Saturday, August 20, 2016

Between Obstacles & Opportunities

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, if I were to ask you what you think is the most memorable moment in this year’s Olympic Games, what would you say? I expect that, for many Singaporeans, the most memorable moment must have been when Joseph Schooling struck gold in the men’s 100m butterfly swimming event. And that’s to be expected. It is, after all, our nation’s first ever Olympic gold medal! But, even so, I wonder if there is not another even more memorable Olympic moment. Memorable not just for a single nation. But for the whole human race.

It happens midway into the second heat of the first round in the women’s 5000m race. Many runners are bunched up tightly. Jostling for position. Abbey D’Agostino, of the United States, accidentally clips the heels of the runner in front of her, New Zealander, Nikki Hamblin. And, very tragically, both women fall to the track. What happens next is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Instead of simply resuming her race, the American runner, who is quicker to regain her feet, pauses to help her still stunned Kiwi rival to stand. Saying, “Get up, get up, we have to finish this!”

As it turns out, however, the American is more seriously injured. She falls again. And this time it’s the turn of the runner from New Zealand to wait for her and help her up. Resuming the race only when she sees that the American can continue on her own. And then waiting for her at the finishing line. Where the two runners, who have never met before, embrace each other joyfully. Even though they both finish well behind all the others.

What do you think happened here, my dear friends? What makes this a memorable moment? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with how an obstacle was transformed into an opportunity. Isn’t this what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to do? Even though they both finished last. By helping each other after their fall, they turned a serious obstacle to sporting success into a priceless opportunity for demonstrating the true spirit of the Olympic games.

To turn obstacles into opportunities. This is also what our Mass readings encourage us to do today. In the second reading, the obstacle in question is suffering. When we suffer, it is quite natural to think that, for as long as the suffering lasts, we cannot be happy. That the only way to true happiness is to somehow remove the obstacle. To quit the stressful job. To cure the serious illness. To replace the indifferent spouse. To ease the painful loneliness… But the reading invites us to do something different. Not so much to remove the obstacle of suffering, as to somehow turn it into an opportunity for growth. How?

By remembering that suffering is often the way by which the Lord trains the ones that he loves. Those whom the Lord considers his children. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons and daughters. Viewed in this light, suffering actually becomes a happy privilege. A confirmation that we are beloved children of God. So that instead of mourning and groaning. Instead of getting depressed and discouraged. When suffering causes us to stumble, we should instead hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread. Seeking to turn the obstacle into an opportunity. As those two fallen Olympic runners did.

But obstacles don’t just come in the form of suffering in general. They often also take the shape of particular people. Those whom we may consider to be our rivals. Competitors. Isn’t this one possible reason why that person in the gospel wants to know whether there will be only a few saved? Perhaps he wants to know how many vacancies there are in the kingdom. So that he can figure out how many people he needs to beat. How many obstacles he has to overcome. In order to secure for himself a place there. As usual, Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he tells the questioner to try your best to enter by the narrow door. But what’s so difficult about entering by a narrow door? Why does Jesus say that many will try to enter and will not succeed? Is it because they are all too fat? Even if they are overweight, surely they could squeeze through by turning sideways? So what exactly is the problem?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I’m reminded of scenes from those old slapstick comedies, where two people try to enter through a doorway that can really fit only one person at a time? They would have no trouble going through if only one were willing to allow the other to go first. But neither of them wants to give way to the other. They keep trying to squeeze through at the same time. And, of course, they fail. And we, the viewers, have a good laugh at their expense.

Isn’t it possible that one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to enter by the narrow door is that we tend to see one another only as rivals vying for limited spots in the kingdom? Just as Olympians might compete for a limited number of medals. But being saved is not quite the same as competing for Olympic honours. In fact, both the gospel and the first reading surprise us with descriptions of the incredible inclusiveness of God’s kingdom. In the first reading, God promises not only to save a chosen few, but to gather the nations of every language. Even gentile foreigners. Whom the Jews tended to think were excluded from God’s favour. God promises even to make some of these foreigners into priests and Levites.

We find the same inclusiveness in Jesus’ description of the kingdom. People from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Why are they able to make it through the narrow doorway? Whereas others fail? Perhaps it’s because they are willing to give way to one another. To let the other go first. To see each other not so much as rivals to beat, as people to help. Perhaps it’s because they are able to do what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin did in such an inspiring way. To see one another no longer as obstacles to overcome, but instead as opportunities for showing kindness and mercy, hospitality and love. 

To see others no longer as threats, but instead as friends. Isn’t this a call that we need to heed especially today? When we continue to struggle with desperate tendencies to exclude others. For example, even as we celebrate something as positive as Joseph Schooling’s Olympic triumph, aren’t there still those of us who delight in using it as another excuse to continue highlighting distinctions between so-called true-blue Singaporeans and foreign talent? Sisters and brothers, why are we so afraid of one another? Should we not be more afraid of failing to make it through the narrow doorway? Of hearing those terrible words being addressed to us: I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked people!

Sisters and brothers, Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to make the Olympic games memorable, by turning an obstacle to success into an opportunity for friendship. How are we being called to do the same today?

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