Sunday, October 29, 2023

Empowered & Formed for the Dance

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 17(18): 2-4, 47, 51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40

Picture: cc Rusty Clark on Flickr

My dear friends, have you seen an air dancer before? Businesses sometimes use it to attract customers. It’s a giant inflatable tube, shaped like a person with long flailing arms, dancing energetically. The tube is made of soft material, and connected to a powerful fan. The air from the fan powers the dance. That’s why it’s called an air dancer. Without air there is no dance. The whole structure collapses.

I find it helpful to keep this image in mind, as we ponder the greatest commandment of the Law. Or rather, the inseparable twin commands to love God with all of one’s being, and one's neighbour as oneself. For when I hear this, I tend to think too quickly of obligations I need to fulfil. Which is not exactly wrong. After all, it is said that love should show itself more in deeds than words. And yet, isn’t it possible to be so burdened by obligations as to end up suffocating love itself? Isn’t this what happens to Jesus’ opponents in the gospel? Their obsession with fulfilling obligations makes them so judgmental and hypocritical, they end up plotting to have Jesus killed. This is, of course, a failure to fulfil the obligation to love. But could it be that even before it is an obligation, the call to love is first a channel of power? Could this be why Jesus says that upon this command hangs the whole Law, and the Prophets? Like an air dancer without air, separated from love, the whole of our spiritual life collapses.

So how then to stay connected to love, so as to keep dancing to its ever-shifting rhythms? The readings show us how by highlighting two spiritual locations where human weakness encounters God’s strength. In the second reading, this happens in the community of disciples, the Body of Christ on earth. Through which the Thessalonians received the gospel in the joy of the Holy Spirit, giving them power to turn away from the worship of idols, to become servants of the real, living God. And not just power. The community also provides formation, by offering living examples of what the love of God and neighbour looks like. Models both to imitate and to become for others. Power and formation, accessible especially when the community gathers for the Eucharist, as we are doing now.

But that’s not all. The encounter between human weakness and God’s strength isn’t confined to the community alone. It also happens wherever there are vulnerable people. Such as those in the first reading. The strangers and widows, the orphans and the poor. All of whom are still with us today. Not just migrants and refugees, but all those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like they belong. And isn’t it possible to be widowed and orphaned not just by death, but also by overwork and other forms of idolatry and addiction? Even before it is an obligation, contact with and care for the poor is a privileged place to meet and be strengthened by the God of compassion, who chooses to identify with the poor.

Sisters and brothers, as people whose lives are often filled with many obligations, how shall we make space for God to empower and form us for Christ’s dance of love today?

Sunday, October 22, 2023

The First Step To Mission

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

World Mission Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 95 (96):1, 3-5, 7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

Picture: By Justin Follis on Unsplash

My dear friends, can you complete this saying: behind every successful man, there is a…? According to one version, behind every successful man, there is a strong woman. But this may sound sexist. So some have revised it to say, beside every successful man Others turn it into a joke, such as, behind every successful man, there is a… surprised mother-in-law. But, seriously, what are we really doing when we look behind someone’s success? Aren’t we engaging in an act of attribution? We attribute or give credit for what is seen in the foreground–a person’s success–to the possibly unseen work or influence of someone else, in the background. Attribution. Isn’t this what we find in our scriptures today?

In the first reading, the Persian king Cyrus has been very successful. He has conquered the mighty Babylonians, and then generously allowed the long-suffering Israelites to return from exile, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. While some may consider this nothing more than a stroke of good luck, or simply the result of a change in geopolitics, in faith, the prophet attributes it to God. It is God who has called, anointed, and armed Cyrus to save the people.

In the second reading, St Paul congratulates the Christian community in Thessalonica for having successfully shown its faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope in Jesus Christ. He then attributes their success to the power that God gave them, when Paul first brought them the Good News. Even more, Paul is moved to render praise and thanks to God. We always… thank God for you all, he says.

