Sunday, October 26, 2008

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40
Picture: CC tuchodi

My sisters and brothers, there are two words on my mind today. And, if you permit me, I’d like to share them with you. The first word I learned in school many years ago, and had all but forgotten. But recent circumstances have led me to recall it. You see, shortly after having relocated to Santa Barbara, I bought a couple of small potted plants to decorate my room. I’m not sure what you call it here, but one of them is what we call in our part of the world a money plant. The other is a pot of thyme. What attracted me to each of these plants was their tendency to overflow their containers. I was hoping that, as they grew, they would drape over the surface on which I’d placed them, thus giving an attractive waterfall-like appearance.

But only a few days after I’d bought and installed them by the window in my room, something began to happen. Instead of cascading in the desired fashion, both plants began to veer sharply – and rather unattractively, I thought – in the opposite direction, toward the window. As though their very lives depended upon it, both plants were turning desperately toward the light. That was when I remembered the first word that I want to talk about today. Here was an example of what I’d learned in biology class so many years ago. This is phototropism. The shoots of plants tend to grow toward the light. And their lives do depend upon this turning. For they need the light to survive.

And, as our Mass readings remind us today, like those plants, a similar turning needs to characterize the lives of Christians too. Speaking approvingly of his Thessalonian friends, Paul tells of how they turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven… And, indeed, to be a Christian is constantly to negotiate such a turning away from false gods who entrap us, toward the One True God who gives us the fullness of life. Like a healthy plant, a practicing Christian needs constantly to turn toward the Light, for upon this depends our very lives in the Spirit.

As Jesus tells us in the gospel, upon the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor the whole law and the prophets depend. What’s more, the life-and-death implications of turning to God in this way are strikingly highlighted for us in the first reading. Here, we are reminded of how love manifests itself by showing compassion towards the most unfortunate in society – the aliens, the widows and orphans, as well as our poor neighbors. If ever you wrong them, God says, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword… Harsh and scary words perhaps, but important to remember nonetheless, if for no other reason than to help us to keep turning toward the Light. But it’s not always easy to do this. Often it’s far more comfortable, far more attractive, simply to keep going in the direction in which we are already heading.

Which brings me to the second word I want to talk about today. It’s a word that I only just learned some days ago, from one of the people with whom I live. Although it’s a word I learned here in the US, it applies very well to something that happened in my home country some months ago.

Especially in recent years, Singapore has become very cosmopolitan. More and more, foreigners are arriving on our shores, mostly for work. Some of these people are pretty well off materially. They are professors and company directors, bankers and lawyers. But the majority of them are at the other end of the economic spectrum. Most perform menial tasks that few Singaporeans want to do. They become construction workers, domestic help, cleaners and the like. It was to benefit a segment of these alien laborers that the local government announced a plan to build a workers’ hostel. Which sounded like a good idea, except that the hostel was to be located in a well-established residential area.

As you may well expect, people were up in arms. They protested the project vehemently. For them, not only would such a hostel affect the property prices in the locality, but it would also put the safety of the residents and their children on the line. Important as it was to find housing for foreign workers, a more appropriate location should be found. And here’s where the word I learned becomes applicable. What the residents were saying was, in effect, nimby – N-I-M-B-Y – not in my backyard.

Of course, we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize. It’s important to acknowledge the legitimacy of the protests. It is probably true that the project might well adversely affect property prices and the security of residents. Not only is building a hostel for foreign workers in a residential area far from the sexy thing to do, it could be downright dangerous.

Which underscores the radicality of the love commandments that Jesus is talking about in the gospel today. To be a Christian, to love God and neighbor, often means having to do things that seem unattractive and uncomfortable. It means, for example, showing mercy to aliens, not least because, as the first reading tells us, we were once aliens ourselves – even if not us personally, then at least our forefathers and mothers, and even if not in a legal sense, then surely in a spiritual sense. For it is only by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that we were all given a place, not just in the backyard, but even in the very household, and at the very dining table of God. Isn’t this what we are celebrating at this Mass?

