Sunday, February 24, 2019

Choosing Your Tree

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Muhammad Ali

My dear friends, are you familiar with the saying, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree? You know what it means, right? It’s typically used when someone’s behaviour is seen to be similar to that of his or her parents. So, for example, I may have a friend who talks very loudly. And, one day, I happen to meet her mother, and discover that she talks very loudly too. Then I may say, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Of course, I could also say, like father like son, or, like mother like daughter. But the apple falling from the tree paints a more vivid image, right? Although, of course, in this part of the world, we should be imagining durians instead of apples.

I mention this, because it may help us to deepen our reflection on what Jesus says in the gospel today. The Lord begins by telling us to adopt certain specific behaviours: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you… be compassionate… do not judge… These behaviours are by no means easy to perform. Which is probably why, the Lord goes on to give us a reason, a motivation, to obey: You will have a great reward, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked… In other words, by being kind and compassionate even to our enemies, we prove that we are truly sons and daughters of God. We show to the world that the apple has indeed not fallen too far from the tree.

But what does the tree look like? What does it mean to be kind and compassionate in this way? Does it mean that I simply give in to everyone who abuses me? If a husband continually beats up his wife. Or if an employer mistreats her domestic helper. Or if a teacher acts inappropriately towards her student, or a priest towards his parishioner. Is Jesus saying that the wife and the maid, the student and the parishioner should all just keep quiet and endure it? No.

Consider, for example, what we find in the first reading. Out of jealousy and insecurity, King Saul sets out with a small army to capture and to kill young David. Notice how David responds. On the one hand, he evades capture. And, after snatching the king’s spear, he carefully maintains a safe distance from his pursuers. Yet, on the other hand, he also resolutely refuses to kill the king, even when given the opportunity to do so. In this way, David shows that he is indeed a son of the God described in the psalm. The Lord who is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

And that’s not all. For us Christians, our primary example of gospel kindness and compassion is found not so so much in David, as in the life of Christ himself. Jesus is the one who shows us what it means to love our enemies. For he died for us while we were still sinners, while we were God’s enemies (cf. Rom 5:8). And yet, even though Jesus humbly submitted himself to a cruel death on the Cross, even though he became like a meek and silent lamb that is led to the slaughter, what we also find in the gospels is that the Lord was put to death precisely because he resisted and spoke out courageously against injustice and hypocrisy.

It is by resisting injustice, and accepting the consequences, it is by loving sinners, and dying for them, that Jesus becomes the last Adam mentioned in the second reading. In contrast to the first Adam, who received life from God, and so became a living soul, Jesus, by his Death and Resurrection, becomes a life-giving spirit. A tree that bears much fruit. Able not just to live, but also to give life to others. To help us, you and me, to become adopted sons and daughters of God.

All of which may help us to answer another crucial question that our readings present to us today. Not just what compassion looks like, but how to be compassionate. For even if I know what I need to do to love my enemies in a given situation, isn’t it true that I still often find it very difficult to put that knowledge into practice? Much as I may want to be kind and compassionate, I may find myself paralysed by hurt and anger and resentment. How then to follow the Lord’s instructions, so as to become a child of God? How to cultivate the tree of compassion, in order to bear the fruit of adoption?

Well, if it is true that Jesus has become a life-giving spirit, then isn’t it by continually pondering his life, by consistently allowing his attitudes and actions to influence and to shape my own, that I am eventually able to receive the life that he offers me? Isn’t this why I join the rest of the community here at Mass, to recall and to celebrate Christ’s loving sacrifice for us on the Cross? Isn’t this also why, at the start of Mass, we asked almighty God, that, always pondering spiritual things, we may carry out in both word and deed that which is pleasing to you? And what could be more spiritual, more worth pondering, than the Life, Death, & Resurrection of the Lord?

My dear friends, it is actually quite natural to expect fruit to fall close by the tree that bears it. The crucially important question to ask is what kind of tree are we cultivating, what kind of fruit are we bearing in our lives today?

Sunday, February 17, 2019

If You're Happy & You Know It...

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Video: YouTube Sesame Street

My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? If you’re happy and you know it…

That’s right!

If you’re happy and you know it… clap your hands!
If you’re happy and you know it, and you really want to show it,
if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

I think many of us are familiar with the delightful song from which these words are taken, right? Perhaps we have even sung it before. But have these words ever led you to ask yourself a question? The song says, If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! Is it possible to be happy and NOT to know it? Is it possible not even to know what it means to be happy or sad? To think that I’m sad when I’m happy? And to think that I’m happy when I’m actually sad? What do you think? Could you to be sad or happy and not know it?

