29 November 2015

Keep Judgment in Advent!

NB. OK. My excuse for this one: still on allergy/cold meds.

1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

We begin this evening our month-long waiting. Waiting for the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas, and waiting for his coming again as Christ the King in judgment. This year – like every year for the past 2,000 years – we will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem. And – as we always have – we will observe a season of anticipation, a time before the celebration to prepare ourselves to receive Mary's child as he should be received. This season of expectancy also prepares us to wait in faith on the second coming of Christ as King and Judge. We know the date of Christ's birth among us. We know when it's time to welcome him with feasts and gifts and time with family and friends. So, we are always ready. . .just in time. However, we do not know the date of his return as King, when we will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” So, we must always be ready. . .just in case. Therefore, we cannot let our hearts become drowsy; we cannot allow our minds to be numbed. We have four weeks to practice patient waiting. Stir-up your hearts and minds and prepare yourselves to receive him – the Christ Child and Christ the King!

We know Christmas is close. All the signs are there. Decorations. Carols. Black Friday sales. Sign-up sheets at work for the Christmas pot luck. Plans made with family. It's hard to miss these signs. Everywhere we turn, Christmas is standing right in front of us. Red, white, green. Santa Claus. TV specials. Gift lists. The signs of Christmas' coming are obvious, glaringly obvious. And b/c Christmas' imminent arrival tends to push Advent aside, we tend to forget that Advent is a season of expectancy for BOTH Christmas and the Second Coming, Christ's return to judge the living and the dead. If I were the Devil, I wouldn't change a thing about our current treatment of the post Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas season. I wouldn't shed one tear for poor little Advent's terrible plight. Why? B/c while God's children are focused almost exclusively on celebrating Christmas, they aren't getting ready for the Second Coming. Let them exchange gifts. Go to parties. Decorate til their hearts burst. Anything to keep them from seeing the signs of and making preparations for receiving Christ their King. Anything to occupy their hearts and minds other than their final judgment and eternal disposition.

Now, lest I sound like some crazy old priest who hates Christmas, let me say: I'm not suggesting that we turn Advent into a Lent-like dirge of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Advent is about preparing for the joys of Christmas! BUT it is also about preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ. And if you think about it, this makes sense. He comes at Christmas as a child to save us from sin and death. He will come again as King to sit in judgment of our faithfulness. Our salvation deserves celebration, and our judgment requires preparation. We know how to celebrate. How do we prepare? Jesus warns his disciples, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and [the day of judgment] catch you by surprise like a trap.” Carousing, drunkenness, and anxiety – all three of these are distractions produced by the world to lull our hearts and minds into a spiritual coma. They are each designed to take us away from our careful preparations, away from our duty to be vigilant against sin and death. Is it enough to avoid carousing, drunkenness, and anxiety? No. It's a good start. A very good start. But our preparations for final judgment must be more substantial, deeper, more serious than simply avoiding sin.

While we avoid sin, we also turn ourselves toward God and receive every grace He has to give us. This means being awake, alert to His voice as He calls us to service. It means listening with the ears of Christ to those who long for God's mercy, who desperately seek His love; those who – for whatever reason – cannot or will not hear Him speak. At one time or another in our lives we have probably all deafened ourselves to God's voice. Why? He is telling us something we do not want to hear. He telling me that my favorite sin is in fact a sin. He's telling me that my preferred opinions are false. Maybe there was a crotchety old priest who said something dumb in the pulpit. Maybe your parents are horrible Catholic hypocrites. Maybe the Church takes a public stand against some issue you fervently support. Whatever it is – your ears close. If you can be here this evening, giving God thanks and praise, imagine those out there who can't or won't be here b/c they have stopped listening for God's voice. How will they hear about His love and mercy? How will they know that they no longer have to live in sin and suffer death? Our preparations for judgment must include being the merciful voice of God to those who cannot/will not hear Him speak.

Avoiding sin and being God's voice of mercy to the world are excellent starts on our Advent preparation. But there's something more we need to do. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, urging them “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus. . .” We're in trouble here if we think that “holiness” has to do exclusively with moral goodness. Holiness leads to moral goodness, but moral goodness does not exhaust the meaning of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart” from the world's influence and power. Not physically set apart, necessarily, but spiritually separated. Think about the daily decisions you make. How do you decide? Do you consider costs, consequences, and usefulness first? Or do you think first about how this decision will affect my relationship with God? Do you think about your needs first, your wants first? Or do you first think about others – family, neighbors, God? To be set apart from the world means to be separated from the way in which the world understands itself – as an independent accident of the universe with no dignity or purpose. We are holiest when we think with the mind of Christ; when we understand ourselves, all of God's creation as possessing inherent dignity and divine purpose.

If we will stand blameless in holiness before Christ the King on judgment day, we will prepare ourselves now, tomorrow, the next day, the next, and so on. . .until he returns. This doesn't mean giving up the joys of Christmas, but it does mean moving into the Advent season keenly aware that we are making ready for BOTH the Christ Child and Christ the King. Our hearts and minds can be made drowsy by the flashing lights and excessive partying and exhaustive shopping and family tensions. We can be swallowed up by the rip-tide expectations of the world and left rung out and beat up by the demands of secular culture. As children of God and siblings of Christ, we are freed from any expectation, any worry, and anxiety that moves us away from our faith; anything or anyone that demands that we put Christ in second-place behind whatever the world thinks belongs in first place. Spend these next four weeks cleaning out your heart and mind, removing whatever keeps you from receiving all that God has to give you. Prepare yourself for the birth of Christ and his coming again.


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25 November 2015

Are you in danger of being persecuted for the faith?

NB. from 2012. . .

34th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

We can tell from this evening's reading that Jesus doesn't go out of his way to make Christianity a real attractive option. Can you imagine trying to get him elected to public office? Imagine having to go on FOXNews and explain away this campaign promise: “Vote for me and they will seize and persecute you. . .You will even be handed over by . . .relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. . .” Guess whose bumper sticker isn't going on my car! What's not entirely clear here is why we—as followers of Christ—will be persecuted. All Jesus says is that we'll be persecuted because of his name. St. John helps us out here a bit. He writes, “All the nations will come and worship before you, [Lord], for your righteous acts have been revealed.” When we live as followers of Christ, doing all that we have been commanded to do, we do all that we have been commanded to do in his name. For his sake. In other words, we work to reveal God's righteous deeds so that He gets the glory. For a world ruled by the Enemy, this sort of thing is bound to draw some negative attention. So, are you in any danger of being persecuted for revealing God's righteous acts to the world? 

