11 November 2005

32nd Week OT(Fri): Wis 13.1-9; Luke 17.26-37
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

If we were Gnostics rather than Catholics we would hold that it is what we know that saves us. Our ignorance is damnation, so enlightenment is our salvation. The question, then, about how we get saved is a question about how we get enlightened: where, how, and from whom do we get the right info so that we will be saved? It is simply a matter of gathering the right data and understanding it: the gnosis. Usually, modern Gnostics urge us to look to nature, science, and the experts for our salvation. You might recognize this heresy in some modern theologies or some recent ecclesial movements. It is not uncommon among trendy Catholic intellectuals and church activists with reform agendas. In fact, it is an elitist preoccupation with the intellect, a self-absorption, that immediately and directly denies one of the most basic tenets of our faith: our salvation is first the invitation made by God to us in the Incarnation of His Son, and in passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our salvation is the invitation to participate in the divine life now and after our death. Our acceptance of that invitation is a life of holiness.

Ignorance of God is foolishness, as Wisdom says, but mere knowledge of God is not salvation. Our sin was made flesh and so was our deliverance. Nothing created can save us, nothing acquired can deliver us. No amount of correct thought, hard facts, proper method, just ideology, or strategic planning will rescue us from our disobedience, our dis-ease with the holiness we are called to. There is no seminar, no workshop, no spirituality, no new mythology or cosmology, no paradigm shift in worldviews that will lift us up and make us worthy to live as invited guests in the house of the Lord. We make it to the wedding feast of the Lamb b/c we are invited, we accept the invitation, we put on our party clothes, and we show up. And we show up and we show up and we show up.

The Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come. He tells them that the kingdom cannot be observed. No one will be able to announce its arrival. Why? “Because the kingdom of God is among you.” We do not need to announce the arrival of that which has already arrived. The promise of the kingdom is fulfilled in the preaching, teaching, and healing ministry of Christ that continues now in his church; but, the promise of the kingdom has not yet been fully realized, completely accomplished. That is for a time not yet.

The Pharisees ask when the kingdom will arrive and the disciples, hearing that the kingdom is among them and that some will be left out, ask where this judgment will take place. Jesus’ very cryptic answer is: “Where the body is, there also the vultures gather.” As usual, Jesus is answering a question more important than the one actually asked. The question Jesus is answering is: how do we find ourselves on the side of salvation when the day of judgment comes? His answer: do not let me find you among the carrion—the dead flesh, the rotting bones. Let me find you alive in the Spirit! Let me find you well-dressed at the wedding feast! Let me find you living your eternal life now as abundantly, as vigorously, as perfectly as your gifts allow.

The revelation of the Son of Man on the last day will not be a matter of knowing the right things—the secrets of creation, or the spiritual mysteries. It will be then as it is now a matter of living with He Who Is, the artisan of creation, living in his kingdom, both its promise now and its completion then.

Brothers, sisters, I don’t know about you, but I’m not dead flesh nor am I a vulture: I’ve come dressed to party…forever!
32nd Week OT (St John Lateran): Ez 47.1-2, 8-9, 12; I Cor 3.9-11, 16-17, John 2.13-22
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving

Stark white walls, a table upfront, no cross, no crucifix, no statues or images of the saints, no tabernacle, no nothing to distinguish this Catholic Church from a Quaker meeting hall. The oddly angled light yellow smears on the wall were Stations of the Cross. I left this stripped bare, architectural victim of iconoclastic modernism and went up the street to the Episcopal parish where I found a real church! Stained glass, polished brass, an altar and its rail, and the tell-tale signs of sacraments: the smell of melted bees’ wax, stale incense, and a lingering whiff of Murphy’s Oil Soap. Now, this is where Jesus lives! I was baptized an Episcopalian in a 150 year old stone font with a sterling silver calm shell. Just three trickles on the forehead, a sherry in the parlor, and I was in.

