Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent is IMPERATIVE!


If the parish ever runs short of money and I need to moonlight, I have a perfect job waiting for me: teaching grammar.

It seems almost everyone I know under forty has forgotten the basic rules of English grammar. Just about every day I hear someone say “her and me went down to McDonalds.” On the radio this week I heard “Less people attended the rally this year.” Come on! Less rain, maybe, but fewer people.

Some of our younger parishioners consider me a badge-carrying member of the grammar police. But I can’t resist correcting some of these mistakes, even if I’m not brave enough to correct their parents.

So today I thought I might offer a brief grammar lesson. The subject is a verb form known as the imperative. In grammar, the imperative mood expresses a command. The simplest example, known to every parent, is “don’t.”

Different languages form the imperative in many different ways. English has a particular imperative that uses the verb “let.” “Let’s have a drink” is an imperative, even if it sounds less like a command than “don’t.”

Let’s go looking, then, for imperatives in today’s Scripture readings. There are plenty of them, and they give us a great push for the start of Advent.

The first reading begins with a familiar image, the mountain of the Lord. Mountains have an important place in the Old Testament. Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb, for example. In the New Testament, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and, at the end of his earthly mission, he ascends from a mountain to heaven.

Here “the mountain of the Lord’s house” is Mount Zion, the goal of all peoples.

And so we find today’s first imperative: “Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.” Isaiah puts these words on the lips of “many peoples”—not many people, but many peoples or nations, because everyone is called to make the pilgrimage to God’s mountain.

Climbing Mount Zion is imperative because there is found instruction; there is found the word of the Lord where scattered and confused people are united by the truth.

The first imperative is addressed to the whole world, particularly to those who do not know the ways of the Lord. The second command, “Let us walk in the light of the Lord,” is spoken to the House of Jacob, to Israel, the people to whom God has already taught his law. What’s imperative for them is to walk in the light—to follow the commands they already know.

Today’s Psalm repeats the imperative we heard in the reading from Isaiah, almost word for word: “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” The command to journey to God’s house is not a burden but a joy: “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Biblical Hebrew used didn’t use exclamation marks, but the English text has one at the end of this sentence—the speaker is enthusiastic.

This Psalm, Psalm 122, was sung by Jewish pilgrims arriving at the gates of Jerusalem in obedience to the Lord’s command to gather there in worship three times a year. (The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 780). The speaker is enthusiastic because he’s at the gates—they’re almost there.

You can see the connection between Isaiah’s prophetic word and actual religious practice. The pilgrims aren’t literally ascending the holy mountain where God dwells, but they know he may be found in his holy temple in Jerusalem.

What’s true for them is truer still for us. It’s imperative every Sunday that we go up to meet the Lord in worship—not as a burden but as a joy. We are commanded, yes, but it’s a command that should make us glad.

Advent is a natural time to adjust our attitude to the Mass and to the Sunday obligation. It’s an ideal time to get our bearings and ask whether we’re well on the road to the Lord’s house or not.

This is clear from the imperatives we find in the second reading. “Let us lay aside the works of darkness,” St. Paul says. Let us examine ourselves in preparation for the great feast of Christmas, and ask whether there are shadows in our lives that the light of Christ must overpower.

It’s true that Lent’s the time when we usually think about our sins, but Advent is a penitential season also, which is why I’m wearing the same purple vestments worn in Lent. Everyone knows that Christmas takes a lot of preparation, whether it’s baking or gift-buying or just plain planning; spiritual preparation should not be neglected.

St. Paul’s second imperative points in a slightly different direction: “let us put on the armour of light.” The only way to end the darkness is to turn on the light—accentuate the positive to eliminate the negative, as a song from the 1940s put it.

Advent should be a time of extra prayer and good works; those things are armour against sin. They’re like shining breastplates that deflect the enemy’s arrows. Once again, Matthew Kelly’s Dynamic Catholic organization offers a free prayer or video every day of Advent;
sign up for “Best Advent Ever”; it’s a specific and practical way to put on the armour of light.

