Sunday, February 14, 2016

Questions of Safety


1st Sunday of Lent (C)


Sisters and brothers, I think most of you have heard about the powerful earthquake that struck Tainan City, in southern Taiwan, last Saturday. But did you know that all but two of the people who were killed when the quake struck were inside the same 17-storey apartment complex? Why did this building collapse, when many others around it remained standing? This is the question the authorities are now asking. And for good reason.

Examination of the collapsed building has revealed that tin cooking-oil cans and styrofoam appear to have been used as filler material inside some of its concrete beams. It’s too early to say whether any laws were broken in the building’s construction. But it is clear that the authorities are now taking the matter very seriously. Serious enough that, on Tuesday, three former executives of the company responsible for erecting the building were taken into custody for questioning.

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I imagine the relatives of those who died are probably wishing that these questions had been asked earlier. That checks were made sooner. To ensure the building was properly built. Steps taken so that its occupants might have a reasonably safe structure in which to live.

And if this is true of a physical building, shouldn’t it be true of my spiritual life as well? When disaster strikes, will I be able to withstand the shock? Or will I simply crumble and collapse? Like that building in Tainan. How really safe and secure is the spiritual structure in which I live? What can I do to make it stronger? What questions do I need to ask? What checks do I need to make? What steps can I take? These are some of the things that our Mass readings help us to ponder on this 1st Sunday in Lent.

We see this especially in the opening lines of our responsorial psalm. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty says to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!” But what does it mean to dwell in the shelter of the Most High? To abide in the shade of the Almighty? And what can I do to ensure that I am indeed living in this safe and secure spiritual Place? Each of our Mass readings provides its own answer to these questions. And these answers can be summarised in three words.

The first word is ritual. For the first reading describes a ritual celebrated by the People of Israel. To offer to God the first-fruits of the harvest. And this ritual involves three actions. The first is pronouncement. After the people have approached the priest at the altar, they are asked to remember and to recite aloud all that God has done for them. Especially how God heard their voice when they called on the Lord. How God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And led them to the Promised Land. After they have made this prouncement, they are then asked to lay (your gifts) before the Lord your God, and bow down in the sight of the Lord your God. Presentation and prostration. These are the other two actions of the ritual.

But that’s not all. The ritual actions of pronouncement and presentation and prostration are not meant to stand on their own. They are, rather, an expression of a whole way of life. A life that constantly and carefully recalls and recites the Lord’s goodness. A life that repeatedly presents to the Lord the very best of what I have and who I am. In gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do for me. A life that is, above all else, an act of worship to the Lord. To celebrate this ritual is really to commit myself to keep on dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. To keep on abiding in the shade of the Almighty. And so to enjoy the safety and security of the Lord’s embrace.

The second word is reading. For this is what St. Paul is doing in the second reading. He helps his readers, and all of us, to read and interpret Scripture. And he assures us that the Word of God, which provides us a safe shelter, is not very far away. It is, instead, very near to us, it is on our lips and in our hearts. All we have to do to continue to live in this powerful Word is to keep believing in our heart and to keep confessing with our lips. To keep living a life that is rooted and grounded, shaded and sheltered, in the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

The third answer to the question of how to take shelter in God is provided by Jesus in the gospel. After being baptised in the Jordan River. And after being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t just rush headlong into his public ministry. Instead, we are told that he is led by the Spirit through the wilderness. He makes a retreat. Why a retreat? Apparently only so that he can be tempted by the devil. But why? Wouldn’t it be better not to be tempted? Perhaps. But, then again, perhaps not. For if the strength of a building is not tested, how will we know it is strong enough to withstand an earthquake? So Jesus allows himself to be tempted. To be stress-tested. To practice resisting the devil’s cunning tactics. Such as the temptation to use his power for self-serving purposes. And the temptation to worship anything, or anyone, other than God alone. As well as the temptation to put God to the test by acting recklessly instead of responsibly.

In successfully resisting each of these temptations, Jesus demonstrates the structural strength and firm foundation of the spiritual building in which he lives. More than any other person, it is Jesus who shows us what it means to dwell in the shelter of the Most High. And to abide in the shade of the Almighty. For he will continue to dwell and to abide in the will of God, even when this dwelling turns into the darkened shade and the crushing shelter of the cruel Cross. And his Father will reward his trust by raising him from death to life.

