Yes to God- in thoughts, in words and in deeds

Homily for 26th Sunday in Ordinary time year A 2014

There is a beautiful and very inspiring story I have read, you might have heard this before but I’m sure it is worth repeating and you may like to hear it again. This is in fact a Christmas story but I can’t wait to share it with you.

Paul received a new car from his brother as a present.  On Christmas Eve, when Paul came out of his office, a dirty, scruffy little boy was walking around the shiny new car, admiring it.

Is this your car, mister?” he asked.  Paul nodded and said, “Yes, my brother gave it to me for Christmas.”  The boy was astonished.  “You mean your brother gave it to you and it didn’t cost you nothin’?  Boy, I wish…” he hesitated.

Of course, Paul knew or so he thought he knew what the boy was going to wish for.  He was going to wish that he had a brother like that.  But no,  what the little boy said astounded him. “I wish,” the boy went on, “that I could be a brother like that.

Paul looked at the boy in astonishment and said, “Would you like to have a ride in my car?”  “Yes, I’d love that,” said the boy.  After a short ride, the boy turned and, with his eyes aglow, he said, “Mister, would you mind driving in front of my house?”  Paul smiled a little.  He thought he knew what the little boy wanted.  He wanted to show off his neighbours that he is riding in an expensive and fancy car.

But Paul was wrong again.  “Will you stop where those two steps are?” the boy asked.  He got out and ran up the steps. A couple of minutes later, Paul heard him coming back, but he wasn’t walking fast – he was carrying his little crippled brother on his back.  Then he put his brother down on the bottom step and then squeezed up against him and pointed to the car. “There she is, Buddy, just like I told you upstairs.  His brother gave it to him for Christmas and it didn’t cost him a cent.  And someday I’m going to give you one just like that…and then you can see for yourself the pretty things in the Christmas windows that I’ve been trying to tell you about.”

Of course the ending of the story was that the brothers had a joyride together in the new car.

This is just an amazing story that I wanted it to be true. I wished I could be a brother like that because that is the kind of person that as St Paul  would love the Christians in Philippi to become in our second Reading today (Phil 2:1-11). St Paul wrote urged the Christians, and effectively, he is urging us here and now too,  to ‘always consider the other person to be better than [ourselves], so that nobody thinks of his/her own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.

This is indeed a big challenge for us because we are in the age where consumerism is a trend that motivates us to strive to ‘get something out of anything and to serve ourselves first, before others.’ This is a challenge because in the ladder of life, the topmost step is much sought- for. Sometimes, I wonder: ‘What’s wrong with being in the second place?

At times, our reason of serving ourselves first may be reasonable when we say: ‘We have to look after ourselves first you know, because, you know, we can’t give what we don’t’ have.

This is true but as a Christian we already have  not only ‘something’ but we have ‘someone’ to bring to others- Jesus Christ. And this is the will of God for us Christians to bring His message of love in Christ to all the world.

The question is are we carrying out this will of the Father?

If we are, let’s keep it up. If we have stopped, let’s do it again. If not yet, it is never too late to begin.

How we may carry out in our lives the will of the Father?

Jesus in the gospel taught us that obeying God’s will means we let our actions speak louder than our words. It also means that we make a promise only if we are sure to deliver. But sometimes, we tend to be like the religious leaders whom Jesus criticised- we are only good in promises, in new year’s resolutions but not carrying it out or not exerting effort to realize them in our lives. Doing the will of the Father therefore is to be a person whose  mind is like that of Christ as St Paul tells us again in the reading, whose words are true and of God, and whose deeds are good, loving and life-giving. In other words, to do the will of the Father is to have Christ always before us, as our mirror, our window and our point of view, in our thoughts, in our words and in our deeds. But to have Christ before us, we need to know Christ personally, we need to establish a personal and real relationship with him. To make this happen, we make it a habit to meditate on the gospels, love the Church as the body of Christ, and serve Christ who often comes to us in the guise of the poor, needy and even as an asylum seekers.

