Sunday, December 10, 2017

Like Fish Out of Water


2nd Sunday of Advent (B)

Picture: cc las - initially

My dear friends, do you know what it’s like to be a fish out of water? To feel out of place? As though you simply do not belong?  It’s not a good feeling, right? Isn’t this why, for many of us, myself included, much of our lives is spent trying to fit in? Trying to make ourselves, and our families, feel more at home in this world? To blend in like a chameleon? Instead of sticking out like a sore thumb? And don’t we do this in many different ways? From childhood, through our teens, and even into our adult and twilight years? By feverishly accumulating likes and followers on social media… Or keeping up with the latest fashion trends… Or driving the right car… Or living in the right neighbourhood… Or going to the right schools…. Or mixing with the right friends… Or choosing the right hobbies… Aren’t these all attempts to fit in? And yet, have you noticed that, on this second Sunday of Advent, our readings are quite clearly drawing our attention precisely to the benefits of feeling out of place? Of being like fish out of water?

We see this by first noticing that in each of our readings there is an announcement of a significant event. The second reading calls it the Day of the Lord. Which it describes in terms that make it seem really frightening. Not only will this event arrive like a thief. An unwelcome shock. It will erupt with great ferocity. Like a much larger version of that fiery volcano in Bali. With a roar the sky will vanish, and the earth and all it contains will be burnt up. Everything is coming to an end. Certainly sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? At least it does to me.

And yet, quite incredibly, our other readings treat this announcement of God’s coming as a joyful message, a consolation. Console my people, console them… So begins the first reading. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem…. Here is the Lord coming with power…. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms… And notice too what we sang in the psalm just now. As well as what we heard in the gospel. The psalm describes God’s coming in terms of justice and mercy, and faithfulness and peace. And the gospel’s opening verse speaks of the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ… Consolation of people and feeding of sheep. The springing forth of faithfulness, and the experience of peace. The beginning of good news. Doesn’t all this sound wonderfully inviting?

So what do you think, sisters and brothers? Which of our readings are right? What exactly will the coming of the Lord be like? Will it be terrifying or consoling? A disaster or a joy? What do you think? The answer, of course, is yes to both. The Day of the Lord’s Coming will be both a terror and a consolation. Both a disaster and a joy. It will be a terror and a disaster to some people. And a consolation and a joy to others. But to whom will the Lord’s coming be a disaster? And to whom will it be a joy?

We find the answer to this question by considering the situation of those to whom the first reading is addressed. By recalling that this is a people in Exile in Babylon. Far away from home. A people who, for long years, have been feeling extremely out of place. Like fish out of water. A people who have been pining for their true home. It is to them that the message of the Lord’s Coming arrives as marvellous good news.

Similarly, in the second reading, we are told that the Day of God will bring with it the new heavens and the new earth, the place where righteousness will finally be at home. Which implies that the current heavens and the current earth, the place in which we are all now living, is a place where righteousness does not feel at home. And that it is to people who are in Exile. People far away  from home. People who continually feel out of place. Like fish out of water. Struggling to live righteous lives in an unrighteous world. It is to people such as this that the announcement of the Lord’s Coming is experienced as a consolation and a joy.

And, perhaps ironically, it is people such as this who take seriously the prophet’s call to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Who take the trouble to carve out time from their busy schedules to honestly examine their lives. To consider how they may have allowed themselves to become too comfortable in an unjust world. And even to make a trip into the wilderness to be washed by that crazy-looking man, who says such uncomfortable things. Expressing their commitment to continue living righteously in an unrighteous world. Even if it may make them feel even more out of place. Even more like they don’t belong. For, in truth, they are not meant to belong here. They are in Exile. Patiently awaiting and joyfully preparing for the second coming of Christ. The One in whom mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced. The One who, in Word and Sacrament, at this Mass and in daily life, baptises us not just with water, but with the powerful and inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit. Giving us the wisdom and the courage to do what is right.

