Monday, October 20, 2014

Order By Attraction

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)–Mission Sunday
Good Shepherd Lay Associates Day of Recollection

Picture: cc Windell Oskay

Sisters and brothers, what do you think is the best way to clear up a mess? Imagine, for example, that you’ve gone abroad for a holiday. Leaving your house in the care of some friends. And, upon your return, you find that your friends have left your house in a state of chaos. How would you go about putting things back in order? The answer is quite simple, right? To tidy things up you need to sort them out. Carefully separate one thing from the other. And then put each thing back in its own proper place. Separation. That’s how we usually bring order out of chaos.

Now that may be true of tidying up your house. But can you think of some other situation where another method might work just as well? Or maybe even better? I’m reminded of a science experiment that our teacher once performed for us when we were still in school. Onto a stiff piece of cardboard, the teacher poured a container-full of rusty iron filings. Which spilled out all over the cardboard. Making quite a mess. Then, the teacher took a magnet and put it under the cardboard. And, to our amazement, the chaotic pile of iron filings arranged themselves into an orderly pattern. How did this happen? How did a messy heap get tidied up so neatly and so quickly? You know the answer. It was achieved by the power of attraction. Attraction of the iron filings to the force field exerted by the magnet.

Separation is not the only way to bring order out of chaos. Sometimes attraction works much better. I think this is also the lesson that our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. The gospel presents us with a mess. A state of chaos. The mess comes in the form of a question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? The question is asked with the intention of trapping Jesus. Of getting him into trouble. But even if it’s a dishonest question, a messy question, it’s still a valid one. An important one. Should a faithful Jew pay taxes to a foreign power that is occupying Jewish land by force? This is a difficult question. A messy question. A potentially dangerous question.

How does Jesus tidy up the mess? What answer does he offer? Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar–and to God what belongs to God. The answer is as elegant as it is simple. But what does Jesus mean? One possible interpretation is that Jesus is calling for a strict separation of religion and politics. Of church and state. According to this understanding, what Jesus is saying is that the question of whether or not one should pay taxes is a purely political or civil one. And so it should not be mixed up with the religious question of what God requires. To tidy up the mess, we must separate the questions into two boxes. Taxes in one. God in another. And neither should be allowed to affect the other.

But scripture scholars tell us that such a view is mistaken. Not least because, in the ancient world, religion and politics were not separate, but very much mixed. The first reading shows us just how mixed. Here, the Persian king, Cyrus, has conquered the Babylonians, and allowed the people of Israel to return from exile in Babylon to their own land. These actions of Cyrus are clearly political actions. And yet, in the reading, God tells Cyrus that, unknown to him, all his political achievements have actually been the result of God’s action. Though you do not know me, God says, I arm you that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that, apart from me, all is nothing. Clearly, in the eyes of God there is no separation between religion and politics. God sees and is concerned about everything and everyone. So that even if the coin used to pay taxes in Jesus’ day may belong to Caesar, Caesar himself belongs to God. Indeed, everything belongs to God. For apart from God, all is nothing.

So how then to tidy up the mess? How to bring order to the chaos? Surely we cannot continue to mix religion and politics in exactly the same way today? Surely we Christians cannot seek to impose all our religious beliefs on everyone else? Especially if we make up only a relatively small percentage of our country’s population? Surely we do not expect our Archbishop to tell the government exactly how to run the country? Or the government to tell us Christians how to worship? And what to believe? So how then are we Christians to conduct ourselves in civil society? When should we speak up? When should we remain silent? How shall we even go about making such decisions? To tidy up the apparent messiness of our political and religious lives? Our Mass readings don’t give us exact answers to all these questions. But they do point us in a helpful direction.

In the second reading, St. Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians for having shown their faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope, in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even though they live in a largely pagan society, the Thessalonians have succeeded in properly ordering their lives in Christ. How did they manage to do this? For St. Paul, the power to do this comes to them from God. From the attractive force that God exerts upon them. We know that God loves you, Paul writes, and that you have been chosen, because when we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. If the Thessalonians have succeeded in bringing order out of their chaotic lives, it is because they have allowed themselves to be attracted, above all else, by the power of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus. And, like iron filings arranged by a magnet, they have allowed this powerful attraction to permeate all of their lives. To affect everything that they think and say and do. They have managed to order their lives not so much through separation. But through attraction.

And isn’t this a helpful insight for us to ponder? Especially today, when we celebrate Mission Sunday. And when you Lay Associates and Lay Partners of the Good Shepherd congregation gather to renew your commitment to the mission. For whether we care to admit it or not, it is into a messy world that we are all sent on mission. A chaotic world that cries out for order. And we Christians can only be of some help to the extent that we first allow God to put order into our own individual lives. Arranging them around our primary attraction to God. And then sharing this attraction with others. Even magnetising them. So that they too may be drawn into the force field that is God’s enduring love for the world.

Sisters and brothers, life can often seem quite messy. And yet, God continues to attract us to himself in Christ. What can we do to continue allowing the powerful magnet of God’s love to bring order out of chaos? In hearts, in our lives, and in our world, today?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Healing Steps

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you haven’t been feeling too well. You don’t know what exactly is the matter. But something just doesn’t feel right. You’re experiencing symptoms of some sort. Maybe it’s a headache. Or tiredness. Or insomnia. Something like that. Something that’s bearable. But also serious enough to make you worry. So, after suffering in silence for a while, you finally pluck up your courage and go to see a doctor. What can the doctor do for you?

I’m not a doctor. But speaking from a lay person’s perspective, three things come to mind. The first is, of course, diagnosis. The doctor figures out what, if anything, is wrong with you. Then, once this is determined, the doctor goes on to prescribe a course of treatment. And, if the treatment works, a good doctor may also offer you some advice for prevention. For avoiding such illnesses in the future.

Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Three important steps by which we are healed. Healed not just of physical ailments. But also spiritual ones as well. Isn’t this what’s happening in our readings today? Isn’t this what the stories of the vineyard are really about? As we’re told in the first reading and the response to the psalm, the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel. And something is wrong with the vineyard of the Lord. With God’s people. She’s experiencing certain worrying symptoms. Signs of an illness. What are these signs? And what is God’s diagnosis?

In the first reading, the problem is one of production. The vineyard is producing bad fruit. Despite all the owner’s efforts at cultivating good domesticated grapes, the vineyard produces sour wild grapes instead. In her life as a people, God expects Israel to produce the good domesticated fruit of justice and integrity. Of care and concern for the poor and the weak. The needy and the lonely. To be a society where everyone is adequately provided for. But Israel refuses to be domesticated. She prefers to grow wild. To live by the law of the wild. Survival of the fittest. Everyone looking only to his or her own interests. As a result, Israel produces the tragically sour fruit of bloodshed and distress. Of pain and suffering.