Other things you can do include making an effort to get to a daily Mass each week of Advent, planning some charitable service, or giving alms to the many charities that help the poor at Christmas, including our own Christmas hamper program.

The last imperative we find in today’s reading is the most imperative of all. It’s not the friendly form that begins with “let us” but the more direct and urgent imperative that’s clearly a command.

In the Gospel, Jesus says “keep awake.” He then repeats the command in different words: “be ready.”

Getting ready for Christmas is hard work. In his delightful story “Dave Cooks the Christmas Turkey,” Stuart McLean creates a conversation between Morley and her husband Dave, where she tells him “My life is a train. I am a train. Dragging everyone from one place to another.

Dave is too smart to ask where the train is heading. He knows Morley will tell him. And she does.

“The train starts at a town called First Day at School, then goes to a village called Halloween, and then through the township of Class Project, and down the spur line called Your Sister is Visiting.”

“All the way to the last stop on the line—Christmas dinner.”

Everyone knows that feeling, even if mothers know it best. But why do we do all that work to get ready for the festive aspects of Christmas without making much effort to be spiritually ready?

Jesus is pretty tough about this. He tells us to stay awake, but he might as well have said “wake up.” The stakes are high, because there is a thief who wants to break in and steal the Christmas presents from under the tree.

That thief is a real enemy, not some sort of fairy-tale Grinch. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus describes him in these words: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

So keep awake. Get ready.

It’s imperative.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Parish of Mercy: Christ the Redeemer Celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King




 What if I offered to hand out keys to Heaven after Mass today? A few folks might still leave after Communion if they parked poorly or had to get the kids to soccer. But it’s a safe bet there would be quite a lineup to collect the keys.

Who doesn’t want to go to Heaven? There are people who don’t want to go to church, but no one, really, who doesn’t want paradise.

Well, the fact is, we are handing out keys to Heaven at Mass today. The Gospel unlocks the gates of Heaven to those who give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. The doors of the Kingdom swing wide open to those who welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners.*

I’ve heard this Gospel a hundred times, but it’s never come alive for me like it has in this Year of Mercy that ends today.

There were many moments of grace during this special year, but for me they all came to a head last Sunday when Archbishop Miller bestowed papal medals on a group of Catholics well known for their dedication to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the traditional catalogue of Christian charity.

Those who were honoured by the Pope included leaders in Catholic health care and education, dedicated servants of the poor, a pioneer in parish-based prison ministry, and a tireless defender of the unborn. I knew most of them and worked closely with some of them over the years.

But one of the recipients mattered to me more than any other: because his medal, in my eyes and in his, was given to us all.

When the Archbishop handed Denis Forristal the Benemerenti medal, he really bestowed it on this parish community, of which Denis and his wife Mary are true pillars. Everyone who knows the Forristals knows that Mary deserves a medal too, and not just because she has to manage Denis! But to say he shares this honour not only with her but with the parish community recognizes that Denis has helped teach all of us the ways of mercy.

He has performed some works of mercy by himself, travelling in retirement to help emerging nations develop their hotel industry, but most of what he has done has been alongside others, beginning of course with Mary and then with us, his fellow parishioners.

The most notable of Denis’s charitable works was leading our parish sponsorship of the Shaboo family, refugees from Iraq. They wanted to be with us this morning to celebrate, but they are performing a corporal work of mercy—burying the dead—by remaining in their parish to plan funeral rites for a friend who has died.

Everyone has been talking about refugee sponsorship since the Syrian crisis began and the heartstrings of the world were tugged by the sight of boy drowned as his family sought safety. Denis encouraged us to respond to an earlier crisis, the persecution of Christians in Iraq. His wisdom and leadership proved so effective that it is now considered a model throughout the Archdiocese.

Without Denis’s successful leadership of the devoted team that helped the Shaboos find a new home in Canada, it would have been much more difficult for our parish to sponsor three more families from Syria. The dedicated leaders of the settlement teams that have welcomed the two Dayekh families have known from the beginning that the challenges were manageable and that Denis was always available for wise advice.