In sharp contrast, it is the people who are preoccupied with making themselves ever more at home in this world. People concerned only with securing their own comfort. People who give no thought to the demands of righteousness and faithfulness, of justice and mercy and peace. It is people such as this, who are likely to greet the announcement of the Lord’s Coming with indifference or irritation. With boredom or disdain. People who see the seasons of Advent and Christmas either as a troublesome disruption, or as just another opportunity to continue business as usual. Another occasion to cosy up to a world where true love and peace and joy often find no room at the inn. Where many continue to suffer the painful effects of conflict and division, of inequality and discrimination.

Sisters and brothers, on this second Sunday of Advent, our readings offer us a joyful message. Marvellously good news. The coming of the Lord. The approach of faithfulness and mercy. Of justice and peace. The question is whether we have the correct disposition graciously to receive and generously to respond to this announcement. Or whether we will simply let it pass us by.

My dear friends, in a world where righteousness can find no true home, how willing are we to do whatever is necessary to continue being fish out of water today?

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Takes Two to Tango


1st Sunday of Advent (B)
(Day 3 of SFX Triduum)


My dear friends, do you dance? Can you tell me how many people it takes to dance? Well, it depends on the dance, right? For example, have you heard of something called Zumba? It’s a dance exercise that’s quite popular where I come from. Perhaps it’s popular here too. Although Zumba is more fun when done in a group, you could just as easily do it on your own. If you know the moves. But then there are also certain dances that require a partner. For example, haven’t we all heard the saying, it takes two to tango? However skilled a dancer you may be, you simply cannot do the tango alone. You need a partner. Someone able and willing to match your moves with his/her own. Unlike Zumba, the tango cannot be done on one’s own. And if you’re dancing on your own, then most likely it’s not the tango.

I mention this because the same can be said about the theme that we’ve chosen for our triduum in honour of St Francis Xavier. Like the tango, the dance of missionary discipleship simply cannot be done alone. Which is something that those of us who were here the last two nights may already have realised. As you may recall, we have been suggesting that there are 3 R’s to missionary discipleship. On Thursday we reflected on the first R. Do you still remember what it is? Receptivity and responsiveness. The ability graciously to receive and generously to respond to the call of Christ. And last night we considered the second R. Namely? … Recognition and resilience. The ability, in times of darkness, to see visions in the night. To recognise the encouraging signs of God’s enduring presence. And so to be resilient. To retain our proper shape as faithful followers of Christ.

Receptivity and responsiveness. Recognition and resilience. Notice how each of these qualities have to do with a partnership. We try to be receptive and responsive, only because we believe that there is Someone Else who is offering something to us. Someone Else who is calling out to us. And what we try to recognise are signs of the presence of Someone Else. Just as we try to remain resilient in following in the footsteps of Another. And that’s not all. More than that, as you may also have noticed, the qualities of receptivity and responsiveness, of recognition and resilience, are not things that we can attain on our own. They are gifts that we are begging God, in this triduum, to continue bestowing upon us. As individuals, as families, and as a parish community… To make us more receptive and responsive to God’s call. More able to recognise the signs of God’s presence. Ever more resilient in following Christ, even in dark times.

Like the tango, missionary discipleship is a dance that requires a partner. And not just any partner, but the Divine Partner. Our loving and merciful God. We see this even more clearly tonight, as our Mass readings and prayers for this 1st Sunday in Advent help us to reflect on the third R of missionary discipleship. Do you know what it is? We’ve actually already mentioned it earlier, in our Collect, or Opening Prayer. Do you remember what we prayed for? We asked almighty God to grant us the resolve to run forth to meet…Christ with righteous deeds at his coming… Resolve and righteousness. This is the third R, or the third movement, if you like, in the tango of missionary discipleship.

Resolve and righteousness. This is what we find in the first reading. Here, the prophet prays a prayer of invocation and repentance. He begins by begging God to tear the heavens open and come down! To return to God’s people. For the people feel that God has abandoned them. Has stopped dancing with them. And with good reason. For they have strayed from God’s ways. They have failed to tango with God. Choosing instead to dance with false gods. Which is why, along with the prayer of invocation, the prophet also says a prayer of repentance. He confesses his people’s sins. Their waywardness. And resolves, on their behalf, to turn back to God. To once again allow themselves to be guided and shaped by their loving Father. Like clay in the Potter’s hands.

