Sunday, September 24, 2017

Deep Cleansing

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking you a personal question. But do you follow a particular skincare routine? How do you usually clean your face everyday? Are you satisfied with simply rubbing it with a dry towel? Or do you use soap and water? Or do you go even further? Do you, for example, invest in one of those facial cleansers that are sometimes advertised on TV? You know, the kind that boast about how deeply they clean your face? Not just scrubbing the surface of the skin, but penetrating deep down into the pores. Removing not just dirt and grime, but even germs and hidden toxins as well… Dry rubbing, soap washing, or deep facial cleansing? Which of these methods do you use to clean your face?

As you might expect, sisters and brothers, I ask this question not because I’m actually interested in your daily skincare routine. But to highlight the fact that cleaning can be done to varying degrees. And this is true not just of our facial skin, but also of our spiritual lives as well. Just as our faces need cleaning, so too do our lives. And just as our skin can be cleaned to different depths, so too can our spirits.

Strange as it may sound, this is what I think we find in the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel today. The Lord’s purpose in telling the story is to show us what the kingdom of heaven is like. Or what it takes to enter and live in the presence of God. To dwell continually in the love of the Lord. According to the parable, this process can be compared to a landowner going out to hire labourers for his vineyard. And when we examine the story more closely, we find at least three distinct steps to this process. Steps for cleaning, if you like, people’s lives thoroughly enough so that they can enter and live in God’s presence. Like the three methods for cleaning our faces, each of these spirit-cleansing steps penetrates more deeply than the previous one. Can you identify these steps?

The first is a change of location. In the story, what the landowner does first is to go to a particular place and invite the people he finds there to follow him to another place. The landowner, we’re told, goes out into the market place, where he invites people to enter his vineyard. So a change of location. This is the first step. On its own, however, like rubbing one’s face with a dry towel, this first step doesn’t get us very far. It doesn’t clean deeply enough. A second step is needed. Not just a change of location, but also a change in occupation. The people whom the landowner finds on his excursions are asked not just to move from one place to another, but also to act in a way different from how they have been acting. To change from simply standing idle to working hard in the landowner’s vineyard. Labouring on their master’s behalf. Furthering their employer’s best interests. This second step clearly goes deeper than the first. Not unlike how washing with soap and water cleans our faces more effectively than just rubbing with a dry towel.

And yet, the whole point of the story seems to be that this second step, this change from idleness to work, still doesn’t penetrate deeply enough. For even the ones who have been working in the vineyard for the whole day, seem to still fall short of what is expected of them. They fail to match their employer’s generosity. They become envious when they see the latecomers receiving the same wage as them. What does this show, if not that entrance into the presence of God requires a third step? Not just a change of location. And not just a change in occupation. But also, and above all, a change in disposition. A shift from envy to generosity. From competition to compassion. From selfishness to love. Not unlike how facial cleansers clean out the pores of our skin, so too does this third step cleanse the interior depths of our hearts. But how does this happen? What must we do? What is the spiritual equivalent of a deep facial cleanser? The answer is found in the other readings.

In the first reading, the prophet issues a call to profound conversion. An invitation to deep spiritual cleansing. A summons to change not just one’s actions, but one’s attitudes as well. Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. A call to change not just one’s usual location and one’s habitual actions, but also one’s deepest dispositions. To abandon those thoughts and ways that may at first seem to come so naturally. To be so full of common sense. But which are, in reality, nothing short of selfish and sinful. To abandon our earthly ways, and instead to turn back to God. To seek the Lord while he is still to be found. What does this look like?

For us Christians, it looks like what we find Paul doing in the second reading. He struggles with a dilemma. He can’t quite decide whether he prefers to die or to go on living. But the exact option Paul finally chooses is less important than the main reason, the central criterion, by which he makes his choice. For Paul, there is only one valid reason for choosing one way or the other. And that reason is Christ. Paul wants to choose only the option that will bring him closer to Christ. And that’s precisely why he finds himself in a dilemma. For departing in death will bring him into the Lord’s heavenly presence. But remaining alive will enable Paul to imitate Christ more closely, by serving the Lord’s body more effectively, on earth.

