Sunday, October 27, 2013

From Puffed Up to Poured Out


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc garrettsjean

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? What does modern society have in common with a puffer fish?  You know, of course, what a puffer fish is, right? The Japanese call it fugu. You know how it gets its name. The fugu is actually not a very big fish. Nor can it move very fast. But it’s able to survive and to thrive in the wild, because it has a highly effective way of defending itself against attack. The fugu, as you know, has an extremely elastic stomach. Which it can quickly fill with water whenever it’s threatened. The sudden intake of liquid enables the fugu to quickly grow much bigger than it actually is. And this sudden increase in size is usually enough to scare away would-be predators. That’s how the fugu survives. That’s how it gets ahead in life. By a strategy of self-inflation.

Now I may be wrong, sisters and brothers. But it seems to me that it’s not just the puffer fish that relies on a strategy of inflation to get ahead in life. To survive and to thrive in the wilderness of modern society, don’t many of us have to do the same? Don’t we have to spend much time and effort puffing ourselves up just to face the challenges of daily living? We have to spend years in school, for example. Not just to gain an education. But also to puff ourselves up by accumulating academic qualifications. Isn’t this why so many of us get so stressed out around this time of year? When exam season comes around. Parents even more than students. Nor does the stress end after we graduate. Even then, we have to carefully puff up our resum├ęs. So that we can advance more quickly in our chosen careers.

And not just in school and at work. Don’t we have to rely very much on the strategy of inflation even on the social scene as well? Why else do so many of us feel obliged to post intimate personal information and images on social media? If not to enhance our public personas? To puff ourselves up in the sight of others? Even total strangers. In the most recent issue of Digital Life–the Straits Times' technology supplement–for example, the editor, Oo Gin Lee, writes about how his 11-year old daughter has to endure getting laughed at by her friends in school. All because her dad doesn’t permit her to have a Facebook account or a smartphone. Imagine that. Only 11 years old. And already feeling the pressure to puff herself up in the sight of others. Sisters and brothers, what do you think? Doesn’t our modern society have something in common with the puffer fish? The fugu puffs itself up occasionally to repel predators. We have to do it on a daily basis to attract admirers. In both cases, the strategy is the same. Self-inflation.

But please don’t be mistaken, sisters and brothers. I’m not saying that social media is necessarily bad. It’s not. Nor am I saying that students should not take their studies seriously. Or adults their careers. They should. The problem arises, however, when self-inflation becomes our default strategy. When it becomes the only way we know how to relate to the world. And not just to the world. But even to God. For, as you will probably have noticed, our Mass readings today are all about how those who puff themselves up end up failing to find favour in the sight of God. The classic example of this is, of course, the Pharisee in the gospel parable. Notice how the Pharisee puffs himself up in the Temple. How his prayer is really a hymn of praise of himself to himself. In his telling of the parable, Jesus is careful to indicate that the Pharisee stood up in the Temple and addressed his prayer, not to God, but to himself.

But why exactly, we may ask, does he fail? Why is God not impressed with the Pharisee’s considerable litany of spiritual achievements? Why does the Pharisee leave the Temple not at rights with God? The answer is to be found in the first reading. Which reminds us that God is no respecter of personages. In other words, God isn’t attracted by the very thing that the Pharisee tries to inflate. Namely, the Pharisee’s own ego. And the reason for this is not so much that the Pharisee is worthless as a person. He’s not. He is, after all, like the rest of us, lovingly created by God. As is written, in Psalm 139, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (v. 14). The problem is rather that, being so focused only on himself, the Pharisee leaves no room in his heart and in his life for God to enter. The Pharisee is just too full of himself. Or rather, too full of the self that consists only in his own personal achievements. The things in which he takes great pride. Puffed up only with himself, the Pharisee ends up repelling everything and everyone else. Even the merciful God who created him.