The building mattered. The building won’t matter in the long run. The church is not the building. I think we all know this. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “You are God’s building.” We are the Church. We are the building that God grounds in his revelation. We are the building that God raises up, reinforces, decorates, and dwells in. And Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of this building, rejected and reclaimed and made the one foundation. We are the temple of God where His Spirit does the work of redemption and sanctification, the saving work of perfecting us with His grace.

The building mattered. It won’t matter in the long run. But it mattered in 1982 when I made the decision, based on an immediate rejection of that desolate Catholic cube, to reject the Catholic Church in favor of its late-born cousin. It mattered that the Catholic building made no outward sign of its commitment to the Christian faith. It mattered that this building swore itself to no creed, attached itself to no tradition, and smelled like a damp grocery store. It mattered that there was no lingering evidence that anything sacred went on in this building at all.

The building mattered. It mattered when the Catholics of the parish came together in worship. When the Body collected itself and offered praise and thanksgiving. The Word was proclaimed and preached and the sacrifice made and shared. God’s grace abounded. And the pilgrim church there took a few more steps toward its missionary end. The building served a purpose. It was a utilitarian, multi-purpose liturgical celebration space. Very 1982. It served a purpose, but it wasn’t the purpose.

Jesus makes it clear to us that the church must be both universal and local, global and neighboring. It must be a sacred place—a firmly planted stone—and a holy event—an ongoing consummation of the New Covenant. It must be useful to our final purpose and an enduring witness to God’s glory. God’s temple—stone and flesh—cannot be cheapened by the commerce of the marketplace—the commercialism of monetary trade or the marketplace of ideas where every idea, every thought is traded in equal value. If zeal for the house of the Lord is to consume us, we must be vowed, as we are in baptism, to a truth, a goodness, and a beauty that defies fashion, bucks trends, and endures unrattled across centuries. We must always find ourselves at the front of a faithful pilgrimage going back 2,000 years and behind a glorious parade trailing off ahead into eternity.

There was a stark humility to that Catholic Church that bored me into the Anglican Communion. And there was a weighty dignity to the Episcopal church I so reluctantly abandoned. I found God though when Paul’s question suddenly made sense: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

10 November 2005

32nd Sunday OT: Wis 6.12-16; I Thes 4.13-18; Matt 25.1-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

I believe that most of us are idolators. Now there’s a way to begin a homily! Idolators. Most, if not all, of us. Think about what it is that you spend the most time worrying about, mulling over in your head. What is it that claims the most time, most attention in your day? What is that you call on when you are anxious or feeling insecure or doubtful? What is it that you call on to build up your confidence, your trust? Does stress become an occasion of sin for you: some form of gluttony—food, drink, sex, public piety. Or maybe some form of pride: a false sense of self-sufficiency, or an arrogance that comes from your created beauty or talent.

What gods do we run to when things get stressed out, ragged around the edges? What gods do we worship in the silence of our hearts? Ah, but the temptations are legion, right? A whole pantheon of worthless gods call out for our attention—a temple’s worth of darkling spirits hunger of our gaze. Theses idols thrive in our hearts when we do not first bow to the wisdom of God and seek his consolation, thrive our hearts when we do not first call out His Name in prayer, and ask, just ask for what it is that we need in this moment of stress, this moment of doubt.

I can ask the question about what gods you worship b/c I too often find myself in front of strange gods offering incense and muttering arcane prayers. Frequently, I find myself in front of the god, Dessert, worshipping at his ice cold temple, the ‘Fridge, and praying his most sacred prayer, “I beesch thee, O Carbohydrate, to show me the Leftovers and make me your faithful glutton.” Turning to strange gods in times of need is a condition common among those of us who live in this world and engage it fully. The danger is not so much that we will be wholly consumed by the polytheism of the cult of modernity, but that we will be slowly cooked, slowly digested in the juices of ethical relativism, pop-psychobabble, and world-think.