We can narrow that question down a bit by focusing on just one of God's righteous acts: are you in any danger of persecuted for revealing God's righteous act of loving and forgiving His human children despite their obstinate rebelliousness and sin? You might think that our creation in love is the number one righteous act of God. But it is far more merciful to re-create than create, especially when your creatures fail so often in showing gratitude through humility. Our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is God's most righteous act b/c it involves our Creator in more than just bringing together dust and breath to create us. Once made by God in His image and likeness, and fallen into disobedience through pride, we are rescued by the flesh and blood of His Son. We are freely offered the chance to be re-made in the image and likeness of the Christ and to rise higher than the angels as His adopted heirs. It is the righteous act of our re-creation as Children of God in Christ that we are most obligated to reveal to the world. And it is evidence of this infinitely merciful act that the rulers of this world will kill to keep from being brought into the public square. 

So, let's change up the question: do you live in a such a way that your life would be recognized as evidence that God's infinite mercy is freely available to anyone who longs to be re-made in the image and likeness of Christ? If so, then Jesus' warning of persecution in tonight's gospel is for you. If not, why bother with this difficult path? What drew you to Christ in the first place? Did someone reveal a righteous act of God to you and entice you to follow along? It can't be the promise of eternal life b/c that promise is kept for those who are unashamed of Christ. Maybe you were responding to that gnawing emptiness that living without purpose feeds. Or maybe you recognized in yourself the capacity to love sacrificially and now find yourself struggling along with the rest of us to take baby steps along the Way. How about this: the further away from God you got, the harder you ran, the tighter He held on and you just decided that all those mushy ideas like love, mercy, forgiveness, hope, faith are all stronger than your desire to sin and so here you are? That too is a righteous act of God. Leave here tonight and reveal this deed to the world: here you are b/c God's love for you is always stronger than the Enemy's hatred of Him and of His.


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24 November 2015

Permanent renewal, persistent peace. . .

NB. A 2009 Roman homily preached at the Angelicum's English Mass.
St Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Anything that can be put together can be taken apart. Anything fixable is breakable. If it can be composed, formed, or united, it can be decomposed, unformed, and disunited. The material universe rises from the play of order and chaos, making and unmaking. You do not have to be a mystic to realize that impermanence is the way of all things. Visit a maternity ward. And then a graveyard. The two are inevitably bound together by the passage of time. Some of us find this truth to be a source of anxiety, a point for jumping off into the abyss of meaninglessness. Some are indifferent, challenged nonetheless by the competition to survive. And others are delighted at the prospect of death, rushing headlong to their end, encouraged by the possibility of immortality. Since humans started thinking about the purpose of their lives, each of these responses to impermanence—anxiety, indifference, and delight—each of these has had its philosophical and theological defenders. The gospel preached by Christ and his Church offers another alternative, another way to live the joys and pains of passing through God's creation: permanent renewal, persistent peace.

Pointing to the temple and its splendor, Jesus says to the crowd, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” For a people whose lives are centered on the worship of God, such a prediction must have shocked them. How can something as monumental, as stable as the temple crumble? How can our connection to God be thrown down? They want to know when this horror will occur and how will they know that it is coming? Jesus gives no date, no day and time. He doesn't even hint at a season. Instead, he points them to the impermanence of creation, the chaos of human life: earthquakes, famines, plagues, insurrections, wars, awesome signs from the sky. Had someone from the crowd yelled out to Jesus, “But these happen all the time!” Jesus would have answered, “Yes, they do.” Those with eyes to see and ears to hear would have taken his point. We are always in the midst of destruction, the failure of creation's fall. Therefore, put your love, your hope, your faith in the only place left untouched by the currents of chaos. Store up all you treasure in the promises of eternal life.

Does this mean then that we must abandon creation to its fate? Do we run for the hills with our guns and provisions, waiting for The End? No. Though we may be tempted to hide from the world while we hold out against the enemy, our charge as followers of Christ is to save the world not abandon it. Jesus doesn't predict the destruction of the temple in order to warn the crowd away from its fall. He warns them of its collapse so that they will know where they should store their treasured faith. Not in buildings or votive offerings or adornments. But in their humble and contrite hearts. What our Father wants from His children is that we should live as if the temple has already been destroyed, as if we were already in His presence—face-to-face—daily, even now. Then, like Christ, our trust in Him is lived in the world as a sign of His love and mercy. We are His temples; we are His tabernacles. And as such we are—ultimately—indestructible.

Christians do not have the luxury of anxiety, indifference, or a heroic delight in death. All of these abandon us to the currents of The Fall. All of these tell us that we have no purpose, no goal, that there is nothing more, nothing beyond the stones and mortar of a universe well-made to fall. Instead, we are vowed to travel through this world as living, breathing sanctuaries of His presence. Having placed all we love, all we hope for, all we trust in in the hands of the One Who brings us peace, we become His peace, the peace among wars and insurrections, tools for rescue and renewal.


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22 November 2015

Are you a king?

Christ the King
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Pilate wants to know. He wants to know whether or not Jesus is the King of the Jews. Or does he? He asks the question. But is he genuinely curious. . .or, is he simply doing his duty as governor? Pilate knows that a “king” pops up in Judea on a regular basis, vowing to run the hated Romans out of town. He knows these “kings” are always crazy on religion, and promising to re-establish the Davidic kingdom. But the “king” standing in front of him on this day is different. The rabble seem to hate him. That's unusual. The Jewish priests hate him. . .but they always hate the zealots. So, what's so different about this Jesus character? Pilate says, “Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?” Expecting to hear some sort of religious mumbo-jumbo that only matters to the priests, Pilate must've been taken aback when Jesus replies, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” Roman governors are accustomed to rebels and terrorists; they are used to having to mediate between local factions, warring over a throne. What they aren't used to – what Pilate cannot be used to – is hearing a royal prisoner say, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. . .For this I was born and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. . . .”

