Sunday, March 24, 2019

Saving a Doomed Duck

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

Picture: cc Jeff S. PhotoArt

My dear friends, do you know how to save a doomed duck? The story is told of a wild duck, which was once flying across the sky with the rest of its flock, when it happened to spot a farm down below, where some tame ducks lived together in a barn. Attracted by the pleasant surroundings and the free food, and feeling tired from all the flying, the wild duck decided to rest at the farm, just for an hour or two. But the hour stretched on to a day, the day to a week and, before the duck realised it, several months had passed, and it still had not left the farm.

Then, one day, it saw a flock of wild ducks flying by, and it felt within its heart a stirring of desire, an insistent yearning to join them. So it immediately flapped its wings and rose up into the air. Unfortunately, the months of inactivity on the farm had made the duck fat and heavy, and it could rise no higher than the roof of the barn. Disappointed though it was, the duck consoled itself that it really wasn’t so bad to remain on the farm. As more time went by, it gradually forgot its desire to fly. It satisfied itself with the comfortable life of a tame farm duck. Although, from time to time, it couldn’t help feeling disturbed by the sight of the farmer walking off with one of the other ducks in one hand, and a sharpened knife in the other…

My dear friends, it’s not too difficult, is it, for us to predict how this story might end? To see that, if nothing changes, then it’s only a matter of time before the wild duck becomes a dead duck. But what if we were to take pity on it, and want to rescue it? How might we do that? How to convince the duck to lose some weight, and to re-train itself to fly? In order to escape its terrible fate? Perhaps we can do two things. The first is to warn the duck. To insist on drawing its attention to the other disappearing ducks. To help it to realise that whatever is happening to them will also soon happen to it. The second thing we could do is to remind the duck of its original wildness. To draw its attention to other wild ducks whenever they happen to fly by. So as to re-ignite in its heart its own burning desire to fly.

Warnings and reminders. These are also the two things that we find in our Mass readings, on this third Sunday of Lent. These are the two ways that our loving and merciful God uses to save people who are in danger of death. In the second reading, St Paul warns the Corinthian Christians not to be complacent. Not to think that they are safe, just because they have been baptised into Christ, and are fed regularly at the table of the Lord. For the Israelites in Moses’ day were also, in a sense, baptised. They too were fed with spiritual food and drink. And yet, most of them failed to please God, and died before reaching the Promised Land. In spite of the many spiritual benefits granted them, they were doomed, because they continued to harbour in their hearts wicked lusts for forbidden things. Like the wild duck in our story, they allowed themselves to be tamed by selfishness and sin.

Similarly, in the gospel, Jesus uses the victims of various disasters as examples to warn the people that they too will perish, if they do not repent without delay. For, like the fig tree in the Lord’s parable, God was mercifully giving them a graced time to change their lives, to tun to Christ, and to bear fruit in the vineyard of the Lord. Failing which they would be cut down.

These sobering warnings in the second reading and the gospel are matched by the inspiring reminder that we find in the first reading. The reminder that God gives to Moses at Horeb, the mountain of God. As you may recall, at this point in the story, Moses has not yet begun to fulfil the plan God has in mind for him. After murdering an Egyptian, he has become a fugitive in the wilderness. But even if Moses may have forgotten his own people, God has not forgotten him. God has not forgotten them. Through the burning bush, God re-ignites in Moses’ heart, his fiery passion to save God’s long-suffering people. To set them free from their oppressors. I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt, God says. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. I mean to deliver them… It is only by fulfilling this God-given calling that Moses attains his own salvation.

These sober warnings and inspiring reminders, which we find in our readings today, are addressed also to each and all of us. For, like the Corinthians, are we not also prone to complacency? Do we not also often think that we are safe, just by coming to Mass every Sunday? Without, at the same time, conscientiously examining our hearts, and letting go of our wicked lusts for forbidden things? Also, like Moses, do we not too easily forget our own God-given calling, as followers of Christ, to be witnesses of the Good News to all whom we meet? To pay  careful attention to those around us who may be oppressed in one way or another? Physically, or emotionally, or spiritually. And to share with them the freedom that comes from committing our lives to our Crucified and Risen Lord?

