Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Kiss of Love: Looking beyond choreographed acts of love

To be or not to be can be translated as to be in communion or not to be in communion. There are several ways for people to be in communion with each other. Mere presence, an online like, touching of the hand, hugs and even a kiss in some cultures are all ways of seeking and being in communion. Participating in each other’s lives is definitely Christian and needs to be encouraged in all possible ways. No one prevents children from playing with each other and expressing their love towards one another. But forced acts of love are not freedom acts but choreographed acts.

The kiss of love in Kochi, Kerala had a reason of being an act against moral guardians in society. It was a protest and a sign of defiance against what was perceived as being against one’s freedom. The famed café in which couples got together and the morality groups which came together to teach the couples a lesson all lead to triggering a response by a part of society in Kerala. This has also created a chain effect with other cities including Bangalore picking up the kiss. But what is the real issue about and how should be engage with the act of kissing in public?

For starters, is it right for any group or religious institution to judge couples and women in particular? Freedom is the same for everyone and wearing a religious symbol does not give one person or group more freedom than the other. What religious groups can do is to give a religious undertaking of what is right and wrong and allow people to decide what they want to do. Any other violent expression of one’s religion is an infringement upon the rights of another person and also misinterpretation of the peace and love within one’s own religion.

What should be discussed before the kiss of love? The kiss of infringement and humiliation in public should precede the kiss of love. Why can’t religious heads and societal leaders make public statements that men who force themselves upon women in buses, public spaces, educational institutions and even religious sites are doing wrong and will be taken to task by the religious heads and societal leaders themselves? Why can’t women and men be offered the security of being safe on the roads and public spaces? Why shouldn’t the bodies of women belong to them and not be open to male gaze and insult? Why isn’t it that leaders don’t come forward when acts of violence and discrimination are followed against women in society?

Is kissing such a bad thing and who can one kiss? One can kiss one’s family, friends and in some cultures a kiss is a public gesture of greeting one another. Why do we make it into something else? In St. Luke 7: 36-50, a woman cries onto Jesus’ feet, wipes it with her hair, kisses his feet and puts expensive perfume on it. Jesus in St. John 13 washes his disciples’ feet. Bishops today wash and kiss the feet of altar boys and priests during Passion Week suggesting that kissing as such is not wrong. It is the opening up of an individual to the realization of how small one is and how one should wash and kiss the feet of others to bring about humility and love as two important Christian factors in one’s existence on earth.

But what is the kiss of love becoming? There is a lot of promise in the kiss of love. The promise lies in humility and love. But the kiss of love is being limited to a media choreographed event which turns into a security nightmare for the law enforcing agencies. There are so many people serving and loving humanity, kissing the very core of human suffering and expressing God’s love. But what is the kiss of love doing? It is protesting, defying and fighting. There is a street fight between the guardians of morality and the guardians of love. The media loves a story and the stage is set for Romeo and Juliet and their saga of love being denied and buried.

So kissing is good. But it is good when it is done for suffering humanity and when it leads to humility and the expression of Godly love. Any other kissing can be done in the privacy of one’s own room with one’s own partner. Public kissing cannot be exclusive and for a select few. It has to go much beyond that. But public kissing cannot be the infringement of the rights to one’s own body either. One cannot force oneself on a girl or woman in secret and then come and preach about morality in public.

What does the law say? Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code states that “whoever, to the annoyance of others, a) does any obscene act in any public place, or b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or word, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.” Outraging the modesty of a woman comes in Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code. It says “Assault or criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty.—Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.” Both laws leave much to be desired in them and many a time it depends on how it is interpreted and used. It was interesting to note that in Kochi while on the one hand couples got together, on the other hand sections of the bystanders were insulting and hurling obscenities against the women present. Who then was breaking the law?