And just as resolve and righteousness make up the substance of the prophet’s prayer in the first reading. So too are they what Paul is trying to evoke in the second reading, taken from the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians. For, like the Israelites, the Corinthians too have strayed from God’s ways. Have fallen short of true righteousness. Have chosen to dance to their own beat. Later, in this same letter, Paul will call them to task for their failings. In particular, he will highlight their pride and self-absorption. Their abuse of the many gifts they have received from God. Using them to inflate their own egos, instead of building up God’s kingdom. Causing conflict and division, rather than peace and reconciliation.

But how does one resolve to return to righteousness? To come back to God? As those of us who have ever struggled to repent from habitual sin know only too well, this is no easy thing. We cannot do it on our own. We need God’s help. God’s grace. But we can prepare ourselves to receive this grace by doing what Paul is teaching the Corinthians to do in the reading. I never stop thanking God, he says, for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ. By writing in this way, Paul is inviting the Corinthians to acknowledge that everything they have and everything they are has been generously and freely bestowed upon them by God. By leading the Corinthians to count their blessings in this way, Paul hopes to help them experience having their hearts stirred to deep gratitude. And, out of gratitude, to a firm resolve to centre their lives, no longer on themselves and their petty concerns, but instead on God and on God’s kingdom.

Resolve and righteousness. Isn’t this also what Jesus is talking about in the gospel? Isn’t this what he means when he encourages his disciples, encourages us, to stay awake? To remain alert? To live a righteous life, while awaiting his return. But how does one live a righteous life? What does it look like? The Lord’s parable helps us to understand. For we’re told that before the master leaves, he places his servants in charge, each with his own task. Which may prompt us to recall the exact tasks that Jesus leaves with us before he ascends into heaven. In particular, we may think of two important instructions: The Greatest Commandment and the so-called Great Commission. Do you remember what they are? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Mk 12:30-31). Go… and make disciples of all nations… (Mt 28:19).

Are these not the tasks with which we are supposed to occupy ourselves until the Lord comes again? Each of us according to the particular gifts and talents we have received from God? Isn’t this our vocation? Isn’t it what should be at the centre of our lives as individuals, as families, and as a parish community? So that we might truly live no longer only for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised to life for us (cf 2 Cor 5:15). Who is present among us especially at this sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist.

Sisters and brothers, if it is indeed true that it takes two to do the tango of missionary discipleship, then what must we do to dance ever more closely, ever more intimately, with our Divine Partner today?

Friday, December 01, 2017

Visions in the Night


Memorial of Ss Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, Priests
& Companions, Martyrs
(Day 2 of SFX Triduum)

Picture: cc Hartwig HKD

My dear friends, do you still remember what we talked about yesterday? As those of you who were here may recall, we suggested that, just as there are 3 R’s to environmental protection (Reduce, Reuse & Recycle), and 3 R’s to primary education (Reading, wRiting, & aRithmetic), there are also 3 R’s to missionary discipleship. And, yesterday, we talked about the first of these 3 R’s. Do you remember what it is? Yes, receptivity & responsiveness. The ability graciously to receive and generously to respond to the Call of Christ. This evening we want to reflect on the second R of missionary discipleship.

But first, let me again ask you a question. Which of these do you think you are, an optimist or a pessimist? Someone who sees a glass as half empty, or half full? Some of us may remember the story of the artist who painted a big black spot on a plain white canvas, and then showed it to some friends, asking them what they saw. As might be expected, everyone saw the black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white canvas? Don’t you see that too? As you know, this story is sometimes told to remind us not be pessimistic. Not to keep obsessing over black spots. But to be optimistic. To focus instead on the white canvas. Sounds like good advice, right? Since too much pessimism can lead to depression. And, in extreme cases, even to suicide.

And yet, haven’t we met people who are too optimistic? Who focus only the bright side of things, and ignore the darkness around them? We may imagine, for example, a family that refuses to acknowledge that one of its members has a problem with alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or sex. So the addict does not receive the help that is needed. And the whole family suffers. The same can be said about citizens who ignore the injustices that may be taking place in their own country. Allowing these to continue unchallenged. Causing much harm. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.

