Sunday, October 30, 2016

When The Feet Don't Reach The Pedals

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Karl Gruenwald

Sisters and brothers, do you ever encounter people who simply refuse to accept their own limitations? How do you feel? As you know, young children often have this tendency. I have a vague memory of how, when I was very little, I used to want to drive my father’s car. It didn’t matter to me that my feet couldn’t reach the pedals. If I had my way, I would have tried to start the engine and drive off by myself. I simply refused to accept my own limitations.

Of course, we consider this tendency in little children cute and adorable. But what about when we find it in an adult? How do you feel, for example, when someone at work stubbornly refuses to accept your help with a project? Even though the person hasn’t received the required training. And then you end up having more work to do, because you have to tidy up the mess that the person leaves behind. How do you feel then?

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends. But my typical reaction is irritation and anger. I must confess that I have little patience for this sort of thing in others. The tendency to refuse to accept one’s own limitations. And yet I do realise that there is a reason for my impatience. It is probably because I myself am prone to the same thing. I too find it difficult to admit my own limitations. I too often insist on doing things that are actually beyond me. Such as when I try to control everything in my life, for example. And then get stressed out or upset when I don’t succeed.

Which is probably why there’s a part of me that feels uneasy when I hear about those troublesome people in the gospel reading today. The ones who complain about Jesus. The gospel tells us that, when these people saw what was happening between the Lord and Zacchaeus, they protested by saying, He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house. Do you know why this makes me uneasy?

Well, first of all, it’s clear to me that these people are reacting in a way that demonstrates their failure to recognise their own limitations. Not only do they judge Zacchaeus a sinner, they also  presume to judge the Lord himself. But on what do they base their judgment? Only on what they can see with their eyes. Eyes which, by the way, are obstructed by prejudice. Eyes that see only what they want to see. Eyes that refuse to acknowledge their own inability to read another person’s heart. In order to uncover the goodness that may be hidden there. The goodness that is a sign of God’s imperishable spirit present in all.

I feel uneasy because, I too find myself often tempted to react in the same way. I too am prone to making snap judgments about the moral condition of my neighbours. Even if I may not complain aloud, I look down on them in my heart. And, by doing this, I fail to acknowledge my own limitations. I refuse to recognise that I really cannot read another’s heart. Yet I insist on judging the person’s goodness. It’s as though I were a little boy again. Stubbornly insisting on driving my father’s car. Even though my feet are not able to reach the pedals. Except that I’m not a cute little boy anymore. And I should really know better.

Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to that little man in our gospel reading today. For, even though the public considers him a serious sinner, Zacchaeus has at least one redeeming quality. The very thing that I find so sorely lacking in myself. He has the ability and willingness to recognise his own limitations. I imagine that, especially in Jesus’ day, it must not have been very dignified for a grown man to be seen climbing a tree in broad daylight. Let alone a senior government official like Zacchaeus. And yet, that is precisely what he does. Why? The reading tells us it is because he was too short and could not see Jesus for the crowd. Clearly here is a man who is able to accept his own limitations. And is willing to take steps to address them.

But that’s not all. There is something deeper. For we’re told that Zacchaeus climbs the tree only because he is anxious to see Jesus. But why does he wish to see Jesus in the first place? Could it be that it’s because Zacchaeus is painfully aware not only of his physical limitations. But also, and especially, of his spiritual shortcomings? Could it be that, just as he climbs up a tree because he knows he is small in stature, so too does he seek out Jesus because he realises that he is poor in spirit?

And it is helpful for us to consider what happens as a result of Zacchaeus’ humility. His willingness to recognise his own limitations. Jesus invites him to come down from the tree, and then goes to stay at his house. In Jesus’ response, the poor tax collector experiences something that Pope Francis himself experienced at the age of 17. The merciful gaze of God calling him to follow the Lord. The same merciful gaze described so beautifully for us in the first reading: In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust…. Yet you are merciful to all… and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent.

