Friday, December 26, 2014

"Christ's Mass" (Christmas Morning)

We have a full church this morning, a great joy to see!

Any time this many people gathers in Canada, it’s a fair bet that we have folks from many different parts of the world. Just looking at our own regular parishioners I recognize some who come from France, Mexico, Germany, Poland, and Korea, to name but a few.

I can only speak a few of the languages used in our parish, although I am famous for my fine pronunciation of ‘thank you’ in Korean! But I do know that Spanish speakers greeted each other this morning with Feliz Navidad, and the French with Joyeux Noel. The Italians will have exchanged Buon Natale, and others will offer a greeting in words I can’t pronounce! (I did attempt to express Christmas greeting in German, but after someone said I’d just wished him a frolicking vineyard, I quit trying.)

Anyway, my point is that only English speakers will use a word anything like ‘Christmas.’ All those other greetings are about the birth of the Saviour. The various words—even Noel—derive from the Latin word for birthday.

I never thought about the importance of this until my dear friend Sister Josephine Carney pointed it out in a talk she gave earlier in the month. The English name for our joyful celebration is formed by the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Mass’—and what a wealth of truth may we find there! Because the birth of Christ simply cannot be separated from the entire story of our redemption.

As St. Augustine wrote “the only Son of God was to come among men, to take the nature of men, and in this nature to be born as a man. He was to die, to rise again, to ascend into heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father, and to fulfill his promises among the nations.”

In other words, Christmas without the Cross is a two-dimensional celebration deprived of its deepest meaning and purpose.

We might also say that Christmas without Christ’s Mass is a past event when God wants it be a present event.

We had a visitor the other day who isn't Catholic; at lunch she told the story of how she found herself unexpectedly at Mass--she'd tried to use the chapel at her university as a quiet place to think about a paper she was writing—on time travel! We all got laugh out of this, but our seminarian Larry turned to the young woman and said “actually, you were in just the right place to think about time travel, because the Mass does not repeat Christ’s death on the Cross, but makes it present, right here and now.”

What Larry said about the Cross could be said about Christmas: when we celebrate the Eucharist the Lord is again made flesh for us as he transforms the bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Christ is present, right here and now.

We say that every Sunday is a little Easter since each week we recall the saving mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection, but I don’t think it’s stretching a point too far to say that every Sunday is also a little Christmas.

The Church offers us a different set of readings for the Masses at midnight, dawn, and during the day. I was told early in my priesthood to stick with the midnight Gospel because everyone wants to hear the Christmas story, complete with angels and shepherds. Fair enough. But there's an important reason not to miss the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, which is the text given for Mass during the day. As Father Xavier said in his Christmas homily, the account of Christ's birth in Matthew and Luke gives us the what, while John's Gospel offers us the why of Christmas.

The Word became flesh to make God--and his love--known to all, to bring light into the darkness of our world and of our lives.

John writes that Christ gave those who believed in him “power to become children of God.” That’s quite a Christmas present! Power to become children of God!

How does this power come to us—how do accept this gift?

The obvious answer is through faith, since John says “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

But the next question is more specific—how do we “receive,” how do we “believe”? This, of course, calls for action. Which is why, in part, the parish offers everyone here a Christmas gift, a book on prayer. Prayer is the conversation that nourishes faith. I hope you’ll all take a book with you after Mass: it is short, but it offers eternal wisdom and lasting joys.

To answer the question we must also go back to what I said a few moments about the Mass. It, too, is prayer, but of a unique sort; the Eucharist is where we encounter God’s power at work in our lives; it is where we can travel to Bethlehem, to Nazareth, and ultimately to Jerusalem and Calvary.

Christ’s Mass is where we experience his first coming and await his second; it is where we meet him, no longer as a helpless infant, but as the Risen Lord. It’s wonderful that we’re together this morning looking at Jesus in the manger, but it is far more wonderful that we gather each week to celebrate the difference he makes in our lives—peace in place of anxiety, certainty in place of confusion, and hope instead of fear.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Midnight Mass: The Stable our Shelter

For many years generous parishioners have put up the manger scene that stands outside our church tonight. But last year someone either stole the wood used for the stable, or else it was carted off during our spring cleaning. I hope that was what happened, otherwise I’d have to tell you the story of how the Grinch stole the Christmas Crib.

