Sunday, June 30, 2019

Summertime Ideas for Intentional Discipleship (13.C)

I celebrated thirty three years of priesthood on Friday. Every one of them has been happy, but none happier than the years I have spent at Christ the Redeemer.

I like everything about being a pastor… except for one thing. Busy-ness. I really hate how busy I am. And, to tell the truth, I really hate how busy you are. What’s worse, I really don’t know how to fix it.

In my life, email gets a lot of the blame. At the moment, my inbox has 257 emails, although I spent hours answering them last week.

I’m not sure what fills your so-called free time, but if you have kids I can bet sports keeps you busier than email.

It’s easy enough to blame it all on the pace of modern life. My grandfather got up around 7:30 and caught the streetcar to work at twenty after eight. He got off the streetcar every night about twenty after five. My father got up at six and was out the door by seven, back home about eleven hours later. I get up at five and finish work at seven or eight in the evening.

And yet the scriptures we hear today suggest that people have always been busy. Elisha wants to fulfill his family duties before he replaces Elijah as the great prophet of Israel. Three potential disciples of Jesus also give reasons why they can’t follow him right away.

What I like about these stories is that the excuses are good ones. Hard to think of better ones—the funeral of a father, a fond farewell to family. Elijah is sympathetic—okay, go and kiss your parents. But Jesus doesn’t buy the excuses—not because he’s mean, but to make a timeless point for us: nothing matters more than following him.

The Psalm today proclaims “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” Another translation says “My happiness lies in you alone.”

Obviously, Christians don’t reject the many good things that surround us: family, hiking, sports, parties, and so on. But as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, we are both flesh and spirit—and the flesh likes to get its own way.

It’s a struggle to put first things first. It’s so tempting to work on email when I should be praying. An earlier start to the hike can be more attractive than getting to Mass. We’re surrounded by things demanding our immediate attention.

The American general and president Dwight Eisenhower coined what’s called the “Eisenhower Principle”: “What’s important is seldom urgent and what’s urgent is seldom important.”

Our spiritual lives are rarely urgent, but always important. They deserve as much planning as our summer holidays, if not more.

So to keep this homily short and to the point, I’d like to issue two challenges for those who’d like to try just a bit harder to answer the call to discipleship.

First, try to fit the 9 a.m. Mass into the family’s crazy schedule for Canada Day. Start the day tomorrow with half an hour of worship, thanking God for all that’s wonderful about our country, and asking him to help us fix all that isn’t.

Second, our parish leaders are hard at work mapping out a discipleship path to share with you in the Fall. Why not get a head start on that path over the summer?

Today's bulletin has a whole page of ideas for a more spiritual summer. Take a copy with you today, and tick off two summertime plans. Then put the bulletin on the frig door, and do a couple of simple but intentional things to move forward on “the path of life.” 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

I believe; help my unbelief: the Real Presence (Corpus Christi.C)

Our young adults had a barbecue last night. They fed me one hamburger, one hot dog, and one homily.  Today’s homily.

Before I’d even reached for the mustard, a young parishioner asked me whether most Catholics believe in the Real Presence. I answered that I don’t know, but that I am fairly sure many Catholics do not understand the Real Presence.

Opinion polls, which are extremely helpful to the Church, can’t answer the question—because to ask people whether they believe in the Real Presence, we’d have to define it. And that’s something you can’t do on a survey.

But it is something you can do in a homily. So let’s just take a survey sample of one, and ask ourselves “Do I believe in the Real Presence?”   But before you answer “yes, no, or maybe” let me try to do what a survey can’t, by explaining something of what the Church teaches about the Body and Blood of Christ.

Of course when we talk about the Real Presence or the Body and Blood of Christ we’re talking about the Mass. You can’t separate today’s feast from Holy Thursday. And when we’re talking about the Mass, we’re talking about the saving sacrifice of Jesus. You can’t separate Holy Thursday from Good Friday. And we sure can’t separate anything we believe from Easter Sunday.

Already you can see that no ordinary survey can accurately determine whether or what Catholics believe.

Today’s feast presumes all that we believe about the Mass, but it focuses on one aspect. That aspect was defined with theological precision at the Council of Tent, in 1551. It taught that “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’”

That’s a real mouthful of theology. What St. Paul writes in our second reading is plainer: Jesus said “this is my Body” and told us to eat and drink in remembrance of him. From the beginning, the Church has taken Jesus at his word.

