Saturday, September 28, 2019

We Need to be UNcomfortable (26.C)

Today’s Gospel has a winner, Lazarus, and a loser, the rich man. And a clear target: “those… who loved money.”

Our first reading also takes aim at the rich and comfortable. The prophet Amos thunders at those who sleep on elegant beds, eating the best of the flocks and herds, humming along with the harpist, and drinking wine by the bowlful.

Are we getting nervous yet? A scold-the-rich homily seems to be just the thing today.

But that’s not how I see it. Of course we’re being warned about the dangers of riches and the evils of ignoring the poor. But I also hear God speaking a different message in these readings, important to each of us, rich and poor alike.

Let’s start with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. I said there’s a winner and a loser. But after thinking it over, I’m not so sure. Could both men be winners? Is it possible that the rich man might not have lost his eternal reward?

Take a careful look at the second thing the rich man asks for from Abraham. First, of course, he wants relief for himself; his tongue is parched by the flames. But when this is denied, he doesn’t argue or plead. He makes a second request: that his brothers be warned to avoid his fate.

Amidst the fires of hell, the rich man shows concern for the salvation of his family. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus as a messenger of truth.

I’m no theologian, but I don’t think someone damned for eternity has that much goodness in him. I’m not a biblical scholar either, but I know that the same word was used for hell as we understand it today—the place of eternal punishment for sin—and for the netherworld to which Jesus descended after his crucifixion to set its captives free.

Might not the rich man have been one of those captives? Might his concern that others avoid his own mistakes have been his saving grace?

We’ll never know—it’s just a parable, a story, after all.

The point I’m making is that there’s something to be learned from the rich man and it’s a lot more subtle than not ignoring poor people lying at your gate. Frankly, I don’t think anyone here could be guilty of such callous contempt.

But how many of us have brothers and sisters who need to be warned about the consequences of sin? And how many of us take their spiritual situation half as seriously as the rich man did?

The first reading also takes a surprising turn, if we look closely. Alas for those who lounge on their couches, eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall, and singing idle songs to the sound of the harp. Amos is describing the 1 per-centers of his day. He’s also nailing us who sit on good furniture, dine on lamb and veal, drinking good wine and listening to whatever we want to on Spotify.

We recognize all those creature comforts from our own lives. So maybe we’re the ones in trouble.

But wait. There was one item on the prophet’s indictment that I skipped over—the last one. Amos ends his list with those who “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”

Amos began by warning “those who are at ease in Zion,” and laments the good life of prosperous Israelites. But it’s not their prosperity that’s the problem: it’s their lack of concern for the fate of the nation. Comfort and ease have dulled their thinking, and they don’t much care that the northern Kingdom of Israel, called the sons or the house of Joseph, is being ruined by infidelity and weakness.

The great sin that Amos is attacking is not living in luxury: it’s failing to notice what’s going on around you. The complacent and well-fed are not grieved over the deterioration of the nation; they’re comfortable enough to ignore what would make right-thinking people feel sick—which is how the New American Bible translates the phrase.

Let’s look at ourselves. Does easy living blind us to the decay of our society? Do our comfortable lives lead us to spiritual isolationism, where we live and let live, neither grieving nor acting to change the way things are in our newly godless environment?

Amos isn’t laying guilt trips. Neither is Jesus. They are giving us warnings. And like the rich man in the parable, we need to want with all our hearts to warn others. The night is advancing around us, and we are called and chosen to oppose the darkness with righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, as St. Paul says.

So what can we do to make sure that our rack of lamb and glass of wine does not blind us to reality or lull us into inaction?

The first thing we must do, is to wake up from the false security that comes from comfort. We need first to understand what’s going on around us—the good and the bad. We need to know what we are called to do in the face of collapsing social systems, values and virtues.

You can find that out this coming Saturday. The parish is hosting a day-long video conference called the New Evangelization Summit. You’ll hear speakers who are leaders in the New Evangelization, the Church’s response to the falling away of countless Christians in Western countries including our own.

The Summit won’t just tell us what we need to do in this time of crisis; it will also tell us how. The day will inspire you, encourage you, and provide training, practical wisdom and resources on how to evangelize effectively at home and at work—without turning people off.

But, as the saying goes, you can’t give what you ain’t got. We ourselves need to be better evangelized—to have a living and active relationship with God and his Word. This is where the Discovery faith studies come in. The Discovery series gives us a chance to grow in the experience of our faith, together with others who want to walk with us on the discipleship path.

These small group studies take just six weeks each. Details are on the front page of this week’s bulletin. They’ve already been a great success in the parish, and I’ve not met anyone who didn’t find them to be interesting and challenging. Our Friday morning men’s group ran the studies last year and the reaction was extremely positive.