Ritual, reading, and retreat. Three ways to help us to keep dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. To keep abiding in the shade of the Almighty. And are these not the very things that make up this great Season of Lent? What is Lent, after all, if not one long retreat? A time when we practice resisting the devil. And what are we invited to do more in Lent, if not to celebrate rituals? More frequently and more conscientiously. Liturgical rituals like the Holy Eucharist, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Devotional rituals like the Stations of the Cross, or the Holy Rosary, or the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. Personal rituals, like prayer and fasting and almsgiving. And what good will all these rituals do us, if they are not informed by the careful and attentive reading of Sacred Scripture?

But still, as important as they all are, we need to remember that the practices of ritual, reading, and retreat will benefit us only to the extent that we connect them to the rest of our lives. So that our whole life becomes a continual act of worship to God. For everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.

Sisters and brothers, it is truly tragic when we question the safety of a building only after it collapses. And kills many people.

How is God inviting us to question our spiritual safety today?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Straightening the Crooked


Ash Wednesday

Picture: cc Robert S. Donovan

Sisters and brothers, imagine, for a moment, that you’re at a local supermarket. Doing some last-minute shopping. You’re in a hurry. You want to get what you need, and leave as soon as you can. But you encounter a problem. The shopping cart the store has provided refuses to cooperate. No matter how hard you try to push it in a straight line, it keeps veering off to one side. Threatening to collide into the shelves. Or into other shoppers. And you realise why. One of its four wheels is crooked.

Those of us who have ever had an experience like this will know how annoying it can be. But if this is true of shopping carts with a crooked wheel, what about people with crooked hearts? Yes, it is possible, isn’t it, for people to have a crooked heart? Even  Christians like you and me. Speaking for myself, I find that I am, for the most part, obedient to God. I try to arrange my life so that it moves along in the general direction that God wants. But only for the most part. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that deep within me, there is something like a crooked wheel. An annoying tendency to resist God’s best intentions for my life. A stubborn desire to go my own way. To veer off-course. And, in the process, to sabotage my own happiness. And the happiness of others.

Which is why I need a day like Ash Wednesday. And a season like Lent. A time for me to allow God to do some maintenance work on the shopping cart of my heart. To straighten the crooked wheel. To speak to me in those tender words from our Mass readings today. Words that call me to repentance. Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.’ Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn. To tell me not to procrastinate any longer. For now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.

As a Church, we respond to these words by undertaking the traditional penitential practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Practices aimed at straightening what has become bent. Turning selfish and egotistical hearts back in the direction of love. Love of God. Love of neighbour. Love even of enemies. And I’ll need to tailor these practices to my own particular circumstances and needs. I’ll need to ask what kind of prayer I need to to? From what kind of things do I need to fast? To which groups of people do I need to give alms?

But I also need to be careful. For it is possible to perform these penitential practices in the wrong way. In a harmful way. In a way that simply burdens the shopping cart of my heart with more and more concerns. So that what needs to be straightened, ends up being made more crooked than it was before. And the practices that are aimed at deflating my ego, end up leaving it even more bloated than it was before. Which is why I need to listen carefully to the advice that Jesus offers in the gospel today: Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. I need to be careful about my motivation for undertaking our Lenten discipline. Not to attract attention. But to be transformed. Not to be self-satisfied. But to give of myself in love.

Sisters and brothers, as we enter this great Season of Lent, what must we do to let God straighten the crooked wheels of our hearts today?

The Lesson of the Rooster in the Year of the Monkey (Rerun)


Chinese New Year

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 90; James 4:13-15; Matthew 6:31-34
Picture: cc Ron Cogswell

Sisters and brothers, I think some of you may still remember this story: Once upon a time, there was a rooster who took himself very seriously. And he had good reason to do so. You see, the rooster was blessed with a very powerful voice. A voice that he made sure to exercise everyday by crowing loudly at the break of dawn. And, because he noticed that his crowing tended to coincide with the rising of the sun, the rooster began to think that the sun actually rose because of him. This made him feel very proud of himself. Even arrogant. Imagine. If not for him, the whole world would remain in darkness. So, he liked nothing better than to show off his crowing in front of others. He also took great care of his voice by regularly drinking ginseng tea mixed with honey and lemon. He even gathered some of the hens in his coop, and trained them very hard everyday. So that they could sing backup. To enhance the sound of his own voice.

