Sunday, March 19, 2017

This lent assure others that their faith is great

Matthew 15:21-31
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

If we are to put ourselves in the place of Jesus and his disciples, St. Matthew 15:21-31 places a woman from another community/caste/religion in front of us this lent. It is not a familiar and a comfortable scene and neither was it for Jesus’ disciples and even for him. The disciples are almost irritated with the presence of the Canaanite woman and that is why they ask Jesus to send her away. They are disturbed by her shouting. Jesus makes a matter of fact statement when he says that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But the woman comes closer and kneels and seeks help. Jesus explains the situation to her and says that he cannot help her because it will not be fair to take the food of the children and throw to the dogs. This is when there is an unexpected twist to the proceedings. The woman says that even the dogs eat the crumbs that have fallen from the table. Jesus stops what he is doing and says “Great is your faith. Let it be done to you as you wish.”
This encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite woman speaks volumes to us during lent. We must also appreciate the wisdom of the church leaders to place this reading in churches during lent. The woman’s daughter is tormented by a demon and that is why she has come to Jesus. The problem though here is that the Jews and the Canaanites do not have that good a relationship. One could definitely classify them as enemies with a history of enmity. This is why the disciples become uncomfortable. They want the woman to go away but they cannot beat her or push her away because they cannot behave like others. They are part of the Jesus movement. So they put the burden on to Jesus. Jesus takes it up.
One must realize that our surroundings always affect us to a certain extent. We speak based on our surroundings. Jesus therefore is quite cold when he mentions to the woman and anyone else who would have been there that he has come for certain people only. We should introspect during lent and realize that we too prefer to put our burdens on to Jesus and withdraw from any worthwhile thing that we are supposed to do during lent and even otherwise. In this sense we as the church sometimes withdraw from our responsibilities and leave Jesus to fend for himself forgetting that both the bride and the bride groom form the family/church. It is not that he can’t. But who and what are we then? Jesus though stays just there and has a dialogue with the woman. He says that it is not fair for him to look at the sufferings of others as then his own community would suffer. How could he do this? But this is when the woman shows a way forward. We do not come together as communities or do not help those outside our community because we reach a road block and feel we cannot help even though some part of us wants to! The Canaanite woman offers a solution. She does not want Jesus to stop helping his community but asks for the crumbs, the fringe and blessings on the side path which his community will anyway not use. The woman opens up a vista of ministry for Jesus where his ministry gets expanded to the least and the last of communities other than his.
We as the church should open our eyes to see the Canaanite woman in our midst so that our ministry will have a scope to widen inside and outside the walls of our church. During lent it will help to look around in our church and see who is standing next to us. Are we only seeing familiar and comfortable faces? Then we are reflecting the disciples. But can we see other faces in our midst? Then we will be able to reflect Jesus in our lives. All of us represent the church. We are the church. The keys to the doors of the church are with us. During lent, can we open the doors so that others can also come in. If Jesus told the woman that her faith was great, he is also telling the same thing today. Who are we to keep others away from the grace and mercy of God? Lent should be a time when we stop saying “Sending her away” like the disciples. Instead we must be able to look at others and say “Great is your faith. Let it be done to you as you wish.” Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Preparing for healthy relationships during lent

Being in relationship is an essential non-negotiable aspect of human kind and yet it is something lost on our generation. It is not that people don’t want to be in relationship but many a time they are not prepared for it and don’t know how to go about it. Schools and colleges don’t want to risk a problem and will maintain status quo of having boys and girls separated. Churches are not far behind and more or less fulfill the role of being guardians of morality. Isn’t lent a perfect time to stop thinking of morality and start thinking of good relationships with one another? Hasn’t a skewed understanding of relationships lead to enough damage in society?

Lent should not be seen as status quo or toeing the usual line but as moving away from the usual. Most of the problems we face in society are relationship problems and one among them is the relationship between boys and girls and men and women. We do not allow normal and healthy interaction between boys and girls so that they know how to relate to one another when they sit next to each other in a bus, train, flight, class room or public space. All thoughts of what to say and do are many a time influenced by movies, serials and peer group talks on the other gender. The lent season should be able to give us an opportunity to learn how to relate and behave with people belonging to the other gender.

We have behavioural problems because right from childhood various institutions have prevented us from being normal people. To be normal means to be in relationship with one another. We are brought up based on relationships of power. We are wrongly told that girls should be subservient and boys should express their masculinity by lording over the girls and expressing their power.

St. Matthew 20:17-28 has Jesus talking about his impending suffering. The mother of the sons of Zebedee request Jesus to allow her sons to sit at his right and left. Jesus says that it is not in his hands. The other disciples get angry. This despite their being and travelling with Jesus and listening to his teaching and seeing him live. Their relationship with one another is so fragile that they get into a fight. This is when Jesus explains the basis of relationships. “Those who want to be master must be servant.” For the son of man has come to serve and not to be served.

We have become a society that wants to fix something after it has happened different from the way we want it. We thrive on a media created suspense which fizzles out as soon as the story loses its significance. Because of this we have hash tags and events but do not work on fundamental aspects of life.

