Sunday, August 31, 2014

Of Accuracy & Alignment


22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Peter Kay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Enter Passcode


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Security in Mercy


20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Mark Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Through Which Ear?



18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: Puff Pieces

Sisters and brothers, I recently saw a drawing of a woman who looked very devilish. Her body was draped in a slinky fire red gown. There were horns growing out of her head. And the words on the drawing explained how she had ended up like this. I have an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. She said. I’m also deaf in one ear. No prizes for guessing to whom she had been turning the deaf ear. It wasn’t the devil.

This is, of course, a familiar image of the spiritual life: A devil whispering temptations into one ear. And an angel offering good advice in the other. How we end up depends on the one to whom we choose to listen. The ear through which we decide to hear. Few of us will deny this. That the spiritual life is indeed an ongoing struggle between good and evil. A constant tussle between two voices. One luring us to destruction. The other leading us into life. Two different sets of voices. Two different ears into which they speak. Two contrasting ways of listening. The devilish and the angelic. The destructive and the life-giving.

This is also the contrast that our readings propose for our consideration today. In the first reading, the Lord God speaks to his people in a voice full of love and compassion. Whispering into their ear, as it were. Assuring them that God desires nothing else but their survival and happiness. Their well-being and satisfaction. There is only one thing the people need to do to enjoy this generous offer. Listen, the Lord says, listen to me. Pay attention, come to me; listen and your soul will live. And listening to God means turning a deaf ear to that other voice. The one that entices them to move in the opposite direction. To spend money on what is not bread. Their wages on what fails to satisfy.

We find a similar contrast in the gospel. A contrast between two different sets of voices. Two conflicting ways of listening. This becomes clearer when we consider the reading in its wider context in the bible. Today’s passage, from Matthew’s gospel, begins at verse 13 of chapter 14. Earlier, in verses 1 to 12, we find the tragic tale of the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of John the Baptist. We know the story well. We know that it was king Herod who had John killed. But how did this come about?

The process has much to do with the act of listening. John the Baptist, as you will recall, had scolded Herod for entering into an unlawful marriage with Herod’s sister-in-law, Herodias. And when Herodias complained, Herod chose to listen to her. He had John arrested. Then, during his birthday party, Herod again chose to listen to this Herodias. When she instigated her daughter to ask for John’s head to be handed to her on a plate, the king chose to accede to the girl’s request. He had John killed in prison.

But Herod’s actions were not just prompted by the people to whom he listened. They were also the result of the way in which he chose to listen. Both Herod and Herodias chose to listen and to react to John’s words of warning not with sorrow and regret. Not with humility and obedience. Which might have led to repentance and newness of life. Instead, they reacted with arrogance and anger. With stubbornness and pride. Which resulted not only in the killing of an innocent man. But also in the spiritual death of Herod and Herodias themselves. And, quite ironically, this self-destruction happens precisely at a time when the king was supposed to be celebrating his own birth. This is what happens when people choose to listen to devilish voices. And to turn a deaf ear to God. What should be a joyful celebration is transformed into a fatal festival. A poisonous party.

In stark contrast, the gospel reading presents us with a different form of listening. Not devilish, but angelic. Not destructive, but life-giving. Here the spotlight falls on Jesus. Notice how he listens. Consider how he responds. The gospel gives us three examples. First, upon hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus responds by withdrawing. Perhaps to mourn the loss. To pray for the dead. And to consider what this development might mean for his own ministry. A more headstrong, more self-centred, person might have decided simply to push on. To act as though nothing had happened. But Jesus is different. He chooses to pause. To listen. To take stock. A sign that his ministry is not self-driven. But God-centred. Not a work of pride. But an exercise in humility.

Second, when Jesus is confronted with a large crowd, he very quickly sets aside his original plans. And the reading tells us why. Seeing the people before him, Jesus took pity on them. He listened to their cries. He was moved by their need. Again showing us that his ministry is centred not on himself, but on his heavenly Father. Who, as the responsorial psalm tells us, is compassionate to all his creatures. It is because Jesus listens with compassion that he decides to change his plans. Instead of withdrawing, he sets about healing the sick.

It is also this same compassion that prompts Jesus to do what at first looks quite illogical. Knowing full well that five loaves and two fish is all the food they have, Jesus still insists on feeding the huge crowd of hungry people. His disciples tell him to send them away. But Jesus decides otherwise. Showing that he listens not just to worried disciples. Not only to needy people. But also, and above all, to his merciful Father.

And it is this humble and trusting obedience that effects a change in the opposite direction to what we saw in the story of Herod. There a birthday celebration was changed into a fatal festival. Here a barren wilderness is transformed into a bountiful banquet. The hungry are satisfied. The sick are healed. The dying find new life. Not only does everyone have enough to eat. But they even have scraps left over. Twelve baskets full. The words of the second reading are proven true. Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ. If only we are willing to listen.

To choose to listen like Jesus. Instead of like Herod. This is the challenge our readings present to us today. And it is a difficult challenge. For our society conditions us to listen in a very particular way. We call it advertising. Everywhere we go. In every direction we turn. Voices call out to us. Telling us what to buy. Showing us the things we must have. The services we cannot do without. And the more we buy, the hungrier we get. Having an iPhone 5 generates a craving for an iPhone 6. Is this not spending money on what fails to satisfy? And while we do this. While we listen to the devilish voice of advertising. We end up turning a deaf ear to other voices. Voices of the poor and needy. Not just strangers who need material help. But also friends and relatives. Fellow parishioners. And even our own selves. Hungry for attention and affection. Crying out for compassion and care. The same compassion and care that God continues to offer us. Especially at this Mass.

Sisters and brothers, whether we choose to admit it or not, we each have an angel on one shoulder. And a devil on the other. To which one are you choosing to listen today?
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