In the gospel, the problem is not just one of production. But also of management. If the vineyard is not producing the good fruit that’s expected of it, it’s because it’s being managed by greedy and dishonest tenants. People who live by the law of the wild. People unwilling to work for another. People who misappropriate the vineyard’s produce. People who scheme to snatch the vineyard itself away from its owner. People willing even to commit murder, just to satisfy their own selfish ambitions.

Sisters and brothers, I’m not sure how you feel when you listen to this diagnosis. But I can’t help wondering if it doesn’t also apply to me. To my life. Both as an individual and as part of a community. A church. A society. A world. Isn’t my life also meant to be a vineyard of the Lord? In everything that I do–at home or at work, in church or in the streets–am I not also supposed to be producing the good fruit of justice and integrity. Of care for the weak and the needy? Doesn’t my life also belong to God?

And yet, how willingly do I submit my life to God’s direction? How often do I prefer instead to run wild? To do only what I want to do? How often do I manage my own life as though it belonged only to me? And not to God? Consciously or unconsciously, how often do I misappropriate the glory and honour that is due to God? Just to puff up my own ego? To feed my own ambition? And doesn’t all this self-centredness cause suffering of some kind? Perhaps, at times, even bloodshed and distress? And isn’t this why, in my more lucid moments, I myself feel like something is wrong, or out of place? Like I need help, and healing?

Which makes it all the more important that we carefully consider the treatment that God prescribes for his problematic vineyard. His wayward people. In the first reading, because the vineyard resists God’s efforts at domesticating it, God decides to abandon it to the wilderness. To tear down the protective wall that God had built around it. To let it face the dangers of living in the wild. The aim is, of course, to lead the vineyard to a change of heart. To entice it to turn back to God. To finally submit itself to God’s management. Not unlike how the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) finally decides to return to his father. To live in his father’s house.

A new management is also what Jesus prescribes in the gospel. Since the religious leaders have proven themselves greedy and corrupt, God will replace them with new leaders. People who build their lives not on the ambition of the chief priests and Pharisees. But on the love of Christ. So that the stone rejected by the builders becomes the foundation stone of God’s people.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this prescription also applicable to us? To me? Perhaps not all the time. But at least sometimes. Sometimes, when I experience trials and difficulties in my life, could it be that God is allowing me to experience the wilderness? But only with the aim of leading me to a change of heart? Could it be that God is inviting me to finally turn over the management of my life into God’s infinitely more capable hands? Into the hands of Christ? The same hands that loved me enough to be nailed to the wood of the Cross? Could it be that it is only when I do this–when I turn over the management of my life to Christ–that I will finally begin to bear the fruit I am meant to bear? Justice and integrity. Healing and wholeness.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. Beyond diagnosis and treatment, there is also prevention. Even after being healed, what can I do to avoid illness? To stay healthy? In the second reading, St. Paul suggests three things. The first is prayer. There is no need to worry, Paul writes, but if there is anything you need, pray for it. Much like how going for routine medical check-ups can give us peace of mind. Regular prayer can allow the peace of God to guard our hearts. The second thing is a healthy diet. Not so much what we put into our stomachs, but what we allow to enter our minds and hearts. Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure… And, finally, the third thing is frequent exercise. Keep doing all the things that you learnt from me, Paul says, and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do… Regular prayer, a healthy diet, and frequent exercise. These are St. Paul’s suggestions for remaining in good spiritual shape.

Sisters and brothers, in the book of Exodus (15:26), the people of Israel are assured that God is the the Lord who heals them. What about us? How does God wish to heal us of our ailments? And to make us instruments of healing for others? What can we do to claim this precious healing for ourselves and for our families? For our church and for our world today?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Difference A U-Turn Makes

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
100th World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Picture: cc gfpeck

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced for yourself what a difference a U-turn can make? Have you ever, for example, found yourself in a car going in the wrong direction? Maybe you took a wrong turn. Or maybe you missed your exit on a highway. What to do? You need to turn around. But you can’t do that unless and until you find a U-turn. In a small city like Singapore, this is usually not too much of a problem. U-turns are relatively common. But imagine travelling in a strange country. And having to drive many kilometres going the wrong way. All because you can’t find a U-turn. It can be quite frustrating. Even scary. Especially if your car is running low on fuel. Or you’re facing an emergency of some sort. In such situations, a U-turn can make all the difference. Even the difference between life and death.

U-turns that make the difference between life and death. This is also what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, we find people making U-turns of two different types. The upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies. The sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest. And so finds life. The upright man makes a U-turn towards death. The sinner towards life. The first sabotages himself. The second wins salvation. In each case it is the direction of the U-turn that makes all the difference. The difference between death and life.

In the gospel too, U-turns are what make all the difference. A father asks two sons to work in his vineyard. One son refuses. But later changes his mind and goes. Another son does the opposite. He agrees. But then changes his mind and doesn’t show up. Both sons make U-turns. But in opposite directions. The first son toward obedience. The second disobedience. But the story is, of course, a parable. It’s not just about obeying an earthly father. But our Father in Heaven. It’s not just about working in an ordinary vineyard. But the Vineyard of Life Eternal. Here, as in the first reading, obedience leads to life. Disobedience results in death. And, again, it’s the direction of the U-turn that makes all the difference.

That much is clear. And yet, sisters and brothers, do we really know what it means to be obedient? Or disobedient? Do we really know what it looks like to be heading towards life? And what it looks like to be going in the opposite direction? Do we really know? Perhaps this may sound to us like a very silly question? After all, we’re respectable church-going people. Of course we know what it means to be obedient to God! Of course we know what it looks like to be on the way to life!

And yet, in the gospel, it is precisely the people who think they know who really don’t. That’s the reason why Jesus tells the parable in the first place. To show the chief priests and elders of the people that they don’t really know what it means to be obedient. That, even though they may pride themselves on their own knowledge and practice of the Law, they are actually heading in the wrong direction. Not towards life. But towards death.

So what does obedience look like? How do we know whether or not we are headed in the right direction? To find the answer to this question, we need to look more closely at our readings. In the first reading, God poses this question to the people: Is what I do unjust? Is it not what you do that is unjust? What is this distinction that God is making? In the eyes of God, what is the difference between the just and the unjust?

