I remember an old thriller of a movie, where a man joins an organized group of criminals. When the crime was done and the spoils were supposed to be divided among them, one of them, the villain, unexpectedly pulls a fast one on everybody else leaving them all holding an empty bag. The villain, in the end, had this to say: "Amateurs should not play games with professionals!" And he made a clean escape with all the booty in hand.
Amateurs, indeed, should not be playing games with professionals. Lambs should not gambol about with wolves ... For one, wolves don't gambol aimlessly. No, they go for the kill, and they are expertly, deadly skillful at what they do, initially stalking silently their prey, and then would pounce and pursue on the hapless clueless gentle lamb, that ends up as a pack of wolves' lunch.
I must confess at times I feel more like a lamb in the midst of wolves in certain areas of the vast human enterprise. In a world that abounds in con artists and salespeople dead set on making a quick sale, I, am more of a clueless buyer, than a successful entrepreneur. I buy in, and fall, head-first, into a waiting trap. And I know others, too, who end up buying something they realize they have no need for.
Sometimes, I feel more like a lamb, unable to rightly and justly boast of what I can do and am capable of doing. Today, St. Paul tells us that it is OK, at times, to boast and boast bravely.
Sometimes, too, I feel like a lost lamb, wandering in the prairie world of professionals who seem to know everything there is to know about the business, and I am caught up with my little pocket calculator, wondering how on earth congressmen and other politicians who receive no more than 60 K for monthly official salary, can afford to live in style in the Philippines and abroad.
Sometimes I feel like a lowly lamb, unable to connect with the digital natives of my times, who seem not to be afraid of pushing buttons and manipulating images in capacitive or resistive touch screens. The young nowadays move along in techno country, oozing with confidence , that we who only played with empty milk cans, and useless pieces of driftwood, never had.
But today, as an educator, as a teacher, preacher and presider at this assembly, as a priest, prophet, and king, like unto Christ the one, true Mediator and Savior, I am called precisely to be like a lamb, and go right into the world of wolves, to save at least some of them.
As a humble lamb, I need to claim the glorious liberty of the children of God, and boast rightly in the Lord ... No, not about me, but all about Him who saved me and who is my strength, my savior, and my Lord.
The world I live in is more than just a wolves' den. More often than not, I feel like an amateur moving in a world populated by professionals in every imaginable field. I am weak. I am ill-prepared. I am ignorant of so many things.
But there is something that is abundant in this world of professionals, in this world of heroes and heels ... The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few. The Lord needs help to save this world. The Lord could use an extra pair of hands, and a generous dose of heroism and zeal.
I am afraid. Still. Shaky before the powerful and the learned, I shudder at the so many things that need to be done. But allow me to boast today, like St. Paul ...Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you.
Yes, even the lowly lamb in the presence of ravenous wolves can have ultimate victory. And it comes, not from the lamb's innate power and strength, but from the strength of him who has called me to be a priest in His name, in His person, on His behalf. May I never boast except in His name!
TUNING OUT IN ORDER TO TUNE IN: SAYING NO TO EVERYTHING THAT IS NOT LIFE
Our contemporary language is chock-full of insights about what we value, about what we consider as important above all others. There was a time when we were told to tune in to a particular radio program, or to a particular TV channel. When there were but few choices available, we were advised to tune in. It was just a simple matter of turning the dial, and placing the arrow on the exact spot that corresponds to the desired radio frequency (which was either AM or FM).
In our times, we speak more of the need to tune out. With an almost endless array of choices; with so many products to select from, our capacity for freely making choices means that we first need to tune out or zone out in order to narrow down the list. We literally need to un-clutter our lives first before we can make order come out of chaos.
Tuning out and tuning in both have to do with the capacity for, and the actual use of, our personal freedom.
Freedom to follow Elijah is the subject of the first reading. As soon as Elijah threw his cloak over Elisha, the latter unhesitatingly un-cluttered his life, said good-bye to what bound him to his past, and followed Elijah as his attendant. We are told explicitly: Taking the yoke of oxen, Elisha slaughtered them, used the plowing equipment to boil their flesh, and gave it to the people to eat. He tuned out before he tuned in, and focused on becoming a prophet like Elijah was.