But, as time went on, the rooster began to feel the pressure. If the whole world relied on him to make the sun to rise, then he couldn’t let everyone down. He had to be sure never to forget to crow early every morning. Even if he happened to have stayed out late the previous night. This sense of the heavy burden of responsibility placed on his shoulders often made him anxious. It gave him many sleepless nights. All of which made the rooster rather miserable. Day after day, he often found himself swinging between arrogance and anxiety. Sometimes even feeling both at the same time. But hardly was he ever truly happy. And all because he thought that he was the one who made the sun to rise. All because he took himself far too seriously.

Then, one day, the unthinkable happened. The rooster got a sore throat. He lost his voice. Perhaps it was the durians he had eaten the day before. We cannot say for sure. Whatever the reason, he was unable to crow. But, as we might expect, the sun rose all the same. This made the rooster fall into a deep depression. He stopped crowing. And even left his home in the chicken coop. What’s the point of crowing, he thought to himself, if it doesn’t actually cause the sun to rise?

The rooster’s sadness continued for a long time. Until one fateful afternoon, when he happened to hear a nightingale singing in a tree. It was such a beautiful sound that the rooster was moved to speak to the singer. He wanted to find out if its song actually made the sun to rise. Or the moon to shine. Or the stars to sparkle. But the nightingale shook its head and said, No. My singing does nothing of the sort. Then why do you even bother? The rooster asked. To which the nightingale laughed and replied, Why not? It makes me happy! I sing not to cause the sun to rise, but to celebrate its rising. Not to cause the moon to shine, but to celebrate its shining. Not to cause the stars to sparkle, but to celebrate their sparkling!

Hearing this reply, the rooster was enlightened. He returned to the chicken coop and went back to doing many of the things he used to do. He resumed crowing. He began, once again, to train and sing with his choir of chickens. But something was different. This time round, the rooster was far less arrogant and anxious. At times, he even felt truly happy. All because, having realised that he didn’t cause the sun to rise, he was able to stop taking himself quite as seriously as he did before.

Sisters and brothers, you might be wondering why, on this first day of the Year of the Monkey, I have chosen to tell you a story about a rooster. The answer is simple. The lesson learned by the rooster is very similar to the lesson that our Mass readings are trying to teach us today. Notice, for example, how the second reading warns us against arrogance. We are to be careful about taking our brief and fragile lives for granted. About planning too far ahead. For we never know what will happen tomorrow; we are no more than a mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. And notice too how, in the gospel, Jesus tells us not to be anxious. Not to worry about what we are to eat, nor about what we are to drink. Not to worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own.

Of course, if you are like me, you’ll find these warnings against arrogance and anxiety difficult to understand. Let alone to put into practice. They are difficult to accept so long as we share the rooster’s mistaken assumption that we can actually cause the sun of our own survival and success to rise, solely by our own efforts. For, however capable and talented we are, however farsighted and well-prepared we may be, our efforts can only take us so far. Many things remain beyond our control. People can suddenly fall critically ill and die. Wars may break out. Natural disasters may occur. Stock markets can crash without warning. And these things will happen no matter how many sleepless nights we may spend.

Of course, this does not mean that we should not work hard. Or that we should not plan at all. Or that our efforts are unimportant. They are very important. As people say, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Precautions have to be taken. Responsibilities have to be borne. Work has to be done. But it makes all the difference in the world when we allow ourselves to accept that all these efforts of ours cannot actually ensure our survival and success. That our lives are not totally in our hands.

It is only when we allow ourselves to humbly accept this truth, that we learn the importance of doing what Moses and Aaron are learning to do in the first reading today. We learn to seek God’s help in all circumstances. We learn to entrust our wellbeing to the care and compassion of God at all times. We learn to keep praying that the almighty One–who could so easily sweep us away like grass which springs up in the morning and by evening withers and fades–will continue to bless us and keep us. Will ever uncover his face to us and bring us His peace.

