Sunday, January 29, 2012

Divine Authority (Sunday 4B)

Meryl Streep’s latest movie, “The Iron Lady,” won’t break any box office records, since fans of Margaret Thatcher don’t like its disrespectful treatment of her old age, and the younger generation has already started to forget her.

But the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain doesn’t need to worry about her place in the history books; that’s secure enough.

And at least she would like the title of the film. The "iron lady" took pride in her nickname. When they unveiled a bronze statue of Lady Thatcher in the Houses of Parliament, she commented “I might have preferred iron – but bronze will do, since it won't rust.”

Twenty years after her retirement there are still bitter disagreements about Margaret Thatcher's policies. But there's little disagreement about her unflinching determination. People who didn't admire her beliefs still admired the remarkable way she stuck to them.

Deep down, we don't trust people who tell us what they think we want to hear.

One thing we know about Jesus: he never told people what he thought they wanted to hear. He was not afraid of being unpopular: at one point people wanted to throw him off a cliff, some of his own disciples quit when he told them his body and blood were real food and drink, and of course eventually his teaching led him to the cross. 

Yet today's Gospel shows us the attracting power of his uncompromising words. The people were “astonished” at Christ's teaching; they were “amazed.” One modern translation even says, “they were being knocked out with astonishment” (R. Gundry).

In particular, the folks listening to Jesus in the synagogue were dazzled by the authority of his teaching.

Did you notice how St. Mark underlined that?  He didn’t tell us a single thing Jesus said at Capernaum: not one word! 

Archbishop Prendergast makes this point clearly in his commentary on today's Gospel text.
“Mark stressed the impact of Jesus’ teaching without telling us what feature of it displayed that authority. His focus was on the authority as such and on the people's reaction."

So it seems right that we should spend a few moments thinking about authority as such, and on our reaction to it. Some of us grew up times when authority was respected, others when authority was routinely rejected; but all of us need to understand the special place it plays in our spiritual lives.

Many references to authority in the Catechism are about political or public authority; I’m not talking about that today. The Catechism also has a lot to say about authority in the Church; and even that's not where I'm going this morning.

Today, I want to talk about divine authority—about God’s authority, the authority with which Jesus taught in the synagogue at Capernaum. There’s not so much about that in the Catechism, perhaps because it seems obvious.

But if it’s obvious, it’s not as obvious as it once was.  Rabbi Harold Kushner’s latest book is titled “I’m God, You’re Not.” Not so many years ago, that title wouldn’t have made much sense, but nowadays there are a whole lot of people—including Catholics—who need to think that over. We have taken to insisting that God fit in with modern thinking in ways that really do not acknowledge his authority over us.

At least half the time someone challenges me about the Church’s teaching, they are challenging not her authority but God’s. They do not recognize God’s absolute and sovereign right to command whatever he chooses; they reject the Lord’s words “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,  nor are your ways my ways,” which we find in the book of the Prophet Isaiah.

Of course even the most half-hearted believers won’t turn to God and say “what right have you to tell me this or that?” They’re probably afraid he might actually answer them by saying “because I’m God, and you’re not.”

Instead, they say things like “well, the Church better get with it,” or “it’s not good to be too religious” or even “I hate religion, but I love Jesus.” That last line can simply mean “I love Jesus, but not when he tries to tell me what to do.”

Rejection of God’s authority is especially common when our bodies are involved. The pro-abortion argument that a woman has a right to her body is one example. In fact, with no apologies at all, God claims full authority over us, body and soul. St. Paul couldn’t make that clearer when he writes “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

Efforts to exclude God from civic life, from the public square, are also based on a refusal to acknowledge the supremacy of God. His laws, both natural and revealed, are only to be obeyed when they coincide with our human appraisal of the situation.

What is the correct way to understand God’s authority over our lives? The Catechism answers this very well when it says that we don’t believe because revealed truths are obviously true to our human reason but “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them,” God “who can neither deceive nor be deceived.”