Faith empowering attribution, which then motivates praise and thanksgiving. Isn’t this what we find in the psalm too? What does it mean to give the Lord glory and power? How to give God what already belongs to God? In another translation of the same verse, we’re told to ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. In other words, to credit God for God’s mighty works. And then to be moved not just to offer praise and thanks, but also to worship the Lord in his temple, and to proclaim to the nations, ‘God is king’.

Allowing faith to empower attribution, which then motivates praise and thanksgiving, worship and proclamation. And, of course, by proclamation, the faith is spread further, and the cycle begins again. What do we have here, my dear friends, if not a spiritual roadmap for mission? Could this be what Jesus is referring to in the gospel, when he tells his opponents to give back to God what belongs to God? But doesn’t everything already belong to God? Again, could it be that what we’re being asked to do is to count our blessings, to credit God for all the good we have received? If this is true, then the first step to becoming a more missionary church is simply to engage in the humble and honest act of attribution.

Sisters and brothers, if we truly believe that the loving and merciful hand of God lies behind all our successes, then what must we do to give God more credit today?

Friday, October 20, 2023

Washed Over But Not Swallowed Up

Funeral Mass for Andrew Lin Fook Wai

Readings: Wisdom 4:7-15; Psalm 22; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57; John 11:17-27

Picture: By Axel Antas-Bergkvist on Unsplash

My dear friends, given a choice, which would you prefer to celebrate, a wedding or a funeral? If you’re like me, the answer is obvious. At a wedding, we are filled with delight. At a funeral, we are stricken by grief. And it’s only natural that we prefer delight to grief. But isn’t it true that, in either case, we run the same risk of being swallowed up and swept away by powerful waves of emotion? Forgetting who we are, and what we believe? Isn’t this why we celebrate this Eucharist?

It’s not just to remember the life of our beloved brother, Andrew, and to pray for his happy repose. As we’ve been doing over the past few days, both at the wake and at home, together and on our own. And as we will continue to do even after today. More than just to remember Andrew, we gather to learn to see his life in the light of the mystery we celebrate.

For example, Andrew lived for 86 years. A ripe old age. Already a cause for much thanksgiving. Yet the first reading calls us to look deeper. For to the eyes of faith, the true measure of life consists not in length of days, but in how much one has sought to please God. To do so is to find rest in the Lord, along with grace and mercy, and protection. As those who knew him can attest, Andrew was surely someone who sought to please God. He prayed daily, and followed the Sunday Mass online when he could no longer participate in person. At his peaceful passing, he was patiently waiting to make his Confession, and receive Holy Communion.

Still, we should not look for consolation only in the goodness of Andrew himself. For, like the rest of us, he too had his weaknesses. Which sometimes became more evident as he bravely endured the pains and frustrations of terminal illness. But through it all, he kept clinging to the Lord who says, I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Which means that the reward for faith in Jesus isn’t just heavenly life after death. Rather, it is fullness of life here on this passing earth. The experience of being led to green pastures and restful waters, guided along the right path, and fed at the Eucharistic banquet, even while walking through a dark valley. And was this not Andrew’s experience too? So that even our memories of his weakness become for us channels of consolation. For through them, we see more clearly the mercy and fidelity of the One whom we celebrate at this Eucharist. He who laid down his life that we might live. 

And even though we may continue to be stricken by grief, in the Lord, we receive the courage to allow its powerful waves to wash over us, without swallowing us up. For, as St Paul reminds us, it is Death itself that is swallowed up in the Lord’s victory, transformed into a doorway to closer communion with Christ and his saints. Such that, for us Christians, funerals and weddings have much in common. They both bring us in touch with the deep peace and joy that come from God alone. Sisters and brothers, how shall we help one another remain in this peace and joy in the days ahead?

