Sunday, September 29, 2013

From Grave-Diggers to Gulf-Bridgers (Rerun)

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Rusty Clark

Sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard the expression digging your own grave, right? When we say that someone is digging his own grave we don’t usually mean it literally. What we mean is that that person is doing something intending to benefit himself, but then ends up causing himself greater suffering instead. I came across a rather amusing example of this in a BBC news report some years ago. A man in the United States had been stealing from a local department store. Shoplifting. Then, to avoid getting caught, he jumped into a dumpster–a huge rubbish bin–at the back of the store. Unfortunately for him, the garbage collectors happened by just at that very moment. And the guy found himself trapped in the garbage truck. Luckily he had his cellphone with him. Which he used to contact a friend. Who then called the police. Eventually, they managed to get him out of the truck. But not before he had undergone a considerable amount of suffering. A police spokesperson had this to say about our dumpster diver: (When we found him) he was in a lot of pain. He had been compacted several times. He was just begging us to empty the truck...

The news report does not tell us what the shoplifter’s exact intentions were. But it’s likely that he stole from the store because he was looking for a more comfortable life. And he then jumped into the dumpster in search of safety and security. He was trying to evade the police. To escape arrest. He did all these things for his own benefit. But he ended up causing himself greater pain and suffering instead. What we have here, sisters and brothers, is a classic case of someone who unwittingly dug his own grave. Thankfully for him, people were able to come to his rescue before it was too late.

The rich man in our gospel parable today is not so lucky. After his death, he finds himself trapped and undergoing great suffering. Not in a garbage truck, but in the fires of Hell. And, like our shoplifter, he cries out for help. Unfortunately for him, it’s too late for anyone to do anything anymore. Abraham tells him that a great gulf has been established preventing anyone from rescuing or comforting him even if they wanted to. And it may be helpful for us to wonder for a moment how this great gulf came to be established. Who put it there? The parable itself doesn’t tell us. And some of us might think that it is God who has done this. It is God who has dug this gaping hole in order to imprison the rich man. In order to punish him for his sins. Maybe. But could it be the rich man himself is blame? Could it be that, like our shoplifter from the US, it is the rich man who has somehow dug his own grave?

In order to see this possibility, we need first to consider what the deep gulf does. Notice how it separates people into two groups. On one side, we have Lazarus and those who are being comforted. On the other, we have the rich man and those who are being tormented. Notice also how this separation that takes place after death corresponds to an earlier division in life. Between the rich and comfortable on one side, and the poor and afflicted on the other. The separation after death is a continuation of an earlier division in life. But with two crucial differences. First there is a reversal of positions. An exchange of experiences. After death, the one who was comfortable in life now suffers terribly. And the one who was in deep distress in life is now tenderly comforted.

Second, not only is there a reversal of roles, there is also a change in the thing that separates them. While they were still alive, although the poor Lazarus and the rich man were divided by their material circumstances, they actually lived very close to each other. We’re told that Lazarus used to lie at the gate of the rich man’s house. How easy it must have been for the rich man to bridge the distance between him and Lazarus while they were still alive? It would not have taken much effort for the rich man to reach out and share something with the pitiful person lying in front of his house. All he had to do was to allow himself to be affected by the plight of the poor. And then to express his compassion in some practical way. But he never did. Even though he could easily have done so, while still alive, the rich man failed to bridge the distance between himself and Lazarus. Between the rich and the poor. And, after death, it becomes too late. The separation between rich and poor becomes final and irreversible. The gulf between them is now too great to cross. And the rich man is on the wrong side of that gulf. The side of suffering and pain. He has put himself there. He has dug his own grave.

But why, we may wonder, did the rich man not try to bridge the gap between rich and poor when he still had a chance? Why did he not do anything to reach out to Lazarus? Was he preoccupied with other pressing problems? Did he have one or more children doing the PSLE? Our readings suggest to us one possible reason. We find an indication of this in the first reading. Here, the prophet Amos pronounces a severe judgment upon the rich people of his time. Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion, and to those who feel so safe on the mountain of Samaria, proclaims the prophet. Their only concern is with their own comfort. So focused are they on indulging their own selfish desires, and in safeguarding their own wealth, that they remain unaffected by the suffering of the masses of poor people who surround them. In the words of the prophet, these rich people do not care at all about the ruin of Joseph. They feel nothing for the suffering of the oppressed. Perhaps they don’t even notice it. Just as the rich man never really noticed the plight of Lazarus. Here then is our answer. The rich man neglects to open the gate of his house to the poor, because he has already closed the door of his heart.

Quite clearly, the rich people in the first reading and the gospel are not unlike that unfortunate shoplifter in the US. Concerning themselves only with their own comfort and security, they end up diving into a garbage bin. The disgusting dumpster of their own arrogance and apathy. And isn’t this the same arrogance and apathy that then results in the great gulf that imprisons the rich man in Hell? Notice, for example, how arrogant the rich man remains even after his death. Even while he is being tormented by hellfire, he continues to order people about. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue. And then to go and warn his brothers. As in life, so too in death. The rich man continues to treat the poor as nothing more than slaves. Once again, it becomes clear to us who is the one responsible for the unbridgeable gulf separating the rich man from the joys of heaven. By his own arrogance and apathy, the rich man has dug his own grave.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situation today. Perhaps some of us might consider ourselves rich. Some might consider ourselves poor. Or maybe somewhere in the middle. But whether rich or poor, by virtue of our baptism, all of us here are called to be what the second reading tells us that Timothy was called to be: men and women dedicated to God. Living lives no longer for ourselves, but for God. Called to keep Christ’s great commandment of love. Committed to continue struggling against our own arrogance and apathy. So as to show compassion for those most in need. Determined to do what we can in this life to bridge the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor. A gulf that is quite plainly seen even here in Singapore. If only we have to eyes to look. If only we are ready to open the doors of our hearts.

