Saturday, October 08, 2011

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Showing Up For Success

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 22:1-6; Philippians 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-14
Picture: cc jiji

Sisters and brothers, if you were to take a close look at your own life today, would you consider yourself a success? What does success look like to you? And how, in your opinion, does one actually become truly successful? There’s a quotation, rather well-known in some circles, that is attributed to the popular American screenwriter and playwright, Woody Allen. In one of his movies, Allen is thought to have said that eighty percent of success is just showing up.

Just showing up. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Want to be a successful student? Make it a point to turn up at every class and, of course, at the exams too. Want to be a successful parent or spouse? Be sure to stick around for all family occasions and activities. Want to have a successful career? Try to be there whenever there’s an opportunity for corporate advancement and networking. If you want to be successful, show up!

And yet, we only have to think a little more deeply to see that there must be more to success than that. For one thing, there must be more to showing up than just being physically present. A student who shows up at every lesson, but spends all his class time daydreaming about his girlfriend, is not likely to go very far. Neither is a corporate executive who attends networking events only for the free food. Nor, for that matter, is a parent for whom family time means catching up on emails from work. There’s more to showing up than mere bodily presence. Also, we should not forget that, for Woody Allen, showing up is only eighty percent of success. Now that, of course, is already quite a lot. But still, eighty percent is not quite a hundred.

It’s useful to keep these considerations in mind today, because our Mass readings invite us to reflect upon what it means to be a truly successful Christian. A tried and true disciple of Christ. A legitimate and loyal citizen of the kingdom of heaven. As it is for Woody Allen, so too in the kingdom. To be truly successful, much depends upon our willingness simply to show up. To show up where? At a very mysterious place. A place that, as we will soon see, is not really a physical location. The readings describe this place in different terms. The first reading tells of a holy mountain upon which the hand of the Lord rests. The beautiful twenty-third psalm speaks of the Lord’s own house, in which we shall dwell forever and ever. And, in the gospel parable, Jesus describes a wedding hall, where the king’s son is to marry his bride. A hill, a house, and a hall. Three apparently different localities. But each one serving as the venue for an identical activity: a lavish feast, a sumptuous banquet, prepared especially for the enjoyment of the invited guests.

Sounds like such a tempting proposition. Anyone would be foolish to turn it down. And yet, as Jesus points out, so many people do. So many prefer to busy themselves with various other activities. Why? What can be so difficult about showing up at a banquet?

We receive a deeper insight into this question when we consider closely what St. Paul tells us in the second reading. Paul writes as an old and tired labourer in the Lord’s vineyard. He has poured out the best years of his life spreading the gospel in foreign lands. Now he finds himself in prison. His earthly existence hangs in a balance. He senses that his end is near. And yet, in the midst of all his trials, even as he finds his aging body clasped in cruel chains, Paul continues to enjoy a remarkable freedom of spirit. I know how to be poor and I know how to be rich too, he says. There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. What is Paul describing, sisters and brothers, if not a grand interior feast of freedom? A banquet held not so much in any particular physical location, as it is in the very depths of his own heart? And what does Paul’s experience tell us, if not that the extravagant banquet that God prepares for us does not really need a special exterior venue? It can be enjoyed as much on a holy mountain, as in a humble home. As much in a wedding hall, as within the walls of a dark dungeon. What matters is that we the invited guests be willing to show up. To allow ourselves to remain present to the particular circumstances in which God desires to meet us.

Obviously, this is not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy because our own particular circumstance can sometimes be very difficult. As difficult as having a body afflicted by infirmity or ridden with illness. As challenging as having a heart broken by infidelity or deep disappointment. To remain present to such circumstances takes great courage. A courage that we are neither born with, nor able to produce for ourselves. This courage is, rather, a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that each of us receives at our Baptism and Confirmation. The same Spirit that we will shortly invoke upon the gifts of Bread and Wine. And it is this same courage that we find so sorely lacking in the invited guests of the gospel today. Rather than showing up at the banquet of life, instead of facing squarely the inevitable challenges of everyday existence, these people do all they can to distract themselves with other far more trivial things.

Still, perhaps we can sympathise with their predicament. We who might succeed in dragging ourselves to Mass on a given Sunday, but still struggle, sometimes in vain, to relate our weekend worship to the concrete circumstances of our weekday lives. We, who may continue to drift from one preoccupation to another, without ever encountering the presence of the living God. The same God who continues to invite us to enjoy what St. Paul enjoyed: a grand interior feast of freedom. For this is what being a successful Christian looks like. This freedom to face life courageously and to find the living God waiting for us there. Such that even if we should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would we fear. For God is there, with crook and staff, to give us comfort.

But that’s not all. Again, as Woody Allen reminds us, showing up is only eighty percent of success. And this too is what the man in the gospel–who turned up at the banquet without a wedding garment–discovered to his great dismay. To be a truly successful Christian, it’s not enough for us just to show up. It’s not enough for us just to face life courageously. People like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden appear to have done the same. Except that their courage led them not to carefully cultivate life, but to violently snuff it out. In contrast, we Christians are called to do as Jesus did. To expend our own lives in the loving service of the kingdom. To put on, in our everyday lives, the wedding garment that is the Body and Blood of Christ, which will, in a few short moments, be broken and pour out for us all.

Sisters and brothers, if Woody Allen is right. If it is indeed true that eighty percent of success is showing up. Then how successful as Christians are we today?

1 comment:

  1. As we use the analogy of percentages, Pareto also presents us with the proposition that 20 per cent of what we do make up 80 percent of the outcome. Elsewhere it is also illustrated that genius is 99 percent perspiration and one per cent inspiration. So it takes great effort to forge the all important 20 and 99.
    ‘Being present’ is a cliché. It is also well stated that sometimes we clutch on to the clutter so much that our arms are too full to embrace the present. Can I be there for the moment? The Now.
    Am I awake to the possibilities around me? Most times, we are caught unaware of the beauty that exists in all things that we encounter. Seeing God in all things requires constant attention to the realities that abound in simple living.
    Confined in a cell without walls, our spirit and God’s grace cannot be defined or confined to mere human endeavours. We take our cue from St. Paul to persevere and show up without being successful.


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