Sunday, May 29, 2011

6th Sunday of Easter (A)
Bearing Joy on Broken Legs

Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

Sisters and brothers, I think that by now at least some of us have seen the news report that has been making the rounds on the internet. It tells the story of how a little puppy–a terrier mix by the name of Mason–recently brought great joy to the hearts of his family. Mason lives in the town of North Smithfield, in Alabama. On the 27th of April, Mason had gone missing. A tornado had struck his home and carried him off. After searching in vain for days, his owners had given up hope of ever finding him alive. Then, a couple of weeks later, the family returned to their destroyed house, to see if there was anything they could salvage, only to find their faithful pet sitting on what was left of their front porch, waiting for them. Both of  Mason’s front legs were broken. Yet the little guy had somehow managed to crawl through the rubble and get back home.

Carried off by a tornado. Suffering from the pain of two broken legs. And yet, he was still able to bring joy to the hearts of his family. From where did this little puppy find the strength and the courage to do what he did? What was the reason for his bravery? We can’t say for sure. Mason can’t tell us. He is, after all, only a dog.

But it’s not just puppies who can be bearers of joy even after having their legs broken. We Christians are called to do the same. Isn’t this what we find in our readings today? In the first reading, we’re told that Philip brought great joy to the people of Samaria when he proclaimed Christ to them. He healed the sick. He cured the crippled. He freed those who were possessed by unclean spirits.  And notice too the circumstances that led Philip to do all these things. As you know, our reading today is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. It begins from verse 5 of chapter 8. Chapter 7 had ended with the brutal killing of Stephen, one of Philip’s companions. The religious authorities had stoned Stephen to death. And then, in the first four verses of chapter 8, we’re told that, after Stephen’s execution, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem. As a result of which, the Christians were scattered. So Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans was a direct result of the attacks on Christians that  arose after Stephen was killed.

Swept away by a tornado of persecution. Suffering from the pain of a friend’s death by stoning. Yet Philip still managed to bring the joy of the Risen Christ to the people of Samaria. Clearly, the experience of Philip the Christian bears a striking resemblance to that of Mason the dog. Except for two important differences. For one thing, Mason brought joy to his own family–those who loved him, who fed and cared for him, those who were his friends. Philip, on the other hand, ministered to Samaritans–people who were traditionally treated by the Jews as enemies.

There is another difference. Mason is only a dog, unable to speak. But Philip is both a human being and a follower of Christ. And as such he is both able and duty-bound to give an account of his actions. As the second reading reminds us, this is what Christians are called to do. Just like Philip’s community, the Christians in the second reading are also undergoing persecution. And, in the midst of their trials, they are being asked to respond in a very specific way. Not only are they not to retaliate but, quite incredibly, they are asked to share the joy of their faith even with their enemies. Always be ready, they are told, to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.

But what exactly is the reason for a Christian’s hope? What is the source of our strength? We find the answer in the gospel. Here, as Jesus continues his farewell speech at the Last Supper, he tells his disciples what they should do after he is gone. Jesus tells them how they can continue to enjoy his presence even after he has been cruelly swept away from them by the hatred of his enemies. If you love me, Jesus tells them, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth.... (who) remains with you, and will be in you.

What we find here in our readings today, sisters and brothers, is an important reminder. As followers of Christ, when our legs are broken by the tornadoes of life, not only are we called to continue to bring joy to others, but we are also expected to be ready to somehow share with them the reason for our hope, to impart to them the source of our strength. And this is a most timely reminder for us, especially in these days when it is becoming ever more tempting to react very differently to the trials and tribulations of life. Instead of bringing joy to others on broken legs, there are those who would prefer to snatch security and happiness from out of the barrel of a smoking gun.

We all know, for example, what happened when recently the news broke about the killing of a notorious master terrorist. In some parts of this country, people were dancing in the streets. It is, of course, quite understandable why some might react in this way–especially those who might have lost loved ones at Ground Zero, when the Twin Towers fell, or in the War on Terror in Iraq or Afghanistan. And, especially on this Memorial Day weekend, it is only appropriate that we remember the bravery of the many veterans, who have exposed themselves to danger and made the ultimate sacrifice, so that we might be kept safe. Indeed, we can hardly deny the importance of taking steps to defend ourselves and our families against external threats.