And when we are able to entrust our lives to God in this way. When we are able to accept the truth that, however hard we may work, or however far ahead we may plan, we cannot actually cause the sun to rise. Perhaps we will also learn to take ourselves far less seriously. And learn to live the gift of life the way it is meant to be lived. Not as a heavy burden. But as a joyous celebration. Perhaps we may even experience what it feels like to be truly happy.

Sisters and brothers, on this first day of the Year of the Monkey, how is God teaching us you and me, the lesson of the rooster today?

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Blessing of Discomfort


5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Tyler Bolken

Sisters and brothers, if you had a choice, which would you rather be? Comfortable or uncomfortable? That’s a silly question, right? Given a choice, of course we’d rather be comfortable. We’d rather be seated here, for example. In air-conditioned comfort. Than to worship out in the open. Exposed to sun and rain.

And yet, as much as we prefer comfort, we also know the value of discomfort. In fact, there are occasions when we actually choose to make ourselves uncomfortable, don’t we? As when we take the trouble to go jogging. Or to do some other form of physical exercise. By definition, to exercise is to make our bodies uncomfortable. But we do it anyway. Why? Because there’s a benefit to be gained from the discomfort. A fitter, healthier, more energetic body. The same can be said for all the cleaning and cooking that people do in preparation for Chinese New Year. It can a real bother. Quite a discomfort. And yet we do it anyway. Why? To express our hope for a new beginning. For a peaceful and prosperous new year.

As much as we value comfort, we also appreciate the importance of occasional discomfort. And this is true in the spiritual life as well. In each of our Mass readings today, for example, we find people being made extremely uncomfortable. But for a good purpose. The first reading tells us about the call of the prophet Isaiah. He sees a vision of God in the Temple. And the experience causes him great discomfort. Not only are the foundations of the threshold of the Temple shaken by God’s presence. But Isaiah himself is shaken. To his very core. What a wretched state I am in! He exclaims. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of Hosts.

To be led to finally appreciate and to acknowledge just how small and sinful I really am. Especially when compared to the immensity and holiness of God. That can be a very uncomfortable experience. Especially for someone who habitually behaves as though the whole universe revolves around the self. But this experience of discomfort is not a curse. But a great blessing. God purifies Isaiah’s unclean lips, so that the prophet can respond generously and courageously to God’s call. So that he can become God’s messenger. Bringing God’s life-giving word to the people. Here I am, send me.

We find this same connection between discomfort and God’s call in the gospel as well. Simon and his fellow fishermen are washing their nets after an unsuccessful night of fishing. We can imagine how they must be feeling. Very likely, all they want to do is finish their work and go home to rest. To finally enjoy some quiet and comfort. But it is precisely at this moment that Jesus chooses to step into Simon’s boat. First, the Lord asks Simon to put out a little from the shore. But that’s not enough. The Lord then urges him to put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch. Jesus invites the failed fisherman to return to the very place, and to do the very thing, that has brought him so much disappointment and discomfort the night before.

Quite amazingly, Simon agrees. And, as they say, the rest is history. As it was for Isaiah, so too with Simon. The discomfort turns into a great blessing. In the great catch of fish, Simon is led to recognise how small and sinful he really is in the sight of God. How tiny his boat is. How inadequate his nets are. Too tiny and too inadequate to accomplish all that God is calling him to do. No longer just to catch fish. But to evangelise people. Is it any wonder then that, bringing their boats back to land, Simon and his companions left everything and followed him?

Discomfort leading to dispossession. Call leading to commitment. This too is what we find in the second reading. Here, St. Paul continues to correct the Corinthians’ mistaken view of the Christian life. By reminding them of the foundations of their faith. Of the gospel that you received and in which you are firmly established. And it’s especially important for us to pay attention to how Paul describes this firm foundation.

Although he begins by listing a series of beliefs about Jesus. That he died, was buried, and was raised to life. These are not just abstract affirmations. They are rooted instead in very concrete experience. Paul goes on to recall his own personal encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ. Like Isaiah and Simon before him, Paul’s call was also an experience of discomfort. We know the story well. How he was struck down by a bright light on the road to Damascus. How he was blinded. Disorientated. How the very foundations of his life were shaken. Transforming him from Saul to Paul. From a persecutor of Christians to a tireless apostle of Christ.

