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.

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