Again, the difference has to do with U-turns. The justice of God consists in God’s willingness to allow the sinner to repent. In contrast, God considers the people unjust because they refuse to let this happen. They refuse to give others the opportunity to turn their lives around. To make U-turns. And isn’t this true of the chief priests and elders in the gospel? Thinking that they themselves are already on the right path, they refuse to entertain the possibility that tax collectors and prostitutes could repent and find life. It never occurs to these self-righteous men that public sinners could actually be making their way into the kingdom of God before them.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this what makes the difference between true justice and injustice? Between obedience and disobedience? Between life and death? The willingness to allow others to make U-turns. The readiness to give those heading in a wrong direction the opportunity to turn their lives around. The responsorial psalm summarises this in a single word. Mercy. Remember your mercy, Lord. The psalmist prays. Do not remember the sins of my youth. In your love remember me… In other words, Lord, be merciful to me. Give me the opportunity to turn my life around. Allow me the chance to make a U-turn unto life.

Remember your mercy, Lord. This poignant prayer of the psalmist, which we can so easily make our own, finds its answer in the second reading. Here St. Paul describes for us what God’s mercy looks like in the flesh. Again, it has to do with U-turns that make all the difference. Though his state was divine, Christ Jesus, in his mercy, chose to make a detour in the direction of our own sinful condition. He chose to empty himself. Even to the point of accepting death on a cross. But God worked a U-turn of his own. God raised him high. Turned around the scandal of his dying. And transformed it into the glory of unending life. Gave him the name which is above all other names. So that, through him and with him and in him, those of us headed in the wrong direction might be able to turn our lives around. If only we would praise his name. If only we would follow in his steps. If only we would immerse ourselves in his mercy. And share it with others.

To show mercy to others. To allow them the opportunity to change their lives for the better. To give them the chance to make a U-turn in the direction of new life. This is what obedience looks like. This is what God has done for us in Christ. This is also what we, in our turn, are called to do for others. And it’s fitting that we should be reminded of this especially today. As we celebrate the 100th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. A day when we consider the many people in the world whose lives have been turned upside down. People displaced from their homes for one reason or another. People crying out for the opportunity to turn their lives around again. People in need of mercy... Not just those living in faraway lands. But also those who have somehow found their way to our shores. Not just those suffering from the more obvious violence of war and natural disasters. But also those fleeing from the more subtle cruelty of  an oppressive global economy. Forced to sell their labour, and sometimes even their bodies, in exchange for poor wages and harsh treatment.

Sisters and brothers, could it be that if we were only to look carefully around us, we would find many still needing to turn their lives around? What can we do to show them mercy? To help them make a U-turn unto new life today?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Between Pay & Passion

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc brett jordan

Sisters and brothers, have you ever heard people talk about the difference between a job and a passion? A job, as you know, is something that we do in exchange for a salary. We may or may not like the work itself. In fact, we may even find it very burdensome. But we still do it, because we need the money. A passion, on the other hand, is something that we are enthusiastic about. We may or may not receive any money for it. In fact, we may even have to spend our own money to get it done. But we do it anyway, because it’s important to us. It gives our lives meaning. The work energises us. Makes us happy. Even if we don’t get paid for it.

What makes the difference between a job and a passion is our motivation. What we are seeking. In one case, it’s the money. In the other, it’s the activity itself. There are, of course, some lucky people whose jobs are their passion. They are paid to do what they like to do. So a teacher, for example, may receive a salary for her work. And she may need it to survive. But the money may not be her primary motivation. It’s not what gets her out of bed in the morning. She may teach not so much for the money, but more because she really wants to share her knowledge and experience with others. To help the young learn new things. To make a difference in their lives. And in society as a whole.

People like that are truly fortunate. But, for the rest of us, our jobs are often something we do only because we need to make a living. Which is fine. There’s even a dignity in that. And it’s important that we receive a just wage for it. And yet, monetary rewards can only go so far to motivate us. Sometimes the work may become so burdensome that the money just doesn’t seem worth all the effort. All the stress. What to do? Some of us may quit. Look for another job. Or, if that’s not possible, we may be forced to stay on. Going through the motions of our daily routine in a more or less mechanical fashion. Beginning each workday already eagerly looking forward to its end. What a contrast between this kind of work and the kind done by the passionate teacher!

And it’s not just at work that we find this difference between an oppressive job and an energising passion. We find it in the spiritual life as well. Actually, I think this difference is also what our Mass readings are inviting us to ponder today. Why do you think, sisters and brothers, that the workers who were hired first, in the gospel, protested so strongly when they saw the latecomers receiving the same pay as they did?

The reason is found in the words they use. You have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat. A heavy day’s work in all the heat. What do these words indicate to us, sisters and brothers, if not that those hired first saw their work as nothing more than a job? And a burdensome job at that. They found no joy in what they did. They had done it only for the pay. Which should be fine. Many of us do that. We need to. Except that this parable isn’t really about any ordinary employment situation. In telling it, Jesus is trying to show us what the kingdom of heaven is like. And it would appear that, in the kingdom of heaven, God expects people to work not just for pay. Not just to do a job. But to pursue a passion. To do what St. Paul is doing in the second reading.

Scripture scholars tell us that the letter to the Philippians was probably written from prison. Paul knew he might soon be executed. And yet, even in such dire straits, Paul has only one concern. Notice how, in five short verses, the word Christ appears no less than four times. And, quite amazingly, Paul can’t decide whether he wants to live or to die. Because, he says, Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or by my death. Clearly, in everything that he does, both in life and in death, Paul seeks only one thing. To glorify Christ. What a contrast. What a great distance there is between Paul and the workers in the gospel!

Is this not unlike the distance mentioned in the first reading, which tells us that the heavens are as high above earth as God’s ways are above our ways? For, unlike us, God does things more for passion than for pay. Notice how, in the gospel, the landowner keeps going out to the market place to recruit more workers. And he insists on doing it himself. Instead of sending his foreman. He even goes out at the eleventh hour. Why? What difference could that last hour make to the profitability of his vineyard? Unless, of course, his concern is less with making more profits than with finding work for the unemployed. With caring for those who are standing idle in the market place. Isn’t this his passion? To seek out and to recruit all those who have yet to find a meaningful occupation. All those still lost and aimless. Lacking direction. So that it is not so much the salary that is the reward. The main attraction is the work itself. The joyful opportunity to labour in the Vineyard of Life.

Isn’t this what Jesus is sent into the world to do? To offer all of us a meaningful occupation. The joyful task of experiencing for ourselves, and of sharing with others, the Good News of God’s love for us all. A love that’s willing even to lay down its own life so that others might live. The same love that we celebrate at this Eucharist. And yet, isn’t it also true that, all too often, we see this work, of living and spreading the Good News, as a burden? If we even think of it at all. Perhaps because, in our minds, doing this work means having to spend more time in church. Joining this or that ministry. But could we be wrong? Could it be that the vineyard of the Lord is not just here in church? But out there in the world? In our workplaces and in our schools. In our homes and on the streets. Could it be that doing this work requires only that we have a passion for sharing God’s love with others? At times in words, and always in deeds?

