Sunday, August 30, 2015

After the Storm (22.B)

Some of you got up this morning in houses without power. It’s what we sometimes call a first-world problem, but even so it’s not much fun. 

We hardly notice how much we depend on power to cook, to clean, and to communicate. But we sure notice when it fails. First the light flickers, then the house goes dark. If the power goes out at night, the first thing you notice is often that the clock beside the bed is dark.

But what about spiritual power failures? How do we notice when there’s no power flowing in our spiritual lives?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that religion can have its power knocked out by a number of things. Some of them are as obvious as the serious sins listed at the end of the Gospel reading. But others are much more subtle, and much more dangerous.

When the power goes out to a digital clock, it either goes dark or starts to flash. Back in the days when some clocks plugged in to the wall, they just stopped—if you didn’t notice, you’d have the time all wrong. That’s what happens when religion becomes ritual.

Jesus is talking about religion that is not powered by authentic worship when he warns against lip-service. He says that getting the ritual right isn’t what God wants from us.

Even something as basic as our coming to Mass doesn’t please God if we don’t live the faith in our daily lives by keeping his commandments.

That much of this Sunday’s message is obvious enough; in the Gospels Jesus warns us many times against hypocrisy. And St. James sums it up beautifully in one short phrase: be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.

But the other half of the message is also important. The power that we need to keep our faith functioning doesn’t come from us anymore than we generate the power in our homes. Just as we’re blessed to have an abundant supply of electricity available for our needs, we have spiritual power flowing into our hearts without so much as a Hydro bill.

The commandments are a gift, not a burden, because they supply power to our daily lives, guiding and shaping our choices according to God’s plan. In our first reading today, Moses is telling the people they are blessed to have God’s law—other nations will be jealous of them, because he is so close and so willing to show them the path they need to follow.

I’m sure you’ll agree that there aren’t many people who look at us Catholics and envy our moral code. But there are some, and there will be more—if we ourselves are faithful, and show them the fruits of Christian living. As the consequences of immorality continue to weaken society we can look to a day when many outside the Church will recognize the blessings we enjoy, just as Moses predicts.

First, we ourselves need to appreciate the moral teaching of Christ and his Church as a beautiful gift—as something coming down to us from above, a gift from the Father of lights who doesn’t want us to walk in darkness.

God has given us birth, St. James says, “by the word of truth.” Those who don’t live in the truth, he seems to say, aren’t even fully alive.

He tells us to welcome the word that has the power to save our souls. I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to complain about that word than to welcome it. Like every sinner, I’d rather do what I want than what the saving word commands.

But that short-circuits God’s plan to supply us with not only the power we need for daily life—the power to stand firm, as our Psalm says, and the power of wisdom and discernment, as we hear Moses say—but also the power to save our souls.

Today is a good day to check our spiritual wiring. Are we letting the graces of Sunday Mass flow throughout the week? Are we coming to Sunday Mass ready for true worship and all that demands, including charity to others, especially the poor?

These are difficult and demanding questions. But we can answer them with the power than comes from God.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Eucharist Unites (19.B)

It’s been more than thirty years since I first saw the chain letter about “the perfect pastor,” but it still makes me smile.

The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes but always say everything that needs to be said.

He condemns sin boldly but never hurts anyone’s feelings.

He works from 8 am until midnight and is also the church janitor.

The perfect pastor makes $200 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $100 a week to the church.

He is 29 years old and has 40 years’ experience.

The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time with senior citizens.

He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be handy when needed.

The chain letter concludes "If your pastor does not measure up, simply send this notice to six other churches that are tired of their pastor, too. Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list. If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1,643 pastors.

"One of them should be perfect!"

Even if that joke is older than the internet, I couldn’t resist it—because we’re hearing a lot at Mass lately about complaining.

In last week’s first reading, complaining was front and center. The whole assembly of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron. We’d rather have died, they told them, than end up following you into the desert.

This week, Jesus is the target of the people’s complaints. They think he’s forgetting his humble origins, and making ridiculous claims. And, like the Israelites, they’re gossiping and grumbling.

The gossip and grumbling carry on in next Sunday’s Gospel, which continues the story. And by the end of the story, many have turned away from Jesus.

Such is the power of complaining!

For almost a year, a committee of professional and dedicated parishioners have been overseeing an engineering study of our parish buildings to judge their ability to withstand an earthquake. We’re lucky to have modern buildings, but for some parishes seismic upgrades will cause a great hardship.

But no earthquake could destroy a parish half as well as the division that comes from complaining, from the kind of undertow that went on while Jesus preached about himself as the Bread of Life.

There are many, many things for which I am thankful as I look back on eight years as pastor here. But the thing for which I am most thankful—by far—is that the community has never been divided.