Of course God has made sure that our submission in faith is nonetheless in accordance with reason. “The miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability” are very helpful signs of divine Revelation.  Our assent to revealed truth is reasonable; by no means is it “a blind impulse” (see CCC 156). Yet ultimately, we believe because of God’s authority—even when our human understanding falters.

To continue with the Catechism, “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie” (CCC 157).

A couple of the candidates running for president in the United States could learn a thing or two from the Iron Lady. The number of times they’ve changed what they claim to believe is nothing short of astonishing, and people distrust them as a result.

Jesus inspires our trust by his complete consistency and confident authority. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, Jesus “was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’” If we aren’t amazed and astonished—even knocked out—by the authority of his teaching, perhaps it’s time to take today’s Psalm to heart: O that today you would listen to his voice—harden not your hearts.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Power of Now: Sunday 3.A

A few years back a parishioner gave me a copy of a New Age bestseller called The Power of Now. It seemed an odd thing to hand your pastor, and odder still when my head started to swim with the author's convoluted ideas.

So I asked the parishioner what he had in mind by giving me the book. "Oh," he said, "Someone gave it to me, and I sure didn't want to read it."

But there was one good thing about the book: the title. In four words it sums up an important message from today's scriptures.

Jonah was a slow learner; he found out the power of "now" after trying to avoid the will of God. The first sentence of today's first reading has been badly edited in the Lectionary. We read "The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, 'get up, go to Nineveh," but that's not exactly how chapter three begins.

In the Bible, it says "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…" In between the first time and the second time, Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord in an effort to avoid his mission. And we all know what happened next: he is shipwrecked, and swallowed by a whale.

He learned the power of now the hard way, so when God commands him a second time, he gets a move on.

St. Paul was a much faster learner, and when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, he's all about "now," spending his energies tirelessly, making up for lost time with missionary zeal. He literally lives like there's no tomorrow—because he's not sure about tomorrow. Like many in the early Church, Paul expects the return of Lord at any time.

Almost two thousand years have gone by since Jesus ascended to the Father, so we tend to be less convinced than Paul was that time is short. We may even think he was simply wrong in his lively expectation of the Second Coming.

But of course Paul was not wrong. Jesus himself tells us that he is "coming at an unexpected hour" (Mt 24:44) and says his followers "do not belong to the world" (Jn 17:14-16). And all of us past fifty know from experience that time is short—that even if the Lord does not return in our lifetime, we will return to him sooner than we might like.

The teaching of Jesus is mostly about "now" and much less about "then" or "when." Even though he promises an eternal reward, he is always reminding us that the Kingdom is at hand. Time is short because time is fulfilled: Jesus has already begun his reign.

The Lord uses simple imperatives to convey the timeliness and urgency of his message: "repent" and "believe." He doesn't tell us to begin a lengthy process of self-discovery so we can slowly mature into Christians. Repent and believe—you can almost hear him add: now.

There's a tale told by Professor Barclay that I have used in many sermons, because it makes such a practical point about these important truths. It's the story of a job interview in Hell. Three devils applied for a vacant position as tempters on earth.

Satan asked the first candidate what he would do to ruin souls. He replies that he would convince them there is no Heaven. Satan sneers that people naturally know there must be something to reward earthly virtue, something beyond their horizons. "They'll never fall for that," he says, and sends the unsuccessful applicant on his way.

The next devil comes in, and Satan asks the same question. Very confidently, the eager devil says "I would convince them that there's no such place as Hell." Satan erupts with laughter. "What a useless strategy! The human sense of justice will see through that in a minute. Get out of my office."

Finally, the last candidate begins his interview. When Satan asks what he would do to capture souls, the third devil says "I would convince them that there's lots and lots of time."

Satan smiled. "You've got the job."

Even Satan knows the power of now—and the ruinous power of "later." Time has grown short, and later all too often means "never."

At the 9 and 11 Masses today, we are blessed to meet the men and women who have decided that now is the time—either to be baptized or to enter in to full communion with the Catholic Church. They declare their intention so we'll know we should support and pray for them. But they also remind us that our time is short, and that our moment is now.

