Sunday, July 08, 2018

Preaching to the Choir

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Garrette

My dear friends, do you know what it means when someone says to me, you’re only preaching to the choir? I’m sure you do, right? It means that I am trying to convince people who already agree with me. Or trying to convert the already converted. The implication being that I’m wasting my time. I should try to win over the unconverted instead. Those who hold opinions contrary to mine. Those who are more likely to reject my arguments, and to treat me with hostility. Which, though difficult, makes a lot of sense, don’t you think?

And yet, my dear brothers and sisters, has it ever occured to you that preaching to the choir is what priests like me do all the time? Of course, this being the earliest Mass on a Sunday, we don’t have much of a choir to speak of. But still, in a sense, aren’t all of us members of the choir? Can we not expect most, if not all, of us gathered here this morning to be already converted? Already convinced of the Good News of Christ? Why then do priests like me even bother?

Now please don’t be mistaken, my dear friends. I ask this question not because I’m suffering a vocation crisis. But because of what we find in our Mass readings today. As you may have noticed, in each of our three readings, we find people sent to preach God’s Word to those who are resistant.

I am sending you, God tells Ezekiel in the first reading, to the rebels who have turned against me… And they would not accept him… This is what the gospel says about those to whom Jesus preaches. And, finally, in the second reading, although it’s not clear what exactly St Paul means, when he writes about a thorn in the flesh, some commentators say that this points to hostility against Paul’s ministry. Since the apostle goes on to write about insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies that he suffers for Christ’s sake.

So it is clear that the prophets in our readings are sent to preach to those who are stubbornly unreceptive. But where, my dear friends, where are these stubbornly unreceptive people to be found? The answer may surprise us. The rebels to whom Ezekiel is sent in the first reading are none other than the Israelites themselves. God’s own chosen people. Scholars tell us that the hostility Paul writes about in the second reading very likely comes from members of his own communities. And, of course, the lack of faith that Jesus encounters in the gospel comes from his own relatives. The members of his own home town. From people gathered to worship God in the synagogue no less.

In other words, in our readings today, contrary to what we might expect, God’s messengers meet with resistance and even hostility not when they proclaim the Word to strangers, but when they are preaching to the choir! What do you make of all this, my dear friends? How does it make you feel? To some extent, it causes me to tremble interiorly. Especially because I so easily consider myself already a member of the choir. Presumably already converted. And yet these readings invite me to ask myself, what kind of a choir-member am I, really? How truly converted? How receptive and responsive to God’s Word, to God’s call? How do I even find out?

One way to find out is to see how our readings describe those who are truly receptive and responsive to God’s call. The first reading begins with these words: The Spirit came into me and made me stand up… This is one sign of the converted. Such a person is given the strength to stand up. To stand up and to speak out. To stand up, to speak out, and to bear witness to God’s message. Not just in words, but through one’s life. To stand up, to speak out, and to bear witness to God’s love, even in a hostile environment. To stand up, even when it is more convenient, more comfortable, more secure simply to remain sitting or lying down.

And let’s not be naive. To do this is not easy. It’s not easy to stand up when there are many powerful forces keeping us down. Forces both external and internal. Temptations and distractions, fears and anxieties, pressuring us to keep quiet and to simply blend in with the environment, with everyone else. To do otherwise, to go against the flow, may lead us to feel as the psalmist feels, when he says, We are filled with contempt. Indeed all too full is our soul with the scorn of the rich, with the proud man’s disdain. How then does the truly converted person receive the strength to remain standing?

We find the answer in the response to the psalm. Our eyes are on the Lord till he shows us his mercy. To keep on standing up, even when sorely tempted to lay down, I must keep my eyes focused on the Lord till he show us his mercy. Isn’t this what sets apart those who are truly converted from those who are still rebellious? And, if I am honest with myself, must I not admit that, much as I may consider myself a member of the choir, there’s actually a bit of both in me? Both the receptive and the resistant. Both the converted and the sinner. Which is why I need to keep on listening to the Lord’s Word. To keep on allowing it to penetrate my heart. Calling me to deeper conversion. Calling me to ever more generous, ever more committed, mission.

My dear sisters and brothers, if today you hear the Lord’s voice preaching to the choir, what will you do to keep from hardening your heart?

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Endangered Species

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Franco Pecchio

My dear friends, do you know how many types of giraffes there are in the world today? As you may have heard, until quite recently, it was thought that all giraffes belonged to a single species. So only one kind of giraffe. But then, about two years ago, a new study discovered that there are actually, not one, but four distinct species of giraffe. Why is this discovery important? Well, it means that since, by definition, different species cannot breed with one another in the wild, then giraffes are actually far more endangered than previously thought. It’s not enough to save just one or two or even three of these species. Work must be done to save all four.