My dear sisters and brothers, faced with a situation such as this, where a great distance continues to separate rich and poor, what should our response be? How are we being called to move from being grave-diggers to being gulf-bridgers today?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Wise Sacrifices That Win Friends

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc samborowski

Sisters and brothers, have you heard of Miley Cyrus? I’m sure you have. She is a young singer and actress, who recently made the news in a big way. But for all the wrong reasons. Or so it seems. As you know, some weeks ago, Miley performed live at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. During her performance, she stripped down to her underwear. That’s right. Bra and panties. And then, dressed in this very provocative manner, Miley proceeded to execute some highly suggestive–some would say shameful–dance moves. Which I will not describe to you here. Partly because I’m not sure I can find the right words to do it. And also partly because I’m afraid you will report me to the Archbishop. Anyway, Miley followed that live performance with the release of her latest music video. Where she sings and dances not just in her underwear, but also in her birthday suit.

As might be expected, the girl has been heavily criticised for all this. Her reputation has taken a terrible beating. People have been calling her a slut. Some even say that she has gone crazy. But what do you think, sisters and brothers? Has Miley Cyrus really gone crazy? Or is there maybe another reason for her actions? A method to her madness? Consider the amount of publicity she has enjoyed since her controversial performance. People can’t seem to stop talking about her. Not only that. Her song has actually risen to the top of the music charts. Although Miley’s reputation may have gone down the tubes, her popularity has shot through the roof. All of which might help us to understand a little better what’s actually going on. It’s very likely that Miley hasn’t gone crazy at all. No. What she has done is boost her singing career in a spectacular fashion. It’s very likely that all this is part of a very clever, very well-planned, marketing strategy. Miley knows that in the music business–actually in any business–sex sells. So she has willingly sacrificed her reputation in a calculated move to win more fans for herself. And she has succeeded. In a very big way.

Sacrificing something that you value less, for the sake of gaining something that you value more. This is what Miley Cyrus has done. And isn’t this also very much like what Jesus is talking about in the gospel today? Isn’t this what the dishonest steward does in Jesus’ parable? His boss has just fired him. He needs to find a new job. The steward needs to make new friends. Just like a singer needs to get new fans. So what does he do to increase his own popularity? He gives away what every business person wants. A discount. How much do you owe my master? One hundred measures of oil? OK, here’s the contract. Change the amount to fifty. One hundred measures of wheat? Change it to eighty. We’re not sure whose money the steward is using to give these discounts. Maybe it’s his boss’s. Maybe it’s his own commission. That’s not so important. What’s more important is that, like Miley Cyrus, the dishonest steward is able and willing to sacrifice something less valuable to himself–in this case, money–in order to gain something more precious–prospective employers. People able to give him what he needs most. A new job.

Sacrificing money to win friends. This is what the steward is doing. And this is also what Jesus is inviting us to do. But in a good way, of course. Use money, Jesus says, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity. What is Jesus talking about? What kind of friends does he mean? Not any ordinary kind. Not just those who can give us a new job. But, more importantly, those who can give us an eternal home. Friends who can help us to get into heaven. Who are these people? We find the answer in our other scripture readings for today.

In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us of the one Person, the one Friend, who alone has the power to get us into heaven. God our saviour, Paul writes, wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth. So God is the Saviour. God is the divine Friend that we all need to win over if we want to be welcomed into the tents of eternity. But how to use money to do this? Surely God doesn’t owe us anything. So how can we give God a discount? How to use money to win God over to our side? To make God our friend?

The answer is found in both the first reading and the responsorial psalm. Although it is true that God has no favourites. God wants everyone to be saved. The first reading tells us that God does have special friends. According to the prophet Amos, God chooses to take the side of the poor. Especially those who have been victimised and cheated in some way. God chooses to take the side of the oppressed, against their oppressors. To the people who cheat and steal from the poor, God says: Never will I forget a single thing you have done. Not only that. The psalm tells us that from the dust God lifts up the lowly, from the dungheap he raises the poor. Business people may value discounts. But God values the lives of the poor. God chooses to befriend the oppressed. To take their side at all times.

If this is true, then the message to us becomes very clear. If we wish to get to heaven, we need to make friends with God. And one effective way to make friends with God–the way that Jesus is teaching us in the gospel–is simply to use money to befriend the poor. To do with money something like what Miley Cyrus has done with her own good name. Sacrifice something less valuable in order to gain something more precious. Use our money, as far as we can, to make friends with those around us who most need our help. Sacrifice our material possessions in order to gain ourselves an eternal home.

