Saturday, February 21, 2015

From Threat to Transport

1st Sunday in Lent (B)

Picture: cc Jason Jones

Sisters and brothers, do you know how to transform something dangerous into something useful? Have you ever tried, for example, to cross the road in front of this church? What’s it like? It’s dangerous, right? Dangerous, because the road is very wide. And the traffic moves pretty fast. And there’s also a bend in the road. So the drivers can’t always see you. That road is a dangerous place. But what if you were in a car? Or a van? Well, then the situation changes. In that case, the road becomes more than just a dangerous obstacle. More than just a threat to your safety. With the right vehicle, the road is changed into a means of transport. A way to get you to wherever you need to go.

And the same would be true if the road was replaced by a fast-flowing river. The waters of the river are a dangerous obstacle. A threat to our safety. To swim across the river, we would risk being swept away by the waters. Or attacked by the animals that live in them. But if we were in a boat. Or on a raft. Then the river is transformed. From a place of danger to a means of transport. A way that takes us to our destination.

Sisters and brothers, when we are in the right vehicle, dangerous obstacles become precious means of transport. This is the lesson that our readings teach us on this first Sunday in Lent. In the first reading, Noah has just passed through dangerous waters. Not the waters of a river. But a terrible flood. A flood so severe that it has wiped out every living thing from the face of the earth. Everything, except Noah and those with him. They alone have survived, because they took refuge in the right vehicle. They entered the ark. Not only did the ark protect them. It transformed the dangerous floodwaters into a means of transport. Bringing them safely into the presence of God.

But it wasn’t just the ark that kept Noah safe. It was really the love and mercy of God. The love and mercy that moved God to teach Noah to build the ark. The same love and mercy that now leads God to make a Covenant with Noah and the whole of Creation. Promising that there shall be no flood to destroy the earth again. This Covenant now becomes a new vehicle for Noah, and all that come after him. A vehicle that transforms dangerous obstacles into precious means of transport. All that is needed is for people to remain true to the Covenant. To continue living in the love of God.

In the gospel too, we find someone in a dangerous place. After Jesus had been baptised by John in the Jordan, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Where he was tempted by Satan. But, somehow, Jesus manages to survive the danger. And not only does he survive. We’re told that he was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. The wilderness actually drew Jesus closer to God. And to the creatures of God. How did this happen? Was it not because, like Noah before him, Jesus continued to live in the love of God? Which became a vehicle for him. Transforming the wilderness from a place of danger to a means of transport.

And the wilderness is not the only dangerous place that Jesus enters. There is another. A place called Galilee. We know that Galilee is a dangerous place, because that’s where John the Baptist was arrested. And where he would be put to death. But Galilee is not just a physical location. It is also a spiritual place. The place where Jesus carries out the mission received from his Father. To preach the good news of God’s love for us all. And this is a dangerous thing to do. In carrying out this mission, Jesus will eventually find himself nailed to the wood of a cross.

And yet, for Jesus, Galilee is more than just a dangerous place. It also becomes a precious means of transport. A way to draw closer to God. And this happens because Jesus keeps travelling in the right vehicle. In all that he does, Jesus remains faithful to the love of his Father. And this love transforms the danger and destruction of Good Friday into the glory and resurrection of Easter Sunday. But that’s not all. The good news is that this transformation is not just something that happened to Jesus in the past. It continues to happen to each of us even today.

I’m not sure if you agree with me, sisters and brothers. But our world is a very dangerous place. And I’m not just thinking of those faraway places, like the Middle East and Ukraine, where deadly wars are still being fought. Even here, in relatively peaceful Singapore, the world can be a dangerous place. And not just because it’s possible to get knocked down by a car while crossing the road. Or to suffer a heart-attack while watching TV. Or to crash suddenly into the sea while flying from Surabaya to Singapore.

