Monday, February 27, 2017

Dirt unites us

Ash Wednesday 2017

A lady once told me this story about her grandson and Ash Wednesday. The precocious child, too young to receive Holy Communion, would often harass his parents and grandmother and badger them with questions pertaining to the reception of communion. What incensed him was that the adults and the bigger kids were privileged to receive communion but he was rudely and cruelly excluded. The responses to his questions were always the same, “You are too young. Later, when you are bigger.”   This was an unsatisfactory answer that could not placate his growing frustration.  However, on one Ash Wednesday, his grandmother decided to include him in the queue leading up to the imposition of ashes, and unlike other occasions where he was denied something which everyone else seemed to be getting, he got a generous dose of ashes on his forehead. One would imagine that the little boy would be ecstatic and pleased. But ‘No’ - the experience got him more upset and angry. On returning to his seat, the boy turned to his grandmother and issued this complain, “Oh, Grandma. It is not fair!  When it’s something to eat, I never get a share.  See.... I only get the dirt!”

Yes, not everyone is able to receive Holy Communion today, but everyone can proceed to the front to get the dirt. Today, our bodies, our foreheads in particular, become a blank canvas in which the Church wishes to paint the Truth of our identity, about who we are and who we wish to be, about creating something beautiful and unique with this soiled, dirty and messy paint of ashes and dirt. Today we are anointed, not with oil (the biblical symbol of gladness and celebration), but with dirt. It is a strange anointing.  It is this cross that comes to mark us, as Lent begins. Ashes, dust, dirt: the stuff that we walk upon, that we sweep away, that we work to get rid of, now comes to remind us who we are, where we are from and where we are bound.

The liturgy for the imposition of ashes contains three commands found in two different options – Remember! Repent! Believe! – each of which, together with that sign in dirt, says something important about human life and identity, and helps us understand our relationship with God, our destination in life and what needs to be done to get there.

Memory plays a key part in the Christian faith. Believers are called to remember who they are and whose they are. The words, ‘Remember that you are dust’, direct us back to the very beginning, when God formed Adam, literally ‘the earthy one,’ from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Far from suggesting that we are sinful rubbish, the liturgy is reminding us, in the first instance, that we are creatures who depend on God for our very existence. We are not and cannot be completely self-defined. However much we might protest against the idea, we are creatures, and we are dependent on the God who made us.

At the same time, this ‘dust-that-we-are’ has been created in the image of its Maker. How terrible and yet how marvellous, that God should feel so tender towards the dust as to create us from it, and return us to it, breathing through us all this while. The Ash Wednesday liturgy, thus, is a call to remember the wonder of creation, the miracle of existence and the gift of life, expressing humanity’s exuberance, joy, gratitude and praise, and recognising that we are not gods but creatures, subjected like everything else to the limitations of earthly existence. The truth about every living creature is that one day we will die.

Accompanying this dirt and ashes, comes the invitation, the call, the command to ‘Repent.’ In the Old Testament, people often used ashes as a sign of repentance. They would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads, or even mingle them with their food and drink. They did this as an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time when we stop and assess how we're doing in our walk with God. Lent helps us identify spiritual areas in which we can grow and sinful areas that we need to avoid. To repent, put simply, means to turn away from sin and turn toward God.

But we acknowledge that repentance, or any change for that matter is never easy. The dirt on our foreheads would remind us that it is always a messy business. Change is difficult and it can be complicated, but it is worth all the trouble and the hassle once the change is complete. In other words as someone once said, “change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.”  If it was that easy to change the way we think or act, the world would be perfect. Consider change like a home renovation project. At first you to identify the areas that need to be improved. Once the process starts, things can get quite messy as old walls are torn down and new ones built, but the end result is something completely different and much better than what you started with. If you can stay motivated and overlook the messiness while changes are being implemented, then you will surely come out on the other side gorgeous and new, a better person for having gone through it all, as long as the changes that you make are positive.

During this Lent, something challenging and transformative can take place, if you are willing to embrace the dirt of who you are and the grace of God that would make you beautiful. As the priest or the lay minister pronounces those words and marks your foreheads, there is a moment of confrontation, of combat and assault, in which a battle is waged for your identity and your soul. You are told the painful truth about yourself, and the sinful reality of our world. And you are called to Repent! Turn around! A new way of life is offered that challenges the dominant cultural pattern of your life. 