Our society is fractured because of socio economic disparity, class and caste divide and religious problems between communities. The lent season is an opportunity to think, understand and come together. Let us use this Lenten season to develop healthy relationships with whoever we come across. Let us do away with the awkwardness of the other and stop sitting only near people we are comfortable with or from whom we benefit. Instead let this season of lent bring about understanding and not demonizing of the other. God has created men and women in God’s image and God saw it as good. Mutual co-existence should be the motto of lent rather than making it an exclusive, individualistic exercise of self-aggrandizement and self development. After all, we are here to serve and not to be served. Amen.    

Monday, March 13, 2017

Anyone for a FAST lent?

Next week is mid lent commemorating the half way of the great lent. There are many in the church who have different sorts of lent. The first and last week of the great lent, the entire lent and half the lent. As the mid lent approaches we must also understand the real concept of the lent and also look at how it was seen in the early church.

What are some of the problems that face us during the lent? Reconciliation is supposed to be so important that we have a reconciliation service at the beginning and the end of lent. But how many of us reconcile with one another and everyone we know? Wouldn’t our church and society benefit from such a reconciliation? But we refuse to do that as reconciliation is the most difficult thing to do in our lives, more difficult than any fast, lent and diet restriction. In fact it is so difficult that we leave that out of the picture and do a big lent, feeling very self righteous in the process.

A fast like this is satisfying for our ego but does not bring about pretty much anything else. This is when we need to look at one of the advises of St.John Chrysostom. “Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by. In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.”

So we are asked to bring every part of our body into the fast and not just the stomach. Our mind should think of positive life affirming things, our eyes should see proper sights, our ears should hear good about others, our mouth and lips should talk good things about others, our hands should do good, our stomach should fast with others in mind, our legs should go the extra mile and our feet should stand up for others. The FAST lent that we undertake should make us
F- Feast
A- And
S- Say
T- Truth

What is a feast? A feast is to make what is available the best and happily have it instead of grumbling about what is not there. Even as we fast we must know that the poor have limited resources with them. For them a meal may be left over rice and fish curry without any fish. It could be the remains of the meal of someone else. There we cannot talk about the purity of the lent but we must give what we have to others. We are on lent so that others may have. We cannot impose our lent on others because sometimes our lent becomes the only opportunity in a year for them to eat properly. A feast is also a feast of the soul. So when the body fasts, the soul feasts. That is why the fast should not show on our face as our soul is feasting and happy.

St. John Chrysostom says again “Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: "If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves." You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrusted bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading disfame, causing unestimatable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others. If you cannot go without eating all day because of an ailment of the body, beloved one, no logical man will be able to criticize you for that. Besides, we have a Lord who is meek and loving (philanthropic) and who does not ask for anything beyond our power. Because he neither requires the abstinence from foods, neither that the fast take place for the simple sake of fasting, neither is its aim that we remain with empty stomachs, but that we fast to offer our entire selves to the dedication of spiritual things, having distanced ourselves from secular things.”

Our fast according to this should make our soul reach out to our brothers and sisters and not consume them by eating their souls up! The church father advises us to not eat each other! During lent is that what we end up doing or do we share with those who are in need? All through the year the poor are eaten up by others. Isn’t it time now for them to have what otherwise is always ours? FEAST AND SAY the TRUTH is being happy with what we are doing but ultimately realizing that our responsibility lies in doing good for others. This we can do only if we realize that we are also responsible in the hungry not having food and the poor not being helped. This is the essence of lent. We must fast to accept and say the truth. In St. John 8:31-32 Jesus says “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” We are sometimes blindly bound to our lent that we do not see how we should transform ourselves and help others. Our lent should make us see the truth and it should set us free. Let us FAST. Let us Feast And Say the Truth. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Challenge the accusation of sin this lent

St. Mark 2:1-12
The story of the paralytic is a story of the faith of a group of people and not one person. Many of Jesus’ miracles were performed when the person healed had faith in the ability of Jesus. But in this story that we read the faith is of a group of four who break through the roof and lower down the paralytic into the presence of Jesus. Usually we look up at God. In this case we find four people and the paralytic looking down at God for a miracle.

During lent we do kneel and pray and feel that we are lifted up into the presence of God. But we fail many a time to feel and see the presence of God in our midst. Why do we put God up there when God can very well be here with us? The verses following the story of the paralytic stress this point. In verse 17 Jesus says “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” He defends the fact that his disciples don’t fast and finally says in verse 27 “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for sabbath.” Jesus is questioning ritualistic fasting.

We have the habit of raising ourselves into the presence of God without actually checking whether God is up there or down here. Jesus suggests that he is with his people and not far away from them. We can perhaps put it this way. Jesus stands for his people and he comes to earth for them. The people are not created for Jesus. The scribes who were also in the house where Jesus was sitting were perhaps looking up and therefore could not experience the power of Jesus. They simply could not fathom God in their midst.