To pay attention to sober warnings and inspiring reminders. Is this not what the season of Lent is for? Is this not a privileged and graced time for us to allow ourselves to heed the warnings and reminders that God continues to send us every day? So that we might turn away from our habitual selfish preoccupations, and to begin bearing the fruit that God intends for us to bear?

Sisters and brothers, when we carefully examine our hearts and our lives this Lent, will we perhaps find a doomed duck that God wishes to save? What must we do to leave the farm of death, and to reclaim our God-given wildness today?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Destiny of Leftovers

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

Readings: Genesis 15:5-12,17-18; Psalm 26:1,7-9,13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36
Picture: cc Will Hastings

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what does your family do with yesterday’s food? What do you do when it’s time to prepare lunch or dinner, and you find your fridge full of leftovers? What are your options? Apart from giving it all away, you have at least three choices, right? The first two are quite simple. One, reheat what you have and serve it again. Keep eating today, exactly what you had yesterday. Two, discard it all, and cook a fresh batch of food.

But can you guess what the third option is? It’s something that some home-cooks do very well. They take yesterday’s food and transform it into something just as appetising, and even more delicious. So appetising and delicious that we may not even realise we’re eating leftovers. So plain rice might be transformed into tasty fried rice. Steamed chicken might reappear covered in a savoury gravy of oyster sauce…

To retain… to discard… or to transform. These are three of the options we have when dealing with leftover food. And, in our Mass readings today, we find similar ways of dealing with something else. As you’ve probably noticed, each of our readings directs our attention to heaven. In the first reading, God tells Abram to look up to heaven… In the second reading, St Paul tells the Philippians that our homeland is in heaven… And, in the gospel, the apostles Peter, John and James are given a preview of the Lord’s heavenly glory.

But this focus on heaven presents us with a very important question. A question not unlike the one we have to consider when faced with a fridge full of leftover food. For if our ultimate goal is to live blissfully in heaven, then what are we to do with all the things of earth? How should we deal with our possessions, for example, or even our own bodies?

In the second reading, St Paul criticises people who choose the first option. People who keep clinging to earthly realities. People who want to keep eating worldly food, when they should be preparing to feast on heavenly delicacies. They are destined to be lost. They make foods into their god… the things they think important are earthly things. 

And don’t we know what this feels like? Aren’t we familiar with the experience of being so engrossed in the attractions and anxieties of daily living that we forget our Christian belief that here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hb 13:14)? We have a name for this kind of attitude, don’t we? We call it being materialistic.

And yet, even if we should not cling to earthly things, neither should we discard them completely either. As we may do with leftover food. Isn’t this what Peter tries to do in the gospel? Awestruck by the vision of the Lord’s glory, Peter proposes to build three tents on the mountain, so that they can remain there, and forsake everything else down below. But he doesn’t get the chance to put his plan into action. For what does the reading tell us regarding the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah? It says they were speaking of the Lord’s passing which he was to accomplish, not on the mountain, but in Jerusalem. The Lord attains his glory only by first making a journey down the mountain, back to the earthly realities below.

And yet, which of us has not sometimes felt like Peter? Wishing we could somehow escape the duties and responsibilities, the trials and tribulations of this earthly life. Isn’t this why some of us indulge in various bad habits, which then develop into troublesome addictions? Isn’t this why an increasing number of our young people find life so meaningless and boring as to think of ending it all? Isn’t this also why the more pious among us may devote much time to prayer, but pay little attention to lending a hand to the poor, or speaking on behalf of the voiceless, or working to make our lifestyles more conducive to the preservation of mother earth?

