Sunday, October 27, 2019

Between Casinos & Scanners

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc EasySentri Sentri

My dear friends, have you ever walked through a security scanner before? How about a casino? Have you entered a casino before? Is there any difference between the two? I’m not sure, but I imagine that the best way to walk into a casino, especially if you’re there to gamble, is to make sure that your pockets are as full as possible. If not literally, then at least figuratively. Not only do you want to have easy access to lots of money, but you also want to let others know that you do. Why? Well, not just to impress your fellow patrons, but also so that the casino staff will roll out the red carpet for you. So that they will treat you like the high-roller you really are. A high-roller enters a casino with full pockets in order to impress.

The opposite is true of a security scanner. As you know, the best way to walk through one of these is to make sure that your pockets are well and truly empty. I remember once being surprised when I was stopped after walking through a scanner, since I had already emptied my pockets. But, as it turned out, they were not as empty as I had thought. I had left my handkerchief in one of them, which the scanner was able to detect, even though it was just a piece of cloth!

In sharp contrast to a casino, if I want to pass through a security scanner, and get to my destination as quickly as possible, then it’s better that I go in with empty pockets.

I mention this difference between a casino and a scanner because I believe it can help us understand better the valuable lesson that our Mass readings are teaching us today. In the gospel parable, the Pharisee begins to pray in much the same way a high-roller might walk into a casino. Not only does he make sure that his pockets are as full as possible – by listing all the pious practices he engages in regularly – but he also broadcasts them out loud, to make sure that everyone knows about them. Even worse, he looks down on those who don’t seem to have much cash on them.

In contrast, the tax collector prays as though he were walking through a security scanner. Instead of looking for all the things he can use to impress God, he allows his pockets to be emptied. He lets himself realise what a huge difference in dignity there is between him and the almighty, all-holy God. And yet, probably much to the surprise of his listeners, Jesus declares that it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, whose prayer reaches its intended destination.

The first reading tells us the reason why. It’s because, unlike the staff at a casino, the Lord is a judge who is no respecter of personages. Like a security scanner, God is unimpressed, even turned off, by full pockets and flashy clothing. God is drawn instead to hearts that are surrendered and empty. Hearts that may even be broken, as the tax collector’s heart seems to be. Broken by his own weakness and sinfulness, in the face of God’s great mercy and compassion. For as the responsorial psalm reminds us, the Lord is close to the broken-hearted, those whose spirit is crushed he will save…

I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but this insight that God is more like a security scanner than a casino can actually be very encouraging. Especially for those of us who, like me, may find it difficult to pray when we are in a dark interior space. When I am feeling guilty, for example, for having committed a stubborn sin yet again. Even after confessing it for the umpteenth time. Or when I may be fuming mad at someone with whom I live or work. Someone with whom I’ve been trying very hard to be patient. Or when I’m disappointed in God for allowing me to fail at something in which I so very much wanted to succeed. Or when I fall sick, and find myself indulging in self-pity.

At times like these, it can be very difficult to pray. Difficult because, without realising it, I may think that I can’t come before God with nothing to show for myself. I may think that I need to hide my weakness, my empty pockets. Or find some way to fill them myself. And yet, to feel that way is really to approach God as I would a casino. To think that God needs to be suitably impressed in order to hear my prayer. Which is the opposite of what our readings are saying. That good effective prayer is honest humble prayer. Prayer that allows my heart to be laid bare. This is the kind of prayer that is more likely to reach its intended destination.

But that’s not all. For it is not just prayer that I need to learn to enter with empty pockets. The same can be said of the whole of my life. Isn’t this what we find in the second reading? Towards the end of his life, as he awaits his eventual execution, St Paul speaks not about being filled but about being emptied. Poignantly he writes that his life is already being poured away as a libation, a sacrificial offering. And yet it is precisely in his emptiness, that he experiences the Lord standing by him, giving him power, bringing him safely to his intended heavenly destination.

To walk through life as I would a security scanner. With empty pockets and even a broken heart. This is not a message that the world likes to hear. On the contrary, for many of us, isn’t life much more like a casino? Don’t we spend much of our time desperately filling ourselves? Isn’t this why we call ourselves consumers? And yet, it’s helpful to remember that the Lord whom we gather here every Sunday to worship is the same One who did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself for our sakes, even to the point of giving his life for us on the wood of the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, as we proceed with our prayers here at this Mass, and as we pass through the church doors when our celebration is complete, will we be walking through a scanner or into a casino? How full or empty will your pockets be today?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Between the Keychain & the Computer

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc David Erickson

My dear friends, have you ever received a gift that you did not use? Or didn’t use fully? Someone once gave me a keychain, with a cute little statue of the patron of our parish – St Ignatius of Loyola – attached to it. And I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it was only much later that I discovered what that keychain was for. When its base was removed, the statue could be plugged into a computer and used to store data. It was a thumb-drive! I could, of course, continue to use it as nothing more than a keychain. But what a waste that would be, right?

