Sunday, June 26, 2016

Love-Meter?


13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Betsssssy

My dear friends, do you know what to do when you want to measure someone’s temperature? Do you know what instrument to use? Of course you do, right? To measure temperature, you use a thermometer. And what if you want to measure the speed of your car? You use a speedometer. And if you want to measure your blood pressure? You use something called a sphygmomanometer. A blood pressure meter.

But what if you want to measure something less tangible? Something like love? Is there an instrument for that? Something like a love-meter? Now that’s a stupid question, right? We all know that love is not something that can be measured the way we measure temperature, or speed, or blood pressure. At least not the kind of love we mean. Christian love. The love that comes to us from God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And yet, even if there is no such thing as a love-meter, isn’t there some other way by which we can tell how much we love something or someone? What do you think, sisters and brothers? How do you tell how much you love something or someone? How do you tell how much you love God?

I can think of one way. A way that relies not on a physical instrument. But on particular situations. Moments of crisis. Times when I’m forced to make a choice. Like when there’s a fire in my house, for example. What’s the first thing I try to save? Do I reach first for my family and friends? Or for my iPhone and Playstation? My spontaneous reaction in a time of emergency is a good indication of what I consider most important in my life. What I love or value above all else.

Crisis situations. Isn’t this also what we find in our Mass readings today? In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has received an urgent mission from God. One of the things that God has asked him to do is to anoint Elisha as his successor. And this mission is a matter of urgency. So it’s no wonder that Elijah seems to be in such a great hurry. When he calls Elisha, he expects him to commit himself immediately and completely. He refuses to give the poor man even the opportunity to say goodbye to his parents. As a result, Elisha is thrown into a situation of crisis. He has to make a difficult choice. At the drop of a hat. Follow or not. Now or never. All or nothing.

To his credit, Elisha is equal to the challenge. He chooses to follow Elijah. To do God’s work. And he expresses his commitment by burning his plough, and killing and cooking his oxen. These actions are signs of where Elisha’s heart truly lies. For him there is no turning back. Much as he loves his parents, his first priority is to do the will of God. By following Elijah. The servant of the Lord.

A crisis situation. This too is what the people in the gospel face when Jesus enters their lives. Like Elijah before him, the Lord expects them to follow him immediately and wholeheartedly. The mission to live and to preach the Gospel is urgent. There is no time to waste. No room for compromise. Nothing else is more important. Not even finding a place to lay one’s head. Not even burying one’s dead father. Or saying goodbye to one’s family.

But it’s important that we not get the wrong idea. The readings are not telling us that we should not love ourselves. Or that we should not love our family. But that we should love God most of all. And, indeed, in normal situations, our love for ourselves and for our family does not conflict with our love for God. Ordinarily, we love God by caring for ourselves and our family. By making sure that our basic needs are met. Needs for food and shelter. For rest and relaxation. For meaningful connection with others and with God. We preach the Gospel not just in words, but especially through our lives. By loving others. Caring for our family and our friends. As well as those who may need our help.

But we can only truly love ourselves and others, when we love God first and most of all. When we allow God to be our number one priority. The centre of our life. And it is this primary commitment to God that is put to the test in a crisis. When we are somehow forced to choose. As Elisha and those people in the gospel were forced to choose. And as even Jesus himself was forced to choose.

In the gospel, we’re told that as the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem. In a moment of crisis, Jesus responds with sure and unflinching commitment. He leaves his family and friends, and goes to Jerusalem. Even though he knows that what awaits him there is the cruel Cross of suffering and shame. Leading eventually to victory and glory.

But let’s face it, sisters and brothers. To do this is not easy. To love God above everything and everyone else. To the extent of forsaking even our own life. To do this is not easy. How to meet the challenge? How to respond as we should in times of crisis? Parents nag their children to study hard, so that they can pass their exams in school. What must we do to pass the test of love?

We find an answer in the second reading. Where St. Paul speaks about what it means to be truly free. For Paul, true Christian freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want. Whatever happens to be most comfortable and convenient for us at the time. For Paul, this is not freedom but self-indulgence. Not liberty but license. A form of slavery.

