Monday, October 31, 2016

The Lesson of Zacchaeus: Discipleship Leads to Stewardship

We’ve reached the third Sunday of our Covenant of One. We’ve talked about time and talent; now we look at how Christian stewards share their treasure, how they look at charitable giving.

Pastors don’t like preaching about money. But some of us are better at it than others, so I called a priest friend for advice.

I told him I wasn’t getting much help from today’s Gospel story of Zacchaeus—the mere mention of a tax collector makes people close their wallets and purses, not open them!

My friend’s offered a simple suggestion: “Oh,” he said, “Just invite the parishioners to give half of their possessions to the poor. By the time they figure out you’re joking, they’ll be thrilled to give an hour’s wages to the Church!”

Joking aside, the meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus has a great message about discipleship and money.

The story unfolds in four acts: first, the tax collector lets curiosity get the better of him. He made an effort “to see who Jesus was.”

Jesus quickly rewards his tree-climbing courage! In act two of the mini-drama, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. Jesus even invites himself to be a guest at his house.

Act three moves just as fast. The impulsive tax collector promises half of his possessions to the poor, and fourfold restitution to those he’s cheated. From what we know of tax collectors at the time, Zacchaeus isn’t going to have a whole lot left over when he’s finished.

The final act contains the message for us today. Right after the tax collector makes his promise, Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation came to Zacchaeus because he met and welcomed Jesus, not because he gave away half of all he owned. But Zacchaeus showed he’d received the gift of salvation by letting go of his wealth.

You can’t buy salvation, but what we do with our money is an excellent test of whether we know we’re saved.

Stewardship of our finances and sacrificial support of the Church and other good works does not make someone a disciple. But real disciples become, almost inevitably, financial stewards and sacrificial donors. I didn’t learn this is the seminary or read it in a book; the generous parishioners of this parish taught me that lesson.

I’ll bet you think this homily’s just my way to increase the collection and Project Advance. Please hear me out: I am not asking you for money. I am asking you to ask yourself: does my stewardship of money reveal that salvation has come to my house.

Has Jesus invited himself to stay with you? If so, have you welcomed him?

Obviously, the Lord didn’t walk by, call you out of your tree, and unpack in your guestroom. But he wants to stay in your heart—to dwell there as he promised. He wants to do the same thing for you that he did for Zacchaeus—to awaken “new possibilities of love and service.” [The Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 970]

There’s what these the three Sundays of our Covenant of One series are all about—allowing a relationship with Jesus to awaken new possibilities of love and service in our lives. On the first Sunday, we asked ourselves “Has knowing Jesus challenged me to sacrifice some time to welcome him lovingly in prayer?” On the second, we asked “Has knowing him inspired me to greater service, using my talents for others?”

The answers to those questions are measurable. Are we giving an hour to love and service, an hour each week to sharing time and talent?

The third question, “Am I offering an hour’s wages to the Lord?” is the easiest to measure. Perhaps it’s the least important. Still, Jesus said the tax collector’s decisions about money proved his conversion was sincere and real.

Today we ask the Lord to do for us what he did for Zacchaeus—to meet us, to stay with us, and to open new possibilities of love and service in us.

Our lives are confusing, even chaotic, at times. We can’t all be as decisive and bold as Zacchaeus, although we recently lost a wonderful parishioner, the late Ernest Bunderla, who could climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood. We’re each called to discipleship in a different way, but we’re all called to the same salvation in Christ.

Today I want to recognize the spirit of discipleship that so many of you have shown in your support of our annual Project Advance campaign and the Sunday collection. It’s a measurable sign of the strength of this parish community.

I also want to challenge others who haven’t yet made the connection between sacrificial giving and discipleship that Zacchaeus showed. If you haven’t supported our annual Project Advance campaign, be as impetuous—if not as generous—as that tax collector!

I invite you to make a donation this Sunday or next—before the Year of Mercy ends. The campaign has a special aspect this year, since it supports the spiritual and corporal works of mercy we’ve chosen to do as a parish, along with usual bricks and mortar projects.

You can help the Harvest Project to clothe the naked, and our prison ministry volunteers to visit prisoners; help parishioners in need with counselling and funeral expenses; strengthen the parish’s mission to those who want to see Jesus.

