John 12: 20-33, Fifth Sunday of Lent
If you’ve ever felt run down, or barren inside, or destroyed, today will be a good day to pray.
Today will be a good day for you to try to listen to God telling you. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. “
In a nutshel,l we know that God’s chosen people had been very, very unfaithful to the Lord – continuing to worship false idols, doubting and cursing God even at times, maybe like we all secretly do when things don’t go our way. And make no mistake about it – how painful that must be to a God who so longs for us. Just think of your own friends who are so deeply wounded by the infidelity of a spouse or a loved one for example, or of our own personal experiences of betrayal. If we believe that our God is a God of love, then we cannot just brush these things aside and think these don’t really affect God in all his power and might. They do – our infidelities do hurt He who is all powerful love. But precisely today, in His love, he shows us that he can transcend this hurt and renew the relationships that we can so carelessly destroy.
Briefly also we know that when Jesus tells us in the Gospel “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit”, he is foretelling of his own death and resurrection – the ultimate sign of God’s ability to restore and renew and bring us back to life.
As we pray today to understand the renewal and the restoration that God is capable of orchestrating in our lives, allow me a few illustrations from the Cambodia mission where I now serve.
Remember that from 1975-1979, their communist party known as the Khmer Rouge took power and systematically eliminated over 2 million Cambodians. It was a genocide, and anyone suspected of having been shaped by western ideas was imprisoned, tortured and brutally murdered. Some of you might actually have visited the killing fields memorial or the Tuol Sleng public high school which was used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture camp – where all the doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics – were killed in order to create their dreamt of “purely Cambodian society”.
Mind you, unlike the Holocaust which was fueled by a hatred for another race, the Jews, or unlike the stories from Rwanda where battling tribes would try to wipe each other out, the Cambodian genocide was Cambodians exterminating fellow Cambodians.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, what actually really further destroyed the social fabric of Cambodia was this: in order to survive, some husbands would have to tell on their wives (or vice versa), and some children would have to tell on their parents or grandparents. Ibig po sabihin, di lang kaibigan, o katrabaho dati ang nagsusumbong sa khmer rouge ka-pamilya din po mismo ang nagsusumbong sa khmer rouge, para lang po masalba ang sarili.
Imagine therefore, what this did to the Cambodian’s ability to trust. Kung di po mapagkakatiwalaan ang mismong kaibigan at kapamilya, paano ka pa ng aba magtitiwala muli?
And so in the beginning of the mission, this made it impossible to work with that generation of Cambodians who no longer knew how to trust. They could not trust us missionaries, and they could not trust one another. And that made it almost impossible to rebuild the Church communities there.
But in Battambang, there is a beautiful story that the grandmother Catholics share which they say is what kept the faith alive in them throughout their years of terror. It’s the story of the last days of Monsignor Tep Im, Bishop of the Battambang before the Khmer Rouge took over. In the weeks before the Khmer Rouge took over, he had already received many warnings and directives to leave, since he would surely also be killed if the Khmer Rouge was to capture him. But he said no, he said he did not want to leave his people behind. And the people remembered this.
And when there was news that the Khmer Rouge had won and were advancing toward Battambang town to take over, and the townsfolk all had to flee, he gathered the faithful in the Church for one last time. They said some prayers together. And before dismissing them he said “These will be dark days ahead for all of us. But please, take care of one another.”
After that, he and the townsfolk tried to escape, but his vehicle was stopped at a Khmer Rouge checkpoint about a hundred kilmeters from Battambang, and he and his companions were shot and killed.
I share this story, because to this day, for Catholics in Cambodia who suffered through the horrors of that period, the memory of Monsignor Tep Im is what kept the faith alive in them. The memory and witness of his love, his example, and his command, is what allowed them to keep hoping. The memory of his person is what allowed these Catholics to learn to trust once again, after the period of darkness had passed.
Remember dear friends that today, we are praying for the grace to trust in God’s power to restore and renew us all. That power is for real, dear friends. Some call it grace. And some call it love, self-giving love. If you have experienced such a love in your life, the love that renews and restores, then today you must celebrate it in your hearts through this mass. Or if it is this kind of love that you need most to experience now, then beg for it sincerely as we offer the eucharist, and know that the Lord surely will hear you.
Today, the Church in Cambodia is 40,000 strong, spread across 3 small dioceses, with over 120 churches rebuilt after the war. A small number, compared to the Philippines. But surely a sign of hope and proof of the Lord’s ability to rebuild and restore from what was seemingly all lost.
Today also you are here – scarred, bruised and broken from many a hurtful time in your own life. Many of you may also have passed through very dark and despairing moments, when you thought all was lost. And yet here you are, trusting and hoping and turning to the Lord once again. You yourselves, we ourselves, are all signs of hope and God’s power to restore.
May we be inspired today to trust more and more in the Lord who has the power to renew us, to make our lives and persons fruitful again, despite our feelings of being worn out, or destroyed. And may we come upon this fruitfulness that the Lord promises, not merely for ourselves but may our fruitfulness be shared to the world – especially to those who need to learn to trust, and hope and love again.
*image from the Internet