose for which it was given to me. 

And what do we usually do when a situation like that is discovered? How do we repair the damage? As you know some people may sue to recover what’s lost. And, if a crime has been committed, the culprit may also be charged in court. And sent to jail, or made to pay a fine, or both. These are some of the ways that the law offers to repair the damage caused by a breach of trust. But what if the trust that is breached is a spiritual one? How does one repair a spiritual breach of trust? This, I believe, is the question that our Mass readings help us to ponder today.

The situation is perhaps clearest in the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel. Can you identify the breach of trust? The landowner leases his vineyard to certain tenants for a particular purpose. They are to care for the vineyard, and hand over its produce at harvest time. Instead, the tenants scheme to keep the produce for themselves. Even going so far as to kill the landowner’s son.

As you know, this parable is targetted at a specific group of people. Jesus tells it to the chief priests and the elders of the people. The religious leaders of his day. The implication is that, just as the tenants in the parable try to claim the produce of the vineyard for themselves, so too do the religious leaders use their authority over the people of God to line their own pockets. To inflate their own egos. To build up their own personal kingdoms. Using something that doesn’t belong to them, something that has been entrusted to them for a particular purpose, only to enrich themselves. This is clearly a breach of trust.

Now I have to confess that this parable makes me uncomfortable. For I too am a religious leader. I too have been entrusted with the care of God’s people. And, to be honest, it is far too easy, at least for me, to sometimes feel tempted to use that position for my own ends. To commit a breach of trust. Of course, I may not do anything illegal. But it still remains tempting to direct the results of my work towards my own interests rather than those of God. And, I’m not sure, but perhaps we don’t need to be religious leaders to be tempted in this way. Perhaps parents and teachers, employers and political leaders do too. All those of us who have been given some authority over others.

And, as if that isn’t enough, our Mass readings go even further. For in the first reading too we find a vineyard story involving a breach of trust. Except that here no mention is made of tenants. Instead, it is the vineyard itself that is entrusted with something. Its owner showers upon it painstaking care. Expends much effort and labour on the vineyard. And all for a particular purpose. So that it might yield good fruit. But the ungrateful vineyard bears wild, inedible fruit instead.

Like the gospel parable, the meaning of this story is clear. We’re told that the vineyard is the House of Israel and the men of Judah. The people whom God has specially chosen out of all the peoples of the earth. To whom God has entrusted many good gifts and blessings. All in the hope that they might become a light shining in the darkness. Bearing witness to justice and integrity. But the people live no differently from everyone else. They keep and use their blessings for themselves, instead of for God and for others. They ignore the poor. Perhaps even trample upon them. Add to their sufferings. The fruit that they bear in their lives are the sour grapes of bloodshed and a cry of distress.

But the breach of trust in the first reading actually goes beyond the people’s misuse of the material benefits and privileges showered upon them by God. For God has entrusted them with something even more valuable than all these things. Do you know what it is? Consider how the reading begins. Let me sing to my friend the song of his love for his vineyard. What we find in the first reading is not just an ordinary story, but a love song. Which implies that, far more precious than all their other material blessings, what God gives to the people is God’s very own love. God’s deep desire to live in a loving intimate relationship with them. A priceless gift entrusted to them for them to enjoy and also to share with others. But the people fail to appreciate this. They spurn God’s love. They breach God’s trust.

All of which might lead us to reflect upon our own lives. Whatever the struggles we may be going through now, can any of us honestly deny that we have been blessed in many material ways? If not in money, then in kind? Isn’t this beautiful earth on which we live, for example, itself one of God’s many good gifts, entrusted to our care? And can we deny that, like the people of Israel and Judah, we too have received God’s love? Isn’t this the reason we gather here every Sunday? To recall the depths of that love, in the breaking of Bread and the outpouring of Wine? Through which we experience the loving sacrifice of Christ?

And aren’t all these gifts and blessings entrusted to us for a particular purpose? Not just for us to enrich ourselves. Not just for us to ensure that we and our families get to heaven. But also so that we may live in such a way as to bear witness to justice and integrity in the world. To share God’s love with those who do not yet know it. And could it be that insofar as we fail to do this, we are actually breaching the trust that God places in us?