Our carpenter was not defeated by the loss of his lumber. He used much more substantial boards to build this year’s stable—I almost wondered whether he had been reading about the Church’s recent commitment to seismic upgrades!

I’m not sure you’d want to take shelter in that stable during an earthquake, but the sight of its sturdy roof did get me thinking: the humble stable at Bethlehem is a safe place and a sure refuge for all of us. Mary and Joseph were turned away from the inn but they make space for us beside the manger.

We are welcome there—because we are family. Jesus is our brother, truly God but truly human. He is no less our brother because he is our Saviour; he could not be our Saviour if he were not our brother.

God in human form may seem impossible to grasp, or it may seem a truth without consequences. Yet Pope Benedict XVI told young people at World Youth Day “the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy, has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.”

What happiness are you seeking? That is a good question at Christmas. We long for happiness because that’s how God made us. And surely by revealing himself in the flesh God intended to fulfill our deepest longing.

Of course the happiness that Christmas brings to the Christian is not the “holly jolly” feelings we hear in seasonal songs. It is the deep kind of happiness that can survive external challenges, whether bereavement, unemployment, family problems, or illness.

How does that work? It works by assuring us that there is One who understands how we feel, knows what we fear, and walks where we walk. In the plain words of the gifted Protestant preacher Rick Warren, “Jesus knew what it was like to feel pain and be under pressure. Jesus became what we are, so we can become what he is.”

There’s the reality of Christmas: God humbled himself to share in our humanity that we might come to share in his divinity. There’s a purpose to all of this. By becoming man Jesus allows us to become part of His great work of salvation.

As partners in his mission, we can unite our sufferings with Christ’s; we can find meaning in failure; we can be free of the fear of death itself; even as we work out our own salvation we can help to save others.

Gazing at the Christ child, we must allow our hearts and minds to take flight in joy. What has happened is beyond the power of the most beautiful Christmas carol, but perhaps the words of St. Augustine do some justice to this holy night.

St. Augustine says that we have reached the time of the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And what were they? Augustine says “eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the Angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after resurrection from the dead, no further fear of dying.”

The great fourth-century preacher added “it was not enough for God to make his Son our guide to the way; he made him the way itself that we might travel with him as leader, and by him as the way.

“Therefore, the only Son of God was to come among men, to take the nature of men, and in this nature to born as a man.”

Statues of the infant Jesus often show him with arms outstretched. To his parents these were the arms of a helpless child, but to us they are arms that encircle and console us, bringing healing and strength. The divine embrace holds us up in every situation, drawing us toward the light in any darkness.

The prophet Isaiah is more eloquent than the angels tonight. They speak of good news and of great joy, and of peace among all those who find favour with God. But Isaiah seems to know us better than the heavenly host: we have walked in darkness, we have lived in a land of deep darkness, and on us light has shone.

We were burdened and oppressed, and are now free. The child born for us today has authority over all the powers and dominions before whom we once quaked. He has authority over violence, addiction, sickness, depression, fear, and anxiety. He brings peace to the anxious, and hope to the despairing.

Tonight the child of Bethlehem opens his arms to us, and invites us to take shelter beside him, beneath the sturdy roof of his Church.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Prophetic Writings Make Christ Known! (Advent 4B)

Every so often, a funny email makes the rounds, listing all the things that have disappeared since the fifties—things like 45 rpm records, whitewalls and so on.

But the other day I saw a list of things that have vanished since the seventies, or even the eighties—things like floppy discs, phone books, long distance charges, film, and typewriters. Those things are closer to home for me, though I don’t miss any of them.

Still, I’m more than a little worried that one day the list will include things I’ll really miss. How long before letters disappear? For the younger parishioners, I’m talking about a communication written on paper, with ink, and delivered by mail, in an envelope.

