Mt 25:14-30 — The 3 Servants and Taking Risks

Jesus sets up this parable like any good story teller would.    There was this man who calls forth 3 servants.  All good stories have 3 characters in the midst of the action.  For example, three men go into a bar and…Here the fourth character, the barman, is tacit and understood to be there.

This passage is too long to be the focus of lectio.  It needs to be treated as it was meant to be proclaimed.  The point is set up by the lengthy prologue,  the would be traveler calling his servants and giving them investment funds, each according to his abilities.  What we focus on is    “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is the issue?  Faith that God has given me what I have and I have nothing to lose by being radically generous with what isn’t mine?  The parable begs a big question:  what if I am the one given the 5 or the 10 talents and I invest but lose?  Will the traveler be as gratuitous when I report a loss to him?  What is divine forgiveness all about?  And does the risk involved in faith include a belief in God’s forgiveness?  And what does this parable tell us, if anything, about the nature of divine forgiveness?


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Grace at Work

We had a powerful meeting this evening.  I always find it amazing when I am witness to a person struggling with conversion.  That’s what happened this evening.

Witnessing God’s mysterious ways unfold is also always amazing.  This week’s gospel passage is the Beatitudes in Mt 5: 1-12.  I could not get inspired this week and asked one of the other leaders to facilitate the meeting.  She has great insights, a gentle spirit and was the idle leader for the meeting.  God is great!

If I had led the session, I don’t think it would have been as open and trust-ful as having Michelle lead.  Where I am straightforward and down-to-earth, she is gentle, sees and expresses the spiritual much better and listens better as well.  We work well as a team but this evening it was definitely good that she took the lead.

And all of that would not have happened with out God pushing me out of the way!

Moral of the story:  in catechumenate ministry, let the Spirit guide you even when you aren’t aware that that’s what  is happening!

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Give to Ceasar…..Mt 22:15-22

This week’s Gospel is well placed for the “stewardship season.”  It may be here in the Lectionary partially for this reason.  But it is also here because of its place in Matthew’s gospel and how that gospel “rolls out” in Year A.

In preparing for our catechumenate meeting, the leaders noted several things:

  • In all of the praise that the Pharisees heaped upon Jesus (sincerity, teaches the way of God, defers to no one, does not regard people with partiality) they did not mention his wisdom.  This he demonstrated to them in his response to their question.
  • The Pharisees and Herodians asked a question that is in the “either…or” mode that sees the world in “black and white” terms.  Jesus answers in a “both…and” mode that seeks alternative means rather than conflicting ones.  This latter perspective is one that seeks the via media, a way well known by the Anglican/Episcopalian branch of the church.

It was a good time to raise the issue of stewardship.  We talked about stewardship of all of the gifts, blessings and talents that have been given to us, including financial ones.  We discussed tithing and the roots of the practice of giving 10% in the Hebrew Scriptures.  We discussed the need to support the institutional church in which we are able to find our spiritual nourishment and from which we are able to serve others.

And we prayed for guidance in deciding how to best return what has been gifted to us.

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Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch….a Current Story

Trinity’s associate pastor Lynell related the following experience to me:

A family called her to the bedside of one of their dying family members.  In the course of the visit, the dying person’s son asked that his mother be baptized.  Lynell spoke with the woman and asked her if she wanted to be baptized.  The woman said yes.  One of the family members had some blessed water and the family gathered to witness the baptism.  The woman appeared to relax.  It was clear that she did not have long to live.

The moment was wrought with emotion and a sense of the Spirit being present.  After the baptism, the woman’s brother started crying.  He sobbed.  Family members gathered around him to give comfort because they thought he was crying because his sister was dying.  Lynell asked if she could help him.  He said he wanted to be baptized too.  His wife was with him and stood there dumbstruck and joyous.  She was baptized and had been praying for his conversion for years.   Lynell drew him aside and they discussed his understanding of baptism.  His story convinced her that his reasons for asking to be baptized were sound.

The man and his wife would be returning to a fairly solitary life in Montana.  There are very few faith communities where they live.  So there is no opportunity to ask him to go back to his home congregation for formation in some form of the catechumenate.  His faith community was with him at the time in the immediate and extended family.

Lynell baptized him as well.  Then, in celebration of such a momentous day, the other brother, in whose home they were all staying, fixed a feast and all rejoiced.

Lynell knows her baptismal theology.  She is an active minister in the catechumenate process.  She understands what adult initiation is all about.  She does not take any of this lightly.  And she presided at both baptisms knowing that what she was doing was meet and right.

I was recently on the NA Forum chat line and a person asked if it was OK to baptize an adult outside of the Easter Vigil.  Her situation was that the family was all present at a certain time, the catechumen had been in formation for quite awhile, and they were basically waiting for Lent to begin.  Of course it was “OK” to baptize!  Such a question indicates that a certain amount of rigidity may be seeping into our reformation of initiation.  The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch needs to be part of our ongoing mystagogia in this ministry.

