Monday, January 26, 2009

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Panhandler's Plea

Readings: Jon 3:1-5, 10;Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Picture: cc stephenccwu

Sisters and brothers, I’m reminded today of a young couple whom I walked by just a few days ago along State Street in Downtown Santa Barbara. They were panhandling. Which isn’t so out of the ordinary for that part of town. But what drew my attention was the fact that they looked cleaner and healthier than the average hobo, and they were also accompanied by three dogs. On taking a closer look, I noticed that the guy was holding up a piece of cardboard on which was written something that almost made me laugh out loud. Family killed by Stormtroopers, it said, need change for Jedi training. With a sign like that, I’m not sure if they actually collected any money.

In any case, strange as it may seem, it is those words crudely scrawled on that ragged piece of cardboard, that our Mass readings recall to my mind today. As we are all probably well aware, the words allude to the Star Wars saga. But what possible connection might they have to today’s readings? And what possible relevance might they have for us? At least three points, I think, three points of convergence between the panhandler’s sign and the scriptures, three aspects that invite our reflection.

First, there is, of course, the element of misfortune and danger. Family killed by Stormtroopers – not just a reference to a past misfortune, but also an implication of real and present danger. Those familiar with Star Wars will remember, for example, how the evil Emperor’s strenuous efforts at finding and destroying the young Luke Skywalker not only result in the death of Luke’s friend and mentor, Ben Kenobi, but also force Luke to flee his home planet of Tatooine. Misfortune and danger. Not unlike the situation that we find in our readings today.

Consider the message that Jonah is sent by God to announce to the Ninevites in the first reading. Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed. There we have the explicit danger, the fast approaching misfortune. And there’s also something unspoken too. What’s implied is that it is through their own conduct, their own actions, that the Ninevites have brought this calamity upon themselves.

We find something ominous in the second reading too. Here, even though no sin or fault is indicated, we’re reminded of the ephemeral nature of our existence upon this earth – for both the innocent and the guilty alike, the world in its present form is passing away.

Still, all is not lost. Something can yet be done. And here’s the second point of convergence. For our panhandling friends on State Street, the solution lay, apparently, in receiving spare change. For the Ninevites too, the answer lay in change, but change of a different sort. What they needed was not so much monetary assistance from without, as much as divine intervention from above. And in order to receive this, they had first to undergo a change of heart, an interior conversion expressed in concrete exterior actions. We’re told that the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

As a result, another very mysterious change was brought about. Apparently, a change actually took place in God. We’re told that God repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them. However we choose to interpret this statement, the point remains that the way out of the perilous situation facing the Ninevites lay in change of a very definite sort, change that was both deeply felt and concretely expressed. The dark clouds of danger and misfortune could only be dissipated when the Ninevites resolved to turn away from their usual attitudes and actions.

But that’s not all. Even if that’s how the first reading ends, the other readings tell us that this change, this repentance, this turning away from, needs to be accompanied by a turning towards something or someone. Need change for Jedi training, said the panhandler’s sign. Likewise, and this is our third point of convergence, the change of repentance is needed only so that we can undergo training of a certain sort. This is the same training for which the psalmist prays when he asks God to teach me your ways, guide me in your truth and teach me… It is the same training for which Simon and Andrew, and James and John abandoned fish and family in order to undergo. Not Jedi training, surely, but Jesus training. Come after me, and I will make you fishers of women and men. It is also through this same training that we learn what it might mean to put into practice Paul’s enigmatic words to the Corinthians in the second reading: to have spouses and yet to act as not having them, to weep and to act as not weeping, to rejoice as not rejoicing, to buy as not owning, to use the world as not using it fully.

These then are the three points of convergence between the scriptures and the panhandler’s sign: danger, change and training. And do we really have to reflect much more deeply to see their relevance for us today? Surely the dangers of our current situation are evident enough. Can we not see ever more clearly the likely consequences of, for example, continuing to enshrine greed as the only necessary engine of progress, or to excuse the shedding of innocent blood as inevitable collateral damage, or to neglect our responsibility to respect and to uphold the sanctity of life as much as the sacredness of the earth?

Faced with these and other dangers, do we not find ourselves yearning for change? And yet, are we not also painfully aware of what the Ninevites realized so well – that we can truly change the world only by first changing ourselves? And do we not need now, as much as the first disciples did then, to undergo the training that our Lord continues to offer us? Indeed, isn’t this the very training that we have gathered here, around ambo and altar, to celebrate – the paschal training offered by the One who lived, died and was raised to life for us?

Sisters and brothers, perhaps we’re not so much different from those two youthful panhandlers on State Street, or from the recalcitrant people of Nineveh, or those diligent fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Like them, we too require change so that we can devote ourselves to the training that is able to save us from calamity.