And yet, especially on this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps it is also important for us to keep another memory alive. Perhaps it is important to remember the examples of Mason the dog and of Philip the Christian. Perhaps it is important to recall that there are other possible responses to the storms of life. That, as Christians, baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, we have access to a power that allows us to bring joy to others even on broken legs.

Sisters and brothers, what is our reaction to the tornadoes of life today?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

5th Sunday of Easter (A)
Disturbances and Dwelling-Places

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Picture: cc frozbeats

Sisters and brothers, do you like disturbances? I don’t. I like peace and quiet. I like it when my home is neat and tidy, when everything is in its rightful place. I don’t like it, for example, when I enter the restroom and find that the toilet roll has been used up and nobody has bothered to replace it. Disturbances like that are inconvenient. I don’t like disturbances. Sometimes I wish that there were no disturbances in my life.

Which is why, it’s important for someone like me to remember that disturbances can also be very necessary and important too. Think of this beautiful church of ours, for example. Think of how and why it came to be built. Remember how we felt when the beloved old church was torn down. Remember also the disturbance we had to endure when this new church was being built. For many Sundays we had to worship in a tent. And, where once there stood a House of God, there was in its place only the noise and dust of construction. Why did we put ourselves through such inconvenience? Was it because we like disturbances? No. We went through the trouble of building a new church because our community was growing in number, and the old church could no longer accommodate everyone. The main reason why we chose to endure the disturbance of construction was so that we could make space for more people.

Enduring disturbance to make space for others. This is also what we find in our first reading today. While the earlier chapters of the Acts of the Apostles tell us about how peaceful and united the early Christian community was, today, in chapter 6, we find a disturbance. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians are complaining that their widows are being left out of the daily distribution of food. What to do? Well, if the apostles were as allergic to disturbances as I am, they might have been tempted to do nothing. They might have said something like: We are very busy people. We have been chosen by God to preach the Good News. Don’t bother us with such trivial matters. But, thankfully, the apostles are not like me. They don’t say such things. Instead, they take the trouble to overhaul the structure of the community. They commission a group of leaders to take care of the needs of those who have been neglected. They endure the disturbance so as to make space for others.

And by doing this, they were building up the church. Of course, they were not building a physical structure, like we did with this new worship space. But still, they were building in some way. In the words of the second reading, the early Christians were allowing themselves to be living stones being built into a spiritual house. Through their willingness to endure disturbance so as to make space for those in need, they were offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in Jesus Christ. They were building upon the foundation, the cornerstone, that is Jesus Christ.

For this is also what we find Jesus himself doing in the gospel. Today we read from chapter 14 of John’s gospel. The scene is the Last Supper. Jesus has just washed his disciples feet. Judas has left the room to betray his Master. Soon, in chapter 18, Jesus will be arrested and sentenced to death. But before that happens, here in chapter 14, Jesus begins his long farewell speech. He  comforts his disciples and explains to them his reason for going to his death. Do not let your hearts be troubled, he tells them. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.... And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Jesus willingly undergoes the disturbance of the Cross so as to make space for us in his Father’s house.

But that’s not all. In addition to telling us the reason for his going, Jesus also tells us how to follow him. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. In other words, in order to get to the dwelling places that Jesus has prepared for us, we need to do what he has done. Like the early Christians in the first reading, we need to be willing to undergo disturbance in order to make space for others.

And it’s not just in the church that we need to do this. In society too, don’t we often see people who have been left out? Aren’t there many who desperately need us to disturb our lives in some way, just so that they may have the space to live? I’m reminded of the report in a recent issue of the Santa Barbara Independent, which told of how 350 volunteers gathered at the Earl Warren Showgrounds on a Sunday in February this year. They were being trained to interview homeless people, and to join a massive campaign to stem the rising tide of deaths by moving the sickest among (the homeless) directly into housing. It was also reported that many of these volunteers were slated to start their surveying at 4 a.m. the next day! I do not know how many of these volunteers are followers of Christ. Or, in the words of the gospel, I do not know how many of them have faith in the Lord, or even in God. But it does seem clear, doesn’t it, that what they were doing is something that a Christian is called to do. They were undergoing disturbance so that others might find a dwelling-place.