But that’s the trouble, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? What is needed is a joyful passion. But what we experience is often only an oppressive burden. We are conditioned to think of the spiritual life only in terms of obligations and merits. Instead of generosity and joy. Even if we do pray the Prayer of Generosity every Sunday. Like the workers in the gospel, we tend to keep a careful count of every second we spend on the things of God. Every little prayer we say. Every Mass we attend. Every good deed we perform. And we expect to be rewarded for it all.

But if all this is true, then how can we change? How can we move away from seeing our faith as an oppressive job to letting it become our one energising passion? How do we bridge that great distance between our own calculative ways and God’s generous love? As the first reading tells us, in everything we do, we need to seek the Lord while he is still to be found. To call to him while he is still near. And we find the motivation to keep doing this when we remember that, like that landowner in the gospel, God is always already passionately searching for us. For you and for me...

Sisters and brothers, in the ordinary situations of your life, how passionately are you searching for God today?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Makes the White House

Monday, 15th September, 2014
Day 6 of Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea Novena
Theme: The Dignity of the Human Person

Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 16-20; Psalm 144(145):1-2, 8-11; Ephesians 2:19-22; Luke 7:36-50
Picture: cc Shubert Ciencia

Sisters and brothers, have you heard of a place called the White House? Silly question, right? Of course, you have! It’s probably no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the most famous buildings in the world. And also one of the most important. But what makes it so famous and so important? Is it only because it’s painted white? Or because everyday many people take a tour to see it? If not at the location itself then at least on its website? Or maybe because of the beautiful decorations and works of art that can be found there? Or the fact that it’s guarded by the United States Secret Service? What do you think, sisters and brothers? What is it that really makes the White House the White House?

I think we all know the answer to that question, right? What makes the White House so famous and so important is, of course, the person who lives and works there. The President of the United States of America. He is what makes it the White House. If not for him and those who came before him, the place would be no different from any other big house covered with a coat of white paint. Nothing really special.

If this is true, then what is needed to keep the White House famous and important is to make sure that there is always a space in it reserved specially for the President. A space conducive enough for him to do his work. Comfortable and cosy enough for him to rest. To feel welcome and safe and at home. All the other things about the White House. The guests who visit it. The furnishings that decorate it. The guards who protect it. The paint that covers it. All these other things are important only to the extent that they help provide the President with a conducive and comfortable space in which to live and to do his work. For it is the President that makes the place famous. He is the one who gives the White House its dignity.

So much for the White House. What about the human person? What is it that gives the human person its dignity? What gives us our dignity? And how do we go about keeping it? As you know, the world offers various answers to these questions. We’re told, for example, that a person gets her dignity from the money she has. Or the house she owns. Or the car she drives. Or the clothes she wears. Or the company she keeps. Or the things she knows. Or the work she does or doesn’t do… But, sisters and brothers, whether we care to admit it or not, we all know that these answers are wrong. And they can cause serious problems. If a person’s dignity comes from the money she owns, then what happens when the money is gone? Have the poor no dignity? And if it comes from the work that she does, then what happens when she cannot work? Do the bedridden have no dignity? Or the mentally ill? Or the unborn children?

But if a person’s dignity does not derive from all these external things, then from where does it come? What does our Catholic Faith teach us? In the second reading, we are told something very important. We’re told that, not unlike the White House, the Christian community is supposed to be a special building. A holy temple. A dwelling-place of God. And, as you know, what the letter to the Ephesians says about the Christian community as a whole, the first letter to the Corinthians also says about each individual Christian. Your body, St. Paul writes, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you received him from God (1 Corinthians 6:19).

This, my dear friends, is what we Christians believe. That every human being is created for the special purpose of being a dwelling-place of God in this world. A space in which and from which God lives and works and blesses the world. And just as the White House derives its dignity from the President who occupies it. So too does the dignity of each human being derive not from what the person owns or wears or can or cannot do. But from God. The God who creates us in the image of himself (Genesis 1:27). And who chooses to live in and among us. For it is in him that we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28).

But if this is true. If our dignity does indeed derive from the fact that each of us is the temple of God. Then what must we do to maintain this dignity? The answer is really quite simple. We must do whatever we can to ensure that there is always a welcome space in our hearts and in our lives for God.

Which is why the gospel is so helpful. It presents us with a contrast between two forms of welcome. Jesus criticises one and praises the other. On the surface, it seems that Simon the Pharisee is very welcoming. He has invited the Lord to a meal in his home. But Simon’s actions show that he really has no space in his heart for Jesus. For he fails to offer the Lord the most basic expressions of hospitality. No water for the feet. No kiss for the cheek. No oil for the head. And yet, sisters and brothers, to be honest, I find myself a little shy and embarrassed to criticise Simon. For I know what it’s like to offer the Lord a half-hearted hospitality. To come to Mass, for example, or to say my prayers, but only reluctantly. To be here in body, but not in spirit. To fill my heart with so many other concerns that I leave no room for the Lord.

In contrast, even though she hasn’t invited Jesus to her home, through her actions, the woman shows how much she really loves him. How big a space she has made for him in her heart. For she must know that people will gossip about her. And yet, she dares to gatecrash the party. All for the sake of expressing, in a very public fashion, her love for the Lord. Why does she do this? From where does she find the courage? Jesus tells us. It comes from gratitude. From realising her own sinfulness. And experiencing the Lord’s mercy. Experiencing how God has made space for her. Her sins, as many as they are, have been forgiven her… Isn’t this also the way by which space is made in my heart as well? When I allow myself to ponder the mercy that God has shown me in my own life? The mercy shown to me in the Dying and Rising of Christ? The mercy we celebrate at this Mass?

By doing what she did at the banquet, the woman shows us what the first reading means when it tells us to circumcise our hearts. It is to make a space reserved specially for the Lord. To show him our gratitude and our love. Not just by coming to church. Or going to the adoration room. But also by doing what the first reading tells us God himself does. By reaching out to the poor and the lonely. Those most in need of our help. For the Lord is the one who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing. When we do the same, we make a space for the Lord. Not just in our hearts and in our lives. But also in our world. When we reach out to the needy, we show the world the dignity of the human person.