To be a king he was born, and to be a king he came into the world. Not to rule from a throne in a palace, or from an office in a capitol but to announce and establish a kingdom founded on his Father's mercy, a kingdom ruled by the hearts and minds of repentant sinners and turned to the hard work of serving the least of God's people. Somewhat dumbfounded, Pilate asks, “Then you are a king?” But Jesus doesn't take the bait. Instead, he says, “You say I am a king.” Pilate wants to know whether or not Jesus is claiming to be one of those militant kings who rise up on occasion to challenge Rome. But Jesus isn't playing that game. He's teasing Pilate with the truth. But Pilate can't hear the truth. He can't see it standing right in front of him. So, Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Those who belong to the truth belong to Christ, and he is their King. Not by right of election or conquest or inheritance. But as disciples, students of the truth, Truth Himself, the Christ. Pilate is no disciple, so he infamously asks, “What is truth?” You can almost see Jesus shaking his head in pity.

And it is a pitiful question – what is truth? We could believe that Pilate is asking a philosophical question, a question posed to uncover a bit of wisdom. Or we could believe that he is simply being cynical, asking the question rhetorically like he might at a dinner party. Or we could believe that Pilate – living 2,000 years ago – is a thoroughly modern man, one who uses the human tools of language, law, and logic to hold divine truth at bay. I hear despair in Pilate's question. I hear, “What's the point of asking these questions and answering them? Nothing matters in the long run. All we have is what's in front of us.” Pilate's question – asked as it is, when it is – is a coward's question. We know it's a coward's question b/c his decisions to release a criminal and execute the Savior are calculated, political acts made to quell the anger of the mob and deflect criticism from Rome. Asking “what is truth?” is a simpler way of asking “does the truth really matter?” Pilate – a hopeless bureaucrat stuck in a rebellious podunk province on the backside of the Empire – takes the coward's way out. He follows the King of This World and sends an innocent man to his gruesome death. He is modern man writ small, an emblem of despair when confronted by truth.

We celebrate Christ as King to be reminded that while we are citizens living in this world, we are not of this world. Our ultimate citizenship lies in the Kingdom of Heaven. Even while we live and die here on earth – doing all the things that people do – we know that our time here is short, that our time here will run out. What then? If we were to follow Pilate and his modern logic, we would simply cease to exist. We'd hang around in the memories of family and friends. There'd be photographs and other small monuments of our passing through. But we would be nothing, no-thing after death. Do we live now to die and disappear sometime later on? No, the disciples of truth do not; we do live in this world, but we do not die as its citizens. We live now as disciples of the King and live forever as his subjects! What passes for courage in this world is foolishness in heaven. What passes for strength and honor and intelligence in this world will be weakness, cowardice, and stupidity in the kingdom to come. Pilate was not an evil man. He was blind and deaf. He could not see nor hear the truth standing in front of him, offering him a way out of his despair. Are you a king? You say that I am.

Do you say that Christ is king? Do you believe that Christ is the king of your life, your death, and your resurrection? If so, do you live as his loyal subject, living in this world – as we all must – but knowing that your end is in heaven? When we live with Christ as King, we turn our hearts and minds to him when we speak and act; we take his teaching as truth before we decide; we hold his sacrifice on the cross as an example of supreme love when we serve; we look to him for advice, permission, to receive the gift of who we are for him; he is for us the center and the foundation of our lives. Day in and day out. The cornerstone of all that we do in this world. Opposition, persecution, temptation, and sin peck away at your loyalty to the King, but nothing and no one can topple his rule in your life. . .unless you yourself renounce his kingship and give yourself back to the darkness of this world. You can live in Pilate's world: power, wealth, oppression of the weak, violence, despair. You can be of his world: popularity, compromise, betrayal, cowardice. Or, you can live under the rule of Christ the King and see through the impermanence of the Enemy's power and look on the glory of God, face-to-face. . .when His kingdom is fulfilled.

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15 November 2015

What is Jesus waiting for. . .?

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Watching the news these past few days, I can't help but hear, whispering behind reports of war, riots, famine, economic collapse, the dooming rhythm of Yeats, reading his visionary poem, “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” This is 1919. Just one year after 16 million soldiers are killed in WWI. Just one year after Europe ends its suicidal slaughter for the glory of kings and parliaments. And just 13 years before a former corporal in the Austrian army is appointed Chancellor in Germany. His reign will end in 1945 with the deaths of more than 70 million. Yeats: “Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!” Jesus assures his disciples that he will come again. He came to us first as a Child and next as Judge and King. When? “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, as we prepare to wait for his birth in Bethlehem, we wait for his coming again in glory.

Though it is not yet Advent, that time when we wait in anticipation for the birth of Christ, we celebrate another sort of Advent this evening, a Second Advent, celebrated everyday, every hour since Christ's resurrection from the tomb. Jesus warns his disciples that after his death, “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and will perform signs and wonders in order to mislead. . .the elect. Be watchful!” And despite this warning, many of his disciples through the centuries have been misled. Some by a Roman emperor. Others by Greek heresies. Many by charismatic monks and holy women. Millions were led astray by clever theological argument. And millions more by atheistic science, utopian fantasy, secular political ideology, and the temporary treasures of Mammon. How many have been duped by New Age gibberish, or the slick sales pitch of 21st century humanists? Jesus calls this long, painful falling away from the apostolic faith, a tribulation; that is, the threshing of a harvest to separate the wheat from the chaff, the strong in faith from the Convenient Christian.

After this tribulation, he says, “. . .the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky. . .” And as nature convulses in its announcement, we “will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory. . .” His angels will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” Seeing on the faces of his disciples the same expression that most of you have now, Jesus answers the unspoken question: “When [the fig tree's] branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the gates.” When is the Christ coming again? When will the Son of Man be near the gates? When we see the sun and moon eclipsed and stars shooting through the sky. When, as regularly as the changing of the seasons, the blooming of the fig trees, we see men and women misled by false prophets and fake Messiahs. He will come again when “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In other words, he is always prepared to come again, so we must always be ready to receive him. When “the best lack all conviction,” and “the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” his Church must be passionately convicted in her faith, waiting for his arrival with an intense hope.

