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?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

In Whose Name?

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc LainToni Hou

My dear friends, if you were to receive a call on your mobile phone, from someone claiming to be a police officer, asking you for your personal information, what would you do? Would you give the caller what he or she wants? Probably not, right? And what about if someone were to stop you on the street, and offer you a brand new Rolex watch for $200? What would you do? Would you buy the watch? Again, probably not, right? And we all know why. The reason is quite simple. Just because a watch bears the name Rolex, doesn’t make it genuine. It could be an imitation. And just because someone uses the name of the police, doesn’t mean the person is an authentic public servant. She or he could be an impersonator. Claiming to act in someone else’s name, but actually really acting only in his or her own unscrupulous interests.

And if I were gullible enough to believe the caller, or to buy the watch, and get cheated as a result, there’s no way I can claim that it was actually the police or Rolex who cheated me. I owe it to myself to take care to see beyond the names that people use. To learn how to tell the difference between the genuine and the imitation, the authentic and the impersonator.

I think there’s something similar going on in our Mass readings today. As you have no doubt already noticed, in both the first reading and the gospel, we find people being asked to respond to wrongdoing in a certain way. To confront the wrongdoer. In the gospel, Jesus even provides a helpful procedure for doing this. For performing what is commonly called fraternal correction. The important task of confronting and correcting a brother or a sister who does wrong.

So that, on one level, the message in our readings seems clear. They speak of our responsibility to correct wrongdoers. To be a Christian, it is not enough for me simply to focus on my own spiritual growth. I am also responsible, in some way, for the spiritual wellbeing of others. And this responsibility goes beyond my closest family and friends. Beyond even the Christian community. It extends also to the rest of the world. To be Christian, to be Church, is to be a light for the nations. A prophetic sign to others of how human beings should conduct themselves. In order to experience the peace and harmony, the fullness of life, that we are all meant to enjoy.

We see this quite clearly, for example, in the words and actions of Pope Francis. Since becoming pope, he has spoken and acted in a consistently prophetic way. Not only reminding us Christians of the joy of the gospel and the joy of love. But also calling the world’s attention to the obstacles that keep us from experiencing this same joy. Obstacles such as a global economy based essentially on greed and limitless consumption. And a manipulative way of relating to people and things that leads to shattered lives and a broken world.

And yet, my dear friends, there is also something more in our readings today. We find it in that phrase that occurs both in the first reading and the gospel. Do you know which one I’m talking about? It’s the phrase in my name. In the first reading, God tells the prophet to warn evildoers in my name. And, in the gospel, Jesus assures us, that where two or three meet in my name, the Lord himself will be there with them. To speak and to act, and even to correct others, in the name of the Lord. This is surely an awesome responsibility. But what does it actually mean? What does it look and feel like?

As you know, we Christians are fond of ending our prayers with the words, we make this prayer in the name of Christ the Lord. But does it mean that just because I use the Lord’s name, whatever I do is done in the name of the Lord? What about if I were to use the Lord’s name to curse or to harm someone? Won’t I be acting more like that anonymous caller we mentioned at the start? Using the name of the police only to cheat others? What then is the difference between a true prophet and an impersonator?

Our readings give us at least three helpful characteristics of the experience of speaking and acting in the name of the Lord. The first has to do with the source of authority. In the first reading, God says to the prophet, Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name. Ezekiel does not act on his own authority. He does not take his prophetic ministry upon himself. No. Not only is he appointed by God, but he is also specifically told to convey to the people only what he hears from God. Nothing less and nothing more.

The second helpful characteristic has to do with the spirit in which the prophet’s ministry is performed. Even if the words of the prophet may sometimes sound harsh, and his actions seem shocking, his main goal is not to make the people suffer. Not to punish them. But to save them. To warn the wicked person to renounce his ways. To win back one’s brother or sister. Back to the way of the Lord. And, by doing this, by seeking only what is best for the other, the third characteristic of prophetic ministry becomes visible. It is what the second reading says sums up all the commandments of God. Namely, You must love your neighbour as yourself, (For love) is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour…

Source, spirit and summary. The word of God, the good of others, and the commandment of love. Three characteristics of what it looks and feels like when someone speaks and acts in the name of the Lord. Source, spirit and summary. Three points that help us draw that crucially important line separating the impersonator from the authentic servant of the Lord. The line between the thief, who comes only to steal and kill and destroy, and the true Shepherd, who comes in order that we may have life, and have it abundantly. A line that we need to learn to draw especially today, when so many claim to speak and act in the name of religion and of God. But in ways that lead only to more shattered lives and broken relationships. A line that needs to be drawn not just out there in the world, but also in here within and among ourselves.

