Sunday, June 29, 2014

Salvation As Good Plumbing

Solemnity of Ss. Peter & Paul

Picture: cc Robert the Noid

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had problems with plumbing? Recently, my washbasin started acting up. The water was taking a long time to drain away. Which made it very inconvenient to use the basin. At first I thought the problem was temporary. Maybe it had to do with the weather. Or with air pressure. Or water volume. Or some technical thing like that. So I left it. Hoping the situation would improve by itself. Wishful thinking. Instead of getting better, it got worse. The flow of water got slower and slower. Until, one day, it stopped altogether. My basin was well and truly clogged. It couldn’t be used anymore.

No longer able to deny or ignore the problem, I decided to dismantle the pipes to take a look. And a good thing I did. What I found embarrassed me. Contrary to my earlier diagnosis, my plumbing problem was not due to the weather, or to air pressure, or any other complicated technical thing. The cause was quite simple. The outlet through which water was meant to drain was completely choked up with dirt. Clearing it was a messy (and smelly) affair. And I must admit that I took no pleasure in doing it. But it was simple enough. And, at the end, I’m glad I did it. Glad I took the time, and made the effort, to unclog my pipes. Now, not only does the water drain off smoothly, but my basin also looks cleaner than it did before.

I share this experience, only because it seems to mirror quite well what our Mass readings are teaching us today. Something that we find in the lives of both Peter and Paul. The experience of salvation. In the words of the psalmist, the angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him, to rescue them. But what does this rescue look and feel like? What does it mean to be saved?

At first glance, our readings seem to give us a rather straightforward answer. Notice what happens to Peter in the first reading. He is persecuted by King Herod. Thrown into prison. Guarded by four soldiers. Fastened with double chains. But the angel of the Lord rescues him. Unfastens his chains. Puts his guards to sleep. Throws open the prison gates. Leads him out to freedom. Saves him from certain death. Is this what it means to be saved? Simply to be preserved from all danger? To be protected from every persecution?

Again, at first glance, it seems that Paul has a similar experience. In the second reading, he tells of how he has survived persecution. How he has successfully defended himself at a trial. The Lord stood by me, he says. I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. It would seem that, for Paul, as for Peter, salvation is about being protected from persecution. Being guarded from earthly enemies. Rescued from iron chains. Set free from prisons of stone.

Now, sisters and brothers, I’m not sure about you. But for me, this is a very attractive view of how God saves. Not that I often suffer persecution. But there are moments in my life, when I sometimes feel a little trapped. By one problem or another. At home or at work. In my personal life or in ministry. And how consoling it is to think that God will always rescue me. Will always find me a way out. No time to prepare a homily for Sunday? Don’t worry. God will provide. Really? All the time? Then why bother even to prepare in the first place?

And yet, as appealing as it sounds, there is at least one problem with this view of salvation. For we all know what eventually happened to the great apostles Peter and Paul. Although Peter survived the persecution of Herod in Judea. And although Paul successfully defended himself in the second reading. Legend has it that they were both martyred in Rome. By the emperor Nero. How could God allow that to happen? Why didn’t God rescue them? Does this mean that Peter and Paul were not saved? Or is there perhaps a different meaning to salvation?

Actually, our readings do offer us an alternative understanding. A deeper meaning. For one thing, the scripture scholars tell us that, in the first reading, Peter’s imprisonment and rescue is described in a way that is calculated to remind us of one thing. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. So that the story of Peter’s rescue is really the author’s way of saying that God set Peter free to follow in his Master’s footsteps. Even to lay down his life, in love for God and for others. As Jesus did before him.

And this is also exactly what Paul says about himself in the second reading. My life, he says, is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone… In the second reading Paul is boasting not just of being rescued from persecution. But of how God has cleared away all the things that hindered him from pouring out his life as a sacrifice to God. Not unlike how someone might clear out water-pipes choked up by dirt. The dirt of selfishness and sin. Of worldly ambition and fear. Of inadequate understandings of what it means to be saved.

