Sunday, August 25, 2019

Open Sesame!

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, are you familiar with the words open sesame? Do you remember where they come from, and what they do? As some may recall, in the story, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, open sesame is that magical command that transforms a hard wall of rock into an inviting doorway. Open sesame is that secret password that grants access to an amazing place, where a great treasure is hidden. My dear friends, if you were given a powerful password like open sesame, how would you use it?

Transformation and access. These are the things that open sesame brings. Transformation and access. These are also the same things that we find in our Mass readings today. In the first reading, God promises to work a marvellous transformation. Not only to change strangers – gathered from the nations of every language – into servants of God’s will, and singers of God’s praise. But also to grant these same scattered and separated peoples privileged access to the amazing place that is God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem. There to enjoy, together with God’s chosen people, the wondrous treasure of engaging in united and wholehearted worship of the one true God.

Transformation and access. These are also what we find in the second reading, which speaks of how the painful experience of suffering can be transformed into a fruitful process of discipline, by which defiant delinquents are moulded into obedient daughters and sons of God. Here, those discouraged and knocked down by the trials of life, are given access to the precious treasure of peace and goodness that only God alone can give.

Amazing transformation – of separation into unity, of suffering into sonship – amazing transformation and privileged access to the highly treasured but often elusive experience of true reconciliation and peace. This what we find in the first two readings. And isn’t this something that we need so much especially today, when the nations of our world remain so painfully torn apart both within and among themselves? Divided by economic, political and social pressures alike? And what about we who live in such an apparently calm and peaceful place like Singapore? Don’t we yearn for the same things as well? Burdened as we are by pressures of our own? Having to struggle to stay close to those whom we love, even as we feel constantly pulled away by the many different attractions and anxieties of daily living.

But how, we may ask, how is this transformation brought about? How is this access gained? How does God fulfil God’s promise to gather the scattered, and to parent the orphan? If open sesame is the wondrous word that works this magic for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, then what is its equivalent in our readings today?

The answer is found in the gospel, where Jesus encourages everyone who wants to be saved to enter by the narrow door, because… many will try to enter and will not succeed. What is this narrow door, which offers access to the treasure of eternal salvation? What is this tight passageway that transforms unwanted trespassers into valued guests, to whom are granted privileged places at the feast in the kingdom of God?

In the gospel, what brings about this marvellous transformation, what grants this privileged access, is not open sesame, but the far more powerful Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus the Lord, who is himself the difficult but life-giving portal through which we are all invited to pass. But, in order for us to better appreciate what this means, what this looks like, we need to pay close attention to the background against which the Lord’s words are spoken. Notice how the reading begins.

In the opening line, we are told that Jesus is on a journey. He is passing through towns and villages… making his way to Jerusalem. And we know what this means. We know that the Lord is not just on a carefree excursion. Rather, he is already walking that at once cruel yet compassionate Way of the Cross. He is submitting himself to the process of lovingly laying down his life, so that others might be rescued from death. By the steadfast love that he bears in his Sacred Heart – both for his heavenly Father and for his earthly sisters and brothers, for you and for me – the Lord is in the process of transforming the hatred and violence directed at him into channels of reconciliation and peace, signs of his coming kingdom. He is blazing a path for us, gaining us access, from death into the fullness of life.

So that to experience this same transformation, to gain access to the place where the Lord is going – the place where true gladness is found – it is not enough for us simply to speak his name, the way we might utter a magical command like open sesame. For the name of Jesus is not just a word to be spoken with our lips, but a pathway on which we need to walk with our very lives. To enter through this narrow door, is to allow ourselves to be moulded more and more into the likeness of Christ, God’s only begotten Son.

And to do this we don’t really have to go too far out of our way, in desperate search for opportunities to suffer. For Christ himself did not have to go looking for the Cross. What he did was to live a truly loving, genuinely selfless life, in a world that rewards selfishness and greed. And the Cross found him.

Could it be that to enter by the narrow door is simply to strive to do the same. To draw near to Christ by first receiving his love, and then doing whatever I can to share it with others. Not just by making time for those I love – which is difficult enough – but also by reaching out in some way to those I don’t typically care much about, those who don’t usually feature on the radar screen of my life, but who may need my help. And then to courageously embrace the consequences of this love, even if it means having to undergo hardship and suffering of some kind. For this is how the Lord transforms orphans into adopted children. This how once excluded strangers gain access to the kingdom of God.