Paul, for his part, takes up the same icon of the yoke that Elisha burned, and advises the Galatians to set themselves free. But for them to be truly free, they first need to zone out of situations that enslaved them. Only then could they really focus on genuine freedom. In effect, Paul tells them to be free from in order to be free for. He counsels them to liberate themselves from the "law of the flesh so that they could live by the Spirit. Again, we may speak of his thoughts in terms of tuning out so that we could tune in to what leads to genuine interior freedom.
The Gospel of Luke links up this interior freedom with the call to discipleship. For a disciple to be genuinely free to follow the Lord, he has to tune out three things in his life.
First in the list is the need for safety, comfort, and security. He tells the enthusiastic applicant who asked to follow him wherever he went: Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. In effect, he tells him to tune out first from all your cares and tune in to the demands inherent in being a disciple.
Second in the list is the need to zone out of all excuses, rationalizations, and alibis, legitimate or otherwise. Various concerns and personal ambitions, wants, and desires always tend to crowd out the feeble desire in the human heart to do good. One always will find a reason to delay, to postpone, to hem and haw, and to push ahead and pull back at one and the same time, when it comes to doing something difficult but necessary. Focus isn't possible when we are too caught up in so many conflicting concerns at one and the same time.
Third in the list, which is perhaps the most difficult of all, is the need to tune out of so many attachments, affections, and emotional bonds that tie up the human heart. With so many conflicting allegiances, so many loyalties that claim for our undivided attention at any given time, we need to narrow down the field of choices a little bit. We need to lose some in order to win some. We need to let go if we are to let grow that feeble desire to do something really marvelous for God and others. No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.
Our postmodern and globalized world has definitely made our field of choices wider and broader. Endless choices mark our entertainment world. But our interior freedom to make wise choices may have narrowed down considerably. In many cases, commercial advertisers may really have decided already for young and old alike. For many young people, who live in the midst of so much peer pressure, there may not be any interior freedom left to speak of when it comes to deciding to behave and act any differently from what the world of young people all over the world expects.
The call to discipleship, that is, the call to follow Christ truly, fully, and meaningfully, is basically a call to heighten and broaden our freedom. But before we can be free for Christ, we need to be free from so many constraints that pose as obstacles to fully following him. For us to be able to tune in to God, we very literally need first to tune out to so many things that do not lead us to Him.
At this juncture, I am reminded of the extended essay "Walden Pond" written by the American writer Henry David Thoreau. He writes about his going to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately. He speaks about cutting a broad swath and saying no to everything that was not life. He purposely tuned out in order to tune in and to front the essential facts of life.
He actually speaks of the very same stuff we are speaking of right now. He refers to the need for anyone to tune out or zone out of so many superficial and many times conflicting concerns that tend to crowd out the absolute essential of life.
Today, our readings remind us of this essential. And this essential is all about God's call for us to follow Him. For us to do so, we need to un-clutter our lives. We need to say no to everything that is not discipleship. We need to tune out, in order for us to tune in. Free us, Lord, from darkness and keep us in the radiance of your truth.
Many years ago, the words used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a big dent in my mind. He talked about cheap grace and costly grace. Before I proceed, let us get it straight from his mouth: cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline; communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.
It is all too easy for all of us to look only for the former, and ignore the latter. Why not? It is nice to be comfortable and safely ensconced in our seats. It is hard to rock the boat and even harder to suffer unnecessarily.
That is not what I gather from the readings today. The first reading from Zechariah speaks about the Lord pouring out grace and petition, that is, something pleasant and unpleasant, something that would lead to gratitude and mourning at one and the same time ... growth as much as purification; mourning in the heart and fervent petition from within.
I have personally been through tough times in my life. I have been through happy times, to be sure. It all comes in a package called the gift of life. Sometimes you're up; sometimes you're down. Now, it is cheap grace ... (Thank you, Lord!); now it is costly grace ... (My Lord, and my God, help me!)