If letters disappear it’ll be far more significant than the loss of film or floppy discs. They’re modern inventions that became obsolete, but we’ve been writing each other letters for thousands of years and it will be a great loss if we stop.

I just don’t see how emails can compete with real letters. My dear friend Mark, who has moved from North Van to London to Washington to Singapore, decided we were starting to get out of touch and that he wanted to do something about it. So in June he wrote me a letter from Abu Dhabi and announced he was starting a new tradition: he would write me from every hotel in which he stayed during his globetrotting travels with the World Bank.

Since then I have received letters from Beirut, London, Perth, East Timor, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, Myanmar, Jakarta, New York and several places I can’t pronounce. Fourteen letters in six months.

Could email ever compete with that?

Of course I wanted to follow the new tradition myself, so I decided I would write Mark from every hotel in which I stayed. Unfortunately, I promptly discovered that neither the Motel Six nor the Days Inn provides hotel stationery for its guests. I did manage to send a couple of notes on those little pads they give you beside the phone.

Now why am I telling you all this? Certainly the fact that Mark and his wife and children are here at Mass this morning was what got me started. But the point I want to bring home is this: letters matter a great deal.

In the first place, a big part of the New Testament is made up of letters—there are 21 of them, thirteen from Paul and eight from others. Paul’s letters alone make up about a quarter of the New Testament. Our second reading today is taken from a letter he wrote to the Christians in Rome around the year 55.

St. Paul writes to the Romans to instruct them about many aspects of Christian truth—from sin through grace all the way to salvation. Along the way, he teaches something that we modern Christians tend to take for granted: the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament by the coming of Christ.

The text we heard this morning is one breathless exclamation of praise to God, a single sentence that comes at the very end of the letter. But notice how Paul describes God—as the One made known to all nations through the writings of the prophets.

With the coming of Christ, the prophetic scriptures of what we call the Old Testament, once the sole possession of the Jewish people, are now addressed to all the world.

The prophets did not speak their own words, but God’s. Although their writings are not in letter form, we might well think of them as timeless letters from God—letters written in the course of many centuries, dealing with many things. But no Old Testament prophecy was more important than the promise of the Messiah.

Advent is a time to reflect on the unbroken line of communication between God and his people that culminates in Christ. On the first Sunday of Advent, the prophet Isaiah gives voice to the hope of Israel when he says to the Lord “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

On the second Sunday, Isaiah tells the people to prepare for his coming—to make straight a highway for God. As Handel set so perfectly to music, every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” as “the Lord God comes with might.”

In the Gospel for that Sunday, St. Mark introduces John the Baptist—the last of the prophets—with Isaiah’s words, clearly intending to show that the prophecy is being fulfilled.

Last Sunday, Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy anticipated the mission of Jesus, who read exactly this text about binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to captives as he stood in the synagogue at Nazareth, fulfilling it as he spoke.

Why are the Old Testament prophecies so important? The main reason is this: “The New Testament represents the fulfillment of the words and oracles of the prophets…” [Scott Hahn, ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary, 736].

Simply put, “The prophets of old spoke words that have come to pass.” Isaiah alone is quoted or paraphrased nearly one hundred times in the New Testament [ibid.].

We must understand, of course, that the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the New is not some kind of fortune telling, in which we “prove” Christianity by showing that exact details of future event were predicted in precise detail. Seeing Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Christ strengthens and affirms faith; it certainly doesn’t provide or replace it.

Prophecy and promise are closely connected. In the rich relationship between Old Testament and New, we can see how God keeps his promises—in his way, in his time.

Echoes of Isaiah should sound in our hearts at Christmas, when we gaze on the scene at Bethlehem and recall his prophetic word to Ahaz: “Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (cf. Is. 7:14) Today's Gospel reading directly refers to the fulfillment of this divine promise.

Finally, at one of the Christmas Masses we will listen to another New Testament letter that sums up everything I have said. In its very first verse, the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes to us no less than to his original audience: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”

There may come a day when pens run dry and my friend Mark can’t find a sheet of paper to write on; but the Christmas message is timeless even if a future generation only understands electronic communication. We can always tell them that Christ is a love letter to the world that arrived precisely when God hit “send.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Comfort and Quality: Living in the Truth (Advent 2B)

When I went to Chicago in August, we had reservations at the Comfort Hotel. At the last minute, we got moved to the Quality Inn.