Our world is dangerous for us, in the same way that the wilderness was dangerous for Jesus. It is a place where we are constantly being tempted. Tempted to stray away from God. Tempted to set our hearts on things less than God. Not just obviously sinful things. But even apparently good things. Beautiful things. Things like a comfortable life and a successful career. There is nothing wrong with such things in themselves, of course. But it is possible to lose ourselves in them. To be so obsessed with working hard to get them. That we lose sight of God. And get swept away by the stresses and strains of daily living. What is more, the world is also dangerous for us the way Galilee was dangerous for Jesus. If we choose to remain true to the mission of Christ. To keep proclaiming the love of God wherever we go. Then it is likely that we will suffer. The world will reject us. We will have to walk the way that Jesus walked. The way of the Cross.

So what are we to do? Should we try to escape from the world? To escape from the wilderness? To escape from Galilee? No. That is not God’s way. That is not Jesus’ way. And that is not our way. The Christian approach to danger is not to avoid it. But to enter into it. Just as God called Noah to enter the waters of the flood. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And then into Galilee. By our baptism, we too are called by God to brave the dangers of our world. So that we can transform it. From a threat to our safety to a means of transport. A way that leads to God. And we can do this only when we travel in the right vehicle. The vehicle of God’s love shown to us in Christ Jesus. The same love that we celebrate at this Mass. The love of the one who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand. For it is only through him, and with him, and in him, that all our Good Fridays are transformed into Easter Sundays.

And isn’t this why we observe Lent? We enter the wilderness of prayer and fasting and almsgiving. Not to make ourselves suffer. Or to prove ourselves strong. But to take refuge in the vehicle of Christ’s love. Leading us into the presence of God.

Sisters and brothers, even now, God continues to change the dangers of our lives into a means of transport. What must we do to continue taking refuge in God today?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beyond Backseat Driving

Chinese New Year

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 89(90) 2-6, 12-14, 26, R: 17(b); James 4:13-15; Matthew 6:31-34
Picture: cc janeyhenning

Sisters and brothers, have you ever been in a car with a backseat driver? You know what a backseat driver is, right? It’s a passenger who insists on telling the actual driver how to drive. Which route to use. How fast to go. Whether or not to overtake… And if the one who is actually driving the car fails to follow the instructions, or is slow to do so, this passenger is likely to scold the poor fellow. See lah! I told you already not to go by this way. But you wouldn’t listen. See, now caught in traffic jam. Next time better let me drive…

And, of course, it’s not just in cars and on the roads that we find backseat drivers. We can find them almost anywhere. In the office or in school. At home or on vacation. Even here in church. We find people who seem to delight in telling other people what to do. People who seem to have a desperate need to arrange every little detail. Not just in their own lives. But also in the lives of everyone else. We have another name for such people, don’t we? We call them control freaks. Actually, sisters and brothers, before you think that I am pointing fingers at others, I must confess that I sometimes find similar tendencies in myself as well. At some level, I too am a backseat driver. I too am a control freak. Which leads me to ask the question why? Why do some of us do this? Why do we feel the need to control everything?

I’m not sure. But I think backseat drivers like me are under a couple of illusions. First, the illusion that we are the ones actually in control of the car. Not the driver. That it is our responsibility to tell the driver what to do. And this first illusion arises from a second, more deeply-rooted, one. The illusion that we must be in control of the car for the journey to go smoothly. Otherwise everything will go haywire. I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I sometimes think that we backseat drivers and control freaks act the way we do, because we are deeply insecure. And we compensate for our insecurity by trying to control everything. By acting as though it were possible for us to control everything.

Which is why I think our Mass readings on this first day of the Lunar New Year are very appropriate. As we look forward to the uncertainties that lie ahead. It is tempting for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control. To act as though we have to be in control. But our readings remind us otherwise. First, they tell us who we are. What it really means to be a human being. Notice the images that are used. In the psalm, we are told the same thing that we were reminded of yesterday. Ash Wednesday. That we are dust. And that the time will come when God will turn all of us back into dust. That we are like a dream. Which dissipates as soon as the sleeper awakes. Or like grass which springs up in the morning. But by evening it withers and fades. The second reading even compares us to the mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. Together, these images remind us not just how short our lives are on this earth. But also that we are not in control. No more than the dust and the dream, or the grass and the mist, are in control.