But if neither optimism nor pessimism is the way to go, then what other option do we have? For us, the answer is clear. The properly Christian alternative to optimism and pessimism is something we call hope. Which has at least two main ingredients. The first is the ability to recognise the light that endures even in the darkness. Which then leads to the second ingredient. The ability to remain resilient even in times of trouble. To be able, like a rubber ball, to keep one’s shape even after having been tightly squeezed. And to bounce back up again, even after being repeatedly knocked down. Recognition and resilience. This, my dear friends, is the second R of missionary discipleship. Something we find in our Mass readings today.

The first reading is set in a time of deep darkness for the people of Judah. They have been conquered by their enemies. Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been overrun. The Temple destroyed. Many of the people sent into exile in Babylon. Daniel is one of these exiles. Brought to Babylon as a young boy, he has been forced to serve in the court of the king. Where he struggles to remain faithful to the commandments of God, while living among a gentile people. How does he stay so heroically resilient? How does he steadfastly keep his shape as an observant Jew?

The first reading tells us how. He does it not by being optimistic. Not by ignoring the darkness. But rather, by actually gazing steadily and courageously into it, while crying out to God. As a result, his prayer is heard. And he is rewarded with visions in the night. Visions that may at first appear terrifying. Visions of powerful beasts with the ability to do immense harm. To cause unspeakable damage. Bible commentators say that these beasts symbolise the different empires that rise and fall at this time in history. Causing the people great suffering. But these visions are given to Daniel not to unsettle and to frighten, but instead, to encourage and to reassure him. For the power of all these beasts is seen to pass away. After which Daniel is given a final vision of yet another kingdom. An empire of a different kind, which overcomes and outlasts all the earlier ones. And which endures forever. A kingdom established by God himself. Who is symbolised by the one of great age. Seated on a fiery throne. And who confers lasting authority on a mysterious unnamed figure. One like a son of man. Whose sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty that shall never pass away.

What Daniel receives in his visions of the night, is the gift of hope in time of trial. The power to recognise, in the midst of deep darkness, the truth that even as all other kingdoms pass away, God’s reign of love will ever endure. And, in recognising this truth, he finds in it the strength to stay strong in the face of oppression. To remain faithful to God even when pressured to do otherwise. To keep his proper shape as a beloved member of God’s chosen race. God’s holy people. And to continue to bear witness to this hope in a foreign land. Recognition of the signs of God’s reign, leading to resilience in the face of hardship and oppression. This is the gift given to Daniel in the first reading.

And this is the same gift offered in the gospel as well. As those of us who have been following the weekday Mass readings may recall, Jesus has been speaking about a period of trial that is approaching. As well as about his own second coming at the end of time. Like those in the first reading, these will be times of deep darkness. But, even in the darkness, there will remain unmistakable signs of light. Signs that the disciples are being taught to recognise. In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus invites them to look out for the buds that signal the onset of summer. The coming of God’s kingdom of love and justice and peace. Which will give them strength to endure their trials. For the promise made to Daniel in the first reading finds its fulfilment in Christ in the gospel. Jesus is the son of man on whom an eternal sovereignty is conferred. Jesus himself is the Sign of all signs. For by his Cross and Resurrection, he has redeemed the world.

As in the first reading, so too in the gospel, the gift of hope is offered to the people of God. To the community of disciples of the Lord. And what we need to realise is that we too are members of this community. Which now calls itself the Church. A community made up not just of individuals, but also of families of different shapes and sizes and situations. Which is why the Christian family is sometimes called a domestic or household church. A privileged place where the gift of Christian hope is joyfully received and bravely lived. Where individuals learn to see visions in the night. To recognise the signs of God’s illuminating presence and action in a world so often engulfed in darkness and despair. Signs such as the current visit of our beloved Pope to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Signs that, once recognised, bring with them the resilience that Christians need to retain their proper shape as chosen disciples of the Lord. Loving and serving others as he did. Bearing witness to peace and justice and mercy, even when it may not be comfortable or convenient for them to do so.

