Sunday, April 29, 2018

Moving from MUST to WANT (Easter 5.B)

When I was a kid, one of the most popular TV game shows was called Truth or Consequences. It was so popular that a small town in the States, previously called “Hot Springs,” changed its name. And so to this day, you can visit Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

And if that isn’t the weirdest fact you’ve ever heard in a homily, I’d like to know what was.

The reason I had the show on my mind wasn’t weird, though. It was just that today’s Scripture readings got me thinking about truth and consequences.

Truth always has consequences. The greater the truth, the greater the consequences. And surely, there can be no greater truth than the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

St. John tells us in our second reading that truth leads to action: belief leads to obedience and discipleship. And obedience and discipleship lead to life in the Spirit.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that his disciples will bear fruit, for the glory of God the Father.

Every ounce of that is distilled from the truth of the Resurrection.

Few people in church this morning don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But this belief can be inherited and taken for granted. Or it can be strong and life-changing.

So where are we in our discipleship journey? Are we likely to bear the fruit that will give glory to God?

Let’s try a reality check this morning. I have a three-word, twelve letter test we can take together. The three words represent three stages of Christian discipleship. We are meant to move from the first to the third, but we need to know where we are now.

The first word is MUST. For many Christians, and especially Catholics, the demands of faith are external obligations. The classic, of course, is that we must go to Mass. We hear it from parents, teachers, and priests. There are other ‘musts’, often in the form of ‘must nots’. Sometimes, the ‘musts’ and ‘must nots’ are reinforced with sanctions ranging from the fear of parents, to the fear of Hell. The parents can be even scarier!

The second word is NEED. As we get older, or wiser, or more worried, we begin to internalize the call to faithfulness. At first I didn’t my doctor take very seriously when he said ‘you must exercise’. But as I got tired and stressed, I began to see that I needed exercise. More and more Christians are recognizing that a society without morality has dire consequences both for individuals and the common good.

There’s nothing wrong with doing the right thing because you must, or because you feel the need. But Jesus calls us to more. He invites us to discipleship that’s rooted in love for him. He calls us to WANT to be his disciples, because we want to be his friends.

It’s really only this third word that can attract others. Within the family and within the Church, we can talk about what Catholics must do, and what Catholics need to do. But it doesn’t sound very appealing.

On the other hand, what our hearts desire can be shared. Someone who is a branch of the vine who is Jesus Christ has the appeal and magnetism of Christ himself. Those who live their faith as branches of the vine – pruned and cleansed by obedience –are Christians who will truly glorify God by bearing fruit.

I don’t want to startle you by shifting gears, but I have found these three words perfectly fit three categories of donors to Project Advance, our annual Archdiocesan campaign.

We have the reluctant contributors. They feel they MUST give something or the pavement in front of the church will continue to buckle and someone will trip. They know that our regular Sunday revenue is not enough to keep up with roofs and pipes that are almost devilishly prone to leak. Or maybe they must give something so that the hardworking volunteers in the foyer don’t give them a funny look as they walk by the table for the next five Sundays.

There are also those who NEED to give. They have a sense of ownership in the parish, and they’ve experienced the fruits of our successful campaigns. Perhaps they have children or grandchildren at St. Thomas Aquinas and they feel it’s important to support the exciting building project now underway. Maybe they are music lovers who think we need to make sure our aging sound system is kept up to date, as we are planning this year.

But, there’s a third group – not just a group in theory, but individuals I’ve talked with many times.  They are those who WANT to give. People in the first two categories might think I am making this up, because it’s natural to think giving money away is painful. And so it is, except for those who understand Christian stewardship. For them, sacrificial giving is not based on what they ought to do, or even what the parish needs. It is directly connected to their understanding of discipleship.

The members of this group believe that Project Advance helps them bear the fruit God wants. They connect their giving to their call to be disciples. It’s a fact of life that most of us just do not have the confidence and zeal of Ed Zadeiks, who will lean over to someone at the next table at Tim Horton’s and invite them to ALPHA.

So when Project Advance funds the parish’s evangelization efforts, including ALPHA, our donors are responding to their call to fruitfulness. There are those who WANT to be a part of the campaign because they know they can’t evangelize alone.

The theme of our 2018 campaign is “Making Sundays Matter”. We chose it in part because it’s one of Archbishop Miller’s four key priorities for the archdiocese. But we also chose “Making Sundays Matter” because our Sunday Mass is “Easter returning week by week”, as St. John Paul wrote.

Among the many activities of a parish, nothing is as vital or as community-forming as the Sunday celebration of the Lord's Day and his Eucharist.[1] So it wasn’t hard to decide to focus our campaign on aspects of Sunday Mass.

The largest parish project this year may not seem terribly spiritual – replacing the stairs and pavement outside the front doors of the church. But we felt that making sure no one trips on their way to Mass was a very good place to start. We want every worshipper to arrive and leave safely.