Sisters and brothers, might there be any disturbances waiting for you in your life today?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

4th Sunday of Easter
Through the Shepherd-Gate

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b, 4, 5, 6; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

Picture: cc  Seth Mazow 

Sisters and brothers, do you have many relatives? How close are you to them? Relatives can usually be divided broadly into two groups: distant and close. Both groups are related to you by blood. But they differ in the degree of intimacy that you share with them. Distant relatives don’t really know much about you. And you don’t know much about them either. You probably don’t even see each other very often. Maybe only on special occasions. In contrast, close relatives are those with whom you share a special bond. With them you keep in close contact. You make a substantial investment of time and energy in each other’s lives.

But suppose for a moment that you had a distant relative to whom you wanted to draw closer. Maybe, for some reason, the two of you have grown apart over the years. And now you want to change things. What do you do?  Is there a path that you can take? Well, for a start, both of you probably have to make a commitment to becoming more involved in each other’s lives. And not only that. You also have to take concrete steps to express that commitment. You have to take the trouble to keep in touch more regularly, and to meet from time to time. But perhaps the best test of your commitment will come when your relative encounters some difficulty or trial. Maybe there’s a serious illness, or a business has failed, or someone is in trouble with the law. When this happens, do you still want to be close? Even if you may not be able to solve the problem, how willing are you to remain present, to lend a listening ear, a supporting shoulder? These then are some of the things that can bring distant relatives closer: commitment, communication and care.

There is a similar path to intimacy in the spiritual life as well. In today’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he wishes to have a close personal relationship with all of his disciples. He compares this closeness to the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. The sheep depend on the shepherd for everything they need to stay alive. And the shepherd dedicates his whole life to caring for his sheep. But how does one cultivate such a close relationship as this? What is the path that needs to be taken? To help us to answer this question, Jesus uses another comparison. He says that we have to enter through a special gate, the shepherd-gate. I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved. But what exactly does this mean? What does this gate look like? What must we do to enter through it?

When we pay close attention to our Mass readings for today, we find that this special gateway actually consists of three gates. In the first reading, it’s the day of Pentecost, and Peter has just preached a moving sermon about the dying and rising of Jesus. After listening to him, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart. They want to draw closer to the Lord. What are we to do? they ask. In response, Peter invites them to walk through the first gate. Repent and be baptized, he says. To enter into a closer relationship with the Lord, one must first pass through this first gate, the gate of commitment. One repents and is baptized.

But, as we all know quite well, the rite of baptism alone does not always bring a person closer to Christ. Don’t we know of people who, even after being baptized, don’t ever come to church anymore, except on special occasions like funerals and weddings? And isn’t it true that even those of us who do come to church every Sunday don’t necessarily have a close relationship with the Lord? Which is why, it’s important that we consider carefully what Jesus tells us about his sheep. They have a very special talent. When the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out, the sheep follow him, because they recognize his call. And, as we know, another word for call is vocation. A true disciple of Christ is one who is capable of receiving a vocation. But how? How does one learn to recognize another’s voice?

Some of us may still remember a time before the invention of cellphones and caller ID. And yet, even without these things, there were occasions when, having picked up the phone, you knew immediately who was on the other end of the line. Even before the speaker identified herself. How did you know? Was it because you had gone for some special training in voice-recognition? No. You recognized the other’s voice because you had been spending much time talking with her. Voice-recognition comes from frequent communication. How do sheep learn to recognize the shepherd’s voice? By listening to it often. For us too. When we find ourselves at the crossroads of our lives, how do we know the direction God wishes us to take? How do we recognize the Lord’s voice? How do we receive a vocation? By spending quality time in prayer, and especially in meditation upon the scriptures. Communication is the second gate that leads us closer to the Lord.

There’s one more gate. This is probably the most effective one for leading us closer to the Lord. It is also the most difficult one to enter. In the second reading, we’re told that if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace from God. For this you have been called (it is your vocation as a Christian), because Christ also suffered for you. Just as we are drawn closer to a relative by sharing in her trials, so too are we drawn closer to the Lord when we share in His sufferings. It doesn’t have to be something as great and glamorous as a martyr’s death. It often happens in quiet and inconspicuous ways. When we go out of our way to be nice to a difficult member of the family, for example, even when we are unappreciated or rejected. By doing such things, we are accepting the Lord’s call to enter through his gate, the gate of the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, as with family members, so too with the Lord. Entering into a closer relationship means being willing to pass through the three gates of commitment, communication, and the Cross. This is the special gateway through which our Lord invites us to enter. As Christians, this is our vocation.