My dear friends, as missionary disciples of Christ, we are called neither to pessimism nor to optimism. Neither to focus only on the black dots or the white canvasses of life. But rather to look beyond them to Christ. To receive his gift of hope. And to become beacons of his light in a darkened world. What must we do, as individuals and families, to live up to this call today?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Saving Space


Feast of St Andrew, Apostle
(Day 1 of SFX Triduum)

Readings: Romans 10:9-18; Psalm 18(19):2-5; Matthew 4:18-22
Picture: cc Donnie Ray Jones

My dear friends, are you familiar with the 3 R’s? I’m sure you are, right? Perhaps you’re just wondering which 3 R’s I’m referring to. These days, the common reference is to the 3 R’s of environmental protection. Namely, reduce, reuse, and… recycle. 3 basic actions for helping to save our planet. And then there are also the 3 R’s of primary education. Do you remember what they are? Reading, wRiting, and… aRithmetic. 3 basic skills that every good primary school tries to help its students to master.

But what about the theme that we have chosen for this triduum in preparation for the parish feast of St Francis Xavier? As you know, the focus this year is on being missionary disciples, and the special role of the family in this effort. Which is very appropriate, since Francis Xavier is one of the Church’s two patron saints of the missions. And, just last year, Pope Francis issued a document on the love of the family, entitled Amoris Laetitia. The Joy of Love. Could it be that just as there are 3 R’s in environmental protection, and 3 R’s in primary education, there are also 3 R’s in missionary discipleship? This, my dear friends, is the suggestion that I wish to offer for our reflection over the course of these three evenings.

But first, please allow me to ask you another question. Have you ever come across parents saying something like this to their children? Imagine that it’s almost dinnertime, but the kids are having a snack, because they’re already hungry. So the parents yell at them: Don’t spoil your appetite! Save your stomachs! Now we know, of course, what this means. It’s not that the kids’ stomachs are in any kind of danger. What the parents mean is that the kids should not snack so much that they won’t be able to eat their dinner later. The parents want the children to save space in their stomachs for the food that is yet to come. To save space to receive what is more important. Don’t we need to do this in the spiritual life as well? To save space in our hearts and in our lives to receive and to respond to God’s Word. Receptivity and responsiveness to God’s Call. This is the first R of missionary discipleship. This is what we find in our Mass readings for today.

The first reading tells us that if your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved. Belief in and confession of God’s message is what saves us from sin and selfishness. They give our lives meaning. Allowing us to experience love and joy and peace, even in the midst of stress and suffering and sorrow. Receptivity and responsiveness to God’s Call is central to our faith. And yet, the reading goes on to say that, although the Good News of God’s love and mercy in Christ has gone out through all the earth, not everyone listens to it. Not everyone obeys what they have heard. Not everyone is able to receive the message. It’s as though, like hungry children, who have filled their stomachs with too many snacks, people are simply too full to feast at the Table of the Lord. 

Which is perhaps something with which many of us can identify. For aren’t our own lives also filled with many things? Not just many material possessions, over which we may worry and fret. Such as houses and cars, businesses and careers… But also the many activities that cram our busy schedules. Often leaving us little time for ourselves. Time to relax and to get in touch with our deeper desires… Time to connect meaningfully with the people we love and who love us… Time to care for those around us who may need our help… Time simply to allow God to hold us in the warmth of his loving and merciful Embrace… Is it any wonder then, that we may find it difficult to become missionary disciples? For how can we be expected to announce the Good News to others, if we haven’t found the space to receive it for ourselves?

Which is why today’s gospel reading is so valuable. For here we find an impressive image of people who are so remarkably receptive and so generously responsive to God’s Call. There are a few points in the reading that are particularly striking. Notice first how the people whom Jesus calls are all very busy. Simon and Andrew are making a cast in the lake. James and John are mending their nets in their boat. And they are doing all this not as a hobby. They are busy making a living. And yet, when Jesus calls, they leave everything. They leave their nets and their boats. They leave loved ones and colleagues. And, perhaps what’s even more difficult, we may imagine that they leave also their own dreams and ambitions behind.