In other words, the discovery of different kinds of giraffes helps us to realise that we need to do more to preserve them all. And if this is true of giraffes, might it not be true also of the one thing that our readings invite us to ponder today? Our own life? Could it be that just as there are different kinds of giraffe, there are also different kinds, different aspects of life? And to recognise this is also to realise that we need to do more to preserve our life in all its aspects?

In the gospel, Jesus is quite clearly preserving and restoring life. But haven’t you noticed the different kinds of life the Lord is preserving and restoring? Most obviously, of course, Jesus restores the physical life of the daughter of Jairus. The kind of life indicated by the girl’s renewed ability to get up, and to walk about, and even to eat. But notice how, in the gospel, we also find the story of a bleeding woman. Although this woman is not physically dead, at least not yet, other kinds of life have been taken away from her.

For example, we’re told that she has spent all she had on doctors, without getting any… better. In other words, she is financially ruined. Dead. Worse still, her illness is very likely causing her to be barren. Unable to have children of her own. Unable to bear new life for her own family. Also, her condition renders her ritually unclean. And so, barred from participating in the community’s worship of God. Not only is she financially dead, the woman’s social life has been taken away from her. And her spiritual life suffers as well. So that, by curing her of her ailment, Jesus is not just giving her back her physical health. He is restoring her to life in its different aspects.

By inserting this woman’s story in the middle of the other one, the author of the gospel highlights to us the deeper meaning of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The woman’s story shows us that the raising of the little girl is significant not just for those of us who may happen to be dying from a terminal illness. Or those about to succumb to old age. What the gospel reminds us is that whether we are young or old, rich or poor, healthy or sick, popular or lonely, Jesus offers all of us the fullness of life. Life rooted ultimately in right relationship with God.

Such that, even if I may lose my financial life, or my social life, or even my physical life, I can still hope in the spiritual life that Jesus preserves for us, for me, by his Dying and Rising. Isn’t this what is meant when the first reading tells us that death was not God’s doing. But that God made us imperishable, in the image of God’s own nature. Not that I will never suffer a physical death. Of course I will. Even Jairus’ daughter, after having been raised, must surely have died at some point after that. But the scriptures assure us that we will always retain our spiritual life, if only we remain in Christ.

One important implication of all this is, of course, that it is possible for me to appear very much alive–physically and financially, socially and even religiously–and yet be actually spiritually quite dead. It is possible for me to be young and fit, rich and popular, tremendously active in parish ministry, perhaps even in priestly ministry, and yet have no real knowledge or experience of God’s love. But how do I know how spiritually alive I am? Just as the ability to get up and move about and eat are indications of physical life, are there similar signs of spiritual life?

We find one such sign in the second reading, where St Paul encourages the Christians in Corinth to donate their surplus money to their needy brethren in Jerusalem. Paul reminds the Corinthians first of how much God has blessed them. Not just with material wealth, but also with spiritual gifts. And how these gifts should make them more generous. Just as Christ was generous, in laying down his life for us all. For Paul, one good indication of the spiritual health of a person, or a community, is the capacity to show mercy. To reach out and to share one’s riches, financial or otherwise, with those in need.

But what if I begin to realise that, despite being alive in other areas, I am actually spiritually sick? Perhaps even dying? How can I renew my spiritual life? The answer is very clearly shown in the gospel. The bleeding woman finds life when she reaches out to touch the Lord. But notice that, just as there are different kinds of life, there are also different kinds of touch. Many people touch Jesus in the gospel. But only the woman finds life. Even though she manages to touch only his cloak. What sets her touch apart from all the others? Jesus gives us the answer when he tells the woman, Your faith has restored you to health 

This is the kind of touch that heals and saves. The kind in which I place all my hope, and all my trust in the One whom I am touching. The touch of faith, along with the touch of mercy. These are the precious channels through which true life flows. From God to us. From us to those in need. The touch of faith, and the touch of mercy. Are these not also the kinds of touch that we are gathered here to experience and to share?

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn we used to sing:

Lord, we touch you today. Lord, we touch you today.
You gave us your life. You gave us your love.
Lord, we touch you today.
To live is to die, and to laugh is to cry.
To live is to love with all our heart.
To live is to walk and to talk in your Word.
And to live is to sing in your Love…

My dear friends, just as there are different kinds of giraffe, so too are there different kinds of life, and different kinds of touch. What kind of life are you living and nurturing? What kind of touch are you receiving and sharing today?