Sunday, July 23, 2023

Riding the See-Saw of Care

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 85 (86):5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-30 or 43

Picture: Jessica Wilson on Unsplash

My dear friends, does anyone still remember what it’s like to ride a see-saw? Not the newer modern ones, but the older retro ones, made up of little more than a long plank anchored to the ground in the middle. There’s a certain skill required to play with a see-saw like that, right? We need to know when to lift our feet up, and when to put our foot down. Otherwise there’ll be no seeing and sawing. The plank will just remain stuck in the same position. And where’s the fun in that?

What possible connection does this have with our scriptures today? To see it, we need first to recognise that our readings have a preferred audience. They are likely addressed first to all those who groan. Those who see, suffer, and lament the terrible effects of evil in our world, and can’t help wondering why God doesn’t seem to do anything about it. Does God not care that we are perishing? That our world often looks like it’s going to hell in a hand-basket? Or maybe God isn’t in control, doesn’t have the power to change things, after all.

To those troubled by such questions, the readings offer assurance that God does indeed care, for every thing and every one. God is at once all-powerful and all-merciful. Slow to anger and abounding in love and truth. If God sometimes seems slow to act, it’s not out of ineptitude or indifference, but because removing evil prematurely may do more damage to the good. When you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. God’s apparent slowness is just another expression of God’s care. God is prudent and patient enough to wait till the time is ripe, before dealing with evil in a way that protects and advances the good. In other words, God acts like people playing on a see-saw, knowing when to lift their feet up, and when to put their foot down. Which is a great consolation for us, since evil isn’t just something out there in the world. It’s often also in here, in my own heart.

And if this is what care looks like in God’s kingdom, then our readings have a second preferred audience. It is those entrusted with the responsibility of caring for others in some way. Which is far from easy to do, right? Not least because there can be a very fine line between patience and negligence, between leniency and complicity. For example, what does care look like when I discover that my colleague or boss is accepting bribes, or embezzling funds? Or that my spouse is abusing our helper or our children? Or that a leader or minister in my parish is behaving in ways that endanger others? … However I choose to act, it’s important to prioritise the protection of those more vulnerable. To take a so-called victims-first approach.

Knowing when I need to wait, and when and how I have to act. When to lift my feet up, and when to put my foot down. As recent events in the local news have shown, this is a gift of great importance. Something for which we need to pray persistently in the Spirit, confident that our plea is in accord with the mind of God. Sisters and brothers, what must we do to help one another beg and receive from God this precious gift of the see-saw, not just for fun, but so as to truly further the good of all?

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Treasures for Transformation

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 64 (65):10-14; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-9 or 23

Pictures: By chris robert & Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

My dear friends, what’s the difference between a resource and a treasure? We know that both are valuable in some way. But we see and treat them differently, don’t we? When it comes to resources, our concern is to exploit them. To extract as much value as we can from them. We see them merely as means to an end. But as for treasures, we cherish and care for them for their own sake. It’s sort of like how a guard dog on a farm is treated quite differently from a pet dog in a modern home. The first is there mostly to provide a service. The second is actually a cherished member of the family.

Resource versus treasure. It’s helpful to keep this distinction in mind as we ponder our scriptures today. Not least because we’re so familiar with the Parable of the Sower, that it’s easy to miss what the Spirit is really saying to us. The parable focuses our attention on the relationship between the seed of God’s Word and the soil of human hearts. In particular, it highlights the power of the seed to bear abundant fruit. Provided that it falls on soil that is receptive enough, the seed will bear fruit, incredibly, even as much as a hundredfold.

How do we feel when we hear this? I’m not sure. But perhaps to hearts conditioned by corporate culture, and close to burn-out from having to fulfil the many responsibilities of daily living, this message may feel like fuel cruelly poured onto a raging fire. For if God’s Word is really so powerful, and if I still don’t seem able to bear spiritual fruit, but instead often find myself struggling just to stay afloat, then don’t I have only myself to blame? I’m just not receptive enough. Not trying hard enough. I need to do more to meet my heavenly KPIs.

To think this way is to treat ourselves as a resource. Which is very different from how the Word of God operates. In both the first reading and the psalm, before the power of God’s Word reveals itself as a demanding seed, it comes as gentle rain and snow. Tenderly caressing the earth. Moisturising it. Making it fruitful. Clearly, God treats us less as a resource to be exploited than a treasure to be cherished and cared for. And it’s only as a result of God’s care that the human heart becomes fertile. Indeed God tenderises our hardened hearts with no less than the Blood of the only Son, and the Breath of the life-giving Spirit. Gradually transforming resistance into receptivity, hostility into surrender. Enabling us even to do what all creation has been doing until now: to wait patiently, and to groan hopefully for new birth. To bear the inevitable sufferings borne by those who would be fruitful in Christ. Not moaning out of misery, but groaning unto glory. For God is neither a HR manager nor a vendor of fast-food.

If this is true, then the challenge is not so much for us to work harder, but to remember more regularly how much God has done and is doing for us. To remember not just by celebrating the Sacraments, but also by reaching out to those who groan.

Sisters and brothers, if God truly treats us as treasures rather than resources, then what can we do to find our treasure in God, so as to treat one another in the same way today?