Having turned around, what would we discover? Believe! Ash Wednesday points to Jesus Christ as the true source of meaning and identity. It bears witness to beauty and wonder, even amidst the pain and struggles of life, the ashes of history, and it calls us to live with faith, hope and love, believing that Christ can change and renew us, just as He promises to do for all of creation. Believe entails hope. Ash Wednesday and Lent encourages us to hope. Sin and death does not have the final word. Beyond that is our redemption and the resurrection. Wherever we look in the modern world, hope seems to be in short supply. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a momentous period that culminates not in a death on Good Friday, but with a resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is utterly aware of the realities of the human condition – aware of our fallen-ness, but it doesn’t leave us there. That cross of ashes with which the priest marks the believer, is not a morbid indication of death and corruption, but a lively sign of faith and hope.

So today, everyone gets to receive the dirt on your foreheads. You don’t have to be saint to earn it. That’s because though not all of us have arrived at the pinnacle of sanctity, not all of us have attained perfection in our moral and spiritual cultivation, we find comfort in knowing that all of us do share something in common – our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness and redemption. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Consider that, what we share in common as part of the human family, what unites us is our sinfulness. But there is more, because we are all sinners – the Lord has come to redeem us. That’s the good news. So, don’t be afraid to queue up and get all dirty. Wonderful dirt, marvelous dirt, redeeming ashes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

To be a "slave" of God is to be free

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I am faced with a choice between preaching the seemingly unrealistic, “Don’t worry” or preaching the perennially unpopular, “If you let money rule you, better worry.”  I believe you would agree, it is not much of a choice. So, I’m going with the second; better to be unpopular than sound unrealistic.

Our gospel passage starts off with this little saying from the Lord, “No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn.” And just in case some may speculate as to what He is referring to, the Lord nails it by adding, “You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.” No room for ambiguity or speculation here! The original “mammon,” a Semitic loan-word, is often left untranslated. But our text translates “mammon” as simply money.

To be fair, the original word does not have a negative connotation. Yes, it could refer to material possessions or to money.  There is nothing really bad about that. The word itself, however, has a more revealing history. Originally, it came from another root word which means “to entrust,” therefore, “mammon” was something entrusted to a bank, for example, or to a safe deposit box for sake-keeping. Eventually though, this meaning got twisted in a way to mean the reverse. “Mammon” came to mean, not that which is entrusted, but that in which a man puts his trust. The end of the process was that “mammon” came be to regarded as nothing less than God.

What this passage is definitely not saying is that material goods or money are bad things. On the contrary, money and security can be good. Most of us would like more of each –just in case. But, at the same time, most of us realise the limits of money and security. Money cannot secure you against death and by no means does it automatically bring happiness. Money is supposed to be our servant, not our master. We should use money instead of letting it use us. So “mammon” in itself, is not the enemy. If money is not the issue, then what is? This text is really reminding us of a choice we must all make and that simple choice is either to be a slave of God or to be a slave of mammon. Therefore, the danger to our hearts and to eternal life with God lies not in the values of this world, power, wealth, fame or pleasures, but in their potential risk for ensnarement. By setting our hearts on them, would mean that we are not setting our hearts on what is truly lasting and of great value.

The choice between Mammon and God, though always difficult, seems easy to comprehend. What seems less comprehensible is that we are asked to be “slaves” of God. There are several Greek words for “servant” but St Matthew deliberately chose the Greek word for “slave” – “doulos.” When we say “slave”, we have a rather distant historical revulsion to the word. That is because “slave” has become a dirty, evil word in our day. “Indentured worker” would have been a nicer word. If you think that’s a hard word for us to swallow, imagine how hard it was for those living in the midst of slavery to swallow that idea. Slavery reduced human beings to the state of animals and chattel, something and not someone to be owned by another, whose life and survival depended on the good will of the Master. Every rational person would logically and vehemently reject the idea of becoming someone’s slave. So, how could becoming a slave to even a most benevolent Master, God in this case, ever be a good thing?