Sisters and brothers, as much as we may prefer comfort, discomfort is not always a bad thing. Indeed, in a certain sense, discomfort is at the very centre of Christian life. At the core of our relationship with Christ. Who often insists on upsetting our comfortable lives, in order to lead us to enjoy something more. A greater blessing. A higher calling. A more fulfilling life.

And it’s especially important for us to bear this in mind especially today, when we find ourselves surrounded by news of war and conflict. Or pain and suffering. Of ignorance and loneliness. Of situations and people crying out for the message of the gospel. Desperately needing to hear the voice of God. To feel the touch of Christ. Circumstances that call us out of our comfort zones. Urging us to put out into the deep…

I’m reminded of that prayer attributed to Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. It’s common for us to pray for peace. What’s striking about this prayer is that it’s a prayer for disturbance…

Disturb us O Lord,
when we are too well pleased with ourselves;
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little;
when we have arrived in safety because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us O Lord,
when with the abundance of things we possess
we have lost our thirst for the water of life;
when having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity;
and in our efforts to build a new earth
have allowed our vision of the New Heaven to grow dim.
Stir us O Lord,
to dare more boldly,
to venture on wider seas,
where storms shall show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow Him.

Sisters and brothers, how willing are we to allow God to disturb and to discomfort us today?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Between Rodents and Rambutan


4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Peter Trimming

Sisters and brothers, some months ago, some time last year, the rambutan tree in the garden behind our church started bearing fruit. Have you ever seen ripe rambutan hanging from a tree. They’re quite enticing. Unfortunately, however, we didn’t get much of a chance to taste the fruit. Do you know why? The squirrels beat us to it.

Which is frustrating enough. But what made things worse was the way in which the squirrels did it. You see, they didn’t bother to pluck the fruit and carry them away. They simply hollowed out the juicy parts. And left the empty skins still hanging on the tree. So that, at a glance, it looked like the fruit was still there. Waiting for us to pluck them. Cheeky little devils! Those squirrels. Fooling us into mistaking empty skins for ripe rambutan.

Hollowed out husks, in place of juicy fruit. That’s the image that comes to mind as I reflect on our Mass readings today. Nice to look at on the outside. But completely empty on the inside. Isn’t this something like what the second reading is talking about? If I have the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. What do gongs and cymbals have in common? They’re both hollow. They can be very loud and noisy. But also utterly empty.

The same can be said of a human life without the love of God. I may go through the motions of busying myself with many things. Even with apparently pious and holy activities. I can even let them take my body to burn it. But without love, it will do me no good whatever. Like what those squirrels did with the rambutan, all my anxious activity, my frantic rushing about, often just leaves me hollow. It fills up my time. But not my heart. I remain terribly empty. Always craving to be filled.

Isn’t this why there are those of us who try so desperately to fill the emptiness with other things. Yet more busyness. More activity. Like shopping, or the internet. Perhaps even sinful habits. Which then makes us feel guilty. Bad about ourselves. Even more hollow. More empty. And the cycle continues. Outwardly, we may look fruitful. But inwardly, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we realise the sad truth. An empty skin. A hollowed-out husk. That’s all there is. And what a pity. Surely, this is no way live a human life.

But if just making myself busy doesn’t help, then what does? How and from where do I find the love to fill the empty space within my heart? The readings provide us with an answer by inviting us to ponder the experience of two people.

In the first reading, God calls the prophet Jeremiah for a difficult mission. At a time when the Babylonian empire is growing in strength. And posing a serious threat to the kingdom of Judah. At a time when many voices are calling for political alliances to be forged. And military action to be taken. Against Babylon. God sends Jeremiah to persuade the people to submit. To let themselves be conquered. Even to allow their precious Temple to be destroyed. And they themselves to be sent into exile.

A difficult mission, to say the least. Is it any wonder that the people refuse the message. And turn against the messenger. Yet God believes that Jeremiah is up to the task. Why? Because God will not leave Jeremiah empty, but full. Not hollow, but solid. I… will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze to confront all this land…. They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you… In calling him, God also fills Jeremiah. Giving him strength to face the trials to come.