So now we have three families well-established in Canada and another to arrive just as soon as the government permits them; we are truly welcoming strangers just as Christ the King commands.

My view was blocked as Denis walked forward to receive his medal at the Cathedral. Since I couldn’t see him, I pictured a church full of our parishioners who have been so generous with their time, talent and treasure: they were wearing more medals than you’d see in a crowd of veterans on Remembrance Day.

Our parish is by no means perfect: the parish council and I have talked about many aspects of parish life we hope will grow in the months and years ahead. In particular, we all need to work harder to make sure our young people become true disciples of Jesus—and this can only happen if their priests and parents are intentional disciples themselves. We need to work much harder to share the Gospel with those who haven’t heard it in our neighborhoods and social circles. We need to provide more opportunities for parishioners, old and young, to grow in the life of prayer.

These are our challenges. But today we must celebrate our accomplishments. We have become a parish of mercy, by any standard I know. If you use the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy as a report card on parish life, the results are wonderful proof of dynamic faith in action.

I’ve already mentioned how we welcome strangers through refugee sponsorship. Let me turn to another corporal work of mercy that comes straight from today’s Gospel. Prison ministry has caught fire since it was introduced at Christ the Redeemer just a few years ago. Not only do our volunteers visit prisoners, they support them with prayer, encourage them with small gifts, and help those who have been released.

Feeding the hungry seems to be a specialty in our parish. Just yesterday, the parish conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society fed four hundred people in the downtown eastside! In a year they provide more than 7500 meals. Do you have any idea of the work involved? More importantly, have we any idea of the love involved? The same is true of parishioners who regularly feed street youth downtown.

A spiritual work of mercy—instruction in the Faith—combines with the corporal work of feeding the hungry when generous parishioners prepare meals for our youth groups and Alpha dinners. And clothing the naked? If the architects of this church had any idea of the amount of donated clothing we would be handling, they’d have added an extra room to the building.

Visiting the sick is a special boast of our community. Two dedicated teams of volunteers visit the two care homes in the parish, and help the priests minister to those who are sick at home and in hospital. More times than I can count, we hear about the sick who need pastoral visits from parishioners who are aware that this is everyone’s responsibility.

During the Year of Mercy we included financial support for many of the works of mercy in our annual Project Advance campaign, which you supported with great generosity.

I could go on and on, right through all fourteen corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but there isn’t time. Let me just say that the Year of Mercy was lived in this parish in a most visible way.

Let’s not forget that mercy, like charity, begins at home. Family life is impossible without mercy. Parish life is impossible without mercy. We show mercy to one another in the parish, avoiding the bitter divisions that have all but destroyed Christian communities in the past and elsewhere. And you show mercy to me, by accepting my shortcomings, occasional impatience and necessary absences.

We have our share of problems and misunderstandings, but in the nearly ten years I’ve been here there has never been a major split in our community. Amidst the hurts that always occur when people live together, amidst the hurts in families and among friends, we are still one family in Christ.

Archbishop Miller spoke eloquent words last Sunday: “In a world damaged by the virus of indifference, the works of mercy are the best antidote to spiritual blindness.”

He prayed that every parish be an oasis and an instrument of mercy.

May that be the goal of each family and of our parish—to be an oasis and an instrument of God’s living mercy in the world!

On our joyful parish feast day, let us resolve to continue the good work we have begun, confident that the merciful King will one day say to each of us “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

* To emphasize the works of mercy, we used the Mass readings for Year A today.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Practical Faith in the Resurrection of the Dead (Sunday 32.C)

A tourist guidebook told me one of the most chilling stories I’ve ever heard. I was visiting Toledo in Spain so I wanted to read up on the Alcazar, the great fortress that dominates the city.

The book told a story from the dreadful years of the Spanish Civil War, when the fortress was a stronghold for the Nationalist forces. The Republican army kidnapped the 16 year old son of the opposing general, and threatened to kill him unless he surrendered the Alcazar.