Moved by this intimate experience of God looking tenderly and mercifully upon him, Zacchaeus declares: I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount. We often consider these words an expression of his intention to repent. A pledge for the future. A promise to turn over a new leaf. But there is also another possible interpretation.

Scripture scholars tell us that, in the original Greek, Zacchaeus’ words are actually in the present tense. So that rather than promising to do something in the future, the man may actually be describing what he is already doing in the present. I am already giving half my property to the poor… But, if this is true, then why does Jesus say that salvation has come? Perhaps salvation comes to Zacchaeus when he is led to recognise something that he had not appreciated before. By gazing mercifully upon him, Jesus helps him to recognise the goodness in himself. So that, just as the sycamore tree gives Zacchaeus the height to look upon the Lord. So too does the merciful gaze of Jesus help him to see the depths of the goodness of God, already present and active in his life. And, in seeing this, the man is saved.

My dear friends, could this be what salvation looks like for us as well? Could it be that this is what St. Paul is referring to in the second reading? When he prays that our God will make you worthy of his call, and by his power fulfil all your desires for goodness… Could this be our path to salvation? First to acknowledge our limitations. Then to seek the Lord with all our heart. And to experience him looking mercifully upon us. Helping us to recognise God’s goodness already powerfully at work in our own lives. And then to be moved to follow him on the Way that leads to life. The Way to Calvary and beyond.

My dear friends, could it be that our readings present us with a choice between two people? The one who is willing to acknowledge his own limitations and the one that is not. Could it be that we are being invited to choose between a humble little man climbing a sycamore tree, and a stubborn little boy insisting on driving his father’s car?

My dear friends, which of these will you choose to imitate today?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Between Taxi & Ambulance

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) (Mission Sunday)

My dear friends, do you know the difference between hailing a taxi and calling an ambulance? Of course, I expect that many of us have the good fortune never to have had to call for an ambulance before. But, even so, perhaps we can imagine what it feels like to do so. And then compare that feeling with the experience of hailing a cab. So what is the difference?

Before considering the differences, we should note one important similarity. Whether we hail a taxi or call an ambulance, we do so only because we wish to be taken somewhere else. Both taxis and ambulances are for travel. But different types of travel. First, the situations are usually very different. Typically, we use taxis for routine travel. With ambulances, however, things are quite different. I don’t call an ambulance just to fetch me to work or to church. I do it only in an emergency.

Then, in addition to this difference in situations, there is also a difference in control. When I board a taxi, although the vehicle is being driven by someone else, I still remain very much in control. Or at least I expect to be. I control not only where we go, but also the route we take. In contrast, in an ambulance, I have to give up control. Over both destination and route. The urgency of the situation demands that the ambulance take me to the nearest hospital by the fastest way. I have little choice in the matter. I must simply submit myself to being brought where I need to go.

These differences in situation and control should help me to appreciate an even deeper difference between taxi and ambulance. Although both vehicles bring me to new physical locations, when I hail a cab, I usually do so only to remain the way I am. To maintain the status quo. In contrast, whenever I call an ambulance, it’s always in the hope of arriving at something new. To be rescued from illness. To experience healing. I board a taxi for constancy. I ride an ambulance for change.

Routine versus emergency. Control versus submission. Constancy versus change. These are some of the contrasts between taxis and ambulances. And it’s important to keep them in mind. If we are to avoid tragic consequences. Imagine what would happen, for example, if an ambulance arrives for me, but I stubbornly resist being taken away. Or I argue with the paramedics over where I want to go. I act as though I were boarding a taxi instead of an ambulance. The resultant delay could well make the difference between life and death.

But we also need to realise that these contrasts apply not just to travel on the roads. They apply just as well to travel in the spirit. Which is what our Mass readings are about: spiritual travel. Notice how, in the second reading, St. Paul describes his life in terms of a movement from one place to another. At the beginning of the reading, he speaks of having run the race to the finish. Then, at the end, he confidently declares that the Lord will bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom. And notice too how the first reading speaks of the humble man’s prayer piercing the clouds and arriving before God.