Much as it may surprise us, when we carefully consider our readings today, it becomes clear that the answer is yes. Yes, it is possible to be happy, or sad, and not to know it. Why else does Jesus take the trouble to tell the people, gathered around him in the gospel, happy are you… and alas for you… Why does the Lord have to say this, if not because we don’t really know the difference between true happiness and sadness?

Of course, this sounds very strange to me, who so often thinks of happiness and sadness as being only a matter of feelings. When I feel happy, I laugh. When I feel sad, I cry. So how can it be possible for me not to know the difference? But Jesus is not talking about feelings alone. As scripture scholars tell us, the Greek word that is translated happy, actually means something closer to blessed or favoured by God. In the gospel, Jesus is teaching his disciples, and me, what it looks like to be blessed, and what it looks like to be cursed.

Even so, if I am honest with myself, what the Lord says remains shocking and difficult to understand. Especially because I so often desire and strive to be comfortable and popular. I take great pains to make myself liked, if not in person, then surely on social media. And don’t I belong to a parish, whose carpark is transformed every weekend, into a large showroom for luxury automobiles? How can I bring myself to understand, let alone to accept, that it is the poor and the hungry, the weeping and the rejected who are blessed? While it is the rich and the satisfied, the laughing and the popular who are cursed? 

Thankfully, the first reading helps me by describing blessing and curse in terms of a contrast between two different spiritual locations, two places where I may situate my heart: the wilderness and the waterside. I am cursed when I turn my heart away from God. When I choose to trust in worldly affairs and approaches to life. When this happens, I fail to recognise God’s presence. I take my blessings for granted, feeling as though I am somehow entitled to them, that they are mine by right, instead of being gifts from a caring God. As a result, I end up banishing my heart to a dry and desperate existence in the wilderness.

In contrast, I am blessed when I learn to place my life in the hands of the Lord, to put my trust in God. To do this is to learn to recognise and to draw from the ever-flowing stream of God’s loving action in my life. When this happens, my heart becomes like a tree planted by the waterside. It bears fruit, even when external conditions are bad. Not only am I blessed, but I know that I am blessed. And so, I am able to rejoice, even if I may not feel like it. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

So whether I am blessed or cursed depends not so much on how I feel, or how favourable are the external conditions of my life. Rather, it depends on where I place my heart, where I decide to put my trust. In God, or in myself. Which is why it is more blessed to be poor than to be rich. For am I not more likely to turn to God when every other door has been shut in my face? When every other road has led me to a dead end? When all other sources of support have finally run dry? When I find myself poor and weak, weeping and rejected? In contrast, am I not far less likely to remember God, when I’m rich and popular, when my mouth is filled with food and laughter?

But how then to ensure that my heart never gets banished to the wilderness, but remains always firmly planted by the waterside? How to gradually let go of my craving for earthly riches, my yearning for worldly popularity, so as to cling to God alone? Isn’t this far easier said than done?

Yes, it this. But God has not left me to do this on my own. God has given me, given us, a Way. The psalm calls it the law of the Lord. Happy indeed is the man… whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. To trust in God is to live according to God’s law, God’s Word. And, for us Christians, God’s law is to be found not only on the pages of Scripture. For we believe that the Word has already become flesh. So that to follow God’s law is really to live as Jesus did.

It is to believe in the Resurrection of Christ that Paul preaches in the second reading. And to let that belief give me courage to lay down my life for others, just as Christ laid down his life for me. It is to allow myself to imitate Christ who, though he was rich, chose to become poor, so that by his poverty others might become rich (cf 2 Cor 8:9).

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! 

These words may be easy to sing, but they are not so easy to live. For it is possible to be happy and not to know it. It is possible to even mistake sadness for happiness, a curse for a blessing. Which is why we need to keep pondering the Word of God, present not only here at this Mass, but also out there in the world. To ponder the face of the Crucified and Risen One, so as to follow faithfully and courageously in his footsteps.

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! 

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to continue clapping our hands in the sight of God and of the world today?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sustainable Energy

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Video: YouTube Sung Wing Chun

My dear friends, are you familiar with the term sustainable energy? I’m sure you are, right? It refers to power drawn from sources that are both renewable and clean. Sources like the sun and the wind, for example. In contrast, fossil fuels, like oil and coal and natural gas, are unsustainable. Not only will they eventually run out, they also tend to pollute the environment. As you know, we use all these forms of energy to power our machines. But what about ourselves? Is there such a thing as sustainable energy for the human body? What do you think?