But this is not always easy to do. How many of us can say that we use our money in this way. To help the poor. Or don’t we often, instead, use our money to buy things we don’t really need? If Miley Cyrus is able to sacrifice her own good name to get more fans, it is because she values fame more highly than her own reputation. In the same way, we can only do what Jesus is asking of us, if we truly value friendship with God more highly than money. As Jesus says in the gospel, you cannot be the slave both of God and of money. But how are we to become the slaves of God? When so many of us have to continue to work hard everyday, trying to make a living for ourselves and our families? There is one way, sisters and brothers. Just as we cannot make ordinary friends without sincere communication. We cannot befriend God without deep prayer. But how many of us really know how to pray?

Which brings us to the reason why I am here today. My name is Christopher Soh. And I’m a Jesuit priest from St. Ignatius Church. I’ve come here, together with a group of friends from the Sojourners’ Companions, to promote the Week of Guided Prayer. This is a special programme that teaches people how to pray more deeply. Every participant in this Week of Guided Prayer will receive individual guidance from a trained prayer guide in some very helpful prayer methods taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint of all spiritual exercises. What we are offering you, sisters and brothers, is a precious opportunity to deepen your friendship with God. For God is our life. And, as Jesus tells us in the gospels, what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? (Mt 16:26) So I encourage you to visit us at our table after Mass to find out more.

My dear sisters and brothers, it’s quite clear that, for Miley Cyrus, popularity is more valuable than her good name. Such that she’s willing to sacrifice one for the other. But what about us? How willing are we to sacrifice our money, our time, our energy, to gain not just popularity on earth, but an eternal home in heaven? Sisters and brothers, what are you willing to do to deepen your friendship with God today?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Been There, Done That... Or Not...

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc daphenator

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with the expression been there, done that? You know what it means, right? We typically hear it being used in American movies. Usually by younger people. Say, for example, an adult suggests visiting such and such a place. Or engaging in this or that activity. But the youngster is not interested. Has made plans of his/her own. Been there, done that, s/he may exclaim. Which is the same as saying, I’ve already experienced that before. So don’t make me do the same old thing again. Let’s move on to something else. And there is, of course, an even faster, even shorter way of saying all this. Just one word: Boring! It’s quite amazing, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? How quickly some of us get bored. How much we seem to need constant stimulation. How important it is for us to keep trying new things. To keep buying new gadgets. How difficult it is for some of us simply to remain with the familiar. Or what we think is familiar.

But not everyone is like that. Not too long ago I visited an elderly person who had just been hospitalised. And she showed me a couple of novels she had brought with her to keep herself occupied. Actually, I’ve read them several times already, she confided with a smile, But I still enjoy reading them again. In stark contrast to the been there, done that mentality, this person knew from experience that repetition doesn’t always have to be boring. That experiencing something more than once can actually heighten our enjoyment of it. Perhaps even enable us to see things–interesting and important things–that we may have overlooked the first time round.

I mention this, because I suspect that been there, done that is just the sort of unspoken reaction our gospel reading for today might evoke in us. We are, after all, very familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Probably know it like the backs of our hands. What possible good can come from hearing it yet again? Boring!... And yet, perhaps the parable has something more to teach us? Perhaps there is even someplace new and interesting it can lead us? But there’s only one way to find out. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to look at it again. To allow it to address us anew. To let ourselves to be there, and do that at least one more time...

For a start, let’s consider to whom the parable is addressed. Typically, we focus our attention mainly on the younger son. The one who goes astray. The one who sins very obviously and grievously against his father. The parable then becomes an invitation to big sinners, like the younger son, to repent and to return to God, our heavenly Father. Which may make the rest of us, who may not be conscious of having committed very serious sins, to feel as though the parable is not for us. Or that we have already been there and done that. Already repented. Nothing more to do. Boring! Let’s move on to something else.

And yet, perhaps there is another perspective to take. When we listen to the parable in its context in the bible, we see something rather different. Notice how the reading begins and also how it ends. It begins with a complaint raised by the scribes and the Pharisees. People who consider themselves already righteous in the sight of God. No longer requiring repentance. They are unhappy that Jesus is spending much of his time with tax collectors and sinners. Those very much like the younger son in the parable. And it is in direct response to this complaint of theirs that Jesus tells three parables. All of which speak about things that have been lost. A lost sheep. A lost coin. And a lost son.

Notice also, how the reading ends. It ends with an invitation. The older son, who considers himself loyal and faithful, is angry with his father. Not unlike how the scribes and Pharisees are angry with Jesus. The boy refuses to go into the house to join the celebrations. He complains about being unfairly treated. His father comes out to plead with him. To invite him to go in. And that’s where the reading ends. Will the elder son go into the house and celebrate? Or will he choose to remain outside? We don’t know. The ball is in his court. He has to choose whether or not to move. Much like how the scribes and the Pharisees have also to choose how to react to the mercy of Jesus. So it would seem that the parable is really addressed more to the elder son than to the younger. More to the Pharisees than to the sinners.