And just as it is important to distinguish between different forms of travel by road. So too is it crucial that we discern between different approaches to travel in spirit. Isn’t this the critical lesson that Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees in the gospel? In the parable that he tells, the Lord makes a sharp distinction between two different approaches to prayer. One helpful and one not. One practiced by the Pharisee. The other by the tax collector. And the contrasts between these two approaches to prayer are strikingly similar to those between taxis and ambulances.

The Pharisee prays as though he were simply hailing a cab. Very likely, for him it’s all only a matter of routine. Not that routine is bad. It can actually be very helpful. Many of us come to Mass as a matter of routine. That’s okay. But routine alone is not enough. Not by a long shot. Imagine how a wife would feel if she could tell that her husband was taking her out on a date only to check off an item on his to-do list. Or imagine how you would feel if I presided at this Mass mechanically. For no other reason than routine. In contrast to the Pharisee’s routinised performance, the tax collector prays like someone truly experiencing an emergency. Rather than hailing a cab, he is quite obviously calling an ambulance. He is painfully aware of his own dire need for divine intervention. God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Next, it is quite obvious that at no point in his prayer does the Pharisee surrender control. Instead, he speaks to God as though he were giving directions to a cab driver. He knows exactly where to go. And how to get there. I am not like this tax collector, he says. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get… In contrast, the tax collector’s posture eloquently expresses his sense of his own helplessness. His realisation that his life is beyond his control. He stands some distance away. He dares not raise his eyes. He beats his breast. And, unlike those of the Pharisee, these actions of the tax collector are not affectations. Things he does just to impress bystanders. No. The tax collector’s posture is clearly not one of arrogant control, but of humble submission.

Finally, as with hailing a cab and calling an ambulance, we see in the Pharisee and the tax collector the same contrast between constancy and change. Being so incredibly satisfied with himself, the Pharisee seeks only to remain as he is. To maintain the status quo. It is the tax collector who desperately wishes to improve his spiritual state. And He knows he needs God’s assistance to do it. He prays for help to change.

Routine versus emergency. Control versus submission. Constancy versus change. The same differences that we find between taxis and ambulances, we find as well between the prayer of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector. And this sharp contrast has serious consequences. Although the Pharisee and the tax collector both appear to be praying, Jesus says that only the tax collector goes home at rights with God. Only his prayer finds a hearing. Like the prayer of the humble man in the first reading, only the tax collector’s prayer pierces the clouds. Only his petition arrives finally before God.

All of which should prompt us to reflect on our own practice of prayer. When we come to Mass every Sunday, for example. Is it only a matter of routine or of emergency? Do we act like we are in total control, or do we humbly submit to God’s action? Do we truly seek lasting change, or do we cling stubbornly to the status quo? Even more, it’s important that we allow these questions to inform not just our prayer, but also our work, our sense of mission. Our efforts to reach out to those most in need. Most in need not just of material help. But also of spiritual rescue.

Routine versus emergency. Control versus submission. Constancy versus change. These crucial contrasts make the difference between life and death. For ourselves and for our world. My dear sisters and brothers, both in the way we pray and in the way we fulfil our Christian mission, what exactly are we doing? Do we act like we are truly crying for an ambulance? Or are we only calling a cab today?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Deep Gongfu

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, if I were to ask you what is the secret to success, what would you say? Legend has it that when the Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Li Bai, was a boy, he was very playful and lazy. Often skipping school. One day, while out playing truant as usual, he met an old woman, sitting by a river, filing a large iron rod. What are you doing?, the boy asked. I’m turning this rod into a sewing needle, she replied. Li Bai laughed at her and said, Why waste your time? That will take forever! At which point, the woman said something so profound that it moved the boy to turn his life around. He began to take more interest in his studies. Eventually becoming one of the most famous poets in China. What did the woman say?

