Thursday, June 23, 2016

Never taken lightly

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Parishioners often feel frustrated by my hesitation to initiate new programmes in the parish. I can often sense the non-verbalised exasperation painted on their faces, “Why are you taking so long?” “What’s there to wait?” The answer, or some may say “my excuse,” for this hesitation lies in this little wisdom that I’ve acquired over the years – it’s easier to begin something than to sustain it over a long period of time. The initial enthusiasm launches people with a great deal of excitement, but it requires determination to maintain or finish a project. Disciples of Jesus need to know that it takes commitment.  I’m constantly reminded of the warning that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is a warning I cautiously repeat to myself and others especially when enthusiasm overcomes the reality of the hard work that is to follow. Our Lord Jesus clearly understood this and thus warns all potential well-intentioned disciples against making wild promises which they have little resolve to keep.

Today's Gospel reading begins a long section unique to Luke's Gospel. Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, which will end with his ministry in Jerusalem. Traditionally, it has been called the “travelogue”, a conflation of two words, “travel” and “dialogue.” It is a catechetical journey that would not only take them from the north to the south, but also move them from being tentative followers of Jesus to committed disciples willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. All along the way, he instructs his followers in the meaning of true discipleship. We see in this reading that the disciple must be willing to encounter rejection (“the Samaritans would not welcome him”), poverty (“nowhere to lay his head”), sacrifice of one’s previous priorities (“come away and proclaim the Kingdom of God”), and a decisive break with one’s entire past.

For those who can see portents and omens in tiny details, the poor start to this journey already forewarns us how it would all end badly with Jesus. As we had just heard in today’s gospel, immediately Jesus is met with rejection, as a Samaritan village will not receive him because he is going to Jerusalem. Jesus is undaunted. James and John want to call down fire from heaven to destroy the people in the village, but Jesus rebukes them and moves on. He’s not going to let this tiny set back derail his plans to reach Jerusalem.

The rest of today's reading is about the radical demands of discipleship. Walking resolutely along the road to Jerusalem, knowing what awaits him at the end of journey, he encounters three potential disciples who demonstrate the examples of poor discipleship, persons who possess loads of good intentions and little else. These three persons show that they do not understand the demands Jesus will make of them. Neither care of self, care for the dead, nor care of one's family (as required by the Fourth Commandment) can come before the demands of discipleship.

To the first man who makes this spontaneous promises which sounds like blank cheque, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus provides a more nuanced perspective. The man did not know where Jesus was headed and what would be involved. Jesus applied some reality and informed this first volunteer that following him involved hardships; that even the animals in the wild have more security than do Jesus and his followers. We are not sure whether such a reality check would have dampened the enthusiastic spirit of this man but it is clear that Christians are not meant to naively commit themselves to this way of life unless they knowingly and freely are able to commit themselves to the cross. Freedom is premised on such knowledge. Discipleship must always be deliberate and intentional. There are no accidental disciples.

But Jesus did throw a challenge to another man to follow him. This man, however, like so many of us scrambled for excuses. This man, who wants to bury a parent, is reminded that the demands of proclaiming the Kingdom of God take precedence. The phrase, “to bury my father,” meant more than just burying a dead father. It is quite likely that the father wasn’t dead yet and was still hale and hearty and had many years ahead of him. Thus the excuse is basically this – I have to fulfill obligations and would only be “free” to follow Christ, once I am freed of these obligations, upon the death of my family members. It is a tentative answer that would or would never be fulfilled in an undetermined time. “Yes, but not yet. Let me see.”

And the third, who wants to say farewell to his family, is reminded that once you put your hand to the plough you cannot look back or the furrow will be crooked. This man stands in contrast to the response of Elisha in the first reading. As opposed to the third man in the gospel, we have in the first reading an example of resoluteness in decision making. The act of slaughtering the oxen and burning the plough expresses Elisha’s decision to pursue wholeheartedly his new vocation as a prophet. He is burning his bridges. There is no turning back.