Today, we Filipinos are celebrating the Feast of our First Filipino Saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, a layman, who was martyred in Japan in 1637. San Lorenzo is one great example of a Christian whose action speaks louder than word, and whose determination to obey God’s will is undeterred. When asked by his persecutor: ‘Deny your faith, and we will spare your life,’ the saint didn’t waver. Instead he said courageously: ‘I will never do it. I am a Catholic and happy to die for God. If I have a thousand lives too offer, I will offer them to God [still].

To carry out God’s will for us also calls for a conversion of our hearts. This means as we reflect on the first reading (Ezek 18:25-28), renunciation of our sins and turning back to God. This calls for a constant examination of our conscience, humility, asking for forgiveness, and doing the good.

Why obey God’s will?

Because God’s will is for our good, for our sanctification and for our salvation. At times, God’s will is against our will. Sometimes too, it is painful and unbearable. Yet, as Jesus has shown us, if we are obedient to God’s will, God will reward us with eternal life and with glory.

We need to obey God’s will because it is the course, the track that leads to life. If we don’t follow the will of God, we are leading nowhere.

Finally, we  need to follow the will of God in our lives, because it is our only assurance of happiness, even if at times we have to face hardships, trials and challenges. Three years ago today, I lay prostrate before the altar of God, the joy of my youth, and was ordained his priest. On that day, I said  my utter ‘yes’ to God who  called me to work in his vineyard, and I went. That was my way to follow God’s will for me. I’m glad I did, because now I could only, I could never ask for more or for something else. Yes, I have had trials, challenges that seemed insurmountable, and still expecting more  to come. Yet I believe this is God’s will for me, I’m sure He is always there to be with me, as he has  been showing me ever since I responded to his call to serve him in the priesthood. Join me in thanking God for the gift of the priesthood he has shared with me. Help me pray that I may continue to be faithful to the will of God in my ministry of service. And help me pray as I pray for all of you too that we ‘could be a brother or a sister’ like that of a brother who puts the interests of his brother in need before his own.

San Lorenzo Ruiz, pray for us. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Experiencing God’s generosity

Homily for 25th Sunday in Ordinary time 2014

Part of our seminary days in the College seminary in Cebu Philippines was a day- off the seminary once a month. This was our free day when seminarians can get out of the seminary for the day to stroll around, go to the films, visit a friend or just hang out to unwind.

In one of those free days, my friends and I decided to visit some popular tourist destinations and  places to hang out around Cebu City. The first place we went to was this Taoist Temple located on a hilltop overlooking Cebu City. It was a beautiful place to unwind I must say, and still is. One thing I wouldn’t forget in that particular visit was that one of my friends threw in a couple of Philippine peso coins into the wishing well. And I think he had wished He would get it back somehow, multiplied few times over. I really didn’t think much of that. We went on strolling around the temple. After sometimes there, we  moved on to another destination.

Our next stop was this beautiful five-star hotel as one of my friends suggested just to get away from the humidity outside and chill in this hotel’s air-conditioned lobby. As we were strolling around this big lobby of the hotel we met this lady we knew personally because of her connections with the seminary we’re in. We exchanged greetings and then parted ways. But before leaving us, she gave us a couple of Philippine notes, two-thousand peso bills. I thought ‘Wow That was a quick grant for my friend’s request on the wishing well!

My friend then said words to this effect: ‘Had I known, my wish would be granted, I would have thrown more money on that well so that I’ll get more than this (P2,000 pesos), we have now.’

I’m sharing this with you because it is true that at times we expect to get more than  what we deserve. It is just part of our humanity. At times too we expect to get more than what we have put in, which is not a bad expectation per se otherwise, we wouldn’t put in for investments.

What makes this expectation a challenge for us though is when we have the same sort of  expectation for our God, when we expect God to play on our terms, when we expect God to give in to whatever we ask of him or to whatever we expect of him.

Then when our expectations are not met, we would readily complain to God: ‘God is unfair’ or ‘God doesn’t listen’ or worst ‘God doesn’t care for me at all.’

God is not unfair. He is a God of justice. However, this is a challenge we have to face as we reflect on our gospel today. The challenge here is to understand that this gospel is more on God’s goodness, mercy and generosity than on God’s justice. If we expect God’s justice in this, then we would really be disappointed. So we must not see this as God’s justice system, otherwise we could say rightly ‘He’s unfair indeed.’