Another striking thing is that they do this without any hesitation. Even though they don’t know exactly what they are getting themselves into, when Jesus calls, they leave everything and follow him at once. Bible commentators say that the lack of hesitation indicates the great attractiveness of the Lord. Which may be true. But might it not tell us something, not just about the One who calls, but also about those who respond? Doesn’t it show us that, filled though their lives may be, with work and other worries, the brothers have not allowed these more mundane concerns to spoil their appetite for something more important? In the midst of very busy schedules, they have somehow managed to save space in their hearts to receive God’s Call.

Which brings us to another striking characteristic in the gospel story. The fact that families figure so prominently in it. I’m not a scripture scholar, but isn’t it striking how it is two pairs of brothers who receive and respond to God’s Call? And how one of these pairs is described as leaving their father to follow the Lord? The gospel doesn’t say this explicitly. But might we not imagine that the brothers’ ability to respond so readily to Jesus has something to do with how they were brought up in their respective families? Isn’t it possible that they have been taught from young that, beyond the many things that fill their daily lives, they need also to take care to save space for more important things? That beyond busying themselves with catching fish for a living, they need also to be ever prepared to answer the call to gather people into God’s Kingdom. To be true missionary disciples of the Lord.

If this is true, then perhaps what we find in our Mass readings is a call addressed to all of us as well. And to our families. Which very likely come in different shapes and sizes and situations. The invitation is for us to take care to live our family life in such a way that our attention is not completely absorbed by the cares of daily living. That we somehow continue to be mindful to make time and space in our daily routines for the things of God. By praying and reading the Bible together perhaps… By being involved in parish liturgies and other activities wherever possible… By reaching out to those who may need our help… Or by simply trying to find and follow God’s Call in the people and situations we encounter everyday. And teaching our children to do the same.

Receptivity and responsiveness. This is the first R of missionary discipleship. The indispensable first step in imitating St Francis Xavier, and becoming true witnesses and proclaimers of the Good News to the world around us. Receptivity and responsiveness, cultivated in holistic family living.

My dear sisters and brothers, parents often take care to remind their children to save their stomachs for the main meal. What must we do to save space in our hearts and in our families to receive and respond more generously to the Call of Christ today?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Teachers & Students, Shepherd & Sheep


Solemnity of Christ the King
(SMS Alumni Association Mass)

Picture: cc Global Action Nepal

My dear sisters and brothers and children, do you consider yourself a good student? I know that it may have been quite a few years since some of us graduated from school. But even so, isn’t it true that, in a certain sense, we all continue to be students throughout our lives? So what does a good student look like? How would we find out? I’m not sure, but I think one way to find out is to consider what a good teacher does. Because a good student is someone who responds well to a good teacher. So what exactly does a good teacher do?

That’s not too difficult a question to answer, right? A good teacher teaches. By conducting lessons in the classroom, for example. By assigning work to be done at home. And also by giving students a good example to follow. So that a good student is someone who pays attention in class. Someone who diligently completes the assigned homework. And someone who follows the teacher’s good example. And that’s not all. For a good teacher doesn’t just teach, right? He or she also gives tests and examinations. So to be a good student is also to prepare to be tested. To prepare to be examined. To be judged in some way.

We know how to be a good student by considering what a good teacher does. If this is true, then perhaps the same can be said for being a good Christian. We learn to be a good Christian by considering what Christ does. But what does Christ do? This is the question that our readings help us to ponder on this Solemn Feast of Christ the King.

Both in the first reading and the psalm, we’re presented with the moving image of a good shepherd. Like a conscientious shepherd watching over his flock, so too does Christ the King care for his people. Care for us. For you and for me. Not only does he stand up in the middle of his scattered sheep, keeping all of us in view, but he also guides us to fresh and green pastures and streams of restful waters to revive our drooping spirits. He is careful even to ensure that each individual sheep is looked after according to its particular needs. The sick have their wounds tended. And the healthy receive the care they need to avoid falling ill.

