Sunday, July 30, 2017

ALL Things Work for Good (17.A)

There’s been so much going on in the parish—Father Paul leaving, Father Giovanni coming, the delightful visit of Sister Helen—that you probably didn’t notice we’ve been reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans for more than a month. I confess I wasn’t paying attention to that myself.

But this Sunday the second reading jumped right out at me. No surprise there, since it’s my favourite passage in Scripture. I’ll tell you why in a minute or two, but first let’s look back a few weeks, when we heard the Apostle say “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”

With those words, St. Paul begins one of the most encouraging passages in the entire Bible. He offers three truths to encourage and console the suffering Christian. And since all of us suffer some of the time and some of us suffer much of the time, we need to understand his teaching and how it applies to our lives.

The first ground of encouragement, the one we heard at Mass two weeks ago, is simply that present sufferings aren't worth comparing to the glory that is to come: that is “the great disproportion between the sufferings we endure in this life” and our future reward. Earthly sufferings just don’t compare with heavenly glory. This is a logical conclusion—we think like this all the time when we undergo something painful, whether it’s chemotherapy or surgery or even dieting, because the gain far outweighs the pain.

The second ground of encouragement, which we read last week, is that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” We don’t face suffering alone: we have God’s help. We don’t even need to pray by our own power: the Spirit intercedes for us. Even the faith we need to benefit from that first source of encouragement, the hope of heaven, comes more from God than from us.

And today St. Paul presents the third ground of encouragement for those facing trials or sufferings: the fact that all things work together for our good.

Think hard about what he means by “all things.” Not some things, and not only good things. Many things that happen in our lives and in our world are evil things. “It is the marvel of God’s wisdom and grace” that he makes even the worst things work for good.

Not one single thing “works ultimately for evil to the people of God.” The end result of the greatest misfortune is good for those who love God. *

Obviously, the three words “those who love God” are the key that unlocks this wonderful promise. We’ll come back to that later.

I told you this was my favourite passage in the Bible. Let me explain why.

Some years ago I went to the doctor and he asked me a question. “If I could write you one prescription that would lower your blood pressure, help you cope with stress, ward off Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers, would you take it?”

“You bet,” I said with real enthusiasm.

“Then exercise every day,” he said.

I never filled the prescription, sad to say.

But I’ve had more success with Romans 8:28, where St. Paul promises even more than the doctor did. This is the verse of Scripture that I've used constantly to make sense of my life and lives of others; it’s the number one truth I use to understand the world and history; and it’s my antidote to discouragement of every sort.

There’s something important in how Paul begins this verse. He says “We know that all things work together for good…” He’s speaking from experience—not just his, but that of the Christians to whom he’s writing.

That God turns everything to the ultimate good of his people is not something to take entirely on faith, something we’ll see proved only in heaven. Like St. Paul, I can stand before you this morning and say we know this. We know from experience God’s plan and power to transform bad things to our ultimate good.

To respect the privacy of people, I can’t tell you detailed stories of individuals and families; and to avoid embarrassment, I won’t tell you detailed stories about me! But you know these stories—the troubled marriages that have been strengthened by misfortunes, the characters that have been built by financial or other hardships, the spiritual growth that’s come in times of illness, and so on. Throughout history, and throughout my ten years in this parish I have seen moral failures transformed into victory and growth by the power of God.

I like the simple example of the Canadian TV and movie star Michael J. Fox, who called himself “a lucky man” because Parkinson’s disease interrupted a life of complete selfishness. The misfortune was, in a sense, his salvation.

Personally, the fact that God works for good in all things helps me face my fears, even of things that are highly unlikely to happen. I am convinced that if I was falsely accused or imprisoned, paralyzed by illness, or facing a premature death God would use these great evils to give me spiritual goods vastly greater than the evils themselves.

Knowing God defeats evil—even our sins—can be a way of knowing God better. What makes his majesty and his sovereignty clearer than his power over even the greatest evil? It’s easier to accept God’s dominion over death when we understand his dominion over sin.

People often ask me about unanswered prayers. That’s based on an understandable and common human assumption, that we know what is best for ourselves and those we love. But when we believe God is always at work for our ultimate good, we may be more inclined to accept that things don’t always work out as we planned—since we know they’ll work out as he plans.

And God works for good not only in the lives of individuals. He works for good—if we let him—even using the sins and failures of society and the Church. For instance, you all know how many Catholics, especially young ones, have left the practice of the faith. The Catholic culture that filled churches has evaporated, creating what looks like a crisis.

But such is God’s power and providence that the crisis is already proving to be an opportunity. Pope emeritus Benedict, while still a cardinal, said “Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world...”

