When I was 18 years old, it was the end of the season at the Richmond Tennis Club, the coaches were handing out awards, and the final award went to the most valuable player. Nicholas was by far our best player, so I was shocked when I got the award. I knew why they gave it to me: It was my last year as a junior, and I had made some good contributions to the team. And I’ll never forget Nick’s reaction: He was so happy for me, in fact, he was ecstatic! Nick was a good Christian, we often talked about God, and my reward contributed to his happiness.
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
So there are two theological ideas that come from this story: gift and merit. On one hand, that trophy was a gift because I wasn’t the best. On the other hand, the club honoured the fact that I had earned something.
Do we know the difference between what is earned and what is given? Do you come from a family where you need to earn your parents’ love? Do you know anyone in life who’s entitled: they expect life to be easy and everything done for them, and they have no gratitude? Do you agree with Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2015 decision that half of his cabinet would be women? Do you believe people go to heaven because they’re good?
Today, we’re celebrating the Assumption of our mother Mary into heaven. The Book of Revelation says, “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1). Many Protestant Christians argue that this woman is a symbol of the Church. However, given that the child in the vision is clearly Jesus, and the dragon is the devil, it’s consistent that the woman is not just a symbol, but a real person, Mary. She’s in heaven!
However, she never earned the gift of heaven but was saved by her son, Jesus. The fact that she was chosen to be the mother of God was also a pure gift. That she was conceived without original sin was a gift. Nevertheless, she did cooperate in earning the glory given to her in heaven. In the Gospel, Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Lk 1:45). She’s blessed because she believed, had faith, and trusted in God! Yes, the grace to make that choice came from God, but she did something with it.
Look at the Vigil’s Gospel, please: “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But Jesus said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’” (Lk 11:27-28). Yes, Mary is blessed because she is Jesus’ mother, but even St. Augustine points out that she is more blessed because she followed God’s will, which is to her credit, and obviously to God’s glory.
We need to be convinced about the distinction between what are gifts and what is earned in life. Being a child of God is a gift. You don’t need to earn God’s love for you. He already loves you. Even if you’ve committed horrible sins, His love for you is still infinite. Of course, you need to accept it. You’re still a person with free will, and you need to choose to come home, and let Jesus wash away your sins by Baptism and Confession.
Many of us have not experienced this kind of unconditional love from our parents. If our parents didn’t give us unconditional love, then God the Father wants to heal us of it, and help us find it in Him.
This is why I wish all of us could take Alpha and the first level of Faith Studies, and I wish we could all invite people we love to these events in September, because in Alpha and Faith Studies, we learn about the meaning of life, and experience God the Father’s love freely given to us. We’re more than halfway through our Sabbath Summer, and we need to think more about giving life to others. Is there anyone you love whom you could invite in September to Alpha? Next week, we’re going to talk more about opportunities in September for spiritual growth.
There’s a famous book, Wild at Heart by John Eldridge, about men’s rediscovering their masculinity, and it’s rooted in being sons of God. The first half of the book deals with our wounds, the fact that many of us didn’t have good fathers. And there’s a lot of compassion and empathy here. Many men I know have felt renewed by the Father’s love from this section of the book. But, in the second half, as my friend put it, Eldridge tells us to suck it up. In other words, don’t use your wounds as excuses not to grow.
It’s true that our identity is not rooted in what we do, but in who we are. But we’re made in God’s image so that means we also need to act, work, earn a living, make a contribution, and take up our cross.
Some men are paralyzed in life because they’re hurt. Other men are paralyzed because they’ve been coddled. They’re weak, they underperform, and, as we’ve said before, they feel useless because they’re not fulfilling the potential God gave them!
This truth of the distinction between what is given and what is earned has helped me as a priest to affirm and challenge. As a spiritual father, I love all people, but I only try to give compliments when they’re earned. I tell all young children that they’re good and loved, but I won’t tell them they’re virtuous unless they are. On this matter, let’s think with our heads, not our hearts—facts over feelings. Most children are not virtuous. A few are. And when I see them be polite, cheerful, concerned for others, then I go out of my way to affirm them in this!
