Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sustainable Energy

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Video: YouTube Sung Wing Chun

My dear friends, are you familiar with the term sustainable energy? I’m sure you are, right? It refers to power drawn from sources that are both renewable and clean. Sources like the sun and the wind, for example. In contrast, fossil fuels, like oil and coal and natural gas, are unsustainable. Not only will they eventually run out, they also tend to pollute the environment. As you know, we use all these forms of energy to power our machines. But what about ourselves? Is there such a thing as sustainable energy for the human body? What do you think?

I recently came across a YouTube video that seems to suggest there is. In the video, someone named Chu Shong Tin, a now deceased martial artist from Hong Kong, a master of Wing Chun kungfu, speaks about how his teaching methods have evolved over the years. Earlier, he had focused on training students in the technique of pushing hands. However, he found that, while his students made good progress, they fell short in one significant way. Although most of them were much younger and physically stronger than him, they all tired out much faster. Eventually, Master Chu realised that, whereas his students relied on muscular strength, which didn’t last, his own energy came from a different source. And it was this mysterious inner power that he then tried to help his students access. We may say that he taught them to use a more sustainable form of energy.

But even if there is such a thing as sustainable energy in the martial arts, could there something similar in the spiritual life? A form of energy that is both renewable and clean? And, if so, how do we tap into it? I believe these, my dear friends, are the questions that our readings invite us to ponder today. They do this by offering us three examples. That of Isaiah in the first reading, of Paul in the second, and Peter in the gospel. And, in each of these examples, we see three distinct steps in the process of tapping into sustainable spiritual energy. Three key moments for gaining access to grace.

The first step is taken not so much by us as by God. It is the step of encounter. In the first reading, Isaiah has a spectacular vision of the Lord seated on a high throne, surrounded by a multitude of heavenly beings. In the second reading, Paul writes about how the crucified and risen Jesus appeared not only to the Twelve, but also to Paul himself. Paul is, of course, speaking about his experience of being struck down on the road to Damascus. In the gospel, out of all the seagoing vessels parked by the lakeside, Jesus chooses to board Peter’s boat. Which he uses first as a pulpit for preaching the gospel to the crowd, and then as a stage for demonstrating to Peter the power of God.

Isaiah, Paul and Peter. Three unsuspecting people, who each encounter the Lord. And although the exact details may be different, there are some important similarities. For example, all three have their lives disrupted in a significant way. In a way that demands from them a response, which each one feels painfully inadequate to make. Isaiah protests his own polluted state. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. Paul too is deeply aware of his own unworthiness. Since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle. And Peter is moved to say to Jesus, Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man. If sustainable energy is, by definition, renewable and clean, then perhaps these protests are signs that the energy these men had relied on before was unsustainable.

Thankfully, however, the first moment of encounter soon leads to a second, and much needed, moment of empowerment. Like that old martial artist in the video, God helps each person to tap into a different and more sustainable source of power. An angel cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a live coal taken from the heavenly altar. Paul speaks of bearing fruit, not only by his own hard work, but by God’s grace. And Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, for he and his companions will be given the ability not just to catch fish, but to gather people into the kingdom of God.

Encounter leading to empowerment. These are the first two moments of grace. But, on their own, they are still incomplete. A third is needed. We see this perhaps most clearly in the second reading, which begins with Paul speaking about the gospel not only as something that the Corinthians have received, but also as something in which they are firmly established. Unlike the martial arts, the power of the good news, the sustainable spiritual energy of grace, from which Paul himself draws, is not just something to be used only on special occasions, for performing certain specific functions, and then to be carefully stored away.

On the contrary, the grace of God is meant to be something on which one relies for the whole of one’s life, in all its aspects. Isn’t this what we find already in the opening prayer that we offered earlier? There, we spoke about relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace. Relying on grace not just in addition to other forms of power. And not just for performing certain religious actions at certain specified times. Not just at Mass on a Sunday, for example. But to rely on grace solely. At all times, and for all actions. To be firmly established on grace. We see this also in the first reading, where, after receiving his call, Isaiah ends up devoting his whole life to being God’s messenger. Here I am, send me. And, in the gospel, we’re told that Peter and his companions left everything and followed Jesus. They gave up their reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, and gradually reestablished their whole lives solely on grace.

Encounter, empowerment, and establishment. Three important steps for converting from a reliance on ourselves to a dependence on God. And are these not steps that we all need to take especially today? When so many of us find ourselves tired and stressed out? So often on the verge of burnout? Struggling to find meaning and purpose in the face of the many oppressive demands of daily life. Drawing from dubious sources of energy, like guilt and shame, or greed and envy, or anger and resentment, or loneliness and boredom. Energies that are not only easily exhausted, but that also tend to pollute our lives, and compromise our relationships, even in our own families.