Actually, I’ve since come to see that that keychain is not the only thing I fail to use fully. The same is true of my smartphone too, for example, or my computer. Each of these gadgets has many functions that I do not use. Some of which I haven’t even discovered. And what about you, my dear friends? Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t use fully? I ask because, in our Mass readings too, a gift is given that’s not fully used. And the reason it’s not fully used is because it’s easily mis-recognised. Much like how I mistook the thumb-drive as nothing more than a keychain.

At first glance, the most obvious gift we find in our readings is that of healing. In both the first reading and the gospel, lepers are cured of their terrible disease. And we can, of course, choose to focus our attention on this remarkable gift. Which, in itself, can be a great source of comfort and encouragement, especially to those of us afflicted by serious illnesses of our own, or who may know people suffering in this way.

But what is not as obvious is that the gift offered in our readings goes far beyond the healing of diseased bodies. We see this perhaps most clearly in what Jesus says to the one who returns to give thanks. The Lord begins by asking, were not all ten made clean? And he ends by declaring, your faith has saved you. Notice the difference in the verbs used in the question at the beginning and the declaration at the end.

For Jesus, ten lepers were made clean, but only one is saved. To put it another way, beyond the healing of their diseased bodies, all ten lepers were offered the gift of salvation, the gift of fullness of life. But only one of them was able to claim it. The other nine were so focused on the physical cure, they missed the less obvious but far more precious gift. We might say that, like me, they took such delight in the keychain, they failed to recognise the thumb-drive hidden within it.

But what does this spiritual thumb-drive look like? What does it mean to be saved, to enjoy the fullness of life? This is where our readings again prove very helpful. For they show us at least three characteristics of those who are saved. Or three steps, if you like, for claiming the gift of salvation.

The first step is perhaps the most obvious. It is gratitude. The same gratitude expressed by both the Syrian, Naaman, in the first reading, and the unnamed Samaritan in the gospel. When each of these men realises that he has been cured, he is able to do something that’s not easy to do. At least not for me. Unlike the other nine lepers, both are able to allow their attention to be shifted away from themselves to the one who has blessed them, the one who has gifted them. Before going home to Syria, Naaman takes the trouble to return to Elisha. Before going to ask the priests to certify his cleansing, the Samaritan goes back to the Lord to say thank you.

But that’s not all. I say thank you everyday to various people who help me. This is the polite thing to do. It’s what I’ve been taught to do since childhood. But I don’t do what the two grateful lepers do. Unlike the Samaritan in the gospel, when I thank the auntie who clears my table at the foodcourt, I don’t throw myself down at her feet. Such an action is far more than a polite expression of gratitude. It is in fact an act of worship. And worship is also what Naaman promises to do after he returns to Syria. He pledges to dedicate his whole life in devoted service to the one true God, because he realises that there is no other.

Gratitude expressed in wholehearted worship of the one true God. These are the first two characteristics of salvation. The third characteristic is found in something else that Jesus tells the grateful leper. Stand up and go on your way… Of course,  the Lord may simply be telling the leper to move on. But notice how the reading begins by reminding us that Jesus himself is on the way… Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched then for us to think that Jesus is inviting the leper to take up his own cross, and to follow the Lord on the way to Jerusalem. The Lord is calling the leper to discipleship, to become what St Paul has become in the second reading. Someone who willingly bears his own hardships for the sake of the Good News, even to being chained like a criminal.

Gratitude, worship, and discipleship. These are the three characteristics of salvation that we find in our readings today. These are the three steps we need to take in order to claim the great gift of salvation offered to us in Christ. And these are also the things that should really characterise our own celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday. For here, we recall the many gifts we have received, and for which we can be grateful. Above all, the loving sacrifice of Christ for all our sakes. Here, in bread and wine, we unite ourselves to the offering of Christ, in an act of fitting worship. Here, we commit ourselves to lives of true discipleship. Lives in which we allow ourselves to be moulded into the Body of Christ, willing to be broken in love for the sake of a world fragmented by selfishness and sin.

Unfortunately, it’s too easy for me to approach the Eucharist with far less reverence than it truly deserves. It’s too easy for me to treat the Eucharist as I would a cute inconsequential little ornament on which to hang my keys. And so to miss the gift of salvation hidden within what looks like nothing more than  a routine ritual.