But what is this movement that the older son is being called to make? What does it mean to enter the father’s house? Our other readings help us to answer this question. Notice how, in the first reading, it is God who appears to undergo a movement. The Israelites have fallen into idolatry. They have sinned and are lost. And God’s first reaction is apparently one of anger and of indifference. Anger at the people’s disloyalty. And indifference to their fate. God tells Moses that God will destroy this people, and make Moses a great nation. It’s as though God sees the Israelites as a failed experiment. As an expendable commodity. Let what is lost remain lost. God can quite easily replace it. And God can, of course, do just that. As John the Baptist says in the gospels, God can even raise up children to Abraham from stones (Luke 3:8). But Moses does not agree to this plan, even though he stands to gain from it. Instead Moses reminds God of the covenants that God has made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He reminds God of God’s affection for the Israelites. This people is not just an expendable commodity, but a precious child. A lost son needing to be sought after and brought back. As a result, quite incredibly, God relents. God moves from anger and indifference to mercy and compassion.

And isn’t this also the kind of movement that we see in the life of St. Paul? Before his conversion, Paul was named Saul. And he was an angry persecutor of Christians. He threw many people into prison. Indifferent to their suffering. But then everything changed when the crucified and risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. From an angry persecutor, he became a zealous missionary of God’s mercy. And it is about this incredible change that Paul is writing in the second reading. How did he make this radical movement? From anger to mercy. From indifference to compassion. He did it by experiencing for himself God’s boundless mercy. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, he writes. I myself am the greatest of them.

What a huge difference there is then, sisters and brothers, between Saul and Paul. Between the Pharisee and Moses. Between the elder brother and the loving father. What a great distance between anger and mercy. Between indifference and compassion. Between pride and humility. And isn't this the same distance that Jesus came to bridge for us? Jesus who, by his Cross and Resurrection, has shown us God’s mercy. Has ushered us into the joy of the Father’s House. Has inserted us into the warmth of the Father’s embrace. And isn't this the same distance that we are all called to keep traversing? The same gap that we are all called to keep bridging in our world today? A world that tends all too frequently to treat people as dispensable commodities. To be discarded like failed experiments. A world that swings between callous indifference and self-righteous anger. A Pharisaic world, unable to appreciate its own need for the mercy of God. A world of the elder brother, still unable to accept the gracious invitation to enter the Father’s House. Still unable to utter the words from our psalm response: I will leave this place and go to my Father.

Sisters and brothers, without a doubt, we are all very familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We have all been there and done that. And yet, could it be that this beautiful story still has something to say to us? How might it be calling us to continue moving from anger to mercy, from indifference to compassion, today?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Of Fashion Shows & Faithful Families

Day 7 of Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea Novena

In Preparation for Parish Feast
Theme: Faith & Family

Readings: Si 3:2-6; 12-14; Col 3:12-21; Mk 10:2-16
Picture: cc Sebastian Dooris

Sisters and brothers, have you ever been to a fashion show? I think we all know what a fashion show is, right? Even though I haven’t been to a fashion show, I have watched parts of it on TV. So I know what it looks like. I know what it’s for. I know, for example, that in a fashion show models put on different kinds of clothes–usually very expensive clothes–and walk around for people to see. And I also know why they do this. The reason is not really for us to admire the models themselves. Although we may have heard of people who go to fashion shows just to stare at the models–and maybe to get their phone numbers–we also know that this is not the right reason to go. In a fashion show, the focus is supposed to be on the clothes. The show is for the fashion. Not the models. And, if we remember that, then we will also remember who is the most important person at the show.

I know this will sound strange, sisters and brothers, but just imagine for a moment that you are at a fashion show right now. And you are actually interested in the clothes. Not just the models. Imagine also that you really like what you see. You really want to own and to wear some of the clothes on display. But there’s just one problem. They are too expensive. What can you do? Well, one thing you could do would be to try to memorise the pattern of the clothes. And then try to make them for yourself. On your own. Or maybe you could get a tailor to do it for you. But, of course, to do all this successfully, you really need to have some skill. Skill at remembering, at drawing, at sewing... But what if you don’t have all these skills? Does it mean you won’t be able to wear these clothes? Is there something else you can do?

Actually there is, right? Although it’s usually not easy, one other thing you can do is to try to make friends with the most important person at the show. Not the models walking around onstage. But the person hiding backstage. Not the people wearing the clothes. But the person who created all the designs. The fashion designer himself or herself. Imagine if you were close friends with the designer. Then s/he could give you the designs. Maybe even make the clothes for you to wear.

But I’m sure, sisters and brothers, that by now at least some of you are beginning to wonder: what has all this to do with our Mass? What possible connection is there with the theme for this 7th day of our Novena in preparation for the parish feast? What has fashion got to do with Faith and Family? I think the connection may become a little clearer for us when we consider more carefully what we heard just now during the second reading. You will remember, sisters and brothers, that this reading, from the letter to the Colossians, is all about a special kind of clothing that Christians are supposed to wear. The clothing that consists in how we treat one another. You should be clothed, we were told, in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience… forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins… Over all these clothes… put on love… And not only that. Not only does the reading talk about clothes that everyone, every Christian, is supposed to wear. It also shows us certain clothes that are meant to be worn by specific people: Wives, give way to your husbands… Husbands, love your wives… Children, be obedient to your parents always…

And it’s not just in the second reading that we find these descriptions of special clothing, or of proper behaviour towards others. The first reading also talks more specifically about how children should treat their parents. Here, we’re told to respect and to honour our fathers. To set our mothers at ease. To support our fathers in their old age. To show them sympathy. To be kind to them. And then, in the gospel, Jesus talks about how husbands and wives should treat each other. How they should see themselves as no longer two, but one body, which God has put together. So that what God has united, man must not divide. Which is to say that husbands and wives should remain faithful to each other.

