As I write this I have just returned from my days off; I went to Bethlehem, one of my favourite places in this land. Yesterday was my first time to enter the grotto where tradition tells us that Jesus was born and be completely by myself. While there I prayed for us: for each of us who make up Assumption parish, and for our needs. Today I went back, to request some Masses, and one of the Franciscans asked me to hear his confession. I was humbled and honoured to be reminded of our humanity in the very place where God took flesh and became a human being. We are all flawed, and yet our God understands and forgives.

I need to constantly remind myself of that while I’m here. Our work with CPT involves monitoring checkpoints where school children and their teachers pass every day, and then walking some kindergarten kids up a treacherous path and then past some soldiers. I find it so easy to judge others, and yet the experience in Bethlehem reminds me that we are all human, we all have flaws. It is hard to be nice to the soldiers who have just harassed a teacher who passes every single day, but today they tell him his name is not on the list, so he cannot pass. It is hard not to judge the Israeli settler who shoots me nasty looks as he walks by, or the Border Police commander who pushes my teammate and says that he has decided that CPT is not allowed in the area today. Yet God sees all the things that have happened to us, and knows all our past, and understand why we sometimes lash out at others inappropriately. God, because he knows all, is able to forgive all.

It is easy to lose hope, when things seem to get worse instead of better. Yet in this weekend’s gospel passage, Jesus reminds us that we are to be persistent. And I think that if I keep praying, it may not change God, but it will change me. Among other things, it will give me the strength to be a sign of hope in a situation where hope is desperately needed. Today, I choose to be like the persistent widow, who never lost hope. How about you?

As I write this I am on the bus to Bethlehem, after one night in Jerusalem. From there I continue on to Hebron, where I begin my time on team with CPT. it is still hot and dry. The rains have not yet come. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year has just begun. The Damascus Gate, one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem is usually teeming with vendors hawking their wares at tables and booths, but now is almost empty, and is eerily quiet. The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron is open only to Jewish worshippers for the next several days. I am hoping and praying that this will not engender more violence. Regardless, school is in session, so the CPT task of monitoring a military checkpoint to help facilitate passage for elementary school children will continue.

There is construction next to the highway as we approach Bethlehem, adding to the huge wall the Israelis continue to build, officially for “security,” but in fact it serves to complicate life for the Palestinians, separating families, separating towns from their agricultural lands. It’s a common story. At one point in Ontario you were not welcome if you were Catholic. In the US, there were periods of “No Irish Need Apply,” and times when Italians weren’t welcome. Today one of the US presidential candidates speaks of building a big wall between the US and Mexico. The names and the ethnic groupings change, but the principle remains the same: There are those who are “other.” They are not like us. They are to blame for some (many) of my problems, and they are to be feared.

Sound familiar? In Jesus’ day it was the Samaritans who were “different,” “not welcome,” somehow to blame for some of the Jews’ difficulties. Jesus broke through those fears and barriers, and healed the Samaritan leper. Since arriving here I’ve been realizing just how much I judge people because of their ethnicity or the language they speak. Maybe it’s time for me to ask Jesus for healing from these modern-day leprosies. And now as we arrive in Hebron, I ask you: Pray for peace. Pray for healing among all peoples.

As some of you read this I will be over the Atlantic… or already arrived in the Holy Land. I want to thank so many of you for your prayer and your generosity in helping fund my presence on team with Christian Peacemaker Teams. I have been touched by the support and goodwill that you show. I am constantly reminded of how blessed I am to be a part of this parish.

My first night there will be at Ecce Homo Pilgrim House in Jerusalem, situated on the Via Dolorosa, whose basement seems to be the site where Pontius Pilate showed the flagellated Jesus to the people, crying out “Here is the Man! (Ecce Homo in Latin). (John 19:5)” The next day I’ll take a bus to Bethlehem, and there catch a service, a type of van transport, to Hebron, where I join the CPT team. We will be five or six members: two Palestinians, one Argentinian, one British, one from the U.S., and myself.

