Sunday, February 26, 2017

Choosing the Right Mattress

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
(RCIA Rite of Sending)

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what kind of mattress do you sleep on every night? Do you use a spring mattress? Or a foam mattress? Or do you use no mattress at all? Preferring to sleep on the cold hard floor? And what difference does it make anyway? Some of us may have seen that mattress advertisement in which a father is serving his little boy breakfast. But the poor man is still half-asleep. So, instead of milk, he ends up pouring coffee into his son’s cereal. And no prizes for guessing why the guy is so sleepy in the morning. It’s because he’s using the wrong brand of mattress. He needs to change it to the one that’s being advertised.

It’s an exaggeration, of course. But still, the point is well made. And the point is simply that we need to take care to choose the right kind of mattress on which to sleep every night. We need to choose the kind of mattress that we can trust to give our bodies the rest that they require. Good mattress, restful sleep. Bad mattress, restless nights.

And yet, we also know, sisters and brothers, that it’s not just our bodies that require proper rest. There’s something deep within each one of us that also needs a proper place of rest too. Our Mass readings refer to this inner reality as our soul, or our heart. And just as there are good and bad mattresses for bodies, so too are there good and bad mattresses for hearts and souls as well. Using a good spiritual mattress leads to a restful heart. Using a bad one results in exhausted days and sleepless nights.

Isn’t this what Jesus is teaching us in the gospel? No one can be the slave of two masters. Or, to put it another way, no one can rest his or her heart on two different mattresses at the same time. We have to choose one or the other. And, in the gospel, Jesus offers a very striking contrast between two brands of mattresses: God and money.

What happens when we choose to rest our hearts on money? When our concern goes no deeper than what money can buy? Like food and clothing… Cars and houses… Entertainment and technology… Popularity and success… When we do this, we experience a deep restlessness, which expresses itself in two ways. The first is worry. When we rest our hearts on material things, we somehow always end up worrying about them.

And the really curious thing is that we worry about these things even when we may have more than enough money to buy all of them. Isn’t it true that even the very rich among us worry? Why? I believe this can happen for at least two reasons. The first is that there’s always someone who is richer than us. Someone else who manages to buy things that are newer and shinier, faster and costlier, more stylish and advanced than my own. This, of course, then puts the pressure on me to keep up. To worry about appearances. The second reason is the nature of the market itself. Which keeps coming up with new things for me to buy. Convincing me, through shrewd advertising, that I simply must have them in order to be truly happy.

All of which should help us to better understand what Jesus is actually asking of us when he tells us not to worry. I’m not sure what you think, sisters and brothers. But I find this a very difficult instruction to follow. I’d even go so far as to say that it is, in fact, impossible. It’s impossible for me not to worry about material things. As long as I continue to insist on resting my heart on money. And on the things that money can buy. The only way to stop worrying, the only way to allow my heart to finally enjoy the rest it so desperately needs, is for me to change my mattress. To stop resting my heart on money. And to rest it instead on God alone. In God alone is my soul at rest… Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well.

But that’s not all. Worry is not the only expression of a tired heart. A heart that has chosen to rest on the mattress of money. In the first reading, we find a second sign of restlessness. Not just worry, but also complaint. Here, the people of Israel see that all the material things around them are crumbling. And, having chosen to rest their hearts on them, the people experience a terrible feeling of being abandoned. Forgotten by God. And yet, in the midst of their trial, God reassures them. Even if a woman forgets her baby at the breast… I will never forget you. What God is inviting Israel to do is to keep resting in God. To keep trusting in God’s care and concern for them. Even in suffering.

And this is also what Jesus is inviting us to do in the gospel. This is the only way for us to stop worrying and complaining. We need to trust in God’s care for us. To choose to rest our hearts in God’s love for us. For if God cares even for the birds in the sky and the flowers growing in the fields, will he not much more look after us? We of little faith? To trust in God by remembering how precious we are to him. To rest our hearts in God by seeking his kingdom first. The same kingdom of love and joy and peace that Jesus came to proclaim. At the cost of his own life. What does it look like when people begin to do this?

This is the question that the second reading helps us to answer. What does it look like when someone finally decides to rest his or her heart no longer on money and material things, but on God and the affairs of God instead? When that happens, a radical transformation takes place. A constantly worried and perpetually sleepy shopper of material goods is gradually transformed into a trusted servant, a responsible steward, of the mysteries of God. People must think of us as Christ’s servants, Paul writes, stewards entrusted with the mystery of God. Servants who do their best to be found worthy of God’s trust, by tirelessly proclaiming God’s love.

To change the resting place of our hearts. To trust no longer in money but in God alone. To gradually become ever more worthy of God’s trust in us, by responding generously to the call to proclaim God’s love to the world. This is also the kind of transformation that we have been witnessing in the catechumens and candidates who are gathered here with us at this Mass.

In a few moments, we will be sending them for the Rite of Election, presided by the Archbishop at the Church of St Mary of the Angels next Saturday. And, in sending them, we the parishioners of St. Ignatius Parish are testifying to the transformation that we have seen in them over the past months of the RCIA journey. Since July last year. And even as we testify to their transformation, we are also inspired and challenged by their example to continue submitting ourselves to being transformed as well. From constant worriers to restful hearts. From frantic shoppers to trusted stewards. From worshippers of money to servants of God.

My dear sisters and brothers, baptised and unbaptised alike, on what kind of mattress are you resting your heart today?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Where Do You Keep Your Valuables?