Sisters and brothers, what we find in our readings today are some of the most important behaviours for the building up of happy families. And not just families bound by blood. But also other kinds of families. Such as the larger family of the Church. Bound by faith in Jesus Christ. Our readings encourage us to put on behaviours like love, compassion, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, obedience, respect, kindness, honour, fidelity... So many behaviours. So many different pieces of clothing to put on. So many things to wear. What do you think, sisters and brothers? What does this look like, if not a fashion show?

And not just any kind of fashion, right? But fashion that is actually very difficult to make. Clothes that are very expensive to buy. How many of us find it easy, for example, to be gentle and patient with our family members? Isn’t it true, that it often seems much easier to be kind and  considerate to friends and colleagues, or even to complete strangers, than to the members of our own family? And how many of us find it easy to forgive someone who has hurt us? Difficult enough to forgive after a very long time has passed. But to forgive as soon as a quarrel begins? How hard that must be. And how many of us who are married, find it actually easy to stay married? Or how many of us enjoy caring for aged parents? Especially parents who may be suffering from dementia? Truly, sisters and brothers, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t we have to admit that the clothes we need to wear in order to have happy faith-filled families, are really very expensive to buy. Really very hard to sew. Really very difficult to make.

But here’s the good news, sisters and brothers. We don’t have to make or to buy these clothes for ourselves. In fact, we cannot. The good news is that the One who designed them actually wants to make them for us. In our Lord Jesus Christ, God the heavenly Fashion Designer has already come among us to be our friend. All we have to do is to accept His hand of friendship. To receive his words of mercy. To participate in his banquet of love. And isn’t this what we are doing here at this Mass. And also at every moment that we spend in prayer. Whether on our own or together with others. What we are doing is to allow our friendship with Jesus to deepen. So that He can slowly transform us. Gradually change our behaviour. Gently put on for us, piece by piece, all the proper clothes we need to wear in order to build happy, peaceful, and faith-filled families. In the words of the responsorial psalm, O blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways! You will be happy and prosper.

Isn’t this, sisters and brothers, the true connection between faith and family. We can only build happy families by allowing our friendship with Christ to deepen. And isn’t this also why, in the gospel, Jesus calls the Pharisees unteachable? In another translation of the Bible, Jesus speaks of their hardness of heart. The Pharisees stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their own weakness. They refuse to receive God’s friendship in Jesus. They insist on relying on their own efforts. On clothing themselves. And so, in their pride and self-righteousness, they fall short. In contrast, Jesus invites us to have the openness of little children. Who are not shy to admit their need for others. They are ever willing to depend on others, because they know they cannot survive on their own. Anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

My dear sisters and brothers, to help us build up our families, Christ Jesus our Fashion Designer is eager to keep clothing us in His mercy. To keep embracing us in His love. What must we do to continue accepting His hand of friendship today?

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Worth Playing For? (Rerun)

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever watched Survivor? Those who have will know that Survivor is a reality TV game-show, where a bunch of people happily bid farewell to family and friends, and allow themselves to be stranded for more than a month at some remote location. Where they are left to fend for themselves, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not only do they have to construct their own shelters, and catch and cook their own food, they also have to compete with one another in physically-demanding and mentally-draining challenges, in an effort to keep from getting voted off the game. In the words of the show’s tagline, they have to outwit, outplay and outlast one another. It’s not a game for softies. As the days go by, and more and more of them get voted off, the remaining participants grow visibly thinner and thinner for lack of nourishment. Some get sick or injured. Others suffer emotional breakdowns. And all of this on national television.

Even so, despite the incredibly difficult conditions, there is no shortage of people eager to play. The show is already entering its 27th season! Why do people do it? The reason is quite obvious. Not only do they stand a chance of winning a million US dollars, players also attain instant celebrity status. Their suffering is not for nothing. Which is also something the show’s host, Jeff Probst, continually reminds the participants. At the start of each challenge, after having shown the players what they stand to win, Jeff always asks them the same question in three words: worth playing for? Is this prize worth giving up the company of family and friends for? Is this worth being exposed to the elements and starving yourself half to death for? In almost all cases, the survivors’ answer is yes. Yes, it is worth playing for.

And, like the survivors, we Christians also need continually to ask ourselves a similar question. For, if our Mass readings today are anything to go by, it would seem that the Christian life is not any less demanding than Survivor. As Jesus, our host in today’s gospel reading, tells us: If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. The demand sounds blunt and uncompromising. The word hate is used to emphasise that in all situations, the Christian must act in such a way as to place the Lord first. Above even family and self. This is, of course, not an easy thing to do. Which is why, Jesus insists that those of us who wish to follow him need to examine our commitment. Like the survivors, we must continually ask ourselves the question, Is it worth playing for?