If all this is true, then what can we do to make things better?  To bridge the gap opened up by our breach of trust? The second reading offers us sound advice for remaining close to Christ the keystone of our relationship with God. Whenever the worries and distractions of the world threaten to make us forget God’s love, to breach God’s trust, to focus only on our own concerns, the reading invites us to do three things. First, to ask God for what we need with prayer and thanksgiving. Second, to fill our minds with… everything that is good and pure… And, finally, to keep doing all the things that we have been taught. Thankful prayer. Watchful minds. Loving actions. This is how spiritual breaches of trust are mended and avoided.

My dear friends, truly God has entrusted us with so very much. Above all, the life of God’s own Son. Symbol of God’s undying love for us. What must we do to live up to this trust today?

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Between the Pool & the Pebble...

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc gcmenezes

My dear friends, do you still remember the story of Narcissus? As you know, he was a very handsome young man. Unfortunately, he was also rather proud and conceited. To teach him a lesson, an enemy tricked him into gazing into a pool of water. At which the arrogant youth promptly fell in love with his own reflection. So obsessed was he by his own good looks that he couldn’t bear to tear his eyes away. He remained stranded at the pool. Neither eating nor drinking. Caring neither for himself nor for others. Until eventually he died.

So goes the story. A tragic tale of extreme preoccupation with self. And yet, we may wonder, how Narcissus could be saved. Assuming there’s someone who cares for him. Someone who takes pity on him. Someone who wishes to show him mercy. What might that mercy look like? How might the young man be helped to leave his pool of self-absorption? And so be set free?

Of course, if Narcissus were not so handsome, perhaps it’d be enough simply to call to him. To warn him of the danger. But the young man’s appearance is simply too enticing. Even to himself. In order to help him turn away, a more drastic step is needed. Can you think of one? I imagine that a possible solution might be to throw a pebble into the pool to disturb his reflection. To show Narcissus that he is staring only at an illusion. And so to draw his gaze away. Away from his reflection, to something else. Something real. Something truly life-giving.

How might Narcissus be saved? How might he be set free? I’m not sure, my dear friends. But I believe that this is the question our Mass readings help us to ponder today. Of course, I’m not suggesting that our readings propose a cure for psychological narcissism. I do not have the expertise to make such a claim. If anything, I speak more of a spiritual condition than a psychological disorder.

Consider the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel. Two sons are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. One says no, but then later obeys. The other says yes, but then fails to follow through. I wonder whether the situation of these boys might not be similar to that of Narcissus. At least at the beginning. Why do they find it difficult to heed their father’s call? Could it be because, like Narcissus, both are stranded at the pool of self-absorption? Both are focused only on themselves and their own interests. They can’t tear their eyes away from their respective reflections.

But, if this is true, then how is it that one son eventually manages to break free? While the other remains trapped? It may be helpful to remember that each of these boys represent particular groups of people. The son who refuses to go, but later does, refers to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The public sinners. The son who agrees to go, but then fails to do so, points to the chief priests and elders of the people. The religious authorities. Those appointed to offer sacrifice, and to provide spiritual leadership. Those considered more pious and holy than everyone else. In other words, to be honest, people like me.

According to Jesus, the public sinners are able to repent, to turn away from their self-absorption, simply by hearing the call of John the Baptist. But the religious leaders are not. Why, we may wonder, is the voice of one crying in the wilderness enough to convince one group to repent, but not the other? Could it be because one group’s reflection appears more attractive, more enticing than the other? Could it be that the public sinners are not so attached to their own reflections, because they know their own sinfulness. They perceive the ugliness in their own lives. It is, after all, plain for everyone to see.

The religious authorities, on the other hand, the people like me, have an obviously handsome and polished image. They do seemingly pious and holy things. They speak apparently inspiring and inspired words. How difficult it is to tear my eyes away from my own apparent good looks! How hard to heed God’s call to repent, when I feel no need for repentance. Blinded as I am by my own dazzling performance. How challenging it is to make efforts to seek and do God’s will, when I am already so busy doing so many apparently godly things.