Certainly, I want Project Advance to succeed, and we’re within sight of our goal. But most of all, I want every parishioner to experience the genuine joys of stewardship.

Let me close with a true story, since I made up the one I told at the beginning of the homily! The other day I met a fine gentlemen I hadn’t seen since I celebrated his mother’s funeral in 2010. He’s passionate about Christian stewardship, and he actually built a church in his mother’s honour in her native Hungary while she was still alive.

It was natural that we got on the subject of money and discipleship. We had a great conversation, and he said something I won’t forget: “We learn in grade one that it’s better to give than to receive—it just takes about fifty years to figure it out.”

There’s a lot of truth in that, but Zacchaeus didn’t take fifty years. He didn't take fifty minutes
he figured it out in five. Let’s ask Jesus to make all of us such quick learners.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Our Covenant of One: A Pittance of Time

On the morning of November 11, 1999, a singer and songwriter named Terry Kelly was in a drug store in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. At 10:55 a.m. an announcement came over the store's PA asking customers  to give two minutes of silence at eleven o'clock.

When eleven o'clock arrived, the announcement was repeated and the customers stopped and showed their respect for those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in war. All but one, that is. One man, accompanied by his young child, tried to get a clerk to serve him during the period of silence.

Terry Kelly is blind, so he couldn't see the man. But he heard him, and it made him angry. From his anger came a song that will, I think, be heard on Remembrance Day for many years to come.

When our school children sing the song "A Pittance of Time" at their Remembrance Day service the anger is gone but the message remains powerful.

Take two minutes, would you mind?

It's a pittance of time,
For the boys and the girls who went over.
In peace may they rest, may we never
Forget why they died.
It's a pittance of time.

Today, our parish renews its annual Covenant of One, three Sundays when we ask ourselves how we have shared our time, talent and treasure with God and with one another.

Today, in particular, we renew our commitment to spending time in prayer.

Jesus points us in the right direction in this morning's Gospel. He reminds us of the power of prayer, and of how constant prayer keeps our hearts strong and grows our faith.

And the first reading is a beautiful example of keeping up our prayer even when we're weary.

But what does Jesus mean when he tells us "to pray always"?  Many of us have enough trouble praying sometimes.

Father Robert Spitzer offers one beautiful answer in his book Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life.  He suggests that we need to have short spontaneous prayers ready at every moment. The first one he proposes is just "Help!" He says that little prayer is enough to bring us a host of graces from the loving heart of God.

His favourite spontaneous prayer is one we've all memorized already: "Thy will be done."  Father Spitzer says "If we give our problems over to God by praying, 'Thy will be done,' He will bring good for us, others, the community, the culture, and His kingdom out of the most bizarre, tragic, desolate, angering, hurtful, fearful, tempting and confusing dimensions of our lives."

Another way to pray always is to develop an awareness that God is working through all the events of our daily life. He is present in good times and bad, always seeking to reveal himself to us.

St. Ignatius of Loyola gave us a simple and effective way to find God in everyday life. It's a process of prayer where we look back on our day, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and find God there, We also recognize those moments when we noticed him and those when we may have turned away.

There are numerous approaches to St. Ignatius's method of examining ourselves and our day, but Matthew Kelly gives us a seven-point version that he's printed on a card small enough for a wallet or shirt pocket. We've bought copies for each of you to take home--on one condition!

The condition is that you're ready to renew your Covenant of One by pledging to the Lord an hour of prayer. Matthew Kelly's prayer process takes less than ten minutes a day; do it daily, and you've fulfilled that pledge.

It's a pittance of time, when you think of it, lest we forget the One whose sacrifice was the greatest of all.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Plant those mustard seeds! (27.C)

When I was in high school I read a novel that I’ve never forgotten. It was the story of a priest who took today’s Gospel seriously. Well, to be more precise, he took seriously the version of today’s Gospel that we read in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, since they both record Jesus talking about moving mountains rather than mulberry bushes.

The book, written in 1931 (when I was not in high school, just for the record), was called “Father Malachy’s Miracle.” It tells how a humble monk asked God to move a dance hall—the closest thing to a night club in a seaside village—to a barren island off the coast of Scotland. He’d made the prayer after a Protestant minister scoffed at miracles.