But, in order to answer this question, we need first to consider a little more closely–to appreciate a little better–the nature of this game we are playing. What exactly is it we are being asked to sacrifice? And for what reward? To begin with, notice how Jesus ends his speech in today’s gospel with a call to renunciation. None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions. With this statement, Jesus helps us to understand what it means for a Christian to hate family and friends, and even his or her own life.

Could it be that what we are being called to hate–what we are being asked to give up–is not so much our family and our life as such, but rather our tendency to see and to treat everything and everybody, including our own lives, as mere possessions? As things that we own? Isn’t this what is happening, for example, when some spouses or siblings take each other for granted? When they ignore or neglect or mistreat one another? Or when some parents pressure their children to fulfil the parents’ own dreams? Overloading them with unreasonable expectations and unbearably heavy schedules and responsibilities? Or when grown children fight with one another over their inheritance? Tearing the family apart in the process? Or when individuals overwork themselves, for whatever reason? To the point of physical and emotional burnout? In such situations, and many more, aren’t people relating to one another, and to themselves, only in terms of possessions? Only as objects of ownership? As things to use and abuse?

Our readings help us to see what happens when this is done. When we relate to things and to people only as possessions, everything and everyone in our lives somehow turn into obstacles that prevent us from knowing and fulfilling God’s plan for us. Much like what the first reading tells us about our material existence: a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind, such that we are unable to know the intentions of God. Unable to divine the will of the Lord. Which is why, in order to seek and to fulfil God’s will for us, we must first be willing to give up our possessions. To allow God’s holy spirit from above to transform our relationships. So that they are no longer obstacles but pathways to God.

Isn’t this also what Paul is asking Philemon to do in the second reading? Writing from prison, Paul asks his friend to renounce his right of ownership over Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus. Whom Paul had met in prison and converted to Christianity. According to Paul, if he is willing to do this, Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus will be transformed. Paul writes: I know you have been deprived of Onesimus for a time, but it was only so that you could have him back for ever, not as a slave any more, but something much better than a slave, a dear brother…. a blood-brother as well as a brother in the Lord. What Paul is asking Philemon to do is to renounce a material possession, in order to gain a heavenly relative. By giving up his claim of ownership over Onesimus, Philemon will be fulfilling God’s plan. He will be allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the obstacle of slavery into a pathway of love in the Lord. But, for this to happen, much depends upon whether or not Philemon is free enough to say yes. Like the players of Survivor, much depends upon how Philemon answers the question: Is this new relationship with Onesimus worth playing for?

It thus becomes clear, sisters and brothers, that the reward we Christians are playing for consists in the very things that we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer. You will recall that we asked God to enable us to receive true freedom and an everlasting inheritance. The inheritance that is ours as adopted sons and daughters of God. The inheritance that is the Kingdom of God, whose coming Jesus proclaimed. The Kingdom, in which all bonds of domination and ownership are transformed into relationships of love in the Lord. The Kingdom, where people are no longer sold into slavery.  No longer forced to leave family and friends, in order to find work as undocumented migrants in foreign lands. Under unsafe conditions. For less than a living wage. In this Kingdom, chemical weapons are no longer used on anyone, much less on innocent civilians. In this Kingdom, violence is no longer an option for the resolution of disputes. International or interpersonal. In this Kingdom, peace and justice prevails, because the love of God permeates everything, everyone, everywhere.

Sisters and brothers, there are many people who are willing to endure considerable suffering just for the chance of winning a million US dollars – before tax – and the title of Sole Survivor. Can we who call ourselves Christian do any less? Especially when what’s at stake is the Kingdom of God?

Sisters and brothers, in the concrete situations of our lives, as individuals and as church, God continues to invite us to make a choice for the Kingdom. So what do you think? Is it worth playing for today?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Super Ironwoman

Day 4 of Nativity Church Feast-Day Novena

I Believe in Jesus Christ, Incarnate of the Virgin Mary

Readings: 1 John 1:1-4; Psalm 97; John 1:9-14
Picture: The Real Singapore (Apple Daily)

Sisters and brothers, do you remember a woman by the name of Ms Louise Chow? Also known as Super Ironwoman? Do you remember who she is? And how she got that nickname? Her story was told in the news just a couple of weeks ago. According to the reports, Ms Chow was jogging one day along the waterfront of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, when she noticed a crowd of people watching a man who had fallen into the sea. As it turned out, the man was mentally unstable, and was trying to commit suicide. Now you may remember that this was also the time when Typhoon Utor was passing through Hong Kong. So the winds were very strong. Blowing at more than 100 km/h. And the waves were high. You can probably imagine what it looked and felt like. But, in spite of all that, Ms Chow did not hesitate. She interrupted her run, took off her shoes and socks, grabbed a life-buoy, dived into the choppy waters, and pulled the man to safety.

Sisters and brothers, don’t you think that was a very heroic thing to do? If it were me, I’m not sure whether I would have done the same... Actually… probably not. There were, after all, other people there at the scene. Perhaps some just walked away without a second thought. And maybe some others stood by and watched. Doing nothing. Except maybe exchanging comments with their friends, or just taking some photographs. And then, very likely, there were also some other people who may have tried to reach out and help. But only from afar. Only from the safety of the shore. What made Ms Chow stand out, was her willingness to jump straight into the dangerous waters. Again, I don’t know if that was a wise thing to do. But that was what she did. As a result, a man’s life was saved that day. And Ms Chow earned for herself the name Super Ironwoman.

