Sunday, October 23, 2022

Of Safety & Hiding


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) 

(World Mission Sunday)

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35: 12-14, 16-19; Psalm 33 (34): 2-3,17-19, 23; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

Picture: cc Flickr United Nations Photo

My dear friends, what is it like to feel threatened, and have nowhere to hide? No place to feel safe and secure, sheltered and supported? Perhaps it’ll help if we pause and imagine, just for a moment, what it may be like for people living in the many troubled spots of our world today. Such as famine-stricken Somalia, or flood-inundated Pakistan, or military-oppressed Myanmar. We may think also of children living in less troubled, more affluent places, but who still don’t feel safe, at home or in school. Whether it’s because of gun-violence, or familial-abuse, or cyber-bullying, or pressure due to unrealistic parental expectations. We may also consider those who suffer from addictions of one kind or another. What does it feel like not to have a safe place in which to hide? …

In case we may wonder why we are posing such an uninviting question on this relaxing long Deepavali weekend, it’s because we find similar people in our scriptures today. People in danger, with no safe place to hide. The first reading and the psalm speak of orphans, widows, and the poor in general. People whose very existence is under threat, and whose options are few. Yet this obvious disadvantage is also a prime advantage. For having nowhere else to turn, they cry out to God, and God does not disappoint. For the Lord is close to the broken-hearted. Those who hide in him shall not be condemned. By humbly acknowledging their helplessness before God, the poor find true safety.

And isn’t this what separates the two men in Jesus’ parable? Just as the poor are threatened materially, the tax-collector is in danger spiritually, and he knows it. Conscious of his own status as a public sinner, he humbly acknowledges his helplessness, and throws himself before the mercy of God. As a result, he finds true safety. He goes home at rights with God. In contrast, it is the pious Pharisee who remains in danger. By pridefully hiding behind his superficial religious practices, he ends up hiding from the mercy of God.

Even so, we should take care not to misunderstand. Finding refuge in God doesn't mean the end of all our problems. It may, in fact, lead to the opposite. In the second reading, it is precisely because Paul chooses to follow the crucified and risen Christ in allowing his own life to be poured away as a sacrificial offering, that he finds himself in danger and all alone, without a single witness to support him. Yet, amid his trials, Paul is given the Lord’s power to proclaim the gospel for all the pagans to hear. By embracing danger for love of Christ, not only is Paul assured that the Lord will bring him safely to his heavenly kingdom, he also enables others to enjoy the same assurance of safety. Through humble service a scary place of danger becomes a fruitful point of mission.

Isn’t this the paradoxical lesson offered to us today? That true safety is found when we humbly cry out to God from the various dangerous places in our lives and in our world. But if this is true, sisters and brothers, then how shall we help each other to resist the temptation to hide from such places today?

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Between Insanity & Hope

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Exodus 17: 8-13; Psalm 120 (121); 2 Timothy 3: 14-4: 2; Luke 18:1-8

Picture: cc Flickr badjonni

My dear friends, do you know the popular definition of insanity? According to an often-quoted saying, it is to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. I imagine it’s like repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall, expecting more than just to get bruised and bloodied. But is it really always insane to keep doing the same thing, and expect a different result? Are there exceptions? It may already be obvious to some of us why I’m asking this question. It’s because, in our scriptures today, we find people who keep doing the same thing. 

In the first reading, Joshua is asked to march out and to keep engaging the Amalekites in battle. At the same time, on a hilltop, with the help of Aaron and Hur, Moses keeps raising his arms in prayer. Praying on a hill-top, and fighting on the plain. If these repeated actions don’t look insane, it’s only because their positive effects are seen immediately. As long as Moses keeps his arms raised, Joshua keeps winning the battle. But what if Moses insists on keeping his arms raised, and Joshua stubbornly keeps on fighting, even when the Amalekites seem to keep winning? Would that be insane?

And what about the situation in the gospel? Despite being repeatedly rebuffed for a long time, the widow still keeps pestering the unjust judge for justice, expecting a different result. And Jesus uses her example to illustrate the importance of persisting in praying for justice, even when God delays to help. To keep crying out to God, even when we may seem to be ignored. Is that insane?

Even more, in the second reading, Timothy is encouraged to keep doing the same thing too. Not just to persevere in prayer, but to keep living according to the gospel, and to keep patiently proclaiming its message – to refute falsehood, to correct error, to call to obedience. And to persist in doing all this even when unwelcome! To insist on proclaiming a rejected message. Even one that may attract persecution. Isn’t this like repeatedly banging one’s head against a wall?

It’s difficult to deny, isn’t it, that what the scriptures are asking of us looks a lot like insanity? And yet, don’t oppressed people continue to do similar things around the world? And don’t we Christians, in particular, have good reason to heed this call? It’s the same reason we gather around this Table of Word and Sacrament. Whether it’s in the face of global issues like the climate crisis or oppression, or in cosier but no less challenging settings of family, work and parish, if we foolishly choose to keep bruising our heads against a wall, isn’t it because Christ first allowed his body to be broken for us on the Cross? We follow his example, expecting no less than what he received when he was raised to life. For what popular opinion calls insane, faith sees as hope born of love.