In contrast, it is the tax collector whose prayer is accepted. It is the sinner, who leaves the Temple at rights with God. Why? The reason is not too difficult to see. The tax collector succeeds where the Pharisee fails, not so much because he is sinful. But because he is both willing to admit, and able to mourn, his own sinfulness. He knows, from experience, his own weakness. His own inability to make himself holy. And, broken-hearted, he begs for help. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And God does help. God does hear his prayer, because that is what God is like. As the responsorial psalm reminds us, the Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save.

Here, sisters and brothers, we find the radical difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The first puffs himself up with the water of his own egotistical achievements. And, by doing this, ends up repelling God. The second, however, humbly acknowledges his own brokenness. And, by doing this, actually attracts God into his heart and into his life. Allowing himself to be filled with the wine of God’s love and mercy. But that’s not all. While the story of the Pharisee may end with the parable in the gospel. The story of the tax collector actually continues. It continues with what St. Paul writes in the second reading concerning himself.

My life, says Paul, is already being poured away as a libation. What is this life that Paul is referring to, sisters and brothers, if not the same invigorating wine that the tax collector allows God to pour into his heart in the gospel? Here, in the second reading, we find the intended destination of God’s love and mercy. It’s meant not just to be locked up within people like the tax collector in the gospel and St. Paul in the second reading. Those who allow themselves to be filled by God. The wine of God’s love and mercy is meant to be poured out for the life of all the world. Just as blood and water poured out from the side of the crucified Christ. As he hung lifeless on the Cross. And it is by allowing himself to be the vessel through which this gracious outpouring takes place, that St. Paul can hope eventually to receive his heavenly reward. The crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day. The Day of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps this is the challenge that our Mass readings are presenting to us today. The challenge to go beyond our usual mode of operation in modern society. And to cultivate instead an alternate strategy for daily living. The challenge to move continually from self-inflation to self-libation. From being puffed up to being poured out. So that more people in our world may truly come to know that Christ, our Crown of Righteousness, has already come. Has already died. Is already risen. For them. For you. For me. For all.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to keep moving from inflation to libation today?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Foes That Must Be Fought


29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
(Mission Sunday)

Picture: cc HoangP

Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself under attack by an enemy of some kind? What do you do? How do you react? Do you run away? Do you fight back? Or do you just give in? Well, it all depends, right? Sometimes fighting back is just not the wise thing to do. If I happen to be in a lonely place, for example. And a robber suddenly appears and points a knife at me, asking for my wallet. Probably not a good idea for me to fight back. No point in risking my life to save a few dollars, which I can earn back later on. Better just to give in. At least for the time being.

And this is true not just of human robbers snatching my money. It’s also true of another kind of thief. The invisible kind. The kind that steals not my money, but my good looks. I’m talking, of course, about ageing. What do I do, for example, when I notice wrinkles appearing on my face? Or when my hair starts turning from black to white? Or when it even begins to fall off? At first, of course, I may insist on fighting hard against this enemy. I may use skin creams and hair dyes and other similar weapons. But, after a while, I realise that I’m really fighting a losing battle. It’s only a matter of time before age catches up with all of us. Maybe it’s better not to struggle so hard. But to learn to grow old gracefully. Rather than fighting back all the time, there are some enemies that we just need to learn to accept. Maybe even to befriend.

But not all enemies are like that. There are some enemies that we really need to keep fighting against. No matter what. Even if it seems at first that we have no chance of winning. For example, as you know, here in Singapore, we have spent much of this year fighting against a very tiny but very deadly enemy. The Aedes mosquito. Which spreads Dengue fever. A disease that has so far claimed the lives of 5 people in Singapore this year. And although it’s an uphill battle, we have not given up. We continue to make every effort to fight this enemy. To wipe out its breeding grounds. And we do this so that we, and those we love, can be safe. This is something worth fighting for.

Sisters and brothers, sometimes, when we are under attack, it’s wise to give in. But, at other times, we just really need to keep on fighting. This is true in the spiritual life as well. In each of our Mass readings today, for example, we find people under attack. And, in each case, those under attack do not to give in. But keep on fighting back. In the first reading, after escaping from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel reach a place called Rephidim. Here they are attacked by a race known as the Amalekites. And the people of Israel react by going to war. They do not give in. They fight back. In the second reading, St. Paul tells Timothy never to give up, but to keep fighting the good fight. To keep struggling especially against the attacks of false teaching. And, in the gospel parable, we find a poor widow suffering injustice of some kind. Caused by the attacks of an unnamed enemy. But, although she seems helpless, the widow does not give in. She keeps fighting back, by pestering a judge until he finally agrees to help.