But if we Christians are called neither simply to retain nor to discard earthly realities, then what are we to do? How are we to relate to them? This is the question that our readings help us to ponder on this Second Sunday of Lent. This is the deeper meaning of the Transfiguration. For what is transfigured on the mountain, what is transformed, what is changed into glory, is the Lord’s earthly body. Which he does not discard, but rather allows to take on a heavenly brilliance. And, as Paul reminds us, what happens to the Lord’s body, is meant to happen also to these wretched bodies of ours. And, indeed, to the whole material universe. Everything is to be transfigured, transformed into copies of God’s only Son.

What does this mean? How does it come about? Earthly realities are transfigured into heavenly ones when we see them no longer as prizes to be fought over, or burdens to be discarded. Rather, we need to look at them the way Abram is asked to consider the Promised Land. As an inheritance freely bequeathed by a loving God, who binds us to himself in a  Covenant, a loving relationship modelled on the one that Jesus has with his heavenly Father. Isn’t this why the Father reminds us that, This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him? Earthly realities are transfigured into heavenly ones, when we relate to the Father the way Jesus does. This is how these familiar words we pray every day find their fulfilment: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Isn’t this why we need this great season of Lent? Why we fast and pray and give alms? Not just to make ourselves uncomfortable, but so that we continue to learn to relate with material things in the same way that Christ did. Seeing God in all things, and all things in God.

For we Christians are called neither simply to retain nor to discard the world, but rather to work to allow it to be transfigured by the love of God made visible to us in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, how will you be doing this today?

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The Right End of the Telescope

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Charles Nadeau

My dear friends, have you ever looked through the wrong end of a telescope? Even if you haven’t, it’s not too difficult to imagine what will happen if you do, right? A telescope is meant to help us see things more clearly, to make faraway things appear closer. But it works only if I look through the correct end of the telescope. If I look through the wrong end, then things that should look clearer actually become more difficult to see. And I may not even realise it.

I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I believe something like this is true also of our Mass readings today. In a way, the readings provide us with something like a telescope, which can help us see things more clearly. To look at the world more wisely. So as to be able to distinguish the good from the bad, the helpful from the harmful, the things that lead us to God from those that lead us astray. But we need to be careful not to look through the wrong end of the telescope.

As you’ve probably noticed, both the first reading and the gospel provide us with similar advice about how to discover what is in a person’s heart. How do we find out whether someone has good intentions or bad? The answer seems simple enough. Just wait for the person to speak, and then consider the quality of the words that come out of that person’s mouth. Or wait for a person to act, and then consider the effects of the person’s actions. For just as a tree can be judged by its fruit, so too can a person’s words and actions tell us what fills that person’s heart. Good fruit, good tree. Good words and actions, good heart.

But if this is all I get from the readings, then I may be  tempted to go around quickly judging everyone by their words and actions. Have you ever been tempted to do this? To allow what someone says and does to lead you to dismiss that person as evil and ungodly. Of course, when I do this, I may perhaps sometimes get it right. And yet, isn’t it true that I may just as often get it wrong? Indeed, when we examine the readings more closely, we begin to realise that seeing things in this way may actually be the same as looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It may make what should appear clearer even more difficult to see.

Notice how, in the gospel, for example, Jesus’s advice about judging a tree by its fruit, actually comes immediately after his warning to us not to be too quick to judge others. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye, the Lord says, and never notice the plank in your own? … Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter that is in your brother’s eye. These are very strong words, aren’t they? I have to confess that they make me uncomfortable.

And yet, it is important that I pay close attention to them, because they help me to better understand Jesus’s words about judging a tree by its fruit. If the Lord wants me to first remove the plank from my own eye, then doesn’t it follow that the tree I’m supposed to judge first of all, is not someone else’s heart but my own? And how do I judge my own heart? How do I take the plank out of my own eye? I who am at least as blind as the next person, if not even more so?

I can do this only by carefully and regularly examining the words that often come out of my own mouth, as well as the actions that I habitually perform in my own life. I need to pay special attention, not just to the words and actions that I may sometimes use to protect myself and to hurt others, but also to the times when I choose to remain silent, when I really should say something. Or when I choose to remain passive, when I really should do something. I need to allow all my destructive speeches and silences, my selfish actions and omissions to uncover for me the darker intentions of my own heart. So that I may repent of my sinfulness, and seek God’s mercy.