No, sisters and brothers, we are not in control. And we need to avoid acting as though we are. We need to resist two temptations that spring from the illusion of control. The first is arrogance. The tendency to think and to act as though, just because things are going well for me now, they will continue to do so. As long as I remain in control. In control of my career. Or of my family. Or even of my relationship with God. Pope Francis calls this practical relativism. Acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist (EG, 80). And yet, as the second reading reminds us, you never know what will happen tomorrow. The second temptation is anxiety. The tendency to worry about what is to come. Perhaps because our experiences of the past have shown us just how uncertain, just how fragile, the future is. And yet no amount of worrying on our part can actually make us more secure.

What are we to do then? If we are neither to be anxious nor arrogant? If we have to stop trying to take control? What we have to do is first to accept that our lives are in the hands of God. That it is God who is in the driver’s seat. That it is God’s love and care for us that keeps us in existence. And to trust that God will continue to care for us. Will never abandon us. Which is not to say that we should not work hard. Of course we should. We should work hard with our hands. But we should also keep our hearts fixed, not on ourselves, but on God. Set your hearts on God’s kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well.

And it is precisely with our hearts set on God’s kingdom that we then beg for God’s blessing. Not just so that everything will go smoothly for us materially. Of course, we pray that it will. But, even more important, we also pray that, whatever may happen–in good times or in bad, in sickness or in health, in success or in failure, in poverty or in wealth, in life or in death–whatever may happen, God’s kingdom will come. God’s will may be done. In our lives. And in our world. Isn’t this what we mean–what we should mean–when we wish one another a Happy New Year?

Sisters and brothers, in this Year of the Goat, how shall we allow God to take firmer control of our lives? What must we do to stop being backseat drivers today?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

From Self-Preservation to Mercy

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Sisters and brothers, just imagine for a moment that there is a sudden outbreak of a deadly highly contagious disease. A disease that we are still unable to cure. What do you think we should do? How to prevent the disease from spreading? The answer is quite simple, isn’t it? A single word. Quarantine. We quarantine all those who have been infected. We separate them from the rest of us. We isolate them. During the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa, for example, hundreds of people at a time were quarantined. Cut off from the rest of society. Even as frantic efforts were made to find a cure.

Although it’s a terrible and painful thing to have to leave the infected ones to suffer and die, yet we know that we have little choice. Even if our own relatives and friends are among those infected, we know that we still need to isolate them. And we do this for two main reasons. The first is self-preservation. We have to quarantine the sick to protect the healthy from infection. Of course, we wouldn’t have to do it if we were able to cure the illness. So the second reason is really our own powerlessness. We are forced to quarantine the sick, because we are unable to heal them. Preservation and powerlessness. These are the two main reasons why we isolate the sick.

And these are also the same reasons for what we find in the first reading today. The reading contains advice for dealing with certain infectious skin diseases. Diseases for which the people have no cure. What to do? How to prevent the diseases from spreading? One solution. Quarantine the infected. Isolate them. Separate them from the rest of society. Not only must they live outside the camp. They must constantly warn people to stay away. We can only imagine how terribly painful it must have been to live like that. To suffer not just the physical effects of the illness. But also the emotional and psychological strain of being cut off from family and friends. Of being treated as an outcaste. It must have been a horribly lonely life. But we know the reasons for it. As we said earlier. Preservation and powerlessness. The healthy are powerless against the illness. So, to preserve themselves, they isolate the sick.

Quarantine. This is the usual human response. The response of the powerless. The response of those who wish to preserve themselves. All of which should help us to better appreciate what we find in the gospel. Something very surprising. Something beyond the usual human response. Something that goes against all the precautions prescribed in the first reading. Instead of keeping his distance, a leper dares to kneel before Jesus to beg him for healing. If you want to you can cure me. And, instead of protesting, or scolding the leper, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reaches out and touches him. Of course I want to! Be cured! Why does Jesus do this? What gives him the courage to break the leper’s quarantine? The reasons are exactly the opposite of those for putting the quarantine in place.

