Sunday, February 23, 2020

Is "Good enough good enough>" (7.A)

Have you ever had an argument where you felt sure of your position, but came around to the other side once you listened a little harder?

I reach conclusions very quickly, so it happens to me all the time.

Which is good—because sometimes my arguments are with Jesus, and as you probably know, he’s always right!

One of my arguments with the Lord arose many years ago when I first thought about what he said in today’s Gospel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To me, that seemed like a recipe for frustration, or worse.

And in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus himself says “No one is good but God alone.”

So where does that leave us? Are we left trying to achieve the impossible? How are we to avoid unhealthy perfectionism, which psychology recognizes as a significant problem?

When I manage to come around to someone else’s point of view in an argument, it’s usually because I tried harder to understand. Sometimes I’d got stuck in how I reason and use language when the other person’s thought processes are very different from mine.

In other words, I need to figure out what the other is saying, how it’s being said, and why.

What is Jesus saying today? Does he really mean that Christians need to be as perfect as God?

I didn’t spend a lot of time on the how. This is one of many times when Jesus uses exaggeration to make an important point in a powerful way. He does the same thing when he tells us to pluck out an eye or cut off an arm if these lead us to sin.

The what, when I wrestled with the text a bit, became a bit clearer. The whole Gospel passage this morning helps us understand what being perfect as our Father in heaven looks like, realistically. Loving your enemy, refusing retaliation, giving and lending—these are difficult but doable, not impossible or perfectionistic.

In the words of The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Jesus “calls his disciples to reflect the Father’s perfect, committed, selfless, merciful love in their own lives.”

So far, so good. But I was still stuck on the why. Why did Jesus command perfection in such an uncompromising fashion?

I was given a deeply painful answer to this question while I was in the middle of writing this week’s homily. The late Jean Vanier, a man I thought might be the next Canadian saint, was found to have had abusive relationships with adult women.

None of the tsunami of revelations and accusations in the Church has rocked me like this one. But this devastating news helps me understand why Jesus chose to command us to seek perfection in such absolute and even unachievable terms. Because, as I have preached several times before, we are at war. 

The reports about Jean Vanier—which come after a careful internal investigation—are a reminder that all the good we do, everything good within every one of us, is under daily attack from a powerful enemy.

We’ll never really know what happened to cause Jean Vanier’s fall. Satan has special strategies to bring down the great. But one he often uses on the rest of us is getting us to think that “good enough is good enough.”

When we reach a certain stage on the discipleship path, we figure we can rest a little. We can sleep in a bit—literally or figuratively.

Jesus wanted to slam the door on that kind of thinking. He set us a target we could never achieve—the very holiness of God—so that we would never stop trying.

Like any wise King, Jesus knew that complacent subjects—and especially complacent soldiers—were just what an enemy hopes for.

So, without argument, let us seek every day to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And not just by good intentions, since such a lofty goal demands serious strategy. You’ve heard me say many times “if we fail to plan, we plan to fail.”

Lent invites us every year to strive seriously and intentionally to be holy. Prayer, fasting, and charity to the poor are the three means Jesus speaks about in the Gospel we’ll hear on Ash Wednesday. But this year, in this season of struggle in the Church, I want to suggest we focus on prayer.

To help us grow in holiness and Christian perfection, the parish is offering each of you a prayer book that contains a complete plan for Lent. (An earlier edition is available as a .pdf download, here.)

But what if we’ve grown weary on our journey? What if the whole idea of striving for holiness falls flat for us? Maybe we don’t have the taste for prayer.

The Discovery Faith Study is intended to rekindle the fire within us. You’ll hear after Communion today about faith studies for men at the parish during Lent. The bulletin has information on the faith studies we’re sponsoring for both men and women at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

Let’s not deceive ourselves, as St. Paul says in the second reading. We need God's wisdom, and God’s holiness, to stay afloat on a stormy sea.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Family Day and the Christian "Way'

Yesterday afternoon, I offered Mass for the tenth wedding anniversary of a young couple who moved away from the parish a few years back.

They’d invited their family and friends to the celebration, including about ten other young couples. Several  families were late for Mass—no surprise there, since many small children were in tow.

One of the altar servers was a young lad from the parish where our former parishioners now live. As each of the latecomers arrived, I turned to him and asked “Know those people?” And each time he whispered, “They’re from our church.”

What I was seeing was simple, but wonderful. Catholic families were bonding not just as friends but as families of disciples. I spoke to as many couples as I could, and discovered some of the ways they were supporting one another on their journey of faith.