If this is how Christ exercises his authority as king, then we become good Christians only by behaving like true members of his flock. Only to the extent that we are willing to hear and follow his voice as he leads us to the green pastures of the Bible, for example. To take time to read and pray over the scriptures. Allowing them to comfort and to challenge us. And to submit ourselves to the Lord’s healing hands, as he gently mends our broken hearts, and invites us to forgive those who may be responsible for breaking them.

But, as we may well know from experience, this is not always easy to do. For there are many other voices competing with the shepherd for my attention. Voices that claim to offer me true happiness. But when I allow myself to be seduced by them, I find that these voices lead me not to refreshing streams, but to stagnant pools of muddy water, unfit to drink. For example, I may spend much time and energy slaving away to build a future for myself. And pressuring my children to do the same. Only to discover that all the money I make and all the prestige I may gain cannot fill the gaping hole in my lonely heart.

I meet many different people everyday. I may even have thousands of friends on Facebook. And yet, I can’t seem to connect with just one human person in a truly meaningful and fulfilling way. I live with my family under the same roof. But I struggle to spend quality time with them. I fiddle daily with the newest most advanced gadgets. Devices that keep me plugged into the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And yet, I still can’t escape the uncomfortable feeling of being somehow cut off and isolated. Not just from others. But even from my deeper self. Who am I, really? What is the meaning of my life? Why am I so restless and unhappy?

It is especially to those of us who may find ourselves in such distressing circumstances that our readings offer much needed consolation. If the world does not fulfil you, then come to Christ the Good Shepherd. Christ the merciful King. Listen to his voice. Become his sheep. Let him lead you to where you need to go. For, as the second reading tells us, just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.

But that’s not all. For just as teachers don’t just teach, but also give tests and set examinations for their students, so too does the Good Shepherd judge his sheep. And what is the one thing that distinguishes the sheep that belong to Christ the Shepherd-King? How do they pass his test? According to the gospel parable the true sheep of the shepherd are those who follow his example. Those who behave not just as sheep, but also as shepherds as well. Those who make efforts to care for those most in need. And, by doing this, they actually end up caring for the Chief Shepherd himself. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome... In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.

The implication for us is clear. We become true sheep of the shepherd’s flock, true followers of Christ the King, only to the extent that we ourselves are willing to care for the least ones in our midst. Not just those whose stomachs need to be filled, but also those who may long for a listening ear and a reassuring touch. Not just those imprisoned by bars of steel, but also those trapped in emotional and spiritual cages. Bound by regrets of the past, addictions in the present, and anxieties for the future. Not just those afflicted by diseases of the body and of the mind, but also those who, like the Rohingya in Myanmar, the starving people of Yemen, the homeless poor here in Singapore, have fallen victim to the illnesses of society. To selfishness and greed. To anger and violence and apathy.

My dear friends, just as we know how to become a good student by considering what a good teacher does, we know how to be a good Christian by considering the actions of Christ our caring Shepherd and our merciful King.

What must we do to be better students and ever more faithful Christians today?

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Between Sponge & Stone


31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Speshul Ted

My dear friends, can you tell me the differences between a sponge and a stone? It’s not too difficult right? A sponge is soft and empty. Hollow. Made up of many little pockets of air. A stone, on the other hand, is hard and solid. Packed with its own stuff. And this difference in composition accounts for a sharp contrast in how sponges and stones receive and give. When we pour water onto a dry sponge, for example, the liquid is soaked up. The sponge receives the water quite readily. But when we do the same with a stone, the water simply splashes off. The stone resists the gift. And if we fill a bag with sponges, and give it to someone to carry. The person can do it without much difficulty. Whereas a bagful of stones becomes a heavy burden. Also a wet sponge can be used to moisten the lips or cool the forehead of a sick person. To soothe and to give comfort. But we wouldn’t use a stone that way. It may do more harm than good.

Sponges give comfort. Stones tend to burden. Sponges are receptive to a gift of water. But stones resist. And these differences in how sponges and stones give and receive result from a deeper difference in their respective composition. Sponges are empty. Stones are full. I mention all this, because we find a similar contrast in our Mass readings today. Not exactly a contrast between sponges and stones, but between two kinds of people.