The Amalekites in the first reading. Falsehood in the second. And injustice in the gospel. Sisters and brothers, in our readings today, these are the enemies against whom people refuse to give in. But keep fighting against. And we can probably think of other enemies too. Enemies whose attacks perhaps we ourselves have experienced. Enemies that we continue to have to fight against. Enemies like certain sinful habits that we can’t seem to break. No matter how hard we try. Maybe an addiction of some kind. To pornography. Or to gambling. Or to drink. Or even to work. An attachment to an unhealthy relationship. To someone who, for example, is already married to somebody else.

And what about enemies that attack not just individuals but also societies. Enemies such as poverty, for example. Isn’t it true that even in a rich place like Singapore, there are still poor people among us? People who need help, just to survive. And isn’t it also true, that there is a kind of poverty that affects even those who may have plenty of money. A poverty of the heart that somehow prevents people from being truly happy. A deep sense of loneliness, or emptiness, or meaninglessness, which may remain even though one’s life may be filled with many expensive things.

Sisters and brothers, like the people in our readings today, it’s likely that we too have experienced attacks by enemies that we need to fight against. But how do we do this? How exactly should we fight back? Especially when we ourselves often feel so weak? Thankfully, our readings give us some suggestions. When fighting against spiritual enemies, there are at least two things that we need to pay attention to.

The first is to occupy the right places. Notice what Moses tells Joshua in the first reading. March out to engage Amalek, he says. I, meanwhile, will stand on the hilltop. Moses begins his fight against Amalek by making sure that his forces occupy two places at once. The first place is where he sends Joshua and his armies. To the battlefield. And the second place is where Moses himself goes. To the hilltop. The battlefield of life. And the hilltop of prayer. These are the two places that we all need to occupy, especially when fighting against spiritual enemies. On the one hand, we need to do everything in our power to engage the forces of evil on the battlefield. But that is not enough. We also need to remain on the hilltop to pray for strength. The way Moses prayed. And the way the widow in the gospel prayed. Lifting up holy hands to God. Without giving up. Trusting in God’s power and desire to save us. Even if we may sometimes have to wait.

But that’s not all. In addition to occupying the right places, we also need to make use of the right weapons. Notice how, in the first reading, when Moses raises up his arms in prayer, he is not empty-handed. He carries the staff of God in his hand. The staff given to him by God as a sign of power and authority. The same staff that Moses used to defeat the magicians of Pharaoh. To part the Red Sea. And to strike the rock from which water flowed for the people to drink. Notice also that, in addition to the staff of God, Moses also relies on a stone on which he sits. And the support of two companions, when his arms grow tired. And not just Moses on the hilltop. But also Joshua, on the field of battle. He too relies on a weapon. We’re told that Joshua cut down the Amalekites with the edge of the sword.

But what about us, sisters and brothers? What weapons do we have? What is our equivalent of a staff, and a stone, and a sword? The answer to this question is found in our second reading, where St. Paul reminds Timothy of the power of the holy scriptures–from these, Paul writes, you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. It is in the scriptures that we find our true and only effective weapon against the power of the Enemy. This weapon is Christ himself. Who, by his Cross and Resurrection, has redeemed the world.

My dear sisters and brothers, in life we often undergo attacks from enemies that we need simply to ignore. Or even to accept. But there are other times. There are certain enemies that we have to keep fighting against. No matter what. Enemies that threaten our life as Christians. Enemies that are stronger than us. Against whom, on our own strength, we would be powerless. But, thankfully, we have been given an effective Weapon. A Weapon that has already won for us the Victory. And it is this Weapon and this same Victory that we are celebrating here at this Mass. It is this Weapon and this Victory that we all have received a mission to proclaim to all the world.