And why not? It seems obvious why Jesus should want to remain present to his Church in this unique way. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “Since Christ was about to take his departure from his own in his visible form, he wanted to give us his sacramental presence; since he was about to offer himself on the cross to save us, he wanted us to have the memorial of the love with which he loved us ‘to the end,’ even to the giving of his life” (CCC 1380).

St. Paul VI explained that this presence is called ‘real’ not because the other types of Christ’s presence are not ‘real’ too, “but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present” (Mysterium Fidei, 39).

Although we speak of the Real Presence, we know that Jesus is really present in many other ways: in his word, in his Church’s prayer, where two or three are gathered in his name, in the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, in the other sacraments and their ministers, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. But he is present most especially in his Body and Blood (CCC 1373).

A very simple example: Jesus was truly present at last night’s barbecue, where the young adults were gathered in his name. It was an event of small-c communion. But I got an email from one of them written at two in the morning—because after the party he’d gone to spend time with Jesus in the adoration chapel at Holy Trinity. Because Jesus was present there in a special way, a way so special it was worth a very late night.

Today’s Gospel might remind us more of the barbecue than Eucharistic adoration. But it’s a miracle of power that should turn our thoughts more to heavenly than earthly food. Jesus shows not only that he’s powerful but generous. I wonder if the struggle to believe in his Real Presence is because we’re not sure he’s powerful enough or generous enough to perform the miracle of all miracles, transforming ordinary food into the Bread of Angels, the healing of wounded hearts, the source of holiness, and the cause of unity.

So let’s take the survey. Do I believe that Jesus is present in that tabernacle, and will be present soon on this altar, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity?” Putting it another way, do I take Jesus, who said “this is my Body” and “this is my Blood,” at his word?

Some of us will answer with a firm yes. Some, perhaps, with a firm no. But many of us will answer with the famous words of the father whose Son Jesus had just healed: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24).

What do we do to strengthen our faith in the Eucharistic presence? Pope Francis answered this question in one of his daily homilies. He called prayer, adoration, and acknowledging that we are sinners the three paths which help a Christian know and understand the mystery of God. Then he added something rather bold: “one cannot know the Lord without [the] habit of adoring, of adoring in silence” (Homily, October 20, 2016). 
The Pope said that adoration is not always found in the Christian life. “I believe, if I am not mistaken”, he said, “that this prayer of adoration is the [prayer] least known by us, it is the one we do the least”, as if it were a “waste of time before the Lord, before the mystery of Jesus Christ”.

He called us to rediscover “the silence of Adoration.”

Whatever answer you gave to the personal survey, that sounds like good advice. There is, as I mentioned, an adoration chapel nearby at Holy Trinity. And we hope to schedule more adoration of the Blessed Sacrament here at Christ the Redeemer, starting in the Fall. But every day the Lord waits for you in the church, which is open daily from about 7 to 5, and very often until 9.

Take Jesus at his word, and meet him in his Real Presence.

(Looking for more? here's a video from the remarkable Bishop Barron.)

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Thinking About God the Father on Trinity Sunday

When Trinity Sunday falls on Father’s Day, priests and deacons breathe a sigh of relief. The doctrine of the Trinity is, on the one hand, as simple as 1-2-3. But on the other, it is “the central mystery of Christian faith and life.” It is “the mystery of God in himself” and the source of all the other mysteries of our faith (CCC 234).

In short, even the cleverest preacher can’t even begin to do justice to this core truth of Christianity.

But on Father’s Day we can at least try to relate our human experience to the Trinity, and particularly to God as Father. Even then we’re just glimpsing some of the wonders of belief in the Triune God, but it’s a start.

Last night’s Summer Celebration was a huge success. It was a sell-out crowd, but in many ways it felt like a family barbecue. The event testified to many things, including the generosity of our volunteers, the closeness of our community, and the affection we have for Father Giovanni, who was the subject of farewell speeches and songs.

(Speaking of the songs, one of them was sung to the tune of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and included the line “Monsignor’s already so lonesome he could cry”—at which point the cheeky singer paused and said “Not that that means much: Monsignor cries at everything.”)

Fair point. But it’s worth a tear or two when we reflect that the greatest thing about last evening was that we were gathered as children of a common Father, truly as brothers and sisters in God who loves us.

The relationship we enjoy as brothers and sisters is an important element of life in the Church. But much more important is the relationship with God as our father. We hear a lot about the need for a personal relationship with Jesus, but we should remember that we are also called to a personal relationship with our heavenly Father.