Isn’t this what Jesus is doing for Peter and the other disciples in the gospel? At a place called Caesarea Philippi, Jesus begins to unclog the pipes of his disciples’ faith. Clearing away their unrealistic expectations of him. And, much like how a choked washbasin is cleared, the process involves roughly two steps. The first is a dismantling. An uncovering. Jesus invites his disciples to examine their own expectations of him by asking them two questions. First, Who do people say the Son of Man is? And then, more personally, But you, who do you say I am?

And, even though Peter seems to give the correct answer, the process is not complete. A second step is needed. Our reading today ends at verse 19. But we may remember what happens in the verses that follow. Jesus starts telling his disciples about how he will soon allow his life to be drained away on the Cross. He speaks to them about his Passion, and Death, and Resurrection. And Peter protests. Causing the Lord to rebuke him. Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s. What is Jesus is doing, if not clearing away the dirt that is choking Peter’s pipes. The false expectations that prevent Peter, not just from letting Jesus go to his Passion, but also from following in the Lord’s footsteps.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this the salvation that we are celebrating today? God’s rescue of both Peter and Paul. Not just saving them from persecution. Not just freeing them from prison. But clearing away everything that prevents them from submitting to God. So that they can imitate Jesus in generously pouring out their lives, in love for God and for God’s people. And isn’t this the same kind of rescue that God is offering to us? Isn’t this the same kind of salvation that we all need so very much in this self-absorbed, me-first, society in which we live?

Sisters and brothers, how is God unclogging the pipes of your heart today?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Even When We Let Him Go...

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (A)

Well you only need the light when it's burning low.
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow.
Only know you love her when you let her go...

Sisters and brothers, do you find these words familiar at all? Perhaps some of us may recognise them as the opening lines to that haunting song performed by the English singer and songwriter who calls himself Passenger. The song is entitled Let Her Go. And it’s a sad song. A lament. A song sung by someone remembering and mourning a broken relationship. Pining for a lost love. Yearning for what could have been. A song sung by someone who has begun to realise why his relationships get broken in the first place. Why his love was lost.

The reason is simple. It has to do with something that perhaps all of us have experienced in ourselves. At one time or another. We all have a tendency to take things and people for granted. We don’t cherish what we have until it’s gone. We only need the light when it's burning low. We only miss the sun when it starts to snow (or rain). We only know we love someone after we have let her/him go. It’s all quite tragic, isn’t it, sisters and brothers? And all the more so, because of the inevitability of it all. We just don’t seem able to appreciate those we love. Until it’s too late. Until we lose them. Until we break our relationship. Until we let them go.

And, strange as it may sound, I’m reminded of this song today, because I think it helps to illustrate quite well–though in an indirect way–what our Corpus Christi celebration is all about. To see the connection, we need to look a little more closely at our first reading. Remember the context. The people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty long years. They’ve experienced many ups and downs. And now, finally, they reach their destination. They find themselves by the eastern bank of the river Jordan. The Promised Land is just across the river. They’ve made it. It’s a happy occasion. A time to celebrate.

But, before letting them occupy the land that God is giving them, Moses gathers the people for a final pep talk. He warns them to remain faithful to God. To keep the Law that God gave them at Mount Sinai. How does Moses motivate the people to do this? He invites them to remember. To remember their experiences of the past. And we all know what these experiences are.

For one thing, they are experiences of Israel’s infidelity to God. Experiences of how, even though God had worked mighty miracles to free them from slavery in Egypt, Israel remained repeatedly rebellious. Resistant to God’s hand of friendship. Even as God was giving them the Law on Sinai, they broke their relationship with God by trying to replace Him. They fashioned and worshipped an idol. A false god. A golden calf. And, even though God was leading them to a land overflowing with milk and honey, they complained repeatedly of the hardship they had to endure on the way. Threatened, continually,  to give up the journey. To go back into slavery. To stop following the Lord.

In other words, from one perspective, the experiences of Israel in the wilderness are not unlike what is described in the song Let Her Go. They are experiences of having taken someone for granted. Of breaking a relationship. Of continually letting God go. So that the exercise of remembering, which Moses invites Israel to undertake in the first reading, could so easily have taken the form of a tragedy. A lament. A sad sad song of what could have been. Of a relationship that is broken. Of a love that is lost.