I was very disappointed--given the choice between comfort and quality, I'll take comfort every time!

Comfort makes us think of soft beds, good food--we all have our comfort food--and maybe a shoulder to cry on. So when God tells Isaiah to comfort his people, it sounds like great advice for a preacher.

But wait a minute. A second glance at the reading makes me wonder just how "comfortable" the prophet's message is.

There's sure a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," as the rock and roll hit from the fifties went. Valleys are filled in, mountains are flattened, and there's a highway built through an uninhabited stretch of land.

Later in the reading, Isaiah tells us that God comes with might. Certainly God is a shepherd. But he is a mighty shepherd, with an arm that not only caresses the sheep but drives off the wolves.

Have you ever noticed how Psalm 23 says "your rod and your staff--they comfort me"? The shepherd has two tools in his hand: a crook to guide the flock, and a club with which to fight off the wolves. Divine comfort comes from divine power, not divine "niceness."

I thought about this last week when I was back East for a meeting in Toronto and short break in New York City.  Everyone was preparing for Christmas: a beautiful and sentimental day of kindness and good will.  But there was not much sign that anyone was preparing for Christ.

We sometimes talk as if Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas.  It's not.  Advent is a time of preparation for Christ. Christmas is comfortable.  Christ is not.

There's no doubt that today's readings offer us some comforting words. We even like to sing some of them in the hymn "Like a Shepherd."  He feeds his flock, and gathers the lambs in his arms. We need that comfort to deal with life's losses and trials.

But we can't let the comfort get in the way of the quality--the whole, true Gospel message, which is not entirely gentle. I think that's why we have St. Peter's stirring words about the end of the world, a time that no Christian knows but no Christian can ignore. We know very well that the last day will not be comfortable, as the heavens pass away and the earth dissolves.

Preparing for Christmas means decorating our homes, buying gifts and--last but not least!--making a good confession.  But preparing for Christ means "leading lives of holiness and godliness." It means waiting in hope.

It's early enough in Advent for us to make the shift from thinking about Christmas to thinking about Christ. John the Baptist isn't a Christmassy figure in the least and his message today is the one word command that Jesus himself issued at the start of his ministry: repent.

If you're someone who writes reminders to yourself on Post-it notes or in your smart phone, you might want to put that one powerful word somewhere you'll see it often.  Repent: it's a blunt word, but it only means opening our hearts to the Lord who opens his arms to us.

When my Dad used to go away on business trips, he always brought back gifts for his five kids.  Later in life I thought it must have been a lot of work to find something for each of us; but a few years later my Mom said that she often bought the gifts in advance and had them ready for him to hand out on his return.

As I mentioned, I just got back from Toronto. When I go away, I always come back with a gift for the parish--nothing you can unwrap, but some resource or wisdom that's was shared with me on the trip.

This time, the gift came from one of the great leaders of our Church. He was speaking in private, so I won't name him.  His insight was this: there are two great deceptions that Satan is using to attack Christians today.

The first is that God is so merciful that nobody will be lost. Of course we need to know about God's mercy, but that's so we can repent and accept that mercy. But today many people resist his mercy because they think they don't need it.  We're all happily on our way to heaven! The problem is that Jesus never said anything of the sort.

The second deception is about those sins that keep us out of the Kingdom of God. With the help of feel-good psychology, we no longer worry about personal sin, even the most serious. Folks are deeply concerned about the environment but not about their own moral decisions.

These are uncomfortable truths. But these are the valleys that must be lifted up, and the mountains that must be laid low. The highway that leads to God is the truth--the truth that Jesus revealed, in all its fullness, in all its power.

Comfort does not come from compromise. It comes from repenting of our sins, and accepting the Lord’s tender mercy.

Comfort and quality go hand in hand when we live in the truth about God's love and about God's plan, preparing in hope for Christ's return.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Covenant with our King

Facing a real shortage of priests, the bishop of a small rural diocese put an ad for seminarians in several big-city newspapers. The first young man he interviewed asked how much a priest gets paid.