Sisters and brothers, in Christ, a powerful word has been given to us. How are you choosing to use this God-given open sesame today?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Beyond Rats & Revolutionaries

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Benny Mazur

My dear friends, can any of you describe what it’s like to run in the rat race? You do remember what the rat race is, right? It’s a way of living my life that feels as though I’m a rat running on a wheel chasing after a piece of cheese that’s forever beyond my reach. And I’m not just running on my own, that would be bad enough, but what makes it worse is that I have to compete with others to get to the cheese first. Because more cheese for them means less for me. Or so I’m led to believe.

So, the rat race has its own process, which involves a constant obsession with getting more. More money, more possessions, more pleasure, more comfort, more followers on social media, more business contacts… more… And why more? Because there’s never enough. However much I already have, there’s always another piece of cheese waiting just beyond my grasp.

Of course, there are consequences to living my life in this way. There’s a price to be paid, measured not in money, but in brokenness. Brokenness of body, of mind and of relationships. Not only am I prone to stress and burnout – since I often fail to take good enough care of myself – but I also find it increasingly difficult to be patient and kind, not just to strangers, but even to family and friends, those whom I love.

All of which may make me wonder what drives me on. From where do I get the power to run this race? The answer is not too hard to find. The power to run this race comes from a deep hunger within me that keeps crying out to be filled. This hunger goes by different names, such as anxiety or envy or greed. Here in Singapore we also call it kiasuism.

And what is true of individuals like me, is true also of many countries the world over. These too are caught up in the rat race. These too are engaged in a process of constant cut-throat competition to consume more and more. These too have to pay the painful price in broken relationships, not just within themselves and with one another, but also with Mother Earth as well. These too are driven by the dubious power of anxiety and envy and greed.

But that’s not all. As you know, there are those in the world today, who think that the only way to stop living like rats is to choose to run the even deadlier race of violent revolution. Rather than continuing to engage in the process of constant consumption, these people substitute it with a process of cruel disruption. And yet, even if the process may be different, there is little actual change in the power that drives those who run this second race, and the price it exacts. For isn’t the hatred that drives the terrorist rooted also in anxiety and envy and greed? And what can we expect from violence if not even more brokenness?

So what then, my dear friends? If neither the rat race nor violent revolution is good for us, then what other alternative do we have? To be honest, I do not know the answer to this complex question. I cannot presume to understand its various social, political and economic implications. I can’t say for sure exactly what a viable alternative might look like in practical terms. But one thing I do know is that our Mass readings today point us in a helpful direction.

We see this most clearly in the second reading, which encourages us to run a race very different from the ones we have been discussing. A race run not by rats or revolutionaries, but by followers of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection. A race that has its own distinct process and price and power.

In contrast to the processes of obsessive consumption on the one hand, and violent disruption on the other, the race of faith involves instead a process of trustful surrender, of letting go. Isn’t this what the prophet Jeremiah does in the first reading? At a time of national emergency, when the city of Jerusalem lies under the grave threat of a Babylonian invasion, obeying God’s instruction, Jeremiah tells the people not to resist but simply to submit, to allow themselves to be overrun. In response, to prevent the prophet from demoralising soldiers and civilians alike, the city’s leaders decide to kill him by throwing him into a well.

And yet, even in such dire straits, Jeremiah does not stop running the race of faith. He continues to entrust himself into the hands of God, even at the risk of paying the ultimate price. Thankfully, someone rescues him from what might have become for him a muddy tomb. Even so, doesn’t Jeremiah’s experience foreshadow that of Jesus, who obeyed his Father to the point of death, only to be raised to life on the third day?

And from where do Jesus and Jeremiah, and all the many witnesses who have run this race of faith before us, from where do they draw their power? What motivates them to submit to the process of self-surrender, such that they are willing even to pay the price with their very lives? Their power comes not from hatred or anxiety, envy or greed, but from the same thing that we prayed for earlier, when we asked God to fill our hearts… with the warmth of your love, so that, loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain your promises, which surpass every human desire…

To be filled with and empowered by that same fire of God’s love that Jesus wanted to bring to the earth with such great urgency. Isn’t this what sets Christians apart from rats and revolutionaries? And could this be the division that Jesus talks about in the gospel? For just as darkness is known by contrast to the light, so too are the divisions of our world uncovered by the fire of God’s love made manifest to us in Christ. The same love that we are gathered here this morning to celebrate. The same fire that impels us to keep running the race of faith, and to teach and encourage others to do the same.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that a race can be identified by its own particular process and price and power, then what kind of race are you running today?

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Acronyms of Alertness

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Choo Yut Shing

My dear friends, do you know what AERO stands for, A-E-R-O? How about PERT, P-E-R-T? Some of us may recall that these acronyms are the names of groups that have been formed to help the Catholic Church in Singapore prepare for emergencies. They are our contribution to SGSecure, our nation’s response to the threat of terror. AERO stands for Archdiocesan Emergency Response Operations, and PERT stands for Parish Emergency Response Team. 