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Mission Sunday, what enemies do you need to keep on fighting against today?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Claiming Your Free Upgrade


28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Jack Zalium

Sisters and brothers, have you ever received a free upgrade? Some days ago, I went to a local coffee-shop and ordered myself a small cup of tea. But it happened that the shop was having a promotion. So, even though I had asked for a small cup, my order was upgraded to a large one. And at no extra charge. I got a free upgrade. It was a pleasant surprise. More tea for me. And for the same fee.

But still, as free upgrades go, that’s a very minor one. I’m sure at least some of us here have received far more major upgrades than that, right? How about airline upgrades, for example. You know how you may book an Economy seat on an airplane. But when you get to the airport, you’re thrilled to discover that the airline has given you a seat in Business, or even in First Class, instead. And at no extra charge. Now that’s pretty major, don’t you think? I haven’t experienced it myself. But I can imagine how happy I would be to receive an upgrade like that. And what a pity it would be if I was chosen for such an upgrade but, for some reason, were to fail to take advantage of it. Imagine spending a whole long-haul flight crammed elbow to elbow in Economy, when I could be lounging in comfort in First Class. And all because I didn’t realise that I was being upgraded.

The joy of receiving a free upgrade. And the sorrow of wasting it. Sisters and brothers, as strange as it may sound, this is what I think our Mass readings are inviting us to consider today. I say it may sound strange, because, at first glance, our readings appear to be only about people being healed of their leprosy. Nothing more. In the first reading, there is one leper who is cleansed. And, in the gospel, there are ten. But, when we look more closely, we discover something else. In addition to cleansing, our readings also speak to us about salvation. In our response to the psalm just now, for example, we proclaimed that the Lord has shown his salvation to the nations.

But salvation is a very big word. We hear it and perhaps even use it often enough. But what does it actually mean? How does God save us? How does God show us his salvation? We find a clue in the second reading, where St. Paul writes about the salvation that is in Christ Jesus and the eternal glory that comes with it. This makes things a little clearer for us. To be saved is not just to be healed of our illnesses. Even a terrible disease like leprosy. Salvation is something much more. To receive salvation is nothing less than to enjoy eternal glory in God. It is to experience the fullness of life that comes from knowing God. The same God who has come among us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The same Lord, who shows us how much God loves us. Even to the extent of laying down his own life for us. And while we were still sinners.

If all this is true, sisters and brothers–if salvation consists in knowing God, in entering into, and nurturing, an intimate relationship with God–then we can understand a little better what is happening to those lepers in our readings today. In the first reading, Naaman the Syrian has travelled all the way to Israel, to beg the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy. And he gets what he asks for. He is cleansed of his disease. But that’s not all. In addition, Naaman also receives something far more significant. Notice what he tells Elisha after he is cleansed: Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. In addition to being cleansed, Naaman also comes to know the One True God. He receives salvation. The leper had asked only for a healing. But God gives him something more. God heals him and grants him eternal life. Eternal salvation. Now that, sisters and brothers, is a major upgrade. Don’t you think?

But not all lepers who are cleansed receive the same free upgrade. In the gospel, even though all ten lepers are healed, it is only the Samaritan who hears Jesus say to him, your faith has saved you. Ten lepers are cleansed. But only one is saved. Only one receives the free upgrade. Why? Is it because God is very selective? Offering the upgrade to some and not to others? Probably not. More likely, God does offer salvation to the others as well. But they just fail to take advantage of it. They are happy to settle for the exact thing they were asking for. And nothing more. They don’t realise that God is offering them something far more significant. Something far more important. Isn’t this why, when the Samaritan leper returns to thank him, Jesus laments the absence of the others? Were not all ten made clean? Weren’t all ten offered the same free upgrade? The other nine, where are they? What a pity. They could have enjoyed eternal salvation. They could have travelled First Class. But they missed their chance.