At this point, you must be saying, “OK, Father. What’s the point?” The point is this: as Catholics we thrive in a world alive with hope, soaked through with the goodness, the truth, the beauty of a God who loves us first and most among His creatures. And it is to Him that we owe our worship and praise, to Him that we owe our allegiance and trust. Of course, we are tempted by the little devils of modernity, the petty spirits of a philosophy that puts the creature at the center of the universe and makes him into a god. But it is the Creator who breathed us into being, and it is the Creator that holds in being now.

I said that most of us are probably idolators b/c we turn to strange gods in times of distress. The Thessolonians are stressing out b/c some of them have died before the Lord’s promised return. In doubt, in stress they begin turning away from their baptismal vows and back toward their comfortable philosophies and pagan religious practices. There is comfort in the familiar; there is solace in habit. Paul writes to assure them. He writes, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” This is hope and consolation; it is comfort and truth: we shall always be with the Lord.

The temptation to indulge in the distraction of idolatry is short-circuited, derailed by the profund notion that we will always be with the Lord. When anxiety, stress, habitual sin grab us by the hand and gently pull us toward the hungry spirits of our age, we are comforted, consoled by the truth of the gospel: the Lord is always with us. There is no need to bow before the idols of modernity, the strange gods of the culture of death. The Lord is with us: “Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.” The Lord’s wisdom is poised to be recognized, ready to be welcomed, eager to be of help in time of distress. To fix one’s attention on wisdom is the perfection of prudence, to be vigilant in seeking the guidance of the Lord’s wisdom is to be fully grown in understanding. It is to be a wise virgin, a body and soul risen in faith and freed from anxiety forever.

I will confess: I said that most, if not all, of us are idolators to get your attention. I don’t believe that. Maybe some of us make votive offerings to the gods of modernity, little offerings like a too tight dependence on technology or a quick recourse to relativism when confronted by an unhappy truth or maybe a rationalization of a sin everyone else is indulging in w/o obvious consequence. But I doubt that many of us have turned ourselves over in full-blown worship to the gods of our culture. That temptation is irresistible when hope is difficult and trust seems impossible. When it seems better to you to hang on to your money, job, education, political party, ideology, anything, everything but God and his revelation, then the voice of the gospel seems muted and weak and the seductive music of idol worship vibrates harder, flashes brighter, and you give away eternity for smoke, mirrors, and spiritual fluff. I don’t think we’re there yet, b/c we’re all here now.

That we are here tonight means that we have responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to join Christ’s Body in the proper worship of the Creator. Let that be fundamental. Stand, sit, kneel in the presence of Christ tonight, and know that you worship no idols. Know that you come to the altar of God to receive Him in His fullness. To take into your body the flesh of hope and the blood of salvation.

In stress, anxiety, desperation, doubt, confusion, in whatever condition you find yourself, with whatever temptation dangles empty promises in front of you, you will always be with Lord. Keep your expectation of eternal perfection lodged squarely in front of you. Keep your hope fixed on the Lord’s wisdom: “Whoever watches for [his wisdom] at dawn shall not be disappointed.”

The Good News is that there is no disappointment in the Lord, no frustration, no regret. Just watch, wait, rely in trust, rest in hope, witness in charity, and like the wise virgins, you will be ready when the bridegroom comes to celebrate with his people the wedding feast that never ends.
31st Sunday OT: Mal 1.4-2.2, 8-10; 1 Thes 2.7-9, 13; Matt 23.1-12
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

Wow. I know of no other way of expressing my amazement at tonight’s readings. Wow! On Priesthood Sunday we get these readings. One from the prophet Malachi, delivering a dire warning from the Lord to his priests: “If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name…I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I make a curse. You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction.” Again, I say, Wow! We have another from Paul describing his apostolic work among the Thessolians: “We were gentle among you…with such affection for you, we were determined to share with you [the gospel and our every selves] so dearly beloved had you become to us…Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to the gospel of God.” Wow. And then we have Jesus denouncing the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, their failure to minister according to their own teaching, and an admonition to his disciples to avoid the destructive example of these men in their own ministry. Instead, Jesus teaches, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Wow.