Let me be clear: this wasn’t a congregation of members of one of the vigorous lay movements that have sprung up in the Church. Their common link was simply the Christian life, lived at the parish and school, and a shared commitment to passing on faith in Jesus to their children.

And one other thing: the families were larger than average. The smallest number of children was two, the largest seven. And two or three couples confided that another child was on the way.

I mention this partly because I just needed to share the hope this little gathering brought me, especially since some of the couples began their married lives at Christ the Redeemer and two are here still with us despite the cost of housing. And partly because we’re celebrating the Family Day holiday tomorrow but also because that faith-filled anniversary celebration sheds light on some of the many truths we find in our readings today.

The first reading from Sirach reminds us that life’s all about choices. You can keep the commandments, or break them. You can choose good or choose evil. You can choose life or choose death.

But even before we make those dramatic choices, we face something even more fundamental. We can trust in God, or not. Forming a family nowadays, especially a large family, requires trust in God

Today’s psalm says “Blessed are those who walk in the way of the Lord.” Today’s world says: “I’m not at all sure.” We think we can look after ourselves better than God can or will.

In the second reading, St. Paul teaches that the wisdom of God is not the wisdom of this age, or any age. There’s a German word for the wisdom of the age: Zeitgeist. I love the sound of it, but I hate what it means. The Zeitgeist is “the spirit of the age” or “the spirit of the times.” In German philosophy it describes “an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in world history.”

For Christians, the word neatly sums up “the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.”

No one in church today is likely to embrace the Zeitgeist completely; if you did, the first thing you’d do is stop going to church. But it creeps in to our thinking in small ways that lead us to make our peace with the majority worldview, or at least to doubt the connection between faithful discipleship and happiness, especially the connection between Catholic teaching on marriage and the family and the good life.

Even if we don’t translate such thoughts into action, many of us question whether faithfulness to the commandments does bring us blessings in every situation. We’re completely onside with “thou shalt not kill,” but when it comes to what Jesus calls “the least of these commandments,” we’re far from sure.

I’m not talking only about earthshaking things. You don’t want to know how many times I’ve told myself that I need a good night’s sleep more than I need to finish my prayers. That, too, is the Zeitgeist at work.

You noticed that we read the shorter Gospel, and I hope you’re about to notice my homily is shorter than usual. That’s to make time for an announcement after Communion that’s related to a few of the things I’ve been talking about—strong families, good choices, and even the relative importance of a good night’s sleep.

Wait for it!


The Announcement

(From a Male Parishioner)

My name is ________ and have been a member of the Parish for more than __ years. My spiritual formation as an adult Catholic has taken shape in many forms over time, and a key part of it in the last little while has been through the fellowship and prayer I share with other men every Friday mornings.

People say that we men talk about sports, work and family, but we can and will also discuss politics, faith and spiritual formation if in the right crowd. It is through this group of men on Friday mornings that my faith has grown and become more real to me; I have become much more aware of the importance and need to be an active and prayerful disciple on a daily basis in my life, be it in the family, at work or in the parish.

Why am I telling you this? Easter is coming and Lent is just around the corner (Ash Wednesday is Feb 26); what better time for us men to talk about faith and spiritual formation... re-kindle or discover our relationship with Jesus and dedicate a bit more time to the spiritual side of our lives.

This is why I am offering all the men in the congregation an idea for Lent. We have a meaningful, interactive way to grow in the faith: small group Faith Studies. I was introduced to them on Friday mornings and am offering you the same opportunity on Wednesday evenings in Lent. Starting on Ash Wednesday and for the following six Wednesdays, we are inviting other men to join us at seven in the evening for a small group Faith Study. It’s one hour of scripture-based conversation about who Jesus is and why He makes a difference. Come with your questions, your experiences and your doubts, to share and grow your faith around a table in an informal way with other men in the parish.

I know we are all busy, but unless you are positively otherwise engaged for those six evenings, I challenge you to do this during Lent this year. Stop in the foyer as you leave the church and sign up for the Discovery Faith Study. As I said, it’s just six Wednesdays, beginning on Ash Wednesday. If you do not do it now, your conscience will tug at you a little next Sunday when you will be reminded again!

God bless you all.

(From a Female Parishioner)

My name is ________ and have been a member of the Parish for more than __ years. I have been married for almost _____ years and I know it takes an earthquake sometimes to get my husband to start something... so I am going to do something a bit different and unorthodox to get men here in the congregation to attend to their soul this Lent.

All men in the congregation, please stand up. I promise, nobody is going to be embarrassed and I will not keep you standing very long.