But that’s not all. When I do experience God’s mercy, which is freely offered to me, especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ the Lord, I may then be moved to raise my voice in praise and thanksgiving to God. As we are all gathered here this morning to do at this Mass. In the words of the responsorial psalm, to proclaim God’s love in the morning and God’s truth in the watches of the night…

And not only am I led to speak words of praise and thanks for God’s mercy, I may also be inspired to express that same gratitude in godly acts of mercy. Which includes taking steps to protect those who may suffer from the evil done by others and even by me. As the second reading tells us, to keep on working at the Lord’s work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot be labouring in vain.

To be led first to search one’s own heart in honest self-examination and repentance, and then to speak earnest words of gratitude and praise, as well as to perform merciful actions in the Lord’s service. Isn’t this what it means to look through the correct end of the telescope? To begin by gazing into a mirror of self-examination, rather than by pointing a finger of accusation at others. Isn’t this the way by which we can see more clearly, judge more wisely, respond more properly to the many often confusing events that are happening around us today? Not just big events like the sexual abuse scandals currently rocking our Church. But also smaller, but no less important, events, like those that may take place in our own families and communities, our own workplaces and schools and parishes.

My dear sisters and brothers, what must we do to ensure that we  keep looking at our lives and at our world through the correct end of the telescope today?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Choosing Your Tree

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Muhammad Ali

My dear friends, are you familiar with the saying, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree? You know what it means, right? It’s typically used when someone’s behaviour is seen to be similar to that of his or her parents. So, for example, I may have a friend who talks very loudly. And, one day, I happen to meet her mother, and discover that she talks very loudly too. Then I may say, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Of course, I could also say, like father like son, or, like mother like daughter. But the apple falling from the tree paints a more vivid image, right? Although, of course, in this part of the world, we should be imagining durians instead of apples.

I mention this, because it may help us to deepen our reflection on what Jesus says in the gospel today. The Lord begins by telling us to adopt certain specific behaviours: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you… be compassionate… do not judge… These behaviours are by no means easy to perform. Which is probably why, the Lord goes on to give us a reason, a motivation, to obey: You will have a great reward, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked… In other words, by being kind and compassionate even to our enemies, we prove that we are truly sons and daughters of God. We show to the world that the apple has indeed not fallen too far from the tree.

But what does the tree look like? What does it mean to be kind and compassionate in this way? Does it mean that I simply give in to everyone who abuses me? If a husband continually beats up his wife. Or if an employer mistreats her domestic helper. Or if a teacher acts inappropriately towards her student, or a priest towards his parishioner. Is Jesus saying that the wife and the maid, the student and the parishioner should all just keep quiet and endure it? No.

Consider, for example, what we find in the first reading. Out of jealousy and insecurity, King Saul sets out with a small army to capture and to kill young David. Notice how David responds. On the one hand, he evades capture. And, after snatching the king’s spear, he carefully maintains a safe distance from his pursuers. Yet, on the other hand, he also resolutely refuses to kill the king, even when given the opportunity to do so. In this way, David shows that he is indeed a son of the God described in the psalm. The Lord who is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

And that’s not all. For us Christians, our primary example of gospel kindness and compassion is found not so so much in David, as in the life of Christ himself. Jesus is the one who shows us what it means to love our enemies. For he died for us while we were still sinners, while we were God’s enemies (cf. Rom 5:8). And yet, even though Jesus humbly submitted himself to a cruel death on the Cross, even though he became like a meek and silent lamb that is led to the slaughter, what we also find in the gospels is that the Lord was put to death precisely because he resisted and spoke out courageously against injustice and hypocrisy.