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Of Posture & Worship

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 144 (145):1-2, 8-11, 13b-14; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

Picture: By Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

My dear friends, do you have a favourite posture for worship? For example, when we gather here every Sunday, we stand or sit, bow or kneel or genuflect. On special occasions like Good Friday, or when coming before the Blessed Sacrament, some of us even prostrate ourselves. And we know that adopting a suitable posture can help us to pray better. But if asked to pick just one favourite posture for prayer, what would it be?

The reason I ask is not because I think any one position is better than the others, but because our Mass texts suggest that, whether or not we have a favourite posture for communicating with God, God seems to have one for relating with us. Did you notice what it is? It’s stated most clearly at the end of the psalm, where we’re told that the Lord supports all who fall and raises all who are bowed down. God seems to delight in humbly stooping down from on high, so as to tenderly raise up all who are oppressed in any way. This is the posture that God adopts repeatedly in our scriptures today.

In the first reading, God does this by promising to send a victorious yet humble king to raise up a people bowed down by the horrors of war. Yet, as terrible as it is, war is not the only form of oppression. In the gospel, when Jesus promises rest to those who labour and are overburdened, he’s likely referring first to those bowed down, not by war or Roman rule, but by the egoistic religion imposed by their leaders. Not just bad politics, but bad religion can oppress too.

Nor does oppression need to come from outside of us. Isn’t it true that it’s often far more difficult to recognise and escape the kind of oppression that works within us? Those voices we have somehow internalised, insistently telling us we need to look a certain way, or attain a certain status, or mix with a certain crowd… if we are to have any worth at all. And yet, precisely because they often go unnoticed, aren’t these insidious inner voices no less effective for keeping us busily bowed down, unable to find proper rest? … Not just bad politics and religion, even poor psychology can oppress too.

And shouldn’t we include these destructive inner impulses among the unspiritual interests that St Paul talks about in the second reading? Indeed, isn’t this how we distinguish between unspiritual interests and spiritual ones? Pursuing the first bows us down. Focusing on the second raises us up. For when we heed Jesus’ gentle call to come to him, the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead raises us up as well, granting us lasting rest and peace, ushering us into the fullness of life. A life dedicated not to the feeding of fragile egos, but to the uplifting of others who may be bowed down.

All of which helps deepen our understanding of the close connection between posture and worship. Not only does the position of our bodies affect our worship, what or whom we worship affects the posture of our lives. Bad worship bows us down. True worship raises us up. Sisters and brothers, in Christ, God has stooped down to raise us up. What must we do to keep worshipping nothing and no one but God alone?

Sunday, July 02, 2023

Beyond Myth & Mechanics

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: 2 Kings 4:8-11, 13-16; Psalm 88(89):2-3, 16-19; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; Matthew 10:37-42

Picture: By Lydia Winters on Unsplash

My dear friends, where do babies come from? As you know, there’re different ways to answer this question. One way is through myth. So some say babies are delivered by storks, or harvested in cabbage patches, or even picked up from a rubbish dump. But the more enlightened among us will frown on such blatantly made-up stories. Preferring to rely on an apparently more realistic account. One that focuses on the mechanics of conception. Without going into too much detail, according to this view, life is simply the product of the timely coming together of certain anatomical parts and bodily fluids.

But beyond myth and mechanics, our scriptures offer yet another approach. One that we may call mystery. In the first reading, an elderly and rich but barren couple are miraculously blessed with a baby. How does this happen? We’re told that it’s their reward for renovating their home to welcome a prophet. Which is another way of saying that new life comes as a gift to those who make space to receive God’s word. For what does a prophet do if not speak God’s word? And not just any word, but an often inconvenient, uncomfortable, even disruptive word. A word that calls to conversion. A word that may at first feel like a heavy burden.

In the gospel, Jesus confirms this close connection between making space for God’s word, and receiving new life. In fact, the Lord wants his disciples to do more than just make a tiny space for him in some obscure corner of their lives. Instead, he wants us to make him our first priority. And even to be willing to bear the possibly painful consequences of standing with him in the bright light of truth. Which may include making space, at least in our hearts and prayers, for the poor, powerless and voiceless of this world. Again, especially to us, whose lives are often already overcrowded with many other concerns, all this may sound like a burden too heavy to bear.

But the second reading reminds us that the Cross is really less of a cruel burden than a merciful space that God has opened up, in order to usher us back into our heavenly home. A space into which we entered and promised to remain, when we submitted to the cleansing waters of baptism. When we strive to live up to our baptismal promises, and courageously bear the consequences of true discipleship, we begin to experience the Cross not so much as a burden, but more as a firm foundation and sure support. By making space for the God who first made space for us, we receive God’s gift of new life, in whatever surprising form it might choose to take.

Where do babies come from? A crucial question that haunts this super-affluent yet rapidly ageing and increasing suicidal society of ours. While the scriptures may not seem to give us a practical enough answer, they do point us in a helpful direction. They invite us to first examine our use of space, in our homes, in our hearts, in our lives. For amid the often burdensome course of our daily living, the Lord still chooses to keep passing by, yearning for us to invite him in.

Sisters and brothers, beyond myth and mechanics, what will we do to make more room to welcome Mystery today?