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Jim Schellman & The North American Forum

I had the opportunity to meet today with Jim Schellman, Executive Director of  The North American Forum on the Catechumenate.  I wasn’t sure how the conversation would go.  I was a team member in Forum institutes back in “my other life” as an RC.  Jim Dunning, the first Ex Dir of the Forum was a huge influence on me in my own journey into this ministry.  I still hear his voice in my head.  So I went, not with “fear and trembling” but with the apprehension of meeting a person I have long wanted to meet because of our common interest but who come to that common interest from different denominational perspectives.

Or do we?  We share a deep appreciation of the Tradition that birthed and sustained  the catechumenate from the primitive church through today..  We  share a gratitude to the Vat II Council Fathers (I wish there had been “Mothers” there too) for the liturgical reforms they unleashed.  We share a love not only for this ministry but for forming catechumenal ministers.  And, of course, most importantly, we  both are Fighting Irish alumns (though I didn’t find out his feelings about college football in general and the Irish in particular).

Our conversation progressed from sharing personal stories to where each of is at now to how we can work together in the future.  We met as strangers and parted as friends.  I left the “Catholic Corner” of Washinton, DC (CUA, The National Shrine, RC colleges and seminaries all over the place) enthused and excited.

Despite the many misgivings that I do and will voice about the RC branch of the Church on these pages, I have a very strong commitment to ecumenism both among Christian denominations and for Christianity with other religions.  In the former, we baptize into the Church Universal (one, holy, catholic, apostolic…or we try to be).  With the latter, there are many rooms in the mansion that is the Kingdom of Heaven and many holy paths.  (This is an entry unto itself.)

So, Jim, I hope and pray that we will have the opportunity to work together in this vineyard.

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Roman Catholic to Episcopalian: Part of the Journey

I enjoy telling this story, if for no other reason than its irony.  Warning: it is fairly lengthy.


My critical eye towards the Roman Catholic branch of the church started while in the seminary at Mt. Angel.  We were taught to be critical (i.e. “analytical”).   The critical eye opened wider while at Claremont School of Theology, which is first and foremost a Methodist seminary.  (I went there because of its fantastic Scripture study program.)  While at Notre Dame the critical turned into the skeptical.  I was the Teacher Assistant for ‘Bill Storey, one of the church history profs.  Bill is Roman Catholic but one who saw a huge stumbling block (scandalia) in the RC.  We call it the papacy.  When the Patriarch of the West (i.e. the Pope) attempted to grab power from other patriarchs around 1000, we had the Great Schism.  When the Pope decided to crack down on the prophets aligned with new national states in the 16th Century (i.e. Luther, Calvin and others), we had the Western schism.  The papacy has been the major factor in Christians, both Eastern and Western, failing to come anywhere not to the ideal of being “Öne”(as in one, holy, catholic, apostolic)

In addition, Dick McBrien’s influence in ecclesiology and his sympathy with Hans Kung, helped me realize the fallacy of the papal primacy claim in both its succession and juridical aspects.

Immediate cause of the transition:

When we moved back to California, I joined our local parish RCIA team.  I was invited to “teach” (yes, [shame, shame], I lectured in the catechumenate) two sessions on the Roman Catholic church stance towards scripture.  I focused on the results of  the Vatican II “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (i.e. that it gave greater freedom to scripture scholars to use historical-critical method and to see myth and story for what they are, myth and story) and provided examples in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  At the end of all this, a candidate remarked, “So it sounds like you’re saying that Catholics are not fundamentalist.”  I told her that, in terms of scripture, that was exactly what I was saying.

But I didn’t stop there, because I don’t like to whitewash the Church.  If you’re going to join us then know all aspects of this institution.  “However,”I said, “what you will find in the Catholic Church is what I call ‘Papal Fundamentalist,’ that is, people who believe that every word out of the Pope’s mouth is infallible.  That’s not the case.”  At this point one member of the team got up and said, “I’ve had it,” as she stormed out of the room.  Another person shouted out, “That’s your opinion!

I responded, “No it isn’t.” and cited the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom”(Chapter 1, Par 3) as well as Romans (14:5-10).  I qualified this with saying that each of us has a responsibility to the magisterium and to seek counsel while making ethical decisions (yada, yada, yada).  “We will go into this more when we discuss Catholic ethics,”I concluded.  (I quote because I remember the moments very clearly.)

Later that week the pastor asked for my resignation from the RCIA team.  He took away my main ministry in the parish and I knew I had nowhere to go for an appeal.  So I started looking around for a denomination that had as full a sacramental life as the Roman church has.  From what little I knew, the Episcopal church seemed a solid alternative.  And the rest is history.