In whatever we may choose to think or say or do, and wherever we may choose to go, to choose always only according to the mind of Christ. Isn’t this what it means to have the right disposition? Isn’t this what it looks like to be cleansed at the deepest core of our being? By putting on the mind and heart of Christ? Allowing Christ to be for us that deep spiritual cleanser, which alone is capable of ushering us into the presence of God.

If this is true, then perhaps it’s not so important how much time we spend in church. Or how many ministries we join. More important than the location and the occupation of our bodies, is the particular disposition of our hearts. For the Lord can be found not just here in church, but also out there in the world. Waiting for me to meet and to serve him in generosity of heart and singleness of purpose. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men's faces.

My dear friends, many people take the trouble to go through a rigorous skin-care routine everyday. What does your soul-care routine look like today?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Preventing Heart-Attack

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Trina Alexander

My dear friends, do you know what a heart-attack is? Do you know how it’s caused? And what can be done to prevent it? I’m sure many of you know much more about it than I do. But here’s the little that I do know: A healthy heart requires a constant supply of oxygen, which is carried in the blood flowing through the arteries. But an artery may sometimes be blocked by certain deposits, such as cholesterol. Which obstruct the flow of blood, and deprive the heart muscle of much-needed oxygen. As a result, the muscle dies, and the person suffers a heart-attack. Which is why, one way to prevent a heart-attack is to watch one’s diet, and to exercise regularly. In order to avoid the accumulation of cholesterol. So, oxygen and cholesterol, diet and exercise. These are some of the things that can help us understand and prevent heart-attacks.

But why, you may be wondering, am I talking to you about heart-attacks? Surely, this is a church, and not a clinic. And I am only a simple priest. Not a medical doctor. Well, the reason is because I find the image of a heart-attack helpful for pondering a rather troublesome question arising from our Mass readings today. Can you guess what this question is? The readings, as you know, speak to us about the importance of forgiveness. The need for us to let go of our resentment and anger towards those who have hurt us. We are not to seek revenge. Or to harbour a grudge. But instead to show pity. For unless we forgive others, we cannot receive God’s forgiveness.

And yet, sisters and brothers, if it is true that God will not forgive me my sins unless and until I forgive others theirs, then doesn’t this place a limit on God’s mercy? And, what’s worse, by choosing not to forgive me simply because I am unable to forgive someone else, isn’t God failing to do for me the very thing that I am being expected to do for others? To overlook my failure? To pardon my shortcoming? Difficult question, isn’t it?

Unless, of course, the problem lies not with God, but with me. For just as a normal human heart requires oxygen to function, so too do I need the mercy of God to live a healthy and joyful Christian life. And God has already shown, and keeps on showing, this mercy to me. To all of us. Especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ. Which we celebrate at this Mass. For, as we all know, it is at the foot of the Cross that we find all our sins forgiven. It is in the pierced side of the crucified Christ that we discover the eternal Source of God’s mercy and forgiveness towards us. It is the broken Heart of Jesus that keeps pumping God’s compassion and love onto us and into the whole world.

But just as the flow of oxygen-rich blood can be obstructed by deposits of cholesterol in the arteries. So too can the constant stream of God’s infinite mercy be hindered by the accumulation of resentment and anger in my heart. Like cholesterol, unforgiveness clogs up my arteries. And kills the spiritual muscles of my heart. Preventing me from experiencing for myself the joy of God’s infinite mercy. Causing me to forget what the second reading reminds us. That the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. For Christ both died and came to life… so that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Lord not just of those who do good to me, but also those who do me harm. Unforgiveness causes me to lose sight of this. To forget the close bond that unites me even to my enemies. Unforgiveness divides those whom Christ has united. Rips apart those whom Christ has joined. Isn’t this why the first reading tells us that resentment and anger… are foul things? Not because they make God stop forgiving me. But because they prevent me from experiencing God’s enduring mercy.

