Sunday, January 29, 2012

“but deliver us from evil”

At each celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the celebrant invites the congregation with the words “And now, as our Savior Jesus Christ has taught us, we are bold to say…” and the whole praying assembly then recites the Lord’s Prayer. Assuming that you have an exemplary Sunday attendance, you would have said it at least 52 times in any given year. 

And if your churchmanship includes a daily recitation of it, you would have done this for 365 days. Plus one day, if it’s a Leap Year.

There is a phrase in that prayer that I have found of great interest. It’s the one that says:
“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Do you think of a specific “evil” that you want to be delivered from? In other words, “ What comes to your mind when you say “but deliver us from evil”? Do you think of “evil” in terms of its global implications as in global terrorism? Do you think of “evil” to include atrocities conducted by gangs, felons or drug dealers who destroy so many young lives? I’d like to know what comes to Shirley’s mind, when she says  “but deliver us from evil” knowing that her purse was lifted last Sunday.

When we say the word “evil”, we can associate it with many things, places and people. But it’s not common for us to associate it with the setting where Jesus at one time met “evil”— in the synagogue, in a place of worship that we, Christians, would call “church”! We usually think of such places as holy and sacred and, therefore, a place where “no evil can reside”.

The church, where religious people gather, where the Word is preached; where faith is taught and God is worshiped is not where you encounter “evil”. This is an affirmation that Christians continue to hold dear in their hearts but which, every now and then, gets blemished by all sorts of scandals. Much to our surprise, the very institution where evil is decried and evil is preached against, evil is pretty much alive, well and actively engaged.

Have you seen the movie “Doubt”? If not, rent and watch it. This movie is about a nun who was beginning to “doubt” the over fondness of one priest to a young Afro American pupil.
The plot of this movie alludes to actual stories of how evil has manifested itself in the Church in the form of child sexual abuse – and the institutional cover-up that has so often followed it.

Or how about the media coverage about a group of fundamentalist Christians who held “God-hates-fags” rallies at the funeral services of honorable young servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan?

If you have seen these images, you have seen “evil” at work through the church even while the church thinks it is opposing evil. Sometimes it is not until long after the evil has inflicted itself on innocent people and destroyed their lives that we become aware and realize that what we deemed so right was actually so terribly wrong.

 While there’s no doubt that we continue to defend the integrity of the church, there is, however, a steady flow of sinfulness that creeps on the whole body of believers!  Hence, it proves to be difficult for religious people to see evil at work within and through our own self-righteous selves.

The gospel lesson we just heard is quite interesting; especially with the implication it has with finding evil in the church. What we have here is a story about a demon crying out from within a man in the synagogue blurting:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us?”

Notice that Mark the Evangelist has no record of Jesus doing anything unusual to provoke this outburst from the demon. All we are told is that Jesus taught and he must have done an excellent job since the worshipping community really admired him. They said he did it better than the scribes. Then Mark adds that soon thereafter, a man with an unclean spirit cried out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us?”

Was there anything wrong with what Jesus said? Perhaps, the reason for this outburst could be found in what he said. Reading between the lines, we could very well claim that there was. We know that all of Jesus’ teaching centers on the one foundational doctrine, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Basically, Jesus’ teachings are founded on this; that we should “love the Lord your God and your neighbor”. This, we are told, sums up the whole of the law and the prophets. This truth, the very thing God requires of us, was the one that must have caused the demon that possessed the man in the synagogue to go ballistic! The demon blurted: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

Now there is a great truth to be found in these words spoken by the evil spirit – a truth that every person here today needs to listen to and take seriously. The “evil” one, personified by the demon that possessed this man, revealed what it is most afraid of, and how we can defeat the “evil” one! It’s the message: “Love God, and love your neighbor.”

 I realize that this appears to be a simplistic claim but I’m quite sure that there is nothing that frightens evil more than that message. When the demon heard those words in the synagogue that Sabbath, the demon knew its days were over. Why? You see, here is how evil operates. First, by converting our love of God into love of the Self, and then by turning neighbor against neighbor. Evil begins to flourish when we convert our love for God into self-love. How? Think for a minute. What happens when we make that shift? The answer is quite obvious.  When the prime motivator of everything we think and do shifts from our being the child of God, whose purpose in life is to love God and God alone, to our being the “Master” of the Self, we end up turning against each other! In other words, when we convert our love of God to the love of Self, evil begins to reside in our being and we distance ourselves from God farther and farther.