It is by resisting injustice, and accepting the consequences, it is by loving sinners, and dying for them, that Jesus becomes the last Adam mentioned in the second reading. In contrast to the first Adam, who received life from God, and so became a living soul, Jesus, by his Death and Resurrection, becomes a life-giving spirit. A tree that bears much fruit. Able not just to live, but also to give life to others. To help us, you and me, to become adopted sons and daughters of God.

All of which may help us to answer another crucial question that our readings present to us today. Not just what compassion looks like, but how to be compassionate. For even if I know what I need to do to love my enemies in a given situation, isn’t it true that I still often find it very difficult to put that knowledge into practice? Much as I may want to be kind and compassionate, I may find myself paralysed by hurt and anger and resentment. How then to follow the Lord’s instructions, so as to become a child of God? How to cultivate the tree of compassion, in order to bear the fruit of adoption?

Well, if it is true that Jesus has become a life-giving spirit, then isn’t it by continually pondering his life, by consistently allowing his attitudes and actions to influence and to shape my own, that I am eventually able to receive the life that he offers me? Isn’t this why I join the rest of the community here at Mass, to recall and to celebrate Christ’s loving sacrifice for us on the Cross? Isn’t this also why, at the start of Mass, we asked almighty God, that, always pondering spiritual things, we may carry out in both word and deed that which is pleasing to you? And what could be more spiritual, more worth pondering, than the Life, Death, & Resurrection of the Lord?

My dear friends, it is actually quite natural to expect fruit to fall close by the tree that bears it. The crucially important question to ask is what kind of tree are we cultivating, what kind of fruit are we bearing in our lives today?

Sunday, February 17, 2019

If You're Happy & You Know It...

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Video: YouTube Sesame Street

My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? If you’re happy and you know it…

That’s right!

If you’re happy and you know it… clap your hands!
If you’re happy and you know it, and you really want to show it,
if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

I think many of us are familiar with the delightful song from which these words are taken, right? Perhaps we have even sung it before. But have these words ever led you to ask yourself a question? The song says, If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! Is it possible to be happy and NOT to know it? Is it possible not even to know what it means to be happy or sad? To think that I’m sad when I’m happy? And to think that I’m happy when I’m actually sad? What do you think? Could you to be sad or happy and not know it?

Much as it may surprise us, when we carefully consider our readings today, it becomes clear that the answer is yes. Yes, it is possible to be happy, or sad, and not to know it. Why else does Jesus take the trouble to tell the people, gathered around him in the gospel, happy are you… and alas for you… Why does the Lord have to say this, if not because we don’t really know the difference between true happiness and sadness?

Of course, this sounds very strange to me, who so often thinks of happiness and sadness as being only a matter of feelings. When I feel happy, I laugh. When I feel sad, I cry. So how can it be possible for me not to know the difference? But Jesus is not talking about feelings alone. As scripture scholars tell us, the Greek word that is translated happy, actually means something closer to blessed or favoured by God. In the gospel, Jesus is teaching his disciples, and me, what it looks like to be blessed, and what it looks like to be cursed.

Even so, if I am honest with myself, what the Lord says remains shocking and difficult to understand. Especially because I so often desire and strive to be comfortable and popular. I take great pains to make myself liked, if not in person, then surely on social media. And don’t I belong to a parish, whose carpark is transformed every weekend, into a large showroom for luxury automobiles? How can I bring myself to understand, let alone to accept, that it is the poor and the hungry, the weeping and the rejected who are blessed? While it is the rich and the satisfied, the laughing and the popular who are cursed? 

Thankfully, the first reading helps me by describing blessing and curse in terms of a contrast between two different spiritual locations, two places where I may situate my heart: the wilderness and the waterside. I am cursed when I turn my heart away from God. When I choose to trust in worldly affairs and approaches to life. When this happens, I fail to recognise God’s presence. I take my blessings for granted, feeling as though I am somehow entitled to them, that they are mine by right, instead of being gifts from a caring God. As a result, I end up banishing my heart to a dry and desperate existence in the wilderness.