Thankfully, there are steps that I can take to prevent the  accumulation of anger and resentment in my heart. Steps very similar to those for lowering cholesterol. The first step is simply to watch my diet. Not so much what I put into my mouth and stomach, as what I allow to occupy my mind and heart. When the poisonous memories of hurts and traumas suffered in the past begin to fill my consciousness. As they sometimes do. And I find it difficult to resist them. I need to heed the advice of the first reading. Not to suppress the bad memories. For I  am often powerless to do so. But rather, even as I may acknowledge their presence, to try, at the same time, to recall other memories as well. Not just the hurts I have suffered, but also the blessings I have received. The mercy found in the covenant of the Most High. Sealed by the outpouring of Christ’s blood. And not just the mercy shown to everyone in general. But also the experiences of mercy that are particular to me. Mercy I have known in my own life. In my own history. In my own personal story of sin and conversion. Of having been lost and then found. Of being rescued from danger and perhaps even death.

Isn’t this precisely where the unforgiving servant in the gospel parable falls short? He fails to pity his fellow servant, because he allows himself to forget how much his master has first pitied him. In a sense, we may say that the unforgiving servant fails to watch his diet. He indulges in resentment and anger. And these foul things clog up his arteries. Preventing him from feeling God’s mercy. Causing him to be upset instead of grateful. Deprived, instead of blessed. Frustrated, rather than joyful.

Which then points us to another step for preventing the build-up of resentment and anger: exercise. The kind of spiritual exercise that we prayed for in the opening prayer just now, when we asked God to grant that we may serve you with all our heart. For whereas a diet of resentment and anger fills us with bitterness. And turns us only ever inward. The memories of God’s mercies toward us makes us grateful. Stirring up in our hearts holy desires to reach out in service of God and of others. And the more we put such desires into practice, the more we serve God in one another, the less space there will be for grudges and grievances to accumulate. The healthier will be our hearts. The more merciful will be our lives.

And it’s important for us also to realise that service of God and neighbour may actually take the form of resistance to the evil that others do in the world. Resistance expressed in repairing the damage that is done. Or protecting the victims from further harm. Or speaking out for those who have no voice. And standing up for those who have no place in society. For while we have to forgive the wrongdoer, we should not condone the wrongdoing. From here, it is not difficult to see that the practice of forgiveness has implications not just for the way I live my own private personal life. But also, and just as important, forgiveness has implications also for how we live our political lives as citizens of our respective nations and of the world.

So, oxygen and cholesterol, diet and exercise… Mercy and resentment, memory and service… These are among the things that help us better understand and protect our hearts. My dear sisters and brothers, as you celebrate Malaysia Day, what will you be doing to safeguard yourselves and your society from the dangers of heart-attack today?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

In Whose Name?

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc LainToni Hou

My dear friends, if you were to receive a call on your mobile phone, from someone claiming to be a police officer, asking you for your personal information, what would you do? Would you give the caller what he or she wants? Probably not, right? And what about if someone were to stop you on the street, and offer you a brand new Rolex watch for $200? What would you do? Would you buy the watch? Again, probably not, right? And we all know why. The reason is quite simple. Just because a watch bears the name Rolex, doesn’t make it genuine. It could be an imitation. And just because someone uses the name of the police, doesn’t mean the person is an authentic public servant. She or he could be an impersonator. Claiming to act in someone else’s name, but actually really acting only in his or her own unscrupulous interests.

And if I were gullible enough to believe the caller, or to buy the watch, and get cheated as a result, there’s no way I can claim that it was actually the police or Rolex who cheated me. I owe it to myself to take care to see beyond the names that people use. To learn how to tell the difference between the genuine and the imitation, the authentic and the impersonator.

I think there’s something similar going on in our Mass readings today. As you have no doubt already noticed, in both the first reading and the gospel, we find people being asked to respond to wrongdoing in a certain way. To confront the wrongdoer. In the gospel, Jesus even provides a helpful procedure for doing this. For performing what is commonly called fraternal correction. The important task of confronting and correcting a brother or a sister who does wrong.

So that, on one level, the message in our readings seems clear. They speak of our responsibility to correct wrongdoers. To be a Christian, it is not enough for me simply to focus on my own spiritual growth. I am also responsible, in some way, for the spiritual wellbeing of others. And this responsibility goes beyond my closest family and friends. Beyond even the Christian community. It extends also to the rest of the world. To be Christian, to be Church, is to be a light for the nations. A prophetic sign to others of how human beings should conduct themselves. In order to experience the peace and harmony, the fullness of life, that we are all meant to enjoy.

