Saturday, April 20, 2013

4th Sunday in Easter (C)
Vocation Sunday
Shepherd & Stylist (Version 2)

Picture: cc emrank

Dear sisters and brothers, do you have a regular hairstylist? How do you go about choosing one? The story is told of a tourist passing through a small town, who decided that he needed a haircut. After walking around a bit, he discovered that the town had only two barbers, each of whom ran his own shop. The two barbershops were located directly across the street from each other. As the tourist walked by, he saw that the shop on the left was very messy. There was hair all over the floor. And not only did the barber look extremely harassed, he also had a very bad haircut. The shop on the right, however, was just the opposite. The place was neat and the floor spotless. The barber looked really cheerful and relaxed. He also sported a very stylish looking hairdo. After observing all this, the tourist quickly made up his mind. He walked into the shop on the left. The messy one.

Sisters and brothers, why do you think he did that? If you were in his shoes, would you have done the same? To be honest, I would probably have gone into the other shop instead. And the reason is that, in making my decision, I would have been listening to a voice in my head telling me that a good barber should have a cool haircut and a clean shop. But our tourist was listening to some other voice. One that told him something different. For one thing, if the barber on the left looked harassed and his shop was dirty, it might well be because he had many customers. Which would be, of course, a sign that he did good work. Also, assuming that barbers don’t cut their own hair, and bearing in mind that there were only two barbers in town, it was very likely that these men cut each other’s hair. Which meant that their hairstyles were an indication not of their own skills, but those of their competitor’s.

All of which goes to show that when you are choosing a barber, it’s very important to examine your assumptions. To pay careful attention to the voices you are listening to in making your choice. And if this is true of choosing someone to style your hair, isn’t it even more true if you are choosing someone to shape your life? Today, perhaps more than ever before, many of us enjoy a wide range of lifestyle choices. But how do we going about making up our minds? What voices do we listen to? Which life-stylist do we end up choosing?

These are among the questions that our readings invite us to ask ourselves on this Vocation Sunday. For what is Jesus doing in the gospel today, if not presenting himself to us as the best life-stylist we can ever hope to have? Even more than a comfortable lifestyle, to all who choose to follow him, to all who allow him to shepherd them, Jesus promises nothing less than eternal life. He promises that those who follow him will never be lost. This, of course, sounds very attractive. But there is also something  deeply shocking. Even more shocking perhaps than a good hairstylist sporting a very bad haircut.

What image comes to your mind when you think of a good shepherd? For the people of Jesus’ time, shepherd was a word that they used to refer to their king. And the greatest of all their kings was, of course, David, who though he was small in size, proved himself strong enough to slay the fearsome giant, Goliath. For the Jews, to be a shepherd was to be a great king. A mighty warrior. But look at the image given to us in the second reading today. Here, we find ourselves in the throne room of a great king. A shepherd who will lead us to springs of living water. Someone through whom God will wipe away all tears from our eyes. But notice also what this shepherd king looks like. Even more shocking than a messy barber with a bad haircut, here we find a shepherd who has become a sheep. And not just any sheep, but a lamb – the weakest and smallest of sheep. And not just any lamb, but a lamb that has been slain. Whose blood has been shed for the life of his sheep. If this image doesn’t unsettle us, it’s probably because we have grown too familiar with it. We’ve forgotten what it means to follow a shepherd who is also a slaughtered lamb.

Which is why the experiences of Paul and Barnabas in the first reading are so helpful. They show us that to follow this shepherd, who is also a lamb, we the sheep must be willing to become shepherds ourselves. For it is as shepherds that Paul and Barnabas travel from place to place, proclaiming the Good News to all. The first reading also reminds us that those who adopt this lifestyle will have to face and to accept trials. Even  persecutions. Although Paul and Barnabas succeed in inspiring many to accept Jesus, their popularity incites jealousy and anger. Resulting in their being expelled from the city.