God moves us to do great things in our life, but often we fail to ask Him to show us the way or we are stuck and do not know where to start. So, I am now going to ask the rest of the congregation to join me in asking Jesus to invite, guide, push, pull, and cajole you, men, to make Lent a time of re-discovery of your faith. Please all of you who are sitting down, recite the prayer on the screen with me, aloud, from your heart:

Jesus, you have made men to be rocks of courage and strength;
Many men are shy and reluctant to open their hearts and share their fears, questions and experiences;
Others believe they are too busy to put aside even one extra hour a week for spiritual insight;
As a community, and individually for the men dear to us in our lives and here today,
We ask You to make their Lent a time where their lives are more focused on You;
Invite them to join fellow men in discovering or re-discovering the beauty of Your presence in their lives;
Invite them to commit to You, and talk about You, for just one hour a week during Lent;
As they leave the church, make them see not just with their eyes, but also their hearts, the sign-up table in the foyer,
and encourage them to leave their name and contact information for a Faith Study;
Tug them, push and pull them to put You at the center of their lives for six Wednesday evenings in Lent;
Come Ash Wednesday, remind them, through their conscience and loved ones (that is, us who are praying for them) that they have been invited by You, Jesus, to be with You and other fellow men to learn more about You and their faith.
And we thank you, Jesus, for never giving up on us even when we give up on ourselves or You.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Salt+Light (5.A.)

Salt has a bad reputation nowadays. My doctor warns me that too much salt leads to heart and kidney problems, to painful kidney stones, something I’ve experienced, and to high blood pressure.

I’m sure my doctor would like us to keep the salt shaker locked up in the rectory locked up in the rectory safe.

Thanks to processed foods, we can’t eliminate salt from our diet. But even if we could, it’s a bad idea. Salt promotes healthy hydration and electrolyte balance, which we need for our organs to work properly. And too little salt can lead to low blood pressure.

In Jesus’s time, there was no need to debate the pros and cons of salt. It was a godsend—used not only for seasoning but for preserving food. Keep in mind there was no refrigeration of any kind: salt preventing many things from spoiling.

So the Lord picked an image that all his listeners understood. Their food was flat, dull or even unsafe without salt.

But let’s unpack that image a bit more. The author one of my favourite book of homilies, Father John Jay Hughes, points out that even a small amount of salt can make a big difference. We, the followers of Jesus, though small in quantity, are to be “that ingredient in the world that makes all the difference in life’s quality.

“People need not notice our presence. But they should notice our absence.” [Proclaiming the Good News: Homilies for the ‘A’ Cycle, p. 106.]

The image of light is even more powerful. To understand that, all we have to do is look at two Gospel verses side by side. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard Jesus say “You are the light of the world.” But in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” [Jn. 8:12]

So which is it? Both, of course. Jesus is the world’s light, and we are called to let it shine.

Someone asked me how Canada’s Catholic TV network came to be called Salt+Light. Obviously there’s a reference to this morning’s Gospel, but the name was directly inspired by the theme of World Youth Day in 2002.

St. John Paul told young people in Toronto that just as salt seasons and improves the flavour of food, as followers of Jesus, they are called to “change and improve the ‘taste’ of human history.

Looking out at the crowd of youth gathered in front of him, the pope said “With your faith, hope and love, with your intelligence, courage and perseverance, you have to humanize the world we live in.”
That’s what it means—for all of us, young and old—to be the salt of the earth.
In timeless words, John Paul spoke of the power of light, saying “Even a tiny flame lifts the heavy lid of night. How much more light will you make, all together, if you bond as one in the communion of the Church!”

And if the need was great then, think what it is today. The darkness has advanced, not retreated since 2002.

It’s even truer now that the world our young people are inheriting “is a world which needs to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God's love. It needs witnesses to that love.”

“The world needs salt, the pope told Catholic youth. “It needs you - to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

Let me briefly move from the young to the old. I want to tell you about an experience I had last week. I attended the funeral service for Ruth Oliver Cummings, the grandmother of our parishioner Kyle Neilson and the great grandmother of his children. She died last month at 98.

Kyle’s grandmother was a Protestant Evangelical Christian. The eulogies at her funeral sounded in some ways like the Bible’s accounts of St. Paul’s missionary journeys or of events in the early Church recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, although there’s no possibility that St. Paul ever went zip-lining at any age, much less at age 94!

Ruth lived her life with a passion for Christ and his Gospel, and with a particular focus on sharing it with young people, which among other ways she did by supporting the Protestant movement called Young Life . I really can’t describe the extent of her commitment to evangelization and young people in the time we have this morning—her family and friends needed almost an hour on Thursday.