And yet, it is not. The first reading is filled with joy and hope. Instead of sadness and regret. It is filled with purpose and determination. Instead of dejection and despair. How did this come about? We know the answer. Tragedy is turned into celebration. Sorrow to elation. Lament to jubilation. For only one reason. Simply because, even though the people have taken God for granted, God has refused to leave them alone. Has insisted on guiding and protecting them through the dangers of the desert. Making water flow for them from the rock. Feeding them with manna from the sky. Patiently allowing Himself to be taken for granted. Stubbornly refusing to let His people go.

And isn’t this our experience as well? Isn’t this what we celebrate at Corpus Christi? And, indeed, at every offering of the Eucharist. We remember how, in our own history as a people, we have allowed God to be taken for granted. Have broken our relationship with God. Have even broken the body of God’s only begotten Son. Have tortured Him and hung him on a Cross. In the Eucharist, we remember how we have let our God go.

And yet, our memory is not a sad song of loss and regret. As it might so easily have been. Instead it is a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Of power and hope. We rejoice in the precious gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. Broken and poured out for us. As a touching and empowering reminder of God’s unconquerable love and care for us. We remember how, even though we may have taken God for granted. Have worshipped false gods. God still insists on accompanying us. On befriending us. On guiding and protecting us. As we make our way through the dangerous avenues of this passing world. Through the unavoidable stresses and strains of daily living. God simply refuses to let us go.

So that, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel, we who eat his flesh and drink his blood may have eternal life. Not just the mysterious life that awaits us beyond the grave. But that fullness of life, which begins already here and now. While we walk the face of this earth. The life enjoyed by those who live in Eucharistic ways. Those who imitate the example of Christ. Allowing themselves to be broken and poured out for the good of others.

And, when we do this, we actually become the very thing that we eat and drink. We become the Body and Blood of Christ. In and for our world. For, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, the blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ. By being part of this celebration, this memorial of the Lord’s Passion, we receive the power to share with others the fruits of His redemption. The transformation of sorrow into joy. Betrayal into trust. Brokenness into healing.

You only need the light when it's burning low.
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow.
Only know you love her when you let her go…

Sisters and brothers, by any stretch of the imagination, these should be words of sadness. This should be a song of lament. And yet, for us, the sad song of loss and regret has been transformed into a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving. All because the God we have taken for granted, has broken His Body...
Has poured out his Blood...
For us...
For you...
For me...
For the life of the world...

Sisters and brothers, how is God refusing to let you go today?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

From Math Books to Hiking Boots (Rerun)

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (A)

Picture: cc blaircook

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you’re a student in a classroom, waiting for a lesson to begin. Or an adult at work, waiting for a meeting to start. You’re confident. You’re prepared. You’ve brought all the required books and notes. You’re eager to get started. But when the class or meeting begins, your heart sinks. You discover that you’ve prepared the wrong material. Frustrated, you struggle to keep up. But it’s difficult, because you were expecting something very different.

Sometimes I wonder whether we go through a similar struggle each year. On this solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. We know very well what this feast is about. We know we are celebrating God. But, because we Christians believe in one God, who is also a Trinity of Persons, we face a problem. All this talk of God being one-in-three and three-in-one doesn’t make much sense, does it? Especially when our attention remains focused only on the numbers. It’s as though we come to the celebration prepared for a math lesson. We hope to understand how 1 = 3. And 3 = 1. And, let’s face it, even after many celebrations of this feast, which of us can honestly say that we’ve fully understood? Which of us can claim to have solved the puzzle? On the contrary, we can be forgiven if, at the end of our celebration, we may find our hearts continuing to sink with confusion and disappointment.

And yet, sisters and brothers, what if our celebration today is not really a lesson in arithmetic? What if it’s more like a hike into the woods? What if our concern today is not really to solve a math problem? But to locate and travel to a spiritual place? If this is true, then maybe we need to be ready to leave the classroom. To step out into the open air. We need to exchange our books and notes for a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a good map.