I recently came across a YouTube video that seems to suggest there is. In the video, someone named Chu Shong Tin, a now deceased martial artist from Hong Kong, a master of Wing Chun kungfu, speaks about how his teaching methods have evolved over the years. Earlier, he had focused on training students in the technique of pushing hands. However, he found that, while his students made good progress, they fell short in one significant way. Although most of them were much younger and physically stronger than him, they all tired out much faster. Eventually, Master Chu realised that, whereas his students relied on muscular strength, which didn’t last, his own energy came from a different source. And it was this mysterious inner power that he then tried to help his students access. We may say that he taught them to use a more sustainable form of energy.

But even if there is such a thing as sustainable energy in the martial arts, could there something similar in the spiritual life? A form of energy that is both renewable and clean? And, if so, how do we tap into it? I believe these, my dear friends, are the questions that our readings invite us to ponder today. They do this by offering us three examples. That of Isaiah in the first reading, of Paul in the second, and Peter in the gospel. And, in each of these examples, we see three distinct steps in the process of tapping into sustainable spiritual energy. Three key moments for gaining access to grace.

The first step is taken not so much by us as by God. It is the step of encounter. In the first reading, Isaiah has a spectacular vision of the Lord seated on a high throne, surrounded by a multitude of heavenly beings. In the second reading, Paul writes about how the crucified and risen Jesus appeared not only to the Twelve, but also to Paul himself. Paul is, of course, speaking about his experience of being struck down on the road to Damascus. In the gospel, out of all the seagoing vessels parked by the lakeside, Jesus chooses to board Peter’s boat. Which he uses first as a pulpit for preaching the gospel to the crowd, and then as a stage for demonstrating to Peter the power of God.

Isaiah, Paul and Peter. Three unsuspecting people, who each encounter the Lord. And although the exact details may be different, there are some important similarities. For example, all three have their lives disrupted in a significant way. In a way that demands from them a response, which each one feels painfully inadequate to make. Isaiah protests his own polluted state. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. Paul too is deeply aware of his own unworthiness. Since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle. And Peter is moved to say to Jesus, Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man. If sustainable energy is, by definition, renewable and clean, then perhaps these protests are signs that the energy these men had relied on before was unsustainable.

Thankfully, however, the first moment of encounter soon leads to a second, and much needed, moment of empowerment. Like that old martial artist in the video, God helps each person to tap into a different and more sustainable source of power. An angel cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a live coal taken from the heavenly altar. Paul speaks of bearing fruit, not only by his own hard work, but by God’s grace. And Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, for he and his companions will be given the ability not just to catch fish, but to gather people into the kingdom of God.

Encounter leading to empowerment. These are the first two moments of grace. But, on their own, they are still incomplete. A third is needed. We see this perhaps most clearly in the second reading, which begins with Paul speaking about the gospel not only as something that the Corinthians have received, but also as something in which they are firmly established. Unlike the martial arts, the power of the good news, the sustainable spiritual energy of grace, from which Paul himself draws, is not just something to be used only on special occasions, for performing certain specific functions, and then to be carefully stored away.

On the contrary, the grace of God is meant to be something on which one relies for the whole of one’s life, in all its aspects. Isn’t this what we find already in the opening prayer that we offered earlier? There, we spoke about relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace. Relying on grace not just in addition to other forms of power. And not just for performing certain religious actions at certain specified times. Not just at Mass on a Sunday, for example. But to rely on grace solely. At all times, and for all actions. To be firmly established on grace. We see this also in the first reading, where, after receiving his call, Isaiah ends up devoting his whole life to being God’s messenger. Here I am, send me. And, in the gospel, we’re told that Peter and his companions left everything and followed Jesus. They gave up their reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, and gradually reestablished their whole lives solely on grace.

Encounter, empowerment, and establishment. Three important steps for converting from a reliance on ourselves to a dependence on God. And are these not steps that we all need to take especially today? When so many of us find ourselves tired and stressed out? So often on the verge of burnout? Struggling to find meaning and purpose in the face of the many oppressive demands of daily life. Drawing from dubious sources of energy, like guilt and shame, or greed and envy, or anger and resentment, or loneliness and boredom. Energies that are not only easily exhausted, but that also tend to pollute our lives, and compromise our relationships, even in our own families.

And yet, in the midst of all this, God continues to call us, as God called Isaiah and Peter and Paul. God continues to call us to establish our lives on the sustainable energy that is the love of God shown most clearly in the Dying and Rising of Christ. The same love that we are gathered at this Eucharist to celebrate. To rely solely on the grace of God’s love. Isn’t this our true vocation as followers of Christ?