But whether I am drenched to the bone, cold and chilling to the max, or high and dry and reveling under the warmth of the sun of people's care and concern, I am led to the same prayer that we had after the first reading: My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God!
God's people had its share of grief and mourning. Today Zechariah prophesies more of such. St. Paul says as much, reminding the Galatians that baptism cannot be had without discipline, that we were all baptized into Christ and that we all have clothed ourselves with Christ. Baptism is cheap grace - insufficient by itself, incomplete all by itself. Christian life needs to be gritty. It needs to have substance. It needs to have bite. It needs more than just fiduciary faith. It thrives on performative faith, and when one stands up to perform, then one had better be prepared to be pelted by life with tomatoes and everything else besides!
I have been pelted with more than just tomatoes in my life. Do good. Strive and work for the good, and just as surely as night follows day, criticism and dissatisfaction will follow suit. St. Paul knew it all: the factionalisms among the Corinthians, the division of the early Christians between those who rooted for him and those who rooted for Apollos ... Name it, Paul experienced it ... floggings, imprisonment, shipwreck and all! This is the same Paul who begs us now never to focus only on cheap grace, but work also for costly grace: no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
One day, at perhaps a low moment in Christ's life, the Lord made a little survey ... Who do the crowds say I am? Perhaps he, too, was looking like we all do at times, for a little affirmation, a little reassurance ...
But know what? When Peter told him the best, the utmost, the highest ... You are the Christ of God! he capitulated. He got back to form and said the unthinkable. He did not want to remain with the cheap grace of shallow accolades, and even shallower appraisals of people around him.
He chose costly grace. And he began to talk about substantial matters ... the very reasons for which He was sent, the reason for which He came ...
The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised!
Lord, in my selfishness and desire to look for the easier way out, help me! Bring me back to form and lead me to work, not only for cheap grace, but for costly grace! My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God!
Need I say more? For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
I rest my case ... I want your grace in whatever form!
I was reminded of that movie some two years back: Eat, Pray, Love ... It is a story of a confused woman who went around the world trying to rediscover herself, and eventually came home to herself, and to relative peace of mind and heart by eating well in Italy, praying deeply in India, and finding what was supposed to be true love in Bali, Indonesia.
So, what does this have to do with today's readings? Not much, you say? But my Catholic, sacramental imagination shows me some important connections ... Allow me to explain ...
Well, for a start, it was a woman that was behind the indiscretions of David. He wiggled his way to be able to do what he desired - and sinned - big time! Enough connection for you?
But the gospel speaks of another woman ... confused? Probably! ... sinful? Definitely! In search for something great and noble? Absolutely! There you have it! Connections galore!
But today, chauvinism is not my topic. Woman or man, servant or free, child or adult, Jew or Greek, Filipino or Indonesian ... it doesn't matter one wee bit. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. We all have sinned. Big time!
This is why I love the response ... After getting convicted and being reminded just how wicked we all could be - whether woman or man - we all prayed: "Lord, forgive the wrong I have done."
"I have sinned against the Lord!" That was David's laconic understatement of the century! But laconic or not, David did tell the truth. He sinned big time and caused big trouble for Uriah, who even suffered an untimely death, for being an obedient soldier loyal to his King!
But today is not a day for us to gossip about David's indiscretions. Today is not a day to glorify Aries Rufo's "scoop" about the sins of the Fathers in the Philippine Church, never mind if the stories he says are old stories being rehashed one more time for the nth time. Today is not a day to focus on the sordid, the obvious, and no doubt pathetic and lamentable.
Today, the readings talk about grace. Today, the readings focus on forgiveness. Today, the readings pore on hope, as much on the pain of sin, as the possibility of grace and new life!
St. Paul puts it so nicely ... a former persecutor, sinner and everything else in between, he now says with pride ... "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me!"
That sinful woman with a flask of perfume in hand, was in search. I don't know whether she was confused, but she definitely had focus. She knew what and whom to aim for. "She stood behind him," the gospel says and began bathing the Lord's feet with her tears, and wiping them with her hair. That has nothing to do with confusion, but with personal consternation for her own sins, for which she is now repenting! She must have sinned big time, to do something even bigger - to barge into a dinner party of the Lord and do the unthinkable!