And what about us, sisters and brothers. We may not be lepers. We may not have been healed of incurable or chronic diseases. But isn’t it true that all of us have received, and continue to receive, many blessings from God? Many of these blessings we may even have prayed for specifically. And others, God has just seen fit to shower upon us without us even asking. Blessings such as our very existence. The fact that we are alive. The fact that we have people who care for us. The fact that we have been baptised into the faith. And belong to this community. The fact that we live in a place like Singapore. Where we can gather freely to worship in public.

Sisters and brothers, whether we care to admit or not, like those lepers in our readings today, we too have received many gifts from God. And could it be that, in each and every one of these gifts, God is actually offering to us the very same thing that was offered to the lepers? A free upgrade from temporal blessings to eternal salvation. The opportunity to enjoy an intimate relationship with a loving and compassionate God. A God who has come near to us especially in Christ Jesus our Lord. But what do we have to do to claim this free upgrade for ourselves? Our readings offer us some suggestions.

The first is gratitude. Notice how both the Syrian and the Samaritan  come to be saved. In contrast to the other nine lepers, who care only about claiming their own healing. The two foreigners are somehow able, even in the excitement of realising that they have been cleansed, also to spare a thought for the One who had cleansed them. They have the presence of mind to consider not just the precious gift they have received, but also, more importantly, the generous Giver from whom they have received it. And this gratitude leads them to do a second thing. They are each moved to worship God. In the gospel, we’re told that the Samaritan turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. And, in the first reading, the Syrian tells Elisha that he will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.

But that’s not all. In addition to gratitude and worship, our readings offer us one other suggestion for claiming the gift of salvation. We find it in the second reading. Where St. Paul speaks about his willingness to bear all manner of hardships. Even to the extent of being chained. Only so that he can proclaim God’s good news of salvation to all. What is Paul writing about, sisters and brothers, if not his eagerness to walk the same road that Jesus walked. Remember how the gospel today begins by telling us that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem. He was walking the Way of the Cross. And Paul is following him. As His disciple.

Gratitude, worship and discipleship. These, sisters and brothers, are the three necessary steps that we need to take to receive the gift of salvation. To accept the intimate hand of friendship that God continues to offer us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sisters and brothers, what do you need to do to claim your free upgrade today?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

No Ordinary Battery Lasts Like It


27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


Sisters and brothers, do any of you still remember the Duracell Bunny? Those who do will know that I’m referring to that series of TV commercials for Duracell batteries. Which continued to air perhaps right into the ninety nineties. You can probably find some of them on YouTube. If you’re interested. As you may recall, each of these commercials features the exploits of an electrical toy bunny.

In an early version of the commercial, the action begins with the camera focused on a whole bunch of bunnies. Each one vigorously beating a drum. But then, as time goes on, one by one, each of the bunnies gradually starts slowing down. Until, finally, all have come to a halt. Have stopped beating their respective drums. All, that is, except one. Even though the other bunnies have run out of steam, one among them continues to beat its drum with the same enthusiasm as when it started. Even though all others have given up for sheer exhaustion, one bunny still appears as cheerfully energetic as ever. At this point, the camera shifts its focus to give us a close-up of the single remaining active bunny. Only to reveal the secret to its remarkable endurance. The key to its impressive staying power. Duracell, no ordinary battery looks like it or lasts like it.

Extraordinary power that keeps you going, even when all others have run out of steam. This too, sisters and brothers, is what we find in our readings today. The first reading is set in a very dark time in the history of the people of Judah. A new political power is rising. The kingdom of Babylon is flexing its military muscle. Imposing its might on smaller weaker kingdoms. Bullying them into submission. It won’t be long before Judah is overcome as well. Faced with impending doom, the prophet Habakkuk’s trust in God appears to waver. In his distress, he asks two very relevant, very poignant, questions: How long am I to cry for help and you will not listen? Why do you see such tyranny and will not save? ... How long? And Why? Perhaps, sisters and brothers, more likely than not, we too have asked these questions of God before. Especially during dark moments in our own lives. When we have felt our energy starting to wane. Our trust in God beginning to wear thin. Why, Lord? … How long?