Sisters and brothers, despite notable exceptions, many countries and large companies around the world are taking steps to shift to more sustainable sources of energy. What must we do, you and I, to respond more generously to God’s call to us to do the same in our spiritual life today?

Sunday, February 03, 2019

The Power(lessness) of Love

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Video: YouTube BonnieRaittVEVO

My dear friends, what do you think? Is love powerful or powerless? I’m sure many of us have heard songs about the power of love, right? But do you know any songs that sing about love’s powerlessness? Are you familiar, for example, with these words from a love song released in 1991?

'Cause I can't make you love me if you don’t.
You can't make your heart feel something it won’t.
Here in the dark, in these final hours,
I will lay down my heart, and I'll feel the power.
But you won’t. No, you won’t.
'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don’t.

These words are sung by someone who realises, painfully, that the one she loves doesn’t love her back. And one striking thing about the song is how it shows love to be both powerful and powerless at the same time. On the one hand, her love for the beloved gives the singer the power to lay down my heart, even when her partner doesn’t do the same. And yet, on the other hand, she is also pitifully powerless. ‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t… I can’t make you love me. That’s the title of this sad but beautiful song about the powerlessness of love.

Yes, it’s true, isn’t it, my dear friends? Love is often both powerful and powerless at the same time. This is also what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, we’re told that the word of the Lord was addressed to the prophet Jeremiah. And this word is at once a word of love and a word of power. For God tells Jeremiah that, even from his mother’s womb, God has lovingly known him and formed him, consecrated him and appointed him as prophet to the nations. This call, this vocation, gives Jeremiah power to speak courageously in the name of God. To confront all this land of Judah, its leaders and its people, even when they offer him stiff resistance and cruel persecution. They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you. This, my dear friends, is the power of love.

And yet, although Jeremiah speaks in the power of God’s loving word, his ministry is also marked by powerlessness. For, however hard he tries, and however loudly he cries, Jeremiah fails to turn the people’s hearts back to God. Like the singer of that sad song, he is unable to make the people love the One who loved them first. I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.

And what is true of Jeremiah is true also of Jesus. Of course, we know that Jesus is more than just a prophet speaking God’s word. As John’s gospel tells us, Jesus is himself the Word of God made flesh for us. And, as Word of God, who is Love, Jesus wields great power. He is able to win the approval of the people in the synagogue by the gracious words that came from his lips. He is able even to escape the crowd, when it turns hostile, and tries to corner him and kill him.

And yet, powerful though he may be, in the gospel, Jesus also shows a mysterious powerlessness. For although he has worked great miracles in Capernaum, he doesn’t seem able to do the same in Nazareth, his own hometown. For he says that no prophet is ever accepted in his own country. Like Jeremiah the prophet, and like the singer of that sad song, Jesus seems unable to make people love the One who loved them first. I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.

Like that sad song, the experiences of Jeremiah and Jesus show us that love is often both powerful and powerless at the same time. But that’s not all, my dear friends. The Scriptures actually show us something even deeper about true love, about God’s love. For although, in the gospel, Jesus amazes us by miraculously escaping those who want to kill him, this is not the full extent of his power. Further on in the story, Jesus will show an even greater power than this. Do you know how he does it? Not by escaping those who want to kill him, but instead by humbly submitting himself to them in love. 

For the amazing thing about God’s love is not just that it is both powerful and powerless at the same time. But, even more than that, God’s love actually shows its power most clearly, most wonderfully, most effectively, precisely in its powerlessness. Isn’t this what we find in the second reading as well. Which describes love as being always patient and kind… never jealous… never boastful or conceited… never rude or selfish… The power of love is shown most of all in its powerlessness. In its ability to remain patient and kind, even unto death. Death on a cross.

And, if this is true, then perhaps, unlike the singer of that sad song, Jesus does actually have a mysterious power to make me love him, even when I don’t. Even when I find it difficult to be patient and kind. Even when I find it difficult not to be jealous, or boastful, or conceited… Difficult to truly lay down my heart for love of God and of my neighbour, my family, my colleagues, my friends, and even my enemies. When I find myself becoming more selfish than selfless, more indifferent than loving, perhaps what I need to do is to again gaze upon the Crucified One, who shows his love for me by humbly hanging on a cross. Isn’t this why we take the trouble to gather to celebrate Mass every Sunday? So that we may remember Christ’s loving sacrifice for us, and draw power from his utter powerlessness. So that I may be made to love him, whom I so often do not love enough.

‘Cause I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to allow the powerless One to give us power to love him even more than we do today?