Just like our times, the Greeks who lived during the time of the New Testament, saw citizenry and freedom as the pinnacles of life. Personal dignity was attached to freedom, being a doulos was the worst, it was the ultimate opposite. Slaves had no freedom. They had no rights. They had no legal recourse in the courts. They had no citizenship. They had no possibility of doing what they wanted to do. They weren’t asked their opinions. They had no choice about anything, not even personal issues like getting married or having children.  They owned nothing, not even the children they bore. They were totally dependent on whoever owned them. It is no wonder that free men had only scorn for slaves and slaves longed to be free.

So the idea of Jesus coming along in that world and announcing to people that they must become a slave of God, would have sounded incredulous and scandalous then, as it would now. Nobody is going to line up to become anybody’s slave. Slaves already had enough of slavery. Free men had nothing but disdain for slavery. And yet the New Testament holds back absolutely nothing. We’re called to be slaves. It is the ramifications of this status of being slaves which clarify our relationship with God. God possesses exclusive mastery over us. We are not in possession of anything which does not belong to God, not even our own lives. We have been redeemed by His Son, we have been bought with a price. We possess no status or identity apart from what is accorded to us by Him. And, that’s not really a bad thing. If being a mere slave in the household of Caesar carried great weight and prestige in ancient times, just imagine being part of the household of God – we are a royal priesthood, a holy a nation, we are God’s children.

More importantly, the slave had complete dependence on his master for everything, absolutely everything. It is here that we come to understand the rest of the passage.  Jesus presents the case for slavery to God. God will provide, so we will not need to worry about anything. Look at the beauty of nature. The birds do not sow or reap. The flowers do not work or spin cloth. Yet they are provided for by God. Human beings are worth much more than these. How could God not provide for us as well? All our needs are provided by God. This is the basis of Jesus telling us not to be anxious. But being a slave to mammon, we will have to labour and toil under the harsh whip of a taskmaster who would be constantly pulling our strings.

That’s the real irony that besets modern man. The more he seeks to be free and autonomous, the more he becomes enslaved to his own temporal desires and impulses. Let’s be honest, as much as many of us may claim that we are slaves to no one, there is a whole array of forces, both internally and externally, that shapes our decisions and our behaviour. There is always someone or something pulling our strings. Many in our time reject all authority, seeing it as an imposition on their freedom. They regard religion and God as obstacles and even enemies to their personal freedom. They plough ahead, enslaved by a flawed and unattainable notion of individual autonomy. But when we freely choose to submit ourselves to the sovereignty and authority of God, we become truly free. Only God, as a master, who respects our free will, accords us the dignity and the freedom to love Him without coercion or pressure.

There are so many whips working on us in our modern world, lashing tirelessly, desperate to prevent us from looking beyond creation to the Creator. So many people think of a relationship with God as a burden, a harsh and rigid enslavement. In order, to expose the fallacy of our thinking, it was not enough for us to be told. The Lord had to show it. He put off the regal air of His divinity and assumed the lowly and humiliating position of a slave in order to show us the liberating path of a true slave of God. This is also our journey today. It is a journey which takes us by way of the cross of Calvary, from death to life. So let us renounce our allegiance to “mammon.” Let us pledge ourselves to Christ. Let us cast off the yoke of our oppressors, whoever or whatever they are in our lives, and shoulder the load of Him whose ‘yoke is easy and whose burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). It is only in this gentle mastery of Christ, that we find true rest for our souls.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love means going the extra mile

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Once again, Jesus takes a common mentality of the Jews and their traditional teaching to a whole new level of discipleship. If faith is a journey, Jesus does not demand that His followers cross the finish line – He calls for a victory lap. When He calls His followers to emulate His example, He does not preface it with a statement like “try your best.” The Lord does not settle for mediocrity. He demands perfection. It is precisely here that we see four examples of that standard of perfection. Jesus demands that His followers go the extra mile and not just settle for the base line.

Primitive communities sometimes lived in virtual states of escalating retaliation, wherein the settling of each score, led to yet another response from one’s adversary or his family and friends. The earliest recorded attempt to limit retaliation to that which is “just” was established under Hammurabi. In Latin, it is called “Lex Talionis” — the law of “this for that” otherwise known as “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo.” Lex Talionis specified the maximum punishment allowable. It was, in fact, intended to be a merciful law. For example, you can’t demand a life as compensation for the loss of an eye. Thus, an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”

But Jesus goes one step farther when He states that there should be no retaliation at all. We have no right to exact justice on those who offend us. It is left to God alone, to judge or condemn. Justice belongs to God. In Deuteronomy, the Lord says “It is mine to avenge! I will repay!” Christ made it very clear that individual believers who are insulted for His Kingdom must bear it. In the beatitudes, those who are insulted and persecuted for the sake of righteousness and for Christ’s sake is rewarded with a blessing. There is no need for us to win every argument, to vindicate ourselves when we are wrongly accused, or to have the final word. God will have it! God will be our judge and it is He who will have the final word on the Last Day.