But consider God’s response. Notice how God doesn’t answer the questions directly. God doesn’t indicate how long or why. Instead God makes a sharp distinction between two kinds of people. Each one relying on a particular kind of power. See how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights, God says. But the upright man will live by his faithfulness. When times are dark, there are those who easily give up hope. Those who run out of steam more quickly. Much like the bunnies powered by ordinary batteries in the commercial. These people give up, because their souls are not at rights. They are powered by ordinary motivations and energies. Motivations like self-interest and self-promotion, for example. Energies rooted not in God, but in themselves. In their own plans and resources. When the going gets tough, these people very soon find their energy flagging.

In contrast, it is the upright person who remains steadfastly faithful. Who keeps trusting in God. Who continues to insist on living a God-centred life. Even when it seems like there is no good practical reason to do so. Even when everyone else has already given up worshipping the one true God. Has turned instead to other lesser gods. False gods. Like money. Or fame. Not unlike the Duracell bunny beating its drum, the upright person is able to keep bearing witness to God. All because s/he is running on an extraordinary battery. Tapping into an awesome power. Faith in God. No ordinary battery lasts like it.

But that’s not all. Our readings for today actually go beyond the Duracell commercial. And in at least two ways. The commercial only compares different kinds of power. The ordinary with the extraordinary. The normal carbon cell with Duracell. Our readings go further. They tell us how this extraordinary power–this faith in God–works. They also show us what we can do to tap into it. In the first reading, God tells Habakkuk about a new vision that the prophet is supposed to write down. A new promise, for the fulfilment of which the prophet is supposed to wait patiently. Even if it comes slowly, wait, God says, for come it will, without fail.

This attitude of patient waiting–an attitude rooted in faithfulness to God–is also something that Jesus encourages his disciples to cultivate in the gospel. After speaking about the awesome power of faith–a tiny amount of which is potent enough even to transplant a mulberry tree from the land into the sea–Jesus goes on to describe the new attitude that characterises those who have such faith. Instead of acting like wealthy patrons in a classy restaurant. Who expect to have their every need and demand satisfied without the slightest delay. The true disciples of Christ see themselves as servants, humbly waiting upon their God. Trusting that their Master will feed them in due time. Feed them not just with food for their bellies. But also with answers to the questions that arise in their hearts. Questions often posed by the darkness of life. Questions like Why? And How long?

This then, sisters and brothers, is how the power of faith works. By giving us a new vision. By helping us cultivate a new attitude. A vision and an attitude of selfless service. Of God-centred devotion. But how do we tap into this power? Quite unlike Duracell batteries, this is not something that we can obtain on our own. Not something we can buy from the neighbourhood 7-Eleven. Rather, this power is a gift from God that we need humbly to receive and to nurture. The same gift that St. Paul is telling Timothy about in the second reading. I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you.

This precious gift that Timothy received–this spirit of power and love and self-control–has also already been given to us at our Baptism. And we tap into this gift–we fan it into flame–by keeping our attention fixed, above all, on the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The same faith and love that we are celebrating in this Eucharist. For ultimately, it is Jesus himself who is the true Vision of God. It is He who teaches us, by example, the new Attitude of service. He who came to serve and not to be served. To give his life as a ransom for many. For you. For me. For all. It is only to the extent that we allow ourselves truly to receive of this love. Deeply to be moved by this service. That we will then be able continually to access the awesome power of this faith. Even and especially in the midst of darkness.

Sisters and brothers, it’s very difficult to deny that we live in a dark world. A world dominated no longer by the ancient power of Babylon. But by a modern global capitalistic economy gone wild. A world where hundreds of African migrants willingly cram themselves into an overcrowded boat. In search of a better future in Europe. Only to end up being lost at sea. In a world such as this, it remains an urgent challenge for us Christians to continue beating the drum of faith. To continue bearing witness to the Gospel of Christ. The Good News of justice and of peace. A witness we can continue to bear only by first tapping into the faith and love that is in Christ Jesus. For there is no ordinary power that lasts like it.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to keep beating the drum of faith? What battery are you running on today?
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