But if this lifestyle is so shockingly unattractive, how do we bring ourselves to choose it? Like that tourist looking for a haircut, the choice we end up making depends upon the voices that we pay attention to. In our world today, there are many voices that tell us how foolish it is to follow the Good Shepherd. Consider, for example, the voice of consumerism. Without our realising it, this voice often leads us to assume that happiness is measured only by the things we own. Or by the status we attain in society. If you live in public housing, work towards owning private property. If you have a Toyota, work for a Lexus. If you have a Timex, work for a Rolex. In contrast, in the gospel, Jesus says: the sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. And this voice of the Good Shepherd speaks to us not of constant consumption but of care and compassion. The same care that made Paul and Barnabas such courageous shepherds. The same compassion that turned Jesus into the Lamb of God. The one slain for our salvation.

Sisters and brothers, today is Vocations Sunday. The day when we pray especially for more good vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. And that is, of course, a very praiseworthy thing to do. But isn’t it true that, as much as we may pray for others to find their vocations, we also need to remember that each of us has a vocation of our own? The word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means to call. And it is not just priests and religious who are called. Rather, whether we are married or single, young or old, male or female, by the very fact of our baptism, we are all called to heed the voice of the Good Shepherd. The same voice that continually speaks to us of the importance of care and compassion. The voice that constantly challenges us to reach out and to shepherd others. Especially those most in need of our help.

Sisters and brothers, on this Vocations Sunday, whose voice are we hearing? Which life-stylist are we choosing today?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

3rd Sunday of Easter
Focus Amidst Distraction
Picture: cc ]babi]

Sisters and brothers, have you noticed how the students of today seem to have the uncanny ability to focus even while being subjected  to great distraction? What am I talking about? Well, if you were to visit certain crowded cafés or fast food restaurants around the island–like that Starbucks next to Coronation Plaza, for example–you’ll probably see many students studying there. And some of these students may even be found wearing headphones. Little speakers connected to devices playing music so loud it can be heard even by innocent bystanders. Now, if a concerned parent were to enter such a café, s/he might be excused for quickly jumping to the conclusion that these kids are doing nothing more than just distracting themselves. Rather than truly studying. How can it be possible to do any serious work in the midst of all that noise?

And yet, that’s exactly what these students are doing. Or at least appear to be doing. Instead of being distracted by the noise, or the loud music, they seem to be able to remain focused on the task at hand. To somehow tune out the noise and tune in to the homework. Of course, a bystander can’t really say for sure whether the student is actually studying or just having a good time. It’s hard to determine, there and then, exactly how much work is actually being done. But there does come a time when the truth finally comes to light, doesn’t it? A day of reckoning, as they call it. Isn’t this what tests and examinations are meant to be? Ways to demonstrate how much has actually been learned. Means to discover whether a student has truly been able to focus even in the midst of distraction.

The ability to remain focused even in the midst of distraction. Isn’t this also precisely what we find in our Mass readings today? In the gospel, for example, it’s not too difficult for us to imagine what might be going on in the minds and hearts of Peter and his friends at the beginning of the reading. Which is a continuation from the one we heard last Sunday. As you will recall, in last week’s reading, the risen Christ had given the disciples something to do: Peace be with you, he said. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you. The disciples had been sent on a mission. So it’s not unreasonable for us to suppose that what is being described for us in today’s gospel is no ordinary fishing trip. It’s not too farfetched for us to think that the reading is actually telling us how Peter and his friends went about trying to fulfil the task Jesus had given them last week. It’s quite possible that their whole fishing expedition is actually a mission trip. It isn’t really fish they are trying to catch, but people.

Which would make it all the more discouraging and disappointing for them to have worked hard all night and caught nothing. Not a single thing. What failures they must feel themselves to be. Unable to make any headway in the task given to them by the Lord. Very likely, they would be plagued by all kinds of doubts. Doubts about themselves. About their own abilities and worthiness. And perhaps even doubts about Jesus, and the mission he had given to them. In other words, even if it may be very quiet on their boat as they return from their failed fishing/mission trip, it’s very likely that the disciples' minds and hearts are filled with all kinds of distracting noises. Those troublesome interior voices that are all too familiar to those of us who have ever experienced failure and disappointment.