On the one hand, the second reading gives us an inspiring description of how Paul and his companions have given of themselves to the Christians in Thessalonica. Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children… eager to hand over… not only the Good News but their whole lives as well… slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one. On the other hand, in the gospel, Jesus criticises the scribes and the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens and laying them on people’s shoulders. Imposing arbitrary and impractical human rules more for their own benefit than for the good of those entrusted to their care. Similarly, in the first reading, God accuses the priests of burdening people. Causing many to stumble by their false teaching. While Paul and his companions soothe and comfort others like wet sponges. The priests and scribes and Pharisees burden people like heavy stones.

Clearly, what we find in our readings today is a sharp contrast between two ways of giving. Between generous support and burdensome imposition. But what accounts for this difference? How is it that some can give comfort and support like sponges, while the others only burden like stones? It may not be so obvious, sisters and brothers, but this difference in giving is related to a difference in receiving. For, in addition to Paul’s generosity in giving, the second reading also describes the Thessalonians’ openness in receiving. Their receptiveness to the Good News. Accepting it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking. And, as a result, the Good News has become a living power among them. Motivating them to give generously to others. As Christ first gave of himself to them.

Isn’t this the secret to every Christian’s ability to give? Doesn’t generosity in giving flow from openness in receiving? And could it be that, if the priests and scribes and Pharisees are such poor givers of themselves to others, it is only because they are first poor receivers from God? But if this is true, then how does one become a good receiver in order to be a better giver? The answer is found in the psalm. Here, like Paul and his companions in the second reading, God is likened to a mother feeding and looking after her child. Except that our attention is drawn more to the child. To its attitude as it looks at its mother. The description is quite striking and moving. My heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes… I have set my soul in silence and peace… Hope in the Lord both now and for ever. Unlike a stone, the psalmist is filled not with his own concerns, but only with what God wishes to give. Like a dry sponge, his heart is empty and waiting. Open and receptive to God’s gracious presence.

In sharp contrast, consider the dire warning that God issues to the priests in the first reading: if you do not find it in your heart to glorify my name… I will… curse your very blessing. In other words, if your hearts are too full of the self to make space to receive the gift of God’s presence. Then all your attempts at giving to others, at serving and blessing them, will be transformed instead into a burdensome curse. Not unlike sponges and stones, the people in our readings are able to give well only because they first receive well. And they receive well, only because they are empty of themselves. Open to receive the power and inspirations of God’s Spirit.

But if all this is true, then what about us? We who routinely pray our Prayer of Generosity at Mass every week. We who aspire to give of ourselves to others. To our family and friends. To our parish community and our wider society. How well do we actually give? To what extent do our attempts at giving really help people? To what extent do they become a burden to them instead? As the Chinese saying goes, yue bang yue mang (越帮越忙). The more you help, the busier we become. Could it be that, in order to give effectively to others, we need to first examine how well we receive from God? How attentive and receptive are we, for example, to the graces that God is offering to us at this very Mass? How open are we to receive the nourishing spiritual food served at the twin tables of the Word of God and the Body of Christ? And could it be that to do this, to be more receptive to God’s gifts, we need to be less full of ourselves? Less obsessed and preoccupied with many things.

Not that we should ignore our legitimate needs and desires. Nor should we shut out our worries and anxieties. On the contrary, what we need to do is instead to get in touch more deeply with them. With those areas where we feel most keenly our own weakness and helplessness. Our misery and poverty. Our utter and inescapable dependence on God. To go to those places in our hearts that we so often do our best to avoid, because they make us so uncomfortable. Avoid by busying ourselves with other things. Even apparently godly things. And yet, could it be that it is precisely at these places of discomfort that we are more likely to experience God? Fortifying us in our weakness. Feeding us in our hunger. Filling us in our emptiness. 

For us Christians, generosity in giving flows from that openness in receiving born of poverty of spirit. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sister and brothers, what must we do to be more like sponges and less like stones today?

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