To further emphasise the point, Jesus communicates that there are always two ways to do something: 1) Doing the bare minimum, or 2) Doing what you are asked to do, and graciously and cheerfully do even more. The historical background to the situation of being asked to go a mile is the Roman law that required an individual from a conquered country to carry a load or pack up to one mile on foot if asked by a Roman. It was a compulsory service. It was not popular; it was hated; it was done grudgingly. The scribes and the Pharisees particularly despised these laws being used by the ruling powers. Remember Simon of Cyrene?  Here, however, the Lord tells us to go the extra mile.

Yes, the Lord Jesus turned the other cheek when He was slapped. He allowed Himself to be stripped naked, so that by His death and resurrection, He could now clothe us in His glory. Rather than paying back with evil, He offered mercy to all of us, including His persecutors and executioners. The Lord Jesus certainly went the extra mile!  He did what was required of Him. He left heaven, clothed Himself in human flesh and walked among men. He did not stop there, He went the second mile, all the way to the cross to bear our sins, so that we can walk the extra mile for His glory.

We finally come to the last saying of Jesus, perhaps the most challenging of all.  Again, Jesus turns things on their head with a saying which many people would find quite unrealistic, if not downright stupid. He actually tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can we be asked to do such a thing? Preposterous to say the least! To understand what Jesus is saying we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’. Who are our enemies? They are persons whom we truly dislike, and whom we even despise. Or they may be the ones who dislike us, hate us or despise us even if we may not share the same degree of hostility which they have against us. These are our enemies.  Yet these are the ones whom we are called to love.

What does ‘love’ mean here? The word that the gospel uses is a verb from the noun agape (‘agaph). Agape is a unilateral way of loving by which, irrespective of the actions or attitudes of another person, I desire their well-being. It is the love which God extends to every one of His creatures, irrespective of how they respond to Him. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, in Caritas in Veritate, “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.” Therefore, it is crucial to understand that love is not simply a feeling but is preeminently an act of the will. In essence, to love is to have the other person’s total welfare at heart: it is to will them good in all things, and evil in none. The point is that Christ does not command us to LIKE our enemies. He cannot. Love of this sort cannot be commanded. But, He does command us to exercise our freedom to intend the good of others, even though we have little affection for them.

Often, real love doesn’t feel good at all. Sometimes, real love doesn’t seem rewarding. Frequently, real love wounds us more than soothes our hurts and injuries. The epitome of this kind of love is found on the Cross, when Jesus asked the Father to forgive His enemies for their unwitting crime of deicide.

There is no denying, that for many of us, of all the teachings of Jesus, the mandate to love our enemies is the one that is most far reaching and difficult to live.  Jesus gives us a commandment, not a suggestion. Love for our enemies is not an ideal but rather a way of life. We cannot consider ourselves authentic disciples of Jesus unless we truly love our enemies. But loving our enemies would always be hard. Even humanly impossible. That is why prayer must always be at the heart of this very act of loving our enemies. For man it may be impossible but for God, nothing is impossible. The grace of God makes possible even this most impossible of human acts. Henri Nouwen once wrote: “There is probably no prayer as powerful as the prayer for our enemies.  But it is also the most difficult prayer since it is most contrary to our impulses.  This explains why some Saints consider prayer for our enemies the main criterion of holiness”

Yes, pray for your enemies. Not only for their conversion of heart so that they would make life easier for you. But pray for their well-being, for their happiness, for their salvation, even when there is no apparent change of behaviour.

Jesus, therefore sets apart the love of one’s enemies as the “acid test” for Christians. Yes, love your enemies. Do not seek retaliation. Turn the other cheek and give even when it isn’t asked of you. Walk the extra mile with your enemy whom you may eventually discover to be a friend.  Thus we must be constantly praying for the courage, the patience and the grace to do all these things and even more, as we remember the words of St Teresa of Kolkata, “To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbour. If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another.”