My dear sisters and brothers, scripture tells us that, in word and deed, we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. In whose name are you speaking and acting, today and everyday?

Monday, September 04, 2017

Of Guitar Strings & Tugs-O-War

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, have you ever been in a tug-o-war before? You know… two groups of people pulling on a rope with all their might in opposite directions? It can be quite fun. Fun to watch. And fun even to play. Fun, in other words, for the people involved. But have you ever wondered what it might be like for the rope? What it must feel like to be subjected to such great violence? To undergo such terrible tension? It seems quite unfair, doesn’t it? I imagine that it’s not unlike what sometimes happens, in a drama series, to a newly married man (for some reason, it’s usually only the man), whose wife and mother, unfortunately, do not get along. The poor guy is like that rope in a tug-o-war. He experiences tension. Wife pulling him in one direction. Mother pulling him in the other. What to do? How to survive? Seems really unfair. It’s enough to make anyone wonder how and why he got himself into such a fix in the first place.

And yet, my dear friends, tension isn’t always bad. Isn’t it true that many beautiful things come to us precisely as a result of tension? Consider a guitar, for example. How does it produce such melodious sounds, if not through tension? Strings of varying thickness, pulled in opposite directions, to varying degrees of tension, allow a musician to extract from them music so beautiful that it can soothe the struggling soul. Much as it may feel uncomfortable, and much as I might wish to avoid it, tension can actually be quite productive. The question, of course, is how to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty. This, my dear friends, is the question that I believe our readings help us to ponder today. How to endure tension so that it leads to beauty?

In both the first reading and the gospel, we find people in tense situations. In the first reading, God has given the prophet Jeremiah a message to proclaim. A word that is very difficult for the people to accept. God wants them to submit to their enemies. To suffer defeat. And to be taken into exile. As might be expected, not only do the people reject the message, they also persecute the messenger. They try to silence Jeremiah. Which is why, the prophet complains. The word of the Lord, he says, has meant for me insult, derision, all day long… Should he continue to speak and suffer the painful consequences? Or remain silent in order to save himself? Like the rope in a tug-o-war, Jeremiah experiences tension. He is pulled in opposite directions. He is suspended between speech and silence. Between the proclamation of God’s word and his own desire for self-preservation.

Which is not unlike Peter’s experience in the gospel. Immediately after having been praised by Jesus, in last week’s reading, for correctly identifying the Lord as the Messiah, Peter now finds himself equated with the Devil. All because he tries to discourage Jesus from submitting to his enemies. From undergoing suffering and death. Like Jeremiah, Peter experiences tension. He is suspended between looking at things in God’s way and in his own human fashion. Peter is torn between the call to follow the Lord to his Passion, and Peter’s own desire for self-preservation.

My dear friends, in our Mass readings today, both Jeremiah, the prophet, and Peter, the Lord’s chief apostle, are made to undergo tension. At first glance, it seems quite unfair, doesn’t it? And yet, could it be that God has good reason for allowing this to happen? Could it be that God is inviting them to a closer relationship. Teaching them to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty? Isn’t this what Jesus himself does? He goes to Jerusalem, he submits to his Passion and Death, in such a way that God eventually raises him to Life. And isn’t this what Jesus is inviting his disciples to do as well? If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me…  Follow me in enduring tension. So that you may follow me into the beauty of my Death and Resurrection. By which I will save the whole world…

All of which is, of course, much easier said than done. We know this. The Cross of Christ is far easier to preach than it is to practice. Easy for me to stand here and tell you that tension can be productive. That it can even lead to beauty. But what do I do when I myself experience it? What do I do when one friend tells me to do one thing, and another tells me the exact opposite? What do I do, when my boss in the office gives me one instruction, and my other boss or bosses at home give me another? What to do, when the world tells me how important it is to make money, and Jesus tells me that human beings do not live on bread alone? How to follow the Lord’s instruction? How to lose my life in order to find it? How to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty?