Jumping on to the road should be done for totally different reasons. When modesty is questioned and women are prevented from leaving their houses no one says anything. Those who stay at home and have to make do with domestic violence are silenced from many quarters. This then calls for religions to do what they are called to do and that is to express God’s love in its manifold ways. If this is not done, love will be hijacked by other institutions and used for a dramatic effect, moving away completely from the actual meaning and need for love. Let’s love and move on.

Today is the International Day For the Elimination of Violence against Women.
You are invited to orange your neighbourhood.

Picture courtesy http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/end-violence-against-women

Monday, November 24, 2014

The ordinary can make the impossible possible

St. Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mother Mary is seen as ‘the’ most important personality who can lead us to God in the church and is second only to Jesus, the son of God whom she bears in her womb. Her position in the church is indeed one of importance and significance. But was she always the confident, saintly and even powerful Mother Mary as she is seen today? St. Luke throws light on a young, innocent, and ordinary Mary, whom the angel Gabriel visits. She is not the established Mother Mary but the naïve Mary.

But where is this leading us to? It leads us to two powerful images from the passage which will be of use to us as individuals and will lead to the benefit of the church and society of which we are part of. First, Mary was an ordinary girl who was chosen by God to do the extra ordinary. It is true that Mother Mary is extra ordinary for us today and we intercede to the extra ordinary St. Mary. But Mother Mary was also an ordinary girl who thought ordinary things and lived an ordinary life. Her ordinariness makes her an attractive prospect for God, because God wanted to commit the extra ordinary through her. Many of us think we are ordinary and therefore of no importance to our families, work places and churches. But isn’t it the reverse? Doesn’t our ordinariness qualify us to be God’s workers?

We all know that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Today when we look at the light bulb we marvel at the great Thomas Edison. But we don’t think of that the fact that he failed 1000 or even 10,000 times before perfecting the light bulb. The Colonel who invented the formulae of Kentucky Fried Chicken went to 600 odd shops with his mix before being accepted in one. Bill Gates failed with his startup company but then went on to be one of the richest men in the world. The founder of Sheenlac Industries in Chennai, Mr. John Peter, worked a small job in the Indian Railways. J.K. Rowling the popular children’s novel writer battled depression, suicidal tendencies and poverty before becoming successful. What all this suggests is that no one is born extra ordinary, but is made extra ordinary by God. Hard work and the will to submit one’s ordinariness before God becomes more important than anything else.

Mother Mary is perplexed with the arrival of the angel and his referring to her as the favoured one. In church and society, we also feel perplexed and over awed by the situation and the work at hand. We feel that we are not extra ordinary and have no special powers and resources to help. But more than anything else, ordinariness becomes the key element for God to perform wonders. So our ordinary selves can do extra ordinary things for the church and for society.
Second, the angel tells Mary that she will bear a son and he should be named Jesus and that Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived. He then adds that “Nothing is impossible for God”. Faith becomes an integral part of our existence in church. It is not to believe in our own talents but to believe that God is capable of doing any amount of goodness and there can never be a limit to this. The church and society needs many workers who can do God’s work and God’s will. But we always step back saying I am not fit for it. The story of Mother Mary shows that there is no question of being ‘fit for the role’ but rather it is important to ‘fit into the role.’ We don’t need to be extra ordinary, extra rich or extra influential but we need to be ordinary people who are willing to heed to God’s plan to do extra ordinary things for God.

Mother Mary should be a source of inspiration for us. More than thinking of her favoured status, her blessing due to the angel visiting her and her selection by God, she starts to think of God’s unlimited possibilities and capabilities. Her fear moves out and a serene and steady confidence in God comes into her mind. It would benefit us and the church and society if we could offer our ordinary selves to God, so that God works God’s extra ordinary self. It would help the church if we stop thinking of our favoured statuses and instead look at the limitless possibilities that God offers us. Amen.

