When I first started going to the Holy Land, I was surprised to hear the term “Jewish atheists.” I just couldn’t figure that one out. For me, “Jewish” denoted a religion, and if you are religious, you aren’t an atheist. Then I learned that, for those who call themselves such, they consider themselves culturally and ethnically Jewish, but do not believe in God, and do not practice a religion. For us, of course, that would be impossible. We are either Catholics or atheists, right? While on one level, it is true that the two terms are mutually exclusive, on another, I think it may be very possible. In fact, I find myself acting as such more often than I would care to admit. When I am honest—even though I think I truly believe in God—I find myself acting as if I don’t. I depend on myself rather than on God. And every time that I do this, I end up hurting myself.

In this weekend’s first reading we hear about the first sin: Eve is tempted by the devil, tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I think her real sin, though, was that she doubted God’s love for her; she became convinced that God did not want the best for her. God wanted to keep her from knowing, keep her from having wisdom. And so she ate, and Adam—who, of course, hadn’t even tried to stop her—ate with her. And they knew they were naked. Some scholars who study this say what this is communicating is that before they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, they had been clothed with the glory of God. Once they ate of the tree, they were alienated from God, they lost his protective
covering, so to speak, and now they realized how vulnerable they were. And then when God came into the garden, they hid from him, because they didn’t think that God loved them anymore.

How many times have I doubted that God didn’t love me enough to want the very best for me? I’m afraid that, if I’m honest, far more times than I would care to admit. I say I’m a Catholic, a man of faith, a man of the Church. My actions, at times, betray the fact that I doubt—that sometimes I act as if I were a Catholic atheist. As we begin our Lenten journey this year, I invite you to look deeply at your faith, and see where your actions might not measure up.

For the season of Lent, we’ll be talking about this phenomena in a homily series called “Catholic Atheists” – a term for those who know and believe in God – but live their lives as if they don’t.

 

We’ve been hearing about tough love in one way or another for the past few weeks. Today we come to the end of this series, and the end of Chapter Six of Matthew’s Gospel. This year, because of the timing of Lent and Easter, we won’t hear Chapter Seven proclaimed at Mass. I would encourage you to take some time this week and read the entire Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). There we see just how tough it is to love as Jesus commands us to love. I hope you’ve failed at somehow showing love to someone whom you find tough to love—that means you’ve actually been trying to do so. Part of our human condition is that we never quite live up to our full potential. And part of God’s condition is that he never fails to keep encouraging us, and forgiving us when we don’t quite succeed. What God wants us to do is to try. Last week, Deacon Paul challenged us to pray for someone with whom we have difficulties. Have you done that? If not, then perhaps that is where God is calling you to renew your efforts.

And if we do sincerely try, I think that is all God asks of us. As this weekend’s gospel passage reminds us, we don’t need to worry—God will indeed take care of us, if we try to live as Jesus commands, if we try and live as his children, if we make some attempt to live the tough love that he sets before us. And if we make those attempts today, that is all God asks. As Jesus says, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will being worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

That is a good thought to have as we end this part of Ordinary Time, and enter Lent. Ash Wednesday is almost here. Lent is a time to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re heading. For me, it’s an opportunity to practice some self-discipline, and to try and bring my life more into line with my beliefs. Won’t you join me?

A number of years ago, I heard a theologian and peace activist speak about Jesus being a practitioner of creative non-violence. The concept surprised me, and at the same time I found it quite intriguing. Mohandas Gandhi was so effective in gaining independence for India without using any violent means at all. Martin Luther King, Jr., made incredible advances for the black person in the United States, again using nonviolence. At its heart is the difficult command to love, even your enemy. It is, truly, tough love.

We are in our fourth week of the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew’s gospel, and the fourth week looking at this as Tough Love. Now it really gets tough. Still using the “You have heard it said… but I say to you” pattern, Jesus goes beyond teachings from the Ten Commandments that we heard last week, to other biblical teachings. So we go from “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (which, when formulated, was seen as reducing violence by not allowing retribution to return more than the original harm) to “do not resist an evildoer.” For me, that is truly tough to love like that. It goes against my natural tendency to strike out when I am hurt, or even threatened. It negates the possibility of war, actually.