To continue being a Christian, then, means being continually willing to negotiate a sharp turn away from the prevailing idols of comfort and expedience, in the direction of the Light of God’s love and compassion. On this turning depends the very authenticity and integrity of our lives as followers of Christ.

Sisters and brothers, even as this great nation continues to negotiate the financial crisis in which it, and the rest of the world, is mired, even as it prepares to elect its next president, perhaps it’s useful for us Christians to continue to examine ourselves. When we look at how we live our lives – when others look at us – what is it that we see? Is ours merely an attractive, comfortable, but ultimately self-centered existence? Or is there rather an ongoing effort to turn towards the Light?

Sisters and brothers, how are we – you and I – being invited to reject the attitude of nimby, so as to live the reality of phototropism today?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday in the 29th Week of Ordinary Time
The Cupboard Was Bare

Readings: Ephesians 2:1-10; Psalm 100:1b-2, 3, 4ab, 4c-5; Luke 12:13-21
Picture: CC frazgo

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To fetch her poor dog a bone.
But when she got there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

Some of us may still remember this nursery rhyme. It expresses the disappointment of having one’s expectations dashed. Both Old Mother Hubbard and her dog were counting on there being something in the cupboard for the eating. But the cupboard was bare… Some of us may have similar experiences of such disappointment and misplaced expectations. We may be cooking, for example, thinking all the while that a particularly crucial ingredient or spice can be found in the cupboard. But just when we reach the stage in the cooking process when the ingredient is needed, we open the cupboard and find it bare… Or think of what’s been happening recently in the world of finance. We invest our hard-earned savings in a particular portfolio, hoping for a return substantial enough to provide for our retirement. And, overnight, what we thought to be a well-stocked cupboard suddenly appears so painfully empty, so tragically bare…

Today’s readings tell us that something similar can happen in the spiritual life too. Here too, it is possible to be deceived by the apparently well-stocked but ultimately empty cupboard. Such is the experience of the rich man in the gospel, who spent so much energy accumulating possessions that he forgot to stock up on the one thing that is truly essential. In his obsession with material things, he had forgotten what Jesus reminds us of today, that one’s life does not consist of possessions. So that when the time came to cash out on his investments, he found the cupboard of his life woefully bare.

In contrast, the first reading invites us to consider well life’s true location. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast… Life is to be found not so much in the various cupboards of our anxious striving for self-preservation, as it is to be received as a precious gift bestowed upon us by a loving God. Even so, to receive this gift, to enjoy the contents of God’s generosity, there is something we need to do, something in which we need to invest. Again, as the first reading reminds us, we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. We find life by performing the good works inspired by the Spirit of Christ, in whom we have become the possessions of God. In the words of the psalm: the Lord made us, we belong to him…

Especially in this time when the cupboards of many are bare, how might we be called to perform good works in Christ today?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Eating In/Out

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14 or 22:1-10
Picture: CC soham_pablo

My sisters and brothers, which do you prefer? When given a choice, do you like to go out for a meal, or do you much rather eat at home? If you’re like me, your answer will probably be, well… it depends… Sometimes I prefer one and sometimes the other… It depends because, of course, there are pros and cons on both sides, aren’t there?

Whether it is to a restaurant or to a friend’s place, going out can be quite pleasant. Not only does it offer a break from routine, but it also means you don’t have to cook for yourself. You don’t have to spend much time and energy in the store and then in the kitchen assembling something resembling a meal. You’re also spared from having to clear up afterwards. No need to fill and empty the dishwasher. No need to clear the table and mop the kitchen floor.

Even so, although you do have to work a little harder, eating in does have its attractions too. Quite apart from the money you might save, cooking your own meal also means you have a better control over what you eat and drink. You’re limited neither by the breadth of the restaurant’s menu or the culinary skills of your host. And, just as important, eating at home usually means you don’t really have to bother with dress codes. Not only don’t you have to dress up, but you’re also spared from having to put on your going-out-face. No need to make too much of an effort to be pleasant and charming, if you’re not really up to it. You can simply relax and be yourself. After all, you're at home.

Yes, there are pros and cons either way. So, for me, it depends. Sometimes I like to go out, and sometimes I prefer to stay home. It depends on my mood.