We see this quite clearly, for example, in the words and actions of Pope Francis. Since becoming pope, he has spoken and acted in a consistently prophetic way. Not only reminding us Christians of the joy of the gospel and the joy of love. But also calling the world’s attention to the obstacles that keep us from experiencing this same joy. Obstacles such as a global economy based essentially on greed and limitless consumption. And a manipulative way of relating to people and things that leads to shattered lives and a broken world.

And yet, my dear friends, there is also something more in our readings today. We find it in that phrase that occurs both in the first reading and the gospel. Do you know which one I’m talking about? It’s the phrase in my name. In the first reading, God tells the prophet to warn evildoers in my name. And, in the gospel, Jesus assures us, that where two or three meet in my name, the Lord himself will be there with them. To speak and to act, and even to correct others, in the name of the Lord. This is surely an awesome responsibility. But what does it actually mean? What does it look and feel like?

As you know, we Christians are fond of ending our prayers with the words, we make this prayer in the name of Christ the Lord. But does it mean that just because I use the Lord’s name, whatever I do is done in the name of the Lord? What about if I were to use the Lord’s name to curse or to harm someone? Won’t I be acting more like that anonymous caller we mentioned at the start? Using the name of the police only to cheat others? What then is the difference between a true prophet and an impersonator?

Our readings give us at least three helpful characteristics of the experience of speaking and acting in the name of the Lord. The first has to do with the source of authority. In the first reading, God says to the prophet, Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name. Ezekiel does not act on his own authority. He does not take his prophetic ministry upon himself. No. Not only is he appointed by God, but he is also specifically told to convey to the people only what he hears from God. Nothing less and nothing more.

The second helpful characteristic has to do with the spirit in which the prophet’s ministry is performed. Even if the words of the prophet may sometimes sound harsh, and his actions seem shocking, his main goal is not to make the people suffer. Not to punish them. But to save them. To warn the wicked person to renounce his ways. To win back one’s brother or sister. Back to the way of the Lord. And, by doing this, by seeking only what is best for the other, the third characteristic of prophetic ministry becomes visible. It is what the second reading says sums up all the commandments of God. Namely, You must love your neighbour as yourself, (For love) is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour…

Source, spirit and summary. The word of God, the good of others, and the commandment of love. Three characteristics of what it looks and feels like when someone speaks and acts in the name of the Lord. Source, spirit and summary. Three points that help us draw that crucially important line separating the impersonator from the authentic servant of the Lord. The line between the thief, who comes only to steal and kill and destroy, and the true Shepherd, who comes in order that we may have life, and have it abundantly. A line that we need to learn to draw especially today, when so many claim to speak and act in the name of religion and of God. But in ways that lead only to more shattered lives and broken relationships. A line that needs to be drawn not just out there in the world, but also in here within and among ourselves.

My dear sisters and brothers, scripture tells us that, in word and deed, we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. In whose name are you speaking and acting, today and everyday?

Monday, September 04, 2017

Of Guitar Strings & Tugs-O-War

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, have you ever been in a tug-o-war before? You know… two groups of people pulling on a rope with all their might in opposite directions? It can be quite fun. Fun to watch. And fun even to play. Fun, in other words, for the people involved. But have you ever wondered what it might be like for the rope? What it must feel like to be subjected to such great violence? To undergo such terrible tension? It seems quite unfair, doesn’t it? I imagine that it’s not unlike what sometimes happens, in a drama series, to a newly married man (for some reason, it’s usually only the man), whose wife and mother, unfortunately, do not get along. The poor guy is like that rope in a tug-o-war. He experiences tension. Wife pulling him in one direction. Mother pulling him in the other. What to do? How to survive? Seems really unfair. It’s enough to make anyone wonder how and why he got himself into such a fix in the first place.