(Excerpts from the sermon preached in St. Ignatius JSO Church, K.R. Puram, Bangalore, yesterday.)
Picture courtesy www.jesus-story.net

Monday, November 17, 2014

Finding our voice

St. Luke 1: 5-25
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

The problem for many of us is that we are perennially unhappy. The unhappiness is due to several factors which could be related to aspirations, needs, and wants that lie unfulfilled. The stress and the hard work takes a toll on our bodies and saps out every bit of energy from us. The only place of relaxation and de-stressing is the church and one day a week becomes an essential ritual in the lives of all.

The service, bible readings and sermon all help us to get back on track in our lives. There may be grief, personal problems, work related pressures, family issues which pose serious questions in our mind. The church gives us answers to some of our questions and makes us relax. We get a feeling that God is with us and when God is with us, who can be against us? The element of faith comes to the maximum during service. But what if someone truly tested our faith? Zechariah was a priest and he was serving the Lord’s altar. A priest is fully aware of faith and trust in God. But when the angel sees him and tells him the good news that is going to happen in their family, he does not believe it because he feels his wife is too old to conceive. The angel then tells him that Zechariah will not speak till what he has informed him will happen. Zechariah loses his voice because for a moment he can’t comprehend God’s voice which came through the angel.

Many of us have lost our voices because we are not prepared to comprehend what God can do in our lives. Our faith ceases the minute we leave church almost to suggest that it will be better not to leave at all. We live two lives, one in church and one at home. Others may have multiple lives. In the process we lose the voice that God has given us. Zechariah got an opportunity to comprehend God’s voice because he became mute and had time to think. This thought process comes out later when he writes and gives his son’s name as John.

Zechariah and Elizabeth are seen as ideal parents. Parents in church should be mindful to listen to the voice of God in church and replicate that voice wherever they go. There need not be multiple lives and multiple behaviours, where parents say one thing in church and another at home. If that happens, the children will grow up being psychologically confused and will have personality disorders when they grow up. Finding one’s voice (which is God given) and proudly expressing it everywhere is what we all need to strive for.

Children on the other hand will feel that they can take advantage of their parents because their parents have flaws. Accordingly children will start disrespecting their parents and will pay scant attention to them. But have you heard of children divorcing their parents or parents divorcing their children? Divorce rates are alarmingly high in Kerala but they are legal. There is no legal standing for annulling the relationship between parents and children and between siblings. This is life long and this is God given. It is a bond which cannot be broken.

Finding one’s voice, finding one’s parents voice (meaning knowing what they have done for us) and finding one’s children's/s voice (meaning what they are doing in their lives) is an important aspect of our spirituality and our lives. Priest Zechariah lost his voice but it was to prepare for finding it. We should also be prayerfully silent, seeking God’s plan for justice, peace and love and then use our voice to accomplish it. Amen.

(Excerpts from a sermon preached at the St. Ignatius JSO Church, K.R. Puram, Bangalore.)
Picture credit www.oppeace.org

Monday, November 10, 2014

My Father's hand

St. John 10:22-30
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah,[a] tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.[b] 30 The Father and I are one.”

Hoodosh Eetho is a time of dedication. We dedicate ourselves as the church is dedicated to Christ. As we travel a week into the liturgical new year of our church we have to look at how we can dedicate ourselves to the church and to Christ just as the church is dedicated to God. We are programmed to dedicate ourselves to our job as that gives us our income and money. Even as the bible asks us to choose between God and mammon or God and money, we have rededicated ourselves time and again to our jobs and to our bosses at work instead of dedicating ourselves to the service of the church and humanity.

I remember my father very fondly. He was a constant and near presence in my life that when I lost him, I lost my world with him. Regaining that was a constant struggle. Just as our mother offers love and care to us, our father is also a picture of support and hope. I used to wait everyday at home knowing that my father had some surprise in store for me. A small toy, a bit of chocolate, and if nothing else a warm hug. My father’s hand was a hand I could trust, I could hold, knowing fully well that the hand would not forsake me.