Sisters and brothers, just as the White House derives its importance from the President, so too do we derive our dignity from God. What will you do to continue making a space for God in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world today?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Elevation of Objects & The Emptying of God

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 77:1-2,34-38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Sisters and brothers, there is an advertisement for a watch, which is sometimes screened in local movie theatres. Perhaps some of you have seen it before. It tells the moving story of a pair of lovers, who share a special favourite place. A forest. It is in this forest that he once presented her with the gift of a watch. Hidden, for her to find, in the knot of a tree. It is in this forest that he proposed. Here also was where they came for the last time, as a couple, when she was stricken by terminal illness. And then, after she had gone, it was back to this same forest that he returned alone. To the same tree. To deposit the watch he had given her.

Years later, a fire burns down the forest. Frantically, he returns once more. Desperately searching for what he had left behind. The tree is burnt. But, amazingly, not only does the watch remain, it still works. And, as he gazes upon that precious object, he remembers what she had told him when they were here last. He had been carrying her in his arms. You’re tired. She had said. Please put me down. It is then that he realises that she would be happy only if he allowed himself to be happy. Only if he was willing, finally, to let her go. Finally to begin living his life anew.

Sisters and brothers, I mention this advertisement, not because I want to sell you a watch. (I’ll leave that to Apple.) But because I think that it helps us to understand how an ordinary object is changed into something extraordinary. How it comes to be elevated. Filled with meaning and power. The power to change us. To transform our losses into hope. Our burdens into motivations. Our endings into beginnings. Our dyings into new life. Of course, in itself, however carefully it is made, and whoever its maker, a watch is... still a watch. It’s function is to tell time. But what elevates this watch is the story it recalls. The memory of the love between two people. A love stronger than sorrow. A love willing to forget itself. Willing even to die. Just so that the beloved might live anew.

Isn’t this, my dear friends, something like what we are celebrating today? On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we celebrate the elevation of an object beyond the particular purpose for which it was made. Not a watch. But a cross. An instrument of torture and punishment. Of suffering and death. Something that should strike fear into the hearts of all who know the purpose for which it was made. And yet, we who call ourselves Christian dare to claim that we see this thing in a way different from how others see it. Our boast is that, for us, this terrible thing has been exalted. Elevated. Lifted up. Transformed into its opposite. How does this happen?

The first reading provides us with a clue. For here too we find an object being elevated. Not a watch. Or a cross. But the image of a fiery serpent. A statue of something whose bite brings certain death. But, when lifted up, it becomes a channel of life. What should be an object of fear is transformed into a symbol of hope. Deadly poison is changed into its own antidote. How does such a marvellous transformation come about? How does it happen that a simple look at a bronze serpent can have such saving effects? The reading doesn’t give us the details. All we are told is that Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord answered him. To deepen our reflection, we have to turn to the other readings.

In the gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus the secret to why God answered Moses. The reason is none other than love. The love that God has for us. The same love that brought us Jesus. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son... And God chose to give us his Son in a very particular way. The Son of Man must be lifted up, Jesus says, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. As you know, sisters and brothers, the words lifted up have more than one meaning. Literally, they mean to be physically raised up. But, figuratively, they also mean to be exalted. To be given glory and honour and praise. And this is also what we believe happens to Jesus on the Cross.

This is precisely what St. Paul is describing in the second reading. Jesus was God. His state was divine. Yet he emptied himself. He chose to forget his own divine dignity. Lowering himself to become a human being like us. Humbling himself even to the extent of accepting death, death on a cross. So that, quite paradoxically, when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, he is at his lowest point. And it is from this point that God exalts him. Raises him high. Gives him a name above every other name. Isn’t this how the Cross comes to be exalted? Elevated? Transformed? Only because Christ Jesus chose to lower himself. To sacrifice himself. To empty himself. To humble himself. To forget himself. And for our sakes. So that through him the world might live. So that we might live. You and I.

And this exaltation of the Cross is not just something for us to talk about in theory. It is a living power that can move and transform us. The way that watch in the advertisement transformed the one who gazed upon it. The Cross has this power, because when we look at it in faith, we are reminded of the story it represents. We are drawn into the memory that it recalls. The Mystery of Faith that we celebrate at this Mass. When we eat this Bread and Drink this cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again. When we gaze upon the Cross, we are reminded of a timeless Love. That is willing to lose itself for us. So that we might find new life.

But, in order for us to tap into this transforming power, we first need to do what that man in the advertisement did. We need to return to the burnt-out forests of our lives. To the places where we may be saddened and searching. Lost and confused. Anxious and afraid. Disappointed and disillusioned. Resentful and rebellious. Burdened and stressed out... Wherever it is we may be suffering. And there, from these places, to fix our gaze firmly upon the Cross of Christ. The Cross on which was hung the salvation of the world. For when we do this, perhaps we too will hear words of comfort and encouragement. Not put me down. Or let me go. But come to me. Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest (Mt 11:28).

Sisters and brothers, whether it is a watch, or a statue, or a cross, an object is exalted, lifted up, when it calls to mind the memory of a lover who empties herself. Loses herself. So that the beloved might find new life. How willing are we to be reminded of this story of our salvation. To come to Christ, our Beloved. And to find new life, by losing ourselves in Him today?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Heart Acquisition Act (Rerun)

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc  Jack Kennard

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that I’ve just paid up the mortgage on my house. After years of hard work, I’ve finally submitted the last instalment. Imagine that this is a piece of freehold property. And now it’s all mine. Now no one else can contest my claim. Now I’m free to enjoy it without any interference. ... Or can I? Is my ownership of the property really absolute? Does no one else have any claim on it whatsoever?

What if this property of mine is located along Amber Road? What if it’s one of the six houses along the path of the proposed Thomson-East Coast MRT Line? In such a situation, even if I were truly the legal owner of the property, the government can still acquire it in exchange for fair compensation. I can’t refuse. The government has a valid claim on the land, even though I’m the legal owner. As you know, there’s a law in our statute books that gives the government this right. It’s called the Land Acquisition Act. It allows the government to acquire privately-owned land for the purposes of national development.

Many of us have heard of this recently amended law. We know about this constraint on our rights as property owners. What we perhaps do not realise is that this is not the only constraint. For example, it has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that, not just the government, but also the poor have a claim on our property. Indeed, in the 4th century, St. Basil the Great, went so far as to insist that the bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

Sisters and brothers, whether we realise it or not, for us Catholics, in addition to the Land Acquisition Act–which gives the government a legal right over our property–we are also bound by an unwritten law, which gives the poor a moral right to our belongings. Whether we like it or not, the poor have a moral claim on us. We are somehow responsible for their wellbeing. And it’s important that we keep this in mind as we begin our reflection today, because our Mass readings extend this claim of the poor on us in at least two directions.