Last year’s Project Advance raised funds for a video system. It will be up and running in just a few weeks. Doing it right proved more expensive than we planned, so we’ve earmarked additional money from this year’s campaign. The first thing you’ll see on the screen will be the Project Advance video, which will describe the great things we support with the share of the campaign that goes to the Archdiocese, $69,000 this year. But the projection system exists first and foremost to enhance our prayer on Sunday. We will occasionally use film clips in preaching, but we hope regularly to project the words of some prayers and hymns.

We recognize that Mass has limited value in evangelizing visitors, because they feel lost as the liturgy unfolds. This is true especially at Christmas and Easter. We’re going to use Project Advance contributions to purchase or produce guides to the liturgy for our visitors.

Improvements to the sound system in the choir loft will also enhance Sunday Mass.

But Sunday Mass does not exist in isolation. The Gospel calls us not only to worship, but to work. The tremendously successful parish ministries to prisoners and the poor will also be helped by this year’s campaign.

I hope you will support generously this year’s Project Advance. For our Archdiocese and for our parish in particular, it’s what pays for progress.

But giving sacrificially also helps us meet the deep desire for fruitfulness that is in the heart of each disciple. So I hope and pray that you WANT to be part of the campaign this year.

[1] John Paul II, Dies Domini

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Witnesses of These Things (Easter 3B)

Our 'Easter Event' on Thursday night was a great success. The meeting room was packed with an overflow crowd. But what stood out for me was a single failure, if I can call it that.

During the videos and the first of the three personal faith stories shared by parishioners, I noticed one woman who seemed to be doing everything she could to shrink into the corner. She made no effort to turn towards the front, and even from a distance I thought she looked uncomfortable.

Half-way through the evening, she got up and left.  It's possible she just remembered an appointment, but I felt she was distressed by the message she heard.

I was blocked in by extra chairs, or I would have run after her. Later on, I wondered what I would have said if I had caught up to her in the parking lot. I'm not sure, but when I read today's Gospel, I know what I should have said: "Why are you frightened?"

I might have added "it's okay to be frightened--Christ's own disciples were scared silly when he came back from the dead. And they doubted the same truths that made you so uncomfortable a few moments ago."

The testimonies of faith given by ordinary parishioners were enough to shake up most Catholics; I can't imagine their impact on someone who may have just come by for the dessert.

 Look at the reaction of the disciples to the ultimate proof of the Resurrection--the wounded hands and feet of the Risen Lord. St. Luke says "in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering..."

How human and real is that? And how close to the confusion many of us feel when we try to absorb the full meaning of Easter?

We're joyful. Christ has risen. But we're still not altogether sure of what it's all about.

 I read a story about a plumber who sent an email to a government agency announcing a great discovery. He'd found that hydrochloric acid did a terrific job of clearing clogged drains.

In due course he received a reply from Ottawa: "The efficiency of hydrochloric acid is indisputable but the corrosive residue is incompatible with metal permanence." 

The plumber obviously misunderstood, because he promptly wrote back to say he was very glad the government agreed with him.

The federal official, alarmed at this response, sent a second email which said "We wish to emphasize that we must refrain from assuming responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residue from hydrochloric acid, and consequently, we most emphatically recommend some alternative procedure."

But again the eager plumber misunderstood the official and wrote back saying how pleased he was that the government agreed with him.

Finally, in desperation, the bureaucrat wrote "Don't use hydrochloric acid. It eats the heck out of the pipes!"

If we're honest, a lot of our preaching and teaching sounds more like the first two emails than it does like the last. We can sometimes over-complicate the Gospel to the point of obscuring its message.

Easter offers us a chance to keep it simple and powerful. The two disciples had an awful lot to say to the others when they arrived back in Jerusalem after meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We know part of the story they told—it appears in the earlier verses of this same chapter in Luke, and we read it at the evening Mass of Easter.

But we can guess what they said first: Jesus is alive!  He is not dead! It's all true!

The basic fact of the Resurrection is at the heart of all the apostolic preaching. In today's first reading, St. Peter is bold to the point of rudeness, and for one reason only: God has glorified his servant Jesus, raising him from the dead. It’s all the confidence he needs.

The belief that Jesus is risen is also the reason for the confidence St. John shows in our second reading; Jesus is not only the atoning sacrifice for our sins, but the sacrifice that atones for the sins of the whole word--as proven by the fact that the Father has raised him to life.

I'm not giving up on preaching: a good homily can help to open our minds to understand the important truths and teachings in the Scriptures, and can help us apply them in our lives. But I've become convinced that our personal testimonies of faith hold a key to the renewal and the growth of faith in our day.

"You are witnesses of these things," Jesus says in today's Gospel. But not merely witnesses of the Paschal mystery and the forgiveness of sins as history or theology. We are flesh and blood witnesses of the power of Christian faith in our own lives, called to share our story with others.

Let me end with a challenge: take a minute now and ask yourself, “What would I have said to that woman as she rushed out to the parking lot?”

Sunday, April 1, 2018

We Love the C&Es! (Easter Morning)

Our parish was saddened a few weeks back by the death of our first pastor.  Father Tim McCarthy was fondly remembered as both a good shepherd and a builder who was committed to Catholic schools.

One thing he wasn't remembered for was humorous homilies. He was a serious preacher who didn't tell too many jokes.