Obscure apocalyptic passages like this one from Mark serve a specific purpose in the life of the Church. Rather than tempting us with the useless task of figuring out the hour and day of Christ's return, these passages urge us to hold firm in the faith and live with the hope that Christ's resurrection promises. Rather than scaring us silly with tales of the imminent destruction of the world and threats of eternal damnation, these passages report events that have already taken place in history; or events that are occurring at the time the passage was written; or events that recur in history over and over again. Their purpose is to reassure us that there is nothing particularly poignant about the social, economic, religious convulsions that we are living through. Has there been a century in 5,000 yrs of human history w/o a solar or lunar eclipse, a meteor shower? A decade unscathed by war, plague, poverty, or natural disaster? We don't need to know when Christ will return. All we need to know is that he will, and that our task is to be ready: free from all anxiety, utterly at peace. We wait. But are we ready?

We might wonder: what’s Jesus waiting for? Surely the world cannot be a bigger mess; surely we cannot become more self-destructive, angrier, greedier, more hostile to peace and the poor! Iran is on the verge of building a nuclear bomb. Europe is experiencing a near-invasion from Syria. ISIS is systematically butchering its enemies, daring the West to invade. And here in the U.S. we seem hellbent on defying both divine and natural law. What's he waiting on? He’s waiting on you. On me. On all of us. He waiting for us and our repentance. Peter asks an excellent question: “Since all [of creation is] thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. . .?” While we wait on the destruction of the world, what sort of persons should we be? What kind of person should you be, if you want to hasten the Christ's second coming? If his coming again seems to be taking too long, Peter reminds us: “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The day and hour of the Second Coming matches perfectly the day and hour of our repentance, our return to righteousness in Christ.

Have you been through the tribulation long enough? Have you been thoroughly threshed? If not, think about your tipping point. What will it take to turn you around, back to God? You see, the threshing process we all go through can take days or decades; it can be a slow, agonizing process, resulting in cuts and bruises; or a quick, painless beating with a feather. It all depends on how eager we are to be threshed; that is, it all depends on what sort of persons we want to be while the world circles the bowl. Peter's question—“what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness”—answers itself. Living a life of holiness and godliness makes you a holy and godly person. While the world self-destructs, a godly and holy people will hear and see the Word at work in the world; preach and teach the Good News of repentance and forgiveness; do good works for the glory of God; grow and grow in holiness not just by avoiding sin but by embracing grace as well. So, while we wait for the Second Coming, let's hasten Christ's arrival by making our every word, our every move shout joy to the world so that no one is left behind, so that every eye can see and every ear hear that God freely offers His mercy to sinners through the once-for-all sacrifice of His Son on the Cross.

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“Who will I die for today?”

NB. A Roman homily from 2009. . .never been preached.  It will need a littled revision before I preach it tonight at OLR.

NB. 2.0. Oops! So eager was I to preach an unpreached homily that I didn't pay enough attention to what I wanted to preach. The homily below is NOT for this Sunday's readings.   

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Your best friend discovers that you and your spouse have cashed in your vacation savings so that your children can continue in their Catholic school. Your friend notes with admiration, “That's quite a sacrifice!” It's final exams week and you rush to be with your sick mother. Your professor, though sympathetic, says, “Unfortunately, your sacrifice will not help your grade.” You read in the Sunday paper that a well-trained German Shepherd in the local police force “sacrificed its life to save its human partner.” In that same paper, the stories from Iraq and Afghanistan are littered with references with the sacrifice of our soldiers in combat. Each time, the word “sacrifice” rings nobly in your ears, and you note that something has been lost so that something more important might be accomplished. We understand sacrifice in terms of loss and gain, in terms of “giving up mine” so that you might “have yours.” Something ends and something begins. Almost always absent in these descriptions is the sense of the holy, that taste of the transcendent that gives sacrifice a religious flavor, some deference to a time and place other than this one. For Christians, sacrificium, means sacrifice, oblation; an offering to God. The Latin word comes from sacer (holy) and facere (to make). To sacrifice is to make holy. That which is sacrificed is made holy; the one making the sacrifice is made holy. Most importantly for us, the ones for whom the sacrifice is made are made holy. Christ is the High Priest who sacrifices. He is the Victim of this sacrifice. And we are the beneficiaries: “For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.”

In Hebrews this morning, we read, “Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” The author of this letter is writing to the Jews who have come to Christ. He is using images and language that they will immediately understand. Having spent most of their lives in the temple-worship of the Father, offering animal sacrifice for their sins, these converts will know that the author is alluding to the ineffectiveness of those same animal sacrifices in relieving them of their sin. In obedience to the Covenant, they carry out their religious duties and demonstrate a fidelity to God. However, these sacrifices do not and cannot wipe away their sin. Though God may account them holy before Him, they are not, in fact, made holy through in their temple worship. God alone is holy and only He can make what is unholy holy in fact.

To accomplish the sanctification of all creation, God sends His only Son among us as a Man, one like us in every way except sin. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, is sacrificed on the cross for us. As the incarnate Son, he is already holy. As the priest, he is holy. As the lamb on the altar of the cross is he holy. He offers himself to God as the one, perfect sacrifice for all that need not ever be repeated, that cannot be repeated. We can understand this sacrifice for in any number of ways: substitutionary, existential, exemplary. Christ died for our sins so that we need not die in sin; he died instead of us. Christ experienced the death of sin as a man so that all men might be saved from such a death; his experience reveals the hope of eternal life. Christ on the cross shows us the meaning of love: to die for one's friends; his death is our model for life. Wherever we want to place the emphasis, one element of his sacrifice is clear: our holiness is not our own, but rather a gift from the altar of the cross given freely by our great High Priest. We have only to accept this gift and follow him.

By one perfect offering of himself on the cross, Christ united us again with the Father, and we persevere in the presence of the Holy Spirit, striving against already-vanquished sin to achieve our perfection in the promise of holiness. Our constant failure to perfect his promise of holiness does nothing to revoke the promise. His offer of holiness made from the cross is universal and permanent: for all, forever. No tribe, tongue, nation, people, race, or class is excluded from the invitation. No one is missed out because he was born Man to save all mankind, and nothing broken is left unfixed. No sin, no fault, no vice, no deviance, no crime, nothing torn or damaged among his human creatures is left unhealed. Nothing in the entirety of His creation is left to chaos or disease. Where we find disorder, look for disobedience. Where we find strife, debauchery, disregard for life, anxiety and distress, look for men and women without hope. But as time grows short, look for Christ's return. What has been woven together will unravel when left uncared for and the weaver will return to repair the damage of our carelessness.