Yesterday, as we were heading back to Holy Child & St. Martin’s in Daly City, I made comment to both Anne and Faye about the fact that the church site was one if not the best location in that city. Back then in the early 50’s, those who came out of the church building would have had an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. What a great sight!

Times have changed. Their site has, as well. For financial reasons, the church sold that part of their property and today, there are houses obstructing that beautiful view. You now have to navigate a bit in order to have a good view of the still and serene body of water. Back when I was their Vicar, each time I walk toward that church, I always think back at the time when the congregation of what was then known as St. Martin fell in love with the gift of property given to them by the developer Mr. Doelger and how they enjoyed the fruit of his vision about the layout of the land.

I make mention of this change as an example of how our lives are radically altered when things clutter or obstruct our usual beautiful relationship with each other. When we lose sight of the primacy of God in our lives and supplant it with the love of the Self, we also open other doors in our lives from which the Evil one could enter. When we allow that to happen, when evil gets a foothold in our lives, we turn against each other, neighbor turns against neighbor, and the cause of God in our lives is thereby diminished.

 The worse part is that that radical change does not only take place in our individual and private lives but also in the life and work of our collective gathering, the church. As implied in the reference I made about the movie “Doubt” there had been cases of “evil” getting foothold in the church; in the very lives of church leaders who vowed to be icons of God’s love to others entrusted to their care. That supplanting of the love of the self may have allowed them to shift from the primacy of God in their lives to something else.

This could be one of the “evils” in the church that we pray to be delivered from. There are, indeed, other stories of scandal that rock the church and they’re not limited to those who have the vow of celibacy. Such scandal happens and there are other occasions of the blurting of “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us?”

One evil in the church that we hope to be “delivered from” is the evil of indifference that continue to be felt in the church. This is manifested in the church’s silence when their prophetic ministry is badly needed in order to address peace and justice issues. There is that indifference to the plight of those who face the danger of persecution simply because of differences in their culture; racial or otherwise. There is also that evil of smugness and of complacency brought about by the love of the self and the status quo rather than the love of God. If we open our eyes and our ears and our hearts, we will hear other stories; stories of the reality which otherwise would not have been told.

And so, the next question that we most likely would ask is: “How do we fight against that”? If Jesus’ message of radical love based on the summary of the law was indeed the reason for the demon’s blurting, perhaps we could follow the same line of argument and claim that in order to disarm the power of evil, we need to re-commit ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbor. I believe we can buy this logic, can’t we?

My friends in Christ, we need to bring back the centrality of the love of God in our hearts and in our lives. We need to let the love of God reclaim our lives. We need to allow the very Body of Christ that has somehow got so overly divided be healed from the sinfulness it is guilty of. We need to cast away the works of darkness with the words of God’s love and forgiveness. We need to redefine the mission of the church to include a stand against peace and justice issues.

Indeed, if we pledge our lives as based on God’s love we then could silence the very “demons” that may have lurked somewhere within us.  We need to pledge to live a way of life with Christ at its center and loving God and neighbor as its only work.

Recall, once more, the story of Jesus casting out the demon from the man in the synagogue. Whatever Jesus told the “evil” one, and I’m sure it was based on the love of God and loving the neighbor, however he said it, it must have had the power to set him free from the evil powers that threatened to destroy him. The man became well, and whole, and set free to live life for all it’s worth. So could we, if only we are bold enough to defy the allurement of shifting from the love of God to the love of the Self. And so could the church. If she makes anther misgiving, repent form it and allow the love of God to once again underscore all her undertakings. May the Church, with the primacy of the love of God in their collective disposition, be healed and renewed.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Leaving Things Behind

A little over a month ago, residents of two communities were struck by a major disaster. Tropical Typhoon Wasi, better known in the Philippines as Typhoon Sendong, was a late-season tropical cyclone that caused catastrophic damage to the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, in the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. 

Hundreds of unsuspecting victims perished in that tragedy and because it happened in the middle of the night, some literally “died in their sleep”.

Media coverage about the December 16 and 17 tragedy were immediately made available worldwide. One video, taken the day after the calamity, was about the rescue made by four sailors dispatched by the captain of their vessel upon their gaining sight of persons floating alongside tons of debris. This video captured the touching moment of the saving miracle through the hands of these four able bodied sailors.

