Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stewardship - Part 1

It's only fair that I tell you that my homily's a long one today. I'm a bit nervous about that, because I heard the other day about a parishioner who came up to her pastor after Mass and said "Father, your homily today reminded me of the peace and love of God!"

He was thrilled, and replied "No one has ever said anything like that about my preaching before. Tell me why."

"Well," she said, "it reminded me of the peace of God because it passed all understanding and the love of God because it endured forever!"

The fact is, a short sermon on stewardship is pretty near impossible: because stewardship is, quite simply, a way of life. It touches all that we do, inside and outside of Church. Today, we're going to take a look at half a dozen ways that stewardship matters to us as Christian men and women, but that's really just a beginning.

But let's get started with these six stewardship truths.

Number one: we are stewards of the sacraments.

In the first reading St. Philip encounters Christians who had been baptized without receiving the Holy Spirit; they hadn't been fully initiated by the apostles. Today, most adults have been confirmed—but have we allowed the graces we received to bear fruit in our lives?

We speak, in fact, of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is not a sacrament but rather a conscious decision to allow the power given us in baptism and confirmation to make a profound difference in us. To welcome and use the spiritual gifts we received in baptism and confirmation is the beginning of all stewardship.

The final sacrament of Christian initiation, the Eucharist, calls us in a particular way to stewardship. A true steward values what has been entrusted to his or her care; a true steward guards what is precious.

To eat the Bread of Life thoughtlessly or unworthily is the direct opposite of a steward's response. To receive the Eucharist in a state of unconfessed grave sin is an irresponsible act, sinful in itself. When we receive the Eucharist without preparation or thanksgiving, we don't maximize the blessing God wants to give us in the Body and Blood of His Son.

Stewards know that they are not owners. We are not entitled to receive Holy Communion on our terms, but according to the law of Christ and His Church.

Other sacraments also invite us to stewardship. The sacrament of penance requires we give an accounting to God, the owner and author of life. Requesting the sacrament of the sick in a timely fashion when we are sick or face surgery, and doing the same for our loved ones, is a way of taking care of ourselves spiritually and making sure we have the strength we need to face illness.

Stewards need to be forward-thinking: a good steward always has a prudent eye on the future. So we need to approach the sacrament of holy orders with a spirit of stewardship, working and praying for sufficient priests to meet our needs.

And we don't need to get too spiritual to see the connection between marriage and stewardship: every family knows the need for careful financial planning and so on. But there's much more involved when the couple are Christian stewards, because they know they have a responsibility for each other's salvation, and a very special responsibility for their children.

Children are not the property of their parents; that idea went out with the Middle Ages. But nor are they independent: parents who know that their children belong to God care for them as stewards, as God's agents.

Just this week there were two stories in the paper about what happens when this relationship between parent and child is not understood. One couple in Toronto are raising their child without reference to gender. They will not say whether the child is a boy or a girl—he or she can make that choice whenever he or she is ready.

A second couple are practicing "unschooling," where children learn whatever they want to learn. They are also in Toronto, by the way, which is probably doing a lot to help BC shed its reputation as Canada's most far-out province.

Catholic schools exist because parents and many others believe we have a duty to share truth with the young. They survive because adults make sacrifices to build and run our schools as stewards of the truth and in a relationship of stewardship towards the younger generation.

Our parish religious education program exists to help parents meet the same responsibilities to children who don't go to Catholic schools.

I've spent so long on our stewardship of the seven sacraments that I'm going to have trouble fulfilling my promise to look at six ways of stewardship. But it's important to talk about our role as stewards of the sacraments, because stewardship of the riches flowing from them is the kind of long-term investment any wise person understands. As St. Augustine has written, "no one can be ready for the next life unless he trains himself for it now."

So let's move to number two: we are stewards of our bodies. We hear more and more about people having a right to their bodies. It began, of course, as an argument for abortion, and has now become an argument for assisted suicide. The assumption, of course, is that we own our bodies and can dispose of them as we please.