We invite you to sign up for a study after Mass today. If you took Discovery last year, there are other studies waiting for you to experience.

All this activity may make you wonder if Christ the Redeemer Parish is going a bit overboard. To answer that, I say please check out the Priorities and Goals of the Archdiocese on its website. I’m not the chief pastor of this parish; Archbishop Miller is. I’m not a successor of the Apostles, but he is. 

As our senior shepherd, the Archbishop has challenged the local Church to focus on four things. We’ve already tackled two of them head on: “Get Closer to Jesus” and “Develop Parish Leadership and Support.”

Getting closer to Jesus is exactly what the Discovery faith studies are all about—not religious education, but growth in friendship with the Lord. And Alpha has that very same goal.

The Archbishop is well aware of how seriously we’re taking his priorities and goals. In August he formally acknowledged our efforts to develop parish leadership and support by approving a new structure for the parish pastoral council, including a parish core team. 

The core team is a specific responds directly to a challenge in the Archdiocesan priorities and goals document, which states that “parishes thrive and experience renewal when pastors are enabled to delegate spiritual and administrative leadership roles to a talented and evangelized team of parishioners.”

The fruit of all this—growth in holiness, a new spirit of commitment to sharing the Gospel with others, and a laser focus in what we do as a parish—does not depend on the Archbishop, or on Fr. Jeff and me, or on the parish pastoral council, or on the members of the core team.

It depends on you. Each of you. So-called “ordinary” Catholics called to do things differently in a different world than the one in which we grew up.

Let’s not be grieved over the ruins of a Christian society. Let’s rebuild it together, and tell everyone the truth that the rich man was unable to share. 

Let us convince others, especially by inviting them to the Alpha film series, that Someone has indeed risen from the dead—and that He makes all the difference.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Discipleship Path (24.C)

In the Christian classic The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis takes us into the classrooms of hell where a senior devil is instructing his nephew on how to destroy the spiritual life of a young Christian.

Lewis had the brilliant idea that, by seeing things from the perspective of our enemy, we can understand his tricks and not be fooled by them.

What if we take an imaginary tour into the same classroom today, not to study Satan’s strategy for ruining Christians, but rather his tactics for taking down the Church.

What would be the enemy’s most effective means of blocking the mission Jesus gave to his disciples?

In Communist times, the best strategy was to keep the Church poor. In the Renaissance, what worked was making the Church rich.

But what would the devil do today if he wanted to make sure the Gospel was no longer shared in an effective way? How could he make sure that faith in Christ would wither for a generation?

A full-out attack rarely works. Some of his harshest strategies – like torture and martyrdom – didn’t work at all. Persecution often makes Christians stronger. Stripping the church of her worldly goods can lead to a sort of purification.

So what would a present day Screwtape tell his nephew Wormwood if the object of their evil attention was the Church itself?

In particular, what would be their diabolical strategy for Christ the Redeemer Parish at this very moment? I’ve been thinking this over a lot. There are wonderful opportunities ahead of us, but great risks also. So where does danger lie?

After prayer and reflection and discussion, and in the spirit of the Screwtape Letters, I offer to you the devil’s best shot at making sure we fail in the mission Christ has given our parish.

Business as usual.

Not by dungeon, fire and sword, as the hymn goes. The Church today and our parish in particular is threatened by business as usual.

It’s an insidious threat, because business as usual feels good. With business as usual we’re doing something that worked well in the past.

With business as usual we aren’t being stretched or prodded or challenged. We park ourselves in one of the waiting rooms of hell – the comfort zone.

Christ the Redeemer has arrived at a decisive time, a critical time, in its history. It’s time to abandon business as usual and respond afresh to Jesus who said “I am making all things new.”

This about-face from business as usual may seem startling, but it’s been more than two years in the making. In June 2017 a large number of parish leaders gathered for a workshop. After nearly eight hours of prayer and reflection, the group reached two simple conclusions. The first was that our parish needed to ask God to show us how to become disciples and missionaries.

The second conclusion was that we needed small group faith studies—groups of five or six where we can share and deepen our faith.

Those two ideas have already been bearing fruit. Alpha has developed and grown, and become ever more a part of our parish culture. And the Discovery faith studies have helped numerous parishioners and some converts to discover discipleship more deeply.
Now it’s time for the next phase of God’s work in our parish family.

It’s time to make sure that the mission is front and center of everything we do at Christ the Redeemer.  It’s time to focus our time, talent and treasure on finding the lost sheep, on sharing the Gospel not only among ourselves but boldly and intentionally with our brothers and sisters who do not know Jesus.

Carey Nieuwhof, who leads one of the most successful evangelical churches in Canada, tells Christian leaders “Every day there’s a battle for focus. Stay focused on the ministry and mission.”