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Between Nutrition & Narcotics

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 22 (23); Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-10

Picture: By Tim Cooper & Alexander Grey on Unsplash

My dear friends, how does one distinguish between nutrition and narcotics, between healthy food and addictive drugs? I’m not sure if you’ll agree, but isn’t it by considering the respective effects that each one has on our life? Healthy food is eaten to sustain life, whereas addictive drugs are used (or abused) to dull our senses, to deaden our pain, even to escape life’s demands. Nutrition energises us for life. Narcotics numb us to it. Keeping this in mind may help us ponder more deeply what we find in our scriptures today.

In the gospel, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a lavish banquet, such as the one described in the first reading. This is surely a familiar image for the Lord’s opponents. Except that Jesus adds two details to it. The first addition makes attendance at the banquet more desirable. For this isn’t any ordinary celebration. It’s the wedding feast for the king’s son. Which makes the second addition all the more surprising. The invited guests refuse to come. They aren’t interested. They busy themselves with other more practical matters. Like seeing to a business, and tending a farm. What’s even more shocking, they mistreat the king’s servants and kill them.

Again I’m not sure if you’ll agree, my dear friends, but isn’t this disproportionately violent response a sign of the true nature of those things that keep the unwilling guests so busy? Isn’t this the kind of reaction we might expect from addicts deprived of their chosen drug? If so, then what at first looks like a legitimate concern for the usual demands of daily living is really an escape from reality, an abuse of narcotics.

In contrast, what God offers is a banquet of rich food and fine wines, a marvellous spread of truly life-sustaining nutrition. We see this even more clearly in the psalm, where the same image of a banquet appears within the experience of a traveller being lovingly lead and nourished along the difficult road of life. The Lord is my shepherd. He guides me along the right path. Preparing a banquet for me in the sight of my foes. Allowing me, even as I walk in the valley of darkness, to dwell in the Lord’s own house for ever and ever.

This close connection between the Lord’s banquet and the journey of life may explain the harsh treatment of the one found breaking the dress code. For scholars say the wedding garment likely refers to the good deeds that flow from a living faith. So its absence is a sign that the guest isn’t really being nourished at the banquet. In contrast, notice how St Paul remains so contented in the second reading, even as he writes from prison. His ability to face life’s considerable challenges so peacefully is a good indication that he draws nourishment from the Lord. For there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength.

And what about our own religious practices, especially our participation at this Eucharist? To what extent does our faith sustain us for life, instead of numbing us to life’s demands? Sisters and brothers, what can we do to better allow the Lord to nourish us and our children unto the fullness of life today?

Sunday, October 08, 2023

What Belongs to God

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 79 (80):9, 12-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

Picture: By Grischa on Unsplash

My dear friends, what do vandalism and embezzlement have in common? Apart from being crimes punishable by law, aren’t they both also forms of stealing? When I vandalise or embezzle, I treat (or mistreat) someone else’s property as if it were my own. The police won’t come knocking on my door if I cover my own bedroom with graffiti. But they will, if I do the same, without permission, to the walls in my neighbour’s house, or the MRT station, or the parish hall.

In a sense, both vandalism and embezzlement are forms of theft. Remembering this may help us appreciate the meaning of the story told in our scriptures today. In the first reading and the psalm, the vineyard represents the House of Israel. The people whom God mercifully rescues from slavery in Egypt, tenderly leads and sustains through the wilderness, and lovingly settles and safeguards in the Promised Land. This is God’s vineyard. Cultivated to be a shining example, to all nations, of right worship and righteous living.

But the people turn away from God. By worshipping idols, and mistreating the poor, they disfigure God’s vineyard. Causing it to produce the sour grapes of bloodshed instead of justice, distress in place of integrity. In response, like a brokenhearted parent reluctantly allowing a drug-addicted child to face the consequences of its own actions, God lets the vineyard suffer the dire effects of its own spiritual vandalism. Israel is conquered, torn apart, scattered in exile.