I can say without fear of contradiction from any of my brother priests: these are not the readings we would have chosen to preach on on this Priesthood Sunday! But I will go out on a limb here too and say: these are the readings we—my brother priests and I—most need to hear. We have an warning from the Lord that our teaching, our manner of life, our public ministry, all bear on the integrity and authenticity of the witness we claim to make to the world.

We have a picture of selfless service to God’s people, a determination to preach and teach the gospel, an affection for the brothers and sisters given to us by God to care for—a striking image of the apostle caring for his kin in Christ like a nursing mother cares for her children. And we have the Lord Himself drawing a stark constrast btw the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes and the necessary humility of his own students.

What’s absolutely clear in this teaching is that the Christian priest utterly fails in his ministry when he turns his ministry into an opportunity to promote his ego, to glorify his personality, to satisfiy his own needs, to celebrate with his cult of fans, or to place himself as master above those he serves. This is a failure to listen, a failure to take to heart the vocation of service, a failure to give glory to God, to walk the narrow way, to preach and teach what Jesus preached and taught, and a failure to honor his ordination covenant, the covenant every Catholic priest makes when he kneels before the bishop to receive the Holy Spirit: the covenant to be for God’s people a man ordered to sacrifice and to serve in persona Christi Capitis—in the person of Christ the Head of his Body.

I started my priesthood just five months ago. I started my life as a Dominican five years ago at the beginning of the scandals. My brothers and I sat at table every morning in the novitate and the studium and read the headlines. I remember gathering for a meeting with our student master in St Louis and talking frankly about the future of the priesthood and our place in the Church as men ordained to be servant-leaders. Our overwhelming sense of disgust, betrayal, dire disappointment, and anger constantly threatened our vocations. We seemed to teeter on the verge of an exodus. We waited, holding our breath, for the tension to break and the departures to begin. No one left. We all stayed. Scandal did not kill this harvest!

What does the Body of Christ need from its priests in the 21st century? The Body needs now and tomorrow what it needed yesterday, last year, and 2,000 years ago: men ready, willing, and able to take on the person of Christ in priestly ordination and lead His church by an exemplary life of selfless service to others. More than ever the Church needs men who will put aside private political agendas, personal philosophies and theologies, idiosyncratic visions of ecclesial reform and revolution and take on the yoke of Christ that has been handed down to us through twenty centuries by men and women blessed of God with graces beyond measure.

We need men unafraid of obedience, fearless in the face of growing secular opposition and internal dissent, men deeply commited to prayer, who live lives in humility (or who are eager to learn how!); we need men who can say, “I don’t know it all, I can’t learn it all, I need as much help as I can get, I need your help, and we all need the Lord’s help.” And we need men who will preach and teach what Jesus preached and taught. If he will stand in the pulpit to preach and stand at the altar of sacrifice to pray, he must be a man ready to say, “Do not look at me to see Christ, look through me.”

Jesus teaches us this evening that the ministry of the Christian priest is founded on a life of integrity: a seamless garment of thought and action given to the service of others for the greater glory of God. He denounces the Pharisees and the scribes for teaching one thing and doing another, for heaping onto their people burdens that they themselves will not take on, for seeking honor, prestige, and titles for the sake of ego and public display. Jesus directs his disciples to watch these hypocrites carefully so that they will learn how not to serve his Church, how not to lead in his name. The call from Jesus to lead by service is the call to seek humility in the face of the temptation to be lauded. It is the call to act in the full knowledge that one does not serve out of acquired or practiced talents, but out of the pure gift of love, the invitation to dwell in the divine life. Paul writing to the Thessalonians describes perfectly the ministry of the apostle sent out to be Christ for others. He tells his brothers and sister that they have received from him “not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”

The work of the priest, the work of all Christians priests, ordained and royal, is to speak the word of God for others to hear, to bring that word into their own lives so that there is no discrepancy, no hypocrisy btw word and deed, and to toil with affection for one another.