In contrast to the people’s helplessness, Jesus demonstrates his power. At his command, the man is cured instantly. In contrast to the people’s desire for self-preservation, Jesus demonstrates his great mercy. Not only does he feel sorry for the suffering leper. Not only does he reach out and touch the man. The gospel also tells us that, as a result of the healing, Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived. In other words, Jesus traded places with the leper. To help the outcaste rejoin society, Jesus himself becomes an outcaste. And all because his concern is not to preserve himself but to show mercy. Like Paul, in the second reading, Jesus is not anxious for his own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else, so that they may be saved.

And it’s important for us to remember that what Jesus does for the leper, Jesus has also done for all of us. For, like the leper, we too are stricken with a disease that we are powerless to cure. The spiritual sickness of sin. Which cuts us off not just from one another. But also, ultimately, from God. From the Author of Life itself. Yet, God chooses not to isolate us. Not to quarantine us. Not to cut us off. But, instead, to show us mercy. By sending Jesus among us, God stretches out his hand of compassion to touch us. To become one like us. To bring us healing.

And as if this were not enough. Not only does Jesus touch us. He also takes the effects of our sins upon himself. He suffers and dies on a cruel cross. On an isolated little hill. Outside the city of Jerusalem. So that we might be saved. By becoming powerless in this way, Jesus actually demonstrates the wonder-working power of God. The healing power of the love and mercy of God. Which cures every incurable illness. Which breaks every painful quarantine. Which reconciles all outcastes to God.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t this the good news we celebrate? That we, who once were spiritual lepers, have now been healed by God? That we, who once were spiritual outcastes, have now been reconciled? And, having received such a great gift, we in our turn are called to do the same for others. Through our Baptism, we receive the mission of Christ. To do for others what has been done for us. To bring back the outcastes from their isolation. To free them from their quarantine.

But who are the lepers of our society today? Who are the people whom we quarantine? Whom we isolate? Whom we separate from ourselves? You may remember, sisters and brothers, what happened during the Pope’s recent visit to the Philippines. The Philippine government moved hundreds of homeless people from the streets of Manila to temporary housing at a luxury resort. Apparently to keep them out of sight. To isolate them. And Manila is not the first to do such a thing. Cities hosting the Olympic games have done it before. Moved the poor away from Olympic venues. So they won’t be seen. Why do we do this? Perhaps for the same reasons that lepers are quarantined. Powerlessness and preservation. Because we believe ourselves powerless to address the illness of poverty. Because we wish to preserve the status quo. To preserve our wealth. To preserve the economic system, in which, according to a recent Oxfam report, the richest 1% will soon own more than half of the world’s wealth.

Sisters and brothers, these days we don’t just quarantine the physically sick. These days, we isolate especially the economically ill. The poor and the homeless. But God calls us to make a different response. A response born not of the concern for self-preservation, but of the desire to show mercy. A response that focuses not on our own powerlessness. But that relies rather upon the power of God’s love for the poor and the sick, the suffering and the sinful. A power that we have experienced for ourselves. A power that we receive at this Eucharist. A power that we are called to exercise for the benefit of the outcastes among us.

Sisters and brothers, what are we doing to reach out to the poor? To break through their cruel quarantine today?

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Healing the Broken

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Phil & Pam Gradwell

Sisters and brothers, are you interested in healing? I think many of us are. If I were to organise a talk, for example. Or a seminar. Or a Mass to celebrate a special occasion. What do you think I could do to get more people to come? From experience, one good way is simply to publicise the Mass as a healing Mass. Or to say that the talk or seminar is about healing of some kind. Healing of memories, maybe. Or inner healing… If I were to do that, then many more people will show up. Everyone is interested in healing. Perhaps it’s because we know that we are all sick in some way. We all need to be healed. Not just in body, but also in mind, and in spirit.

And yet, sometimes I can’t help wondering whether we really know what it means to be healed. And what it means to be sick. Haven’t we met people who are sick, but who do not know it? And, on the other hand, don’t we also know of people who think they are physically ill, when they’re actually perfectly fine? What does it really mean to be sick? And what does it mean to be well? What does a truly healthy person look and feel like?

Sisters and brothers, these are some of the important questions that our Mass readings help us to answer today. In the gospel, we’re told that Jesus cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another. He healed them. But in what way were they sick? And in what way did Jesus heal them? Sisters and brothers, when a car stops running the way it’s supposed to, we say that it is broken-down. It needs to be repaired. In the same way, a human body can also break down. Isn’t this what happens to Simon's mother-in-law?