Now you may be wondering, sisters and brothers, why I’m telling you this story. I do it because I think it can help us to understand a little better–to ponder a little more deeply on–the theme that you have chosen for this fourth day of your Novena in preparation for the parish feast. Today’s theme is the Incarnation. And, as you know, to incarnate literally means to put on flesh. The Incarnation has to do with God becoming a human being in Jesus Christ. That much we all know. But what does the Incarnation really mean to us and for us? What difference does it make in our lives? This is where the Super Ironwoman story can help us.

Why did Ms Chow dive into the dangerous waters of Victoria Harbour? She didn’t have to. She didn’t plan to. She could have chosen simply to continue jogging. Her action was a spontaneous response to an urgent situation. An emergency. A matter of life and death. She did it to save someone who was trying to take his own life. Isn’t this also something like what the Incarnation is for us? Isn’t this a little like why God decides to become flesh? To dive into the choppy waters of our human situation? God does this in order to rescue us from drowning. To save us from certain death. Even from committing suicide.

But some of us may object. Surely none of us here is drowning, right? None of us is trying to commit suicide. We’re all still very much alive. But are we? Really? What does it mean to be alive? Of course, we all know what it means biologically. We consider someone to be alive when the person is still breathing. When the heart is still pumping. When the brain is still thinking. And yet, we also know that we human beings are created by God for something more than mere biological life alone. We are meant for something greater. Something which our Mass readings call eternal life.

We have seen Eternal Life, the first reading tells us, and we bear witness, and we are telling you of it. But what is this Eternal Life? And how is it different from mere biological life? Jesus himself gives us the answer in John’s gospel (17:3). As he prays to his heavenly Father, Jesus says: this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. According to Jesus, eternal life is far more than just breathing lungs and beating heart and active brain. For Jesus, to have eternal life is to enter and to remain in a loving personal relationship with God. It is to put God first in one’s life. Anything less than this is less than eternal life.

Which, of course, immediately presents us with a problem. The same problem that we find in the gospel reading. Which tells us that although God was already in the world, the world did not know him. And since eternal life is to know God, then not to know God is somehow to die. And, worse still, to choose not to know God is to choose to die. To commit suicide. It is to decide, like that mentally unstable man in Hong Kong, to drown in our own ignorance of God. And isn’t it true, sisters and brothers, that many of us, if not all, have some experience of drowning in this way? Don’t I know what it feels like to put other things and other people in front of God? To drown in my greed, for example. My desire to accumulate more and more things. Like bigger houses. Or faster cars. Or richer friends... Or to drown in my worries and anxieties. My jealousies and resentments. My unwillingness to forgive those who may have hurt me. My lack of care and attention for those who may need my help. Especially those for whom I bear some responsibility. My parents. My children. My siblings. My neighbours. The poor.

Sisters and brothers, we all say that we believe God is everywhere. In every situation, and in every person. Yet, isn’t it true that many of us, myself included, often find it difficult to see and to recognise God. When things go well for me, I tend to forget all about God. And then, when things go badly, I look for God, but can’t seem to see where God might be hiding. I say I believe that God is everywhere, and yet I find it hard to see God present in the challenging situations I may encounter. Or the difficult people I may have to face. Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that we all know the feeling of drowning in our own ignorance of God?
Fortunately for us, God responds to our drowning in the same surprising and heroic way as the Hong Kong Super Ironwoman. Of course, God can simply choose to walk away. Or to stand by and take pictures. Or to reach out to us only from afar. But God doesn’t do these things. God chooses instead to dive into our human situation. To put on flesh so that we can learn to recognise God. To hear God. To see God. To touch and feel God. This is what Jesus does for us. When we look carefully at his life. Especially as it is described in the Gospels. At the way he comes to be born as a helpless baby. Born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. At the way he grows up, humbly and quietly obedient to his parents (cf Luke 2:51). At the way he spends his adult life, tirelessly teaching people about his heavenly Father, and mercifully healing them of their illnesses. At the way he allows himself to be tortured, and put to death, and then raised to life again on the third day. When we carefully consider the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we finally come to know what God is like. We come to realise what is written in the first letter of John (4:16): that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

And that’s not all. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, the Word made flesh, we also gradually learn to recognise him present to us and loving us in all the different situations and people in our lives. And not just to recognise, but also to respond. To respond to him in the same way that God responds to us. To respond as Ms Louise Chow did when she came across a fellow human being in need. Diving into the choppy and dangerous waters of their situation. And pulling them into the safety of God’s loving embrace.

Sisters and brothers, in the Incarnation, God becomes our Super Ironwoman. How is God diving into your life today?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Between Acting & Authenticity

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Cliff

Sisters and brothers, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Academy Awards right? More popularly known as the Oscars? Perhaps you’ve watched the award show on TV. You know what it looks like. You can recall the glitz and the glamour. You also know what the Oscars are for. You know that they are given every year to people who have distinguished themselves in the film industry. And one important way to distinguish yourself–though not the only way–is of course by being a good actor. The Oscars are, among other things, an acting award.