Christian nonviolence is perhaps the purest, and the toughest form of love we can practice. It calls me to stand up for my rights and is not passive—yet the resistance to violence and to any form of evil takes the form of a response of love. And it is anything but weak. It is a courageous and tough thing to do to love as a response to hatred or violence. It is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. That sounds nice in theory, but is so tough to practice in real life, in concrete circumstances, with real people. When serving on team in Hebron, when I have been mocked or insulted, my first response is to strike back. Yet, I’ve found that the first step towards a nonviolent response is to pray: to pray for the person who does me harm. To pray for myself, to try to live as Jesus would have me live. It is tough to love that way; yet it yields the greatest peace possible. Won’t you join me on the road?

Jews in Jesus’ day tended to be good, law-abiding people. Most of us church-going Catholics would fit into the same general category. We’re mostly good, and we have our weaknesses and our flaws—and we accept that our God wants us to behave in certain ways. All good Jews knew that the law came from God—and that Moses received the law from God up on a mountain. So when Jesus went up a mountain to teach, and started saying things like we hear in this weekend’s gospel, “You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you…,” they would have been stunned. You can almost hear them saying, “Who does this guy think he is? Is he greater than Moses, who gave the law?”

We’re now in our third weekend of hearing the “sermon on the mount” from Matthew’s gospel. Last week we heard that we were to be salt and light; now we’re hearing some of what it means to indeed be salt and light in today’s world. Jesus takes the law that all his hearers knew and brings it to the next level: It’s not just about how we act. It’s also about what’s going on inside of us, in our minds and in our hearts—talk about tough love! So, we go from “you shall not murder” to “the one who is angry with their brother or sister will be liable to judgment” and “whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” We go from “you shall not commit adultery” to “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery … in his heart.” And then comes a real shocker, that may have caused Jesus’ audience to laugh, because of his obvious exaggeration: “If your right eye causes you to sin, … if your right hand causes you to sin, … throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” The Greek here says “the valley of Hinnon (or Gehenna).” It was the city dump, located just outside Jerusalem; fires were always burning. So, I tend to think his followers understood something more like, “Think trashy thoughts, spend time looking at trash, and you’ll be thrown out with the trash.” I know I hope I choose what gives me a good life, rather than what leads me to the dump.

When I taught homiletics (preaching) at the seminary, this section in a book written by the late Ken Untener, Bishop of Saginaw, intrigued me. Bishop Untener used to meet with priests from his diocese to go over their homilies from the previous weekend. Once they looked at a homily that included the following: “During our lifetime, did we learn to love one another? Did we learn to forgive, … to help the needy, … to encourage each other?” Working together, they reworded that and ended up with these questions:

During our lifetime, did we manage to bite our tongue when we wanted to swear at the driver who didn’t
signal a left turn? When we had a falling out with our in-law or “out-law” or anyone, did we let it fester, or did we let go of it and try to mend the fence? Did we try to put ourselves in the shoes of poor people, think about them, help them, even defend them when people made sweeping statements about “welfare cheats”? In conversations, were we the ones with the positive words or the ones with the negative words?

I have used Bishop Untener’s book many times over these past years, and this section never fails to indict me. It is so easy to say that I am loving, forgiving, helpful, and encouraging. But when I look at specific examples, I see how far I am from the ideal. It is tough to really love in concrete situations. It is tough to follow Jesus’ commands.

In this weekend’s gospel passage, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be salt for the earth and light for the world. Salt was quite important in Jesus’ day, before refrigeration; it was how you kept and preserved food, so it was a life sustaining commodity that drove many economies. If you accepted salt from someone you were considered in their service. The word salary comes from the word salt, since people were often paid with it. And when night descends, light provides security and comfort. Both of these improve the quality of life. So it seems to me that Jesus was actually telling them that he wants his disciples to be agents of life change, improving the quality of life—and not just in generalities, but the lives of specific people. That’s where it gets really tough for me. I’m glad I have Jesus to keep encouraging me and strengthening me to love even when it’s tough—to really be salt and light for today’s world.

