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!