Saturday in  the 6th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Profession of Final Vows by Fr. Christopher Wee, SJ
Maranatha Retreat House, Bentong, Pahang, Malaysia

Picture: cc Brook Ward

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but where do you keep your valuables? I mean things like your money, your jewellery, and important documents like the title deeds to your house. Where do you keep all these things? Do you hide them under your mattress? Or in your pillowcase? Or behind the walls of your house? I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I suspect that few people actually keep their valuables in their own homes anymore. They prefer instead to surrender them to a bank. They open bank accounts and maintain safe deposit boxes. Why? For the simple reason that they trust the bank to keep their valuables more securely than they themselves can. And how do they know that they can trust the bank? Usually from experience. They have trusted the bank before. And the bank has proven itself trustworthy in the past. (Although, of course, we have to admit that some banks are more trustworthy than others.)

We surrender our valuables to the bank, because we trust it. And we trust it, because our we’ve had positive experiences with it in the past. Experience, trust and surrender… These are the steps by which we safeguard our valuables. And, strange as it may sound, this is also what our Mass readings are speaking to us about today. Except that the readings call it by another name. They call it FAITH.

As you know, at daily Mass this past week, we have been reading from the beginning of the book of Genesis. We have listened to the stories of Adam and Eve. Of Abel and Cain. And of Noah and the Tower of Babel. Today, the first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that these are not just random tales of long dead people. No. All these are stories of faith. They show us what faith looks like.

For example, Noah’s faith is seen especially in his obedience to God. Not only does he build an ark exactly according to God’s instructions. He’s willing also to move into the ark together with his entire family. And a whole multitude of animals besides. And he does all this while there is not even a cloud in the sky. No obvious sign of rain. Let alone a great flood. He does all this even when others laugh at him. And call him names. He obeys. He surrenders himself and his whole family to God. Why? Because he believes what God has told him. He trusts that God knows best. That his valuables are most secure when they are surrendered into God’s loving hands. And how does he know this? From prior experience. From his encounters with God in the past. Experience, trust, and surrender. These are the ingredients of faith. This is what faith looks like.

Faith as experience, and trust, and surrender. This is also what we find in the gospel. This is the deeper significance of the Transfiguration. I’m sure none of us will deny that the Transfiguration is a remarkable experience. Jesus brings his three closest friends up a high mountain, where he shows them what he really looks like. He gives Peter, James, and John an awesome vision of his glory as the Only-Begotten-Son-of-God.

But it’s important for us to realise that, on its own, this experience falls short of faith. Seen in isolation, the Transfiguration is nothing more than a feel-good pick-me-up. Not unlike the buzz we may get from a strong cup of coffee. Which quickly passes. Leaving us sleepier than we were before. Or the spiritual high we sometimes feel after an intense retreat. Which eventually fizzles out. Leaving us wondering if the experience was real, or only in our imagination.

The experience of the Transfiguration becomes faith only when we recognise and respond to it for what it really is. First, and above all, an invitation… a call… A call to trust… and to surrender. This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. Listen to him. Obey him. Follow him. And we listen and obey and follow him not by stubbornly seeking to remain on the Mountain of Transfiguration. But by courageously accompanying the Lord down into the Valley of Distress. Along the Way of the Cross. For it is only by enduring the Cross that we come to experience more deeply how truly trustworthy is our God. That even in the face of pain and suffering, of disappointment and discouragement, our God remains ever faithful to us. Bringing us from despair to hope. From darkness to light. From death to new life.

Isn’t this why Jesus warns the three disciples to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead? We can only truly appreciate the significance of what happens on the Mount of Transfiguration, let alone to share it with others, when we have first accompanied the Lord down into the depths of the Valley of Distress. When we have first trusted him enough to surrender to him all our joys and sorrows. All our dreams and disappointments. Everything that we hold dear. To entrust our very lives into the warm security of his loving embrace.

All of which may help us to better appreciate what Fr. Chris Wee is about to do later in this celebration. He is about to profess his final vows in the Society of Jesus. As you know, he has actually already made a first profession way back in 1987. And, according to Jesuit practice, that first profession was already a perpetual profession. In making it, he had already bound himself forever. What then is the difference, we may wonder, between that first profession and the one he is about to make today?

I believe there is more than one answer to this question. The first answer is legal. As the Jesuits among us should know quite well, according to Jesuit law, the first profession was binding only on Fr. Chris himself. Then, in a sense, he had freely offered himself to the Society of Jesus. Today, by allowing him to make his final profession, the Society of Jesus, in its turn, binds itself to him. Accepts him completely as one of its own.

However, in addition to this legal difference, I believe there is also a deeper spiritual one. A difference that comes from Fr. Chris having, since the time of his first profession, accompanied Jesus a little further along the Way of the Cross. Descended with our Lord a little lower into the Valley of Distress. And so experienced a little more intimately the trustworthiness of our God. Bringing him joy in sorrow. Assurance in anxiety. New hope in disillusionment. In other words, the difference between the two professions can also be measured in the depth of Fr. Chris’ faith. A faith the implications of which he will soon commit himself again to live for the rest of his life. Continuing the cycle of experience, and trust, and surrender.

So we thank you, Fr. Chris, for giving us the opportunity today to witness and to ponder the inner workings of God’s gift of faith. And we thank you, my dear friends, for being here to support us. And to join us in recognising with ever greater clarity, and responding with ever wider generosity to God’s call to faith. And, most of all, we thank our merciful God for the precious gift of vocation.

My dear sisters and brothers, where are you keeping your valuables today?