Do we need to make a more radical commitment to our faith? That's a wordy way of asking "do we need to repent"? Do we need to believe more fully in the good news?"

Friday night I spoke to two or three hundred people at the fiftieth Life in the Spirit seminar held in this diocese; to my surprise, the organizer told me I had spoken at the first seminar as well, nineteen years ago. Most of the people there are baptized, confirmed and practicing. They came out on a stormy night because they know the Kingdom has come near, and they feel a need to experience its fruits more fully.

One of the reasons why evangelical Protestant churches are so strong is that they invite adult Christians to make a decision for Christ now. Needless to say, a one-time "yes" to God is no substitute for perseverance over the years. But nor is unfocussed Christian living a substitute for a personal act of faith here and now.

In many Protestant evangelical churches, at this point in the sermon the preacher would invite people to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus. Those who wished to would stand before the altar as a symbol of their decision, which is why the invitation is referred to as an "altar call"—even in churches without altars.

An "altar call" is not part of our tradition. We sometimes say that coming forward to receive Communion is the perfect altar call.

But maybe Catholic preachers should be less shy about inviting people to renew their commitment to Jesus right here and now. It's easy to agree with a homily that says we should do something in the future; it's a greater challenge to decide whether to do something now.

So today I'm inviting you to bow your heads and experience the power of now—the power of a renewed commitment to Christ. I'm going to read you part of the commitment prayer that is used in the Life in the Spirit seminars. Make it your own as I pray it; if you wish, repeat each phrase in your heart.

Lord Jesus Christ, I surrender to you today with all my heart and soul. From now on, I want to belong to you totally and completely. I want to be freed in every way from the power and rule of Satan.

Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God, that you died on the cross to free from my sins and that you rose again to bring me new life. I receive you as my Lord and Saviour. I ask you to help me turn away from all wrong doing and I ask your forgiveness for all the sins I have committed.

Lord, I give my life to you. I open wide the doors of my heart and I ask you to fill me with your presence.



Sunday, January 15, 2012

Groups and Church Communion

Our Catholic schools sponsored a fundraising dinner last night for the Imagine Project, an exciting effort to provide a community center at Sacred Heart Parish in one of Vancouver's poorest neighbourhoods.

They auctioned off the usual items: dinner for two at a fancy restaurant, a pair of Canucks tickets, a weekend for two at downtown hotel.

But imagine if they'd offered a dinner for one. Or one ticket to a hockey game. Or a weekend getaway for one.

No-one would have bid anything, except perhaps for a few hard-pressed mothers, who might have paid big money to stay alone at the hotel. But generally, we don't do many things by ourselves.

Have you ever wondered why that is? I still can't figure out why I can't go to a movie by myself; after all, you don't talk to anyone during the film—at least you shouldn't!—and conversation afterwards isn't usually the point.

The answer is actually quite simple: we are social beings. You can't understand people without realizing that. And that's just as true when it comes to the Church. Many aspects of her life and mission are tied to the social nature of her members.

That simple fact is the natural basis of what I want to talk about this morning. The supernatural side of the story is the word "communion." It has many meanings, the first of which has a capital C: we speak of "going to Communion," when we receive the Eucharist.

Today I'm using communion with a small C, because the word also refers to the community life in the Body of Christ that is the effect of the Eucharist*; it even refers to the nature of the Church itself—the Catechism says the Church is a communion (n. 688).

So there's our starting point: the members of the Church are people, who are social by nature; and the Church by nature is a communion of people in communion with one another and in communion with God.

From that starting point, Blessed John Paul drew a conclusion of enormous importance to the Church and to our own parish. In his letter on the life and mission of the laity, he wrote: "Church communion, already present and at work in the activities of the individual, finds its specific expression in the lay faithful's working together in groups…"

Think about what this means! Somehow, when groups participate in the Church's life and mission, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If a group of ten people visit the sick, something happens beyond what happens if ten people each decide to visit the sick.

