Saturday, June 30, 2012

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Secure Enough to Reach Out?

Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15,2:23-24; Psalm 29:2,4-6,11-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7,9,13-15; Mark 5:21-43
Pictures: cc USAG–Humphreys

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? If I were to walk up to a complete stranger, who happens to be eating at the hawker centre nearby, shout out a cheery hello, and offer the person a handshake, what do you think will happen? Do you think the person will reach out and take my hand? Maybe. If I’m very lucky. But the person is also at least as likely to take me for a salesman, or a crook, or just plain crazy, and chase me away. And what about if the person I approach is a local. And I am a foreigner? Will that change things? Whether or not the stranger reaches out to take my hand depends on how s/he perceives me. Does s/he think that it’s safe to talk to me? Am I worth the risk? Does s/he feel safe and secure enough to stretch beyond his or her comfort zone?

Quite clearly reaching out isn’t always an easy thing to do. (I know it’s not easy for me.) And not even when we have good reasons to do it. We need to feel secure enough before we’re willing to reach out. This too is the situation in our Mass readings today. In both the second reading and the gospel, we find people who are being invited to reach out in some way. In the gospel, both Jairus, the synagogue official, and the unnamed woman feel an impulse to reach out in their need. They both need something very badly. They both desire healing. The woman, for herself. Jairus, for his daughter. And, although their sicknesses may be different, the situations of the woman and the girl are really very similar.

We’re told that the woman has been suffering from a flow of blood for 12 long years. To the Jews, blood meant life. So the woman’s illness is sucking the very life out of her. In addition, the bleeding renders the woman ritually unclean. Cutting her off from normal interaction with others. Thus, both physically and socially, the woman is at death’s door. And it is this movement from life to death that makes the woman’s condition so strikingly similar to that of Jairus’ daughter. Just as the woman has been bleeding for a dozen years, we’re told that the girl dies at the significant age of 12. Her life is tragically taken from her just as she approaches the time for bearing children. The time for bringing new life into the world. In other words, both the woman and the girl are caught between life and death. This is why they need to reach out to Jesus for help.

But still, although their respective needs are so urgent, even though it’s no less than a matter of life and death, reaching out remains very challenging, as much for Jairus as for the woman. For her part, the woman could not have known how Jesus would react. To touch Jesus was to render him ritually unclean. Wouldn’t this make him angry? And Jairus had no reasonable expectation that Jesus could actually do something for his precious daughter. As his servant tells him: Your daughter is dead: why put the master to any further trouble? And yet, each of them, Jairus and the woman, somehow manage to reach out. From where did they find the courage? What made them feel secure enough to do so? We find the answer on Jesus’ lips. To the woman, he says, your faith has restored you to health. And to Jairus: Do not be afraid; only have faith. For both the woman and the synagogue official, faith in Christ is what gives them the security they need to reach out for help. And when they do, their situations are reversed. Death is transformed into life.

In the second reading too, we find people being invited to reach out. But for a different–for an opposite–reason. Here, St. Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth to beg them to donate money to their poor brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Unlike Jairus and the woman–who reach out because they themselves are in need–the Corinthians are being invited to reach out to meet the needs of others. They are asked to to reach out to care for others. To turn away from the selfishness that brings spiritual death. And to embrace the compassion and care that brings the fullness of life. But, although the reasons may be different, the act of reaching out remains just as challenging. Why should the Corinthians reach out? After all, they live in an uncertain world. A world filled with insecurity. Why can’t they be allowed to look to their own concerns first? Why should they bother about the needs of others? These are among the questions that Paul sets out to answer in the second reading.

And, as it turns out, the answer that Paul gives the Corinthians is not much different from what Jesus tells Jairus and the woman in the gospel. In order to help the Corinthians feel secure enough to reach out to care for others, Paul reminds them of their faith. In particular, he encourages them to recall how, in Christ, God has reached out to them in their need. Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was, writes Paul, he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty. Paul’s hope is that, just as faith in Christ moves Jairus and the woman to reach out in their need, this same faith will move the Corinthian Christians to cater to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

As much for Jairus and the woman of the gospel as for the Corinthian Christians, it is faith in Christ that gives them the courage and generosity to reach out. It is faith in Christ that somehow produces in them the sense of security they need to risk making contact. Not just contact with other people, but also contact with God in prayer. And this is as it should be. For, in Christ, we see the truth of what the first reading tells us. That God takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. On the contrary, in Christ, God continually reaches out to us, leading us from death into the fullness of life (John 10:10).

And it remains important for us to remember this today. Even though scientific advances have made human life far more comfortable now than it was in the time of Jesus. Even though we can cure many more diseases now than we could then. Isn’t it true that we often continue to feel overwhelmed by the radical uncertainty, the unavoidable insecurity, of life? Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Such that, even in a relatively safe place like Singapore, it appears that more and more of us are finding it difficult to reach out to others, whether it be to seek or to offer help. And more so if the other is someone from another country. For example, the latest issue of Today newspaper reports that in a recent forum on xenophobia (the fear of foreigners), the panellists, including several prominent bloggers... were unable to reach a consensus on whether they should take a collective stand against (xenophobic) behaviour (on the internet). Are we really so insecure? Even to the extent of not being able to agree on something as basic as that?