The captors put the boy on the phone with his father. "Surrender or they will shoot me," the teenager said. His father replied, "Then commend your soul to God, shout 'Long live Christ the King,' and die like a hero."

My visit to Toledo was years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the general’s words. Was he a patriot? A hero? A fanatic?

I don’t know. I do know that the story reminds us that in every age people have believed there were some things more important than life itself.

Our first reading today is about brave young Jews who suffered and died for what they believed. But it doesn’t tell us the whole story—it would be too long to read at Mass. As you might expect, all seven of them die bravely for what they believe. But the climax of the story comes towards the end, when the cruel king Antiochus gives the mother a chance to convince her youngest son to save himself.

She takes the chance eagerly—but instead of trying to change his mind, she begs him to accept death bravely.

How is it possible for a father or a mother to say such things? There are two answers, one natural and the other supernatural.

I’ve already given the natural answer. Some people hold beliefs and convictions that are stronger than the fear of death itself. There have been martyrs in many religious traditions, and men and women who have died for their political beliefs. And of course as Remembrance Day nears, we recognize the millions of soldiers and sailors and airmen who died defending human freedom.

Courage like that is one of the noblest attributes of human nature.

But there is a supernatural answer. The general, the Jewish mother, and her sons all shared a religious belief. They had faith in the resurrection of the dead, although in different ways.

The readings today are meant to make us think about our own faith in the resurrection. Do our hearts cherish this belief like the fourth son who professes it boldly even under torture?

Do we have the practical faith in the resurrection of the dead that his mother showed when she told the seventh son “Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back along with your brothers”?

Today’s Gospel doesn’t mention the seven brothers or their mother, but it helps us to admire their faith. The exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees points us to something very important: Jews did not have a uniform belief in the resurrection of the dead; the doctrine that developed late in Israel history.

The Sadducees were opposed to the Pharisees, who taught that the just would rise again. This was a real point of dispute.

So compare our situation to that of these devout Jews. Our faith in the resurrection of the body is central, not disputed. We don’t side with one group in a religious debate, but with the whole Church, from its very beginning. We rely on the most convincing of all arguments: the fact that Jesus himself rose from the dead.

Convincing you that Jesus rose from the dead and that we will rise from the dead is not the purpose of this homily. I can assume that most if not all of the congregation believes the Creed that we profess each Sunday. The question for us today is practical, not theological. What difference does our faith in the resurrection from the dead mean in our lives?

It’s a fair bet that none of us will have to answer the question as directly as the mother and her sons. Still, do we meet the less challenging forms of the question with at least a shadow of their courage and faith?

We are challenged to put our faith in the resurrection—which includes our belief in eternal life—every time someone we love dies or falls gravely ill. Knowing we are children of the resurrection means knowing that death is not the end or the ultimate evil.

We are challenged to look beyond the limits of earthly existence whenever our earthly plans are threatened by those who attack us for being Christians. We won’t be forced to deny our faith under pain of death, like the Jewish martyrs, but we may be tempted to it by fear of losing a promotion or tenure or friends. That’s when we need to laugh at the death of our ambitions, because of the hope that is within our hearts.

We must never doubt that there are some things more important than life itself, nor of the fact that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate proof of that belief.

And during this month of November, traditionally the month of prayer for the Holy Souls, we need a practical faith in the resurrection of the dead that spurs us on to generous prayer for the faithful departed, because God is a God of the living, not the dead.
 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Parish Life is NEVER Boring!

Don't go looking for me... but see if you can spot the brave Father Paul!


Monday, October 31, 2016

The Lesson of Zacchaeus: Discipleship Leads to Stewardship


We’ve reached the third Sunday of our Covenant of One. We’ve talked about time and talent; now we look at how Christian stewards share their treasure, how they look at charitable giving.

Pastors don’t like preaching about money. But some of us are better at it than others, so I called a priest friend for advice.

I told him I wasn’t getting much help from today’s Gospel story of Zacchaeus—the mere mention of a tax collector makes people close their wallets and purses, not open them!