We see something similar in the experience of Jesus in the gospel. Like Jeremiah, Jesus too is called by God, and sent on a difficult mission. We saw this already in the reading last week. The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor… And this is the unpopular message that Jesus is called to proclaim. The news that God wishes to save not just Jews, but also gentiles. Not just an exclusive group. But everyone. Especially those most in need. Regardless of race, language, or religion.

And it is because Jesus stubbornly chooses to proclaim this message of universal salvation that the people in the synagogue suddenly turn against him. At first, the reading tells us that Jesus won the approval of all. But then, instead of keeping quiet. And going along with the people, Jesus chooses instead to uncover their prejudice. To talk about how no prophet is ever accepted in his own country… And the people react by becoming so enraged that they want to kill him.

Again, we may ask what it is that gives Jesus the courage to proclaim this unpopular message. Even in the face of stiff opposition. Clearly, like Jeremiah, Jesus is not hollow, but solid. Not empty, but full. Full of the power of the spirit poured out on him at his baptism. Full of the same purposeful love of God that Paul writes about in the second reading. Difficult though his mission is, like Jeremiah, Jesus lives an incredibly fruitful life. Because he is filled with God’s love. Empowered by God’s Spirit.

And isn’t this the same love that we need so much today? A love without which we remain only empty husks. Hollowed-out shells. Consuming and consuming. But forever remaining hungry. Doing and doing. But forever feeling unfulfilled. What we need is the love that God provides. A love that has the power to truly fill us. To give our hearts new courage. And our lives new purpose. A love that we can then be sent to share with others. Especially those most in need.

Sisters and brothers, whether we care to admit it or not, life in this modern world of ours is often infested with mischievous squirrels. Hyperactive little things, tempting us to allow ourselves to be hollowed out. To permit our lives to be emptied of meaning. The good news, however, is that, in the midst of all this, God continues to call us. To fill us. To send us out.

What must we do, my dear friends, to guard ourselves against the squirrels? And to open ourselves to God today?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Reversing Immunity


3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc John Tornow

Sisters and brothers, does coffee have any effect on you? We all know the power of caffeine. We know it has the ability to wake us up. To energise us. And yet, don’t we also know of people on whom this power seems to have little or no effect? Just the other day, I met someone who told me that he can drink up to four or five cups of coffee a day and feel nothing. We know the reason for this. Very likely, he has developed a tolerance for, an immunity to, caffeine. By consuming too much of it. But experts say that it is actually possible to reverse this tolerance. To get over the immunity. By fasting from caffeine for a certain period of time. So that the body can regain its initial sensitivity. Can enjoy, once again, the power of caffeine.

Power, immunity, and reversal. 3 key elements in the story of caffeine. I mention them only because I think there’s something similar in our Mass readings today. Of course, our readings are not about caffeine. We are not trying to make you drink more coffee. The readings are, instead, about the Word of God. But, like caffeine, the story of the Word of God is also about power, and immunity, and reversal.

The responsorial psalm gives us a very impressive description of the powerful effects of God’s Word. Not unlike caffeine, the Word has the power to wake us up. We’re told that it revives the soul… gives wisdom to the simple… gladdens the heart… gives light to the eyes. And the psalm response tells us how God’s Word comes to have such marvellous effects on us: It’s because your words, Lord, are Spirit and life. And if God’s Word is life itself. Then experiencing its power is truly a matter of death and life.

The first reading shows us just what the power of God’s Word looks like in the concrete. What happens to people when they listen to God’s Word being proclaimed. First, we’re told about how the people respond by expressing their deep reverence for the Word. They stand. They raise their hands in praise. They prostrate themselves in worship. They express agreement by saying Amen! Amen! And, what is perhaps more impressive than anything else–especially to modern people like us, who are so easily distracted by the slightest thing–is how closely and attentively the people listen to the Word.

The reading tells us that the Word of God is proclaimed to them from early morning to noon. That’s a good 3 or 4 hours at least! And, even though the assembly includes children old enough to understand, there is no sign of restlessness or boredom. No mention of people texting or tweeting. Or rushing off to move their improperly parked cars. Everyone just keeps quiet. And listens. Closely and attentively. How do we know this? Because we’re told that they were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law! And, not only does the Word make them cry, it also moves them to share with others. With those who have nothing prepared ready. Such is the power of the Word of God.