Sisters and brothers, the gospel ends with Jesus posing this poignant question, when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth? How might we give the Lord a better response by embracing just a little insanity in our lives today?

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Pathways of Return

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: 2 Kings 5: 14-17; Psalm 97 (98): 1-4; 2 Timothy 2: 8-13; Luke 17: 11-19

Video: YouTube mikedye1

My dear friends, have you ever watched a boomerang flying back to the one who threw it? It can be quite fascinating. But according to Wikipedia, not all boomerangs return when thrown, only those that are designed to do so. So if a boomerang does return, it is acting according to its original design. We might even say that it is coming back to itself.

Can the same also be said about us? We may recall that, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15, it is when the younger son came to himself that he also finally returns to his father (Lk 15:17 NRSV). So to truly find and come back to ourselves is also to return to our heavenly Father. The prodigal does this through repentance. In today’s scriptures, we see people doing it in other ways.

Like boomerangs, both the Syrian in the first reading, and the Samaritan in the gospel, return to the one who cured them of leprosy. But they do this not so much to repent, as to say thank you. And it’s important that we carefully ponder their actions, to realise to whom they are actually returning.

The first reading ends with Naaman expressing a solemn commitment to worship no other god except the Lord. Likewise, the Samaritan turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself at the feet of Jesus in a sincere expression of worship. All of which clearly indicate to us that both of them believed they were returning not just to any earthly healer, but to God. As a result, not only were they cured of their ailments, they also came back to themselves. By returning to God in thanksgiving, they were able to claim the salvation that the Lord has shown to the nations.

And gratitude isn't the only other way to make a return. When Elisha refuses to claim credit for Naaman’s healing, when he declines to accept a present for it, isn’t he returning all glory and praise to God instead? And when, in the second reading, Paul bravely bears his own hardships, even to being chained like a criminal, isn’t he remaining true to himself by returning all glory and praise to the Crucified and Risen One, who had sent him out on mission, and whose example he is following?

So not just repentance for mistakes made, but also gratitude for gifts received, gratuity in service rendered, and generosity in enduring trials for the sake of the Good News. These are the paths taken by the people in our readings to return to God. Gratitude, gratuity and generosity. These narrow and rocky trails present a sharp contrast to the broad and smooth expressways of cutthroat competition, relentless profit-making and anxious self-gratification to which many of us are drawn by default, even as we keep yearning and searching for that authenticity and peace that often seems to remain stubbornly and frustratingly just out of our reach.

Sisters and brothers, with all due respect to Wikipedia, do you know what some people call a boomerang that does not return? A stick. What can we do to help one another become more of a boomerang and less of a stick today?

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Between A Rock & A Receptive Space

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Habakkuk 1: 2-3, 2:2-4; Psalm 94 (95): 1-2, 6-9; 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14; Luke 17: 5-10

Picture: Wikipedia

My dear friends, if you had to move a mountain, which would you need more, something hard or something soft? Some of us may remember that classic Chinese story about the fool who moved a mountain (愚公移山). One day, an old man, living at the foot of a mountain, decides that it’s too much of an obstacle, and resolves to remove it. So he mobilises his whole family, and sets to work. His neighbours laugh at him for attempting the impossible at an advanced age. But he replies that, even if he dies before completing the project, his family will persevere and get it done. Clearly, what the story values is hardness. Not just the hardness of shovels and pickaxes, but that of firm resolve and persistent effort.

In our scriptures too, we find obstacles that require moving, both external and internal. The first reading speaks of oppression and injustice, tyranny, outrage and violence… Strong words that well describe the external realities we find in our world today. The obstacle in the gospel, on the other hand, is more of an interior one. For what prompts the dialogue in the reading is the Lord’s command in the previous verse, where he says that, if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive’ (Lk 17:4 NRSV). We must let go of our grudges, and forgive.

And whether the task is to remove the mountain of injustice out in the world, or to uproot the mulberry tree of resentment deep within my heart, the scriptures invite us to rely on the same effective tool: faith. But what does authentic Christian faith look and feel like? How does it work? I’m not sure, but I suspect that, for a good number of us, faith works like the old man in that Chinese story. It moves mountains only through the hardness of my own firm resolve and persistent effort. But what if my resolve and efforts are just not hard enough?

Interestingly, when our readings speak of hardness, it’s only in reference to the power of God. Come, ring out our joy to the Lord; hail the rock who saves us… In contrast, what God asks of us is more of a softening, a greater receptivity. O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ So, in the first reading, faced with a mountain of injustice, the helpless prophet is asked to wait patiently and faithfully, until he receives a new vision. Also, in the gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to adopt the humble disposition of a slave, ever ready to receive the master’s further instructions. And, in the second reading, although Paul speaks of a Spirit of power, and love, and self-control, this comes not as the result of one’s own hard work, but only as a gift from God in Christ Jesus. A gift that brings both the clarity to know what to do, as well as the courage and conviction to do it. Even to bear hardships for the Good News, relying on the power of God. 

Sisters and brothers, although we may be hemmed in by mountains of various kinds, both external and internal, we believe that God continues to save us in Christ. What must we do to allow God to soften our hearts, so that we might be more receptive to the power of his love and mercy today?