But he did tell a funny story I'll never forget.  It was about the woman who came up to him after Mass on Easter and complained about the flowers.

"This parish has no imagination.  Poinsettias and lilies, poinsettias and lilies. It's all I ever see.

Obviously, the floral critic was what we like to call a C & E—a Catholic who attends Mass only at Christmas and Easter.

Now contrary to what you might think, we love C & E's.  I admit that I wasn't that fond of them back in the days when I needed a seat in the pews, but now that my seat is guaranteed, I couldn't be happier.

Because in a world that has turned its back on God, people who celebrate his coming at Christmas and his rising at Easter are already half way to the fullness of Christian life. They don't think of themselves as "religious, yet study after study shows they are—including those done by our own parishioner, Angus Reid, who's been called Canada's most trusted pollster.

Easter is a greater challenge than Christmas for a preacher. Today's feast gets to the heart of the story of salvation, and it's not dressed up with the same sentiment and social customs as Christmas. A preacher can let the C &E's go home happy at Christmas, but he needs to send them away with something of a challenge at Easter.

At the same time, the regular members of the congregation need to focus on the visitors sitting beside them today, whether family, friends or strangers. The reason is simple. At Christmas, the good news of Christ's birth was proclaimed by shepherds and wise men from afar. But the news of his Resurrection of Easter was announced by Christ's own friends.

The Gospel we've just heard tells us what happened that first Easter morning. While the Apostles are licking their wounds after the disaster of the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene remains at Christ's tomb, just as she stood at his cross. And Jesus chooses her, his friend, to be the first to announce the good news.

That's why Pope Francis has called St. Mary Magdalene "the Apostle to the Apostles and why she is a model of evangelization.

It's obvious that Mary's special role on that first Easter highlights the dignity of women in the Church and their essential role in it. But I think it's equally important that a lay person, not an Apostle, not a priest, was the first to say "I have seen the Lord. 

So this Easter, and every Easter, challenges the committed Catholic to tell others he or she has seen the Lord—to share the news that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Let's return now to challenging the Christmas and Easter Catholic, or even the casual Christian. Or even the "nones —not the Sisters in habits but what Angus Reid calls those who answer "no religion" on his survey.  There may well be some "nones with us today, and they too are welcome.

But the welcome comes with a challenge. Although the story of the first Easter we read this morning is exciting and beautiful and dramatic, the other two readings are all about the consequences of the Resurrection.

In the first reading, St. Peter is giving a very important speech. He's preaching to a centurion—a Roman commander—who had a vision that told him to bring Peter to his house and listen to him. So what is Peter inspired to say?

He doesn't give him the fine details about Easter. No mention of angels, or Mary Magdalene mistaking Jesus for the gardener. Instead, Peter tells him the whole story of Christ and his mission, in condensed form.

Because Easter without the rest of the story—without the message Jesus preached, the message that took him to the cross, and without the forgiveness of sins—is a drama with only one act.

Peter gives Cornelius and his family the whole truth, which is what every preacher must do today.

And the whole truth is what each and every one of us, whether you're a C ≈ E, a curious visitor, or a devout Catholic, is what we have to seek together this morning. 

Our second reading, from the apostle Paul, invites us to do that: to set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 

I've come to believe that the main reason folks don't come to church regularly is simply that they don't feel the need. And that makes some sense. However, that's short-term thinking, because it only means they don't feel the need right now.

If we "seek the things that are above," as St. Paul says, we aren't just looking for pie in the sky when we die, as the old expression goes. We might just be preparing ourselves for situations we have yet to face.

There's a remarkable editorial in the National Post this week about the death of Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, the French policeman who died after swapping places with a woman held hostage by terrorists. It's far better than any Easter sermon I could preach.

"His widow insisted that his sacrifice could not be understood apart from his Christian faith, nourished by the monks at the nearby Abbey of Lagrasse. It was one of those monks who attended to Beltrame in hospital, administering the last sacraments before he died," the Post reports.

The wise editorial writer at the Post calls Colonel Beltrame the "saviour" of the woman for whom he died. On its own, that's a powerful message. But there's more.

The editorial continues: "Then comes the One who can overcome. Jesus is man, the faithful believe, but also God. And the hostages are freed, not freed by overwhelming power, but because there is One to take their place.

"On Good Friday, Christians look to the Cross and hear just that: 'You may go, He has come,'" the Post says.

Rich and beautiful words, but the writer's final point is the one that challenges us most: "The good news of a Saviour is only good news to those who know they need saving. On that Friday morning in Trèbes, the people did not think they needed a saviour until they needed one. On that Friday morning in Jerusalem, the people did not think they needed a Saviour, even though one was at hand."

We must set our minds on things that are above today, not tomorrow, every week, not twice a year. Otherwise, we will not think we need a saviour, until we need one, even though one is at hand.

Our parish has decided to make this great challenge concrete and actual this year—not just words and ideas. A week from Thursday, everyone here is invited to come back for an Easter evening. We want to share the rest of the story, the part of the story that's personal—the part of the story that can make a difference to the rest of your life.

Otherwise, we may not think we need a saviour until we need one, even though one is at hand.