In contrast, I am blessed when I learn to place my life in the hands of the Lord, to put my trust in God. To do this is to learn to recognise and to draw from the ever-flowing stream of God’s loving action in my life. When this happens, my heart becomes like a tree planted by the waterside. It bears fruit, even when external conditions are bad. Not only am I blessed, but I know that I am blessed. And so, I am able to rejoice, even if I may not feel like it. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

So whether I am blessed or cursed depends not so much on how I feel, or how favourable are the external conditions of my life. Rather, it depends on where I place my heart, where I decide to put my trust. In God, or in myself. Which is why it is more blessed to be poor than to be rich. For am I not more likely to turn to God when every other door has been shut in my face? When every other road has led me to a dead end? When all other sources of support have finally run dry? When I find myself poor and weak, weeping and rejected? In contrast, am I not far less likely to remember God, when I’m rich and popular, when my mouth is filled with food and laughter?

But how then to ensure that my heart never gets banished to the wilderness, but remains always firmly planted by the waterside? How to gradually let go of my craving for earthly riches, my yearning for worldly popularity, so as to cling to God alone? Isn’t this far easier said than done?

Yes, it this. But God has not left me to do this on my own. God has given me, given us, a Way. The psalm calls it the law of the Lord. Happy indeed is the man… whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. To trust in God is to live according to God’s law, God’s Word. And, for us Christians, God’s law is to be found not only on the pages of Scripture. For we believe that the Word has already become flesh. So that to follow God’s law is really to live as Jesus did.

It is to believe in the Resurrection of Christ that Paul preaches in the second reading. And to let that belief give me courage to lay down my life for others, just as Christ laid down his life for me. It is to allow myself to imitate Christ who, though he was rich, chose to become poor, so that by his poverty others might become rich (cf 2 Cor 8:9).

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! 

These words may be easy to sing, but they are not so easy to live. For it is possible to be happy and not to know it. It is possible to even mistake sadness for happiness, a curse for a blessing. Which is why we need to keep pondering the Word of God, present not only here at this Mass, but also out there in the world. To ponder the face of the Crucified and Risen One, so as to follow faithfully and courageously in his footsteps.

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! 

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to continue clapping our hands in the sight of God and of the world today?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sustainable Energy

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Video: YouTube Sung Wing Chun

My dear friends, are you familiar with the term sustainable energy? I’m sure you are, right? It refers to power drawn from sources that are both renewable and clean. Sources like the sun and the wind, for example. In contrast, fossil fuels, like oil and coal and natural gas, are unsustainable. Not only will they eventually run out, they also tend to pollute the environment. As you know, we use all these forms of energy to power our machines. But what about ourselves? Is there such a thing as sustainable energy for the human body? What do you think?

I recently came across a YouTube video that seems to suggest there is. In the video, someone named Chu Shong Tin, a now deceased martial artist from Hong Kong, a master of Wing Chun kungfu, speaks about how his teaching methods have evolved over the years. Earlier, he had focused on training students in the technique of pushing hands. However, he found that, while his students made good progress, they fell short in one significant way. Although most of them were much younger and physically stronger than him, they all tired out much faster. Eventually, Master Chu realised that, whereas his students relied on muscular strength, which didn’t last, his own energy came from a different source. And it was this mysterious inner power that he then tried to help his students access. We may say that he taught them to use a more sustainable form of energy.

But even if there is such a thing as sustainable energy in the martial arts, could there something similar in the spiritual life? A form of energy that is both renewable and clean? And, if so, how do we tap into it? I believe these, my dear friends, are the questions that our readings invite us to ponder today. They do this by offering us three examples. That of Isaiah in the first reading, of Paul in the second, and Peter in the gospel. And, in each of these examples, we see three distinct steps in the process of tapping into sustainable spiritual energy. Three key moments for gaining access to grace.