Instead, true Christian freedom consists in the ability to consistently choose love over selfishness. Even when such a choice may cost us. For the whole of the Law is summarised in a single command: Love your neighbour as yourself. And we learn to love our neighbour by allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit. Who reproduces in our own lives the life of Christ. A life poured out for us that we might live.

How then do we train ourselves to choose God in situations of crisis? To choose love, above all else? We do it through the choices that we make in ordinary times. By consistently exercising our God-given Spirit-inspired freedom to love and to serve others on a daily basis. Choosing to die to self-indulgence. And to live in the love of God. To speak the truth, for example, even when it may not suit us. To listen attentively when someone needs to talk. Even when we may not feel like it. To make time for personal and communal prayer. Even when we may be busy with something else. Just as school exams are passed through consistent study. So too is the crisis of love met by daily effort.

Sisters and brothers, there really is no such thing as a love-meter. But, whether we like it or not, we do encounter moments of crisis. Situations when true love is put to the test. Our love for self, for neighbour, and for God. What must we do, you and I, to keep preparing ourselves to pass this test? To answer God’s call, generously and wholeheartedly, today, tomorrow, and for ever?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

What Are You Prepared To Do?


12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


My dear friends, do any of you still remember that old movie entitled The Untouchables? It tells the story of how US Treasury agent Elliot Ness and his team brought the gangster Al Capone to justice. In a particularly memorable scene, a senior member of Ness’ team, played by Sean Connery, has been gunned down in his own home. Shot repeatedly with a machine gun, he’s been left lying on the ground. Dying. His body covered in his own blood. But somehow he manages to grab Ness by his coat. And, with his dying breath, repeats a question that he had been asking his boss earlier. What are you prepared to do?

What are you prepared to do? Sisters and brothers, have you yourself ever encountered situations or scenes like that? I don’t mean scenes where someone has been shot. But situations that grab you, and  question you. Inviting you to a change of heart. Calling you to deeper commitment. Summoning you to give your life for something bigger than yourself. Have you ever encountered situations like that? Do you remember what they feel like?

Well, this is the kind of situation that our Mass readings are placing before us this morning. In the first reading, the prophet Zechariah speaks of a day when the wayward citizens of Jerusalem will be made to gaze upon someone whom they themselves have pierced. And the sight will move them to mourn and weep for this person. To mourn and weep as though for an only son. And their tears will become a fountain that will cleanse them of their own sin and impurity. It will change their hearts. Transform their lives. Turn them back from their waywardness to the worship of the one true God.

Scripture scholars can’t say for sure to whom exactly the prophet is referring. Who this pierced one is. But we Christians interpret the passage as a reference to Jesus. Especially as he hangs dead on the Cross. And then has his side punctured by a lance. He is the One who was pierced through for our faults. Crushed by our sins. And when we allow ourselves to look at him, to truly gaze upon the Crucifix, the scene has the power to transform us in important ways.

In the second reading, St. Paul tells us about one of these ways. You are, all of you sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. By his dying and rising, Jesus has transformed us from sinners and enemies into his  sisters and brothers. And through him, we become sons and daughters of his heavenly Father. So that there are no more distinctions between us. Neither Jew nor Greek. Singaporean nor foreigner. Slave nor free. Man nor woman. We all belong to the Lord. The moving sight of the Crucified Christ has the power to unite us. To reconcile us. To one another and to God.

How does this happen? It happens when we allow ourselves to be questioned by Christ as he hangs on the Cross. Not unlike how Jesus questions his disciples in the gospel today. Who do the crowds say I am? … But you, who do you say I am? This is not a theoretical question. But a practical one. It is meant to be answered not just in words, but in deeds. The response it invites is made in the way in which people live their lives. And, provided they respond correctly, the question has the power to change them. To transform them. From being simply members of the crowd into true disciples. Committed followers of Christ. Who invites them to accompany him as he walks the lonely way to Calvary.

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me… In other words, what are you prepared to do? This is the powerful question that is addressed to us every time we gaze upon the Cross of Christ. Every time we gather for the Eucharist.