The monthly scripture magazine The Word Among Us asks a great question in its meditation on today’s feast: “So how is your relationship with the Holy Trinity? Do you tend to focus only on one Person and ‘forget’ to deepen your relationship with the others?”

And it gives us some simple and practical advice: “If you want a better relationship with the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, just ask God to reveal himself to you more deeply. You might just discover some new facet about him” as you continue the conversation.

Just ask. That’s more or less what I said about the Holy Spirit last week. If we feel we lack the relationship with God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—that we hear so much about, we might think over what St. James says in his epistle: “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

And when asking God to reveal himself more deeply to us as Father we have a bit of a head start. Although earthly fathers come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of imperfection, we do know what a father is. If our fathers showed us a father’s love, that’s a great place to start. But even if they didn’t, we know what was lacking and what we truly need now.

The first reading today highlights the creativity of God. Of course fathers are pro-creators of their children, a necessary part of their conception.

(For some reason, what are called “Dad jokes” have gone viral on the internet lately. Every one of them is a real groaner, way too corny to tell from the pulpit. But I did stumble across a joke about dads that emphasizes their role in procreation. Four men are in the hospital waiting room because their wives are having babies. A nurse goes up to the first guy and says, “Congratulations! You’re the father of twins.”

“That’s odd,” answers the man. “I work for the Minnesota Twins!”

A nurse says to the second guy, “Congratulations! You’re the father of triplets!”

“That’s weird,” answers the second man. “I work for the 3M Company!”

A nurse tells the third man, “Congratulations! You’re the father of quadruplets!”

“That’s strange,” he answers. “I work at the Four Seasons hotel!”

The last man is groaning and banging his head against the wall. “What’s wrong?” the others ask.

“I work for 7 Up!”)

If the first reading has a certain focus on biological fatherhood, we might say that the second reading applies well to adoptive fathers. St. Paul tells us that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit—love is a free gift because we have been chosen to be God’s sons and daughters.

A couple of young adults and I found the time before Easter to watch Father Dave Pivonca’s video series “The Wild Goose.” It took us a few months to watch all the episodes, but it was worth it—you might want to do the same on YouTube. One of the best episodes was called “The Spirit of Adoption.” In it, Father Dave pointed out that Roman fathers could fairly easily disown their natural children.

“If they angered him, he had the legal right to disown his children, sell them into slavery or even kill them,” one history blog states clearly. (I am glad I didn’t live in ancient Rome!)

But an adoptive father had no such rights. Since the adopted child had been chosen and desired, he was a permanent member of the family. St. Paul has this in mind when he tells us “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15).

So whether we look on God as our creator, the one who formed us in our mother’s wombs, or as the God who has freely poured his love into our hearts, Father’s Day is a great day to ask for a deeper and closer parent-child relationship with him.

There’s no opposition between the persons of the Blessed Trinity, so approaching God in his fatherhood will bring us closer to the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s clear from what Jesus says in the Gospel this morning: “All that the Father has is mine.” These words echo his words earlier in John’s Gospel: “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).

So today, let’s ask God, who has made himself known to the human race, to make himself known to our hearts, through the Spirit of truth.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Pentecost: The Second Mountain

David Brooks is a regular columnist in the New York Times. Twice a week he swims upstream as he writes about ethics and morality.

I’ve just started reading his latest book, and it’s already given me a new a simple way of looking at my life.

The book’s called The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

On page one, Brooks describes a certain kind of person—the kind of person I want to be, the kind of person we all want to know.

“Every once in a while.” he writes, “I meet a person who radiates joy.

“These are people who seem to glow with an inner light. They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones. These people are not perfect. They get exhausted and stressed. They make errors in judgment. But they live for others, and not for themselves.

“They’ve made unshakable commitments to family, a cause, a community, or a faith. They know why they were put on this earth and derive a deep satisfaction from doing what they have been called to do.

"Life isn’t easy for these people. They’ve taken on the burdens of others. But they have a serenity about them, a settled resolve. They are interested in you, make you feel cherished and known, and take delight in your good.”

But what really captured my interest—and what I want to share with you this morning—is what David Brooks calls these individuals. He calls them “second mountain people.”

He says we all have two mountains to climb. The goals of the first mountain are the normal goals society places in front of us as we begin our adult lives: to be a success, to be well thought of, to make the right connections, and to experience personal happiness.

“It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.”

But then, he says, something happens.

“Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it… unsatisfying. ‘Is this all there is,’ they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.”