The paralytic does not get space to reach Jesus. His friends think different and reach down to Jesus instead of reaching up to him. Their faith is also a turning around of the usual into the unusual. It is different from all others present there. This is what makes Jesus notice them with the paralytic. Jesus then says that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven. But why did he say that? Did he say that because he also like others associated disease with sin? In another case Jesus answers his disciples that someone is blind so that God’s name will be glorified and not because of the sin of his parents or anyone else. St. John 9:3 says “Jesus answered, “Neither this man not his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” So Jesus may have talked of forgiving the man’s sins because he was talking to the scribes present there. The paralytic cannot pass the crowd and come to Jesus because society does not let him pass in his accused sinfulness. So his friends go up and bring him down to Jesus. The paralytic comes down to Jesus.

Lent is a time to come down. But how liberating it is to come down and find Jesus? It is not lonely here. Rather in our coming down we find Jesus. The paralytic and his friends cross the barrier of the crowd. But they reach on top of the house where it is lonely and Godless. They then break through the roof and come down to Jesus. Lent should not just be an over the top, over the roof experience but an experience which leads us down to Jesus. We must break through the roof and come down. Jesus is always with the people and not unreachable up there. It also reminds us that we must not judge others and call others as sinners as Jesus refrains from doing that. Lent is rather a time when we should realise that Jesus, the son of God humbled himself to be with the people. We should do the same. We must not go through the roof and set ourselves up there through the ritualistic purity we think we attain. Rather we should look at Jesus’ association with ordinary people who are termed as sinners by the society. Jesus’ fasting is to challenge the notion of sin and the labelling of people as sinners.

This lent we can also do the same. There are many people in the world who have the burden of being called a sinner by others. The lent should make us strong to take upon this accusation upon ourselves. Jesus does not heal from a height. Rather Jesus shoulders the burden of sin accused upon the paralytic. He tries to set the scribes and Pharisees free out of their notion of sin. Jesus looks up not for a blessing but to carry someone’s burden and lead to a blessing. May we be a blessing to someone this lent and carry the burden of sin for someone accused of being a sinner wrongly. Amen.    

Thursday, March 9, 2017

For such a time as this: Learn from women how to observe lent

One of the most significant things in the church which many a time is kept under wraps is that women in the church fast and pray more than men. Even though priests give the call to fast and lent, it is women in the church who give heed to the call more sincerely. This they do despite the usual responsibilities of house work, child rearing and jobs. It is therefore surprising that during lent we do not consider women as a model for lent.

Yesterday being International Women’s day, it was celebrated all over the world with messages praising women. What I noticed in whats app and facebook though was that these congratulatory messages were followed by messages which indirectly and directly demeaned women. It was as if to suggest that a majority of the men were just being politically correct for women’s day and they did not say it from the heart.

Religion has a lot to do with the plight of women in our society. If the religion that you and I are a part of does not respect women, then there are high chances that you and I will follow suit. That is why it is important for us to see if there is any connection between women and lent. It is because we can accept women during the entire Lenten period and continue to do that, being strengthened by the lent we observed.

Nursing mothers and women who take care of all the house hold work need more nutrition and yet they take up the burden of saving the household primarily because the good fortune of the house is linked with the woman and because by themselves they are more responsible than men when it comes to matters of the house. It is because of this that we have to take a look at women in the bible who fasted. Every lent we always hear that fasting or lent is because Jesus fasted, Moses fasted and Elijah fasted. Women never come into the picture. Why so? Lent is a God given opportunity to realise that we have knowingly and unknowingly ignored women who were, are and should be an integral part of any lent we observe.

One of the strong examples that we have is of Esther. Mordecai informs her of the impending danger and the seeming end of their community. He sends her a message that she cannot keep quiet in such a time as this. He says in Esther 4:14 “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” The future of her community is on the shoulder of Esther. Mordecai knows that Esther is the last straw of hope. Now what happens to Esther is the interesting part. She does not say no or that she would think about it. In an almost transformative trance she replies to Mordecai in verse 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” Ah, what a bold statement from a young woman? She chooses to be proactive in such a time as this and declares a fast for the entire community knowing the responsibility of their lives rests on her. It is also typical of men as to how Mordecai puts the responsibility on Esther even though he is the more seasoned and experienced campaigner. Esther like all women does not shrink from the responsibility but takes it on.

Esther’s fast which lasts three days is a sign for us on how to fast and lent. We must see the signs of our time and we must know the dangers lurking. When communities are in danger and when people can be killed, communities should come together in fasting and prayer. Our fasts and lent today have no consequences. But Esther’s call to fasting shows us that our fasts and lent can indeed have consequences, and good ones at that.

This lent, let us look at the fast of Esther and create our own fasts for justice and peace. When the refugee crisis and wars in the Middle East and other parts of the world rage on with no solution in sight, let us get together like Esther’s community and fast for a solution. Esther shows us the power of fasting. It has the strength to overcome evil and bring about justice. It is interesting for us after Women’s day and knowing how diligently women fast in the church, that Esther and other women like her in the bible offer us a credible model of fasting and lent. It is also important for men during lent and after women’s day to see how thinking like women can bring about a more meaningful fast and lent in which the responsibility and the future of the community become important life and death issues. Amen.