But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. This powerful question is addressed to us not only when we are piously immersed in prayer. It is also addressed to us every time we encounter people who suffer. Especially people who suffer because of the sins of others. People who suffer perhaps even for our own sins. And, this weekend, we’d like to remember one group of suffering people in particular.

As you know, tomorrow is World Refugee Day. A time to recall some of those who continue to suffer from being driven from their homes. Here are some disturbing statistics. Today an unprecedented 59.5 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them are about 19.5 million refugees, 51% of whom are under 18 years old. This is the highest figure for child refugees in more than a decade. About 38.2 million people have been forcibly uprooted and displaced within their own country and are known as internally displaced people (IDPs). There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. About 42,500 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution.

My dear sisters and brothers, in this media and information saturated world of ours, it is possible to remain unmoved by these statistics. To become numb even to scenes of terrible suffering. But it does not have to be that way. Especially not for us who call ourselves Christian. Followers of a Crucified and Risen Lord. Who continues to call us to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the crowd. To claim our God-given dignity. Our identity as his sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters of the same heavenly Father. By allowing ourselves to be questioned by his Cross.

My dear friends, in the face of great suffering on a global scale, what are we prepared to do today?

The Creativity of Love


Wedding Of Nina & Timothy

Readings: Genesis 1:26-28, 31; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8; John 15:9-12
Picture: cc Dennis Skley

Nina and Timothy, my dear friends, do any of you work in the so-called creative industries? Such as advertising and architecture. Or fashion and design. Or publishing and the performing arts. Do any of you hold jobs that require you to come up with exciting new ideas on a regular basis? At the drop of a hat even? To design computer games from scratch, for example. Or to compose a song. Or write a play. Imagine for a moment that you do.

How would you go about it? How to meet the constant demand for inspiration? It can’t be easy, right? It requires great creativity. The ability to habitually think outside the box. To make unexpected, even shocking, new connections. To help people see things differently. In new and interesting ways. Doesn’t this put a lot of pressure on you? Wouldn’t it stress you out? How do you keep churning out new ideas? From where do your creative juices flow?

Curious as it may sound, I think this is actually the question that you, Nina and Timothy, have decided to help us ponder today. We see this in the scripture readings that you have chosen. Especially in the first reading, taken from the book of Genesis. Which gives us an account of how God created the first man and the first woman. And not just the first man and the first woman. But also the first series of human relationships.

The relationship between the man and the woman. Who are created distinct and yet inseparable. Male and female he created them. The relationship between them and God. Who created them in the image of God. Created them to be creative as God is creative. For they are told to be fruitful. And to multiply. And then there is also the relationship between them and every other created thing. Fill the earth, they are told, and conquer it. Conquer it not for their own selfish purposes. But for the glory of God.

An account of the rich creativity of our God. This is what the first reading provides. But from where does this awesome creativity spring? The first reading doesn’t quite spell it out for us. At least not explicitly. But there are no prizes for guessing what the answer is. It should be no surprise, right? This is, after all, a wedding. And what is a wedding, without any mention of love? Yes, love is the ultimate source of creativity. Love is what prompts God to create. And it is in creative love that God keeps all of creation, all of us, in existence. It is in love that the first man and the first woman become fruitful.

Isn’t this the deeper reason for Jesus’ words in the gospel? As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, remain in my love. Why? Because it is only in the Lord’s love that we can bear fruit that lasts. It is only in the Lord’s love that we can know true joy. And that our joy can ever hope to be complete. It is only in the Lord’s love that we can be truly and continually creative.

Isn’t this also what St. Paul is talking about in the second reading? What is it that makes the difference between an instrument playing sweet music and an empty gong booming, or a cymbal clashing? Nothing else, but love. Creative love that makes all things new. Self-sacrificing love that is always willing to find creative ways to be patient and kind. To delight in the truth. To excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

Love is the true wellspring of creativity. God’s love. Made known to us in the self-sacrifice of Christ our Lord. Who laid down his life for us on the Cross. So that we might enjoy the fullness of life.