We care best of ourselves and one another when we sacrifice, when we “hand over to make holy.” As priests of the New Covenant, we offer oblation to God when we lay our worry, our sickness, our poverty, our arrogance, our sin on his altar and leave ourselves freshly vulnerable to being made again in his image and likeness, to being made over as Christ for others. It is not enough that we sacrifice as priests. If we are follow him, we must the victim of our sacrifice as well. Not my sin only, but yours too. Not your sin only, but mine as well. The Body must sacrifice for the Body, all its members for one another. We are holy together or not at all. This is the danger of being Catholic, of being one Body baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ: we are saved as a Church, bound together by the chains of God's sacraments. “Me and Jesus” is the Devil's lie that makes our faith into a religiousy version of the “Lone Ranger.” We rise or fall as one in the One who made us one by dying on the cross.

Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves upon waking each morning is: “Who will I die for today?”


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08 November 2015

Pray Like the Widow Gives

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

What if instead of teaching us about how to give alms, the story of the Widow's Mite teaches us something about prayer? We know the lesson of the widow who gives her last two pennies to the temple. Jesus pretty much tells us the moral of the story outright: the widow has given much, much more than all the wealthy alms-givers b/c the wealthy “have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Who sacrifices more? Who is made holier in giving away what they have? The Widow, of course. However, what if we think of the two coins she gives to the temple as prayers given to God? And what if we think of the thousands and millions of coins given by the wealthy as their prayers to God? The moral of the story doesn't change. Because the Widow prayed all she had to pray in loving sacrifice, her prayers far outweigh the thousands and millions of prayers offered out of surplus by the wealthy. They banked their graces, save them up, and now they expect a dividend, a cash-out. The Widow gives herself totally to pray, throws herself completely on the mercy of God's providence. When we pray well, we pray with everything we have, everything we are, holding nothing back for later, trusting (knowing) that God will provide.

So, how does this all work? First, the first beneficiary of prayer is the pray-er, the one praying. Even if you are praying for someone else, you benefit first b/c God's response to your prayer conditions you to better receive His graces. Second, the whole point of prayer is make it possible for you to better receive God's graces. Our prayers do not and cannot change God. They can and do change us. Third, what we put into prayer is made holy (i.e., sacrificed) and given back to God. If I put nothing more than my surplus time and energy into prayer, then I am making holy only what's left over of my time and energy. I spend most of my time and my energy on me. And then I give the leftovers to God. However, if I put everything I have and everything I am into my prayer, then everything I have and everything I am is made holy in sacrifice. Even one small prayer, prayed with my whole livelihood is worth more than a thousand or a million prayers prayed as leftovers. The logic is inescapable: if I am the first beneficiary of my prayers, and I put everything I have and am into my prayer – no matter how small – then my sacrifice can outweigh the leftovered prayers of millions!

Now, of course, the goal here isn't to Win the Prayer Race, or Out-pray the Spiritually Wealthy. The goal is to improve my prayer life so that I might grow closer to Christ, becoming more and more like him. To be more like Christ we must pray like Christ. How did Christ pray? Often and intensely. In fact, his whole life was a single prayer, one thirty-three year long prayer of sacrifice. From the moment of his conception in Mary's virginal womb to his ascension into heaven, Christ offered his life and death as an on-going sacrifice. Sure, his sacrifice culminated on the cross, and the effects of his sacrifice boomed out into the world at his resurrection, but every step, every breath, every act he performed while he was among us was a prayer. Everything he had, everything he was – wholly given over to the Father as a witness to His mercy. If we will pray like Christ, in order to become more like him, we will make every step, every breath, every act, thought, word, everything, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, bearing open and courageous witness to the Good News that he lived and died to bring us. 
Does this sound like an enormous task to you? Well, it is. . .and it isn't. If you see your work in Christ as a burden or a duty or as something to just get done so you can get on with all the stuff you really want to do, then bearing witness to God's mercy will be an enormous task. You will likely store up your graces and pray your leftovers. Who's hurt by your Leftover Prayer Life? You are! You might be giving huge amounts of time, treasure, and talent to the Church. . .but praying out of your leftovers. Thousands could be benefiting from your material generosity. . .but you could be starving to death spiritually b/c you give God your surplus time and energy in prayer. However, if you see your work in Christ as a means of working out your holiness, as a way to grow into his likeness, then bearing witness to the Father's mercy will be anything but a burden; it will be a joy, a bonus. You will immediately give away (sacrifice) your God-given graces and pray with everything you have and are, and soon find yourself swimming in blessings. Remember: the more you share God's gifts to you, the more gifts He gives you to share. Holiness is polished into us by the act of exchanging of gifts: from God → me → you, from you → me → God, and so on. Each exchange shines our perfection a little brighter. 
When you leave here tonight, take some time to consider your prayer life. Not just which prayers you pray, or how long you spend in prayer. Consider the quality of the time and energy you devote to prayer. Ask yourself: am I like the wealthy who pray a lot out of my leftover time and energy, or am I like the poor widow who prays a little but prays her entire livelihood every time? If your prayer life is dull, rusted, kinda broken down, consider a refurbishment: for a couple of months limit your prayers to giving God thanks and praise for who and what you already have in your life. Don't ask for anything. Just say “thank you” for what you've got. If you have stopped praying alone with God altogether. . .well, you may now know why nothing is working out for you and why everything seems to be so pointless. Reintroduce yourself to the Father and welcome Him back into your life. Remember: it's not the size or shape of the prayer but what you put into it that tips the scale. You don't have to give a room to despair, anger, disappointment, or any other dark spirit. Turn them over to God in prayer, and let Him make them holy. 
The Widow gives everything she has. And everything she has – two small coins – outweighs the alms of millions. Her enormous sacrifice deepens her humility and brings her closer to God. In her poverty and in ours, where would we rather be?

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Our faith is not an investment. . .

NB. A Vintage Fr. Philip Homily from 2006 on the widow's mite. . .

34th Week OT(M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

When mixing the dough for baking bread the proportion of water to flour you use really matters to the result. The same is true for mixing concrete—too much water or too little water threatens the stability and strength of your art—whether you intend walk on it or spread jam on it. We also use the notion of proportion in our ethical decisions as well: ratio of mercy to justice; whether or not this or that reason tilts the scales for or against making a choice. Think about all those moments in your life when you weigh portions in relation to one another and then pick out what you conclude to be the useful, the good, the beautiful, and the desirable and leave behind what you conclude to be the unworkable, the ugly, the harmful, and the just plain wrong. I would daresay that we humans are creatures of chance (we take risks), planning (we take control), and proportion (we weigh options). Is this sort of calculation—ethical, financial, spiritual—a gospel habit, a Christian virtue?