I’ve heard the term “tough love” in many different contexts. Often it is used when parents have to discipline their children, choosing options that the child does not want at present, but will lead to growth in goodness. It is “tough love” when a loved one stops rescuing an addict, forcing him or her to face the consequences of their actions. Tough love is always difficult. And, more and more, I’m becoming convinced that real love is always tough—tough to accept and tough to live out. Yet, that love is the love that gives life. It is the love that Jesus teaches.

This weekend we begin the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew’s gospel—and we start a five-week series talking about the tough love that it takes to follow Jesus’ teaching. It is tough to be poor in spirit, in a society that rewards riches and self-sufficiency. It is tough to mourn, when we’d all rather be happy. It is tough to be meek, when we want to be the centre of attention. It is tough to hunger and thirst for righteousness, when it is so much easier to live in my own little bubble. It is tough to be merciful when someone has hurt me. It is tough to be clean of heart, when society says it’s time to go out and “have a little fun.” It’s tough to be a peacemaker, when it may put me in harm’s way, or at least take me out of my comfort zone; it is certainly tough to be the recipient of persecution for doing what is right.

In reading the “Sermon on the Mount” I am constantly reminded of how tough it is to be an authentic Christian, to really
follow Jesus’ teaching. The early Church heard today’s beatitudes and all of the tough teachings that follow it in the context of the resurrection. They knew that Jesus loved all the way to the cross, the toughest love of all: He gave his life for us, his friends. And they also knew that the crucifixion brought the resurrection, the greatest proof of all that love is worth every bit of difficulty. That helped them accept some of these tough teachings. I invite you as well to journey with us as we explore the idea of Tough Love between now and Lent.

 

There have been times when my life did not quite “measure up” to what I wanted others to think about me. I remember a particular time, when my addictive behaviours were pretty much running my life, and I was teaching in the seminary. I so wanted the seminarians to like me, to see in me (that is, in the image I tried to project) a model priest, somebody they wanted to emulate. At the same time I was deathly afraid of them finding out who I really was, what I really did and felt and believed. It was a difficult existence, and I was always worried that the façade would crumble.

In these past years I’ve learned much more to live openly by my values. I am who I am. Sure, I still hope you like me; I hope you like what I stand for, what I believe, and what my values are. Yet, if you don’t, I’ve learned that it’s not my problem. I am who I am. I have made my peace with God. I am totally honest with my spiritual director and with my sponsor in recovery. I don’t have to hide anything. And I experience a freedom today that I never knew possible, even a few years ago. In this weekend’s gospel passage, Jesus invites us to repent, to reorient ourselves, to leave behind our self-defeating attitudes and to believe the Good News. He asks us to repent so that we can enter his kingdom as his sisters and brothers, as God’s sons and daughters.

The Church gives us the beautiful gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, more often known as confession. When I truly use that sacrament as it was intended, which is to look at myself honestly, to see where I stray from the path God has set out for me, and to have firm purpose of amendment (desire and plan to change things for the better), I come away feeling refreshed and renewed, able to leave behind my worries and respond to Jesus’ call to follow him—wherever that may lead. I invite you, and myself as well, to leave behind our worries, whatever they may be—whether based on economic insecurity, uncertainty over what President Trump might mean for Canada or the world, or over not being as moral a person as I want others to believe—and leave them with Jesus, so that I am truly free to follow his call, wherever it may lead.

The church felt so bare, walking in after getting used to all the decorations of these past two seasons. In Advent, we kept increasing the light, with a candle being added each week. And then, over Christmas, everything looked so splendid—thanks to the hard work of so many of you—with the trees and the lights and the colours. And now, we’re back into “Ordinary Time,” which can actually be quite extraordinary. We use the colour green, which signifies growth and hope. And our readings give focus to our lives, helping us to find God in the ordinary, in the day-to-day of life. Each year, we begin this season with a reading from the Gospel of John, highlighting relationship in some way: Jesus’ relationship to the Father, our relationship to Jesus and to the Trinity. John the Baptist didn’t even recognize Jesus at first. He had to see the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Jesus to realize who he was.