Thankfully, the second reading offers us valuable guidance. Some important steps that we can take. The first step is to think. To think of God’s mercy. Precisely at a time when I may be more inclined to indulge in self-pity. To focus only on my own pain. And perhaps even to blame others for it. The reading invites me to think instead of God’s mercy. God’s love for me. God’s many gifts and blessings showered upon me. Especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ the Son.

And when I do this, when I meditate more deeply on God’s mercy, it’s likely that I will begin to experience what the prophet Jeremiah experiences in the first reading. Perhaps God’s word will start to feel less like a terrible burden, and more like a life-giving flame. Or, as we sang in the response to the psalm, a burning thirst. For you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God. Perhaps the thoughts of God’s incredible mercy for me will ignite in my heart a fire, will awaken in my body a thirst, that motivates me to do whatever God wants me to do. Giving me strength to take the second step: To worship God with my whole body. With my whole life. To model my behaviour no longer on the world, but instead on Christ. So that I am gradually led to discover and to fulfil God’s will for me even when it is difficult. So that I might allow God to do with me as God does with Christ. To extract from the tense situations of my life beautiful sounds that can soothe, if only in some small way, the sufferings souls around me.

My dear friends, guitar-strings produce music only when they undergo the right tension. What must we do to better allow our merciful God to eventually transform the tensions of our daily lives into lovely instruments of beauty and salvation, for us and for our world, today?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Key Characteristics

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Lubs Mary

My dear friends, how would you feel if I were to ask you whether you know what a key looks like, and how to use it? … Now there was a time in the past, when you might have been expected to take offence. To feel irritated, or even insulted. To think that this is a silly question. For, back then, one key looked pretty much the same as any other. A simple piece of metal with grooves cut into it at one end. And everyone knew what keys looked like and how to use them. But things have since changed, haven’t they? These days, keys come in many different forms. And we may not always know how to use them. Without being told. Well, at least I don’t.

For example, in addition to the old metal keys that we insert into a keyhole, we now also have plastic cards that we tap on or slide across a special electronic surface. Or alphanumeric codes that we type on a keypad. Or our own fingerprints, which some of us use to open our phones. These days, keys come in so many different forms that it’s difficult to say, in advance, what any key might look like. Let alone how it works.

And, if this is true of keys in the literal sense, isn’t it even more true of metaphorical ones? Isn’t it even more difficult to predict what the key to good health looks like? Or the key to a successful career? Or a happy marriage? Here too, keys can come in many different forms. Such as the right diet… or hard work… or good luck… or deep communication… Both literal and metaphorical keys can look very different. Which is why, when a particular type of key is being described, we need to pay close attention. We cannot simply assume that we know what it looks like and how to use it. And this is especially true if the key in question can gain us access to something precious. Something that may well be the deepest desire of our hearts.

Which is precisely what we find in our Mass readings today. As you’ve probably already noticed, both in the first reading and the gospel, keys are being given to certain people. In the first reading, God appoints Eliakim as master of the palace. The gate-keeper for the king. To Eliakim is entrusted the key to the House of David. The authority over the whole palace. The power to decide whom to admit into the presence of the king. In a similar fashion, in the gospel, Jesus entrusts to the apostle Peter a set of keys. Keys that open the gates of not just any earthly palace. But the gates of the kingdom of heaven itself. To Peter is granted the authority to grant access into the very presence of God.

Now, it is possible to interpret this gospel passage to mean simply what it says. That Peter is the appointed gate-keeper of heaven. He’s the one who greets all new arrivals at the pearly gates. With a flowing beard on his face, and an ancient bunch of keys in his hands. Holding the power to decide whether or not to let people in. I’m sure many of us have heard our share of jokes that evoke such an image, haven’t we?