What caught my attention in this video was how this particular girl, the last one to be picked up, had difficulty in clinging to the lifesaver buoy thrown at her. The reason behind that difficulty was because she was holding on to a box of something she must have considered very important.

She grasped it as though her life depended on it as it did quite literally. She had hard time letting go of the box but finally did after being repeatedly coached to let go of it. Then and only then was she able to haul herself up to the boat safe and sound. Only then was she able to benefit the more important opportunity to enjoy life, which she could have easily lost, had she continued holding on to that box rather than the lifesaver buoy.

This video is a good example of the sad reality of how people, especially at times of calamity, desperately try to salvage things that they consider important. And I’m sure you must have seen similar images.

From the ones I’ve seen in the past, there was one who tried to save a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; one old man was carrying a baby girl and then there was one that, of all things he could have picked up, tried to save a “piglet”. It must have been the most important thing he could think of.

Indeed, there are those times when we’re pressured to take with us things that we think will benefit us in the event that we survive; things that we might have guarded too well; the ones we consider the most precious. While they may have been our choicest possessions, there are times when they, too, might have to be intentionally left behind along with the ones that, by necessity, have already been. A reality check will tell us that sometimes, leaving something behind can be one of the most difficult things we will ever do.

Two of our Lectionary Readings for this 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany are stories of “leaving behind”. The first comes from the Gospel lesson (Mark 1:14-20) and is easy to notice. Here we find Simon and Andrew “leaving behind” their nets upon their invitation by Jesus to become fishers of people. There’s also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who not only “left behind” nets and their boat, symbols of their trade, but also the very symbol of family, Zebedee, their father. The second “leaving behind” story, however, is not as clear as the first. It actually is “imbedded” in the Jonah Story, assigned as our OT Reading for today (Jonah 3:1-5,10). I used the word “imbedded” to connote that it’s there somewhere, hidden, assumed, buried. We need to dig it out and perhaps a good way of doing it is to take a refresher look at the whole Jonah story.

The Book of Jonah is fairly short; four short chapters. When you get the time, please read the entire book so you’d appreciate more this “leaving behind” that I’m talking about.

Jonah was a Jew and a true believer of God. He knew that his God was a loving and forgiving God. Jonah knew that his God is capable of welcoming back those who have turned their back at him as well as those who have not known Him yet. This was what Jonah was afraid of when he was first asked by the Lord to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. He knew that the LORD will get His way and so he fled from Him.

And why would he disobey what the LORD wanted him to do? Remember Jonah was a good Jew, one among those who believed that they were God’s chosen people. On the other hand, the people of Ninevah were the Gentiles, “those” people. So, why would a good Jew like Jonah preach for their repentance? He’d rather see them doomed to perdition. A good Jew, at that time, would rather see them end that way. He must have been deeply worried that if “those” people would indeed turn to the LORD, the Ninevites would then be among them, the chosen ones and you bet, Jonah thought he better flee from the LORD.

That’s the reason why he wanted to flee from the LORD the first time. But the loving and forgiving God would not quit. As the story is played out in Chapter 1, Jonah fled to Tarshish, got into a huge storm, got tossed out and finally ended up in the belly of this great fish where he had his “discernment” and his conversion.

It’s in his prayers, in Chapter 2, where Jonah began to consider “leaving behind” all that smug-like Jewish mindset that he, and his fellow Jew, treasured. It was in those prayers that Jonah, who was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, had to slowly let go of his “treasure box” and attempt to cling onto the fullness of life that was behind the LORD’s command for him to go to Nineveh.

It’s then with this frame of mind that we read Jonah’s story in our Old Testament Reading today. It is here where we find Jonah’s initial “letting go”. Jonah “followed” the LORD’s command but was not in a very convincing way. While walking through the breadth of the city of Nineveh, a good three days’ travel, Jonah casually said: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ I could picture Jonah’s call to repentance to be mild and bland.

We assume that Jonah’s obeying of the LORD’s command the second time might show his complete “leaving behind” of his initial resentment of the Ninevites.  The truth is that Jonah’s letting go was “wishy-washy”. It was on and off. If we go to the last chapter of the book of Jonah, there we find that he was not really completely sold out to the idea of “leaving behind” whatever he held against the Ninevites. He was not at all pleased at the fact that the Ninevites repented.  Jonah resented God’s change of heart and it showed how that process can take a heavy toll.