Most people who misunderstand this text would believe that the demands of Jesus are unreasonable. This is when Christianity is perceived as a religion which lays unnecessary and even unnatural burdens on a human person. Today’s world has canonised sin and mediocrity as the perennial human condition; thus the demands of Christ and of His Church are regarded as inhumane and a form of enslavement. The Church is constantly being pushed to lower the standards, to make it easier, lighter and certainly more convenient. Just because something is easier or lighter, does not necessarily make it any freer. On contrary, freedom can only be offered together with the gift of Truth – the truth will set us free. What the world fails to recognise is that our Lord, through his cross and resurrection, had come to free us from the tyranny of sin and the power of death. Christian freedom therefore is far from an abstract philosophical ideal. It is the result of a historical event: the victorious death of Jesus.  The freedom ultimately becomes ours when we deliberately and freely choose this way of life.

Yes, the demands of Jesus seems harsh here, but he is only asking of his disciples what he asks of himself. Jesus' unconditional commitment to God's saving work will demand of him his life. Our Lord used himself as the benchmark. Without hesitation, without flinching, without any excuse or delay, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem and made the ultimate sacrifice.

What the Lord wants of us today as he has been asking from the very beginning is total commitment. Therefore we cannot make this challenge easier by saying that it was just for a particular situation and is no longer practical or relevant for today. From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in scriptures, in the history of the Church, we have seen in the living and dying testimonies of so many Christians who have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the goal of total discipleship. They understood that there are no half measures, no turning back, not just an ideal to be contemplated, but a call that can never be taken lightly.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Without the Cross we are Nothing

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Uniquely found in the Gospel of St Luke, is the context provided for St Peter’s confession. The exchange arises from Jesus’ prayer time. Several times in the Gospel we find Jesus praying in solitude: before being tempted in the desert, when He elected the Twelve, at Gethsemane. It is as if St Luke provides us with the bread crumbs to locate Jesus. Where can you find the Lord, except in prayer? Only the experience of silence and prayer offers the proper setting for the growth and development of a true, faithful and consistent knowledge of that mystery. After this experience of prayer Jesus asks a critical question: “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus’ question tries to teach them how their faith, to be true, must be separated from the views of the world. Pope Benedict XVI explains that, “there are two ways of “seeing” and “knowing” Jesus: one – that of the crowd – is more superficial; the other – that of the disciples – more penetrating and genuine. The disciples were invited to move beyond the perceptions of the crowds. But this was not enough. They were now challenged to move beyond their own personal confessions.

In the Synoptic Gospels Peter’s confession is always followed by Jesus’ announcement of his imminent Passion. The passion predictions are not meant to be stand alone. To understand Jesus’ true identity, to understand the role, identity and mission of a disciple who is called to be a follower of Jesus, one needs to understand and assume the challenges that came with the Passion. Indeed, the titles attributed to him by Peter – you are “the Christ”, “the Christ of God”, “the Son of the living God” – can only be properly understood in light of the mystery of his death and Resurrection.

And the opposite is also true: the event of the Cross reveals its full meaning only if this man who suffered and died on the Cross is truly “the Christ of God.” If the identity of “Christ” can never be separated from his passion, then the identity of a Christian can never be separated from the cross.

Luke’s gospel adds a certain intensity to the demand of discipleship expected of those who wish to follow Christ. The disciple is not only expected to take up his cross once in his lifetime, but the cross is to be taken up ‘daily.’ The cross is thus lived in the every-day of on-going history. For a disciple of Christ to take up his cross is for him to be willing to start on a death march. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be willing, in His service, to suffer the indignities, the pain, and even the death of a condemned criminal.

I’ve heard people describe our crosses as burdens we have to bear in our lives—the chronically ill relative, the alcoholic or unfaithful husband, the demanding boss, a short temper, recurring health problems. So taking up your cross means putting up with these things, enduring them and soldiering on. We basically have no choice in the matter. With self-pitying pride, they say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.” Such an interpretation is not what Jesus meant. The cross was never meant to be a mere accident, an unwanted burden. Grudging reluctance to bear the cross daily can only lead to resentment – to see life as a curse, rather than a blessing even in the midst of our daily crosses. What made the cross salvific was precisely the freedom and deliberateness by which Christ chose to embrace and die on it.