In the gospel, the story is retold with a different emphasis. In Jesus’ ongoing verbal battle with the religious leaders who question his authority, the vineyard represents the kingdom of God, and the tenants the leaders themselves, to whom the kingdom is entrusted. By burdening the people with misguided interpretations of the Law, by using religion to feed their own egos and line their own pockets, the leaders have kept for themselves what belongs rightfully to God. They have engaged in spiritual embezzlement. In response, like a concerned parent replacing an abusive babysitter, God will entrust the vineyard to Someone Else. Someone who will humbly and lovingly lay down his own life for the vineyard’s healing and sustenance.

Treating (or mistreating) as one’s own what rightfully belongs to God. This is what the scriptures warn us against today. Examples that come easily to mind include our abuse of God’s green earth, and neglect of migrants and refugees. And aren’t we often misled and pressured into disfiguring ourselves and our children too? Such as when we burn ourselves out desperately trying to control everything and outdo everyone? Which is why St Paul’s wise reminder is so helpful: There is no need to worry… if there’s anything you need pray for it… fill your minds with everything that is true…  good and pure… Then the God of peace will be with you.

Sisters and brothers, if spiritual vandalism and embezzlement are indeed different forms of theft, what must we do to help one another stop stealing from God today?

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Rejecting the Path to Pool & Prison

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 24 (25):4-9; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

Picture: By on Omar Ram Unsplash

My dear friends, did you hear about that unfortunate private-hire driver who drove his car into a condominium swimming pool in February? Refusing to heed the directions of two security guards and his passenger, he drove 60 metres along a tiled footpath, insisting that he knew the way, and that the pool was only rainwater. Thankfully, apart from a few broken pots and damaged tiles, no serious harm was done. Still, for committing a rash act endangering human life, this poor chap was recently sent to prison for two weeks.

Why didn’t he listen to those who knew better? We can’t say for sure. Perhaps he was complacent. He was, after all, a professional driver. Whatever the reason, doesn’t his stubbornness mirror that of Jesus’ opponents in the gospel? Like the son who says he’ll work in the vineyard but doesn’t go, the chief priests and elders of the people pay only lip service to God. They refused to heed John the Baptist’s call to repentance, despite witnessing even the tax collectors and prostitutes repenting. And when Jesus too calls for repentance, they dare to question his authority (Mt 21:23).

Like that driver, perhaps their stubbornness is born of complacency. After all, in a sense, they too are professionals. And yet, in proudly assuming that they know the way, they fail to recognise the pattern of true righteousness exemplified not just by the Baptist, but also by Jesus. Who, though his state was divine, humbly emptied himself even to the point of accepting death on a cross. Not only does their stubbornness blind the religious leaders to the right path, it also keeps them from seeing the pitfalls of the wrong one that they’ve taken. As the prophet Ezekiel reminds us, repentance is nothing less than a matter of life and death. Not just on earth, but even unto eternity. And not just for the leaders, but also for all who follow in their rash footsteps. For if one blind person guides another, both will fall into the pit (Mt 15:14).

Complacency, leading to stubbornness, causing blindness, resulting in rash choices that endanger life. This is the dangerous itinerary that our scriptures are warning us to avoid. And this warning is, of course, particularly relevant to a religious professional like me. Something I need to continually bear in mind. Such as when I may be tempted to use my ministry to feed my own ego instead of the flock. Or to prioritise the preservation of institutions over the protection of victims of abuse. But it’s not just professionals who are prone to complacency, right? Aren’t ordinary respectable people prone to it too? Such as when we allow our hearts to be so burdened by the worries, and intoxicated by the pleasures, of life that we forget to cultivate a personal relationship with our tender, merciful and caring God. Or when we fail to ensure that the daily choices we make–at home, in school, and at work–actually match the faith that we profess here in church. 

Sisters and brothers, as that unfortunate driver eventually discovered, the way of stubbornness and complacency doesn’t bring us to a happy place. What must we do to let the Lord guide our steps along the Path of true life today?