Others get knocked off the first mountain by some failure, some setback, some great suffering or life-altering tragedy.

And all of a sudden, the second mountain appears. “At this point, people realize, Oh, that first mountain wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.”

David Brooks makes sure we understand that the second mountain isn’t the opposite of the first. To climb the second mountain doesn’t mean rejecting the first mountain: it’s the second stage of our journey, “the more generous and satisfying phase of life.”

The second mountain is the mountain of self-giving, humility and service. We climb it in pursuit of what Brooks calls “moral joy,” alignment of our life with some ultimate good.

Great stuff. But by now you’re wondering what all this has to do with Pentecost, the great feast of the Holy Spirit.

Only this: I want to borrow those two mountains and use them as an image of our Christian life.

This morning I suggest to you that discipleship requires us to climb two mountains. The first is the mountain of obedience. We learn and live the Ten Commandments. We study the Faith, and seek to understand what the Church teaches. We join a parish community, and worship together each week.

Climbing that first mountain is an important, indeed essential journey.

But all of a sudden, the second mountain appears and we realize, oh, that first mountain peak wasn’t my destination after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that God wants me to climb.

Pentecost is an invitation to climb the second mountain.

Although I’m using the image from a current bestseller, the Bible often uses mountains to describe “the high moments of success in life, and obstacles that stand in our way.”

Isaiah prophesied “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… Many people shall come and say ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Is. 2:2-3).

Psalm 121 says “I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall come my help? My help shall come from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

And, of course, we know that both Abraham and Moses had their life-changing encounters with God on mountaintops.

On the first Pentecost, described in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit takes the disciples from a public square in Jerusalem to the heights of joy, giving them the ability to proclaim “God’s deeds of power.” The apostles, in particular, have done their share of first-mountain preaching, but this is something entirely new.

The first Christians are drawn out of themselves by the Holy Spirit. Like David Brooks’ second-mountain people, they put their gifts at the service of others, as the Spirit leads them. St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians describe a community that functions like a body, but it’s a body with a soul—the Holy Spirit animating each member.

In the Gospel this morning*, Jesus invites us to climb both mountains of discipleship. “If you love me,” he says, “you will keep my commandments.” That’s the first mountain.

He continues: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” That’s the second mountain, the mountain of spiritual joy and comfort.

Why would we want to stay on the first mountain, even at the very peak, when Jesus offers so much on the second?

That’s the big question at Pentecost. What possible reason can we have not to say “Yes! Send me the Spirit, who Jesus says will lead us into all the truth.” (Jn. 16:13)

Some of us have reached the top of the first spiritual mountain, and we may wonder “is that all there is?” On this Pentecost day, St. Paul answers absolutely not! “We were all made to drink of one Spirit.” 
*We were made for the second mountain, the place of encounter with God’s love, peace and joy.

Some of us were knocked off the first mountain—by misfortune or sorrow or failure. So we need the Spirit as our Advocate, Helper, Comforter, and Consoler—just to keep on climbing the path of faith.

Advocate, Helper, Comforter, and Consoler, words which promise something, are all used to translate the Greek word used by Jesus in this morning’s Gospel—Paraclete.

I’ve always understood Paraclete to mean the person who stood beside the accused in the courts of ancient times—the one who help to defend you. And that’s a good way of looking at the Holy Spirit.

But at Alpha yesterday, when we spent the whole day learning about and praying to the Holy Spirit, the speaker said that a larger boat that came to the aid of a smaller one—the boat that drew alongside a vessel in distress—was called a paraclete in ancient Greek.

I’d never heard that, and I couldn’t find it in my Bible dictionary. But when I Googled “paraclete,” I found a towing tugboat by that name—so I think the Alpha preacher must have a point! We’re always trying to grow, to change, to repent, and to rejoice under own steam, when God wants to draw alongside us with all the strength and power that we need.

I want to close in a slightly unusual way. Although Evangelical Protestant preachers often end a sermon with a call to prayer, priests rarely do. But yesterday one of our grade sevens, fresh from the experience of a praise and worship night with his class on Friday evening, asked to speak with me after morning Mass.

He asked with great seriousness whether we could pray together to the Holy Spirit this morning.

So that is what we are going to do.

Please bow your heads and repeat the words of the prayer after me.

Come Holy Spirit, fill my heart.

Kindle in my heart the fire of your love.

Come Holy Spirit to renew and restore me.

Bring me to your holy mountain,

let me experience your peace,

and radiate joy to others.