Jesus praises the widow in this gospel b/c she does not risk, plan, or weigh proportionate options when she drops her two coins into the collection box. She doesn’t offer a reasonable amount, a prudent portion given her income,. Nor does she weigh benefit against cost. She offers her whole livelihood. Jesus says, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest.” How does Jesus reach this obviously erroneous conclusion? The widow gives freely, completely, without reservation out of her poverty, her lack. The others give of their surplus wealth. She has acquired the virtue—the good habit—of magnanimous sacrifice. The virtue that Jesus himself will practice by dying gratuitously on the cross at Golgotha.

We know the Scandal of the Passion and the Cross: Christ our King is whipped, ridiculed, and executed as a criminal by the Roman and Jewish authorities. This is a scandal because he has claimed again and again to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God, one who possesses divine power to heal, heavenly authority over demons, and the prestige of being the only Son of God. Power never yields to weakness. Authority never abdicates its place of honor, its elevated status.

There is another scandal here as well: the Scandal of Excessive Generosity. For creation to be redeemed, for all of God’s creation to be brought back into right relationship with its Creator, nothing more is strictly required than that the Creator bring us back. A simple act of divine will. SNAP! And we are back right where we were in Eden. We could skip all of this “growing in perfection” business. In other words, we were salvageable as creatures of a loving Creator through a more prudent, a more calculated and less risky means: divine fiat. Instead, we are made righteous, made “children of the light” through the messy, wasteful, and ultimately ugly sacrifice of the Father’s only Son on the cross. For the practical among us, for reasonable souls, the planners and the risk-takers, this choice, this plan of salvation though suffering and death is “too much,” excessive and strictly unnecessary. Why not save us out of the surplus of divine wealth?

Jesus watches a widow drop two coins in the collection box, but in her he sees a kindred soul: one who gives not just a large portion of her wealth, not a calculated percentage of her leftover income but one who gives everything she has, her whole livelihood. And he sees in this widow a vision of his own sacrifice on the cross, his own excessively generous, needlessly gratuitous offering of body and blood for the reconciliation of creation to its Creator. It would have been more practical to leave Christ among us! To have skipped his suffering and death! But then, how would our Father have shown us His abundant love? His exceeding compassion?

Our faith is not an investment in risk-taking, planning, or prudently calculating cost/benefit. Our faith is a wildly generous, open-handed, open-hearted, full-throttled run, a redemptive marathon sprinted behind our Chosen Victim. We cannot give a portion of ourselves, a piece of our surplus wealth. We must give our whole livelihood, everything, all of it. . .nothing less was given for us.


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07 November 2015

Jubilaeum 800: Ordo Preadictorium

The Feast of All Dominican Saints 2015 (Nov 7th) marks the opening of the Order's year-long celebration of our 800th anniversary.

On December 22, 1216 Pope Honorius III, at the request of St. Dominic Guzman, established the Order of Preachers to "preach the Gospel to all nations."

The Province of St. Martin de Porres will kick off our celebration with a Mass at St. Dominic Church in New Orleans, LA at 1.00pm (CDT). You can watch the Mass livestreamed by clicking on this link.

The Master of the Order, fra. Bruno Cadore, OP has been busy these last few months preparing the Order of our anniversary. 

Some of our notable saints and blesseds.

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01 November 2015

Saints on the way. . .

Feast of All Saints
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

John the Apostle – in an ecstatic state – has a vision of heaven. He sees angels, fantastic beasts, thrones, and a host of people dressed all in white. An elder in the vision asks John to identify these people. John turns the question around and leaves the elder to answer it himself. He says, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress. . .” And not only have they survived the time of great distress, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” These are the mournful, the poor in spirit, the meek and clean of heart; these are the peacemakers and those who sought and found righteousness in the face of violent persecution. These are the saints of God who survived their time of trial on earth by giving themselves wholly to Christ. These named and unnamed saints enjoy a view of the Beatific Vision worthy of those who find the strength to lay claim to their inheritance as children of God, who find the endurance necessary to survive and thrive in a world bent on their destruction. For us, these men and women are superheroes, exemplars, and friends-near-God. What must we do, who must we be to join them around the throne?

In his first letter, John answers our questions, “Beloved: see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.” God's love is bestowed on us. Given to us. Some translations read, “See what love the Father has lavished on us. . .” God's love for us is overflowing, abundant, generous, and freely donated. Why? Because God is Love. It is who He is and what He does. Love. This bit of truth cannot be delivered firmly or often enough. In our finite imaginations, we might imagine God to be a being, a person who possesses certain characteristics like we do – shape, size, weight; personality traits and habits of mind and body. Like us, we might imagine that God picks and chooses who He loves, who He hates, who to punish or reward. We might imagine that – like us – it is best to stay on His good side. Say nice things about Him and to Him. Give Him gifts. Try hard not to make Him angry. But none of this is who God is. God is not a being or a person like us. We are persons like Him. But He is not a person who can be manipulated or persuaded into giving us goodies. By nature, in His essence, God is love. All that He is, all that He does is Love. And He has lavishly bestowed Himself upon us so that now we are His children, heirs to His kingdom.

What John the Apostle sees in his heavenly vision is the saints of God enjoying their inheritance. So like God were they in this life that at their deaths they raced to the throne and became barely distinguishable from the glory that surrounds the face of God. So like God were they in this life that when they died they leaped from the truths, goods, and beauties down here to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Himself in heaven. While among us, these men and women saw through the signs and wonders of creation; past the veils of revelation; around the words and deeds of virtue; and straight into the heaven itself. And from this sight, they drew the strength and endurance necessary to do all that they had vowed to do: to be Christ for others. We celebrate their collective feast tonight not to honor their achievement of heaven nor to flatter them for favors. We celebrate this feast to honor their fortitude, their perseverance, and their example of faith. They freely accepted and received the love that God bestowed upon them, and then carried that love out into the world as living signs of His mercy. They lived as children of God, and so can we.

