Sunday, July 18, 2021

Submitting to the Shepherd's Stress

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 22(23); Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

Picture: cc Matt Clark

My dear friends, are you tense? Do you ever have moments when you wish that all the tension in your life was removed forever? Perhaps we’ve all felt like that at one time or another. And especially so in these days of Covid-stress. Yet not all tensions are bad. Some may even be necessary. For example, isn’t the tension in the strings of a guitar what allows it to produce such beautiful sounds?

And music-making is not the only activity that involves tension. The same can be said about shepherding, which is what our readings talk about today. In the first reading, God accuses the leaders of Israel for being lazy shepherds. For failing to accept the tension that comes with caring for God’s people. For allowing the Lord’s flock to be scattered. God then promises to raise up a new line of kings, who will properly care for the sheep. A promise that finds its fulfilment in the gospel, where Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd.

But have you noticed how Jesus himself experiences tension while shepherding? The reading begins with the Lord inviting his disciples to retreat to a lonely place to rest for a while. By doing this, he shows his care for them. He shepherds them. But having arrived at their chosen vacation spot, they are confronted with a large crowd. The sight of which moves the Lord’s heart with pity, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he decides to postpone the vacation, and to teach them at some length.

Isn’t there a tension here between the Lord’s concern for his disciples and his pity for the people? And isn’t this but one example in a life lived in constant tension? Indeed, could we not say that the Lord’s very existence is one of tension? Tension between both the divine and human natures present in a single person. A merciful tension, embraced out of love and compassion for us. A courageous tension, culminating in Death, Resurrection, and Remembrance at the Eucharist. A reconciling tension that unites both Jews and Gentiles.

Which is not to say that we should embrace all tensions indiscriminately. No, some tensions are oppressive, and need to be challenged. Such as those that may result from the unjust working conditions that some employers may inflict on their employees. Or the unrealistic expectations that some families may place on their children.

What our readings invite us to recognise is that, as followers of Jesus, we need to learn to graciously acknowledge and accept the unavoidable tensions that come with caring for others. Whether at home, at work, or wherever there are people in need of our help. And we can only bear these tensions fruitfully, if we continually bring them to the Lord in prayer. Allowing him to revive our drooping spirits, and to guide us along the right path, the path of Christ’s peace.

Sisters and brothers, a guitar must be tuned before it is played. What must we do to let the Lord tune us, so that we too may produce sweet music to the glory of God today?

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Of Roots & Resilience

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Readings: Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 84 (85):9-14; Ephesians 1:3-10; Mark 6:7-13

Picture: cc Paul Sullivan

My dear friends, do you remember that tragic case from 2017, where a 40-metre tall tembusu tree in the Botanic Gardens toppled over, and killed a passerby? Why did the tree fall? It had no visible signs of weakness. According to the Coroner, the answer lay in its roots. While strong winds and heavy rains in the days before the incident did play a part, the deeper cause could be traced to the tree’s distant past, when its roots were cut to make way for a path. This cutting started a process of decay, leading eventually to the tree’s demise.

But it’s not just trees that depend for their resilience upon healthy roots. The same can be said for prophets and missionaries too. Isn’t this what we find in our readings? In the first reading, when the prophet Amos is buffeted by the strong winds of rejection, he responds not by boasting about his own virtues or qualifications, but by recounting the origins, the spiritual roots, of his prophetic vocation. It was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Similarly, in the gospel, how does Jesus prepare the apostles for the rigours of the mission on which he is sending them? He strengthens their roots. By encouraging them to rely more on the providence of God than on any material resource. And by telling them how to respond to rejection. (T)ake nothing for the journey except a staff…. if any place does not welcome you and people refuse to listen to you, as you walk away shake off the dust from under your feet as a sign to them…

Of course, this is all fine and good for professional, full-time missionaries, like Amos and the Twelve. What about those of us who have far more down-to-earth occupations? Those of us who, especially in these Covid-times, find ourselves frantically juggling the multiple responsibilities of work and home, while being cooped up in a single physical location.

Thankfully, the second reading comes to our rescue, by telling us about the broader meaning of vocation or calling. Contrary to popular belief, God’s call is addressed not only to professionals. Nor does it involve only obviously religious or churchy activities. No. The reading tells us that even before the world was made… (God) chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence… God’s call to us is, first of all, simply to be, to live in a certain way. To remain rooted in the goodness and love, the compassion and mercy of Christ that we celebrate at this Mass. This is the vocation that gives our lives their true meaning.

And isn’t meaning what so many in our society are yearning for today? According to a recent report, there were 452 suicides here last year, the highest since 2012. Sisters and brothers, it appears that, in our country, trees are not the only things being toppled over. People are too. And if this is true, then what can we do? We who believe ourselves to be chosen by God. What can we do to help one another become more resilient, by cultivating healthier and hardier spiritual roots today?