And yet, isn’t it also true that, in this gospel passage, Peter speaks not just for himself, but also as a representative of the other disciples. And the keys that he receives, are meant to be used not just by Peter alone. But also by the others. Not just by the Pope in Rome. But also by every follower of Christ. Even by you and me. To us, collectively, members of the Body of Christ, citizens of the City of God, to us too are entrusted the keys to the kingdom. The awesome power to enter and to admit others into the presence of God. But do we know how to use these keys? Do we even recognise what they look like?

These, I believe, are the crucially important questions that our readings help us to ponder today. In particular, the readings describe at least three important characteristics of Peter’s keys. The first is relationship. The keys to the kingdom are entrusted to Peter as a direct result of his response to Jesus’ question, But you, who do you say I am? A question that is actually an invitation to a deeper, more intimate relationship with the Lord. Entrance to the kingdom depends upon being in right relationship with Jesus. Upon recognising and accepting him, following and imitating him, loving and serving him, as the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Lord and master of my whole life. And just as relationships are built not just on flowery words, but on sincere and consistent actions. So too does entry to the kingdom depend not just on what I say here in church. But also on how I live my life out there in the world.

And yet this kind of intimate relationship, this kind of heartfelt knowledge, this kind of humble acknowledgement of Christ as the centre of my life, does not come to me only through sheer force of will. Not just by tireless effort. Neither by clenched fists, nor gritted teeth. For, as the second reading reminds us,  it is impossible to penetrate God’s motives or understand his methods! On our own we cannot know the mind of the Lord. No one can. No one, that is, except the privileged person to whom God chooses to reveal God’s self.

This is the second characteristic of the keys of the Kingdom: revelation. For isn’t this what Jesus tells Peter? It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. The knowledge of how to relate with God comes to us in the same way it came to Peter. As a revelation. A precious gift. Something for which we hunger and thirst. Often without even realising it. A gift that God has bestowed on us, and continually offers to us, in Christ Jesus our Lord. A gift that we receive anew every time we gather, as we do now, to celebrate the holy Eucharist.

And when we realise this, when we begin to appreciate how precious a gift we have received in Christ, we experience the third characteristic of the keys of the kingdom. The same thing that Jesus observes when he tells Peter, Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man… Rejoicing. Resulting from revelation. Leading to right relationship. These are among the characteristics of the keys to the kingdom. This is what it looks and feels like to enter and to help others enter the presence of God. Rejoicing, revelation, and relationship. Are these not also the very things for which so many people are searching, and often not finding, today? Needing someone to guide them? To help them gain access to the presence of God?

My dear friends, to us have been entrusted the precious keys to the kingdom of heaven. Yes, to you and to me. But how well are we using them to benefit others as well as ourselves? Do we even know what these keys look like in our lives today?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Joy of Open Hands (Rerun)

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Picture: cc Hamed Saber

Sisters and brothers, if I may, l’d like to invite you to do something with me right now. At the count of 3, could you please clench your fists as tightly as you can? And then try to notice how you feel. Can you do that? Good. Ready? 1-2-3, clench! And hold... Notice how you feel... Now, again at the count of 3, slowly unclench your fists. And again notice how you feel. Ready? 1-2-3, slowly... open... How do you feel?...

So what is it like, sisters and brothers? What is it like to have your fists clenched? And then to open them up? Any difference? Of course there is, right? It’s the difference between stress and calm. Between exertion and rest. Between anxious grabbing and the willingness to let go…

It’s helpful to keep this contrast in mind, because it can help us appreciate something that our liturgy is inviting us to consider today. Have you noticed what it is? Recall what we asked God to do for us in the opening prayer: Fill your faithful with holy joy, we prayed, for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin you bestow eternal gladness. And, remember also, how the first reading begins. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!… Sisters and brothers, if there is one thing our liturgy is bringing to our attention today, it is joy.

And I think we can all agree that joy is something that everyone desires. Something we all seek. Except that we have different ways of doing it. Do you know what your own approach is? I’m not sure, but I think, for many of us, the way we seek to be happy is the way taught to us by the world. The way of constant effort. Of anxious exertion. The way of the clenched fist and the gritted teeth. We push ourselves hard, and our children as well, in order to to grab as many of life’s pleasures as possible. We believe that the harder we work, the more we grab, the happier we will be.