And yet, in the midst of my preoccupation with myself. Even as I may remain stranded at the pool of self-absorption. God refuses to give up on me. God continues to desire and to work for my salvation. To show me mercy. For as the first reading reminds me, God has no interest in the death of a sinner. But rather that the sinner might renounce his sins and live. How does God do this for me? How does God show me mercy?

The answer is found in the second reading. Into the stagnant pool of my self-absorption, God casts the precious pebble of Christ’s self-emptying sacrifice on the Cross. Disturbing the false image of my superficial piety. Uncovering the truth of my obsession with myself. Moving me to do what Paul tells the Philippians to do: everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead. In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus (who)… emptied himself… 

To allow one’s gaze to be drawn away from self towards Christ as he hangs on the Cross. The ultimate sign of God’s mercy. Isn’t this the call that we gather to celebrate at this Eucharist? Isn’t this the foundation of ministry in the Ignatian tradition? Ever to keep and to ponder in my heart that three-fold question: what have I done, what am I doing, what ought I to do for Christ?

As you know, many are saying that we live now in perhaps the most narcissistic of times. Due in large part to the influence of social media, many of us find it difficult to shift our attention away from ourselves long enough even to see to our own deeper needs. To receive God’s love for us. Let alone to attend to the needs of others. To share God’s love with them. Today, spirituality itself runs the risk of becoming just another commodity. Something people buy to help them cope with the struggles of daily life. To feel better about themselves. Without actually being set free from their self-obsession. And yet, even in a world such as this, we dare to believe and to trust that God continues to show mercy. That God continues to desire and to work for our salvation.

My dear friends, as we rejoice and give thanks for the past 20 years of the Cenacle’s fruitful presence in Singapore, how might God be calling all of us to continue shifting our gaze away from the pool of our self-absorption to the pebble of Christ’s self-sacrifice? And to help others to do the same today?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Deep Cleansing

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking you a personal question. But do you follow a particular skincare routine? How do you usually clean your face everyday? Are you satisfied with simply rubbing it with a dry towel? Or do you use soap and water? Or do you go even further? Do you, for example, invest in one of those facial cleansers that are sometimes advertised on TV? You know, the kind that boast about how deeply they clean your face? Not just scrubbing the surface of the skin, but penetrating deep down into the pores. Removing not just dirt and grime, but even germs and hidden toxins as well… Dry rubbing, soap washing, or deep facial cleansing? Which of these methods do you use to clean your face?

As you might expect, sisters and brothers, I ask this question not because I’m actually interested in your daily skincare routine. But to highlight the fact that cleaning can be done to varying degrees. And this is true not just of our facial skin, but also of our spiritual lives as well. Just as our faces need cleaning, so too do our lives. And just as our skin can be cleaned to different depths, so too can our spirits.

Strange as it may sound, this is what I think we find in the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel today. The Lord’s purpose in telling the story is to show us what the kingdom of heaven is like. Or what it takes to enter and live in the presence of God. To dwell continually in the love of the Lord. According to the parable, this process can be compared to a landowner going out to hire labourers for his vineyard. And when we examine the story more closely, we find at least three distinct steps to this process. Steps for cleaning, if you like, people’s lives thoroughly enough so that they can enter and live in God’s presence. Like the three methods for cleaning our faces, each of these spirit-cleansing steps penetrates more deeply than the previous one. Can you identify these steps?

The first is a change of location. In the story, what the landowner does first is to go to a particular place and invite the people he finds there to follow him to another place. The landowner, we’re told, goes out into the market place, where he invites people to enter his vineyard. So a change of location. This is the first step. On its own, however, like rubbing one’s face with a dry towel, this first step doesn’t get us very far. It doesn’t clean deeply enough. A second step is needed. Not just a change of location, but also a change in occupation. The people whom the landowner finds on his excursions are asked not just to move from one place to another, but also to act in a way different from how they have been acting. To change from simply standing idle to working hard in the landowner’s vineyard. Labouring on their master’s behalf. Furthering their employer’s best interests. This second step clearly goes deeper than the first. Not unlike how washing with soap and water cleans our faces more effectively than just rubbing with a dry towel.