The first direction is inward. Our readings seek to deepen the claim that other people have on each of us. Consider what we heard in the second reading, where St. Paul speaks of something that he calls the debt of mutual love. We know of course that a financial debt can be paid with material things–either in money or in kind. But not a debt of love. For love has to do not just with things but with people. Not just with what we possess. But also with what or whom we allow to possess us. The poor have a claim not just on our belongings. They also have a right of way through our very hearts. Isn’t this why our psalm response is so appropriately chosen? O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ O that today you would listen to the Lord’s voice, crying out to you on behalf of the voiceless. The homeless and the hungry. The sad and the sick. The forgotten and the forlorn. Harden not your hearts!

More than just a Land Acquisition Act, our readings remind us that we Catholics are bound also by something like a Heart Acquisition Act. The former lays on us a legal obligation, which we can satisfy simply by allowing the government to acquire our land. We don’t have to like it or agree with it. We can even comply with it while, at the same time, cursing the ones who impose it on us. But we cannot satisfy our moral obligation to the poor in the same way. We are required not only to share our money with them. Not just to write them a cheque once a year in Charities Week. We also have to allow ourselves to be moved by their plight. We are called to love them as sisters and brothers. To love them as Christ first loved us. When he laid down his life for us on the Cross.

And that’s not all. Not only do our readings deepen the poor’s claim on us. From the external world of our possessions to the inner recesses of our hearts. They also widen the scope of our duty. Our readings remind us that our responsibility for others extends beyond those who are materially deprived to those who are morally impoverished. Consider what God tells Ezekiel in the first reading. Having appointed him to be a prophet, a sentry, for the people, God reminds him that he is responsible not just for the righteous but also for the wicked. The wayward. Those who are poor in virtue. Such that if a wicked person loses his life because Ezekiel has failed in his duty to warn him, then God will hold the prophet responsible for the wicked person’s death.

This same responsibility, which God places on the shoulders of the prophet in the first reading, Jesus places on the shoulders of his disciples in the gospel. On you and on me. The scenario that Jesus paints is one in which a Christian sees a brother or sister doing wrong. No other details are given. In such a situation–where those of us who dislike confrontation, those who, like me, would simply choose to remain quiet and do nothing–Jesus proposes a whole series of steps for helping the person who has gone astray. First you speak to her in private. Then with witnesses. Then in public. Finally, when all else fails, you treat her as an outsider.

It all sounds very troublesome. Who among us will bother to do all this? And yet, even if we may not follow the Lord’s process in all its details, it’s important that we see the motivation behind it. This is not just a method for conflict resolution. Its aim is not so much to seek compensation for those who have been wronged. Or to give the wrongdoer a piece of our mind. The aim is rather to win back your brother or sister. To help the wrongdoer to repent and to turn back to the Lord. Why else is such care taken to help the wrongdoer to change without losing face? As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down...

Clearly, then, it is not just the people in financial need who have a legitimate claim on us. Those who are short on virtue do too. Those who might still be ignorant of the ways of God. Those who have yet to experience God’s love. Those who might still be fooled into thinking that happiness has to do only with the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. Those who are stressed out by the rat race, but can’t quite find a way to stop running...

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even in a place like Singapore, there is no shortage of either type of poor people? Neither the materially poor nor the morally challenged? They are all around us. Just beside us. Perhaps even within us. And they all have a claim on us. They all cry out for our attention. We who are spiritually rich because Christ became poor for our sakes.

Sisters and brothers, when the government acquires our land for the country we cannot but comply. The Lord seeks to acquire our hearts for the poor. How shall we respond today?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Of Accuracy & Alignment

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Peter Kay

Sisters and brothers, do you still remember the dunking machine? That immensely popular contraption that we enjoyed so much at our parish Food and Fun Fair last month? Do you remember how it works? As you know, it’s really quite simple. The player throws a ball at a small target. And, if the ball hits the target, the person in the machine falls into a big tank of water. If the ball misses, the person remains safe. High and dry.

But have you considered what is required to hit the target? Imagine, for example, that you know for sure that the we will again have a dunking machine next year. And you’re very determined, for one reason or another, to dunk a particular person. Perhaps a friend of yours. Or maybe the parish priest. What kind of training would you undergo? What could you do to make sure that you’re able to dunk your friend every time you throw the ball. And not just whenever you happen to get lucky?

I may be wrong. But I think consistent success at the dunking machine really depends a lot on proper alignment. Alignment between your shoulder and your arm. Between your wrist and the ball. Between your eye and the target. And the ability to achieve this alignment consistently. Such that whenever you throw the ball, it always hits the target. Your friend always gets dunked. And this is where rigorous training can help. Regular practice. So that every time you pick up the ball, you habitually position your body in the right way. For proper alignment means hitting the target. And mis-alignment means missing it.

All this is true not just at the dunking machine. As our Mass readings show us, it’s true in the spiritual life as well. Today’s gospel reading continues from where we left off last week. Then, as you will recall, Peter had given the right answer to Jesus’ question who do you say I am?. You are the Christ, Peter had said, the Son of the living God. With these words Peter had hit the bull’s eye. He had been right on target. And Jesus praised him for it. But then, curiously enough, the reading also ended with Jesus giving his disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. Today, we discover the likely reason why. In today’s reading we see that it is possible to hit the target with one’s words, but still to miss it with one’s actions.

Isn’t this Peter’s experience? He calls Jesus the Christ. But when this same Christ predicts his own Passion, Death and Resurrection, Peter protests. He dissuades Jesus from doing what he needs to do. He discourages the Lord from walking the Way of the Cross. And Jesus rebukes him for it. So that even though, last week, Peter was called the rock on which Jesus would build his Church. This week, he becomes an obstacle in the Lord’s path. Last week, Peter had hit the target with his words. But this week, through his actions, he misses by a mile.

How does this happen? What causes Peter to miss the mark so badly? Jesus gives us the answer when he tells Peter, the way you think is not God’s way but man’s. Peter’s actions are off-target, because his thoughts are aligned not to God but to the world. He thinks the way everyone else thinks. And, according to this way of thinking, the Christ should be an earthly king. Someone who seizes political power. Someone who wields military might. Someone who will drive out the Roman invaders. According to this way of thinking, the Christ cannot be dunked in the waters of death. He must remain high and dry. Kept safe. In contrast, God’s way is not that of anxious self-preservation. But of loving self-sacrifice. Not that of security. But of immersion.

