Saturday, November 04, 2017

Between Sponge & Stone

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Speshul Ted

My dear friends, can you tell me the differences between a sponge and a stone? It’s not too difficult right? A sponge is soft and empty. Hollow. Made up of many little pockets of air. A stone, on the other hand, is hard and solid. Packed with its own stuff. And this difference in composition accounts for a sharp contrast in how sponges and stones receive and give. When we pour water onto a dry sponge, for example, the liquid is soaked up. The sponge receives the water quite readily. But when we do the same with a stone, the water simply splashes off. The stone resists the gift. And if we fill a bag with sponges, and give it to someone to carry. The person can do it without much difficulty. Whereas a bagful of stones becomes a heavy burden. Also a wet sponge can be used to moisten the lips or cool the forehead of a sick person. To soothe and to give comfort. But we wouldn’t use a stone that way. It may do more harm than good.

Sponges give comfort. Stones tend to burden. Sponges are receptive to a gift of water. But stones resist. And these differences in how sponges and stones give and receive result from a deeper difference in their respective composition. Sponges are empty. Stones are full. I mention all this, because we find a similar contrast in our Mass readings today. Not exactly a contrast between sponges and stones, but between two kinds of people.

On the one hand, the second reading gives us an inspiring description of how Paul and his companions have given of themselves to the Christians in Thessalonica. Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children… eager to hand over… not only the Good News but their whole lives as well… slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one. On the other hand, in the gospel, Jesus criticises the scribes and the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens and laying them on people’s shoulders. Imposing arbitrary and impractical human rules more for their own benefit than for the good of those entrusted to their care. Similarly, in the first reading, God accuses the priests of burdening people. Causing many to stumble by their false teaching. While Paul and his companions soothe and comfort others like wet sponges. The priests and scribes and Pharisees burden people like heavy stones.

Clearly, what we find in our readings today is a sharp contrast between two ways of giving. Between generous support and burdensome imposition. But what accounts for this difference? How is it that some can give comfort and support like sponges, while the others only burden like stones? It may not be so obvious, sisters and brothers, but this difference in giving is related to a difference in receiving. For, in addition to Paul’s generosity in giving, the second reading also describes the Thessalonians’ openness in receiving. Their receptiveness to the Good News. Accepting it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking. And, as a result, the Good News has become a living power among them. Motivating them to give generously to others. As Christ first gave of himself to them.

Isn’t this the secret to every Christian’s ability to give? Doesn’t generosity in giving flow from openness in receiving? And could it be that, if the priests and scribes and Pharisees are such poor givers of themselves to others, it is only because they are first poor receivers from God? But if this is true, then how does one become a good receiver in order to be a better giver? The answer is found in the psalm. Here, like Paul and his companions in the second reading, God is likened to a mother feeding and looking after her child. Except that our attention is drawn more to the child. To its attitude as it looks at its mother. The description is quite striking and moving. My heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes… I have set my soul in silence and peace… Hope in the Lord both now and for ever. Unlike a stone, the psalmist is filled not with his own concerns, but only with what God wishes to give. Like a dry sponge, his heart is empty and waiting. Open and receptive to God’s gracious presence.

In sharp contrast, consider the dire warning that God issues to the priests in the first reading: if you do not find it in your heart to glorify my name… I will… curse your very blessing. In other words, if your hearts are too full of the self to make space to receive the gift of God’s presence. Then all your attempts at giving to others, at serving and blessing them, will be transformed instead into a burdensome curse. Not unlike sponges and stones, the people in our readings are able to give well only because they first receive well. And they receive well, only because they are empty of themselves. Open to receive the power and inspirations of God’s Spirit.

But if all this is true, then what about us? We who routinely pray our Prayer of Generosity at Mass every week. We who aspire to give of ourselves to others. To our family and friends. To our parish community and our wider society. How well do we actually give? To what extent do our attempts at giving really help people? To what extent do they become a burden to them instead? As the Chinese saying goes, yue bang yue mang (越帮越忙). The more you help, the busier we become. Could it be that, in order to give effectively to others, we need to first examine how well we receive from God? How attentive and receptive are we, for example, to the graces that God is offering to us at this very Mass? How open are we to receive the nourishing spiritual food served at the twin tables of the Word of God and the Body of Christ? And could it be that to do this, to be more receptive to God’s gifts, we need to be less full of ourselves? Less obsessed and preoccupied with many things.

Not that we should ignore our legitimate needs and desires. Nor should we shut out our worries and anxieties. On the contrary, what we need to do is instead to get in touch more deeply with them. With those areas where we feel most keenly our own weakness and helplessness. Our misery and poverty. Our utter and inescapable dependence on God. To go to those places in our hearts that we so often do our best to avoid, because they make us so uncomfortable. Avoid by busying ourselves with other things. Eve apparently godly things. And yet, could it be that it is precisely at these places of discomfort that we are more likely to experience God? Fortifying us in our weakness. Feeding us in our hunger. Filling us in our emptiness. 