Outside of N.E.T. ministries and Catholic Christian Outreach, there's nothing quite like Young Life in our Church. But we do have our Catholic schools, which we're celebrating this week.  

Catholic schools week is a time to pray for our young people, their teachers, and their families who are sacrificing to make a Catholic education possible. But it’s also time to remember that our Catholic schools have a mission to share Jesus with their students, and to invite and encourage them to be Christians with a passion for sharing him with the world, one person at a time.

So let me conclude with the words St. John Paul prayed for young people in 2002, praying them for Catholic youth today, and especially for those attending our Catholic schools:

O Lord Jesus Christ, keep these young people in your love. Let them hear your voice and believe what you say, for you alone have the words of life.

Teach them how to profess their faith, bestow their love, and impart their hope to others.

Make them convincing witnesses to your Gospel in a world so much in need of your saving grace.

Make them the new people of the Beatitudes, that they may be the salt of the earth and the light of the world!

Mary, Mother of the Church, protect and guide these young men and women of the Twenty-first Century. Keep us all close to your maternal heart. Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Presentation: The Lord Coming to Meet US

Today’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord falls on Sunday only once every seven years. Do you know what that means? I can recycle an old homily and no-one will notice!

I fought back that temptation, for two reasons. The first was that somebody might notice. And the second was that nobody would notice, which would prove my 2014 homily wasn’t memorable!

Of course those weren’t the only reasons. I’ll tell you the big one a little later. But first, let’s take a look at the introductory address we heard at the start of Mass. It tells us what this feast is about, why it’s important, and what it means for us.

First, today is “the blessed day” when Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph, forty days after his birth. Of course we don’t know his actual birthday, but if you do the math you’ll realize February 2 is forty days after December 25, when we celebrated it.

Why is the Presentation so important? “Outwardly,” we read, “he was fulfilling the Law, but in reality he was coming to meet his beloved people.”

And what does it mean for us? Because we are invited to share the experience: “gathered together by the Holy Spirit,” the introduction says, let us also “proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ.” The introduction thus carries us from the Temple in Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago to Christ the Redeemer church, right now.

Just as Simeon and Anna recognized their Lord in the temple, so we find Jesus in this church today, recognizing him in the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist.

That’s a lot to celebrate and a lot to think about. But there’s more. The Presentation is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. In our first reading from the prophet Malachi, we read “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” This is exactly what happens in today’s Gospel, and both Simeon and Anna knew it straightaway.

The arrival of Christ in his father’s house not only fulfills a prophecy but marks a turning point in the history of our salvation. Jesus is the high priest, as we heard in the second reading, and he has come to make a sacrifice. But not a temple sacrifice of animals—the sacrifice of himself as victim.

Today’s psalm urges the very gates of the temple to throw themselves open to admit the King of Glory. Of course that’s a literary tool, called personification. The psalmist is calling us to open the gates of our hearts to the King of Glory, the Lord—to let him in so that he can share his glory with us.

The stakes are high. To take just one point from the second reading, Jesus will “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Each and every one of us, old and young, can find the peace of heart that Simeon found when he met the Messiah.

There’s still more to be said—about the connection of this feast to Christmas and the Epiphany, for one thing, and about Mary’s spiritual martyrdom, for another—but Sunday Mass-goers will have to wait another seven years. Because there’s a second homily sitting in the pews this morning, a living Gospel we do not want to miss.

I refer, of course, to the members of the Gatare family. The story of these brothers and sisters of ours are already well-known to most of you. You know how they fled Rwanda, only to find themselves in exile for a decade in Kenya; you know how long they waited even after our parish had officially sponsored their coming to Canada.

Today, they are with us as symbol of suffering—a sword must have pierced their hearts many times during the long ordeal—but also a symbol of hope. They remind us, as Simeon did, that faith requires waiting. In our instant culture we want things now, whether it’s fast food or freedom; but God has his own timing and we need to live our lives by his clock and calendar, not our own.

When Jesus came into the temple, that sacred space became holier by his presence. The same thing is happening in our church, this morning. Jesus has come into this church today just as he entered the temple in Jerusalem—we know this from his words “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The Gatares, our brothers and sisters, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus, come to us today as symbols of his presence, as reminders of his salvation, and with the same gratitude to God that Mary and Joseph had when they brought their child to the temple.

So let us rejoice together, lifting up our heads and welcoming the Lord whom we seek, the King of Glory who has come to meet his people and set them free.