I think many of you know this better than I do. What she said has become a Chinese proverb: <只要功夫深,铁磨成针>;. As long as your gongfu is deep, you can file an iron rod into a needle. As long as your gongfu is deep… As you know, this is usually understood to mean consistent hard work. This is what we usually assume is the secret to success. Consistent hard work. This is what many children have no doubt been hearing from their parents especially in this time of exams. Consistent hard work. This is how we believe we can arrive at where we want to go. How we can become who we want to be. How we can mould our external environment according to our dreams and desires.

And yet, we also know that, in order for progress to be made, hard work needs to be more than just consistent. It must also be correct. Doing well in exams, for example, is not just about studying hard, but studying smart. Studying the correct things. And in the right way. This too is what gongfu means. Not just consistent effort. But also correct technique.

Even so, that is still not quite the whole story. It is said that true gongfu requires far more than just consistent effort and correct technique. It is, rather, something spiritual. It is about following the Dao (道). The Way inscribed in all of reality. The Way of the cosmos. The Way of nature. So that success becomes less about manipulating the environment according to our own way of doing things, to suit our own purposes, than it is about conforming our actions to the natural flow of the universe. It is only by doing this that we then tap into the energies of the cosmos. So that hard though the work may be, it can also feel somehow effortless. And even an old woman can file an iron rod into a needle. <只要功夫深...>; If only our gongfu is deep… If only we follow the Dao. If only we conform ourselves to the Way.

More than just consistent effort and correct technique, deep gongfu is really about conformity with the Way. This is the secret to true success. And I mention this because I believe it can help us penetrate the deeper meaning of our Mass texts today.

At one level, the readings seem to offer the same answer that we initially gave to the question what is the secret of success? And the answer is consistent hard work. In the gospel parable, the widow succeeds in convincing the unjust judge to rule in her favour. What is her secret? Consistent hard work. She keeps bugging him even after he refuses her request. And Jesus seems to say that, in the same way, if only we keep bugging God for what we want, we will eventually succeed in obtaining it.

In the first reading too, we find people eventually getting what they want. After a fierce battle, the Israelites win a great victory over their enemies, the Amalekites. And their secret? Again, the consistent hard work of Moses at the top of hill. The hard work of prayer. Except that the reading also describes the techniques that Moses uses. Techniques like the raising of his hands. And the reliance on the support of others. As well as the use of a stone on which to rest when he grows tired.

But, my dear friends, if we were simply to stop here, and to go no deeper, then it would seem that our readings are advocating nothing more than hard work. If only we pray persistently, and use the correct techniques, we will surely succeed in obtaining whatever we want from God. Consistent effort. Correct technique. That’s all there is to success. But, if this were true, then we can be forgiven for being sceptical. For, surely, even the most prayerful among us cannot honestly claim to always succeed in getting whatever we want. Isn’t it true that, however hard we study, and however persistently we pray, we may still fail to get the grades we desire? So are our readings wrong?

By no means. In order to discover their deeper meaning, we need to recall what we asked for in our opening prayer just now. We asked God to grant that we may always conform our will to God’s and to serve God in sincerity of heart. To conform our will to God’s. Instead of conforming God’s to ours. To humbly follow God’s Way. Instead of arrogantly expecting God to follow ours. Isn’t this what our Mass texts are really about? Just as deep gongfu involves submission to the Dao, the Way of the cosmos. So too does good prayer involve submission to the Will of God. This is the kind of success that our readings propose to us today.

So that, when we look at them afresh, through the lens of this new understanding of success, we begin to notice other things. In the gospel, for example, we realise that Jesus does not say that we will get whatever we want when we pray persistently. Instead he promises that God will see justice done. And to do justice, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is to render to each what is due to him/her. To engage in persistent prayer for justice. To work tirelessly on the side of justice. To speak out on behalf of those who daily suffer injustice. This is the kind of persistent hard work that Jesus promises will always be rewarded. For to do this is to conform ourselves to the just Will of a merciful God.