The moral of the story was quite simple. The miracle didn’t achieve anything. Poor Father Malachy got in trouble with both the bishop and the dance hall owner. And if my memory serves me right, even the minister was not impressed.

That’s not to say Father Malachy didn’t achieve anything by taking today’s Gospel seriously. In a fictional way, he accomplished something very important: he taught me not to take today’s Gospel seriously.

At least not to take it literally—for that is really and truly to miss what Jesus is saying to us.

In the first place, we get sidetracked if we take his words literally. It almost sounds like Jesus is daring his disciples. You can’t uproot trees (or move mountains), therefore your faith must be smaller than a mustard seed.

In St. Luke’s account of Christ’s teaching that we read today, Jesus talks about planting a tree in the sea. Right off the bat this suggests his point isn’t to be taken literally. What on earth’s the good of planting a tree in the sea? It could neither take root nor be sustained by salt water.

Moving mountains has more appeal. Let’s improve things for local skiers and pray Blackcomb Mountain moves to the North Shore. Go ahead—try it.

No luck? Ah, no faith. That’s the way it feels.

But I sure don’t think it’s the message Jesus is giving us.

Let’s look again at the text. The apostles say “Increase our faith!” It’s a sincere and simple a prayer. So often they ask Jesus for the wrong thing, but this time they get it right. Do you think he would answer with a taunt, an impossible proposal, or a silly experiment?

Is that what he says to us today? No miracle, no faith?

Surely not. So what is the message of today’s Gospel?

I suggest it has to do with the mustard seed. And not so much with its size but the mere fact it’s a seed. What do you do with seeds? You plant them. You water them. You give them light. And they grow.

That’s what Jesus is saying. Plant the seed of faith you have—tiny though it may be—and watch it grow. Don’t think about the faith you lack—nurture the faith you have!

The apostles give us a great example; a three-word prayer for an increase in faith. The Bible gives us another great prayer to use: the father of a sick boy says “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Prayer plants, waters and gives light to the seed of faith, but growth also requires nutrients like reflection and study. We want to have more faith—people often speak to me about how they envy the faith of this person or that—but we don’t read the Catechism, subscribe to a magazine like The Word Among Us, or attend a parish faith formation event from one year to the next.

Not one new parishioner showed up at the first two Tuesday evenings of Symbolon, our engaging series on the Catholic faith. We were very happy to welcome back several faithful folk from last year, and delighted that some inquirers had come; but it seems everyone in the parish is comfortable they know what they need to know about the Lord, his teaching and his Church.

For a seed to produce a thriving plant, some weeding may also be necessary. Habits of sin, of course, can block the development of our faith—although, often enough, it’s faith in God’s mercy that permits us to carry on despite our failures. Maybe the weeds we need to uproot are some of the things that make us too busy to pray, to read, or to join with others in the study of our faith.

This is very bad time to face life without strong faith. Just like the prophet Habakkuk in the first reading, we see violence and destruction all around. We see the enemies of God winning battle after battle, despite our prayers and his promises of victory.

St. Paul does a better job than I can of urging us forward in faith. He doesn’t use the image of seeds but of embers—rekindle the gift of God you received in baptism and confirmation. Another translation puts it even better: fan it into a flame!

Sherry Weddell, the author of “Forming Intentional Disciples,” shared some powerful words from St. John Paul’s document on catechesis when she spoke in Vancouver last month. He wrote that there are baptized Catholics without any significant personal attachment to Jesus Christ. They only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechesi tradendae, 19).

The bad news is that some of those Catholics may be in Church today. Perhaps their parents didn’t share the faith with them, or perhaps their teachers or priests failed to present Jesus and his message in convincing way.

But the good news is that they do have the capacity to believe, given to them in Baptism and Confirmation. The seed is there! It may be tiny, but it is there, and God put it there!

Wherever we are on the journey of faith, the Word of God tells us today that there are greater things to come—if we will fan those embers into a flame by prayer and study. Not the faith that moves trees and mountains, but the faith that sees us through suffering, fear, grief and every other challenge that we’ll meet through life.

That’s the true miracle of faith.