The gospel tells us that she had gone to bed with fever. Her body was broken-down. She couldn’t function as usual. She had to rest. Then we’re told that Jesus took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her. But that’s not all. We’re also told that, after the fever left her, the mother-in-law immediately began to wait on them. She started serving the people around her. Isn’t this the difference between a healthy person and sick one? Not just the absence of fever. But the presence of the ability and willingness to serve others. A working car can run on the road. A broken-down one cannot. Similarly, a healthy person is one who serves. A sick person does not.

But there is more. A human being is more than a car. It can break down not just physically. But also spiritually. So, in the gospel, we’re told that Jesus cast out many devils. He didn’t just heal broken bodies. He mended broken hearts. Broken spirits. But what does it mean to be possessed by a devil? What does it look and feel like to have a broken spirit? The first reading gives us a good example. A helpful illustration.

We are probably all familiar with the story of Job. We know he was a good and righteous person. And yet, God allowed terrible tragedy to befall him. In a very short time, he lost his property, his family, and even his health as well. So that, when we meet him in the first reading, we find him terribly depressed. Possessed, as it were, by a spirit of sadness and despair. His heart is broken. He is unable to find meaning in life. Unable to be happy. Unable to serve others with a joyful heart. For him, life is nothing more than slavery. We are forced to work. For no other reason than to earn money. And we are constantly restless. Never really happy with our current situation. At night, we look forward to sunrise. In the day, we long for evening. Even if we go through the motions of serving others, we find no joy in doing so. Job’s example reminds us that sickness is not just about diseased bodies. It is also about broken spirits. Which prevent us from finding meaning in life. From experiencing joy in service.

In contrast, consider what we find in the second reading. Notice how St. Paul describes his ministry of preaching the gospel. Even though he says that he didn’t choose this work for himself. Even though he calls it a duty and a responsibility that has been placed upon him. Even though he says that he has made himself the slave of everyone. Yet Paul is filled not with a spirit of depression, but of enthusiasm. He speaks of his work as a reward. A sharing in the blessings of the gospel. He is happy to do it. He finds deep meaning in it. It gives him great joy. Isn’t this the difference between the healthy and the sick? Not just the ability to serve others. But also the capacity to find meaning in it. To derive joy from it. Even to be energised by it.

But, if all this is true, then how do we come to be healed in this way? Especially if, like Job, we ourselves have experienced disaster and disappointment. Failure and disillusionment. When people have let us down. Even betrayed us. Or when we ourselves have fallen short of expectation. Or when we find it difficult to find meaning in life. When our faith feels like nothing more than a burdensome struggle. How to mend our broken spirits? How to recover our enthusiasm? How to find healing?

What we need to do is, of course, to turn to Jesus. In the gospel, when Simon and the other disciples went looking for Jesus, they were doing so for the wrong reasons. Impressed by the large number of people flocking to see the Lord, they wanted to convince him to remain where he was. To build up his popularity even more. But that was precisely the wrong reason to stay. The wrong reason to serve. By thinking in this way, the disciples were only setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. They were already showing symptoms of illness. And they did not even know it.

How does Jesus respond? Let us go elsewhere, he tells them, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came. Just when he was beginning to become popular, Jesus decides to leave. And he leaves because that is what he was sent to do. Not to build his own reputation. But to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That is the mission entrusted to him by his Father. And it is by sharing this same mission with his disciples that Jesus begins to heal them of their illness. By driving out their worldly ambitions. So that they might be possessed only by the Spirit of God. The Spirit of Love and Joy. The Spirit of Peace and Patience. The Spirit of Gentleness and Self-Control. The Spirit that empowers and energises us to lay down our lives for others. As Jesus laid down his life for us.

Isn’t this what true healing looks like? Isn’t this is what it means to be a healthy human being?

Sisters and brothers, today the Lord wishes to continue to heal us. You and me. Today, he wishes to continue mending our broken spirits, by sharing his mission with us. How willing are we to receive it? What response shall we make to the Lord today?