And yet, this wasn’t always the case. The powerful effects of God’s Word were not always so keenly felt. In order for that to happen, certain obstacles had to be overcome. Immunities had to be reversed. The first of these is ignorance. In the first reading, many of the people have actually not been following God’s ways for quite some time. One reason for this is that they had forgotten God’s commandments. While they were living faraway in exile. How is this ignorance reversed?

After having been allowed to return to their homeland. And after having started rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. The people stumble upon a Book of the Law. They read it. And learn again, what they had once forgotten. That is what is actually happening in the first reading today. Ignorance is being reversed by learning. By re-learning. By recalling what has been forgotten.

But that’s not all. It’s not just a matter of ignorance. Of not knowing. For we can know the Word of God, and still not keep it. One reason for this is incomprehension. We may know the Word. But only in theory. We fail to appreciate its practical implications for our life. We see this also in the first reading. When the people are moved to tears by the proclamation of the Word, very likely they are sad, because they realise how much they have fallen short. And yet, the Word is not meant to make them feel bad about themselves. It is rather meant to energise. To inspire. To move them to rejoice. But in order for the people to see this, they need help. They need guidance. Wise advise provided by their leaders. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold. Incomprehension is reversed by guidance.

We see this also in the second reading. The Corinthian Christians are blessed with many different spiritual gifts. But, instead of bringing people closer, these gifts tear people apart. People use them to compete with, instead of to care for, one another. They are unable to enjoy the unifying power of God’s Word, because they fail to translate their theoretical knowledge into practical understanding. They lack comprehension. They need guidance. Someone to help them reverse their immunity to the Word. Someone like Paul. Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it. Ignorance is reversed by learning. Incomprehension by guidance.

There is one more reason why people might become immune to the power of God’s Word. And it’s found in the gospel. Not just in today’s gospel. But especially in its continuation next week. Jesus stands up in the synagogue in his hometown, and proclaims the Word of God. After which, he preaches a one-sentence homily: This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen. What Jesus is saying is really quite amazing. That, precisely as he reads from the scriptures, the power of God’s Word is already taking effect. God is bringing good news to the poor. Proclaiming liberty to captives and to the blind new sight. Setting the downtrodden free…

And yet, as we will see in next week’s reading. Not only will the people not be able to appreciate this power. They will reject Jesus. Even try to kill him. Why? Because they are prejudiced. They cling to their own narrow ideas of who can be saved. Only Jews and not foreigners. In the language of St. Ignatius, they are bound by inordinate attachments. And this can only be reversed by letting go of their prejudice. So as to cling to God. St. Ignatius calls this holy indifference.

Ignorance is reversed by learning. Incomprehension by guidance. Inordinate attachment by indifference. This is how the power of God’s Word can be felt once again by those who may have become immune. A power that wakes us up. A power that fills us with joy. A power that binds us to God and to one another. A power that motivates us to share God’s love with a waiting world. A power that is a matter of life and death.

Sisters and brothers, it’s actually quite okay if caffeine has lost its effect on us. But what a great tragedy it would be if we were to remain immune to the life-giving power of God’s Word.

How is God continuing to reverse this immunity today?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Gathering The Scattered


2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc KaCey97078

Sisters and brothers, I have a vague memory of an incident from my days in primary school that still brings a smile to my face whenever I think of it. We were in class. The teacher was teaching. Suddenly we heard a very loud clattering sound. Which drowned out whatever it was the teacher was saying. Actually, it wasn’t just one sound. But many. And the clattering went on for quite a long time. Can you guess what had happened?

During the recess period earlier, one of our classmates had experienced great success at the playground. It was the season for marbles. And this little guy had won a great many of them. Which he then proceeded to stuff into one of his pockets. Unfortunately, the pocket must have sprung a leak. And all the marbles happily escaped. Bouncing up and down repeatedly, all over the hard concrete floor. Much to the amusement of the rest of the class. The teacher, however, wasn’t so amused. Our poor classmate had all his hard-won treasures confiscated that day. I can only imagine how terribly embarrassed he must have been. To, quite literally, lose his marbles in such a very public way. How helpless he must have felt to witness the scattering of the things he had worked so hard to gather together.