We were made to be saints not sinners. Though we were born in sin, we were baptized into the life and death of Christ and reborn perfectly clean. Our rebirth as children of God – living in His Church – gives us all that we need to become perfect as He is perfect. The only question is: do you want to be a saint? If you do, then accept and receive the extravagant love that God is bestowing on you, and turn that love outward toward the world as His witness. What good does this turning outward do you? Think of it this way: when you wash your car, the water-hose gets wet before your car does. The one who delivers God's love to the world is blessed by His love as it passes through to the world. The more you love, the more you are blessed. To be “of the blessed” is to love extravagantly, freely with the love only God Himself can be and give. 
God's saints persevere. They endure this trial. There are clean. Free from every spot of sin, they perfectly deliver the love that God bestows on them. And they do it all as priests, religious, bishops, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, virgins, single men and women; as artists, poets, doctors, sailors, soldiers, and students; as fishermen, tax-collectors, lawyers, and thieves. Who they are and what they do before they become saints only serves to direct their loving-work in the world. After they accept and receive God's abundant love, and take up Christ's cross to serve, they become perfectly who they are created to be: saints on the way to heaven.


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25 October 2015

Have pity on me!

30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Take a moment and ask yourself: why am I here? Is it duty? Habit? Did your husband/wife drag you off the couch? Did mom and dad demand that you come here tonight? Maybe you aren't sure why you're here. Well, you're here for the fellowship; for a time and place away from the secular world, for a chance to visit with God in prayer; to make a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; to hear the Word proclaimed and preached; to offer Christ on his altar. Like Bartimaeus, we are all here, waiting on a roadside for the Son of David to pass. We are blind, crippled, proud, cold-hearted, angry, anxious, lost in sin. But we’re here. We are the disciples on the road. And we are Bartimaeus, shouting to the Lord for his gifts! We are here to receive courage and strength and mercy. We are here because we heard the call, “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” And now we hear him say to Bartimaeus and to us, “What do you want me to do for you?” Stop right now and answer that question – in the silence of your heart and mind – answer the question: what do you want, what do you need Christ to do for you?

So, here we are. Standing in a crowd on the road that leads out of Jericho. Someone says that Jesus and a big group of his disciples are headed this way. We want to see this guy b/c we've heard about his miracles and his brawls with the Pharisees. Maybe he'll exorcise a demon or turn some water into wine! The shouting is getting louder and folks are starting to push into road. Somebody yells out, “It's Jesus of Nazareth!” Then Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who's always hanging around, jumps up and start wailing, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” We try to shut him up b/c he's always ranting on about one thing or another. Jesus hears him and says to one of his guys, “Call him.” The disciple goes over to the crazy old coot and says, “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.” Bartimaeus jumps up and runs over, and Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Maybe you're thinking: I wish he'd ask me that question! A sack of gold coins would be nice. A long vacation. A better-looking spouse. What does Bartimaeus say? “Master, I want to see.” Well, for a blind man, sight is a treasure. Jesus answers him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”

So, here we are. Sitting here in Our Lady of the Rosary Church. Two and many more are gathered together in Christ's name, and he is with us. He's here in the Blessed Sacrament. He's here in his priest and his people. And he asks us the same question he asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” In the silence of your heart and mind: what do you say to him? Before you settle on your answer, let's pay a little more attention to what Jesus says in response to Bartimaeus' request. Bartimaeus wants his blindness healed. Jesus says to him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Notice: he didn't say, “Your faith has healed you,” or “Your faith has restored your sight.” He says, “Your faith has saved you.” Bartimaeus receives more from Christ than his sight; he receives salvation, wholeness, a complete repair of his broken relationship with the Father. In that one declaration, Bartimaeus is made righteous before God and brought into the holy family as an adopted son, a brother to Christ, and heir to the Kingdom. He could not see what he was made to be in Christ, but he believed and called out to Jesus in faith. He receives God's freely offered gift of mercy to sinners. And now, he sees clearly and follows Christ along the Way.

What do you want, what do you need Christ to do for you? Before you settle on your answer, let's pay a little more attention to another part of Jesus' response to Bartimaeus' request. When Bartimaeus asks Jesus to heal his blindness, Jesus says to him, “. . .your faith has saved you.” Notice: he doesn't say, “Your begging has saved you,” or “Your persistence has saved you.” He says, “Your faith has saved you.” Setting aside for a moment the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, how does he know that this blind man he's never met has faith? Bartimaeus confesses his faith in Christ when he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” Naming Jesus “the Son of David” is his confession of faith. Every Jew knows that the Messiah will be the son of David, and asking Jesus for his compassion is a sign of trust. Bartimaeus believes that Jesus is the Christ, and he acts on this belief, uniting his heart and mind into single public confession that saves him and heals his blindness. In thanksgiving for the gift of sight and salvation, Bartimaeus “followed [Christ] on the way,” not only tagging along with the other disciples but also following his teachings and living as Christ for others.

A blind man is saved by his faith in Christ. Others are healed of their disabilities, their diseases, and their demons. All by faith in Christ Jesus. By faith we are saved, brought into righteousness with God, and made holy. This “faith-stuff” is pretty powerful, uh? But what is it exactly? We use the word all the time. We're urged to have faith. Share faith. Rely on faith. Defend the faith. Keep the faith. And we seem to know what we're talking about. We've all heard the famous definition of “faith” from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Augustine says that "faith is a virtue whereby we believe what we do not see.” Dionysius says that "faith is the solid foundation of the believer, establishing him in the truth, and showing forth the truth in him.” St Thomas Aquinas assures us that all of these definitions are true, and then adds his own: “to believe is an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will” (ST II-II 4.5). My heart (will) commands my mind (intellect) to give its assent to the truth. This is the human act we call “to believe.” Faith, then, is the virtue (the good habit) of willing myself to believe the truth, especially the truth of the Good News that God freely grants His mercy to all sinners. This habit of trusting God's mercy forms the foundation upon which is built everything that I am and everything that I will become.