My friend’s offered a simple suggestion: “Oh,” he said, “Just invite the parishioners to give half of their possessions to the poor. By the time they figure out you’re joking, they’ll be thrilled to give an hour’s wages to the Church!”

Joking aside, the meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus has a great message about discipleship and money.

The story unfolds in four acts: first, the tax collector lets curiosity get the better of him. He made an effort “to see who Jesus was.”

Jesus quickly rewards his tree-climbing courage! In act two of the mini-drama, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. Jesus even invites himself to be a guest at his house.

Act three moves just as fast. The impulsive tax collector promises half of his possessions to the poor, and fourfold restitution to those he’s cheated. From what we know of tax collectors at the time, Zacchaeus isn’t going to have a whole lot left over when he’s finished.

The final act contains the message for us today. Right after the tax collector makes his promise, Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation came to Zacchaeus because he met and welcomed Jesus, not because he gave away half of all he owned. But Zacchaeus showed he’d received the gift of salvation by letting go of his wealth.

You can’t buy salvation, but what we do with our money is an excellent test of whether we know we’re saved.

Stewardship of our finances and sacrificial support of the Church and other good works does not make someone a disciple. But real disciples become, almost inevitably, financial stewards and sacrificial donors. I didn’t learn this is the seminary or read it in a book; the generous parishioners of this parish taught me that lesson.

I’ll bet you think this homily’s just my way to increase the collection and Project Advance. Please hear me out: I am not asking you for money. I am asking you to ask yourself: does my stewardship of money reveal that salvation has come to my house.

Has Jesus invited himself to stay with you? If so, have you welcomed him?

Obviously, the Lord didn’t walk by, call you out of your tree, and unpack in your guestroom. But he wants to stay in your heart—to dwell there as he promised. He wants to do the same thing for you that he did for Zacchaeus—to awaken “new possibilities of love and service.” [The Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 970]

There’s what these the three Sundays of our Covenant of One series are all about—allowing a relationship with Jesus to awaken new possibilities of love and service in our lives. On the first Sunday, we asked ourselves “Has knowing Jesus challenged me to sacrifice some time to welcome him lovingly in prayer?” On the second, we asked “Has knowing him inspired me to greater service, using my talents for others?”

The answers to those questions are measurable. Are we giving an hour to love and service, an hour each week to sharing time and talent?

The third question, “Am I offering an hour’s wages to the Lord?” is the easiest to measure. Perhaps it’s the least important. Still, Jesus said the tax collector’s decisions about money proved his conversion was sincere and real.

Today we ask the Lord to do for us what he did for Zacchaeus—to meet us, to stay with us, and to open new possibilities of love and service in us.

Our lives are confusing, even chaotic, at times. We can’t all be as decisive and bold as Zacchaeus, although we recently lost a wonderful parishioner, the late Ernest Bunderla, who could climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood. We’re each called to discipleship in a different way, but we’re all called to the same salvation in Christ.

Today I want to recognize the spirit of discipleship that so many of you have shown in your support of our annual Project Advance campaign and the Sunday collection. It’s a measurable sign of the strength of this parish community.

I also want to challenge others who haven’t yet made the connection between sacrificial giving and discipleship that Zacchaeus showed. If you haven’t supported our annual Project Advance campaign, be as impetuous—if not as generous—as that tax collector!

I invite you to make a donation this Sunday or next—before the Year of Mercy ends. The campaign has a special aspect this year, since it supports the spiritual and corporal works of mercy we’ve chosen to do as a parish, along with usual bricks and mortar projects.

You can help the Harvest Project to clothe the naked, and our prison ministry volunteers to visit prisoners; help parishioners in need with counselling and funeral expenses; strengthen the parish’s mission to those who want to see Jesus.

Certainly, I want Project Advance to succeed, and we’re within sight of our goal. But most of all, I want every parishioner to experience the genuine joys of stewardship.

Let me close with a true story, since I made up the one I told at the beginning of the homily! The other day I met a fine gentlemen I hadn’t seen since I celebrated his mother’s funeral in 2010. He’s passionate about Christian stewardship, and he actually built a church in his mother’s honour in her native Hungary while she was still alive.