On this Priesthood Sunday, we have a warning, an example, and a lesson. Listen, take them to heart, and give glory to God’s name.
30th Sunday In OT: Ex 22.20-26; I Thes 1.5-10; Matt 22.34-40
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

I want to conduct an experiment tonight. Let’s see how obedient you are! I command you to stand. I command you to clap your hands. I command you to say hello to the people around you. I command you to sit. I command you to love one another. What a bizarre command! Loving one another is not as easy as standing, clapping, saying hello, and sitting, is it? Surely, loving is a behavior. It is something we can do. It is something we do everyday. But it doesn’t seem to be that sort of thing that can be commanded, something that we can be ordered to do.
We are commanded not to kill, not to covet or steal what is not ours, not to commit adultery, not to lie, not to dishonor the Lord’s name. We are commanded to worship no other god but the Lord. To honor our mother and father. To keep the Lord’s day holy. These make sense to us as basic commands, orders for a life of holiness. But what does it mean for us to love God and to love our neighbor? If the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments, then I think it is reasonable to say: we had better get this right!

What Jesus does here is nothing less than astonishing. Basically, he takes a lawerly question—which of the 248 observations and 365 prohibitions of the Law is the greatest?—and says that what is fundamental, what is absolutely bottomline about the Law and the Prophets is that we love our God like a father and that we love our neighbors like we love ourselves. In this one short answer, Jesus fulfills the Law of Stone with the Law of the Heart. He moves the center of our moral lives from legal compliance to loving obedience, from mere procedural observation to perfection in charity.

From the Law carved on the tablets to the Law carved into our hearts, Jesus orders our moral lives to the Divine Love of the Father for His Son in the Holy Spirit. As members of the Body of Christ we participate in the Divine Life of the Blessed Trinity, loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with them loving everyone else as we love ourselves and our own. In charity—works of mercy, acts of compassion, labors of love—we show the world the love of the Blessed Trinity for us, for all of His creation, and we bring to perfection, to completion everything that He has made us to be. Not just good boys and girls. Not just morally pure robots. But truly free, truly liberated men and women who celebrate their slavery to God’s will. The virtue of charity—the good habit of loving God and neighbor—literally makes your will holy, that is, charity divinizes your will, makes your will God’s will and you flourish as a creature growing closer and closer to the Father.

Sorry about that. I was channeling Thomas Aquinas there for a minute or two. But I think it is vitally important that you understand that your moral life is not simply a matter of crossing all your moral “T’s” and dotting all your moral “I’s.” There is more at stake here than being good boys and girls, behaviorally perfect persons. Certainly, being good behaviorally is important. I think it would be terribly difficult to behave badly and to love God and neighbor at the same time. But do you understand that your moral life, that is, your life in Christ, is not given to you by God b/c you behave well? Your ability, your need to act with charity, to love God and neighbor, to be compassionate to others is God’s gift to you for your use in the service of His greater glory. We are graced with the need to praise, to thank, to bless the Lord!

Jesus says that you are to love God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. You are to love God from the very center of your being, with everything that you are. With your heart you will love God as the image and likeness of God. With your soul you will love God with the breath He breathed into your body at your creation. And with your mind you will love God with His gift to know His Truth, His Goodness, and His Beauty.

None of this is possible without God giving you a share in His Divine Life, a piece of the life of the Blessed Trinity. You have done nothing to deserve it, nothing to merit it. Nor can you. It is a gift. Freely given. That is love. The freely given gift of living with God here and now. You live a truly liberated, truly freed moral life when you act out of this freely given gift of the Divine Life.

