+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
This week, I was asked to make time at today’s Sunday Mass for the commissioning of a Protestant layperson to officiate at weddings and funerals for personal financial gain. Aside from the fact that we are a Catholic Community whose theological understandings of weddings, funerals, and ministry itself differ from Protestants in many respects, this proposal raises an important question: should ministry be a profit-seeking endeavor? Today’s readings answer precisely why I issued a resounding NO to that request.
In the course of my work as a priest, families come to me for baptisms, weddings, quinceañeras, and funerals. The first question I am asked is often, “How much do you charge”? When I answer, “Zero”, they are very surprised, as they are accustomed to paying other churches and their clergy for those ceremonies, sometimes hundreds of dollars. But in fact, some families have elected to hold their events here rather than elsewhere precisely because we serve the people of God for the glory of God and not for money. Many of those families are struggling to survive from paycheck-to-paycheck and cannot pay what those other churches and clergy are asking. We are here to serve all families, wealthy or poor. The truth is, however, we do accept voluntary donations in whatever amount people choose. Some people leave nothing at all, and we are fine with that. None of that money, however, goes to me or Deacon Sharon personally; it is all deposited into our parish bank account.
I did not become a priest, and Sharon did not become a Deacon, for personal financial gain. Both of us are non-stipendiary clergy, that is, we are pure volunteers. In fact, we have given a substantial amount of our own financial resources to start and maintain Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. We could live much better if we did not have the church to support; that is, we could afford a bigger home, take more vacations, go to fancy restaurants, own a boat, buy more artwork and jewelry, and enjoy many so-called creature comforts. So why do we do what we do? The answer is very simple: We love Jesus. Deacon Sharon and I are both here on this earth to show what love for Jesus looks like by dedicating our time and money to improving the lives of other people and building up the Kingdom of God.
Saint Francis of Assisi was born into a wealthy family, but he forsook his privileged background to preach the Gospel and take care of the less fortunate. With his sister Clare, he set up several religious orders. No one else in history was as dedicated as Francis to imitate the life of Jesus, and carry out the work of Jesus, in the same way as Jesus did. For Saint Francis, serving the people of God came first. Money did not motivate him to do that. Serving others was everything for Saint Francis; that is why, he was, by his own choice ordained a Vocational Deacon and never as a priest. The word Deacon comes from the Greek word, “Diakono” meaning servant. The profits Saint Francis extracted in his life were his service as a Deacon ordained in the Apostolic Succession, not charging people for ceremonies. As Deacon Sharon demonstrates here at Saint Cecilia’s, the ministry of a Deacon is to articulate the concerns of the laity to the Church and to serve the least among us, just as Saint Francis did. And if anyone would like Deacon Sharon to officiate at a Baptism, Wedding, or Funeral, her charges are exactly what mine are: Zero.
Not only does Jesus call for us to make financial sacrifices in today’s Gospel, but Jesus also seems to call us to build up the Kingdom of God by sacrificing blood family relationships. Not many people are willing to do that, and in fact, our culture mitigates against our doing so. “Family first” is a rallying cry that cuts across political and religious lines; have you ever heard the saying, “blood is thicker than water?” However, although we commonly use it to suggest the strength of family ties, it doesn’t refer to the family at all. It actually means the opposite. An English translation of the full version of this ancient German proverb reads, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This actually means that blood shed in battle bonds soldiers more strongly than simple genetics. For Christians of both yesterday’s and today’s world, life is a battle against the forces of idolatry, polytheism, and secularism. Christians are bonded to one another in their covenant with Jesus. It is the blood of Jesus which we share in the Eucharist that binds us together, our blood families notwithstanding. The new covenant of God’s promise to redeem humankind is, or at least should be, a stronger bond than our family relationships. Those relationships are important indeed, but those relationships do not exist for their own sake. They exist for God’s purposes as part of God’s plan for the universe God created.
We are here on earth are co-creators with God. Our skills and our labor enable the ongoing perpetuation of human life, a form of life honored by the incarnation of God in Jesus. Today’s Gospel gives the example of a builder creating a tower. Jesus recognized the importance of having enough materials on hand to complete the job. Nothing comes into existence that is worthwhile without a plan to have the resources available to accomplish the task. While individuals personally profiting from ministry is inappropriate, all churches do need resources to do their job. Here at Saint Cecilia’s, we must pay our rent, electricity, insurance, and other essential expenses to have a place to worship and survive as a community.
As you well know, Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and as you’ve heard me say many times, we take her patronage quite seriously here! With help from my sister, Pamela, I established a permanent endowment which has been invested in the financial markets in securities whose earnings fund our pianist and cantor. We have done exactly what Jesus suggests in today’s Gospel: We have made sure we have the resources in place to accomplish our goal of offering a sung liturgy every Sunday and important feast day.
Today’s Gospel also calls us to make wise strategic decisions. It gives the example of a military leader with ten thousand troops contemplating whether to go into battle against an army twice that size. The leader has two choices to avoid defeat: either go all out to pursue a victory or negotiate terms for peace. Likewise, all churches, lest they perish, need a strategic plan. Such a plan for a church will consider who their target audience is, what kind of liturgy to celebrate, what pastoral care will be provided and to whom, what educational programs will be offered, and community outreach efforts. We seem to have the liturgy part down pretty well, but our strategic planning in the areas of education, pastoral care, and community outreach are both lacking in existence but essential for our future growth. I invite you to share your ideas with myself or Deacon Sharon.