But what exactly does this look like? Very likely, the exact details will vary from person to person, and situation to situation. Even so, there is a discernible pattern. A pattern that we find when we ponder and pray over the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. As we are doing now, in this Mass. The same Christ who describes himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The same Christ whom we encounter in sacred Scripture. Which St. Paul talks about in the second reading, when he says that all scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy. In other words, used correctly, all scripture can help to conform us to the Will of God. To reproduce in us the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

My dear friends, perhaps this is not the message that some of us are hoping to hear. Especially in this exam period. When many of us are hoping to hear the message that we only have to pray hard to get all we want from God. For ourselves and for our children. And yet, this is the Good News. News that energises us to embrace God’s Will in our lives. And to keep praying and working tirelessly for justice in our world.

<只要功夫深,铁棒磨成针>; As long as gongfu is deep, an iron rod can be filed into a needle. As long as we seek God’s Will, even an unjust world can be changed into the kingdom of God.

My dear friends, what must we do to deepen our gongfu today?

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Of Magpies & Mercy, Relationship & Redemption

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Sisters and brothers, do you know the difference between being cured and being saved? A few days ago, I came across a BBC news story that truly warmed my heart. The story, however, begins in tragedy. In January 2013, while on vacation in Thailand, the Bloom family is stricken with shock and grief when their mother, Sam, has a terrible fall that leaves her paralysed from the chest down. You will never walk again, the doctor tells her. Naturally, Sam is distraught, and sinks into deep depression.

Then, three months after they return home to Australia, the family stumbles upon a baby magpie. The bird appears to have fallen from its nest and been abandoned by its mother. The family rescues it. Takes it home. And names it Penguin. Because that’s what it looks like. Over the next two years that Penguin spends in the Bloom household, a remarkable change comes over Sam. Somehow, having the little chick to care for and to talk to helps her come to terms with her paralysis. She takes up kayaking. And even makes the Australian para-kayaking team.

For Sam’s husband, Cameron, the bird rescued the family as much as they rescued her. Sam was in an incredibly dark place when she came home, he says. And when Penguin arrived in our lives it changed the mood in the house. It changed Sam dramatically. Of course, today Sam remains paralysed. But she is no longer crippled by depression. We might say that, even though she hasn’t been cured, Sam has been saved. Saved to live a life of extraordinary courage. Saved by her relationship with a magpie. Saved through a random act of mercy shown to a bird.

Mercy leading to relationship. Relationship resulting in salvation. This is what the Bloom family experienced, when Penguin entered their lives. Which is not too different from the experience that our Mass readings propose for our consideration today. In the gospel, Jesus utters words that may at first seem puzzling. He begins with a question: Were not all ten made clean? Then an observation: It seems that no one has come back to give praise to God, except this foreigner. And, finally, a commission: Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.

In these three utterances of Jesus, we see the same distinction that we saw earlier. Between cure and salvation. Ten lepers are cured. Only one is saved. But what is the difference between being cured and being saved? And how does someone come to be saved? The answer is found, of course, in the experience of the Samaritan. An experience that involves the same three steps that we found in the story of Penguin and the Bloom Family.

First, there is an act of mercy: Jesus cures the ten lepers of their leprosy. Mercy then leads to relationship: The Samaritan comes back, throws himself at the feet of Jesus, and praises God. He enters a new relationship with the Lord. And this new relationship results in salvation: The Lord sends him out to live a new kind of life. A life of faith. A life of courage. A life of discipleship.

Receiving God’s mercy in Christ… Beginning a new relationship with Jesus… And then being sent out to live the life of a disciple. A life of salvation… Mercy. Relationship. Salvation. These are the three steps by which people come to enjoy the fullness of life in Christ. This is how we Christians believe we are saved. But the process isn’t always a smooth one. Sometimes obstacles may get in the way. Our readings present us with three of these obstacles. As well as three corresponding ways to avoid them.

In the first reading, like the ten lepers in the gospel, the Syrian general, Naaman, also is cured of his leprosy. He too experiences God’s mercy. Except that his first reaction is to attribute his healing to the prophet Elisha. And, as an expression of gratitude, Naaman presses Elisha to accept a gift. But the prophet declines. And, by declining, Elisha helps Naaman to recognise the One who is truly responsible for his healing. Not the prophet himself. But God.