And there are no prizes for guessing the prevailing mood of those to whom Jesus is speaking in the gospel today. For the chief priests and elders of the people, there really is no question about it. They much rather eat at home than go out. So attached are they to their own cooking, that they refuse to budge even when invited by no less than the king himself. So stubbornly do they cling to their own favorite recipes that they turn up their noses even on a delicious wedding feast, a joyous celebration, in which they need do no work. Indeed, according to Jesus' parable, so scornful are they of the king’s invitation that they even go to the extent of killing the servants sent by him.

This behavior sounds almost too farfetched and unreasonable to be believed. Until, that is, we reflect a little further on our readings. For although the banquet of the king has already been prepared, something is yet required of those invited. Consider first that the banquet is held in a very definite location. To attend it, one has to leave home and proceed to this appointed venue. And notice too, how this special location is described in the first reading. There we’re told that the feast is laid out on the mountain of the Lord. Which seems to imply that, to attend this feast, to accept this invitation, not only must one leave the familiar comforts of home, but one also needs to climb a great height! Not only that, consider also how the parable ends. Even after people have accepted the invitation, they are expected to follow a strict dress code. They must put on a wedding garment, or face expulsion. Many are invited, but few are chosen.

Can we blame the chief priests and the elders for not being in the mood? Would we not make the same choice if we found ourselves in their shoes? Faced with such fearsome inconvenience, wouldn’t we much rather eat in than go out? Indeed, don’t we often face similar difficulties ourselves?

When, for example, God beckons us to savor the sumptuous feast of reconciliation with our enemies, how many of us will jump at the chance, and joyfully accept the invitation? How many of us will respond immediately to such a summons, by leaving the familiar confines of our own, often petty, grievances and hurt feelings, in order to climb the high mountain of forgiveness? How many of us will willingly put on the garment of Christ’s example, that saw him praying for his persecutors even as he hung upon the cross?

Or when we might hear God inviting us to join in the banquet of fraternal love and concern, how many of us will leave the comforts of our sheltered and often self-centered lives, in order to reach out to those in need, whether near or far away? How many of us will bother to climb the high mountain of mercy and compassion and put on the same garment worn by Paul in the second reading? How many of us can say with Paul, that we have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need? How many of us can be like the Philippians in seeking to share in the distress of others?

Are we all then doomed to a similar fate as the man without the wedding garment? Are we inescapably destined to be bound hand and foot and cast into the darkness where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth? How are we to find the strength to accept God’s invitation in the face of such formidable obstacles?

Even as we beg God for help, perhaps we might also ponder over two further considerations. The first is found in our scripture readings, the second, wherever we may care to look. From a closer reading of today’s scripture, we find something crucially important about God’s invitation. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is not really an invitation to eat out. For, as we are told in the responsorial psalm, God spreads this feast for us not just in any restaurant, however posh, but in the house of the Lord itself. And it is in this house that we are all destined to live all the days of our lives. This is where we can be most completely relaxed, most fully the persons we are meant to be. For in the Lord’s house we find our true and ultimate home.

Even so, we do need to dress up to go home. We do need to put on Christ. And to discover how this looks like, how this could feel like, we have only to look at the many examples around us. I think, for instance, of 25-year old John Hancock, who was featured in a news report on MSNBC some days ago. John has left the comforts of his California home and devoted a year of his life to volunteering with a non-profit organization dedicated to disaster relief. His work has brought him to Peru, Bangladesh, China and, most recently, to Haiti. In Haiti, he was filmed knee deep in mud, laboring to help the locals recover from the terrible devastation wrought by a recent cyclone. This is what John said about his work: I get so much out of it for myself that I worry I don’t give enough back.

Of course, we don’t all have to do exactly what John is doing. Not many of us can. But what we can do is to allow his example to strike a chord within us, to inspire us to put on Christ and so, in our own way, to respond to the Lord’s invitation.