They say if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  And so we have planned. The Parish Pastoral Council has been capably guided in a lengthy process of discernment that has led us to identify our core purpose: to become a parish of missionary disciples.

Yesterday some five dozen parishioners gathered in prayer to prepare for new leadership roles that will help us do what God calls us to do—sharing his Good News to a wounded world.

We looked at new methods for accomplishing our mission, including how to share our own faith stories with others and how to pray with and for others.

Of course becoming a missionary disciple requires first that we discover discipleship—specifically, what we’re calling “intentional discipleship.”

We’re all somewhere on the discipleship path, but now each of us needs to discover exactly where we are—because then we can, with God’s help, figure out the next forward step.

The front page of the bulletin today is a roadmap of the discipleship path. It’s meant to challenge every single member of the parish, from the most uncertain to the most committed.

Where are you on that path? It doesn’t matter where, as long as you’re ready to take the next step.

Perhaps, after years of coming to Mass, you can say you’re still seeking. You’re a seeker. Then come to Alpha and see if God has more to share with you.

Maybe you can say that you’ve decided to follow Jesus and to change your life.  You’re willing to do whatever he asks.  You’ve become an intentional disciple. Then make a decision to move towards missionary discipleship by making a plan to ask a friend or family member—or two or three—to Alpha next week.

In the months ahead, we will offer many opportunities for those who want to walk on the discipleship path, recognizing that we’re all at different points on our journey.

This week, just take the next step. Take a good look at the roadmap in the bulletin. Ask God where you are and where he wants you to go.

Because the road to hell is not paved with good intentions. It’s paved with no intentions.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Priorities, Acceptance and Surrender (23.C)

A wonderful teacher at St. Anthony's gives her students a preview of the Sunday Gospel every Friday. This year she's teaching grade one on Fridays, and she confessed she didn't know how she'd explain to the youngsters why Jesus said they should hate their fathers and mothers.

I told her I didn't know how I was going to explain to their parents why Jesus said they should hate their children. I asked her to let me know when she figured it out!

Believe it or not, two brothers told a funny story on a podcast yesterday that helped me figure it out. A young girl on the East Coast loved lobster; it was her favorite food.  One day, coming home with her parents from the fish market she decided to name the two big live lobsters they'd bought for that night's dinner; she called one Todd and the other Maude.

But when it came time to put the lobsters in the pot, she just couldn't do it. The brother telling the story concluded it's hard to kill something after you've given it a name.

The other brother quipped "maybe that's why parents give names to their children!”

What's that got to do with the words of Jesus? Well, parents, ask yourselves: how many times have you muttered, “I could kill that kid”? 

The child was not in mortal danger--you were exaggerating for effect. And that's partly what Jesus was doing when he told us to hate our loved ones. 

Yesterday afternoon Steve Whan of our parish took a step closer to becoming a permanent deacon at a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Miller. I wondered how the Archbishop would handle this difficult text, preaching in front of the candidates and their wives--all of whom are wondering what ordained ministry in the Church means for married life.

Not surprisingly, he handled it very well, and almost my entire homily this morning is borrowed--with his permission, of course, from the Archbishop!

He made short work of the notion that Jesus is telling deacons or anyone else to turn aside from their family obligations. Although our Lord's words are striking, it's really not a new message: everyone knows Jesus told us to love God with all our mind and heart.

The Archbishop pointed out that St. Benedict summarized this teaching in his famous Rule: "Prefer nothing to the love of Christ." 

"There you have it," he said. "Jesus must be 'number one' in our lives."

"Love for God does not exclude other loves, but it does prioritize them, putting them in the proper order."

The words about 'hating' loved ones are just the first of three challenging conditions for discipleship Jesus gives us in today's Gospel.

The second condition for true discipleship is "carry your cross and follow me."

Jesus has given us everything--all his love, proved by his death for us on the Cross. But this love demands everything in return.

Of course we can't give to Jesus without receiving even more back. We're frightened about carrying the Cross, yet Jesus doesn't hand it to us and walk away. He makes the Cross life-giving,

Pope Benedict put this beautifully: what Jesus is saying is "With your suffering, take part in the work of salvation which is realized through my suffering, by means of my Cross.  As you gradually embrace your own crosses, uniting yourself spiritually to my cross, the salvific meaning of suffering will be revealed to you." [Fatima, May 13, 2010]

And Archbishop Miller made a great point last night. Jesus is not really talking here about our voluntary penance but about accepting what we would rather avoid: our daily obligations, demands and trials,

By accepting the pain--physical, emotional, whatever--that seems so useless, so senseless and frustrating, we make it life-giving, a way of living with Christ.

The third condition for discipleship that Jesus lays down for serious disciples may be the hardest of all to understand. He tells us to give up all our possessions.  What could that possibly mean? We have responsibilities to our families and to society. "Is every Christian called to the poverty of St. Francis or St. Clare," Archbishop Miller asked?