The readings this weekend seem to be directed to me. So often there I have tended to be like Habakkuk, crying out “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” Instead, the letter to Timothy challenges me to “…rekindle the gift of God that is within” me, and to use the Holy Spirit that is living in me, remembering that it is a spirit not “of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and of self-discipline.” In today’s Gospel passage, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. I ask for that increase as well, so that my presence there may more faithfully represent the presence of Christ himself in the midst of difficulty and injustice. There are times when I want to pat myself on the back for what I’m doing, yet here again Jesus speaks to me loudly this weekend: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Each of us has a calling from God; each of us has a mission. As I ask for your prayers for me as I am attempting to “do what I ought to have done,” I assure you that I will be praying for you, that each of you may know what you ought to do, and may have the strength to do it—not for recompense or reward or glory, but rather because it’s what you ought to do.

When I was pastor in Angleton I used to take communion to a couple in their 90s (and eventually did their funerals). Mr. Joe, as he was affectionately called by many, had owned a local car dealership, and had quite a bit of money. One day he told me, “God wants me to be rich.” Although I don’t think many of us would put it quite so bluntly, I think that most of us would hold on to at least a hope that God wants that for us, too. We admire people who have money. We call them the successful ones. Across the border, one of the criteria that recent presidential candidates (in several election cycles) have touted as a reason they’d be a good president is because they have made lots of money in business. The Church often cultivates relationships with people who have money because they can help keep our doors open, our buildings maintained (or restored!) and our ministries functioning. As a Basilian, I take a vow of poverty, but I lack for nothing, and have immense security.

So, is God happy with all this? When I’m honest, I tend to think not. A Jesuit I studied used to write about a “shared austerity,” one in which all people on earth would have what they needed. There would be no excesses, and there would be no hunger. Because of sin, this vision will probably never happen, yet I still think that we’re all called to strive for this. Given this weekend’s readings, I tend to think that God would agree with that, as would Pope Francis.

In the passage from the prophet Amos, there is no mention that “those who are at ease in Zion, and … those who feel secure on Mount Samaria” are evil people. It is simply that they are rich. And, we know from the rest of the Book of Amos, there were many poor people in Israel at that time. The rich man in the parable Jesus tells likewise doesn’t seem to be a bad person. He even asks for Lazarus to warn his brothers. For me, this is some of the hardest teaching in Scripture. It is much easier to focus on things like sexual morality and accepting theological constructs such as the Trinity than it is to take a long, hard look at how much I share with my neighbour. I’ll have a bit of a taste of poverty while on team with CPT in Hebron in October. I always look forward to my return to security here in North America. Maybe this time God will call me to just a bit more austerity in my own life once I get home again. Pray for this grace for me.

Once again, I am overwhelmed by the generosity in this parish. You touch my soul deeply. Thank you to those of you who are helping to sponsor my trip to be on team with CPT in Hebron. For those who still wish to donate, there is a box on the table near the back of the church for cash or cheques (made out to CPT or to me). Or, you can do this online at cpt.org/donate. If you choose that option, please note that it is for Maurice
Restivo. And, please come on September 26th at 7:00 pm in Rosary Hall for a slide show and talk about the kind of things that CPT does. After reading this weekend’s gospel passage, I’d like to assure you that I’ll do what I can to be an honest steward of your funds. In other words, I will both be praying for you and be fully present to those we serve on team.

The parables in Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel are somewhat confusing and perturbing. Yet they are in our Bible; they are in the Gospel, which means Good News. So what are we to make of it? One way of looking at this is proposed by Rev. Whitney Rice, a US Episcopalian priest. Let’s consider what the dishonest manager does: He forgives debts! Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I think we’ve probably heard that somewhere else in the gospels. But why didn’t Jesus just say that clearly? Maybe, just maybe, it’s that our lives are complicated, and sometimes there are no easy answers. Fr. Rice says:

Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Think of the way the connections you have to the people you love sometimes get hopelessly tangled and snarled, until you can’t remember what the problem was in the first place, but you sure can’t figure out how to fix it now. Think of the times you’ve been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess. …

Jesus knows that our lives are not black and white, and he also knows that we need guidance to live out of our better selves. And so he gives us the gift of forgiveness. …

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That’s what happens in this parable. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. And this is the best part: It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty.

And if that’s the case, maybe it’s time that I, who am complicated and a sinner, need to go and forgive others—and be forgiven myself!