And yet, my dear friends, tension isn’t always bad. Isn’t it true that many beautiful things come to us precisely as a result of tension? Consider a guitar, for example. How does it produce such melodious sounds, if not through tension? Strings of varying thickness, pulled in opposite directions, to varying degrees of tension, allow a musician to extract from them music so beautiful that it can soothe the struggling soul. Much as it may feel uncomfortable, and much as I might wish to avoid it, tension can actually be quite productive. The question, of course, is how to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty. This, my dear friends, is the question that I believe our readings help us to ponder today. How to endure tension so that it leads to beauty?

In both the first reading and the gospel, we find people in tense situations. In the first reading, God has given the prophet Jeremiah a message to proclaim. A word that is very difficult for the people to accept. God wants them to submit to their enemies. To suffer defeat. And to be taken into exile. As might be expected, not only do the people reject the message, they also persecute the messenger. They try to silence Jeremiah. Which is why, the prophet complains. The word of the Lord, he says, has meant for me insult, derision, all day long… Should he continue to speak and suffer the painful consequences? Or remain silent in order to save himself? Like the rope in a tug-o-war, Jeremiah experiences tension. He is pulled in opposite directions. He is suspended between speech and silence. Between the proclamation of God’s word and his own desire for self-preservation.

Which is not unlike Peter’s experience in the gospel. Immediately after having been praised by Jesus, in last week’s reading, for correctly identifying the Lord as the Messiah, Peter now finds himself equated with the Devil. All because he tries to discourage Jesus from submitting to his enemies. From undergoing suffering and death. Like Jeremiah, Peter experiences tension. He is suspended between looking at things in God’s way and in his own human fashion. Peter is torn between the call to follow the Lord to his Passion, and Peter’s own desire for self-preservation.

My dear friends, in our Mass readings today, both Jeremiah, the prophet, and Peter, the Lord’s chief apostle, are made to undergo tension. At first glance, it seems quite unfair, doesn’t it? And yet, could it be that God has good reason for allowing this to happen? Could it be that God is inviting them to a closer relationship. Teaching them to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty? Isn’t this what Jesus himself does? He goes to Jerusalem, he submits to his Passion and Death, in such a way that God eventually raises him to Life. And isn’t this what Jesus is inviting his disciples to do as well? If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me…  Follow me in enduring tension. So that you may follow me into the beauty of my Death and Resurrection. By which I will save the whole world…

All of which is, of course, much easier said than done. We know this. The Cross of Christ is far easier to preach than it is to practice. Easy for me to stand here and tell you that tension can be productive. That it can even lead to beauty. But what do I do when I myself experience it? What do I do when one friend tells me to do one thing, and another tells me the exact opposite? What do I do, when my boss in the office gives me one instruction, and my other boss or bosses at home give me another? What to do, when the world tells me how important it is to make money, and Jesus tells me that human beings do not live on bread alone? How to follow the Lord’s instruction? How to lose my life in order to find it? How to endure tension in such a way that it eventually leads to beauty?

Thankfully, the second reading offers us valuable guidance. Some important steps that we can take. The first step is to think. To think of God’s mercy. Precisely at a time when I may be more inclined to indulge in self-pity. To focus only on my own pain. And perhaps even to blame others for it. The reading invites me to think instead of God’s mercy. God’s love for me. God’s many gifts and blessings showered upon me. Especially in the Dying and Rising of Christ the Son.

And when I do this, when I meditate more deeply on God’s mercy, it’s likely that I will begin to experience what the prophet Jeremiah experiences in the first reading. Perhaps God’s word will start to feel less like a terrible burden, and more like a life-giving flame. Or, as we sang in the response to the psalm, a burning thirst. For you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God. Perhaps the thoughts of God’s incredible mercy for me will ignite in my heart a fire, will awaken in my body a thirst, that motivates me to do whatever God wants me to do. Giving me strength to take the second step: To worship God with my whole body. With my whole life. To model my behaviour no longer on the world, but instead on Christ. So that I am gradually led to discover and to fulfil God’s will for me even when it is difficult. So that I might allow God to do with me as God does with Christ. To extract from the tense situations of my life beautiful sounds that can soothe, if only in some small way, the sufferings souls around me.

My dear friends, guitar-strings produce music only when they undergo the right tension. What must we do to better allow our merciful God to eventually transform the tensions of our daily lives into lovely instruments of beauty and salvation, for us and for our world, today?