Again, my Catholic, sacramental imagination runs wild ... What could the chauvinist men of the times and of the place have thought and said?
Never mind the intrigues! Never mind the potential disbelief and surprise of whomever! Never mind the telenovela-like details of this surprising story!
Let's focus on the great lesson of the story ... the same lesson that David the big sinner learned, the same lesson that Paul, the big persecutor also learned, the same lesson that now this woman of ill-repute, but repentant as one could be, teaches us ... the lesson that Pope Francis has been telling us since he became Pope ... God never tires of forgiving us. It is us who tire of asking His forgiveness.
Sweet words of comfort, these are ... as real as they are reassuring ... "Your sins are forgiven" ... "your faith has saved you; go in peace!"
Who needs to go to Italy, to India and to Bali? We can have them right here. Right now. Grace. Forgiveness. Love!
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) June 5, 2016
GOD CARES; GOD CALLS!
We are back to good, old ordinary time, the longest "time" of the liturgical year. But it is anything but ordinary. In these so-called "ferial" days, extraordinary things can - and, in fact, do - happen!
Take it from the distraught widow of Zarephath with whom the prophet Elijah was staying. Curiously, the boy grew sick "until he stopped breathing," as the first reading says. Right on the days when a prophet was in the house, staying as guest! Thw widow complains, "Why have you done this to me, o man of God?" The prophet complains to God in his turn, "O Lord, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?"
God knows how many times I have complained to the Lord! How many times I have lamented this or that! It makes for good prayer, I tell you! When one is in front of undeserved suffering, I become prayerful. I don't know about you, but even Pope Francis says the same ... "lamenting is a form of prayer." "It is not a sin," he says.
But then again, I don't know about you ... But the more one prays; the more one laments to God; the more one begs God to take away this or that, the more He intervenes in our lives!
Take that once again, from Paul, who complained about his "thorn in the flesh." The first reading tells us how God cares, how God is moved to help a woman in distress, a widow, at that.
Oh, yes, God cares! See what happened to the saints like St. Teresa of Avila. At a very difficult moment in her life, she complained, "If this is how you treat your friends, then I am not surprised you have so few friends!" God cares, indeed! And see how He has afflicted me. See how He has intervened in my life. I have suffered so much for the Church, and because of the Church ... for the congregation, and on account of the same congregation.
Let me put it bluntly. God cares ... But in the same breath, God calls! God comforts the afflicted, but God afflicts us in our short-lived comfort!
I complain all the time. I lament each time the afflictions come ... once too often, I guess! But behind all these laments, all these complaints, I hear a call ... a call to probe into the deep ... Duc in altum! ... a call, too, toward the heights ... ascende superius! ... a call to greater love, to greater generosity, to a more authentic spirituality.
I still suffer for the Church and on account of the Church. The most uncaring people could come from religion and religious life. But the most loving people could also come from where my afflictions originate!
I just came down from a hike up Mt. Pulag, up in the Cordilleras, my fifth climb in that beloved mountain. Our obligatory guide (even if we needed no guide!) was an old man in his 70s. I pitied him as much as I admired him. I was elated to know he was related to the fabled "Apo Usok" of decades ago, who was chieftain up on that mountain village near the equally fabled mountain. He did his role dutifully, even religiously! Old men like him should be living a life in relative comfort, I thought!
But no ... being myself no longer a spring chicken, I cannot be comfortable. In a world where God is being eclipsed by hedonism, materialism, and runaway materialistic, mainstream media enveloped in an equally runaway culture of show business, where God is by no means featured, let alone, accepted, I cannot be comfortable. God continues to afflict me. God cares, but God calls, too. He beckons us all to engage in new evangelization, to help Him save a world now sold out to the good news of consumerism, comfort and cold godlessness.
The son of the widowed woman of Nain represents the world of young people who now are for all intents and purposes, dead - dead to God, dead to higher values, dead when it comes to a culture of life and a passionate dedication and commitments to things that are above.
When God cares, He calls - to life! "Young man, I tell you, arise!
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.