And yet, a remarkable thing happens. Even while being subjected to this painfully distracting interior noise, the disciples are still able to hear and to obey the voice of Jesus. In the midst of their confusion, they are able to focus on the enlightening voice of Jesus, telling them exactly what they need to do to transform their failure into fruitfulness. Throw the net out to starboard and you will find something. Even more important, in the midst of their disappointment, the disciples are able to hear the encouraging voice of Jesus, continuing to call them his friends. Have you caught nothing friends? And, in the midst of their tiredness, they’re able to hear the caring and compassionate voice of the Lord, inviting them to a meal that he himself has prepared for them. Come and have breakfast. Like students studying in a noisy café, the disciples are somehow able to tune out their doubts and to tune in to the voice of the Lord. They are able to remain focused even in the midst of great distraction.

And this is true not just of the gospel, but also of each of the other two readings as well. In both the first and second readings, we find disciples being subjected to the distracting noises that come with persecution. In the first reading, the chief priest fills the air with loud and intimidating demands. We gave you a formal warning, he says, not to preach in this name. And yet, in the midst of this distracting noise, Peter and the other apostles are somehow able to remain focused on the task at hand. Boldly they tell the chief priest that obedience to God comes before obedience to men. And, even after having been flogged, they continue to remain focused on the mission received from the Lord. The mission to bear witness to Christ.

Which is also what John continues to do in the second reading. Despite having been imprisoned on the island of Patmos, John does not let his exile distract him from his mission. Instead of allowing himself to give in to the interior noises of loneliness and self-pity, of discouragement and despair, John remains so focused on his mission that he receives a powerful vision. He hears the heavenly hosts singing the praises of God. And not only does he hear their voices, he is also drawn into their song. Like the disciples in the first reading, John is able to praise God even while undergoing persecution. And this ability to praise God for the honour of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name is a sure sign that the disciples are truly remaining focused on Christ even in the midst of great distraction.

Focus in the midst of distraction. This is what we find in our readings today. Focus in times of failure. Focus in times of persecution. Focus while going through the normal routine of daily living. Focus when the day of reckoning finally arrives. Focus on Christ. Leading to fruitfulness in mission. And isn’t this something that we modern-day Christians need very much as well? We who live in a media-saturated world. A world filled with all manner of distractions. Distractions that come with success, as much as with failure. Distractions that come with being blessed with plenty, as much as with being stricken by poverty. Distractions arising from enjoyment, as much as from deprivation. Distractions that often prevent us from living more fully, from fulfilling more deeply, the mission that we have each received at our Baptism and Confirmation. The mission that we will recall and receive anew at the end of this Mass, when we will hear the words, go and announce the gospel of the Lord. The mission to continue bearing witness to the love of God poured out for us in the Dying and Rising of Jesus Christ the Son.

Sisters and brothers, in the midst of the many distractions in our everyday lives, how can we remain focused on the Lord today?

Sunday, April 07, 2013

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)
Finding Our Phone Booth

Picture: cc Anna Majkowska

Sisters and brothers, have you noticed how difficult it is these days to find a public phone booth? When was the last time you saw one? I don’t think I remember. Phone booths are indeed becoming very rare. And yet few, if any, of us really miss them, right? After all, everybody has their own cellphone now. No one really needs to use a public phone anymore, let alone a phone booth. In the real world, phone booths have become quite unnecessary.

But this is not quite the case in the world of comic book superheroes. I’m thinking, of course, of Superman. We may remember the place where Clark Kent–the gentle, mild mannered and bespectacled reporter–usually changes into his alter-ego. The amazing Man-of-Steel. Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. We all know that, in the comic books, this incredible transformation often takes place in a phone booth. So that although they may be disappearing in the real world, phone booths still have an important role to play in the world of superheroes. For here phone booths are the privileged places where the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. Where weakness is changed into strength.