 

I have mentioned in the past that I am a member of an ecumenical group called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). We focus on non-violent peacemaking, and are in some difficult hotspots around the world. One of those places is Hebron, where I have served in the past, and where I will be again from October 3-22.

In this weekend’s first reading, Moses asks God to remember his servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob). According to the book of Genesis, these three patriarchs and their wives are buried in the cave purchased by Abraham to bury his wife Sarah, in the city of Hebron. For hundreds of years a mosque has stood on top of this cave. In 1968, after the six-day war, a group of Jewish people from Brooklyn came to Hebron and announced they were not leaving. Since then, Jewish Israeli settlers have been living in the midst of the old city of Hebron. The situation is difficult, tense, and complicated. Military checkpoints are scattered in the old city, and many people have to pass through daily: children going to school, workers trying to get to their jobs, and people going to the mosque to pray. CPT and other international peace groups monitor checkpoints and respond to emergencies of different kinds. Some days are nonstop, filled with stress, and others are quiet and boring. Most days are somewhere in between.

I joined CPT after much prayer and discernment, working with my spiritual director, and getting the blessing of the Basilian General Council. I know it is a big commitment. I ask your patience and indulgence. I will do my best to ensure that all parish activities are covered in my absence. I like to think of it as tithing your pastor to do justice work. I also ask for your generosity. This is the only activity for which I will ask for money for myself. I am to raise $1450 to pay for my expenses while there. I invite you to consider helping support this endeavour. It is a way for you to get involved a bit more closely with justice work. Regardless of any financial contribution you may or may not care to make, I ask for your prayer. Prayer is important; it changes hearts; it makes us more aware. I also invite you to an evening of slides and a talk about what I’ll be doing, to be held Monday, September 26, at 7:00 PM in Rosary Hall.

 

This weekend we have a passage from Paul’s letter to Philemon—the only reading from that letter in our three-year cycle of readings. It’s a personal letter from Paul to a fellow Christian. Philemon owns at least one slave. (In the society of that time there was slavery, often people who lived in countries that had been conquered. Paul neither condemns nor approves of it in this context; it is simply part of the society in which he lived.) This slave—Onesimus, which means “useful”—had escaped from Philemon and ended up with Paul, where he converted to Christianity and became a helper to Paul. Now Paul is sending him back with a request that Philemon grant Onesimus his freedom, so that he can come back freely and assist Paul. There is a play on words here. Onesimus, the useful slave, has now become Onesimus, the useful brother in Christ who helps Paul in his ministry.

It seems that Paul never intended this letter to be read aloud to a congregation, the way his others were, nor did he think it would end up in a collection of sacred writings. It’s just a request to a friend. Yet it’s more than that. The early Church kept this letter, and ended up recopying it and sending it around to Christian communities. So, what does it teach us? I think the early Church heard it as yet another call to put the proclamation of the Gospel first, and to realize that it is more important than anything we own, or any status we may have. In a sense, it is what Jesus is saying in the gospel passage. Fr. Jim is fond of saying how the word that is here translated as “hate” could also be used to say “put in second place.” In other words, first comes preaching the good news and following Jesus. Everything else is secondary. Jesus has left it all behind, and is still on this journey to Jerusalem to encounter his destiny. Nothing else is anywhere near as important.

When I look at my life the many things that I surround myself with that become “important” to me sometimes make me wonder where God fits on that scale—and my “profession” revolves around God! I can only stand in awe at how much many of you—who have so many concerns and worries that I don’t have—place God right up at the top. Thank you for your witness.

When I was newly ordained and serving in Cali, Colombia, a lady in the parish invited the Basilians over to her house for dinner. We were six at the time, three priests and three seminarians. We were all rather shocked when we arrived to see the table nicely set for six. When we asked where they were going to sit, the response was something like, “Oh, no, Father. We serve you.” And the lady and her daughter proceeded to serve us a nice meal. They were kind of like waiters in a fine restaurant. We were all quite uncomfortable. Then it happened again, at another house, and yet again. When the mayor of the city came to the parish to visit, ladies served a wonderful meal—for the mayor and the Basilians. They waited on us. Before long, I kind of expected that we would receive special treatment wherever we went. It kind of felt nice.