* The Lectionary offered options for the readings on Pentecost.  We chose 1 Cor. 12.3b-7, 12-13 as the second reading and Jn. 14:15-16, 23v-26.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Ascension: Why Aren't We "Engaged"?

The parish council met yesterday, and on the agenda were the results of the ME 25 engagement survey that I already talked about and printed in the bulletin.

In case you've forgotten, that survey of member engagement, professionally done by the Gallup organization, measures how you feel about your parish.

At first glance, we were shocked by the key results: Twenty-eight percent of our parishioners are engaged, 51% are disengaged, while 21% are actively disengaged. This is after several years of very serious efforts to promote intentional discipleship and a culture of mission at Christ the Redeemer.

But just as I was polishing my resume to see if I could get a job teaching canon law somewhere, our friends at Gallup came to my rescue.  Our scary numbers are within a percentage point or two of the other parishes surveyed.

And then a fellow Vancouver pastor, one I quite admire, shared his ME 25 results with me. Again, they were almost the same as ours.

The parish council could only reach two possible conclusions. 

One, that America's most famous polling organizations was just giving everyone the same numbers, without bothering to tabulate the surveys.

Or, two, that almost every Catholic parish is in the same boat, battling some factors that even our best efforts can't control.

Which do you think is true?

Obviously, the second conclusion. Best practices, great music, excellent preaching, warm welcomes, interesting programs, dynamic youth ministry—they all only go so far.

Let's be clear: we're not going to give up trying. We're not going to settle for anything but the best possible parish. However... the readings for today's great feast of the Ascension answer a question that no survey ever can.

And the question is: why aren't we experiencing what Jesus promised and what Paul preached?

Forget a wussy word like engagement. Why aren't we on fire?

Because I can tell you with 100% accuracy that the two-thirds of our parish family who are not "engaged" are not burning with the hope to which God has called us. They're not experiencing anything like "the riches of his glorious inheritance."

And they—and I can say we, since I also fall short here—are not living as people clothed with power from on high.

Have we received the spirit of wisdom and revelation that St. Paul talks about in the second reading? Have we come to know Jesus and "the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe"?

If these words from Jesus and from Paul strike our ears as over the top, out of reach, or just plain silly, then we're certainly not engaged. Full stop.

But this is not a bad news homily. The survey asked 25 questions. God only asks you one. Do you want what the Father is offering?

If your answer is 'yes,' you only have to ask.

Although the Ascension is an important part of the Paschal Mystery, it is something of an overture to Pentecost. The Ascension is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples—then and now—that he's really not leaving them when he returns to the Father.

He is sending down the Holy Spirit, so powerfully that he calls it a second baptism.

Exactly what "baptism with the Holy Spirit" means is complex, because there's clearly some overlap with what those involved in the Catholic charismatic renewal often call "baptism in the Holy Spirit." There's no time to tackle the subject now, but Ralph Martin has a fine scholarly article on the subject.

Dr. Martin—whom many of you will remember from his visit with us last year—also offers much simpler thoughts about today's first reading.

He says "Despite having three years of the best teaching that anybody could ever have, besides having personal attention and personal spiritual direction, personal formation from Jesus ... and despite having seen the Risen Lord—Jesus said ‘you are not ready yet’. There is something else that has to happen."

"Something else has to happen to make it all come together. So wait until that happens, and what you need is to receive the promise of the Father." Having three years of instruction wasn’t enough, seeing the miracles wasn’t enough, seeing the risen Lord and being taught by him for forty days wasn’t enough.

And being baptized wasn't enough, since we can be sure the Apostles had been baptized. They had to wait for Pentecost, for the promise of the Father to be fulfilled.

One thing is completely sure: parish programs, faith studies, Alpha courses are all great. But they aren't enough. Every one of us needs to pray to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the words St. John the Baptist uses in all four Gospels.

You don't need to wade into charismatic waters to ask Jesus to fulfill the promise we heard in the first reading today. It's a promise from the Risen Lord, who makes John's words his own: "this is what you have heard from me."

We too must wait for "the promise of the Father." And what a great time to wait—because "not many days from now" is Pentecost.

We all know that Jesus said "ask and you shall receive." How can we fail to ask for exactly what we're promised?

And if we ask—how can we fail to receive? It's unthinkable that the promise of the Father would not be fulfilled.

So let me end with an answer to the question I asked earlier in the homily: why aren't we experiencing what Jesus promised and what Paul preached?

Because we don’t ask.