Commitment to Christ means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, possessions, even your very life if need be for the cause of Christ. And this must be done with utmost freedom and love, rather than to assume that it is an unfortunate lot that has fallen upon us, one which we cannot avoid. The cross becomes our salvation only because we can choose to accept it and deny it. Thus discipleship becomes an act of freedom, of choosing to lose everything for the sake of the kingdom. For those who freely choose the cross, it is no longer a symbol of misfortune, a curse or an unwanted burden. The beauty of the cross only becomes apparent when we embrace it for love of Christ. Thus, we can echo the words of that medieval mystic, Thomas à Kempis, when he unabashedly confessed that “in the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross.”

It is only in recognising the necessity of the cross in our Christian lives,that we can choose to resist the temptation of fleeing from it. Our two Popes have given us a potent reminder of the pervasive necessity of the cross. In his last address to an emotional crowd, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded the Church that his resignation did not mean coming down from the cross. He must have been prophetic as proof of this is found in his continuing crucifixion by critics of the Church and pseudo-fans of Pope Francis. The latter extol the simplicity of the new Pope at the cost of tarnishing the character of the old one. They equate the Pope Emeritus with their own poor notion of the Middle Ages—dark, backward and decadent—and speak as if the saintliness of the new Pontiff is an anomaly among the Successors of Saint Peter. Pope Emeritus Benedict continues to bear the cross, not just as a misunderstood figure, a victim of a relentlessly aggressive media, but he chooses to bear the cross for the whole Church. His decision to live a monastic life of prayer within the confines of the Vatican, hidden from the world, is his free and deliberate decision to bear his cross for the Church and the World. It is a sign of courage, not a sign of cowardice; it is an act proclaiming the victory of cross, rather than resigning oneself to defeat.

It is indeed providential, that as one Pope concluded his pontificate with reference to the cross, a new Pontiff would begin his reign by speaking of the necessity of same object. The path of the Church always entails difficulties, Pope Francis said in his first homily after his election to the pontificate, and Church leaders should be prepared to embrace them. He explained that “when we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess a Christ without the Cross… we aren't disciples of the Lord.” The Pontiff therefore reminds us once again, that without the cross “we are worldly. We are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, (and I would add lay and religious) but not disciples of the Lord.”

Saturday, June 11, 2016

We may be great sinners but He is a Greater Saviour

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I’m going to make an unusual departure from the gospel story as the starting point for today’s homily. The gospel may be the preferred choice for most homilists, this being the Year of Mercy. My starting point, however, begins in the first reading. It is the tail end of a sordid tale of adultery compounded with murder. The main story-line deserves an R rating and I won’t be surprised that some of you may choose to walk out as it would seem an unfit story to be told in the presence of children. So, parental guidance is strongly recommended.

The premise of the prophet Nathan’s confrontation of King David began with the latter, seeing from his balcony the lovely Bathsheba at her bath, lusting for her, having her brought to his palace and lying with her and then arranging for the untimely demise of her husband Uriah, a loyal soldier in his army. Now had Bathsheba not become with child, David could have most likely covered up his malfeasance.  But Bathsheba did become pregnant, and David turned to scheming which eventually led to the death of Uriah. And all might have ended there for David, were it not for the insertion of a simple footnote in the text, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”

So the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David.  Many of you may have heard part one of this encounter in your earlier days, the parable about two men, one rich, the other poor, and how the rich man had taken a lamb, the sole possession of the poor man for his own purposes.  Hearing the story, David exploded in anger.  “The man who did this ought to be lynched!” 

Here the greatest king in the history of Israel, a proverbial success story of a simple shepherd boy who became king, is tarred by this indelible black mark on his otherwise seemingly pristine record. Not just a simple petty crime. but two of the worst sins imaginable – adultery and murder. What seems worse was David’s lack of repentance or ownership of his crime. There was no indication that he had regretted his actions or even felt the slightest guilt for this heinous crime. Perhaps, David was seduced by his own self-importance. Perhaps, he believed he did not have to answer to anyone as he is king. But the Lord sent Nathan to hold him accountable.