Here we find the first obstacle to salvation: short-sightedness. The failure to realise that all good things come to us not just through our own good fortune. Or the kindness of others. Or our own hard work. But, ultimately, as merciful gifts from God. And if short-sightedness is the obstacle, then the remedy is recognition. Recognition of God's goodness to us. Recognition leading to true worship. And worship to salvation.

We find the second obstacle in the gospel. Something that may surprise us. Why do the other nine lepers fail to give thanks? Are they so ungrateful? What causes them to miss the precious opportunity to enter into a life-saving relationship with Jesus? Could it be that they are to focused on doing what Jesus had told them to do? Too anxious to show themselves to the priests? So that, quite ironically, it is their concern to satisfy a religious obligation that distracts them from encountering the Lord. Not unlike how some of us may see our own religious practice–such as this Mass, for example–as nothing more than an obligation. Instead of a precious opportunity to encounter God. Distraction. This is the second obstacle to salvation.

In contrast, the foreigner is not distracted. Instead of rushing off, he is able first to pause and to return to Jesus. Perhaps it's because he realises that religious obligations are meant, not to burden us, but to set us free. To set us free to live truly human lives. To set us free to meet and relate to God and to one another. As Jesus says in another place, the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath (Mk 2:27). So that, rather than rushing off to satisfy an obligation, the Samaritan takes the time first to give thanks. To express his heartfelt gratitude. If distraction is the second obstacle to salvation. Then gratitude is the way to avoid it.

Finally, the third obstacle is implied in the second reading. Implied especially in the first word. Which is remember. Remember the good news that I carry…, St. Paul tells Timothy. Remember what God has done for you. Remember the mission that God has given you. Remember in order to avoid falling into forgetfulness. Which is the third obstacle to salvation. Remember. Isn’t this what we are doing here at this Mass? And at every Mass? To remember Jesus present in the community here gathered. Present in the Word that is proclaimed. In the Bread that is broken. In the Wine that is poured out. To remember Him, and to give thanks. To encounter and relate to him. And so to be saved.

My dear friends, truly there is a big difference between being cured and being saved. Just as Sam Bloom was saved by her encounter with a magpie. So too are we saved through our relationship with Christ.

What must we do, you and I, to continue avoiding the obstacles that threaten to come between us and our merciful Lord today?

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Between Carrying a Stick & Releasing the Ego

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Stuart Dotson

My dear friends, how do you feel when people don’t listen to you? When they ignore what you’re telling them to do? When your children refuse to do their homework, for example. Or when your parents insist on scolding you for something you didn’t do. When your boss keeps loading you with more work than you can handle. Or when your teacher refuses to give you the grade you think you deserve. All this can be very frustrating, right? Don’t you sometimes wish you had the power to get others to listen to you? To obey your instructions? What do you do?

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but whenever I feel that others are not listening to me my spontaneous reaction is to raise my voice. To speak more loudly. As though the reason why they’re not listening is because they can’t hear what I’m saying. But their reluctance to obey me may have nothing to do with the volume of my voice. It may be that they just don’t want to listen. Or simply don’t care. Which is why some of us may find the following piece of advice very appealing. How do you get others to listen to you? To obey your instructions? To care about what you’re saying? There is no need to shout. You can speak softly. Yes… speak softly… but carry a big stick.

Speak softly, but carry a big stick. That’s what some people do to get others to listen to them. I’m reminded of how, when I was in primary school, just the sight of the discipline master walking around with a cane in his hand was enough to get everyone on their best behaviour. No shouting needed. Just carry a big stick.

Speak softly, but carry a big stick. In order to get others to listen to you. Don’t we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that faith is like that too? In the gospel, for example, Jesus says that, if our faith were the size of a mustard seed, we could tell a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey us. Isn’t he saying that faith gives me the power to get others to listen to me? To even get a tree to obey me? To do what I tell it to do? No need to raise my voice. No need to shout or scream. Just speak out softly, and have faith.