A bit thrown by the question, the bishop asked what kind of salary the candidate expected.

“I’d like $85,000, housing, extended medical and dental, six weeks holidays and a generous pension at 65,” he answered.

The bishop replied, “How about a brand new BMW too?”

“You’re kidding!” the applicant exclaimed.

“Yes, I am.” the bishop said, “But you started it!

Some people are really better off going to business school than the seminary.

But if the young man did go to the seminary, he would learn the difference between a contract and a covenant. “Generally, a contract involves the exchange of goods”—you give me so many dollars and I will give you so many potatoes—“whereas a covenant involves the exchange of persons”— as in marriage. [Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn, p. 169]

God will never offer anyone a contract, but time and time again he has entered into covenants with humanity. Scott Hahn’s biblical dictionary calls covenant “the master-theme of the Bible.” In fact, we only talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament because of an ancient error in translation: we really ought to talk about the Old Covenant and the New. [p. 168]

If you need more convincing about the central importance of the concept of covenant to biblical thought and Christian theology, consider that Jesus calls the Eucharist “the new covenant” at the Last Supper. We are parties to a covenant every time we come to Mass, a covenant sealed by the blood of Christ.

For four weeks we have talked about how we can respond to the covenant that God offer us. We’ve been reflecting, each of us in our own way, on the question asked in Psalm 116: “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?” And each of us has answered: “I can’t.”

The new and eternal covenant—we hear those words at the consecration of the chalice—does not treat us as equal partners with God, who has given us infinitely more than we can begin to repay. So our answer must be: “I will do what I can.”

The Covenant of One—conceived and created by parishioners, not by priests—offers concrete ways to respond to God’s goodness to us, beginning with his offer of a personal relationship leading to salvation. It’s an antidote to “getting by” or “coasting along.”

From the beginning, we wanted to propose something that was simple, realistic and measurable: a response to God’s covenant in the form of an hour’s extra prayer a week, and hour of charitable service each week, and a donation of an hour’s wages to the parish each week.

Today, we’ve reached the final Sunday of this initiative, and it’s no coincidence that today is the Solemnity of Christ the King, our parish feast day, and the end of the liturgical year. Today, we’re invited to make a commitment—not to the parish, not even to ourselves, but to God himself.

The scripture readings for this Sunday knit together many of the themes of our Covenant of One. In the first reading, we get an idea what could happen if we commit to that extra hour of prayer. God promises to bind up the injured and to strengthen the weak. How will this happen in our lives, if not in prayer?

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” the Lord says, “and I will make them lie down.”

What does it mean to lie down if not to rest with God in prayer, as sheep gather in safety around the shepherd? How many of us have prayer lives that console us and strengthen us and heal our wounds? That is what is promised to those who persevere in a serious attempt at prayer, whether ten minutes daily or a special hour each week.

And the Good Shepherd also promises to seek the lost and bring back the strayed. Children who have fallen away from the faith are the number one sorrow in this parish, and many of us have friends and other family members—some of them former parishioners—who have saddened our hearts by turning away from faith.

How many lost or straying sheep might be found and shepherded if some of our extra hour of prayer was devoted to intercession before God on their behalf?

The Gospel, of course, fits in perfectly with the call to service in the second week of the Covenant of One. Christianity without hands-on charity is really a contradiction, as Jesus makes all too clear in this tough teaching.

Our display in the foyer offers many possible ways to increase your Christian service to an hour each week, but for those who can, nothing beats caring for the needy—something in which our parish community excels. I can’t think of anything more worth celebrating on this parish feast day than the generosity we have shown to refugees, the poor, homeless people, the sick, and—most recently—prisoners. There are a whole lot of people in these pews who are going to hear “just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

Of course we all need to hear those words, and with the Covenant of One commitment, we all can.

I told you that concluding the Covenant of One on this particular Sunday was no accident. In our second reading, St. Paul describes Christ’s kingship—an absolute mastery over all the world, over the living and the dead. He describes God’s plan for that kingship: all things are to be subjected to Christ. When all things have been subjected to Christ, he will hand the earthly kingdom over to God his Father.