How might the Lord be offering these very things to us today?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Wedding Mass of Christina Puno & Warren Okubo
Thank You for the Music

Readings: Genesis 1:26-28, 31a; Psalm 103:1-2, 8 & 13, 17-18a; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; John 15:9-12

Christina and Warren, dear friends, are you familiar with the word Abba? Some of you may know that in Aramaic, Abba means father. But that’s not the Abba I mean. I’m sure at least some of us here are also familiar with the Swedish pop group from the 1970’s. Perhaps some of us have watched the more recent musical, Mamma Mia, or the movie of the same name, which featured their songs. I don’t know how you feel about ABBA, and I’m sorry if this seems less than appropriate, but on this joyous occasion, I’m reminded of the following words from an ABBA song entitled Thank You for the Music.

I’m nothing special. In fact I’m a bit of a bore.
If I tell a joke, you’ve probably heard it before.
But I have a talent, a wonderful thing.
‘Cause everyone listens when I start to sing.
I’m so grateful and proud.
All I want is to sing it out loud.

So I say:
Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing.
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing.
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty?
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music.
For giving it to me.

Whether we like ABBA or not, I’m reminded of these words today because they resonate rather well with what we are doing here. As you may know, in the song, a woman celebrates and gives thanks for her musical talent: Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing. Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing… And aren’t we doing something very similar at this celebration too?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t really know whether either of you, Christina or Warren, or any of the rest of us, for that matter, is musically inclined. No, the song that I’m referring to is of a different sort. The music for which we are giving thanks today is, of course, the love between Christina and Warren. One of the main things we are doing at this celebration is saying thank you for the music, thank you for the song of love that has brought together, not just these two young people, but also all of you, their family and friends. But what exactly is the nature of this song? Why are we so grateful for it? What does it sound like? From where does it come? And where does it lead us? The answers to these questions are found in the beautiful readings that you, Christina and Warren, have chosen for this celebration.

These readings tell us at least three things about the song for which we are giving thanks. The first is how precious, how very important, it is. For in the first reading, we are told that woman and man are made in the image and likeness of God: in the image of God he created… them. And we know, of course, from the first letter of John, that God is love (1 John 4:16). It follows, then, that the song of love that we are celebrating today is not something extra, something that is good to have but that we can actually do without. For if we are all made in the image of love, then we can remain human only to the extent that we keep singing love’s song. By inviting us to this celebration, Christina and Warren, you are reminding us that, as important as it may be to have a comfortable home, a good job, a stylish car, well-connected friends, lightning-fast Internet service, or HD TV, love is far more precious. For love is what makes us who we are – to be human is to be loved and to love. Or, if you prefer ABBA’s expression: who can live without it, I ask in all honesty? What would life be? Without a song or a dance, what are we?

And that’s not all. Not only is it precious, but our readings also tell us that this song of love is immensely powerful. Consider what we heard about love in the second reading. When faced with trying situations and difficult people, for example, when our tongues are itching to say something sarcastic or hurtful, when our hands are eager to wrap themselves around another’s throat and to give it a good shake, love gives us the power, instead, to be patient and kind. When circumstances – either experiences of failure or success – may lead us to think either too poorly or too highly of ourselves, love empowers us to be neither jealous nor pompous. And when it may seem that everyone around us delights only in that which is comfortable and convenient, in whatever is easy and painless, love enables us to rejoice only with the truth, even if the truth comes at a cost, as it did for the Lord Jesus and those who seek to follow him.

Yes, this song that we are celebrating today is indeed as powerful as it is precious. Which is why the readings remind us of a third important thing about this song of love. In order for it to endure in our lives, we have to do all we can to persevere in singing it. As Jesus tells us in the gospel, remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love. Or, in the words of ABBA, we need to remember that we have all been given a wonderful thing, for which we are justifiably grateful and proud. Such that all we want to do is evermore to sing it out loud.

Dear friends, isn’t this why we are all here today? We have come to witness this joyous moment when you, Christina and Warren, will commit yourselves to each other, not just for a day, but for the rest of their lives, not just in good times, but also in bad, not just in the vigor of youth and health, but also even in the frailty of sickness and old age. Today you will declare before the church and the rest of the world that, through your life together, even when circumstances might seem to conspire to drown out your song, you wish to keep on singing.

And you, Christina’s and Warren’s family and friends, will also pledge to support them, to share in the song of their love. Why? Because, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. Whatever may happen in the future, whatever the price we may have to pay, we believe that as long as we continue to renew and to live out our commitment to singing this song that begins in God and that continues to resound among us, we will all be led ultimately to the fullness of joy.

Dear friends, today is indeed a joyous occasion. Christina and Warren, together with you, in this Eucharistic celebration, we all want to say a big thank you to God, and to one another. Together with you, we all want to say thank you for the music, the song that makes us grateful and proud! May our compassionate God grant us the power to keep on singing it out loud!