Sisters and brothers, there is a wonderful gift hidden in this weekly celebration of ours. What must we do, you and I, to better recognise it and to connect it to the rest of our lives, as we might a thumb-drive to a computer today?

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Heart Lotion

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Marco Verch

My dear friends, do you moisturise? I mean, do you apply creams and lotions to your skin to keep it soft and smooth and supple? Perhaps, for some of us, this is not so necessary here in Singapore, where it’s usually so humid. But if I were to travel to a foreign country, where the air is very dry, then I have to remember to moisturise my skin every day. Otherwise it will become so dry that it might even harden and crack. Has that ever happened to you?

And it’s not just the weather that can cause a person’s skin to harden like that. I once shook hands with someone who had spent many years hand-washing clothes for a living. And I was surprised by how hard and rough this person’s skin was. It was like shaking hands with sandpaper!

Actually this is something we all know very well. Whether it’s dry weather or strong detergent, harsh conditions can easily cause our skin to harden. But what we may not realise is that harsh conditions can harden not just our skin, but also our hearts as well. Isn’t this the danger that our Mass readings are teaching us how to avoid today?

In the first reading, the prophet complains to God about the extremely harsh conditions in his life. Oppression and injustice, tyranny and outrage, violence and contention and discord… These are the terrible things he sees everyday. And yet, God does not seem to care. How long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen.… will not save?

Have you ever felt like that, my dear friends? Have you ever complained to God about the harsh conditions in your life – at the workplace, or in the family, or even in the world at large? Have you ever complained and complained, but received no answer? If you have, then you know the danger that the prophet faces. It’s the same danger that the people of Israel faced when they were wandering in the wilderness, and ran out of drinking water. These harsh conditions led them to harden their hearts. They rebelled. They refused to listen to Moses and to God. Isn’t this why the psalm says, O that today you would listen to his voice! “Harden not your hearts”?

To somehow be able to keep my heart soft and smooth and supple, even under harsh conditions. To continue listening to the Lord, as the prophet does in the first reading. To wait patiently and not to lose hope. To keep trusting that the Lord will not abandon me. Will not abandon us. That the Lord will eventually come to our rescue. All this is much easier said than done, isn’t it? Especially in times of trouble. To be able to do this, we need that spiritual moisturiser that we call faith.

Which probably explains why, in the gospel, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Scripture scholars remind us that this request the apostles make in verse 5 of chapter 17, should be seen as a response to what Jesus says in verse 4. Do you remember what Jesus says? If (your brother) wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry”, you must forgive him.

In other words, in verse 4, Jesus tells me that I am not to harden my heart even towards someone who repeatedly makes my life difficult. On the contrary, the Lord expects me to somehow keep my heart soft and smooth and supple. Of course, this doesn’t mean I have to allow myself to be abused. No, I should take steps to protect myself as far as possible. But I should also be ready to forgive whenever the person apologises. Even if the person makes my life difficult as often as seven times a day! Is there someone like that in your life?

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I do not find this easy to do. It requires faith. Which is why it is not surprising that the apostles ask Jesus for more faith. What is surprising is what the Lord says to them in reply. Jesus tells them that, when it comes to faith, it’s not really quantity that makes the difference. For even a word spoken with a tiny bit of faith – the size of a mustard seed – can cause a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea!

But if faith does not depend on quantity for its effectiveness, then on what does it depend? The answer to this question is found in the words: When you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.’” To adopt the attitude of a servant. To be willing to wait on the Master. To be ready promptly to receive and to act on the Master’s every command. This is what makes faith effective. It’s not about quantity but receptivity.

How then to be receptive to God in this way? Isn’t it too difficult for us? Too difficult for me? Yes it is. Unless, of course, I follow the advice that St Paul gives to Timothy in the second reading. I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave to you when I laid my hands on you… To be receptive to God’s commands, I need first to allow myself to be receptive to God’s gift. To unwrap the present that God has already given me at my baptism. The precious gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of power, and love, and self-control. To unwrap this gift is to allow the Spirit to remind me of how Christ laid down his life for me on the Cross. So that, moved by this great gift, I may then allow my life to be shaped according to the pattern of the Lord’s loving self-sacrifice. Even to the extent of bearing hardship for the Good News.

To keep tapping into the Holy Spirit’s power. To keep remembering Christ’s sacrifice for me. To allow myself to continue unpacking the precious gift already given to me so generously by God. The same gift that we are gathered here at this Mass to celebrate. This what it means to have faith. This what I need to do to avoid hardening my heart under the  sometimes harsh conditions of daily life.

Sisters and brothers, it’s not just our skin that needs to be kept soft and smooth and supple. Our hearts do too. What steps are you taking to allow God to moisturise your heart today?