What I’ve found in my life is that most any kind of honour that makes me a bit uncomfortable at first soon becomes the norm if it’s repeated often enough. I can protest all I want at the beginning. After a while, though, I enjoy it and don’t want it to stop. And then when a gathering happens where there are people from different places, each of whom experience special treatment in their own setting, things can get tricky. Who of all these “special people” is the “most special”? Who comes before whom?

I can imagine that’s some of what was going on with the story in this weekend’s gospel passage. Jesus watches all these people scampering about, trying to get the best seats, so that they will look important. He is on his way to Jerusalem, to the place of his crucifixion, and here are these trying to look more important than the other guy. Can’t you just see Jesus wanting to scream—perhaps like Charlie Brown in that cartoon that Deacon Paul spoke about last weekend—and let them all know that none of that is important? What is important is that we realize that before God we are small and flawed. We realize our human limitedness and in so doing, God looks upon us with mercy and love. In the amazing paradox of God’s love, it is only when we realize how small, insignificant, and flawed I am that God elevates me into a channel of his power and love. May we all become last, so that God may put us wherever he wants.

Last weekend was a wonderful example of parish community. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all who worked to make our events run so smoothly and beautifully. People toiled for days cleaning Assumption church. Carmen organized the food aspect of the picnic with such grace and efficiency. The Knights of Columbus cooked our meat (and even a few veggie burgers, for me and the others who chose that option) to perfection. Kevin Mannara organized games and entertainment, and got the great tent. Josh and Sarah provided music. Parishioners volunteered for hospitality, and made sure that someone was on hand at Assumption Church for the hours we were open—and several hundred people passed through. Some are present parishioners, others former, still others who have a historical interest in the church. Terry enlightened many about the history of the parish and the area. Our custodians at both churches performed herculean tasks getting the sites ready. We were also blessed to have the refugees whose reunification we sponsored come by for the picnic. It was good to be able to welcome these strong women, especially on the day we were celebrating the Assumption of the woman whom God chose to be the mother of his Son. I hope many of you were able to meet them. I am constantly grateful to be at this parish. You are a source of strength and a blessing to me and to so many others.

We need those sources of strength in our lives. This past weekend, while we were celebrating the Mass of the Assumption, the rest of the Church heard a gospel passage where Jesus introduces conflict into the story. Today’s passage continues that theme. On one level, Jesus is preparing his followers for the arrival in Jerusalem, where the final conflict will happen. Yet, as in the lives of each one of us, there is conflict. We fail. We try and stray from the path. In this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy we focus so much on the God who forgives all. Yet Jesus reminds us here that sometimes we ourselves reject God. In his day it was the “good people,” the “religious ones” who found his message threatening and unacceptable. Today he cautions us—yes, us, the “good people,” the “religious ones” who come to church—and reminds us that faith is more than just calling on Jesus’ name. Indeed, it requires action; it requires service to those in need. At times it requires discomfort and sacrifice. With the strength and support of those around us, we can follow where Our Lady led, to the place Christ has prepared for us.

 

Our Feast day is upon us! I’d like to thank all the many people who have worked so hard to make our parish celebrations possible. There have been people setting up for the picnic; there are those who will cook the food this weekend, and the many who brought things in to share. Others spent time cleaning Assumption church, making it ready for the visitors on Sunday and Monday. And I know that there are still more who will be serving at the events themselves, and others who clean up afterwards. For a pastor, it is a joy to see people from various groups—or of no specific group—coming together, working together, and spending time together. I offer a heartfelt “Thank you!” to each and every one of you. You honour our parish and Our Lady by your service.

As we reflect on our heritage, it is good to look at Our Lady as presented in the gospel passage in the Masses these days. This is a strong woman. Although the many images of her we have in our tradition are valuable, each teaching us something, the portrait painted by Luke is not the sweet, pious depiction that most of our statues and images of her present. Instead, we see a woman who boldly sets out from Nazareth in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, all the way down in Judea—a journey of several days. I can imagine her, still somewhat overwhelmed by the experience of the Annunciation, being told by Gabriel that she will bear a son, rushing down to talk to her elderly cousin, whom herself is pregnant. And the words that come out of Mary’s mouth after Elizabeth’s greeting are words that shock, words that turn the values of the world upside down. In what we know as the Magnificat, she says that God’s values are not those of society. This God “has brought the powerful down from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” and “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”