And yet, understood in this way, faith looks like nothing more than a big stick that I carry around. Just to get others to obey me. To get situations to turn out the way I like. Even to get God to do what I want. Just speak softly in faith. And everything will work out in my favour. Isn’t this how some of us understand faith? Faith is the power to get God to give me what I want. So that when I hear of someone praying to be healed of a terminal illness. Or to get a better job. Or a more understanding spouse. And the person doesn’t get it. I’m tempted to think that the person’s faith is somehow lacking. As though, if only our faith were strong enough, we could always get exactly what we want in life. All of the time. Just speak softly, and carry a big stick.

But if faith were truly like a big stick, then what would that make God? Wouldn’t God be nothing more than my servant? Always at my beck and call. Eagerly waiting to follow my every instruction. Yet this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us in the gospel. Immediately after speaking about the power of faith to uproot trees, Jesus goes on to emphasise the importance of having the attitude of a servant. When you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty,”

Doing what we have been told to do. Isn’t this what faith is really about? Faith is less about the ability to make everything turn out the way I want them to. But more about helping me to discover how God wants them to turn out. It is less about the power to make God listen to me. But more about helping me to listen to God. Which is not to say that I shouldn’t ask God for what I want. To have faith is indeed to express my deepest desires to God. And to do it continually. Except that I don’t do it the way a master speaks to a servant. Demandingly. Arrogantly. Impatiently. But the way a servant would address the master. Humbly, respectfully, trustingly. Laying bare what is in my heart of hearts. And then leaving God to decide how and when to respond.

Isn’t this what we find in the first reading? The prophet Habakkuk complains that God doesn’t seem to be listening to his prayer. How long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen. And his prayer is by no means a frivolous and selfish request. The prophet is praying for justice and peace in the land. Surely these are things that God wants as well. How does God respond? By encouraging the prophet to keep on asking. And not to give up. Even if God seems slow to act. To keep persevering in prayer, even in the face of God’s apparent silence. To do this is not easy. It requires faith. The faith that a servant might have in the master’s goodness. This is what distinguishes the one with faith from the one without. See how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights, but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.

Faith helps us to keep praying for what is right. As we do whenever we say the Our Father: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And not just to keep praying. But also to keep doing the master’s work. God’s work. Isn’t this what St. Paul is asking Timothy to do in the second reading? To fan into a flame the gift of faith that Timothy received from God when Paul laid hands on him. To never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord, but to bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the strength of God. The strength that comes by faith.

This is what faith is for. Not so much for us to control our environment. To make everything turn out the way we want. Much less to control God. To have God at our beck and call. But rather, faith is for helping us to listen to God. To discern God’s will. And to pray and work tirelessly to fulfil that will in our lives and in our world. Isn’t this the call that the responsorial psalm addresses to us? O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ 

I’m reminded of the lives of two women saints. The first lived many centuries ago. The second was canonised only recently. The first is a model of perseverance in prayer. The second of fidelity in action. The first is St. Monica, who spent long years praying for the conversion of Augustine, her wayward son. The sinner, who eventually became a great bishop and saint in the church. The second is St. Mother Teresa, who worked tirelessly  in Calcutta, for the benefit of the poorest of the poor. I’m sure you can think of other saints. Canonised and uncanonised. Models of persevering prayer and of tireless action. Models of faith.

My dear friends, even if it is true that we can get others to listen to us by speaking softly and carrying a big stick. This is not what faith is all about. Faith is less about the power to make others listen to me than it is about me learning to listen to God. It is less about carrying a big stick than it is about letting go of my ego. My illusion of grandeur. My need to control everything. My tendency to think of myself as the master. And God as my servant.

Listening more than speaking. Letting go more than clinging on. This is what faith is about.

My dear sisters and brothers, what must we do to better receive this precious gift today?