Sisters and brothers, in an uncertain, unpredictable world, in a world where racism and xenophobia continue to rear their ugly heads, the treasure that we Christians have to offer continues to be our faith in Christ. Our faith in the deep ongoing desire and power of God to lead us from death into the fullness of life.

How might this same faith give us the spiritual security to reach out to others today?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

 The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Picture: cc JoeInSouthernCA

Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself having a conversation with someone who was getting a little too nosy? Or, as we like to say, here in Singapore, a bit too kay poh? Let’s say, for example, that the person asks you about your occupation, then goes on to probe into your salary, or your family situation , or even your love life. What do you do? How do you respond? How do you remain polite and friendly, while still preserving your privacy? It’s a rather delicate situation, isn’t it? But only for adults. For kids, it’s usually much simpler. I remember, when I was still in primary school, I learned a very direct and effective way for dealing with over-inquisitive people. When someone began to ask you more questions than you cared to answer, all you had to do was to say to them, MYOB. Mind your own business.

Mind your own business. This is very helpful advice. Not just for those who pry into the private concerns of others. But also for busybodies of all kinds, including those who literally keep their bodies perpetually busy. People whose lives are crammed with many different activities. Of course, it’s not always a bad thing to be busy. Just as it’s not always a bad thing to get involved in the affairs of others. As Christians, we all have a duty to care for one another, especially for those who may need our help in some way. People near at hand, as well as those faraway.

But haven’t we also encountered people, who seem to be so busy with other people’s affairs, that they have no time or energy to fulfil their own proper responsibilities? Duties that no one else would look after if they did not? We might think, for example, of a hyperactive churchgoer. A person who serves on a whole string of ministries and committees in the parish. But who doesn’t seem to devote any significant amount of quality time to his or her spouse or children. Indeed, isn’t it true that sometimes, whether they realise it are not, people like that occupy themselves with parish business precisely in order to escape from problematic home environments? If this is the case, then what should we say to them? Should we continue to encourage their busyness? After all, the parish does need their help. Or should we not rather help them to appreciate the importance of MYOB? Minding your own business.

The importance of minding your own business. I believe that this is also what our readings are teaching us on this solemn feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. In the first reading, taken from one of the servant songs of Isaiah, we find someone who is finally discovering his own vocation. For a long time, although he has been busy with various things, this servant of the Lord has been experiencing a sense of futility. I was thinking, he says, I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing. But now, God reveals to him what he is supposed to do. His proper calling is to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth. With this knowledge the servant can finally focus his efforts on what God wants him to do. He now knows how go about minding his own (God-given) business.

We find something similar in the experience of John the Baptist. We all know that John was totally committed to doing God’s work. Even to the extent of laying down his life. And yet, as committed as John was, he did not set out to do everything. He knew quite well the particular role he was called to play. As the second reading tells us, John knew that he was not the Messiah. I am not the one you imagine me to be, he says, that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal. And it is precisely this humility and clarity of purpose that allow him to focus his efforts on the particular task given to him by God. In other words, John knows how to mind his own business.

This clarity of purpose that we find in John, we find also in his parents, Anne and Zechariah. The custom at that time was for the son to be named after someone in the family, and to take up his father’s occupation. But it is somehow revealed to Anne and Zechariah that God has other plans for their newborn son. His name is not to be Zechariah, but John. A name which means graced by God. The parents realise that God has set apart their child for a particular purpose. Instead of taking after his father, he is to follow in the footsteps of the prophets of old. He is to welcome the Word of God, and to proclaim Him to the people. By choosing to name their child John, Anne and Zechariah were helping him to follow God’s call. They were allowing him to focus on his assigned mission. They were teaching him to mind his own business.

But in order to truly mind our own business, we have first to discover it. How do we do that? How do we find out what God wants us to do? Our readings tell us two things that may help us. First, we’re assured that God calls us even from our mother’s womb. And, second, that God trains and moulds the one who is called. He made my mouth a sharp sword, the first reading tells us, and hid me in the shadow of his hand. He made me into a sharpened arrow, and concealed me in his quiver. If all this is true, then one good way to discover our calling is for us to review the course of our life. To look back on the experiences we’ve had, the successes and the failures, the joys and the sorrows, the lights and the shadows. To consider the desires that have moved us, as well as the fears that have held us back. And to ask God to reveal to us how, through all these different experiences, God may have been shaping us for a particular purpose.

Sisters and brothers, in the Vineyard of the Lord there are many things that need to be done. Many items of business that need looking after. Thankfully, God doesn’t expect us to accomplish all of them on our own. We are only expected to do what God has been calling and training us to do.