What I am asking here is for you to use the brain that God gifted to you. If there is one thing Saint Cecilia’s does not, and will not, provide, it is a place to check your brains at the door. Just as in the case of the builder and the military leader, God gave you a brain and intended for you to use it in His service. We want and need your thoughts to make Saint Cecilia’s as successful as possible in its small part in building God’s Kingdom. God gave us wisdom from on high, the counsel of the Holy Spirit, to make straight the paths of our earthly life. What we want and need is wisdom as we search for what God intends for us.
The Book of Wisdom, from which our First Reading is taken, is, as its name implies, was part of the “wisdom literature” of the Bible encompassing such books as Proverbs, Job, Sirach in the Old Testament and James in the epistolary literature of the New Testament. The purpose of these books is to give practical advice about everyday life based on experience drawn from observations by scholars of the natural world informed by the wisdom tradition. Unlike prophets and priests, the wisdom teachers believed that God wove important principles into the fabric of the universe. These books explain how and why God does what God does, and how that affects us. As today’s first reading points out, humanity is, by nature, timid in the deliberations of our minds and unsure of our plans, and often driven by our immediate survival needs for shelter and other necessities. As we are told in the Book of Job, the price of wisdom is far above money and precious jewels. The search for wisdom is forever ongoing. It is a search for a place of true understanding, that is ultimately found when one basks in God’s glory, that is when one is acutely aware of God’s power.
Jesus was a wisdom teacher in the Jewish tradition. Some scholars have called Jesus, “wisdom personified.” Nonetheless, the words of Jesus are full of practical advice. As exemplified by today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to be sure we have enough resources to accomplish our goals and to have a strategic plan to achieve the best possible result. For that reason, I intend to call a meeting sometime in October or November, on a Saturday morning, or whatever day and time works for everyone, to formulate set our goals for the coming Church year that starts on the First Sunday in Advent in December. In addition to setting goals, we will formulate a ministry plan with fundraising ideas to make it happen.
In formulating our plan, we will, as always, have to deal with the inherent limitations of our environment and effectuate change, just as Paul did in today’s second reading. To give you some background, in the first-century A-D Roman Empire, slavery was still part of the human condition. Paul was in prison for spreading the Gospel of Jesus. While there, he developed a fatherly relationship with a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul addressed a letter to Paul’s friend, Philemon, the slave’s owner. suggesting that if Philemon wanted Onesimus back, he ought to give Onesimus his freedom and instead treat him as a brother and no longer as a slave.
Slavery is driven by greed on the part of those who want to avoid paying a fair wage for work. Slave owners were not among those who took seriously the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel to forsake material possessions. Paul, however, recognized he was not in a position to by himself expunge slavery, but his letter to Philemon recognized the exploitive and oppressive nature of slavery, which We don’t Like Paul did, we also have to recognize the forces that enslave others, like the unholy trinity of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and resolve to change hearts and minds to free our sisters and brothers from oppression. Seeking change in the world beyond our doors will help put us on the map and attract more people to join us in our mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus.
Today’s readings encourage us to put God first, to long for God “like a deer that longs for running streams,” to quote Psalm forty-two, and to quote today’s responsorial Psalm ninety, we recognize that “in every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.” It is not evil to want God to prosper the work of our hands. It is perfectly alright to make a living in the world, doing whatever you do best in your secular occupation, but to replace worship of God with the worship of worldly possessions is evil, second only to using ministry as a personal cash machine.
Jesus did not preach what’s called a “prosperity Gospel,” that is, the notion that God blesses that God favors most with material wealth. Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. Our God calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus in how we live, not to chase the almighty dollar.
The cross symbolizes humiliation and suffering. In the First Century A-D Roman Empire, crucifixion was a degrading form of punishment. The multitudes that followed Jesus were convinced that He was going to bring a glorious kingdom to earth, freeing them from the oppressive Roman rule. But people left Him in droves because of these teachings. Jesus does not always do what we expect Him to do. Similarly, some contemporary Christians misunderstand the call of Jesus as a call to health, wealth and prosperity. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Commitment to Jesus means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, and possessions. The reward, however, is worth the price.
Taking up your cross means recognizing the face of Jesus in others and treating others as you would wish to be treated.
Taking up your cross means a willingness to bear one another’s burdens.
Taking up your cross means dedicating your life to improving the lives of others.
Taking up your cross means serving God without the expectation that doing so will put money in your pocket.
The New Testament has no record of Jesus ever demanding any money for any aspect of His ministry. Repeat: The New Testament has no record of Jesus ever demanding any money for any aspect of His ministry. To the contrary, you will recall that Jesus told us in the Gospel of Matthew, “You cannot serve God and money.” You must choose. Here, we choose to serve God rather than money.
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community lives as a truly open Catholic Church. We are open to all, poor, middle class and wealthy alike on the same terms. But we are NOT open to anyone wanting to use us to launch a business to perform ministerial acts to line their own pockets. You have my word that the clergy of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community will never, ever, charge anyone penny one for their services as such. Our motto, “All Sacraments For Everyone” means exactly that: Everyone. AMEN.