It was natural that we got on the subject of money and discipleship. We had a great conversation, and he said something I won’t forget: “We learn in grade one that it’s better to give than to receive—it just takes about fifty years to figure it out.”

There’s a lot of truth in that, but Zacchaeus didn’t take fifty years. He didn't take fifty minutes
he figured it out in five. Let’s ask Jesus to make all of us such quick learners.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Our Covenant of One: A Pittance of Time



On the morning of November 11, 1999, a singer and songwriter named Terry Kelly was in a drug store in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. At 10:55 a.m. an announcement came over the store's PA asking customers  to give two minutes of silence at eleven o'clock.

When eleven o'clock arrived, the announcement was repeated and the customers stopped and showed their respect for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in war. All but one, that is. One man, accompanied by his young child, tried to get a clerk to serve him during the period of silence.

Terry Kelly is blind, so he couldn't see the man. But he heard him, and it made him angry. From his anger came a song that will, I think, be heard on Remembrance Day for many years to come.


When our school children sing the song "A Pittance of Time" at their Remembrance Day service the anger is gone but the message remains powerful.

Take two minutes, would you mind?

It's a pittance of time,
For the boys and the girls who went over.
In peace may they rest, may we never
Forget why they died.
It's a pittance of time.


Today, our parish renews its annual Covenant of One, three Sundays when we ask ourselves how we have shared our time, talent and treasure with God and with one another.

Today, in particular, we renew our commitment to spending time in prayer.

Jesus points us in the right direction in this morning's Gospel. He reminds us of the power of prayer, and of how constant prayer keeps our hearts strong and grows our faith.

And the first reading is a beautiful example of keeping up our prayer even when we're weary.

But what does Jesus mean when he tells us "to pray always"?  Many of us have enough trouble praying sometimes.

Father Robert Spitzer offers one beautiful answer in his book Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life.  He suggests that we need to have short spontaneous prayers ready at every moment. The first one he proposes is just "Help!" He says that little prayer is enough to bring us a host of graces from the loving heart of God.

His favourite spontaneous prayer is one we've all memorized already: "Thy will be done."  Father Spitzer says "If we give our problems over to God by praying, 'Thy will be done,' He will bring good for us, others, the community, the culture, and His kingdom out of the most bizarre, tragic, desolate, angering, hurtful, fearful, tempting and confusing dimensions of our lives."

Another way to pray always is to develop an awareness that God is working through all the events of our daily life. He is present in good times and bad, always seeking to reveal himself to us.

St. Ignatius of Loyola gave us a simple and effective way to find God in everyday life. It's a process of prayer where we look back on our day, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and find God there, We also recognize those moments when we noticed him and those when we may have turned away.

There are numerous approaches to St. Ignatius's method of examining ourselves and our day, but Matthew Kelly gives us a seven-point version that he's printed on a card small enough for a wallet or shirt pocket. We've bought copies for each of you to take home--on one condition!

The condition is that you're ready to renew your Covenant of One by pledging to the Lord an hour of prayer. Matthew Kelly's prayer process takes less than ten minutes a day; do it daily, and you've fulfilled that pledge.

It's a pittance of time, when you think of it, lest we forget the One whose sacrifice was the greatest of all.




Sunday, October 2, 2016

Plant those mustard seeds! (27.C)

When I was in high school I read a novel that I’ve never forgotten. It was the story of a priest who took today’s Gospel seriously. Well, to be more precise, he took seriously the version of today’s Gospel that we read in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, since they both record Jesus talking about moving mountains rather than mulberry bushes.

The book, written in 1931 (when I was not in high school, just for the record), was called “Father Malachy’s Miracle.” It tells how a humble monk asked God to move a dance hall—the closest thing to a night club in a seaside village—to a barren island off the coast of Scotland. He’d made the prayer after a Protestant minister scoffed at miracles.