The first step is taken not so much by us as by God. It is the step of encounter. In the first reading, Isaiah has a spectacular vision of the Lord seated on a high throne, surrounded by a multitude of heavenly beings. In the second reading, Paul writes about how the crucified and risen Jesus appeared not only to the Twelve, but also to Paul himself. Paul is, of course, speaking about his experience of being struck down on the road to Damascus. In the gospel, out of all the seagoing vessels parked by the lakeside, Jesus chooses to board Peter’s boat. Which he uses first as a pulpit for preaching the gospel to the crowd, and then as a stage for demonstrating to Peter the power of God.

Isaiah, Paul and Peter. Three unsuspecting people, who each encounter the Lord. And although the exact details may be different, there are some important similarities. For example, all three have their lives disrupted in a significant way. In a way that demands from them a response, which each one feels painfully inadequate to make. Isaiah protests his own polluted state. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. Paul too is deeply aware of his own unworthiness. Since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle. And Peter is moved to say to Jesus, Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man. If sustainable energy is, by definition, renewable and clean, then perhaps these protests are signs that the energy these men had relied on before was unsustainable.

Thankfully, however, the first moment of encounter soon leads to a second, and much needed, moment of empowerment. Like that old martial artist in the video, God helps each person to tap into a different and more sustainable source of power. An angel cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a live coal taken from the heavenly altar. Paul speaks of bearing fruit, not only by his own hard work, but by God’s grace. And Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, for he and his companions will be given the ability not just to catch fish, but to gather people into the kingdom of God.

Encounter leading to empowerment. These are the first two moments of grace. But, on their own, they are still incomplete. A third is needed. We see this perhaps most clearly in the second reading, which begins with Paul speaking about the gospel not only as something that the Corinthians have received, but also as something in which they are firmly established. Unlike the martial arts, the power of the good news, the sustainable spiritual energy of grace, from which Paul himself draws, is not just something to be used only on special occasions, for performing certain specific functions, and then to be carefully stored away.

On the contrary, the grace of God is meant to be something on which one relies for the whole of one’s life, in all its aspects. Isn’t this what we find already in the opening prayer that we offered earlier? There, we spoke about relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace. Relying on grace not just in addition to other forms of power. And not just for performing certain religious actions at certain specified times. Not just at Mass on a Sunday, for example. But to rely on grace solely. At all times, and for all actions. To be firmly established on grace. We see this also in the first reading, where, after receiving his call, Isaiah ends up devoting his whole life to being God’s messenger. Here I am, send me. And, in the gospel, we’re told that Peter and his companions left everything and followed Jesus. They gave up their reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, and gradually reestablished their whole lives solely on grace.

Encounter, empowerment, and establishment. Three important steps for converting from a reliance on ourselves to a dependence on God. And are these not steps that we all need to take especially today? When so many of us find ourselves tired and stressed out? So often on the verge of burnout? Struggling to find meaning and purpose in the face of the many oppressive demands of daily life. Drawing from dubious sources of energy, like guilt and shame, or greed and envy, or anger and resentment, or loneliness and boredom. Energies that are not only easily exhausted, but that also tend to pollute our lives, and compromise our relationships, even in our own families.

And yet, in the midst of all this, God continues to call us, as God called Isaiah and Peter and Paul. God continues to call us to establish our lives on the sustainable energy that is the love of God shown most clearly in the Dying and Rising of Christ. The same love that we are gathered at this Eucharist to celebrate. To rely solely on the grace of God’s love. Isn’t this our true vocation as followers of Christ?

Sisters and brothers, despite notable exceptions, many countries and large companies around the world are taking steps to shift to more sustainable sources of energy. What must we do, you and I, to respond more generously to God’s call to us to do the same in our spiritual life today?

Sunday, February 03, 2019

The Power(lessness) of Love

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Video: YouTube BonnieRaittVEVO

My dear friends, what do you think? Is love powerful or powerless? I’m sure many of us have heard songs about the power of love, right? But do you know any songs that sing about love’s powerlessness? Are you familiar, for example, with these words from a love song released in 1991?