What will happen remains to be seen. But we already know that the collapse of cultural Catholicism has given rise to what we’re calling intentional disciples—men and women who come to church not out of duty or social pressure but because they want to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament and a community of fellow believers.

Clearly God is at work drawing good from the present situation, distressing as it is—because, of course, there were many blessings to be found in the Christian Catholic culture that’s now all but disappeared in Canada.

God works for good in all things—I rely on those words, and quote them often to myself and others. But they’re not a cure-all or a magic potion. We have to let St. Paul finish his thought: All things work together for good for those who love God. And he says “all things work together,” because the promise operates within the framework of discipleship and of faith; it’s not automatic.

And therefore, it’s one more reason we are striving as a parish community to love God more by knowing Jesus better and following him more closely.

I hope we all leave church this morning feeling stronger than we came in, assured that God rewards us with heavenly glory, that he gives us the help of the Holy Spirit, and that he turns all things to our ultimate good. These three encouraging promises give us practical confidence and consolation in our daily struggles and in every suffering we face in our own lives or in our families.

I'll end with a line I stumbled across on the internet: “Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”

* My source for this and other thoughts in today's homily is the commentary by Prof. John Murray in The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary on Sacred Scripture, pp. 300-315.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Wordless Homily: Sponsoring A Fourth Refugee Family

We welcomed the two Dayekh families, Syrian refugees whom the parish sponsored, to the 11 a.m. Mass today, along with many of our volunteers and donors, and Liz Boppart-Carter from neighboring Capilano Christian Community, our partner in this great effort.
 There were touching tributes to Father Paul after both morning Masses last Sunday as we prepared for his departure.  There were also a few jokes at his expense and even one or two poking fun at me! 
The speakers highlighted Father Paul’s many gifts and listed the splendid things he’s accomplished in just two years.  Even I was impressed.
But I was also a little bit jealous.  It’s been six years since my twenty-fifth ordination anniversary, which was the last time anyone listed my accomplishments.  I thought I should get equal time, just to be fair, so I decided to list my recent accomplishments for you this morning.
My recent accomplishments are… uh… just let me think… there must be something.
How about Alpha?  Nope.  That was a dedicated team of parish volunteers, not me. I just showed up to eat.
Oh—speaking of eatingmonth after month hundreds of people in the Downtown East Side enjoy great breakfasts and lunches at the Door is Open.  Ooops!  It's the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society who do that.
Maybe Project Advance?  The campaign almost reached its goal in record time.  But that’s not me either, it’s you, not to mention our dedicated campaign chair and his volunteers.  I’m really just another donor.
There must be something for which I can claim some credit.  Ah—our refugee sponsorship!  First the Shaboo family from Iraq then the two Dayekh families from Syria.  Surely I can take credit for that?
I wish I could!  But let me tell you—the pride I do take in your generosity beats any sense of personal accomplishment I could feel.  I marvel at the leadership shown by the members of our settlement teams, and at the incredible hard work of the numerous volunteers who have helped these wonderful families find shelter, furniture, educational opportunities, and so much more.
This Canada Day weekend we formally declare the independence of the two Dayekh families, who are now self-supporting.  We rejoice in their courage and hard work.  And although our formal commitment to them has been fulfilled, we remain their friends and, most of all, their brothers and sisters in Christ. [The congregation broke into applause.]
Now, the success of the Dayekhs in establishing themselves in Canada, combined with the excellent stewardship of our team leaders and the generosity of our donors, allows me to make a remarkable announcement to you today.
The parish is now preparing to make a commitment to sponsor a family of nine who fled the genocidal conflict in Rwanda many years ago but have waited ever since for a permanent home. 
Living as refugees in Kenya, the Gatare family—a husband and wife and seven children—have posed a great challenge to our archdiocesan refugee office.  This large family has waited so long to find a sponsor that five of the seven children are now classed as adults—meaning they require individual financial guarantees that are beyond the resources of most parishes.
At the same time time, the refugee office informed me that the Iraqi family we had agreed to sponsor—which was stalled by the government moratorium on non-Syrian refugees—has now found a home in the US.
After we heard that news, together with the new request, our accountant went to work.  She added up the donated funds remaining after our fulfilled commitments to the Shaboo and Dayekh families, plus the $20,000 earmarked from Project Advance during the Year of Mercy.  The total?  Almost exactly the sum required.
There are some formalities to be completed, but I look forward to announcing the signing of the sponsorship agreements and soon thereafter the arrival of Joseph and Agnes Gatare together with their children Simon-Pierre, Zacharie, Sarah, Jean-Paul, Jolie-Josephine, Bella-Louise, and Jordan.
 When the family arrives, we hope that our dear friends the Dayekhs will have the chance to welcome them warmly.
All in all, we have pretty good reasons to celebrate this Canada Day—not to mention a homily without words on the Gospel today.