Sisters and brothers, today how is the Lord inviting us to dress up and to go home?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wednesday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time
Creatures of Habit

Readings: Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14; Psalm 117:1bc, 2; Luke 11:1-4
Picture: CC FaceMePLS

It is said that the human being is a creature of habit. I don’t know exactly how or whether this is true of everyone. But I do often find its truth in my own behavior. I am aware, for example, of how I seem always to gravitate towards a certain pew whenever I go to church. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If something works, why change it. And, after all, some say that the cultivation of good habits is actually a means to becoming a person of character, a moral person, a good person. Even so, there are dangers to clinging too rigidly to the routine and the habitual, aren’t there? Clinging to what works may well may prevent me from experimenting with and discovering something that works better. And while my habit of choosing a particular spot in church may seem quite harmless, alarm bells should ring if I find myself becoming irritated when someone else occupies my seat ahead of me.

In contrast to such rigidity, what we find in our readings today is perhaps something quite different. Notice how, in the first reading, Paul seems to manifest two rather contrasting ways of proceeding. On the one hand, he is concerned with being accountable and submissive to the apostles in Jerusalem, so that I might not be running… in vain. On the other hand, however, Paul is also not averse to opposing Cephas to his face because he clearly was wrong. Also, as Paul tells us, the church in his time confines its ministry neither to the circumcised nor to the uncircumcised, but reaches out to both. And, in the gospel, while we find Jesus engaging as usual in his habit of prayer, this does not preclude him from sharing his experience with others. While he enjoys moments of solitude, these do not exclude moments spent with his disciples as well.

There is a further reflection we might make, one that perhaps explains why and how these different behaviors and habits are held in tension in the experiences of Jesus, Paul and the early church. A clue to an answer is provided by Paul’s statement that he went up to Jerusalem… in accord with a revelation… What keeps our habits from falling into the rut of dull routine is the cultivation of yet another, more fundamental practice. It is the habit of ever trying to discover and be open to the voice of Revelation, the face of the Lord, in whatever new circumstance – however unsettling – might come our way. Yes, even the person who might have taken my seat in church…

For to do this is also to receive the daily bread with which our heavenly Father delights in feeding us.

What habits are we being invited to cultivate today?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Friday in the 26th Week of Ordinary Time
Children Who Listen

Readings: Job 38:1, 12-21; 40:3-5; Psalm 139:1-3, 7-8, 9-10, 13-14ab; Luke 10:13-16
Picture: CC Leonid Mamchenkov

Among the many heartrending experiences in human experience is the sight of a parent desperately trying to reach out to a wayward child. It’s painful for any parent, but the struggle is perhaps all the more marked in the case of one who enjoys some kind of authority outside the family. Isn’t it pitiful to witness how, for example, a successful businessperson, or respected politician, or revered professor– for all his/her expertise and skill – may still fail miserably to keep his/her child on the straight and narrow?

We experience something of the same pathos as we listen to Jesus’ speech to the wayward inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. This is the Christ, the Anointed One, who has moved hearts with his message and mended bodies with his miracles. This is the Eternal Word that comes from the mouth of the Father, the One through whom all things were made. And we know the power of the Word in the Bible. God’s Word makes things happen. When God speaks, creation comes into being. When God speaks, the rain falls, or ceases. When God speaks, the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt… And yet, all the same, when God speaks to God’s children, often enough, nothing happens, no change is made. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!

Even so, that’s not always the case. There are children who do listen – children who actually come to experience the power of God’s Word to change minds, to move hearts, and to mold lives. We find an example of one such child in Job. We cannot fail to notice the radical change that takes place in him. In the first reading we witness something of his transformation. Quite marvelously, he who was angry and grieving is finally able to come to terms with his situation. He who had previously encountered only the painful silence of the dark night comes to experience the healing power of God’s voice. How did this come about? What is Job’s secret? What can we learn from his experience?

At least two points come to mind. The first is has to do with the location from which God speaks. We’re told that God addresses Job from out of the storm. God encounters Job in the very midst of the tumultuous waters of his painful situation. God speaks to Job from out of the storm of his grief. This is something at once consoling and challenging – consoling because it tells us that pain can be productive, but also challenging because it implies the need to resist our spontaneous desire to anesthetize ourselves whenever we suffer discomfort. It implies a willingness to imitate Job, who continued to cry out to God in the midst of his difficulty, waiting for God to answer him. It implies a readiness to meet and to accompany the One who Rose only because he was first Crucified.