The fact is, of course, that we didn't create our bodies, and we don't own our bodies. We're stewards precisely because God is the author of life and the Sovereign owner of all creation—which includes us.

Stewardship of our bodies means more than rejecting abortion and suicide, of course. It means caring for our health by positive means like exercise and a proper diet, and striving to overcome addictions and habits like drugs, smoking and excessive drinking that don't show a steward's respect towards the precious gift of life entrusted to us by God.

It means, of course, using the gift of our sexuality as intended by the Creator, which is to say only within marriage and in a way that is open to the transmission of life.

We might even say that paying attention to funeral planning is a final act of stewardship towards the body God has given us. In our secular society, we can't assume that our heirs or executors will arrange a Catholic funeral with the body present for the funeral Mass. That's one of the reasons we will have a funeral information evening here on Wednesday; the details are in the bulletin.

A third form of stewardship is becoming more and more important: we are stewards of creation. In this area, the Christian understanding of stewardship is crucial to a right use of our natural resources.

Just yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that read "Trees are the answer." Instantly I thought, "But what is the question?"

Stewards know that they have a solemn obligation to conserve what's been entrusted to their care. We can neither neglect nor squander what God has provided. Forestry and mining practices of the past are now clearly seen as inconsistent with our duties as stewards of the environment.

At the same time, a wise steward must know the reason for his stewardship. Who would want to manage a vineyard where the grapes were never picked? The world is not our property, but God gave it to us for a purpose—and that purpose is the good of humanity.

The good of humanity requires sound environmental policies and practices, but in recent times there has been some confusion about what comes first—the good of the planet for its own sake, or the human good. Scripture and the Church teach that all that is exists for the good of man, recognizing always that this good is ill-served when the earth is not respected.

We use this earth and its resources humbly when we know ourselves to be stewards rather than owners.

We can pick up some speed now, since numbers four, five and six are a related trio: as you've heard it said many times before, we are stewards of our time, talent and treasure.

What does it mean to be a steward of your time? First and foremost, it means recognizing that every moment comes from God. In the second reading, St. Peter calls us to keep our hearts holy—to be spiritual all the time, not some of the time.

On a very practical level, a steward understands that time is a limited resource. We only have so much of it. We must give God his proper share by planning our week and our day in a responsible way. This means assigning time every day for prayer, making sure we get to Mass each and every Sunday, and doing our level best to arrive on time.

We all have excuses, of course. There was even one persistent latecomer who told the priest "I'm just following the Lord's example. If Christ can rise up early in the morning just one Sunday a year, that's good enough for me!"

Someone said "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail." That's a truth everyone who misses Mass or regularly arrives late should spend some time thinking about. Stewards are planners.

Stewardship of our talents comes straight from the Gospel. We all know the parable of the slaves who were given money to invest—by a happy coincidence, in many translations the currency was called talents—and we know that the Master wanted to see an increase on his investment.

We provide that increase before God when we use our talents for His glory. There are as many ways as there are human gifts. As I was thinking about my homily yesterday afternoon I looked around the church, and I was dazzled by the beauty of the flowers—not only on the altar but in the side chapels. Do you know how our flowers get arranged? By one dedicated and gifted parishioner, who gives a return to God every week.

The efforts to beautify our church would not have been half as successful if I had been in charge. Instead, parishioners who are architects and designers and simply insightful all donated their time and talent to direct the work.

A young parishioner has spent countless hours working on our new website in recent weeks, while countless parishioners serve on the many committees and councils that keep our parish strong.

Not many like to hear about the stewardship of treasure—about financial generosity—and yet it too is inescapably biblical. Priests usually apologize for speaking about money; yet Jesus never apologized. Neither did Paul. There are a remarkable number of places where the New Testament deals with the need to be generous.

The subject of our assets, and the blessings that come when we no longer think like their owners but as their stewards, is so important that I'll devote the entire homily to it next week. So you can't say you weren't warned.

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