Sunday, September 17, 2017

Preventing Heart-Attack

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Trina Alexander

My dear friends, do you know what a heart-attack is? Do you know how it’s caused? And what can be done to prevent it? I’m sure many of you know much more about it than I do. But here’s the little that I do know: A healthy heart requires a constant supply of oxygen, which is carried in the blood flowing through the arteries. But an artery may sometimes be blocked by certain deposits, such as cholesterol. Which obstruct the flow of blood, and deprive the heart muscle of much-needed oxygen. As a result, the muscle dies, and the person suffers a heart-attack. Which is why, one way to prevent a heart-attack is to watch one’s diet, and to exercise regularly. In order to avoid the accumulation of cholesterol. So, oxygen and cholesterol, diet and exercise. These are some of the things that can help us understand and prevent heart-attacks.

But why, you may be wondering, am I talking to you about heart-attacks? Surely, this is a church, and not a clinic. And I am only a simple priest. Not a medical doctor. Well, the reason is because I find the image of a heart-attack helpful for pondering a rather troublesome question arising from our Mass readings today. Can you guess what this question is? The readings, as you know, speak to us about the importance of forgiveness. The need for us to let go of our resentment and anger towards those who have hurt us. We are not to seek revenge. Or to harbour a grudge. But instead to show pity. For unless we forgive others, we cannot receive God’s forgiveness.

And yet, sisters and brothers, if it is true that God will not forgive me my sins unless and until I forgive others theirs, then doesn’t this place a limit on God’s mercy? And, what’s worse, by choosing not to forgive me simply because I am unable to forgive someone else, isn’t God failing to do for me the very thing that I am being expected to do for others? To overlook my failure? To pardon my shortcoming? Difficult question, isn’t it?

Unless, of course, the problem lies not with God, but with me. For just as a normal human heart requires oxygen to function, so too do I need the mercy of God to live a healthy and joyful Christian life. And God has already shown, and keeps on showing, this mercy to me. To all of us. Especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ. Which we celebrate at this Mass. For, as we all know, it is at the foot of the Cross that we find all our sins forgiven. It is in the pierced side of the crucified Christ that we discover the eternal Source of God’s mercy and forgiveness towards us. It is the broken Heart of Jesus that keeps pumping God’s compassion and love onto us and into the whole world.

But just as the flow of oxygen-rich blood can be obstructed by deposits of cholesterol in the arteries. So too can the constant stream of God’s infinite mercy be hindered by the accumulation of resentment and anger in my heart. Like cholesterol, unforgiveness clogs up my arteries. And kills the spiritual muscles of my heart. Preventing me from experiencing for myself the joy of God’s infinite mercy. Causing me to forget what the second reading reminds us. That the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. For Christ both died and came to life… so that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Lord not just of those who do good to me, but also those who do me harm. Unforgiveness causes me to lose sight of this. To forget the close bond that unites me even to my enemies. Unforgiveness divides those whom Christ has united. Rips apart those whom Christ has joined. Isn’t this why the first reading tells us that resentment and anger… are foul things? Not because they make God stop forgiving me. But because they prevent me from experiencing God’s enduring mercy.

Thankfully, there are steps that I can take to prevent the  accumulation of anger and resentment in my heart. Steps very similar to those for lowering cholesterol. The first step is simply to watch my diet. Not so much what I put into my mouth and stomach, as what I allow to occupy my mind and heart. When the poisonous memories of hurts and traumas suffered in the past begin to fill my consciousness. As they sometimes do. And I find it difficult to resist them. I need to heed the advice of the first reading. Not to suppress the bad memories. For I  am often powerless to do so. But rather, even as I may acknowledge their presence, to try, at the same time, to recall other memories as well. Not just the hurts I have suffered, but also the blessings I have received. The mercy found in the covenant of the Most High. Sealed by the outpouring of Christ’s blood. And not just the mercy shown to everyone in general. But also the experiences of mercy that are particular to me. Mercy I have known in my own life. In my own history. In my own personal story of sin and conversion. Of having been lost and then found. Of being rescued from danger and perhaps even death.

Isn’t this precisely where the unforgiving servant in the gospel parable falls short? He fails to pity his fellow servant, because he allows himself to forget how much his master has first pitied him. In a sense, we may say that the unforgiving servant fails to watch his diet. He indulges in resentment and anger. And these foul things clog up his arteries. Preventing him from feeling God’s mercy. Causing him to be upset instead of grateful. Deprived, instead of blessed. Frustrated, rather than joyful.

Which then points us to another step for preventing the build-up of resentment and anger: exercise. The kind of spiritual exercise that we prayed for in the opening prayer just now, when we asked God to grant that we may serve you with all our heart. For whereas a diet of resentment and anger fills us with bitterness. And turns us only ever inward. The memories of God’s mercies toward us makes us grateful. Stirring up in our hearts holy desires to reach out in service of God and of others. And the more we put such desires into practice, the more we serve God in one another, the less space there will be for grudges and grievances to accumulate. The healthier will be our hearts. The more merciful will be our lives.

And it’s important for us also to realise that service of God and neighbour may actually take the form of resistance to the evil that others do in the world. Resistance expressed in repairing the damage that is done. Or protecting the victims from further harm. Or speaking out for those who have no voice. And standing up for those who have no place in society. For while we have to forgive the wrongdoer, we should not condone the wrongdoing. From here, it is not difficult to see that the practice of forgiveness has implications not just for the way I live my own private personal life. But also, and just as important, forgiveness has implications also for how we live our political lives as citizens of our respective nations and of the world.

So, oxygen and cholesterol, diet and exercise… Mercy and resentment, memory and service… These are among the things that help us better understand and protect our hearts. My dear sisters and brothers, as you celebrate Malaysia Day, what will you be doing to safeguard yourselves and your society from the dangers of heart-attack today?

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