Of course, these days, no one plays with marbles anymore. At least not here in Singapore, I don’t think. And yet, don’t we know the feeling of having things escape from our grasp? Of watching helplessly as important parts of our lives get scattered about before us? Things that we may try very hard to gather up, and to keep together. But which, despite our best efforts, just somehow continue to elude us. Things like important relationships, for example. Within the family. Or in school. Or at the workplace. Or even here in church. And what about our own inner lives? Do you ever feel as though you were losing your grip on yourself? As though the different parts of your life were slowly slipping through your finger tips? What can we do when this happens? How do we gather back together again the things that insist on being scattered?

This, my dear friends, is what I think our readings are all about on this 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Each reading speaks of a marvellous transformation brought about by God. The most obvious is probably the one in the gospel. Here Jesus transforms water into wine. But why? The gospel tells us that this is not just a miracle. A work of power. But a sign. It points to something deeper. What is it? What is the significance for us of the Lord transforming ordinary water into wine?

The first reading helps to guide us towards an answer. Here, God promises to transform not water into wine. But a forsaken and abandoned nation, once again, into the people of God. God promises to gather back to himself the people who have allowed themselves to be scattered. Scattered not only by foreign enemies. But scattered, above all, by their own rebelliousness. Their own refusal to obey God. Their own insistence on worshipping false gods. In the first reading, God promises to do what my primary school classmate could not. Gather together again precious objects scattered all over a hard concrete floor.

Isn’t this the deeper significance of the miracle at Cana? And isn’t this why it is so fitting that it should have taken place at a wedding? For what is a wedding, if not the joining together of those who were once apart? Not just individuals. But also families. And circles of friends. A gathering of what was once scattered. Now joined together. And joined not just to one another. But also, most important of all, joined in, by, and to God. Isn’t this what God promises to do for Israel? To take her as his bride. Like a young man marrying a virgin, so will the one who built you wed you, and as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you. This incredible promise that God makes to Israel, and to us, finds its fulfilment in Jesus. This is the deeper meaning of the miracle at Cana. The gathering up of scattered lives, in the incredible love of God, made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Which is why the second reading is so appropriate. Even though it isn’t chosen to match the others. For here too, Paul speaks of a similar transformation. The Christian community at Corinth is blessed with many gifts and talents. Unfortunately, these blessings are being turned into a curse. Made to breed conflict and division. Instead of unity and peace. They scatter the people. Instead of gathering them together. Why? For the simple reason that the gifts are being used for self-promotion. And ego-inflation.

To counter this tendency. To gather again all that has been scattered. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the true Source and Goal of what they have received. There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them… for a good purpose. To allow our lives to flow from, to revolve around, and to be directed towards, the same Spirit. The same Lord. The same God. This, my dear friends, is the secret to true unity in diversity. This is how God gathers back together again all that has been scattered.

And it’s important that we remember exactly how God does this. By revealing the great glory of God. In the raising of the only begotten Son of God. High up on the Cross. The curse that results from self-promotion is reversed by self-emptying. As Jesus himself will say in a later chapter of John’s gospel: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (12:32). Gathering back together again, all that has been scattered. Individuals. Families. Communities. Nations. Religions. The whole of creation. We allow our scattered selves to be gathered together again, the more we gaze unflinchingly at the Lord’s sacrifice for us on the Cross.

Which is why it is probably no accident that tomorrow, we will begin The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A time when we Christians pray more intensely for unity among ourselves. That we who profess a common faith in Christ. But who remain so scandalously scattered into so many different pieces. May once again allow ourselves to be gathered back together in the unity of the Spirit.

And this is something that we Christians need not just for ourselves. But also, more importantly, for the rest of the world. A world torn apart and terrorised by violence and conflict. By selfishness and sin. A world of many scattered pieces. Yearning to be gathered together again. A world into which we are sent, as witnesses to the possibility of true unity in diversity. A world into which we are sent, as water that has been transformed into wine. Filled with the Spirit’s power to draw and to keep together all that would otherwise remain apart.

My dear friends, it can be a very distressing experience to lose your marbles. What can we do to allow God to continue gathering all that has been scattered today?

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