And yet, the whole point of the story seems to be that this second step, this change from idleness to work, still doesn’t penetrate deeply enough. For even the ones who have been working in the vineyard for the whole day, seem to still fall short of what is expected of them. They fail to match their employer’s generosity. They become envious when they see the latecomers receiving the same wage as them. What does this show, if not that entrance into the presence of God requires a third step? Not just a change of location. And not just a change in occupation. But also, and above all, a change in disposition. A shift from envy to generosity. From competition to compassion. From selfishness to love. Not unlike how facial cleansers clean out the pores of our skin, so too does this third step cleanse the interior depths of our hearts. But how does this happen? What must we do? What is the spiritual equivalent of a deep facial cleanser? The answer is found in the other readings.

In the first reading, the prophet issues a call to profound conversion. An invitation to deep spiritual cleansing. A summons to change not just one’s actions, but one’s attitudes as well. Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. A call to change not just one’s usual location and one’s habitual actions, but also one’s deepest dispositions. To abandon those thoughts and ways that may at first seem to come so naturally. To be so full of common sense. But which are, in reality, nothing short of selfish and sinful. To abandon our earthly ways, and instead to turn back to God. To seek the Lord while he is still to be found. What does this look like?

For us Christians, it looks like what we find Paul doing in the second reading. He struggles with a dilemma. He can’t quite decide whether he prefers to die or to go on living. But the exact option Paul finally chooses is less important than the main reason, the central criterion, by which he makes his choice. For Paul, there is only one valid reason for choosing one way or the other. And that reason is Christ. Paul wants to choose only the option that will bring him closer to Christ. And that’s precisely why he finds himself in a dilemma. For departing in death will bring him into the Lord’s heavenly presence. But remaining alive will enable Paul to imitate Christ more closely, by serving the Lord’s body more effectively, on earth.

In whatever we may choose to think or say or do, and wherever we may choose to go, to choose always only according to the mind of Christ. Isn’t this what it means to have the right disposition? Isn’t this what it looks like to be cleansed at the deepest core of our being? By putting on the mind and heart of Christ? Allowing Christ to be for us that deep spiritual cleanser, which alone is capable of ushering us into the presence of God.

If this is true, then perhaps it’s not so important how much time we spend in church. Or how many ministries we join. More important than the location and the occupation of our bodies, is the particular disposition of our hearts. For the Lord can be found not just here in church, but also out there in the world. Waiting for me to meet and to serve him in generosity of heart and singleness of purpose. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men's faces.

My dear friends, many people take the trouble to go through a rigorous skin-care routine everyday. What does your soul-care routine look like today?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Preventing Heart-Attack

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Trina Alexander

My dear friends, do you know what a heart-attack is? Do you know how it’s caused? And what can be done to prevent it? I’m sure many of you know much more about it than I do. But here’s the little that I do know: A healthy heart requires a constant supply of oxygen, which is carried in the blood flowing through the arteries. But an artery may sometimes be blocked by certain deposits, such as cholesterol. Which obstruct the flow of blood, and deprive the heart muscle of much-needed oxygen. As a result, the muscle dies, and the person suffers a heart-attack. Which is why, one way to prevent a heart-attack is to watch one’s diet, and to exercise regularly. In order to avoid the accumulation of cholesterol. So, oxygen and cholesterol, diet and exercise. These are some of the things that can help us understand and prevent heart-attacks.

But why, you may be wondering, am I talking to you about heart-attacks? Surely, this is a church, and not a clinic. And I am only a simple priest. Not a medical doctor. Well, the reason is because I find the image of a heart-attack helpful for pondering a rather troublesome question arising from our Mass readings today. Can you guess what this question is? The readings, as you know, speak to us about the importance of forgiveness. The need for us to let go of our resentment and anger towards those who have hurt us. We are not to seek revenge. Or to harbour a grudge. But instead to show pity. For unless we forgive others, we cannot receive God’s forgiveness.

And yet, sisters and brothers, if it is true that God will not forgive me my sins unless and until I forgive others theirs, then doesn’t this place a limit on God’s mercy? And, what’s worse, by choosing not to forgive me simply because I am unable to forgive someone else, isn’t God failing to do for me the very thing that I am being expected to do for others? To overlook my failure? To pardon my shortcoming? Difficult question, isn’t it?