The father symbolism used by Jesus in St. John 10:22-30 is a symbolism of authority and trust. Jesus tells the Jews that his sheep were given to him by God the Father. Jesus knows the sheep and the sheep know him. The sheep who follow Jesus are promised eternal life and protection by Jesus. Jesus says “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” Jesus is so sure about his followers and his commitment to them is ever abiding. There is no doubt and no fear. Jesus commits himself as a leader and as God to his followers because he is sure of the commitment of his father to him.

Can we on church dedication Sunday dedicate ourselves to God and to our church. There can be no second thoughts as the commitment of God to us is hundred percent. It is not like a boss who is more concerned about his own promotion and deadlines. Rather it is a God who promises us an imperishable life, safe in his hands and safe from any danger.

Shall we then dedicate our lives to our God and to our church? Shall we feel safe in the hands of our father God and in the hands of Jesus because he tells us so? What a nice feeling it is to submit ourselves like a child in the hands of our father, knowing that our small hands and lives will be safe in the hand of our (my) father, our (my) father’s hand! Amen.

(Picture courtesy mochadad.com)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

St. Gregorios: An inspiration for education

Koodosh Etho is the beginning of the liturgical calendar of the church. Koodosh Etho is the sanctification of the church. The bible passage read on Sunday, St. Matthew 16:13-23 brings St. Peter into the picture. This is one of the passages in the bible where the prominence of St. Peter is mentioned. Jesus says clearly “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Peter is given the authority by Jesus because Peter makes a faith proclamation. “You are the Messiah. The son of the living God.” Jesus tells him that he has got this from God the father and not of his own accord.

The church is a faith community where we pray and say every day that Jesus is the Messiah. But the Messiah came to earth so that we would be saved. Here is where Peter gets it wrong. He tries to tell Jesus that Jesus will not suffer. Can a church exist without suffering? Can we live our lives without suffering? Jesus rebukes and tells Peter clearly to get behind him and listen to him.

Koodosh Etho is a time to begin afresh by sanctifying ourselves. The test we have to undertake is a test of fire. But fire purifies and sanctifies. Jesus is telling us that we will also have to suffer but after suffering comes glory. At this time the church and we its members also have to undergo the test of fire and faith.

St. Gregorios is the first proclaimed Indian saint of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. He was consecrated bishop at the very young age of 28 and died at the age of 54 in 1902. What can be one thing we can learn from the blessed thirumeni today? St. Gregorios was known for his simple life style and deep faith. But he understood the need for education in our society. I quote “In the late 1890s many educational institutions were started by the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church under the initiative and guidance of Parumala Kochu Thirumeni. St.Thomas School at Mulanthuruthy, St. Ignatius School at Kunnamkulam (named after his mentor the Patriarch of Antioch Mor Ignatius Peter IV), the Syrian English School (now known as 'MGM High School') at Thiruvalla, etc., were some of the well known schools of the Church at that time.”

An interesting piece of information for the St. Ignatius church members is “In 1899 Aug 15th (M.E- 1st Chingam, 1075), an 'Aan Pallikoodam' (Boy's School) was started by Parumala Thirumeni near the ancient Arthat St.Mary's Church, Kunnamkulam and was named after the Patriarch 'Mor Ignatius Peter III'. It was on the insistence of our Kochu Thirumeni, the title name of the Patriarch of Antioch, "St.Ignatius" was given to the new school.” Now we are prayerfully submitting ourselves to build a school building and Community Education Centre called St. Ignatius as well. We are laying the foundation stone during the festival of St. Gregorios. Isn’t this more than mere coincidence?

We are following the foot steps of our blessed Saint Gregorios and we are also seeking intercession from our church saint St. Ignatius Elias III. Let us pray that we may be shown the right path and will be helped by the intercession of both our beloved saints. May God bless us all.

( E mail sermon for the St. Ignatius JSO Church, K. R. Puram members.)

Photo credit: www.sgioc.org