My dear friends in Christ, these three “leaving behind” stories have something to tell us. We, too, have our own “leaving behind” stories and they can be either difficult or relatively easy, depending on what it is that we’re leaving behind. 

An example of the easy ones could be “leaving behind” that extra pair of pants or that matching blouse and skirt that just wouldn’t fit in your luggage.  You know you could say, as the Italians in New York would say: “Forget about it”.

But what if you had to leave your home and had to stay in a nursing facility?  Or what if you were forced to relocate for work, leaving all of your family and friends miles and miles away?  Or what if you had to end a relationship because it no longer works? Or what if you had to leave your parish so you could be closer to family? I know how difficult these questions could get and there are others that are even more difficult.

What I think makes it difficult is when we do it because we choose to do it.  Leaving things or relationships behind because we don’t have any choice might make it a lighter burden as compared to doing it as a matter of choice.

Both the Jonah Story and the call of Simon, Andrew and the brothers James and John are lessons we can learn from. They are passages in which God called people to serve Him.  And this “calling” involved following God’s voice wherever it led.   In both situations, accepting God’s invitation required a stepping out in faith.  “Being faithful” did not mean simply believing certain things.  It meant going on a journey, a faith journey to be exact, one in which they couldn’t “take” everything with them. Some things had to be left behind.

And while some of the things we have to leave behind are of practical value, there are those that aren’t necessarily so obvious.  This is especially true with our spiritual journey; we have to leave some things behind. We need to leave all those things that hinder us from fulfilling our mission to be God’s partners in making sure that the “former ways of the world will pass away.”

The life we are invited to embrace is a “new” life and, in many ways, like the lifesaver buoy in our first “leaving behind” story. Fortunately, we, too, can do exactly what that girl did. Having to leave that box behind is painful, but she did it for one reason. She knew that her life is what is most important.

In our pursuit for a genuine life in Christ, we need to leave our “treasure box”, our “nets” and our “trade” so we can cling on to God’s “lifesaver buoy” thrown at us, again and again.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Got water?

At the Festival of Lessons and Carols we had last Sunday, one hymn that really caught my attention was Hymn 112, which is entitled “In the bleak mid-winter”. The first verse goes:
In the bleak mid-winter Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter, Long ago.

I’ve always liked this hymn not only because of its melody but more so because of the lyrics. All four verses are loaded with deep meanings and are worthy of serious reflections. The phrase that I thought I’d use for today’s reflection is that part that says: “earth stood hard as iron”. My reason behind my liking lies in the observation that the phrase is so descriptive of how some places in other parts of the world have literally turned so hard. Thus, they have figuratively become “hard as iron” and have lost their ability to sustain its role in the interdependent process of most land-based production.

While that may look like a hopeless case, it does not have to end that way. For a reversal of such degradation; for the earth to no longer remain “hard as iron”; for the earth to breathe and become full of vigor and life, one thing needs to happen. Water. Not only the availability of water needs to be secured but also have it in abundance as well. The arid parches of land need water. It’s water that hopefully will infuse life to something that had become virtually dead.

My grand daughter Kloey talks a lot nowadays and yet some of the things she’s saying our household seems to find difficulty understanding. For example, she would say, ”My wallah” and at first I didn’t understand what she wanted. But to her, “wallah” is water and when she gets it, she really drinks it with gusto.

Water gives life; without enough water the “earth will continue to stand like iron”. Albert Szent-Gyorgia, a Hungarian biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937, says it well: "Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water." The wisdom behind the connection of water to life has been with mankind way prior to written history. No water, you die! There’s no doubt that even those who foster an evolutionist mindset affirm the correlation between water and life.

So it’s not unusual that such observation is also present in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is an integral part of the literature of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The renowned Creation Story, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, reminds its readers that, in the beginning, it was God’s wind, the Ruach, the Holy Spirit that swept over the waters (v. 2) and later separating waters from waters (vv. 6-7) and from this process came life (vv. 9-11, 20). Some biblical scholars suggest that "water" as used here, refers to chaos, the “Nothingness” out of which the world was made. Thus, the intimate correlation between Water and Creation could not be emphasized any stronger. Just as water can undo the “hardening of earth like iron” so with water, as described in the Holy Writings, life came into being. Water and Life has that intimate relationship.