'Cause I can't make you love me if you don’t.
You can't make your heart feel something it won’t.
Here in the dark, in these final hours,
I will lay down my heart, and I'll feel the power.
But you won’t. No, you won’t.
'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don’t.

These words are sung by someone who realises, painfully, that the one she loves doesn’t love her back. And one striking thing about the song is how it shows love to be both powerful and powerless at the same time. On the one hand, her love for the beloved gives the singer the power to lay down my heart, even when her partner doesn’t do the same. And yet, on the other hand, she is also pitifully powerless. ‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t… I can’t make you love me. That’s the title of this sad but beautiful song about the powerlessness of love.

Yes, it’s true, isn’t it, my dear friends? Love is often both powerful and powerless at the same time. This is also what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, we’re told that the word of the Lord was addressed to the prophet Jeremiah. And this word is at once a word of love and a word of power. For God tells Jeremiah that, even from his mother’s womb, God has lovingly known him and formed him, consecrated him and appointed him as prophet to the nations. This call, this vocation, gives Jeremiah power to speak courageously in the name of God. To confront all this land of Judah, its leaders and its people, even when they offer him stiff resistance and cruel persecution. They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you. This, my dear friends, is the power of love.

And yet, although Jeremiah speaks in the power of God’s loving word, his ministry is also marked by powerlessness. For, however hard he tries, and however loudly he cries, Jeremiah fails to turn the people’s hearts back to God. Like the singer of that sad song, he is unable to make the people love the One who loved them first. I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.

And what is true of Jeremiah is true also of Jesus. Of course, we know that Jesus is more than just a prophet speaking God’s word. As John’s gospel tells us, Jesus is himself the Word of God made flesh for us. And, as Word of God, who is Love, Jesus wields great power. He is able to win the approval of the people in the synagogue by the gracious words that came from his lips. He is able even to escape the crowd, when it turns hostile, and tries to corner him and kill him.

And yet, powerful though he may be, in the gospel, Jesus also shows a mysterious powerlessness. For although he has worked great miracles in Capernaum, he doesn’t seem able to do the same in Nazareth, his own hometown. For he says that no prophet is ever accepted in his own country. Like Jeremiah the prophet, and like the singer of that sad song, Jesus seems unable to make people love the One who loved them first. I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.

Like that sad song, the experiences of Jeremiah and Jesus show us that love is often both powerful and powerless at the same time. But that’s not all, my dear friends. The Scriptures actually show us something even deeper about true love, about God’s love. For although, in the gospel, Jesus amazes us by miraculously escaping those who want to kill him, this is not the full extent of his power. Further on in the story, Jesus will show an even greater power than this. Do you know how he does it? Not by escaping those who want to kill him, but instead by humbly submitting himself to them in love. 

For the amazing thing about God’s love is not just that it is both powerful and powerless at the same time. But, even more than that, God’s love actually shows its power most clearly, most wonderfully, most effectively, precisely in its powerlessness. Isn’t this what we find in the second reading as well. Which describes love as being always patient and kind… never jealous… never boastful or conceited… never rude or selfish… The power of love is shown most of all in its powerlessness. In its ability to remain patient and kind, even unto death. Death on a cross.

And, if this is true, then perhaps, unlike the singer of that sad song, Jesus does actually have a mysterious power to make me love him, even when I don’t. Even when I find it difficult to be patient and kind. Even when I find it difficult not to be jealous, or boastful, or conceited… Difficult to truly lay down my heart for love of God and of my neighbour, my family, my colleagues, my friends, and even my enemies. When I find myself becoming more selfish than selfless, more indifferent than loving, perhaps what I need to do is to again gaze upon the Crucified One, who shows his love for me by humbly hanging on a cross. Isn’t this why we take the trouble to gather to celebrate Mass every Sunday? So that we may remember Christ’s loving sacrifice for us, and draw power from his utter powerlessness. So that I may be made to love him, whom I so often do not love enough.

‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow the powerless One to give us power to love him even more than we do today?

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