Sunday, July 12, 2015

Supports For The Upright (Rerun)

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: Neila Ray

Sisters and brothers, do you remember that series of images that’s supposed to depict human evolution? The first is a picture of what looks like a monkey walking on all fours. Then there are a few figures that remain bent over, but are already walking on two legs. And finally there is a human being. Standing fully erect and holding a spear in its hand. Seen from left to right, these pictures portray profiles that progress upward. They seem to highlight, in striking fashion, the feature that supposedly sets humans apart: The ability to stand up straight and tall.

Some time ago, I came across a similar set of pictures that some cheeky fellow had modified by adding more images to the right of the originals. Perhaps you’ve seen them too. After the erect human figure with the spear, there is one that’s a little bent, carrying a rake. The next one’s even more stooped. Burdened by the weight of a large pneumatic drill in it’s hand. And, finally, the series ends with someone completely bent over a computer screen. In striking contrast to the figures on the left, the profiles on the right move ever downward. They reverse the earlier process. Not evolution, but deformation. And there’s even a caption that reads: something, somewhere went terribly wrong.

Don’t worry, sisters and brothers. I don’t propose to talk about evolution today. Better to leave that to the scientists. I don’t even know for sure that the ability to stand up straight is a typically human characteristic. But I do know that we usually refer to good people as being upright. The Chinese describe such persons as being ding tian li di (顶天立地). Someone whose head reaches the heavens and whose feet are firmly planted on the earth. In the Bible too, not only are the upright often praised, but no less than God is described as being upright. Good and upright is the Lord, who shows sinners the way (Ps 25:8). We may say that to be human is to somehow share in the uprightness of God. And perhaps this is what the second reading means, when it says that before the world was made,  God chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless. God chose us in Christ to be upright. To be loved and to love the way Christ did.

And yet, probably most, if not all of us, will agree that it’s no easy task to remain upright. Especially not in this crooked world in which we live. There are so many temptations that distract us. So many burdens that drag us down. Including the ordinary anxieties of daily living. As well as the constant cravings of our hungry hearts. And even though we see shocking reports of how an apparently normal 23-year-old can suddenly transform into a bloodthirsty gunman. Slaughtering 38 perfect strangers in cold blood on a beach in Tunisia. We know that, like evolution, deformation is usually a gradual process. One begins by cutting little corners. Making minor compromises. Stooping ever lower and lower. Until, without realising it, one ends up so bent over as to be no longer recognisably human.

Which is why it is helpful for us to pay close attention to our readings today. For here we find the reassuring news that God does not leave us defenceless. God offers us various gifts to help us remain upright. As we are told in the second reading, God has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. What are some of these blessings? How do they help us? How might we make better use of them?

In the gospel, even before he gives them authority over unclean spirits, Jesus offers the apostles something no less valuable. We’re told that he sent them out in pairs. Not one by one but two by two. The better to support and care for each other. To help each other remain upright. Isn’t this also why we take the time to gather here every week? Even though we could probably pray at home on our own? Isn’t this why many of us invest even more of our time in some form of communal religious activity? Whether  serving as a greeter or a lector? Or singing in the choir? Or studying the bible? Or gathering as a family to pray together? We do all this not just because it’s fun. But also because we realise that we are called and sent not just as individuals but also as a community. We know that each of us is a gift of the Lord to all the others. We help one another remain upright.

But that’s not all. If it were, the church would be nothing more than a club. A group of people who come together only to pursue a shared interest for their own recreation. Jesus’ second gift to the apostles helps us to guard against such potentially selfish and exclusive tendencies. Jesus advises them to wear sandals. Neither bare feet nor shoes, but sandals. Bare feet are okay for staying home. Sandals are needed for going out. Sandals also have an advantage over shoes. If you get sand in them, as you’re likely to when walking in the desert, they allow you to do precisely what Jesus asks the apostles to do when they are rejected: shake off the dust from under your feet and move on.

Isn’t this a precious help to us in our struggle to be good human beings and faithful Christians? What better way to remain upright than to keep moving? To remain engaged in the Lord’s mission of preaching repentance and healing to others. To be focused not so much on ourselves. Not so much on the challenges that we may face. Or the wounds we may suffer. Or the difficult people we may encounter. Or even the weakness that might continue to plague us. But rather on the mission that has been entrusted to us to reach out to those in need.

Even so, we are still likely to encounter circumstances where these two gifts are insufficient. There may be times when our companions will fail us. When they will misunderstand and even hinder us in what are called to do. There may be times when the sands of rejection will accumulate so quickly as to make it too painful to soldier on. Isn’t this the experience of the prophet Amos in the first reading? Sent by God to preach an unwelcome message of repentance to a stubborn nation, Amos finds himself in a minority of one. Even Amaziah the local priest rejects him. In such a situation, Amos has but one source of support.

In the face of rejection, Amos reminds himself of his own prophetic call. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” By recalling the beginnings of his own vocation, Amos finds the strength to continue performing the ministry entrusted to him by God. The memory of his own God-given identity and calling as a prophet becomes something like the one thing that Jesus allows the apostles to carry with them in the gospel. A staff. A sturdy walking stick that gives sure support. Enabling the prophet to continue walking straight and tall, even when the going is tough.

Sisters and brothers, to be a good Christian is a challenging thing. But God provides us with gifts to help us. Community, mission, vocation. How well do we use them? What must we do to keep standing upright? To remain truly human? To avoid becoming bent and deformed today?


  1. Re picture: the last step in the "evolution" is so true - it made my day !

  2. O Lord,
    help me to remain upright despite all challenges and obstacles,
    keep me focussed on You as You Alone are my God.

    Teach me Your ways O Lord and guide me to walk on Your paths.

    Keep me faithful to You, O Lord and let me never be parted from You,

    Lord, show me how to be fully human and fully alive - just like You.

    Come Lord Jesus - M--A--R--A--N--T--H--A.

    Sih Ying
    13 July 2015

  3. O Lord,

    Keep me focussed on You as I walk with you in my Mission.

    Lead me along Your ways and keep me faithful to You, as I walk on with You, holding my head high as I let You lead and guide me in Your love and ways.

    Lord keep me steadfast (and upright) as I journey on with You, with a staff of confidence in Your Love for me and with sandals on my feet to keep walking in Your paths.

    O Lord, You are the most upright and righteous of the entire human race. Teach me, guide me and lead me in my walk with you, on this Road of Life, always.


    Sih Ying
    13 July 2015


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