And it should perhaps be no surprise to us that you, Nina and Timothy, should choose to focus our attention on this particular aspect of love. Its creativity. For hasn’t this been your own experience too? In fact, isn’t this how you first got onto each other’s radar screen in the first place? Back on that memorable day, so many years ago, when as a new 10th Grade student at Chatsworth International School, Timothy stood up in class, and recited a poem he had composed himself?

This is how Nina describes the poem’s effect on her. I was so impressed and touched by it. It was in the style of a rap song and described his conflicting feelings of having moved to a different country, having to make new friends and starting over. Believe me, I was not the only one touched by his poem.

A courageous act of creativity. This is how it all began.

But that’s not all. Throughout the years after that, didn’t the two of you continue to have to exercise great creativity? Just to keep your friendship alive? And to allow it to thrive? Especially in that period after you had broken up. And one of you was plunged into the so-called Great Depression. Or when you found yourselves facing the prospect of having to live on separate continents. Somehow, you managed to find creative ways to stick together. Ending up in the same University in the UK. And even graduating together.

Yes, Nina and Timothy. The beautiful story of how you met and fell in love. Of how you have made it to this day. This very moment. When you are on the verge of professing your life-long and total commitment to each other. This story of yours is marked by the power of creativity. Creativity born of love. And love that is, first and foremost, a precious gift from God. It is our loving and creative God who has brought you together. Your creativity is a sure sign of this.

Which is why, as we join you, to celebrate your coming together as husband and wife, we cannot help but be filled with joy. And hope. For isn’t the creativity born of love an essential ingredient in any marriage? Don’t all married couples have to continually find new and creative ways to face and to overcome the many and varied challenges that life throws in their path? The powerful forces and enticing distractions that threaten to tear you apart from one another. Cause you to forget how much you mean to each other.

It is with the creativity born of love, that you will face and overcome these challenges in the days ahead. It is with the creativity born of love that we, your family and friends, your sisters and brothers in Christ, will support you in your commitment to each other. So that the passing of the years will find the bond of your love for each other growing ever stronger. Glowing every brighter. To the glory of God. And to the inspiration of all who will witness it. This is our prayer and our wish for you.

Nina and Timothy, my dear friends, even as we gather for this joyous celebration, how are we being invited to continue living in and from the powerfully creative love of God today?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Hidden Assumptions


11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Thomas Autumn

My dear friends, here’s an old riddle that some of you may have heard before. A father and his son meet with a tragic car accident, in which the father is killed instantly. And the son is rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. But, on seeing the boy, the surgeon immediately exclaims, I can’t operate on this patient, he’s my son! How could this be, my dear friends? Can you explain?

I have to confess that when I first heard the riddle, many years ago, I had some difficulty providing an answer. How could the boy be the surgeon’s son, if the boy’s father had already been killed in the accident? This was, of course, back in the days before gay marriage. So it never entered my mind that the boy could have two adoptive fathers. But that’s not the intended answer. I’m sure some of you have already guessed what it is. It’s really quite simple. The surgeon is not the boy’s father. But his mother!

My difficulty in answering this simple riddle helped to uncover something that had previously been hidden from me. My own gender bias. My unspoken assumption that a surgeon can only be a man. Not a woman. I say the assumption was hidden from me because, if you had asked me back then, whether or not I believed that a woman could be a surgeon, I would probably have told you, without the slightest hesitation, Yes, of course! Why not?! Which just goes to show that there can be quite a gap between what I say I believe, and what I actually believe. A gap that’s filled by hidden assumptions.

And these assumptions can be all the more dangerous precisely because they are hidden. Especially from me. Imagine, for example, that I am a surgeon who secretly believes that my job can only be done by a man. How do you think this will affect the way I relate with my female colleagues? Isn’t it likely that I would treat them with condescension? Or even with contempt? And without me even realising it? 

The uncovering of hidden assumptions. This is also what we see happening in our Mass readings today. We all know the story of King David, told in the first reading. We know how he lusts after Bathsheba, his general Uriah’s wife. How he commits adultery with her. And then how, to cover up his sin, the King arranges to have her husband murdered in battle. Lust, and adultery, and murder. These are serious sins. And yet, the King seems blissfully unaware of his own wrongdoing. Until he is confronted by the prophet Nathan.