Moral of the story:  we all can and do grow through the catechumenate!

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The Year-Round Catechumenate

I believe that the only way to go with the catechumenate process in a parish is year-round.  This means that you have at least one meeting every week, probably on the same day and at the same time.  This seems overwhelming, especially to those just “getting their feet wet” in this ministry.  Believe me.  It is quite simple.  The key is focusing on the Sunday lectionary readings, especially the gospel passage.

The smallest catechumenate group can be a catechist, catechumen/candidate and a sponsor.  The largest group I recommend is 7:  a catechist, 3 candidates & 3 sponsors.  Once you have this size group, have them stay together to build trust, intimacy and a freedom and grace to grow in their faith together.

The catechist needs to have all of that background “stuff” in her/his repertoire (doctrine, church history, good understanding of Scripture, knowledge of the missal/prayer book, knowledge of the hymnal [some of our best expressions of theology can be found there]).  The catechist needs to live with the gospel passage in preparation for the meeting.  This means reading, reflection, study, making links with doctrine, formulating some discussion questions to help the reflection on the passage.

The sponsor needs to pray for the candidate and touch base with her/him.  Find out what response the person had to last week’s meeting.  Invite/accompany the candidate to church events and ministries.  Support in all ways needed.

If the meetings focus on the Sunday lectionary readings for each week, it is fairly simple to go year-round.  After all, this is what we do with our weekly worship services in terms of the readings and the sermon.  The “breaking open of the Word” in this case is usually a one person effort, that of the preacher.  The catechumenate meeting is more intense and participation is greater…all those present share their insights.

More on this topic later.

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Matthew 20: 1-16 Workers in the Vineyard

“It’s not fair! They get the same as we do, but they’ve only been working for an hour and we, for 12!”

I suspect this reading may have had an influence on the 4th and 5th Centuries’ practice of becoming a catechumen early on but waiting for baptism until later, perhaps even until one is on the death bed.  After all, if baptism cleanses one from all sins, then let’s wait until the last possible minute for that thorough scrubbing.

The parable may also call to mind the thief on the cross alongside of Jesus, the one who said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  But only Luke has this rendition (Lk 23: 42-43).  Mark and Matthew have both bandits taunting Jesus.

One message from this parable is the unlimited nature of Grace.  Perhaps the message is that God cannot  just give out Grace proportionately to how long we have worked.  Grace is grace.  So what then encourages me to respond to God’s call earlier in the day rather than later?  He seems to call at all times, at the start of the day and near the end.  Perhaps it is because the longer I wait to respond affirmatively, the more difficult it is for me to do so.  Perhaps it is my habit of “standing idle” that causes me to miss the earlier calls to work in God’s vineyards.  Do I want to miss the Divine all together when I continue to say “no. ” Or do I want to say “yes” when I do happen to hear the invitation?

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The Anglican/Episcopal Church “incubator” is ideal for the birthing of new adult Christians.  What makes it ideal is that the meeting place for Episcopalians is not doctrinal agreement but prayer.  The Book of COMMON Prayer is core.  Is there a catechism?  Yes; 20 pages near the back of the BCP.  The Lutheran Small Catechism (Book of Concord) is approximately 16 pages while the Large Catechism is approximately 114 pages.  The Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church has 756 pages with the number of Scripture references matched, if not exceeded by references to church documents and texts by “teachers of the church.”  The Book of Concord is explicitly written for the catechesis of children while the Large Catechism is meant to be an elaboration of the compact teaching of the Small Catechism.  The Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church is meant for catechist and preachers but is often used as a text in RCIA “classes.”

The Episcopalian Outline of Faith (the Catechism) is meant primarily as an OUTLINE  for instruction.  The preface also says “it may also be used to form a simple service.”  Imagine that, using a catechism as a part of a worship service.  Granted, we use the creeds this way.  We also use the Scripture texts this way.  Many of us realize that the Gospels are the earliest catechisms of the church and remain the most effective.  But the suggestion within the BCP to use the Outline of Faith in this way once again emphasizes the fact that prayer, not doctrine, is the common identifier for Anglican/Episcopal Christians.

Many catechumenate coordinators and directors as well as ordained and lay ministers are concerned about what is being “taught” within the catechumenate process.  Hopefully what is being learned is the Way of Christ.  For example, my bias is that the Christian practice of forgiveness and reconciliation is better learned from reflection on Mt 18: 21-35 than from a lecture based on Part Two, Article 4 (“The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation”) of the Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church.

This is not a radical perspective.  I have seen it advocated by many leaders in catechumenate ministry.  They base their position on how Jesus formed Christian disciples according to the earliest catechisms (the Gospels).  They base their position on the catechetical practices of early church catechists.  They base their position on the insight that the catechumenate is about forming Christian disciples rather than Episcopalians or Lutherans or Roman Catholics or …..

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