How willing are we to accept the Lord’s call? How much do we want to draw closer to the Good Shepherd today?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

3rd Sunday of Easter
Welding A Broken Heart
Picture: cc TechShop

And how can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round?
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart
And let me live again.
Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of us here have heard these words before. They’re taken from the song that was written and popularized by the Bee Gees in the 1970s. And those of us who have ever had our hearts broken, or those of us who have ever been disappointed in any way, will know very well the emotions expressed here. We know the pain and confusion that causes a person to ask the question: How can you mend a broken heart? How can you gather and reconnect all the shattered pieces? Is it even possible?
Now we know, of course, that it is possible to reconnect broken pieces of metal. The process is called welding. It involves two steps. First, you apply heat to the metal pieces, such that the edges you wish to join begin to melt. Then, you apply a bonding agent, which also melts and mixes with the molten metal. And once the mixture cools down and solidifies, it forms a very strong bond. The two pieces have become welded into one. Through a process of melting and bonding, what was broken is now mended. 
And, quite surprisingly, what works with metals also works with human hearts. This is what we find in our Mass readings today. Consider what we find in the gospel. In the beginning,  we have two disciples who are walking not just with heavy feet, but also with broken hearts. They had placed very high hopes in Jesus. We were hoping, they say, that he would be the one to redeem Israel. But their hopes were dashed when the Lord was crucified as a common criminal. Their hearts were shattered when his body was broken on the wood of the Cross. So that, at the beginning of the gospel, we find them walking away from Jerusalem. They are leaving the place of their heartbreak. 
But the Risen Christ walks with them and proceeds to mend their broken hearts. And it’s important for us to pay close attention to how he does this. Like the welding of metals, the mending of hearts also involves two steps. First, we’re told that Jesus interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures. For the broken-hearted, the Risen Christ breaks open the Word of the Scriptures. And, by doing this, he shows them a truth that they have not yet understood. He shows them that it was necessary that the Christ should suffer. It was necessary that he should suffer! The realization of this truth has a very striking effect on the disciples. As they say to each other later, were not our hearts burning within us while he... opened the Scriptures to us? Like pieces of metal being welded together, when exposed to the heat of the broken Word, the hearts of the disciples begin to burn and to melt. 
But that’s not all. Having melted their hearts, the Risen Christ proceeds to the next step. As with the first step, this second one also involves a breaking. As he did at the Last Supper, Jesus again joins the disciples for a meal. Except that this time it is the disciples who invite him. Then, having accepted their invitation and gathered with them around the table, Jesus presides over the meal. To the hearts that he had first melted by a breaking of the Word, the Risen Christ now adds a bonding agent. He breaks Bread. As a result, the disciples finally recognize him. And, in recognizing him, they realize a second truth. They finally understand that, not only was it necessary that the Christ should suffer, but it was just as necessary that he should be raised. As Peter declares to the crowd in the first reading, God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.
What the disciples begin to understand is that Jesus did not die in vain. Which also means that their sufferings too are not without meaning. In the words of the second reading, what the disciples come to realize is that the broken body of the Crucified Christ is also the Resurrected Body of the spotless and unblemished lamb of God. And this realization is so powerful that it binds together all the pieces of their broken hearts. We know their hearts are mended now because, once the Risen Christ has vanished and their experience of him begins to cool and to solidify, the disciples rush back to the very place they from which they were earlier trying to escape. They journey back to Jerusalem. Broken hearts walk away from life. Mended hearts plunge into it more deeply.
This then, sisters and brothers, is the effect of the Emmaus experience. It mends broken hearts. And it should be clear to us by now that what is said about the road to Emmaus applies also to what we experience here in the Eucharist. Often, like the disciples in the gospel, we come to Mass with hearts that are broken by our experiences. We bring with us our struggles and our disappointments–the things that make us wish we could escape from life. And the Crucified and Risen One mends our hearts by interpreting the Scriptures and breaking the Bread for us. He reminds us not only that it is necessary that the Christ should suffer, but also that it is just as necessary that he be raised. Not only does the Lord give us the energy to run back to Jerusalem, he also empowers us to do what we find Peter doing in the first reading. Like his Master on the road to Emmaus, Peter breaks open the Word of Scripture and begins to mend the hearts of a broken world.
If all this is indeed true. If our experience of the Eucharist is also an Emmaus experience. If, in our Mass this morning, our Risen Lord is truly melting, mending and moving our hearts. Then, sisters and brothers, when we leave this holy place, perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is this:

How can we mend a broken heart today? 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

2nd Sunday of Easter
Catching the Faith
Values are caught not taught.