Sisters and brothers, the question we need to ask ourselves is how ready am I to do what I am meant to do? Nothing more, and nothing less. How ready am I to mind my own God-given business today?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The Who and the Where

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 91:2-3,13-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34
In every life we have some trouble; when you worry you make it double; don't worry, be happy... Ain’t got no place to lay your head; somebody came and took your bed; don't worry, be happy... The landlord say your rent is late; he may have to litigate; don’t worry be happy...
Sisters and brothers, I think many of us are familiar with these words taken from the song written and performed by Bobby McFerrin. Don’t Worry! Be Happy! Isn’t this something that we all wish we could do? And yet, isn’t it true that these words are much easier to sing than to put into practice? When it feels like my life is packed with many unresolved problems. Loaded with various apparently unbearable burdens. Filled with a host of unanswered questions. How can I not worry? How can I be really happy? When I experience failure, in school, or at work, or in my relationships. When my kids don’t seem to be turning out the way I’d like them to. When, even though my life may be filled with many good and beautiful things, I can’t quite escape the feeling of emptiness or restlessness deep down in my heart. How not to worry? How to be truly happy?

And even if I could ignore all my own problems, isn’t it a rather selfish thing to do, really? To want to be happy? When I know that there are so many people around the world living in abject poverty. People who have to struggle daily just to find enough food to fill their bellies, or water to wet their lips, or a roof to shelter their heads. When there are so many others who suffer the effects of war, or oppression, or discrimination of one kind or another. When scientists warn us of the serious environmental crisis endangering human life on this planet of ours. Faced with so many questions without clear answers, should I not be concerned? As someone who professes to follow Jesus–who, though he was rich, became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9)–do I not have a responsibility to look for answers? Or to care for those who suffer? And can I really do this, and still not worry? Can I allow myself to be affected by the misery of others, and still be truly happy?

In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul faces a similar dilemma. Paul, as you know, is no stranger to suffering. Towards the end of this letter–in chapter 11–he writes about having been imprisoned and flogged many times, of experiencing hunger and thirst, of being betrayed and persecuted, and even shipwrecked. Nor is Paul a person who thinks only of himself. In chapter 9 we find one of the main reasons why he is writing to the Corinthians. He is begging them to donate money to the needy Christians in Jerusalem. All of which tells us that Paul faces his fair share of problems. Problems of his own, and also of others. He struggles to find answers to difficult questions. To what and how questions: What must I do to continue my mission? How can I help the people entrusted to my care?

And yet, in our second reading today, taken from chapter 5, we find Paul saying something very surprising. In spite of his many difficulties, Paul can still say–and he says it twice, in quick succession–we are always full of confidence... Imagine that. We are full of confidence. Which is not too far from Bobby McFerrin’s advice: Don’t worry! Be happy! But how can this be possible? How does Paul do it? What is his secret? Paul himself tells us how. Even though he may see no final answers to the difficult questions he faces, he knows at least this much: he and his companions want to make their home with the Lord. They are intent on pleasing him. Although Paul may not know exactly what to do, or how to do it, he is certain of where he wishes to be, and of who will give him strength. Paul has no doubt that he wishes to be with the Lord, and to serve him alone. And it is this certainty that fills Paul with confidence.

We find something similar in the rest of our Mass readings for today. Here too, the emphasis is not so much on what and how, as it is on who and where. The image we are given is that of plants growing and bearing fruit. In the first reading, we hear of a shoot planted on a very high mountain, and growing into a noble cedar, a very tall and majestic tree. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of seed sprouting secretly, and fruitfully. In both these readings, the emphasis is on who. The focus is on the action of God. It is God who plants the shoot. It is God who sows the seed. It is God who causes the growth. It is God who brings forth fruit.

The responsorial psalm confirms this by telling us that planted in the house of the Lord they will flourish in the courts of our God, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green. Notice how the psalmist is more concerned about location than about action. He is focused more on the where than on the what. For growth to take place, we need to be planted in the right place. We need to be rooted in God. Only then will the shoot develop into a mighty tree, providing shelter for all the birds of the air. As important as it may be to carefully consider what we can do to serve God, and to ask ourselves how we can help those in need, it is even more important to remain rooted in God. Like Paul, we need to ensure that we want to be where God is. That we are intent on pleasing the Lord alone. It is only in this way that our actions can become truly fruitful, really beneficial to those in need. In the Kingdom of the Lord, more important than the what and the how are the who and the where.

I’m reminded of these lines penned by Bishop Ken Untener of the diocese of Saginaw, in the United States of America:
It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master-builder and the worker. We are workers, not master-builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
To remember that we are ministers and not messiahs. Perhaps this is part of the secret. To be confident and happy, even while we may have to struggle with our own difficulties, and with the sufferings of others, we need constantly to keep in mind the who and the where.

Sisters and brothers, who exactly is responsible for your growth? Where are you planting yourself today?