And a good map is precisely what our readings provide for us today. This is a special kind of map. It points us to a special kind of place. A spiritual place. We have probably noticed by now that our three readings have something in common. Each of them speaks to us of the presence and saving action of God among God’s people. They speak to us not only of what our God is like, but also of where our God is to be found. Together they sketch for us a reliable map to the place where we can meet God.

In the first reading, this place is described as the mountain of Sinai. Only Moses is allowed to climb this mountain. Only he is privileged to have a close personal encounter with God. And it is important to notice what this encounter tells us about God. Remember that this is not the first meeting. Neither are the stone tablets in Moses’ hands the first pair. Today’s reading is from Exodus 34. Earlier, in Exodus 20, God had given Moses the Ten Commandments, inscribed on two earlier tablets. But Moses was so angry at the people’s idolatry–at their worship of the golden calf–that he had smashed those first two tablets. It is against this background of betrayal that God speaks those moving words we hear today: Lord, Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. In spite of the people’s infidelity, God continues to remain faithful. God remains willing to take them back. To guide and to care for them. Not to leave them to die of hunger and thirst in the wilderness.

Perhaps not many of us have been to Mount Sinai. I haven’t. Even so, haven’t we experienced the love and mercy of God? Don’t we know what it feels like to have our sins forgiven? To feel ourselves guided by the hand of God? Whether it was at a retreat. Or a penitential service. Or some other special occasion. Each of us can probably recall our own personal encounters with the God of tenderness and compassion. The One who simply refuses to abandon us. But insists on relentlessly pursuing and befriending us. Haven’t we each had our own mountaintop experiences? Times when we’ve met, and continue to meet, the loving God whom we celebrate today?

And yet, like the Israelites of the first reading, we cannot always remain encamped at the holy mountain forever. We have to move on. How and where then to find God? Like Moses, we long for God to accompany us on our way. Like him, we too may find ourselves praying: Let my Lord come with us, I beg. And, in the gospel, we have God’s answer to this prayer of ours. Here we learn that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. The love of God for us is so great that God cannot bear to let us journey on alone. Instead, through and in his only begotten Son, the second Person of the Trinity, God descends the mountain and pitches tent among us. In Christ, it is now possible for everyone to have a close encounter with God. In Christ, our meeting place with God has now become a person. The second Person of the Holy Trinity.

So that we don’t always have to climb a high mountain to find God. For, in Christ, the mountain has come to the people. In the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, every truly human experience, even the most terrible suffering, even death itself, becomes a place where God can be found. Don’t we know of people who remain full of faith and hope, even in the midst of great suffering? Even in the face of death? In Christ, God remains accessible to us even in times of difficulty and distress.

But some of us might object. For Jesus is no longer present to us like he was to the first disciples in the gospels. Hasn’t he already ascended to the Father? How are we to find God now? Again, with great tenderness and compassion, God provides for our need. What we cannot see with the naked eye, God teaches us to recognise with tender hearts. Jesus remains present to us in the power of the Holy Spirit. The third Person of the Trinity. The same Spirit whom, in a few moments, we will invoke both on the gifts of bread and wine, as well as on ourselves. It is in the power of this same Spirit that we are able to recognise Christ. That we are able to meet God.

And isn’t this what we are doing at this Mass? Finding and celebrating the presence and saving power of God among us? And are we not called to remain in this place by continuing to live Eucharistic lives? Even after we leave this church? Even after we are told to go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life? We are able to do this, because, in the Holy Spirit, our meeting place with God has become a spiritual practice. The Eucharistic practice of breaking the Bread of Life and sharing the Wine of Compassion. A practice that we continue to engage in, even after leaving this church, by following the instructions given in the second reading today: try to grow perfect; help one another. Be united; live in peace, and the God of love and peace–the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit–will be with you. Will continue to grace you with his single three-fold presence.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps rather than a math puzzle for us to solve, the feast of the Holy Trinity is really a loving invitation to us to set out on a spiritual journey. A lifelong pilgrimage. Into God... 

Have you put on your hiking boots yet?