Now let me affirm and challenge our young people, say, 25 years old or younger. I love and care for you, and I celebrate the good you do: serving at God’s altar, proclaiming God’s word, leading music, serving last Name Tag Sunday, participating in youth ministry—I’m grateful for your presence and service, and you’ve earned this praise. Most of you have grown spiritually and morally in the past seven years.
But, and this is something we can revisit in the future, a number of you, for seven years, have been rather rude, self-focused, and grumpy. I see some of you treat your parents badly: You’re flippant with them. I try to reach out to you and you have a who-cares attitude. You’re in your own world, inconsiderate, and never show interest in others. And this has been going on for the seven years I’ve been here. Do you realize this? Has anyone told you? There are consequences to your actions. You’re losing my respect. You can earn it again. But if you treat people like garbage, don’t be surprised when people don’t respect you. You might not do this intentionally, but that’s how it comes across. And I don’t have excessively high standards. I have gone running with a young man in his twenties from our parish, not because he’s so holy, but because he’s polite, he treats the people we meet on the street with courtesy, he’s hard-working, and shows up on time—I respect that. That’s what people admire.
We adults must set a higher standard, and part of that is eliminating excuses. For instance, some adults always say they have no time to help because they have children, but actually when we dig deeper, it was like that when they got married, and even when they were single.
A few weeks ago, Francisco Tamaki came to Mass with his five and three-year old children, and showed me a picture of his wife who gave birth the day before. Many Catholics would use that fact as an excuse not to come, but he didn’t. And his wife, Shannon, participated in livestream Mass that same Sunday, while in the hospital bed, the day after giving birth—that’s incredible! (By the way, that’s why we will continue indefinitely to have Mass live-streamed! Because there will always be people who love Jesus who can’t come to Mass.)
Parents, we have our NET team coming in two months, at the beginning of October. This is the second game changer for 2021 that we announced at Easter, so that our teenagers can meet people who will help them encounter Jesus. We’re looking for families to host two or three missionaries for two weeks at a time. Could I ask you to think about hosting them for two weeks, please? This would be a great way to help our parish family. You can talk to Cyrena, Cora, and Christina at the back of the church after Mass.
We all tip our hats to people who do what’s right when it’s hard. I tip my hat to you who exercise when tired, who are faithful to prayer, who go to Confession, who try to grow spiritually, who are so generous with your time.
And it’s not just doing the right thing. We respect people who apologize for being late, who apologize for raising their voice unnecessarily, who own up to their mistakes.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous speech, said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin.” Everyone remembers this part of the speech, referring to the gift of human dignity. But most people forget what he said next: “but by the content of their character.” Doctor King believed that we should be judged. We should be judged by our character, that is, our freely chosen actions.
When Prime Minister Trudeau was elected in 2015, he made half of his cabinet women, because he said, “It’s 2015” and because they should represent Canada’s make-up. But here’s the thing: What if some men were more qualified than the women? More to the point: What if more women were qualified than men? Why just go for half-half? Isn’t the goal to have the most qualified people? While representation may sound good at a superficial glance, it makes a mockery of competency. When we go to a doctor, we should just choose the most competent person.
Finally, do you believe that being ‘good’ is sufficient to go to heaven? Being good does not get you into heaven because no one is good enough, no one. It’s a free gift. Question: Why should God let us into heaven? Because Jesus saved us. If you die and the Father asks you that question, answer with what Jesus did! We don’t earn these gifts, but we do receive them… by three actions: repentance, faith, and Baptism/Confession.
Heaven is a gift! But, if you want greater happiness in heaven (because you can open yourself to receive more), you can earn it! By Jesus’ life in us, we can actually earn a greater joy! Every time we choose to love, no matter how small an act it is, we expand our capacity for joy, and then we merit more joy!
We are Mary’s children—that’s a gift. But we can make her proud by choosing to act like she did.