Thus far, I have attempted to establish a great relationship between the two and today, it is even made stronger by the relationship it has with the theme of today’s celebration — baptism. Today, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. It is on this holy day that many baptisms occur as well. Quite obviously, an allusion to water is present; both in the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist and water, being that singular element present at the administration of the Sacrament of Baptism.

We Christians affirm that in Baptism new life is given. In this sacrament, faith communities are reminded: “we die unto sin and rise to newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:4). This is also what Paul’s Letter to Titus tells us. He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (cf. Titus 3:5). The “rising to newness of life” and “washing of regeneration”  can be viewed as both alluding to water as deeply connected with life, regeneration and rebirth. Water, Baptism, Life – a unique triangulation of some sort that seems apropos in today’s celebration!

Just as water gives physical life today, as in the softening of the earth that has once “stood hard as iron”; just as God gives life through water in Creation, so God continues to give spiritual life to Christians through water. Baptismal water.

Lest we get the impression that plain water makes it “tick” be it made clear that it is only with God's Word that the baptismal water does any good.

The African theologian Tertullian (c.160—c.220 CE) once articulated this when he noted that as the waters brought forth life as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters from the beginning of Creation, so does it continue today as the Spirit hovers over the waters of baptism to give life (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 670).

The baptism we receive gives life. This is the very same thing we say over and over again when we speak of baptism. And it is for this reason that we usually have the baptismal font placed at the entrance of the nave to constantly remind us of the rebirth we had at our baptism with water. It is also for this reason that we do this ritual called Asperges, a ritual where the congregation is sprinkled with baptismal water in order to remind themselves how baptism first gave them life.

My dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, as we gather today celebrating the Baptism of our Lord and as we get reminded of the significance of water in sustaining both physical and spiritual life through God’s word, it becomes for us another reminder of how we could further walk our faith journey.

As the new year begins to unfold before our very eyes, we need to take time and see where our journey could lead us and a good starting point is a review of how life had been in the past and how it might look like in the immediate future.

At times there is that sense of chaos, aimlessness or nothingness about life that seems to steadily creep upon us. Looking back at the year that  just passed, some of us might have been visited by unforeseen events and circumstances. There may have been the gloomy pictures beginning to be painted with the broad strokes of employment, financial, marital or plain relational issues. These would usually lead us to feel that there is nothing left special about life or in believing in God, enough to give us a picture of hopelessness.

But there is good news. If our lives have had any semblance of the “Chaos” that Genesis talks about; or if our lives had become “hard as iron” as alluded to in the hymn “In the bleak mid-winter” then, perhaps, it is  about time that we remind ourselves of its flip side, which will show us that life could get exciting.

Just as water, poured over on a parched land, brings forth new life and restores it to its place in the cycle of productivity; just as a glass of “wallah” (Kloey’s water) tastes so good in quenching thirst, so the baptism we have enlivens a virtually dead spiritual life.

Early in December last year, I attended this series of workshops called “Training the Trainer”. One module we addressed was our Baptismal Covenant as a faith community. We also had a time to talk about our own individual baptisms. At sharing time, I told the person I was paired with that I have no recollection about my own baptism; after all, I was baptized as an infant. I also told him that my parents said it was a great gathering; lots of people, lots of food, lots of godparents, and lots of presents too. We then agreed that both of our baptisms became the window for our entrance to a different world; one that is supposedly modeled after the One we sought to follow. Indeed, baptism understood as new birth launches us on a life of commitment to Jesus.

Today, and each time we sprinkle ourselves with baptismal water, we are reminded of our mission in our faith journey, mission that we envisioned when we made or made on our behalf, at our Baptismal Covenant. It is my prayer that we continue to cherish the new life each of us baptized had been given and to live it out in some Christ-like fashion. It is my prayer that at those junctures in our life when we feel spiritually drained, or the next time we thirst for some peace of mind, remember the water — the water of baptism. Bear in mind that water has changed us; has helped foster in us an appreciative attitude towards life and to lobby for a safer and cleaner life's interconnections!

God used water in bringing forth Life at Creation and continues to use water to give life today, in every way! May our lives be richly filled with the blessings that come forth from a loving and generous God enabling us to become blessings to others!

Got water?