One reason I’m glad is that I have very little stomach for fighting and feuding. I can hardly imagine the pain—and the courage—of those priests who have had to minister in parishes split by factions or serious disagreement.

But the number one reason is this: a divided community, a complaining community, is not a truly Eucharistic community.

Celebrating Mass with people who have broken into isolated groups—and I heard of a parish back East where there was a group that came to Mass with picket signs—contradicts an essential truth about the Eucharist: it draws us into communion not only with God but with each other.

When most Catholics hear the word “communion” they think first of “Holy Communion,” of the consecrated Host they receive at Mass. But communion is a huge word: you could write a book about it.

When we approach the altar to receive the Sacred Host, we enter more deeply into communion with Jesus, of course. But we also profess our communion with his Church.

And to some extent, we show our communion with each other in this parish community. Saints and sinners, rich and poor, young and old, even Liberal, Conservative and NDP!

A little grumbling is an ordinary aspect of parish life—everyone is entitled to his opinion. I was delighted by the strong consensus that supported the renovations of our sanctuary some years back, since that’s always a tricky business.

But there was still one man who came up to me and said “Where would we be if every single Pope made changes to St. Peter’s?”

I told him very gently that I knew St. Peter’s like the back of my hand, and could assure him that every single Pope did make changes to St. Peter’s, with the possible exception of the month-long pontificate of John Paul I.

We are friends to this day.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul gives two lists, one bad, one good. In the first list he includes bitterness, anger, arguing and slander. In the second, kindness, tenderness and mutual forgiveness.

I can say that I’ve seen very little from the first list and everything from the second in my time at Christ the Redeemer. Surely this is a fruit of the Eucharist we receive together each week.

As we ponder the great gift of the Bread of Life, let’s also be grateful for the blessings of unity and charity in our parish, and in our homes.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Crucial Conversations With Jesus (18.B)

About this time last year I went to a conference in Chicago called the Global Leadership Summit. One of the most impressive speakers was Joseph Grenny, co-author of a best-selling book called Crucial Conversations. The book defines a crucial conversation as “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions are strong.”

I think that the crowd in this Sunday’s Gospel is having a crucial conversation with Jesus. (1) The stakes are very high—he’s just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a basket of fish.

(2) Opinions vary—we know that Jesus always had his opponents, and there are doubters in the crowd who aren’t satisfied with the recent multiplication of the loaves and fish: they want their own miracle.

And (3) emotions are strong—obviously. The people are both physically and spiritually hungry, and this new rabbi might have the answer to a lot of their problems.

The authors of the book tell us that crucial conversations matter a great deal. The consequences of getting them wrong can be severe. But stepping up to a crucial conversation and handling it well can change our lives.

So what do you think? Is this crucial conversation on the shore of the Sea of Galilee going well or poorly? Will it change the lives of those who are speaking with Jesus?

It doesn’t get off to a great start. The people are confused when they find Jesus, because they haven’t a clue how he got to the other side of the lake. We started reading the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel last week, and we continue it today and for the next three weeks—but the Lectionary cut out the story of Jesus’ crossing over by boat.

So their first question isn’t particularly helpful: how on earth did you get here?

But Jesus, who is the master and the model of all crucial communication, follows the first rule in the book: start with heart. He doesn’t get side-tracked by the unimportant issue of how he got across the lake, but turns the conversation immediately to what it’s really about: Him.

There’s a contemporary Christian song by Matt Redman that has this simple refrain: “I'm coming back to the heart of worship—And it's all about you, it's all about you Jesus.”

How often do we sidetrack crucial conversations about faith or about the Church by forgetting that it’s all about Jesus?

Throughout his dialogue with the crowd, Jesus keeps bringing the conversation back to him. The people ask what they should do, but instead he tells them to believe in him.

The people ask for another physical miracle, but Jesus tells them about the greatest miracle of all, the Word made flesh.

We all need to have a crucial conversation with God today—a conversation that starts with our own hearts.

We need to tell the Lord what we hunger for. We need to look into our hearts and find the empty places that need to be filled.

Martin Luther King once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” That’s true of our spiritual lives, too. If we won’t talk to God about the things that matter to us most, we can’t have much of a spiritual life.

Of course—and this is a key to any crucial conversation—we need to listen.

What does Jesus say to you this morning as you sit here at Mass? Are his words in today’s Gospel an answer to some of your doubts and fears?

“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Are we here expecting to be fed? Here to break the bread of God has come down from heaven and gives us life? Because if we’re not, we are overdue for a crucial conversation with Jesus, the Bread of Life.

We live in a post-Christian world where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions are strong. Our friends and neighbours, even some members of our own family, think us fools or worse for going to church.

In such a climate, we will not persevere in our faith journey unless we know why we are here, what we have been promised, and talk freely with Jesus in this great sacrament of his body and blood.

The heart of our worship today, and every day, is Jesus. It’s all about him.