Improper actions flow from mis-aligned attitudes. This is the lesson that Jesus teaches Peter today. And isn’t it a lesson that we all need to learn? For don’t we each have our own crooked attitudes? Priorities and patterns of thought that are conformed more to the conventions of secular society than to the will of God in Christ? Why else do we tend to shy away from involvement in any activity that doesn’t benefit us in some tangible way? Why else do we spend so many of our waking moments either working or worrying about work? Why else do we drive our children so hard? Sometimes to breaking point? Is it really only for their own good? Why else do we buy so many things we don’t really need? When many other people in the world have trouble feeding themselves. Why else do we remain entangled in petty quarrels? Trapped in bitter resentments? Disconnected from one another, and from our own deeper selves? Isn’t it because our attitudes are crooked?

If this is true, what can we do to straighten them? To re-align ourselves with God? To change our actions by changing our attitudes? This is the question that the second reading helps us to answer. Let your behaviour change, St. Paul writes, modelled by your new mind. And how does one acquire this new mind? By taking care to think of God’s mercy. Especially God’s mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The mercy that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The mercy by which Christ submitted himself to the dunking machine of our humanity. Allowing himself to be immersed in our sinfulness. To share in our suffering. So as to lead us to the joyful freedom of the Resurrection.

But that’s not all. Our readings today seek to re-align more than just our actions and our attitudes. They go deeper. They show us that right actions depend not just on right attitudes. But also, and ultimately, on right affections. Isn’t this what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in the first reading? The prophet is suffering terribly. He is rejected by his own people. They make fun of him. Persecute him. And Jeremiah suffers all this simply because he is obedient to God. He acts as God tells him to act. He preaches what God tells him to preach. But what motivates him to keep doing this? Even when he is sorely tempted to stop?

There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, he says, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me. In spite of himself, the prophet is moved to continue doing what God wants him to do because, at some deep level, this is also his own desire. More than anything else. More even than the wish to escape his sufferings. Jeremiah desires to be with God. In the words of the psalm, for you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God. And it is by remaining in touch with this profound thirst, this deep desire for God, that the prophet finds strength to continue doing what God wants him to do. To continue hitting the target. To continue aligning himself to the will of God.

Aligning our actions, our attitudes, and our affections to the will of God. Instead of to the conventions of the world. This is not an easy thing to do. It requires rigorous training. Regular practice. Isn’t this why we take the time to pray? Why we make the effort to gather for the Eucharist? We turn our eyes upon Jesus. We turn our thoughts upon Jesus. So as to become more and more like him. With every passing day.

Sisters and brothers, the Lord wishes to continue aligning us to himself. What must you do to keep hitting the target today?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Enter Passcode

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(Lay Apostolate Sunday)
Picture: cc Pieter Ouwerkerk

Sisters and brothers, when you pick up a smartphone to use it, what do you usually have to do first? Typically, most people have to unlock the phone. They tap a passcode onto a keypad. Or, in newer phones, they trace a prearranged pattern on the screen. Which is easy to do. Since we usually use our phones frequently enough for us to remember the code. But what if, for some reason, the device you are using is not your own? What if you’re borrowing or answering someone else’s phone. What then? How do you gain access to it? Well, quite apart from taking extraordinary measures to hack into it, what you need is, of course, to get the owner to reveal the security code to you. Only then can you gain access to the phone. Only then can you enjoy the wonders of modern communication.

I mention this, not because I want to sell you a phone. But because our Mass readings today are really all about gaining access. Gaining access not just to a smartphone. Not just to any ordinary means of communication. But to something far more important. Something on which our happiness, indeed our very life, depends. The same thing that St. Paul is writing about in the second reading. How rich are the depths of God… and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods! Gaining access to the depths of God. Penetrating God’s motives and methods. Tapping into the very life and mystery of God. Finding and using the one all-important passcode that unlocks for us the secret to true happiness in life. This is what our Mass readings are offering us today. Are you interested?

If you are, then consider carefully what is happening in the other readings. Notice how, in both the first reading and the gospel, God chooses privileged people to whom a secret passcode is entrusted. In the first reading, this person is Eliakim. The newly appointed master of the palace. The one through whom everyone else gains access to the king. In the gospel, this privileged person is Peter. He is the new master of the palace. The holder of the keys to the kingdom of God. The one entrusted with the passcode that gains us access to the depths of God. Access to true happiness in life.

And notice the process by which this appointment is made in the gospel. It involves three steps. The first step is highlighted by Jesus, when he says that Peter is a happy man, because Peter has received a revelation from the Father in heaven. Just as we cannot use someone else’s phone without that person revealing the passcode to us. So too we gain access to God only by receiving God’s revelation. But what is it exactly that God reveals? What does God’s passcode look like? Well, it looks like the answer to the crucial question that Jesus poses to his disciples in the gospel today. Who do you say I am?
Who do you say I am? In the gospel, it is Peter who gives the right answer. It is Peter who enters the correct passcode. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is the revelation Peter has received. The realisation that this very ordinary-looking man, standing before him here and now, is actually the very presence of the eternal God. The One who is beyond space and time. The same God who created the whole universe out of nothing. And who cares for his creatures as a loving Father cares for his beloved children.

And, in answering Jesus’ question, Peter also takes the next step. First revelation. Then recognition. And a truly marvellous, even miraculous, recognition. A recognition of the Divine in the human. The Eternal in the temporal. The Extraordinary in the ordinary. And then, beyond recognition, there is a third step. There is a call to respond. Having answered Jesus’ question correctly, Peter is invited to continue committing his life to the Lord. To continue following the One he has recognised wherever He may go. And we know, of course, exactly where Jesus is going in the gospel today. He is making his way to Jerusalem. Where He will lay down his life so that all might be saved. In the gospel, Peter is called to receive, to recognise, and to respond to, the revelation of God in the humanity of Jesus. Not just the Jesus who speaks powerful words and works amazing miracles. But also the Jesus who will be arrested and tortured. Killed and buried. Resurrected and exalted.

Revelation, recognition and response. Receiving the revelation of God in Christ. Recognising the presence of God in Christ. Responding to the call of God in Christ. These are the three steps that characterise the appointment of Peter as the holder of the keys to the palace. The rock on which the Church is built. The screen on which the passcode is entered. The one through whom access to the kingdom is granted. Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. Our readings today are not just about Peter. For what is true of Peter, the representative of Christ, is also true of us, members of the Church, the Body of Christ. Just as Peter is called to recognise and to respond to the Lord. So too are we called to do the same. To look at the ordinary, even difficult, situations of our lives. The daily routines of work and worship. The interior struggles with desires and fears. The external interactions with the strange and the familiar. To look at all these, and to recognise in them the face of Christ. The Cross of Christ. The Joy of Christ. In particular, to hear the cries of the many suffering people in our world. And to recognise in them the call of Christ. Who continues to pose to each and to all of us the same question posed to the disciples in the gospel today. Who do you say I am? A question capable of penetrating the hardness of our hearts. If only we let it. Begging us to make a generous response.