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard this well-known saying before. Values are caught not taught. I think there’s some truth to that. Don’t you agree? For example, someone once visited a family with several young children. While the grownups were chatting, the children started talking very loudly and playing very noisily with one another. The parents were very embarrassed by the children’s behavior. They kept scolding them, trying to make them stop, but without much success. Then, not too long after that, the parents themselves were heard talking very loudly to each other. Is it any wonder that the children were doing the same? Values are caught not taught.
And what is true about values is true also about something that we find in our Mass readings today. As you’ve probably already noticed, faith is the common thread that runs through all three readings. Not only that. What we find here is a wonderful transformation from unfaith to faith. In the gospel, when we first meet the disciples, they are lacking in faith. Their master has only recently been tortured and executed. Fearing for their own lives, the disciples have locked themselves up in a room. They have forgotten what Jesus had said to them earlier about his rising from the dead. They lack faith.
What's more striking in the gospel is Thomas’ lack of faith. He does not believe that the Lord is risen even after his fellow disciples have told him that they have seen the Lord. He sets conditions for his belief. He wants physical proof. Proof that he can see and touch. But perhaps we should not be too quick to judge Thomas. Doesn’t he have good reason not to trust the others? After all, these are the same people who had deserted their Master precisely at the moment of his greatest need. In a time of crisis, they had shown that they could not be trusted. Why should Thomas trust them now? But still, in refusing to believe their words, Thomas was also refusing to trust the Lord himself. And that’s the situation at the start of the gospel today. It is a situation of a lack of faith. 
But contrast that situation with what we see in the first and second readings. Where once the disciples were finding it hard even to trust one another, now, in the first reading, we are told that the early Christians devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life. Where once they were fearfully hiding behind locked doors, now they are moving about courageously out in the open. They are even attracting people to the faith by performing many wonders and signs. The second reading impresses us even more when it tells us about how, although the Christians may be suffering from various trials, they continue to be joyful in the Lord. Even though you do not see him now yet you believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. The very thing that the Risen Christ had said was lacking in Thomas is now found in the early Christian communities. They have not seen and yet they believe. They believe and live according to the message of Christ. They trust one another. They even rejoice in their sufferings. What has happened? How did this change come about?
We know the answer, of course. This radical transformation is the marvelous result of what we are celebrating in this season of Easter. It is the effect of the Resurrection. But what is it specifically about the Resurrection that contains such power? How does the Risen Christ change fearful doubters into joyful believers? How does he train people to believe in him even though they do not see him with their eyes, or touch him with their hands? How does he help people, who have come to doubt even their own goodness, to trust once again in the power of God?
How do you teach people to trust? Well, you don’t. Like values, faith too is caught not taught. How does Jesus teach the disciples to trust? By trusting them. Isn’t this what we find him doing when he comes among them even though the doors are locked? To the very people who had earlier shown that they could not be trusted, Jesus entrusts a great power and an important mission. Peace be with you, he says. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them. And whose sins you retain, they are retained. Jesus teaches us to trust by trusting us. He teaches us faith by having faith in us.
And it’s important for us Catholics to remember this especially in these days when it seems undeniably clear to others that our Church, so wounded and scarred by scandal, is not to be trusted. In the past, not only have we failed to protect our children, but we have also sought to hide the truth. How are people to trust us again? How can we hope to attract others to Christ? How are we to regain their trust, when even we ourselves find it difficult to trust our own?
Perhaps the road begins for us where it began for Thomas and his companions. Perhaps what we need – each and every one of us Catholics – is to allow ourselves to experience anew the deep trust that the Risen Lord continues to place in us, his weak and sinful but much beloved disciples.
I’m reminded of this prayer written by the late Jesuit writer Fr. Daniel Lord:
For some strange reason, Lord, you depend upon me.
What possible need could you have for my shoulder?
Why should you lean on me? Yet you do just that.
I am grateful. It is a challenge and a trust,
an inspiration and a call to character.
If you are willing to depend upon me,
weak and clumsy as I am,
I am eager not to fail you.
Lean on me, dear Lord.
At least pretend to find me a help.
May your sweet pretense
make me worthy of your very real trust.
Sisters and brothers, the Risen Christ continues to impart to us his trust. How ready are we to catch it? How willing are we to trust him in return today?