We also need to understand that it is not just about the ‘owner of the vineyard’  i.e. God, but more so about the Kingdom of God, i.e. the kingdom of God being offered as a gift, as an opportunity for anyone of us to enjoy.

Another message for us on this gospel is that God does not work of merit system. No amount of work we can do to earn the gifts of God. We can’t dictate God. We can’t limit God’s mercy. We can’t tell God how He should show his generosity because his grace is a gift for us. We can’t do anything to deserve God’s gift.

What we can do however is to make ourselves available for God’s grace to flow in and through us. This means we are to real witnesses for God’s grace.

How we might realize this in our lives?

In our First Reading, Isaiah says:Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near. Let the wicked man abandon his way…Let him turn back to the Lord.” In other words let us be  persons of prayer. “God’s purpose in prayer’ says John MacArthur, “is not for us to inform or persuade Him to respond to our needs but to open sincere and continual lines of communication with Him. Prayer, more than anything else, is sharing the needs, burdens, and hungers of our hearts with a God who cares. He wants to hear us and commune with us more than we could ever want to commune with Him, because His love for us is so much greater than our love for Him.” 
― John MacArthurAlone With God: Rediscovering the Power and Passion of Prayer.

Furthermore, to be channel of God’s grace, Isaiah would urge ‘humility’, ‘repentance’ and a ‘change of heart’ for God’s grace to flow in and through us. If prayer is the line of communication between us and God, then repentance, humility and change of heart are the messages that come out of that personal communication.

Our second reading today would also offer us a way to be channel of God’s grace and to be witnesses of the love of God for us in Christ. St Paul wrote to the Philippians , not to the Philippines, I must stress this,  because I heard few people before reading “A Reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippines.” No, as far as I know, St Paul didn’t write a letter to the Philippines for two  plausible reasons: (1) We were not discovered as a country yet then and so Paul would have no idea about Philippines; (2) We were still illiterate then, so we didn’t know how to read and write, and didn’t know or hear of Christ until the year 1600 or so,  some  1,600 years after Paul had died.

But going back to the point to be channel of God’s grace is to live a life that St Paul would urge the Christians in Philippi in our reading i.e. to “avoid anything in our everyday lives that would be unworthy of the gospel of Christ.” In other words, let us live as Christ-like as we can be, enlightened, motivated, empowered and sustained by the message of the gospel. It is important to note that Paul said ‘everyday’ because this means we must allow Christ and his message be part of our day-to-day life, not just on Sunday, or on Holy Days of obligation but everyday.

Christ comes to love the unlovable, the forgive the seemingly unforgivable, to care for the neglected and marginalized, to enrich the poor, and to die for us to live. If Christ has done this, we Christians must endeavour to be Christ too everyday, towards our brothers and sisters.

Our gospel today would also offer a way to become channel of God’s grace, goodness and generosity. Matthew would urge us to respond to God’s invitation to work for him, and to be workers with him in his vineyard.  Just as the landowner went out to look for people who are looking for work, God constantly offers us ways, chances, opportunities to work for his kingdom. So for God’s grace to flow in and through we need to make ourselves available for it. We need to meet God halfway. We need to come with him. We need to take the opportunities that God lays out before us. For God, it doesn’t matter how much time and effort we have spent working for him, but on how  lovingly we respond to his invitation and how willingly we work with him.

Prayer, humility, repentance, change of heart, availability for God, and living a Godly life, are just few of the ways and opportunities God has given us to be channels of His grace, mercy, generosity and compassion. Taking on these opportunities might be a big ask for us, but if we do strive to take these challenges, then we can be assured not only of getting back what we have put in, of getting what we deserved, because God’s goodness and generosity can multiply these things millions of times over, and make them our security, our investment for eternal life and happiness forever.

 

The Cross: the ‘sacrament’ of Christianity

Homily for the feast the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September 2014)

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. We celebrate today the significance of the Cross as the ‘sacrament’ of Christianity. As a sacrament, the cross is a sign that points to us the Christ who died on the cross for our sins and for our salvation and a symbol that makes Christianity real and relevant in us.