For us Christians, generosity in giving flows from that openness in receiving born of poverty of spirit. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sister and brothers, what must we do to be more like sponges and less like stones today?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Telling Time (Rerun)

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc david pacey

My dear friends, do you know what time it is? How would you find out? Now, of course, many of us use our phones. But not so long ago, all we had to look at was a clock. And I don’t mean a digital clock, but an analogue one. The kind with moving hands, rather than flashing numbers. But have you ever considered how a clock like that tells time? What does it need to do so? I’m no expert. But I think it has three main components. The first is the mechanism inside the clock. The internal parts that remain unseen. These are crucial. They have to continue moving at just the right speed. In order for the clock to keep good time.

But the internal mechanism alone is not enough. The clock also needs to express that interior movement in an exterior way. That’s what the hour, minute, and second hands do. They point to the correct numbers on the clock’s face, so that we can read the time. And for the clock to keep accurate time, at least one more important part is needed. Something called the pivot. The slender rod at the centre of the clock, which joins the mechanism to the hands. Translating the regular internal movement into a reliable external reading. Without the pivot, the inner mechanism might continue to move, but the hands will not turn. The clock cannot be read.

Internal mechanism. External hands. Connecting pivot. Three components of an accurate clock. Three things that help us to tell time. To know where we need to be and what we need to do. To understand what life requires of us. Sisters and brothers, strange as it may sound, I believe that this is also what our Mass readings offer us today. A kind of spiritual clock, allowing us to read the signs of our times. To realise what God might be asking of us here and now.

Again, there are three main parts. First, the internal mechanism. In the gospel, the Pharisees try to disconcert Jesus, to trip him up, by asking him a complex legal question. Which is the greatest commandment of the Law? This is a difficult question, because the Law consists of no less than 613 commandments. To single out one of these as the most important is not an easy task. And yet, although difficult and devious, the Pharisees’ question uncovers exactly what it is that makes Jesus tick. The inner mechanism that motivates the Lord’s every thought and word and action. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…. you must love your neighbour as yourself. Love of God and love of neighbour. The primary motivation for everything Jesus does. The power that moves him to descend from heaven to earth. From cross to tomb. So that we might be raised from death to life. And if this is true of Jesus, the Master, then it should also be true of us, his disciples. Our lives should also be powered by the same interior movement of love. A movement that begins when we allow ourselves gratefully to receive God’s love in Christ.

But that’s not all. The interior movement of love needs to be expressed in concrete external actions. Like those described in the first reading. Here, having freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God enters into a covenant with them. Teaching them how they are to live in the Promised Land. And God’s instructions are very practical. They show the Israelites what the love commandment looks like in practice. It translates into caring for the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. Three of the most vulnerable groups of people at the time. Showing mercy to the poor. Refusing to charge them interest on a loan. Not depriving them of what they need to keep warm at night.

Like the hands of a clock, the first reading shows us how the inner law of love is expressed in outward action. And it should also inspire us to examine our own situation. To consider who are the more vulnerable among us. The modern-day counterparts of the foreigner and the widow, the orphan and the poor. People like the many migrant workers among us, for example. Those who arrive on our shores seeking a better life. Those who build our roads and care for our children. To consider how some of us might unknowingly abuse them, by viewing them with disdain and suspicion. Or by treating them more like objects than human beings. We may consider also how our very own children are sometimes neglected and mistreated. When their care-givers prioritise work over spending quality time with them. Or when they are pressured to perform beyond their capabilities. Just to inflate our own egos. Sisters and brothers, what do you think? What does love and mercy need to look like today?

To answer this question adequately, there is something else that we need. A pivot that helps us connect the internal movements to the external actions of love. Which is what we find in the second reading. Here St Paul congratulates the Thessalonians for successfully translating their faith into action. How do they do this? Through observation and imitation. You observed the sort of life we lived, Paul tells them, and you were led to become imitators of us, and of the Lord. And even to become models for others to observe and to imitate. Sisters and brothers, are we not called to do the same? To observe and to imitate worthy models of Christian living? Above all, of course, the model provided for us in Christ. Whose merciful love we celebrate at this Mass. But also the examples of the many saints who have gone before us. Saints like our patron St Ignatius of Loyola, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. As well as the saints who may still be walking among us. More famous ones, like our beloved pope, who lives in Rome. But also the less known ones, like the kind neighbour next door, or the fellow parishioner in the same pew beside me.

Sisters and brothers, like its physical counterpart, a spiritual clock needs three things to keep good time: interior movements of love, and exterior acts of mercy, connected by inspiring models of life. Where do we find these components in our own lives? What time is it for us, for you and for me, today?

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?

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