We see something similar in the gospel. Here what is uncovered is the Pharisee’s lack of hospitality. His failure to do for Jesus what was expected of any good host at that time. His forgetting to provide water to wash the Lord’s feet. Oil to anoint his head. And a kiss to welcome him. Although surely not as serious as David’s sins, the Pharisee too seems totally unaware of his own failings. Until Jesus uncovers them.

But sins are not the only things that are being uncovered. There is something deeper. We discover what this is by asking ourselves the question why. Why does David feel no guilt for his sins? And why does the Pharisee not realise his failures of hospitality?

The Scriptures do not tell us exactly. But it’s likely that both the king and the Pharisee are unaware of their faults because they have a hidden assumption of what sin looks like. Of what it means to sin. Very likely, for both of them, to sin is to break the rules. And, since David is the King, the one who makes the rules, then he is free to do what he likes. The rules don’t really apply to him. Or so he thinks. So, not having broken any rules, he can’t have sinned. And the Pharisee hasn’t actually broken any commandments of the Law either. He has only failed to show hospitality to a controversial wandering rabbi. No broken rules. So no sin.

And yet, in both the first reading and the gospel, this hidden assumption that sin has to do only with the breaking of rules is uncovered and shown to be terribly wrong. Notice how God uncovers David’s sins to him in the first reading. God begins, not by listing the rules that have been broken. But by reminding David of all that God has done for him. I anointed you king over Israel… delivered you from the hands of Saul… gave you the House of Israel and of Judah… and if this were not enough, I would add as much again for you. God reminds David how  incredibly generous God has been to him. Why then has David returned God’s kindness not with gratitude but with contempt?

What does all this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that sin is less about the breaking of rules than it is about the rupture of relationship? The betrayal of a friend. The disappointment of Someone who has given us everything that we have and are. Someone who wants nothing more than to see us eternally happy. By helping us to gratefully return friendship for friendship. Love for love.

We see something similar in the gospel. Here, the Pharisee is clearly thinking of sin as a breaking of the rules. Isn’t this why he frowns upon Jesus for allowing the woman with a bad reputation to touch him? It was a breach of the rules. But Jesus responds by talking to the Pharisee not about broken rules, but about healed relationship. Why does the woman show great love? It must be because she realises how kind and merciful God has been to her. How much she has been forgiven. How closely she has been drawn back to God.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, does not love as much, because he thinks he has no sin. Since he has broken no commandments. So he needs no forgiveness. What he fails to realise is that his very ability to keep the commandments is itself a gift from God. For, as Jesus points out in his parable, both servants owed their master debts that neither of them could pay. The Pharisee shows little love, because he forgets how much he has received from God. He forgets what we ourselves said in our opening prayer earlier: that without God our mortal frailty can do nothing. We cannot keep the Law.

So that although he may not have broken the rules, the Pharisee doesn’t really know God. Is it any wonder that he is unwilling to make space in his heart for others? That he refuses to show mercy to the woman? That he neglects to extend hospitality to the Lord?

The hidden assumption that sin has to do only with the breaking of rules. And that righteousness has to do only with their keeping. This is what our readings help us to uncover. And not only to uncover it, but also to see how wrong it is. For, as the second reading tells us, our belief is that faith in Christ rather than fidelity to the Law is what justifies us. We are saved not so much by how well we keep the rules,  but by how close we draw to Jesus. How well we remember all that God has done for us through him, and with him, and in him. All the things that we are invited to call to mind, whenever we gather to celebrate Mass.

And what a precious blessing it is for God to uncover this terrible hidden assumption of mine. For unless it is uncovered, I too will keep living the life a Pharisee. Thinking that I am righteous simply because I think I’m able to keep the rules. And looking down on others, because they may not. Complaining, for example, about how people act at Mass. Rather than doing whatever I can to make them feel more welcome.

My dear sisters and brothers, as individuals and as a parish, what hidden assumptions might God be helping to uncover for us? So as to set us free from our sinfulness today?

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