Even the Archbishop admitted that this command, especially since Jesus says all our possessions, is really difficult to understand and live.

At the very least, he said, this teaching means that we must stand before the Lord and learn from him how we should use our resources. We cannot treat our finances as a world apart from our life of faith.

Nor, I believe, can we fail to include our time in what Jesus calls our possessions.  They say 'time is money,' but for many of us time's more precious than gold. But our time, too, must be given to the Lord when he asks.

All three of Christ's conditions for his disciples come down to a simple question that Archbishop Miller asked yesterday: "Where does love for Jesus rank in my daily existence, and not just when I'm saying my prayers? When the chips are down, when I have to choose between rival loves, what has first claim on me?"

And that's the question every intentional disciple must answer, every day.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Why Live 'The Good Life'? (22.C)

A homily on a holiday weekend ought to be fairly short. That’s what I’m aiming for, but I want to try an answer to a very big question: why be good?

Over the centuries, both pagan philosophers and Christian thinkers have offered two basic answers to the question. And those two answers create two basic approaches to what we call morality or right moral living.

The first we can call the morality of obligation. We live in a certain way because we’re supposed to. We act in a certain way because God says so—or because our parents or society tell us to.

The second we can call the morality of happiness. We choose to live in a certain way because we think it’s the path to happiness.

In his highly-readable book Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, moral theologian William C. Mattison III says it’s tempting to think that the morality of obligation is the Christian or religious perspective, and the morality of happiness, the pagan understanding. In fact, he says, there are pagan philosophers and Christian theologians on both sides of the question.

Where do you stand? Do you try to live a moral life because God tells you to do so? Or are you striving to be good because you believe virtue is its own reward?

The Scriptures today help us find answers. But before we look at them, I want to tell you two stories.

The first is about a fellow from Ireland who wrote to a pastor in Manhattan looking for some advice. “Dear Father,” he wrote, “Can a young man live a Christian life in New York City on two hundred dollars a week?”

The priest replied, “Young man, that’s the only kind of life you can live in New York City on two hundred dollars a week.”

The humour in the story, of course, comes from the assumption that the Christian life’s not much fun.

The other story’s a true one. It’s the story of one of the most brilliant men in the 20th century, someone few people under seventy know anything about. General Douglas MacArthur was an American five-star general who was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific during much of World War II.

MacArthur is most famous for the words “I shall return,” the promise he made to the people of the Philippines as his troops withdrew in the face of a superior enemy army, a promise which he kept two years later.

But history has many great generals. MacArthur fascinates me because of his role in post-war Japan. His power was so absolute that one biographer called him the American Caesar. Almost single-handedly, with little direction from the Allied powers, he reshaped the Japanese political culture and economy.

If you had to bet which World War II general would become president, the smart money was on MacArthur, not on the unassuming Dwight Eisenhower. In fact, MacArthur never came close.

There were many reasons why MacArthur’s later life fulfilled his own sad words “Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away,” but the chief one was his lack of humility. He started to believe his own press releases. He thought that he knew more than the elected president, Harry S Truman, and began to ignore him.

MacArthur was dead before Mac Davis sang “Oh Lord it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way.” But I wonder if he ever heard the words of today’s first reading, “the greater you are, the more you must humble yourself.”

A humble MacArthur would have made a great president.

Two stories, two perspectives on morality. The morality of obligation, and the morality of happiness. Be good because God tells you to, or be good because your life will have a better and happier outcome. What’s the right perspective? Is heaven the reward for good behavior, or is virtue its own reward?

Our three readings this morning support both ways of thinking. The answer is both/and not either/or.

The first half of today’s Gospel comes down firmly on the side of “virtue is its own reward.” Humble behavior, not taking the place of honour, spares the banquet guest from a huge embarrassment. You might even say that humility avoids humiliation. More than that, the humble decision to take the lowest place makes it possible to be honoured in front of all the other guests.

But in the second half of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus takes us in the other direction. The humble host who invites the outcast to his table will not receive an immediate reward but will be repaid in heaven.

The first reading also offers both perspectives. In the first verse, Sirach says “perform your tasks with humility; then you will be loved.” In the second verse, he adds “you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.”

These scriptures focus on one virtue, humility, but their lessons apply to all aspects of our lives.

If you’re trying to be good mainly because God says you must, it might be good to think over the blessings that brings to your life. And if your rule of life is based on what seems most likely to make for a happy life, it might be good to think about the ultimate reward in the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the righteous will gather with the angels and saints.

Living the moral life, following the commandments and Christ’s teaching, is both a morality of obligation and a morality of happiness. It’s a path to heaven and to happiness on earth.