Sunday, November 16, 2014

Only The Very Best

I'm back from retreat, and it was a silent that might be why I have so much to say this Sunday!

  Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  

There are a whole lot of things that a pastor needs to know
that they never get around to teaching you in the seminary. 
You may recall that, early on in my time here,
I had to get a crash course in boilers
when the one at Notre Dame blew up. 
In my last assignment—in Old Forge—it was roofing. 
St. Bartholomew’s in Old Forge
is one of the newest churches in the diocese—
dedicated in 1991, if I remember right. 
But it fell to me to put the third roof on that rather young building. They just kept leaking. 
Part of the process was removing the church’s steeple—
and not temporarily, either, but for good. 
It was a tall, slender fiberglass unit,
ordered out of a church supply catalogue,
that looked alright from the ground…
…but when you got up to the base of it you could see
that it wasn’t really designed for Adirondack weather:
it was rapidly rotting away. 
About 10 days after the steeple was dismantled,
a family wanted to talk to me after Mass—
some of the many summer residents
who come-and-go in that resort town.
They wanted to talk about the steeple… 
…because they had donated it back when the church was built. 
They weren’t angry—thank God!—
but they were pretty disappointed. 
I can still hear them saying:
“But, Father…the great cathedrals of Europe…
they have steeples which stand for 500 years or more!” 
(Oh, how I wanted to add: 
“But they’re not made of fiberglass!”)
Unfortunately, the steeple they’d paid for
didn’t stand for 20 years, leave alone a few centuries. 
We seem to somehow have forgotten what we once knew:
how to build things to stand the test of time.

I had a similar conversation with some parishioners
a few weeks ago. 
I stopped by their home and found them
doing some exterior work to the house and yard,
getting ready for winter. 
He was putting new trim around the windows. 
“Those windows look pretty new,” I said. 
“They are,” he answered.  “They were just put in last year.  
But get up close and you can see they didn’t do a very good job. 
While it looks OK, it won’t last. 
It’s sad,” he continued. 
“Once upon a time, people took more pride in their work.
 I guess they cared more,
and they knew how to do this sort of thing well.”

These are just two examples of something, I fear,
which goes way beyond
how we construct our homes and houses of worship these days;
they’re signs of what I’ll call our “good enough culture.”
It’s funny, because we live in an age
when we want everyone to feel like a winner…
but, in the end, when everybody’s a winner…nobody wins.
We’ve seen a gradual, general lowering of standards.
In so many areas of life—manufacturing, education and sports,
politics, religion and relationships—
we appear increasingly less and less willing to strive for the best,
and more and more willing to settle for what’s merely “good enough.”

This Sunday, Jesus tells the parable
of the master, the servants, and the talents.
Just so you know: a “talent” in gospel times
didn’t refer to some personal skill or ability.
A talent was a unit of measure,
and a silver talent—the sort Jesus seems to be talking about—
wasn’t exactly pocket change:
it was 130 pounds of silver—
the equivalent or 9 or 10 years’ salary for an average skilled laborer.
Even the third servant, who’d been given “just” one talent,
had been entrusted with a veritable fortune!

Given that bit of background,
it’s fairly common when this gospel is read
to get a homily on parish stewardship—
on what contributions it takes from parishioners
in order to make a parish run well.
Don’t worry:
I’m not going to talk about giving money to the Church
(although, if you read our annual reports,
you’d understand why I might);
and I’m not going to talk about
donating your time and your talents, either
(although it is getting harder all the time
to find enough volunteers to do things around here).

Instead, I want you to consider
the stewardship of your own hearts.

We receive so much from God:
his love;
faith in Jesus Christ;
baptism, to wash away sin and make us members of the Church;
the Holy Eucharist, which is the bread of eternal life.
And that’s just the start of the list!
What return is God getting on his big investment in us?
When it comes to what you do for your faith,
what you do for your family—
in both cases, what you do for God—
are you settling for “good enough”?

Jesus makes it rather clear this Sunday:
when we appear before God,
“good enough” simply won’t do.
God doesn’t want “good,” 
and he doesn’t accept “better”;
God expects our best.
Now, that’s not to say he expects us to be perfect.
Doing your best is different for each one of us,
according to the particular talents you’ve been given.
And this isn’t a competition, either.
The only one we ought to aim to please is God,
who alone truly understands what we’re capable of.

We’re given an example of this principle in action in our first reading,
as we hear that moving hymn to a worthy wife.
It’s poetry that celebrates the beautiful life
of one who consistently gives her very best—
not out of obligation
(although she has one to her husband and children),
and not in hopes of gaining a reward, either
(although there will be one of those, too).
She does her very best in everything because of love—
and nothing else.

Not “good enough,” but her best.
Is that what we’re giving to the Lord?

We may react like that third servant in the parable,
who seems to find his master’s ways rather unfair:
He didn’t give me any clear instructions before leaving!
He didn’t say exactly what it was he wanted me to do with that talent!
He’s just a passive-aggressive tyrant!
Or is he?
Yes, God entrusts us with the treasures of his kingdom—
vast spiritual fortunes, in fact—
but he doesn’t then micromanage them;
God takes a great risk—he trusts us—
and in large part leaves their proper investment
up to you and me.
For one thing, God isn’t after cookie cutter Christians—
every one of them just like all the others.
We belong to a Church, not a cult,
and our diversity is a great blessing.
How boring the Church would be if we were all the same!
Instead, God is inviting our initiative and creativity.
And he respects our freedom.
Sin warps our sense of freedom,
and frequently turns it into what seems like a burden instead.
But God won’t unnecessarily restrict us.
The stewardship we exercise over our hearts
must be our own freely made decision.

St. Paul reminds us, as he reminded the Thessalonians,
that there will come a day of reckoning—
whether the end of our lives or the end of time—
we know not when.
Therefore, we cannot rest on our laurels,
lest we get caught unawares and left in the dark.
When we’re called upon—each one of us on our own—
to give a final accounting of our life
and the use we’ve made of God’s many graces and blessings,
to say, “I thought what I did would probably be good enough,”
won’t exactly be very convincing.

Now, you might be saying to yourself,
“Father, I think you’re quite mistaken
about this business of a ‘good enough’ culture.”
I very well might be.
So I challenge you: prove me wrong!

Not so much in building a church or a home,
but when it comes to everything that happens under their roofs,
God expects from us the very best.
And he has every right to, doesn’t he?
After all, the very best is always what God is giving to us.

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