I have mentioned few times before, the more we strive to follow Christ more closely, the more we feel the weight of the Cross, the more we realize the sufferings we have to bear. Yet, this must not weigh us down, rather this must be a source of  encouragement for us because as Fr Frank Moloney SDB would put it: ‘The Cross is the place where we see how much God loves us, and where we see how much Jesus loved his Father.’ So the cross is a concrete expression of God’s love for us. Thus, the cross is to  be exalted. It is to be celebrated. It is to be embraced.

The cross comes in many ways, in many forms, through people around us and through situations unfolding before us. For me, it comes through the many times of difficulties and challenges I had to face and overcome. It also comes through the many difficult times of trials and sufferings of the people I loved and cherished. At times, I can’t help but say in my prayers: ‘Lord, why do you answer my prayers for other people, but not my prayers for my own family or for myself?

I might seem to be selfish of me in that but it’s true that at times I feel the cross I had to carry is that heavy to bear. However what keeps me going is the truth that in Christ, the cross no matter what it is, or how heavy it is, it has great value, it has meaning, it sustains life, it is life as a Christian.

So to exalt the cross, we need to carry it with Christ. Therefore, we must never give up carrying our own Cross just as Jesus didn’t give up the cross.

How not to give up carrying the Cross?

First, we reflect on the First Reading:  If things don’t go on our way, let’s trust that God has something better for us. In our first Reading however, the people of Israel took matters into went against God by their complaining. They lost patience. And this is one enemy of trust. They forgot to trust that God has been leading them all the way in all events of their life as a chosen people. But thanks be to God, He showed the Israelites He is still their God and He never left them despite their complaints against him. He showed them, he still cared for them by giving them opportunity or another chance to live.

This teaches us therefore that to carry our cross faithfully and to never give up is to turn to God in repentance and humility, to look up to God for help, for support, to acknowledge  our weaknesses and dependence on  God. Another message of the cross as Fr Pat O’Sullivan S.J. would suggest is that ‘when we experience negativity in our lives, in whatever form it takes, we do not transmit that negativity on to others, but take it into  our hearts and transform it, so that it becomes a source of life for us and others.’ (Prayer and Relationships: Staying Connected- An Ignatian Perspective,p83)

Second we take into heart what we declare as a response to our Responsorial Psalm today: ‘Let us not forget the works of the Lord’. If we feel the Cross is too heavy for us, let’s  trace the story of our salvation, on how God walked with us and still does, in every moment in history, directing all our ways, giving us the proper care, the blessings, the guidance, the graces we need in our journey. Let us just remind ourselves always ‘how many things God has given us, blessed us, and graced us with, even without us, asking for them?’ If we learn to count our blessings, the cross would be lightened, and even gives more meaning in our Christian life.

Third, we reflect on Gospel and on the second reading today: Let us renew our faith in Christ as our only Lord and Saviour, the one upon whom God’s riches is dispensed, the ‘way, the truth and the life’ for us. He is the one who makes the cross a sign and a symbol of our redemption. He is the one who changed the meaning of the cross from being a punishment to a reward for true and everlasting life. Only in Christ that  we can see  that the Cross has not the final say. In Christ, we realize that the cross is only but a necessary gateway to life. Because of Christ, the cross has become exalted and thus worthy for our celebration. Thus, it is important to have Christ and the cross together for apart from Christ, the Cross has no meaning at all.

So let us not give up on the Cross, rather, with Christ let us carry it everyday, celebrate its significance in our lives, as well as we continue to live in the hope for the life beyond the Cross.

I would leave you with a reflection on the beauty of the cross by St Andrew of Crete. He said:

So great and outstanding a possession is the cross that he who wins it has won a treasure. Rightly could I call this treasure the fairest of all fair things and the costliest, in fact as well as in name, for on it and through it and for its sake the riches of salvation that had been lost were restored to us.

Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.” (from the Office of Readings # 2 for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross)

We, Christians have the cross to be the sign and symbol of our Christian identity, just as a flag is a symbol to our national identity. It is a great gift and a privilege for us. Let us cherish this, say it with devotion and  celebrate its salvific value, and be proud of it as our Christian identity- in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.