That "something" is simply this: the group becomes a sign of communion. All the good done by each individual is present, but added to it there's what Pope John Paul called a "cultural" effect: the group becomes a sign of unity and community to a fractured world.

Groups, associations and movements in the Church are not only a result of the social nature of the person, but also a way of building community in the Church and in our individualistic world.

This doesn't take anything away from the enormous good that's done by individuals. Every time a single parishioner visits someone in hospital, or drives an elderly person to Mass, he or she participates in the Church's mission of charity. When one man or woman asks someone to Alpha, or shares the faith in another way, they carry on the Church's mission of spreading the Gospel.

What the late Pope is saying is simply that something specific and valuable comes when such things are done by groups or associations: namely, Church communion is expressed. Something central to the nature of the Church can be seen clearly.

Like so much that came from the brilliant mind of Blessed John Paul, these concepts—which might sound a bit abstract—have very practical consequences for us. In two words: groups matter. They matter to the Church, which needs them not only to promote its mission but to strengthen and manifest its communion. They matter to each Christian, since, as John Paul has written, belonging to a group can be a big help in remaining faithful to the demands of the Gospel and our commitment to the Church's mission.

And what he is saying matters very much to our parish, because whatever is true about individuals and whatever is true about the Church is, of course, true about the parish of Christ the Redeemer and its members.

Groups matter to our parish. It can neither be what it's called to be, or do what it's called to do, without groups and associations.

In concrete terms, this means a strong parish needs strong groups. It also means that we must fight the temptation of avoiding groups because we'd rather do good on our own time, in our way. It means that meetings are important even if no-one, myself included, likes going to them.

It means that we must support the groups that have traditionally been the backbone of Canadian Catholic life: the Catholic Women's League, the Knights of Columbus, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

It means also that we must be open to the new groups and movements that Pope John Paul identifies as part of a "new era of group endeavours." These include various and very different group forms, including organized new movements like Focolare or the Neo-Catechumenal Way, less formal groups promoting the Catholic charismatic renewal, or the prelature of Opus Dei.

And it means that the parish should encourage the formation of small groups to carry on various activities under its umbrella.

Today I want to focus on "the big three": the Catholic Women's League, the Knights of Columbus, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Today's society makes life difficult for all such voluntary organizations, whether they are Catholic or not: even the Masons have trouble recruiting nowadays, and I noticed in the paper the closing of a branch of the Canadian Legion. People are busier and busier, and more and more tired at the end of the day. Social ties among Catholics are weaker, and it becomes an uphill battle to find members and especially leaders for parish groups.

But there are compelling reasons why we must fight these trends. I've given you many of them already. Let me add two more: first, some good work can only be accomplished by groups. No individual parishioner should try caroling at a nursing home—at least not unless he or she has a wonderful voice and an ego to match.

And second, groups keep us moving. My Mom exercised for years with a group she called the pool ladies, who met regularly at a local swimming pool. Now that she's moved here, she has discovered her apartment building has its own "pool ladies," and she exercises with them.

I'm not doubting my mother's self-discipline, but it's hard to imagine she would have been so faithful to her exercises without the group.

The CWL, K of C, and SVDP have been part of the Church for so long that we recognize them by initials alone. Still, we may not recognize all that they do: in the parish, they are three pillars supporting much of what we do, and you know about that from the bulletin and your own experience. But all three also do tremendous work outside the parish: the K of C is one of the strongest supporters of the Church internationally, the CWL advocates for social justice and civil rights nationally, and the SVDP does extensive charitable work throughout the Archdiocese, notably in the downtown east side.

Attending a meeting may not be exciting, but it's fair to say "no meetings, no mission."

After Mass today, you will find members of "the big three" in the foyer asking you to join them. Please give their invitation some serious thought if you'd like to get more serious about living your faith and sharing in the Church's communion and mission.

And if you already belong, I hope that you might give some thought to saying "yes" when you're invited to leadership. Nowadays it's even harder to get leaders than members.