It all sounds so lofty that we might easily push this reading aside; we can worry about these things later. Yet St. Paul makes it clear that Jesus is King now: “Christ’s reign began with his resurrection and is going on right now…” [p. 272]

If all the earthly rulers and powers are to become subjects of the Lord’s sovereignty, how much more so must those who call themselves Christians be subjected to him?

In her landmark book Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell stresses the need for a personal relationship with God—belief in a personal God who loves us. When some folks hear words like “subject” and “sovereignty” and “kingship” they might think they get in the way with a personal relationship with God. Nothing could be further from the truth: because the only way I can have that relationship is if I know the truth about God.

God is personal. God is loving. But God is Lord.

Lord of every aspect of my life—Lord of every impulse, every talent, every moment. He is Lord of all that I am and all that I have.

I haven’t heard a single negative reaction to the Covenant of One. But I’d be very surprised if there weren’t some people wondering whether the whole initiative was aimed at increasing the collection. The fact is, whether or not Christ is Lord of your finances is a shortcut to the truth about how far you’ve come as his disciple.

It’s not the most important element of our covenant relationship with God, but it’s the easiest to measure. Just the other day Pope Francis said
when conversion reaches your pocket, then it's certain!

Spiritual health is just as complex as physical health, and one test doesn’t provide a complete report. Still, your doctor will usually start by taking your blood pressure; looking at your charitable giving—and not only to the parish—is a good start for a spiritual checkup.

This parish family is a subject of Christ the King. It bows under his Lordship and lives according to his Leadership. We educate children and serve the poor—but our mandate and our mission is to be and to form disciples.

Sherry Weddell writes that “we are seriously mistaken if we think and plan as though all we can expect to see happen in our parishes is what we could expect to see happen in any secular nonprofit filled with clever people. … We have to expect and plan for conversion and the fruit of conversion.”

We must develop what she calls “a culture of discipleship” where lives are transformed and people are led towards the Kingdom.

Each person in church today who makes a commitment to the three principles of the Covenant of One takes a big step towards becoming an “intentional disciple.” And only intentional disciples can make Christ the Redeemer parish what Christ, our King, wants it to be.

Let us, with confidence and hope, do what we can.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Covenant of One: Week Three

The internet is full of pictures of headstones with funny epitaphs; my favorite was “Gone, but not forgiven.” Clearly not a happy marriage.

Other epitaphs never actually got chiseled in stone, which is probably just as well. The comedian W.C. Fields wanted his grave marker to say “I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” while the witty writer Dorothy Parker wanted “Excuse My Dust” on hers.

And Winston Churchill suggested “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

What would you like engraved on your headstone?

Whether you’re old or young, that’s an important question. So important that year after year the Church asks us to think about it, together with the other great questions of life and death.

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, our Sunday readings make us ponder what might be said about us after we’re gone. What will be chiseled on our headstones; what will we be remembered for?

Today’s readings offer some good ideas of what we should want as our legacy. The first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, tells of the ideal woman, gifted not just with physical attributes, but with gifts of ingenuity, hard work, generosity and love of others.

She’s a model of what is possible when someone uses their gifts and skills well. She shows what a difference good stewardship makes.

The Gospel takes up this theme in the parable of the three servants entrusted with their master’s talents. In this case, a talent was a coin of enormous value. To be entrusted with five, or two, or even one talent meant that you were entrusted with a small fortune.

As we listened to the Gospel, we might have sided with the man who just buried the talent and handed it back. After all, he did show some prudence and care in dealing with someone else’s property. As we know from the current economic climate, the cautious, and even timid, approach can often be the better path.

Yet Jesus turns the story upside down. In a surprising twist of events, the one who buried the talent ends up losing everything, including what was entrusted to him. It’s all taken away and given to the others—because only those who take risks in faith can be given greater responsibilities and ultimately be invited to share the Master’s joy.

So what is the moral of the parable to us? 