Unless, of course, the problem lies not with God, but with me. For just as a normal human heart requires oxygen to function, so too do I need the mercy of God to live a healthy and joyful Christian life. And God has already shown, and keeps on showing, this mercy to me. To all of us. Especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ. Which we celebrate at this Mass. For, as we all know, it is at the foot of the Cross that we find all our sins forgiven. It is in the pierced side of the crucified Christ that we discover the eternal Source of God’s mercy and forgiveness towards us. It is the broken Heart of Jesus that keeps pumping God’s compassion and love onto us and into the whole world.

But just as the flow of oxygen-rich blood can be obstructed by deposits of cholesterol in the arteries. So too can the constant stream of God’s infinite mercy be hindered by the accumulation of resentment and anger in my heart. Like cholesterol, unforgiveness clogs up my arteries. And kills the spiritual muscles of my heart. Preventing me from experiencing for myself the joy of God’s infinite mercy. Causing me to forget what the second reading reminds us. That the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. For Christ both died and came to life… so that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Lord not just of those who do good to me, but also those who do me harm. Unforgiveness causes me to lose sight of this. To forget the close bond that unites me even to my enemies. Unforgiveness divides those whom Christ has united. Rips apart those whom Christ has joined. Isn’t this why the first reading tells us that resentment and anger… are foul things? Not because they make God stop forgiving me. But because they prevent me from experiencing God’s enduring mercy.

Thankfully, there are steps that I can take to prevent the  accumulation of anger and resentment in my heart. Steps very similar to those for lowering cholesterol. The first step is simply to watch my diet. Not so much what I put into my mouth and stomach, as what I allow to occupy my mind and heart. When the poisonous memories of hurts and traumas suffered in the past begin to fill my consciousness. As they sometimes do. And I find it difficult to resist them. I need to heed the advice of the first reading. Not to suppress the bad memories. For I  am often powerless to do so. But rather, even as I may acknowledge their presence, to try, at the same time, to recall other memories as well. Not just the hurts I have suffered, but also the blessings I have received. The mercy found in the covenant of the Most High. Sealed by the outpouring of Christ’s blood. And not just the mercy shown to everyone in general. But also the experiences of mercy that are particular to me. Mercy I have known in my own life. In my own history. In my own personal story of sin and conversion. Of having been lost and then found. Of being rescued from danger and perhaps even death.

Isn’t this precisely where the unforgiving servant in the gospel parable falls short? He fails to pity his fellow servant, because he allows himself to forget how much his master has first pitied him. In a sense, we may say that the unforgiving servant fails to watch his diet. He indulges in resentment and anger. And these foul things clog up his arteries. Preventing him from feeling God’s mercy. Causing him to be upset instead of grateful. Deprived, instead of blessed. Frustrated, rather than joyful.

Which then points us to another step for preventing the build-up of resentment and anger: exercise. The kind of spiritual exercise that we prayed for in the opening prayer just now, when we asked God to grant that we may serve you with all our heart. For whereas a diet of resentment and anger fills us with bitterness. And turns us only ever inward. The memories of God’s mercies toward us makes us grateful. Stirring up in our hearts holy desires to reach out in service of God and of others. And the more we put such desires into practice, the more we serve God in one another, the less space there will be for grudges and grievances to accumulate. The healthier will be our hearts. The more merciful will be our lives.

And it’s important for us also to realise that service of God and neighbour may actually take the form of resistance to the evil that others do in the world. Resistance expressed in repairing the damage that is done. Or protecting the victims from further harm. Or speaking out for those who have no voice. And standing up for those who have no place in society. For while we have to forgive the wrongdoer, we should not condone the wrongdoing. From here, it is not difficult to see that the practice of forgiveness has implications not just for the way I live my own private personal life. But also, and just as important, forgiveness has implications also for how we live our political lives as citizens of our respective nations and of the world.

So, oxygen and cholesterol, diet and exercise… Mercy and resentment, memory and service… These are among the things that help us better understand and protect our hearts. My dear sisters and brothers, as you celebrate Malaysia Day, what will you be doing to safeguard yourselves and your society from the dangers of heart-attack today?

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