One final thought: As with every other act of stewardship, you're very likely to find that you receive more than you give. In his powerful little booklet called Is Real Change Possible?, Peter Herbeck writes that "One reason why many Christians don't experience the power to change is that they are living in isolation. The Christian life was not meant to be lived alone. Christianity is a communion of passionate lovers, of people whose hearts are together set on God." 

* See L. Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology (1965) 91.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Alpha: A Gift Fit for a King

Did you come to church empty-handed this morning? And I'm not talking about whether you remembered your envelopes or your wallets.

I'm asking what gifts you brought to offer to the Lord. What homage will you pay to Jesus as we celebrate his birth?

Most of us wouldn't dream of arriving at a birthday party without a gift. So how can we celebrate this great mystery without one?

Each of us is invited to join the procession to Bethlehem, foretold by Isaiah's prophecy in our first reading, prefigured in our Psalm, and described in the Matthew's account of the visit of the wise men.

Like excited youngsters attending a birthday party, we need to say "here, this is for you!" and wait eagerly for the reaction.

But what are we to bring? What can we offer the Creator of the world?

It's a fair bet that no-one has brought him gold, or frankincense or myrrh. These aren't what Jesus needs or asks. Today, he doesn't ask for symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh but very practical gifts of time, talent, and treasure.

When we offer the Christ Child our time, our talent, and our treasure, we do exactly what the wise men did: we pay him homage. We allow our joy at his birth to overflow into our lives. We admit to being overwhelmed by the Star of Bethlehem that brings light to the darkest corners of our lives and our world.

I'm not going to talk about the powerful symbolism of the gold, frankincense and myrrh this Sunday; it's enough to say that the Epiphany story would be incomplete without all three. And it's enough to say that Christians don't choose whether to offer time, talent, or treasure: we are called by baptism, and by discipleship, to offer all three as we kneel before our King.

But still you ask: what am I to offer? Is this homily about increasing the collection?

Not at all. Even at Bethlehem, the greatest gift the Magi offered was their time. T.S. Eliot reminds us of that in his poem "The Journey of the Magi," which begins by quoting a seventeenth-century homily: "A cold coming we had of it/ Just the worst time of the year/ For a journey, and such a long journey."

What was true then is true today. The light that has shone in our hearts, the dawn that draws us, the mystery made known to us, and the promise given to us logically and necessarily require a response. And how can we respond without offering time?

So far in this brief homily I have asked eight questions. They may seem rhetorical—they haven't made anyone too uncomfortable. It's time, then, to ask a question that's very practical: are you willing this month to take the time and make the effort to share the true joy of Christmas with someone you know?

Even more specifically: will you offer the Lord the gift he most desires, by asking a friend, a neighbour or a co-worker to come to the Alpha course?

Will you take the time to come with them on Monday nights?
The Alpha course invites people to share "in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" that St. Paul speaks of in our second reading. It makes known the basic truths of the mystery that God has revealed through the coming of Christ.

It's not a catechism course. It's not a refresher course. It's twelve weeks of what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity"—namely, the fundamental truths about the life and death of Jesus and all that they mean for sinful man.

Alpha is fast and funny. The food is good. And the atmosphere is welcoming. The other day someone asked me whether they could ask an atheist to Alpha. I laughed and said "Of course! Alpha is tailor-made for atheists. We'd love to see Dawkins at Alpha; it would have been great to see poor Christopher Hitchens at Alpha."

My family is a gift-giving family. But there's not much spontaneous about our gifts. Before every birthday or Christmas there's a jungle telegraph that communicates a list of suitable gifts; sometimes all I have to do is wrap it. It's that easy: no need to guess.

Today, in our parish, there's no need to guess. If you want a gift idea for the birthday of our Saviour, bring someone to him; go through the list of people who've asked you about your faith, or who have criticized your faith, or who seem to have lost their faith. Ask them to Alpha—more precisely, ask them to come with you to Alpha.

Your gift of time may open eternity to someone; but whatever comes of it, you will have offered a gift fit for a King.