One would expect a protest or at least a lengthy defense. But David makes a simple confession, “I have sinned against the Lord.” No excuses, no quibbling, no finger pointing, no scapegoating, no public display for sympathy. God accepted David’s remorse and forgave him, but the costs of David’s action could not be undone.  David would pay a painful price in troubles that would come to his family, largely because of forces his sin had put into motion.

God did not remain aloof or silent in face of the sin and great injustice committed by David. It would not have been mercy, if He had chosen to do so. God, however, sent Nathan to David to talk about what David had done, to say that it was not “OK”, to convict David of his sin. Admonishing and correcting the sinner is never an expression of judgmentalism but rather a neessary spiritual work of mercy. But the amazing thing is the story does not end there. Our lives are formed, accountable and answerable to a gracious and merciful Father. But we are not only the accountable and responsible.  We are also the forgiven. Our sin, serious and consequential as it is, does not defeat us. We can confess the truth of our sin; we can receive forgiveness; we can start over, begin again. How?  Through God’s forgiving grace. This is the amazingly good news which we have to announce to the world today.

The story of David and Nathan in the first reading therefore sets the stage for our gospel account of the woman with the bad name washing the feet of Jesus with her own tears. There is no denying that the story is about Jesus’ immense mercy. But it is also the story of the woman’s visible repentance. There is another story that seems to be a parallel parable of mercy. It is the woman caught in adultery. There is, however, a distinction between the two stories. In the case of the woman caught in adultery, there is no indication that she felt remorse and had come before Jesus to ask for pardon. Most likely this had not taken place. It was just unfortunate that her sin had been found out and now she was forced to shamefully face the charges that had been laid against her. Sounds like a description of the Malaysian context, “there is no law until you’re caught.”

The woman in today’s gospel, however, has an entirely different disposition. She is aware that others know of her reputation. She willingly submits to the crowds’ derision and to Jesus’ host mocking stares and even judgment. She comes with true contrition in her heart. Contrition is proven by her tears. It is as if St Basil, the father of Eastern monasticism, once wrote, “Weep over your sin: it is a spiritual ailment; it is death to your immortal soul; it deserves ceaseless, unending weeping and crying; let all tears flow for it, and sighing come forth without ceasing from the depths of your heart.” Those tears were an outward sign of her inner repentance that unlocked the flood gates of mercy. Notice the irony, the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and He washed her soul with his redeeming grace and mercy. She offers Him her love, because through the gift of forgiveness, she now comes to realise how much she has been loved by the Lord.

Jesus fully understands the reason for this woman’s love for him. He provides us with the litmus test. It is those who have been forgiven much that are capable of loving much. Simon the Pharisee saw no need for forgiveness, thus his love remains small and miserly. Forgiven little, love little. David acknowledged his own guilt before God and experience an outpouring of mercy and forgiveness. This must have certainly made him a better king, not a perfect one though, but a better king nonetheless. We love God in proportion to how much we understand we have been forgiven.  Forgiveness expands our ability to love. It’s a cause-and-effect thing: His forgiveness is the cause; our love is the effect. It may indeed to be shameful to acknowledge that we are a sinner, in fact we may be a big sinner. But the good news is that we have a bigger Saviour.

In just a few moments God will reassure us of His love and of that forgiveness in a very real and personal way as he comes to us in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  Healing and forgiveness are intertwined with this banquet which the Lord prepares for us. The sick is healed, the sinner is forgiven, and incredibly the outsider is ‘invited’ not only to the table but also to enter into communion with Christ and His Church. The most undeserving of people are given a place at the table – to be heard, healed, forgiven, restored, taught, fed and to become beneficiaries of divine hospitality. There is only one criteria needed – we are sinners in need of forgiveness, in need of healing and in need of salvation. Those who think they are well, who think they have no need for forgiveness, have no place at the table. But those who come with the heavy baggage of sin, we have come so that our burdens may be lifted, our guilt removed, our sins forgiven, and to receive a new life in Christ, the One who forgive sins and restores us to our rightful place with God.