For many of us, joy is something we have to win for ourselves. Through sheer force of will. Through steely strength of determination. No one makes us happy. We earn it for ourselves. This is what we learn in society. And, more often than not, we assume that this must be true in the spiritual life as well. We think that happiness is only about effort. How to be more joyful? Well, spend more time in prayer. Give more money to the church. Get involved in more ministries in the parish... More time. More money. More effort. Must mean more joy, right? I’m not sure. Perhaps for some this approach does work. But, then again, isn’t it true that, it can also have the opposite effect? Very often, the demand for more only serves to make us more discouraged. More disillusioned. More depressed. Or, what’s worse, it can also make us more arrogant. More self-righteous. More judgmental.

Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to the different approach presented to us in our readings today. Notice the reason why Zion is asked to rejoice in the first reading. It’s not because of anything she herself has done. Rather, Zion is invited to rejoice in the victory won for her by her king. Her joy is less something she earns than something she receives. Not only that. Notice also the very curious way in which her king is described. He rides not on a war-horse, but a baby donkey. His is an image not of power and might, but of humility and gentleness. Indeed, we may recall that this is the same passage of scripture applied to Jesus, as he enters Jerusalem on Passion Sunday. Quite clearly, the approach to joy being taught to us here is very different from the way of the world. It is less about exertion and grabbing than resting and receiving. Less about the clenched fist than the open hand.

And this is also the same approach that Jesus teaches in the gospel. Notice how the Lord begins by speaking not of our joy, but of God’s. Yes, Father, for this is what it pleased you to do... God rejoices in revealing Himself to mere children. And isn’t this the only true Source of our own joy? If we are able to rejoice, it is only by sharing in the joy of God. By humbly receiving God’s self-communication to us. Especially in the Mystery that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The Mystery of the Dying and Rising of Christ. And isn’t this why the learned and the clever fall short? Not because God doesn’t reveal himself to them. For the psalm tells us that the Lord is good to all, compassionate to all his creatures. If the learned and clever fail to rejoice, it is only because they are too focused on themselves. Too full of their own expertise. Too wrapped up in their own efforts. Too busy clenching their fists.

In contrast, Jesus issues a moving invitation to those who labour and are overburdened. Those of us who find ourselves desperately struggling to meet the demands of the clenched fist. And perhaps often failing. Jesus invites us to come to Him. To approach Him. The victorious yet humble King. The King who is victorious precisely because he is humble. Humble enough even to let Himself be nailed to a cruel cross to set His people free. We are invited to come to Him with open hands. To receive the joy that He has already won for us through His sacrifice. The joy of realising how much God loves us. Cherishes us. Takes pleasure in us. Wants to give us joy. Without our being able to earn it.

And, quite paradoxically, it is when we do this. When we allow God to open our hands and our hearts to receive God’s love. Especially here in the Eucharist. That we find the energy to do what needs to be done. No longer out of an oppressive burden of obligation. But out of a deep and enduring sense of gratitude. As the psalmist says, all your creatures shall thank you, O Lord, and your friends shall repeat their blessing. Isn’t this also what is described in the second reading? When we open ourselves to receive the love of God in Christ, our interests begin to change. We turn away from the unspiritual toward the spiritual. We allow the Spirit of God to make his home in us. To give us the strength to gradually put an end to the misdeeds of the body. To pray more devoutly. To give more wholeheartedly. To serve more selflessly. To experience, even here on earth, something of the joys of heaven.

Sisters and brothers, if I may, I’d just invite you now, once more, to clench your fists... And then to slowly open them up again… Notice how you feel... Two different postures. Two contrasting approaches. One grabbing… The other receiving… One anxious… The other trusting…

Which one will you choose for yourself today?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Between Money Changer & Marriage Registry


13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Pictures: cc PJ R & Matt Gibson

My dear friends, have you ever been to a money changer? Do you know what it’s like? How about the marriage registry? Ever been there? And if I were to ask you the difference between what goes on at each of these places, what would you say? How would you describe it? What is the difference between changing currencies and registering a marriage? 

It’s really quite simple, right? What happens between us and the money changer is basically a transaction. The surrender of one currency in exchange for another. The concern is with the management of assets. Which tends to be an impersonal activity. I don’t even have to do it myself. Someone else could do it for me. As long as I trust that person with my money. Also, what happens at the money changer is typically a one-off deal. I could, of course, keep going back to the same guy. But I don’t have to. Each transaction is complete in itself.