First of all, we need to take a look at the company this parable keeps in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s right in the middle of a series of passages where Jesus talks about the last judgment, that final return of the Master that will happen when we least expect it. So let’s not miss that message. Now is the time to invest in the Kingdom of God.

The second message is also obvious: God doesn’t merely ask for some kind of return on all that he has given to us: he expects it. Stewardship of his gifts is an obligation of each and every Christian, not an optional extra.

This Sunday we’re talking about the third and final part of the Covenant of One—the offering of one hour of income each week to the Church. An hour’s wages or, in other words, about one-fortieth of your income if you are retired.

It doesn’t sound like much—but if every parishioner made that covenant with the Lord we would be able to much more than we can at present. 

Our records show that the average weekly gift is significantly lower than what you’d estimate as an hourly wage in our region. We also know that many folks donate the same amount they did a decade ago, without adjusting for inflation or possible increased income.

And, of course, there are a number of people on whose remarkable generosity the parish relies more than we should need to.

The parish needs to be on a sounder financial footing. But I’m not going to talk about that, because that is not the reason why “treasure” is part of the “time, talent and treasure” formula. We do not give mainly because of the need, but because we need to give.
In my so-called ‘spare’ time, I chair the Canadian board of a Catholic charity called Renewal Ministries, devoted to evangelization and missionary work.

My predecessor as chairman of the Renewal Ministries board was the late Bishop Faber MacDonald. He was known and loved for many things, but particularly for his gifts as a fiddler. He presided at the wedding of the famous Cape Breton musician Natalie McMaster, and she in turn played at his funeral.

I'm not sure who told me the story – it was probably Bishop MacDonald himself – but many years ago he organized a fundraising event at which he fiddled in support of mother Theresa. He raised a whopping $35,000 for her work.

Sometime after he mailed the check, he had a very nice letter back from Mother Teresa in which she explained that she did not fundraise – and returned the money.

Blessed Teresa was not ungrateful; but she understood that within the household of faith offerings and gifts have a deep spiritual significance that is not to be compared with the world's way of raising money.

The first two aspects of our Covenant of One invited all of us to grow in faith through an hour of prayer and an hour of service. Today, strengthened by the message of the Gospel, we’re invited to grow in faith by the sacrifice of an hour of income.

The title of our Covenant of One hymn, “What Can I Give?” is not a rhetorical question. It’s a question that God, the giver of all good gifts, asks each and every one of us.

Next Sunday is the end of a liturgical year, and our parish feast day. Let’s prepare with prayer this week so we can make a fresh commitment of time, talent and treasure to Christ, our Master and our King.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Covenant of One: Week Two

As explained in earlier posts, our parish is in the midst of the five-week effort to help us all grow as disciples and stewards. Our "Covenant of One" initiative encourages a commitment of

ONE hour of prayer each week and above what you already offer.

ONE hour of time/talent each week to Christ’s work—of your choice.

ONE hour of income each week to God’s work in our church.

This week we focus on service, making a gift of time and talent....

Then I will make my covenant between me and you
and will greatly increase your numbers.
                                                                                    - Genesis 17

There are only three things that will last forever.  God, God’s word, and people.  Everything else is temporary, and this is most important to consider when we choose how we spend the time in our lives. 

Legendary American Preacher William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City once observed, “In the Holy Land are two ancient bodies of water. Both are fed by the Jordan River. In one, fish play and roots find sustenance. In the other, there is no splash of fish, no sound of bird, no leaf around. The difference is not in the Jordan, for it empties into both, but in the Sea of Galilee: for every drop taken in one goes out. It gives and lives. The other gives nothing. And it is called the Dead Sea.”  As Christians we know that the gospel of Jesus gives us life through the Holy Spirit.  This one life we are given is to be shared with God’s beloved world, broken by Sin.

Could you take one hour every week, and let it be counted forever?  What can you do that will enrich the lives of those around you, and the life of our parish community?  Take a moment and consider what you enjoy doing, and what are your passions.  What gifts has God placed in you, and how can these gifts naturally flow out in service?  There is a reason you have a talent, let’s put it into action!