It’s so easy for me to miss seeing Jesus in my life. I get busy with all the day-to-day preoccupations, with all my “important” tasks. Really, though, I am asked to do one first: to recognize Jesus among us, in my life, in the ordinariness of living. And when I do so, I become holy myself. I think that’s how Paul could call the people of the Church in Corinth “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Indeed, we are all called to be saints, as Pope Francis has reminded us.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about my faith is that I am called to be a saint. I, more than anyone else, know my flaws and weaknesses, my sinfulness and lack of faith. I think that the people of the early Church did too. And yet, so does the One who created me. Even though God knows all of my flaws, he still calls me to sainthood! God, who is greater than anything else, can take my twisted paths, my waywardness, and make of me something beautiful and holy in this world, if I only open my heart and allow God to work in me. As we remember the presence of Church in Southwest Ontario over these past 250 years, I invite us all to call upon the many saints who have gone before us to intercede for us and keep us open to God’s presence, today and every day.

 

I still remember a dream I had when I was a little boy. Jesus was walking through our neighbourhood. It was before the creation of people, and the neighbourhood was, consequently, completely empty—although the streets were there and the houses were already built. It would be filled once people were created. I have no idea why I have remembered that dream for so many years. I can still see Jesus holding my hand and walking down the street… somewhat above everything, though. Two things stand out about it: one is how it was all focused on “my” world, my neighbourhood, and two, how close I felt to Jesus.

Just as in the dream, Jesus’ focus was on me and my small world, so for the Israelites, God’s focus was completely on Israel, on his chosen people. The prophet Isaiah universalizes God; the One who was God of Israel is also God of the universe. And the story of the magi does the same thing: the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel also has universal significance. In other words, the one who loves me so particularly and so specially also loves the rest of the world with the same intensity. I need to remember that, over and over and over again, because I can become pretty self-focused, especially when I’m experiencing some difficulty. And as we wrap up our celebration of the Christmas season, we are reminded yet again of how close God is to us. God loves us so much that he wanted to become part of our history—not just as an observer, but instead as a full participant, in intimate union: as a human being. God wants to know just what it’s like to be me! It is truly an amazing gift, a far greater gift than the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the magi.

Joseph, like the Joseph of the Old Testament, took heed of what he learned in his dreams: He married Mary, even though she was pregnant. He took Jesus into Egypt to save him from death. He then settled in Nazareth to keep Jesus safe from Herod’s successor. Perhaps God is asking me, as well, to pay more attention to my dreams, whether they be dreams of sleep or waking dreams. May the Saviour of the Universe, revealed today to the nations, illumine each of us so that we may know his will and walk in his ways.

Happy New Year! On this first day of the calendar year the staff and I wish each and every one of you a year filled with blessings and joy, a year of recognizing the God who chose to become one of us. And… all year, in different ways, we’re celebrating anniversaries. Windsor celebrates 125 years in 2017; Ontario and Canada celebrate 150. And Assumption parish goes well beyond them as we celebrate our sestercentennial, 250 years of service to the people of Southwest Ontario. Yes, that’s the word: sestercentennial—the most common word for a 250th anniversary, and we are proud to be able to use it.

As last week’s bulletin insert pointed out, no matter where our recent parish affiliation was, the Church in this part of the world had its beginnings as Our Lady of the Assumption. We are a daughter parish, having begun as a mission of Sainte Anne de Détroit, our “mother” just across the river, which was founded in 1701, just two days after Antione de la Mothe Cadillac founded the city of the fort on the straits, now known as Detroit.

And it is appropriate that we begin this calendar year celebrating Our Lady. Today’s feast is Mary, Mother of God, which is actually more a statement about Jesus than it is about his Mother. In the early Church, there was debate about whether or not you could separate Jesus’ humanity from his divinity. And so, some people said that Mary only gave birth to Jesus in his humanity. The Council of Ephesus declared that no, Mary gave birth to Jesus in both his humanity and his divinity; in other words, Jesus cannot be divided. The implications of that are immense: God so loved this world that he became completely, fully, intimately one of us. The fact that Jesus is the Son of God does not make him any less human. He is also fully, completely, a human being—and is both from the very beginning.

Jesus himself, according to St. Matthew, said that he was to be found in the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, and naked. Or, to use the terminology of Pope Francis, he is to be found on the periphery. As we celebrate once again his birth among us, I invite you to also look for him in the places where he is to be found today: not only in churches, in tabernacles, but also in the poor and in each one of us. Through Jesus, as the First Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation states, God is now bound so closely to us that the bond can never be broken. Let us rejoice!