In contrast, the couples at the marriage registry aren’t just performing a transaction. At least we hope not. What they are doing is committing themselves to a new intimate relationship. That of marriage. Which is nothing if not deeply personal. The focus is not so much on the management of their assets as on the investment of their very selves. The donation of their very lives. Which is why what takes place at the registry is significant not just for that one day, important as it may be, but for the whole of the couple’s new life together.

Money changers handle transactions. Marriage registries mediate relationships. Transactions have to do with possessions. Relationships connect persons. The changing of currency can be a one-off affair. But marriages affect one’s whole life. For better or for worse. Till death do us part. It’s helpful and important to keep these differences in mind, as we ponder what our Mass readings are saying to us today. The message is quite clear, isn’t it? Or so it seems. There is an obvious recurring theme. Can you make out what it is?

Yes, it’s hospitality. Welcome. Welcome shown especially to God present in God’s representatives. In the gospel, Jesus tells his apostles, Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me. In other words, those who show hospitality to the apostles are being hospitable to Jesus himself. And, in welcoming Jesus, they welcome the heavenly Father who sent him. But that’s not all. We’re also told that this hospitality shown to God actually attracts a reward. Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward…

The first reading gives us a very helpful illustration of what all this looks like. The Shunamite woman welcomes the prophet Elisha precisely because he is a prophet, a man of God. She quite literally makes room for him in her home. As a result, she receives a reward. A great blessing. New life. This time next year, the prophet tells her, you will hold a son in your arms.

The message couldn’t be clearer, right? Show hospitality, and you will receive a reward. Which is an important message for us, especially today. When hospitality often seems to be in such short supply. Even as more and more people experience the dire need for it. The most striking example is, of course, refugees fleeing their war-torn and conflict-ridden countries, in the hope of finding a safe place in which to live.

But it’s not just faraway refugees who need hospitality. It’s also the strangers among us. Not just those who may bear different passports, but also those who think and speak and look different from us. Or even those unnoticed guests who come to our parish for Mass for the first time. And what about the members of our own family? Strange as it may sound, isn’t it true that our own spouses, and parents, and children also often yearn to receive a welcome from us? Dearly wish that we might give them room? Not just room in our homes, but room in our hearts. Room that we offer when we truly listen to what they might have to say. Truly receive and accept them as they are. Could it be that to welcome all these people is also to welcome God? And so to receive a reward?

And yet, much as all this may be true, it still falls short of the deeper message in our readings today. For it is possible to approach hospitality as I would a money changer. As though I were performing a transaction. Seeking to welcome others by focusing only on the transfer of my assets, instead of the investment of my own self. So that hospitality becomes something impersonal. And what’s worse is when I show hospitality to others only in the hope of receiving a reward. Not unlike how I might exchange one currency for another.

Of course, I don’t typically realise that this is what I’m doing at the time. But how do I react when things don’t go well for me despite all my good works? Am I not prone to anger and resentment? To doubt and depression? As though God owes me something for all the good that I have done?

The hospitality that our readings propose is quite different. It’s not a commercial transaction, but a loving relationship. A relationship initiated first of all by God. It is God who has shown hospitality to me. It is God who has made room for me, given me new life, through the dying and rising of Christ the Son. As the second reading reminds us, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Christ… so that as Christ was raised from the dead… we too might live a new life.

Isn’t this the prophet’s reward? Not a cushy existence in the secular world, but an intimate relationship with God. A new life in God. A secure place in the kingdom of God. A kingdom of love, and justice, and peace, attained not through the exchange of assets, but by the loving self-donation of Christ. So that for us Christians, hospitality is not simply an occasional one-off activity, but a life-long commitment to follow Christ in laying down one’s life in love of others. In love for the Lord. To be hospitable is first to enjoy the hospitality of God in Christ. The same warm welcome that we are gathered here at this Mass to experience and to celebrate. And then to go out and to share it with the many who are in such great need of it.

My dear friends, there is a big difference between the money changer and the marriage registry. Between commercial transactions and true relationship. When we look at our own lives today, which of these do we see?

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