The second point has to do with the content of God’s address to Job. To be honest, from the perspective of an onlooker, God’s words don’t sound very convincing. For a long time Job has been asking God to tell him why he who had been faithful, he who had done nothing wrong, had to suffer so terribly. And God responds not so much with an answer, as with more questions, not so much with an explanation as a challenge. Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth? Tell me, if you know all… Even so, the amazing thing is that not only is Job convinced, he is also comforted. What can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth. Though I have spoken once, I will not do so again; though twice, I will do so no more. Could it be because while an outsider might be looking for an explanation, more so does Job desire a relation? Could it be because while we may focus only on solutions to our problems, Job is open to the incomprehensible mystery of God’s providence? There really is only one way to find out…

How might the Word of God be addressing us today?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Wednesday in the 26th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Virgin & Doctor of the Church
Looking Ahead

Readings: Jb 9:1-12, 14-16; Ps 88:10bc-11, 12-13, 14-15; Lk 9:57-62
Pictures: CC terriseesthings

No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what is left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.

I’m neither a mountain climber nor a track athlete, but I seem to recall a piece of advice that’s applicable just as well to either of these activities. If you’re climbing a mountain, don’t look down. And if you’re running a race, don’t turn back. Seems like common sense. Looking back can be distracting, not to mention dangerous. And yet, isn’t there something about the human condition that makes this advice truly difficult to follow?

Of course, we’re not speaking of just any mountain, or race. We’re not referring to trivial matters like changing one’s mind about going shopping or watching a movie. Neither are we talking about obviously wrong or evil choices that require reversal. A drug addict does well to go to rehab, just as a thief ought to return the loot. What our readings invite us to consider is the wholehearted commitment that is required of anyone who wishes to be fit for the Kingdom of God. And this is often easier said than done.

For isn’t there something about us that makes looking back seem like such a natural thing to do? Sometimes we do it out of a sense of nostalgia. We hanker after the good ole’ days. At other times, perhaps especially in times of trial, we find ourselves wondering if we had made the right decision in the first place. Or we may wish we had done things differently. If only… And while there is a kind of remembering that strengthens our commitment – much like our celebration of the Eucharist does – there’s also a kind of retrospection that actually undermines our resolve. By yielding to the temptation of looking to what was left behind we sabotage ourselves. We become mired in a pool of self-pity and regret, and so leave the mountain unclimbed, the race un-run.

In contrast, today’s readings present us with the examples of Jesus and Job. Both have committed themselves to a climb. Both are running a race. Job is as God-fearing as Jesus is faithful to his Father’s will. And, to use the language of the marathon, both have hit the wall. Jesus is proceeding on the journey that will bring him to a cruel death on the cross. Job’s fidelity to God seems to gain him nothing but the loss of his possessions, his family, and even his health. And yet, neither one looks back. Quite to the contrary, both of them keep looking ahead.

And it is in looking ahead that both find the strength they need to press on. Jesus can keep his hand firmly on the plow, only because he has placed his life in the hands of the One who sent him. He can speak of having nowhere to rest his head only because his heart rests in the bosom of his Father’s will. Likewise, within the dark night that enshrouds him, Job continues to contemplate the face of the One he professes to serve. The whole of the first reading is a description of the awesome, even terrible, transcendence of God. How can a man be justified before God? ... He does great things past finding out, marvelous things beyond reckoning. And Job does this without repressing his own grief and pain. Here, the cry of the psalmist could not be more apt: Why, O Lord, do you reject me; why hide from me your face? Quite incredibly, even in the midst of his affliction, Job continues to look forward and upward.

Someone once said that when we are turned away from the light – when we look back – the shadows are long. But when we continue to face the light, when we insist on traveling in its direction, even when its brilliance takes on the forbidding aspect of darkness, the shadows disappear from sight.

How are we being strengthened to continue climbing and running and plowing today?