And isn’t this also what we celebrate today? On this Lay Apostolate Sunday? Today we remember who we are. What we are called to do. For, as Peter is for us, so too are we for the rest of the world. We are the keepers of the keys to kingdom of God. We are the witnesses to the Mystery of the Dying and Rising of Christ. We are the bearers of the passcode that gains access to the fullness of Life in God. And we live up to this our awesome calling only to the extent that we continue to do as Peter was called to do. In the ordinary circumstances of our lives, to continue receiving the revelation of God. To continue learning to recognise the face and the voice of Christ. To continue responding to the promptings of the Spirit. Urging us to share with others the joy that we are gathered here, in this Eucharist, to celebrate. This, my dear sisters and brothers, is what it means to be a lay apostle. One appointed and sent by God into the world. To share Jesus with the world. So that the world might live.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to do this? To help others gain access to the joys of the kingdom of God today?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Security in Mercy

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Mark Robinson

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to imagine a safe place, a secure location, what image would come to your mind? What does a secure place look like to you? I’m not sure. But my guess is that at least some of us might think of a place surrounded by high walls and locked doors. Perhaps even protected by security alarms and armed guards. To some of us, a safe place is a well-defended one. And yet, if we think a little more deeply, won’t we agree that it is precisely such places that are unsafe? Insecure? Isn’t that why they need to be so fiercely defended?

In contrast, I’m reminded of another image. One that I’ve heard older citizens describe. People who used to live in the kampongs, or rural neighbourhoods, of days past. They speak of a place where there was little if any concern for security. Doors were left wide open. Neighbours walked freely in and out of one another’s houses. And yet, things were seldom stolen. Children did not feel threatened. A sense of safety prevailed. Wouldn’t you agree, sisters and brothers, that this is the more secure location? Safe in its openness? Secure in its lack of defensiveness?

And what is true of places is also true of people. Consider, for example, the difference between a teenager and a mature adult. Typically, adolescents are still finding themselves. Still growing into in their own identity. And, in the relative insecurity of their age, teenagers can sometimes be very difficult to live with. Very defensive. Pushing people away. Especially those who love them most. Don’t we all go through this stage of life? In contrast, a more mature and secure person doesn’t need to be defensive. Is able to be more open to others. Even and especially to those who may look and speak and think and live very differently. Sisters and brothers, as with places, so too with people. The more secure, the more open. The more safe, the less defensive.

And it may surprise some of us. But it would seem that something similar can also be said about God. In the first reading, we’re told that God wants to manifest God’s integrity, God’s sense of self, to the world. How does God do this? Not by being defensive. Not by pushing people away. But by welcoming, by being open to, everyone. By showing hospitality even to foreigners. Through the prophet, God proclaims a time when even foreigners will be brought to God’s holy mountain. A time when God’s house will be a house of prayer, not just for the people of Israel, but for all the peoples of the world. What we find in the first reading is a God who is secure and open enough to include everyone in God’s kingdom.

Of course, the more observant among us may raise an objection. We may notice that God’s welcome is not really extended to all foreigners indiscriminately. But only to those who follow God’s ways. Those who are obedient to God. This may be true. But notice also how God leads the disobedient into obedience. Again, not by being defensive. Not by exerting force. Not by resorting to violence. But by reaching out a gentle hand of mercy. Isn’t this what St. Paul writes about in the second reading? Paul says that he has been sent by God specifically to the pagans, the foreigners, as their apostle. And Paul’s is a mission not of condemnation, but of mercy. A mercy that will eventually reconcile, bring together, both Jews and Gentiles. Both believers and pagans. Both locals and foreigners. For God has imprisoned all in their own disobedience only to show mercy to all.

But what, we may ask, does mercy look like in the concrete? How do you recognise mercy when you see it? This is the question that the gospel reading helps us to answer. For Jesus himself is the highest expression of the mercy of God. And, in his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows us something of what mercy looks like. Notice how, at the start of the reading, Jesus seems very sure of himself. He is very clear about the exact scope of his mission. About the boundaries of his concern. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And yet, in the course of his conversation with the woman, Jesus seems to allow himself to change his mind. He is open enough to be impressed by the woman’s responses. To be moved by the faith of a foreigner.

So that, as in the second reading, it would seem that mercy is connected with conversion. With being willing to change one’s mind and heart about something or someone. Even to go beyond the boundaries of one’s concern. And isn’t this also an expression of security? So secure is Jesus in his mission to the Jews, that he is able and willing to reach beyond its boundaries. To entertain the urgent cries of a non-Jew. To heal the daughter of a foreigner. In the second reading too, so secure is Paul in his mission the Gentiles, that he is able to express concern even for  those who lie beyond the scope of his calling. Those who belong to his own Jewish race.

A security that is willing to cross the boundaries of its immediate concerns. Even to change its mind. A mercy and a gentleness that brings about reconciliation. The bringing together of what was once kept apart. An integrity and a sense of self that is expressed not in hostility and anxious self-assertion. But rather in hospitality and an openness even to those who are different from ourselves. This, my dear friends, is the approach to security that our Mass readings present to us today.

And it is an approach that our world needs so very much to learn. For everywhere around us, we find people anxious to safeguard their own security only through defensiveness and violence. Instead of gentleness and mercy. Isn’t this what we are witnessing in northern Iraq? In order to securely establish a so-called Islamic State, a well-armed militia is willing to perpetrate all manner of atrocities on those it perceives to be different. Even against the innocent and defenseless. The sick and the elderly. Women and children.

And here, in apparently peaceful Singapore, don’t we find increasingly disturbing expressions of fear and hatred? Locals against foreigners. White against pink. Liberal against conservative. What are these rumblings, sisters and brothers, if not attempts to win security through the building of walls and the use of force. Attempts which demonstrate, quite ironically, the deep insecurity suffered by those who engage in them.

Faced with situations such as these, my dear friends, are we Christians not called to bear witness to a security that comes via a different route? Not violence but gentleness. Not hostility but hospitality. Not harshness but mercy. And we can do this only to the extent that we first allow ourselves to remain immersed in the mercy of God. The mercy that we celebrate at this Eucharist. The mercy expressed in the Body and Blood of Christ. Broken and poured out for us. And for the whole of creation.

Sisters and brothers, what can we do to deepen our experience of this merciful security of God? And to share it with others today?
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