They honour celebrities. People who have become famous for their extraordinary talent at pretending to be someone they are not. Their ability to assume a personality other than their own. To put on a mask, as it were, whenever they wish. To appear happy, when they’re actually feeling sad. Or friendly, when irritated. Or interested, when they really couldn’t care less. This is what the Oscars do. They honour those who can act. And it’s not only the Oscars that do this. We also have the Emmys for TV. The Tonys for theatre. The Golden Horse in Taiwan. Our own Star Awards... And then, of course, we also have, on a much smaller scale, the unofficial, nameless performing awards. Those prizes that are presented, from time to time, to actors of a different sort. As when someone in the office gets promoted, not because he’s a particularly good worker, but simply because he has a talent for telling the boss whatever s/he wants to hear.

Now, I hope you don’t get the wrong idea, sisters and brothers. I have nothing against the Oscars. Or against acting, for that matter. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that watching movies is one of my favourite pastimes. The reason why I mention the Oscars is not because I wish to criticise them, but because I think they can help us to uncover one way in which we may very easily misunderstand what our Mass readings are actually telling us today. As you’ve probably already noticed, our readings speak to us about the importance of being humble. The greater you are, the first reading tells us, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favour with the Lord. In other words, be humble and God will reward you. That much is clear. What is less clear, however, is what it really means to be humble. What true humility really looks like.

At first glance, it seems that humility looks a lot like play-acting. That to be a really humble person is to be nothing more than a good actor. Isn’t this what we seem to find in the story told by Jesus in the gospel? Why should I first take the lowest–the least honourable–place at a wedding feast? Is it because I think that’s where I truly belong? No. I take the lowest place, only because I hope to be promoted by my host. And not just promoted, but promoted in front of all the other guests. In my heart of hearts I actually want to occupy a higher place. If possible, even the highest. But I only pretend that I want the lowest one. So that I can be rewarded. Sisters and brothers, if this is what being humble looks like, then isn’t humility no different from acting? And isn’t the wedding feast in the story very much like the Oscars? An award ceremony for great pretenders? A celebration of those with a talent for appearing to be someone they’re not?

Sisters and brothers, I think we can trust our instincts if we feel uneasy with this interpretation. If we somehow find ourselves unable to escape the nagging feeling that humility shouldn’t look like this. After all, why should I pretend to be less than I really am? Shouldn’t I be true to myself? And is God really not much different from an award presenter at the Oscars? Can the God of Truth actually be a reward-er of pretense? Surely we have gone wrong somewhere. And perhaps where we’ve gone wrong is to take the story that Jesus tells too literally. We have forgotten that the story is meant to be, not a piece of practical advice for celebrities attending an award ceremony, but a parable. Jesus’ primary concern is not really our conduct at any ordinary wedding feast, as important as that may be. What Jesus is talking about is another great event. The very same wonderful occasion so vividly described for us in the second reading.

What you have come to, the reading tells us, is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival. We have come not to any ordinary place. Not even to an annual award ceremony. But to God himself. And in this divine place, at this heavenly event, we are no longer simply guests hoping to be honoured at someone else’s celebration. Nor are we celebrities participating at some media-saturated extravaganza. For here at this festival, everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. Here we truly belong. This is our party.

And what’s more important is how we obtain this status. Not through any merit of our own. Not because we are particularly talented or capable. Or rich or righteous. We have made it here only because of Jesus. He is the mediator who brings a new covenant and a blood for purification which pleads more insistently than Abel’s. If we have been found worthy to be present at this event, it is only because God has shown us boundless mercy. If we have been found fit to participate in these festivities, it is only because we have first been purified by the blood of the Lamb. So that what we celebrate is not our own achievement, but God’s generosity. Not our talent, but God’s mercy. The responsorial psalm puts it well when it teaches us joyfully to exclaim, in your goodness, O God, you prepared a home for the poor. Truly, this is what God has done and is doing for us. Indeed, we are the poor. Poor at least in spiritual merit, if not in material resource. For without Christ and his Cross, we would all be lost. Cast out in the darkness. Far away from home.

If all this is true, then what we find in our readings looks less like an award ceremony for the rich and famous than it does a soup kitchen for the hungry and homeless. Less like a gathering of publicity-craving celebrities than an assembly of those being fed on the broken body of the crucified and risen Christ. Those who have finally come to accept their own poverty. Their own inability to save themselves. However hard they may try. Isn’t this what humility really looks like? Not pretense. But truth. Not manipulation and competition. But openness to receive what we would otherwise be incapable of attaining for ourselves. Isn’t this what humility really means? Not acting, but authenticity? Not an award ceremony, but a celebration of the hospitality and mercy of God.

And isn’t this also what we are celebrating here today? The feeding of our deepest hunger. The quenching of our most urgent thirst. A feeding and a quenching that we can only truly experience to the extent that we are willing first to accept our own poverty in the sight of God. And doesn’t this also help us to understand why it is only proper that Jesus should expect us to reach out a caring and helping hand to those who are unable to repay us? To the aged and the sick. To the hungry and the homeless. To the lonely and the depressed… We show hospitality to others without expectation of return, because this is precisely what we have first received from God.

Humility is more about authenticity than acting. And the spiritual life is more of a celebration of God’s hospitality than it is an award ceremony. Sisters and brothers, in our lives as individuals and as church, what more can we do to go beyond the Oscars today?