Here at St Ignatius, for example, our own PERT has been conducting briefings, where key personnel are taught how to perform CPR, how to provide First Aid, how to use a fire extinguisher, and so on. I myself have participated in one of these sessions. Of course, providing and undergoing such training requires time and effort. It’s inconvenient. And yet, which of us would dare to say that it is not necessary? We know that it’s important to be prepared. So that when an emergency does arise, we are not caught napping. As has been rightly said, when it comes to a terror attack, it is not a question of if it will happen but when. Staying alert can make the difference between life and death.

AERO and PERT. I mention these acronyms of alertness, because they can help us appreciate the importance of what Jesus is saying to us in the gospel. You… must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect… Like AERO and PERT, our Mass readings emphasise the importance of staying alert since, like a terror attack, the coming of the Son of Man is also not a question of if but when. Something for which we need diligently to prepare, even though it may be very inconvenient.

As inconvenient as staying awake late into the night, waiting for the return of the master of the household, who has been delayed. Or, for the Israelites mentioned in the first reading, as inconvenient as carrying out God’s instructions for celebrating the first Passover. Having to eat hurriedly a whole roasted lamb, after smearing its fresh blood on your doorposts, while dressed to leave forever the only home you’ve ever known, to embark on a long journey to an undisclosed location.

Or, for Abraham and Sarah in the second reading, as inconvenient as, not just moving to an unknown destination, but also, on reaching that place, having to refuse to allow yourselves to get too comfortable in it. Living there, instead, in tents while (looking) forward to a city founded, designed, and built by God. Recognising that you are only strangers and nomads on earth, longing for a better homeland in heaven.

My dear friends, like AERO and PERT, our Mass readings remind us of the importance of being willing to endure inconvenience, in order to stay alert, to be prepared for the coming of God’s kingdom. But what does this actually look like? What is the spiritual equivalent of learning how to perform CPR and how to use a fire extinguisher? To answer this question, it’s helpful to recognise an important point of contrast between AERO and PERT, on the one hand, and the alertness proposed to us by Christ, on the other.

A terror attack is, of course, a bad thing, an emergency, a serious threat to society. So that dealing with such an attack has largely to do with staving off its bad effects, and restoring society, as quickly as possible, to what it was before. The assumption being that the situation before the attack is a good thing. Something worth restoring.

Which is no doubt true. However, in contrast, the alertness in our readings has to do not so much with staving off something bad, as with welcoming something good, the coming of Christ and his kingdom. Indeed, if there is something bad in our readings today – something that needs changing – it’s the current situation. In the first reading, for example, the Israelites were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt. That was their situation. It was to set them free that God sent Moses.

In the gospel too, the Son of Man comes not to condemn but to save God’s people – to save us – from our current situation, from the bad effects of idolatry and oppression. So that to be alert is to realise our own need for the Lord, to learn to recognise the signs of his coming, by constantly cultivating and deepening our relationship with him, so as to be willing and ready to welcome him whenever he comes to rescue us.

Even so, perhaps we who live in Singapore – and particularly here in the parish of St Ignatius – perhaps we may be forgiven for wondering whether we need to be rescued in the first place. Isn’t our current situation already good enough? Isn’t it worth fighting to preserve? Yes, of course it is. And yet, can we deny that there are aspects of the status quo that may need challenging and changing? Are there not forms of idolatry and oppression from which we need to be set free?

For example, do you know what S-O-S stands for? Apart from being an international distress signal, S-O-S also stands for Samaritans of Singapore, an organisation dedicated to preventing suicides. According to statistics released by SOS two weeks ago, the number of suicides in Singapore rose 10 per cent last year. And, among boys aged between 10 and 19 years old, there were 19 suicides last year – the highest since records began in 1991 and almost triple the seven cases recorded in 2017. The situation looks grim enough for SOS senior assistant director Wong Lai Chun to be quoted as saying, “It is disconcerting to know that many of our young feel unsupported through their darkest periods and see suicide as the only choice to end their pain and struggles.”

My dear friends, I do not know the exact cause(s) of these alarming statistics. But I wonder if they are not an indication that, as important as it is for us to be prepared to face the future emergency of a terror attack, it’s at least as important for us to address the current emergency of so many of our teenaged children choosing to kill themselves. Could it be that, much as the status quo in Singapore is worth fighting to preserve, it also needs to be challenged by the Gospel of Christ? That liberating food, of which we Christians are the appointed stewards, the ones given the responsibility of feeding the master’s household at the proper time.

Sisters and brothers, there is at least one distress signal – one SOS – already sounding in our midst right now. What must we do to become alert enough to better respond to its call today?