The moral of the story was quite simple. The miracle didn’t achieve anything. Poor Father Malachy got in trouble with both the bishop and the dance hall owner. And if my memory serves me right, even the minister was not impressed.


That’s not to say Father Malachy didn’t achieve anything by taking today’s Gospel seriously. In a fictional way, he accomplished something very important: he taught me not to take today’s Gospel seriously.

At least not to take it literally—for that is really and truly to miss what Jesus is saying to us.

In the first place, we get sidetracked if we take his words literally. It almost sounds like Jesus is daring his disciples. You can’t uproot trees (or move mountains), therefore your faith must be smaller than a mustard seed.


In St. Luke’s account of Christ’s teaching that we read today, Jesus talks about planting a tree in the sea. Right off the bat this suggests his point isn’t to be taken literally. What on earth’s the good of planting a tree in the sea? It could neither take root nor be sustained by salt water.

Moving mountains has more appeal. Let’s improve things for local skiers and pray Blackcomb Mountain moves to the North Shore. Go ahead—try it.

No luck? Ah, no faith. That’s the way it feels.

But I sure don’t think it’s the message Jesus is giving us.

Let’s look again at the text. The apostles say “Increase our faith!” It’s a sincere and simple a prayer. So often they ask Jesus for the wrong thing, but this time they get it right. Do you think he would answer with a taunt, an impossible proposal, or a silly experiment?

Is that what he says to us today? No miracle, no faith?

Surely not. So what is the message of today’s Gospel?

I suggest it has to do with the mustard seed. And not so much with its size but the mere fact it’s a seed. What do you do with seeds? You plant them. You water them. You give them light. And they grow.

That’s what Jesus is saying. Plant the seed of faith you have—tiny though it may be—and watch it grow. Don’t think about the faith you lack—nurture the faith you have!

The apostles give us a great example; a three-word prayer for an increase in faith. The Bible gives us another great prayer to use: the father of a sick boy says “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Prayer plants, waters and gives light to the seed of faith, but growth also requires nutrients like reflection and study. We want to have more faith—people often speak to me about how they envy the faith of this person or that—but we don’t read the Catechism, subscribe to a magazine like The Word Among Us, or attend a parish faith formation event from one year to the next.

Not one new parishioner showed up at the first two Tuesday evenings of Symbolon, our engaging series on the Catholic faith. We were very happy to welcome back several faithful folk from last year, and delighted that some inquirers had come; but it seems everyone in the parish is comfortable they know what they need to know about the Lord, his teaching and his Church.

For a seed to produce a thriving plant, some weeding may also be necessary. Habits of sin, of course, can block the development of our faith—although, often enough, it’s faith in God’s mercy that permits us to carry on despite our failures. Maybe the weeds we need to uproot are some of the things that make us too busy to pray, to read, or to join with others in the study of our faith.

This is very bad time to face life without strong faith. Just like the prophet Habakkuk in the first reading, we see violence and destruction all around. We see the enemies of God winning battle after battle, despite our prayers and his promises of victory.

St. Paul does a better job than I can of urging us forward in faith. He doesn’t use the image of seeds but of embers—rekindle the gift of God you received in baptism and confirmation. Another translation puts it even better: fan it into a flame!

Sherry Weddell, the author of “Forming Intentional Disciples,” shared some powerful words from St. John Paul’s document on catechesis when she spoke in Vancouver last month. He wrote that there are baptized Catholics without any significant personal attachment to Jesus Christ. They only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechesi tradendae, 19).

The bad news is that some of those Catholics may be in Church today. Perhaps their parents didn’t share the faith with them, or perhaps their teachers or priests failed to present Jesus and his message in convincing way.

But the good news is that they do have the capacity to believe, given to them in Baptism and Confirmation. The seed is there! It may be tiny, but it is there, and God put it there!

Wherever we are on the journey of faith, the Word of God tells us today that there are greater things to come—if we will fan those embers into a flame by prayer and study. Not the faith that moves trees and mountains, but the faith that sees us through suffering, fear, grief and every other challenge that we’ll meet through life.

That’s the true miracle of faith.