If you will to be healed; if you will to be whole; if you will to be made righteous; if you will to see and hear and speak the Good News, then you must also will to believe in the truth that Jesus, the Son of David, is the long-promised Messiah, the Christ. And you must will to act on this belief and confess it whenever possible. What do you want, what do you need Christ to do for you? If your faith is weak or shallow, if your faith is lukewarm or fleeting, ask Christ and receive from him the courage and the strength to stand up, to stand firm, and to stand out as a beloved child of the Father: a child washed pure of sin and death; a child graced in mercy, blessed by hope, and gifted with every good gift given under Christ. The Psalmist has us sing, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy!” The Lord has done great things for us. And when we give Him thanks and praise for our lives, our family, our friends; for our salvation through His Christ, and for our faith, we are filled with joy. So, take courage; get up, Jesus is calling us to join him along the Way, on the way back to his Father's house, to His joy and to His peace.

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18 October 2015

If you will be great. . .

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church/O.L.R., NOLA

We spend a lot of time and money avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death. To avoid discomfort we have invented air conditioning (thank God!), recliners, elastic waistbands, and arch support inserts. To avoid suffering we invented political philosophies that guarantee us that no one will be rich or poor, and religions that teach that suffering is as an effect of desire and so we must work to destroy desire. To avoid death we have invented surgeries, drugs, diets and exercises, and genetic therapies. To avoid death we have also invented ways of creating and re-creating ourselves beyond death – the beautiful artifacts of literature, monuments, memory, music, and art. As rational animals destined for immortality, we can waste our mortal lives avoiding the inevitable discomforts and sufferings of living in this world. So, our Lord wants to know, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Can you suffer and die like I will suffer and die?

How much of your daily life is about avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death? Better question: as members of the Body of Christ, heirs to the Father’s Kingdom, are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? Is this part of our ministry as disciples, as apostles? Well, when is sacrificial service NOT about discomfort, suffering, and death?

Isaiah teaches us exactly how suffering is essential to sacrificial service: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Note these three: “if he gives his life,” “because of his affliction,” and “through his suffering.” And note the progression: the Lord’s servant freely offers himself for the sin of others…he sees the light in fullness b/c of this sacrificial service…and through his suffering – his willing acceptance of our sin for a higher purpose – the servant brings many to righteousness. He justifies us before the Lord. In other words, because he was discomforted, b/c he suffered, b/c he died, we do not have to. We are instead comforted, free of anxious worry, and we may live eternally.

So, if this is true why then do we still work so hard to avoid discomfort, run so fast from suffering, and dodge around death strenuously? We do not want to be last. We are creatures of Firsts – first across the line, at the top of our game, highest score, fastest time, strongest lift, best grade, first prize, deepest soul, hardest body…all to weaken, all to weaken and fade, all of it weakening, fading, dying. And for what?

Who wants to be a servant? Who wants the work of serving others? There is no glamour there, no applause, no dramatic ovation or a big bouquet of roses. It’s humble work that makes someone’s life better, but all it does for me is leave me with sweaty armpits, dirty hands, a sore back, and a logjam on my own housework or my DVD watching. Surely, it is better to be served; better to be first and not last; a Master and not a slave. It is!

If you will be in this world and of it, then you are morally obligated to pursue the best, the first, the highest. To be in and of the world is to be in and of the virtues the world holds up as Good. To be otherwise is suicide. You must honor the bottom-line. Praise efficiency. Worship at the altar of productivity. Practice winner-take-all competition. Lose the losers. Appeal to no power mightier than civil law. Here’s your bumper sticker: “If you have yours, I can’t have mine.” You must celebrate my needs as my rights, otherwise you are oppressing me. You must also celebrate my wants as my rights, otherwise you are hating me. Requiring me to serve others is just you trying to control me with guilt. I don’t do guilt. My adult spirituality is an eclectic weaving together of the best elements of a variety of religious traditions – none of which requires anything of me, especially not sacrificial service! If you will be of this world and in it, you must conform to its virtues: work-pride, self-avarice, power-lust, gift-envy, success-gluttony, failure-wrath, and soul-sloth. Play with these worldly virtues or risk their opposing vices: ignored in modesty, disrespected for generosity, mocked for purity, taken for granted in kindness, ostracized for abstinence, laughed at for any mercy shown, and hated for one’s holy industry.

If you will be great among the Lord’s disciples, however, you will serve. If you will be first among the apostles, you will be a slave to all.

The pain that Jesus endures on the cross does not save us. The beatings by the Roman soldiers, the betrayal of his disciples, the political backstabbing wheeling-dealing of Pilate – all of these cause Jesus pain. This pain does not save us. Pain itself is not redemptive. Isaiah hears the Lord say, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” If he gives. James and John ask Jesus to be honored in his kingdom. Jesus says to his honor-seeking disciples: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” They say, “We can.” We can drink the cup that you, Lord, drink – the same cup that Jesus later prays will pass him by! For the Servant’s pain to be redemptive, for Jesus’ pain on the cross to be redemptive, it must be suffered, that is, “allowed.” It must be taken on with a will and directed to the benefit of others. To wallow in pain is just to wallow in pain. Nothing more. To take up pain in the service of others, to designate pain as a sacrifice, to make it holy by giving it away for a holy end – that is suffering! And this suffering mocks the Devil, rotating the unholy virtues of pride and greed and converts them into humility and generosity.

Discomfort is eased. Suffering is avoided. Death is delayed. We will invent and re-invent human civilization after human civilization in order to ease our discomfort, to avoid our suffering, and to delay our deaths. And we will lift up and parade the secular virtues to justify our refusal to take on service for others. But is this what we as Christians are called to do? Are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? No. We are called to transform discomfort, suffering, and death; to make each into the good habit of being Christs for others. We are called to turn discomfort into the virtue of humility; to turn pain into the art of redemptive suffering; to turn death into a witness to everlasting Life!

Our Lord did not die on the cross so that we might be blue ribbon winners or gold medalists. He died on the cross to show us how to be the friends of God. How to be servants to one another. He gave his life as a ransom for many so that we will know how to give our lives as a ransom for many more.

What does your life stand for? What do you represent in the world? Whom do you serve? Here’s a question for you: will you die for me? For that guy behind you? For your next door neighbor? If you will give your life as an offering for sin, the will of the Lord will be accomplished through you. And because of your affliction you will see the light in fullness of day. Will you be small in the kingdom of God by dying to pride and greed in the service of others? Or will you insist on being great among the Great of the World and in the end find yourself among the Great who proudly rule the smoking trash heaps of Gehenna?

Can you drink the cup our Lord's drinks? Can you suffer and die for name's sake?


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