And what is true of the world of superheroes is also true in the life of the spirit as well. Now there is, of course, no mention of phone booths in our readings today. But we do find people acting very much like superheroes. Consider what we are told, in the first reading, about Peter and the rest of the apostles. Notice how powerful they are. We’re told that they worked so many signs and wonders that people were laying their sick in the streets just so that the shadow of Peter might fall upon them and heal them! People even travelled to Jerusalem from the neighbouring towns bringing their sick, and those tormented by unclean spirits. And all of them were cured. Just imagine the incredible superpowers the apostles wielded!

And yet, we know that the apostles were not always so powerful. They were not always so brave and so strong. There was a time when they were very fearful and very weak. How then did they become such superheroes? Like Superman, did they also have some kind of phone booth? Some special spiritual place where they could exchange their weakness for strength?

The answer is found in our other two readings for today. As we said earlier, there is no mention of phone booths in either of these readings. In fact, in each of them, the action seems to take place in very different locations. In the gospel, the disciples are all cooped up in the confined space of a room with locked doors. While, in the second reading, St. John finds himself exiled on the island of Patmos. A locked room on the one hand, and an island of exile on the other. Two locations that seem as different as night and day. And yet, something very similar happens in these apparently dissimilar places.

In the locked room, fearful disciples are given peace and joy and even a new mission. Peace be with you, as the Father sent me, so am I sending you… In the locked room, a disciple paralysed by doubts receives the precious gift of Resurrection faith. Doubt no longer, but believe… Courage and assurance. Joy and new purpose. Aren’t these also the things that the apostle John receives on Patmos? In his isolation and suffering, John somehow finds strength to undertake a new mission. Do not be afraid, he is told, write down all that you see…

Sisters and brothers, although the locked room and the island of exile are very different physical locations, they are really the same spiritual place. They are the same because the same amazing thing occurs in each of them. Like Superman’s phone booth, these are the places where the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. Where the weak are given new strength. And it’s very helpful for us to consider how this happens. It happens when ordinary disciples come together in their helplessness and vulnerability. It happens when friends gather to remember how they have been bound together into one body by the Lord Jesus, who made himself weak for their sake. Jesus, who humbled himself even to the point of accepting death. And who was raised to life on the third day.

This is obviously what the disciples are doing in the their locked room. This is obviously what Thomas is doing, even as he struggles with his doubts. And isn’t this also what John is doing even while exiled on Patmos? He writes to his community in these words: Through our union in Jesus I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure. Even though John is separated from his friends, he is able to remember that he isn’t really on his own. Even though he cannot be present to his community in person, he gathers with them in spirit. In the spirit of Christ. And then, somehow, in the gathering and in the remembering, the Crucified and Risen One comes among the disciples. Whether they are in a locked room or on a deserted island, Jesus comes to them. Calming them with his peace. Cheering them with his joy. Commissioning them to continue the powerful work that Jesus himself did when he walked the face of this earth.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this also what we are doing here today? Today, we gather in this church and around this altar, not as perfect and sinless people. Not as strong and powerful people. Not as people without doubts and hangups. If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we each have our fair share of all these things. And yet, it is in our acknowledgement of our weaknesses, in the sight of God and in the presence of one another, that we are given new strength. Strength not just for ourselves, but also for those who may need our help. As we gather and as we remember our Crucified and Risen Lord, both as individuals and as a community, we find ourselves transformed into bearers of his peace and joy, his mercy and his healing to a waiting world. But in order for us to do this, we must seek out and find that privileged spiritual place within ourselves. The place that seems to be more and more difficult to find out in the real world. That special spiritual place where helplessness can be exchanged for power. Where weakness can be transformed into strength.

Sisters and brothers, on this 2nd Sunday of Easter, on this day when we celebrate the Divine Mercy, where and how will you find your phone booth today?