And yet, in the midst of all this, God continues to call us, as God called Isaiah and Peter and Paul. God continues to call us to establish our lives on the sustainable energy that is the love of God shown most clearly in the Dying and Rising of Christ. The same love that we are gathered at this Eucharist to celebrate. To rely solely on the grace of God’s love. Isn’t this our true vocation as followers of Christ?

Sisters and brothers, despite notable exceptions, many countries and large companies around the world are taking steps to shift to more sustainable sources of energy. What must we do, you and I, to respond more generously to God’s call to us to do the same in our spiritual life today?

Sunday, February 03, 2019

The Power(lessness) of Love

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Video: YouTube BonnieRaittVEVO

My dear friends, what do you think? Is love powerful or powerless? I’m sure many of us have heard songs about the power of love, right? But do you know any songs that sing about love’s powerlessness? Are you familiar, for example, with these words from a love song released in 1991?

'Cause I can't make you love me if you don’t.
You can't make your heart feel something it won’t.
Here in the dark, in these final hours,
I will lay down my heart, and I'll feel the power.
But you won’t. No, you won’t.
'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don’t.

These words are sung by someone who realises, painfully, that the one she loves doesn’t love her back. And one striking thing about the song is how it shows love to be both powerful and powerless at the same time. On the one hand, her love for the beloved gives the singer the power to lay down my heart, even when her partner doesn’t do the same. And yet, on the other hand, she is also pitifully powerless. ‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t… I can’t make you love me. That’s the title of this sad but beautiful song about the powerlessness of love.

Yes, it’s true, isn’t it, my dear friends? Love is often both powerful and powerless at the same time. This is also what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, we’re told that the word of the Lord was addressed to the prophet Jeremiah. And this word is at once a word of love and a word of power. For God tells Jeremiah that, even from his mother’s womb, God has lovingly known him and formed him, consecrated him and appointed him as prophet to the nations. This call, this vocation, gives Jeremiah power to speak courageously in the name of God. To confront all this land of Judah, its leaders and its people, even when they offer him stiff resistance and cruel persecution. They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you. This, my dear friends, is the power of love.

And yet, although Jeremiah speaks in the power of God’s loving word, his ministry is also marked by powerlessness. For, however hard he tries, and however loudly he cries, Jeremiah fails to turn the people’s hearts back to God. Like the singer of that sad song, he is unable to make the people love the One who loved them first. I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.

And what is true of Jeremiah is true also of Jesus. Of course, we know that Jesus is more than just a prophet speaking God’s word. As John’s gospel tells us, Jesus is himself the Word of God made flesh for us. And, as Word of God, who is Love, Jesus wields great power. He is able to win the approval of the people in the synagogue by the gracious words that came from his lips. He is able even to escape the crowd, when it turns hostile, and tries to corner him and kill him.

And yet, powerful though he may be, in the gospel, Jesus also shows a mysterious powerlessness. For although he has worked great miracles in Capernaum, he doesn’t seem able to do the same in Nazareth, his own hometown. For he says that no prophet is ever accepted in his own country. Like Jeremiah the prophet, and like the singer of that sad song, Jesus seems unable to make people love the One who loved them first. I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.

Like that sad song, the experiences of Jeremiah and Jesus show us that love is often both powerful and powerless at the same time. But that’s not all, my dear friends. The Scriptures actually show us something even deeper about true love, about God’s love. For although, in the gospel, Jesus amazes us by miraculously escaping those who want to kill him, this is not the full extent of his power. Further on in the story, Jesus will show an even greater power than this. Do you know how he does it? Not by escaping those who want to kill him, but instead by humbly submitting himself to them in love. 

For the amazing thing about God’s love is not just that it is both powerful and powerless at the same time. But, even more than that, God’s love actually shows its power most clearly, most wonderfully, most effectively, precisely in its powerlessness. Isn’t this what we find in the second reading as well. Which describes love as being always patient and kind… never jealous… never boastful or conceited… never rude or selfish… The power of love is shown most of all in its powerlessness. In its ability to remain patient and kind, even unto death. Death on a cross.

And, if this is true, then perhaps, unlike the singer of that sad song, Jesus does actually have a mysterious power to make me love him, even when I don’t. Even when I find it difficult to be patient and kind. Even when I find it difficult not to be jealous, or boastful, or conceited… Difficult to truly lay down my heart for love of God and of my neighbour, my family, my colleagues, my friends, and even my enemies. When I find myself becoming more selfish than selfless, more indifferent than loving, perhaps what I need to do is to again gaze upon the Crucified One, who shows his love for me by humbly hanging on a cross. Isn’t this why we take the trouble to gather to celebrate Mass every Sunday? So that we may remember Christ’s loving sacrifice for us, and draw power from his utter powerlessness. So that I may be made to love him, whom I so often do not love enough.

‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow the powerless One to give us power to love him even more than we do today?

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