And Jesus wants you to understand that you live the Divine Life more perfectly when you love us as you love yourself. Now, what does this mean for you, for us tomorrow morning, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.? At the very least it means that you do not think of the rest of us as tools for your use, as instruments for your work or toys for your play. You do not act as if we are here merely to benefit you or to serve your pleasure. It means that you look at us as fellow creatures, images of God, likenesses of the Trinity, and you think of us and treat us as the divinely gifted, much-loved children of the Father that you and we are. It means that you and we must move beyond the relatively easy moral life of stony laws and come to live fully, perfectly in the much more challenging life of love, imitating our Lord in His works of mercy, receiving the Holy Spirit with joy, and becoming models for all believers.

You stood, you clapped, you said hello to your neighbors, and you sat. Will you love too? It is a bizarre command. Not at all what we expect to hear from Jesus. Of course, we expect to hear that we should love God and neighbor. We don’t expect to hear this as a command, an order! Jesus commands it of us b/c He gives us what we need to obey. He gives us what we need to love God and each other. He gives us the only thing we need: Himself. He gave Himself once for all on Calvary. He will give Himself to us again tonight in the Sacrifice of the Altar, the sharing of His Body and Blood in thankgiving. He is what we need for the perfected moral life. He is all we have. Love Him with everything that you are—your heart, your soul, your mind. And love us, all of us, be Copycats of Christ, and give yourself for us. With service, with prayer, with treasure, with your very body, sacrifice—make holy in giving over—what God has given you first: your life for us.

That’s moral perfection, that’s a life of love.
29th Sunday OT: Is 45.1, 4-6; I Thes 1.1-5; Matt 22.15-21
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

First, what belongs to Caesar? Nothing. Second, what belongs to God? Everything else. So, give to Caesar everything that is his. And give to God everything else.

Jesus is teaching nothing new or surprising here. Taking the gold coin he points out that the coin is stamped with the image of Caesar. The gold is molded into a likeness of the Roman emperor. It is an image and likeness that tells the world that this coin is legitmate tender, legal currency, and worth exactly the amount stamped on it. The gold, for all practical purposes, is Caesar at that moment—it represents Roman rule, Roman culture, Roman economic concerns, and Roman military strength. That coin is Rome. So give it back to Caesar in payment of your debt to Caesar. It is his coin to begin with. Jesus, you, I, we all know that though the coin is Caesar’s, Caesar is God’s. And so is everything else.

One way to tell this gospel story is to tell it as a story about how Jesus makes it possible for us to live IN the world w/o being OF the world, that is, how we Christians can do our daily business with the world but avoid becoming entangled in the sinful traps that world lays for us. The way we do this is to distinguish carefully btw our duty to Caesar and our duty to God. This is a fine way to tell this gospel story except it gives us no way to deal with the inevitable problem of conflicting goods—what do we do when our duty to the state and our duty to God conflict? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s is simple enough if it’s perfectly clear to you what belongs to whom. If that clarity gets muddied then this way of telling this gospel story is useless.

Another way to tell this gospel is to tell it with a certain modern American flair. Jesus’ teaching makes sense if you think of what belongs to Caesar as a public duty and what belongs to God as a private duty. This is how we get the story about how it is possible for us to behave publicly in a way that contradicts our private beliefs. So, as a Catholic, I can support an overtly racist political agenda and at the same time claim that I find racism morally repugnant. You’re to think of me as a morally good person b/c, despite my actual public behavior, my private belief is a good one. For you to claim that my private beliefs should be acted out publicly is a failure on your part to understand that I must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—public duty—and to God what is God’s—private duty. You may recognize this as a very American move to privatize religious belief in such a way that it is completely irrelevant in shaping the civic soul. Obviously, this way of telling the gospel story is also very problematic.

I started this homily by pointing out that Jesus makes an obvious claim about the gold coin: it is stamped with image and likeness of Caesar, and it is, therefore, Casear’s. But Caesar himself is made in the image and likeness of God, so he himself is God’s. What belongs to Caesar? Nothing. What belongs to God? Everything else. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God everything else.

The Pharisees and the Herodians are trying to entrap Jesus by asking him a very provocative political question. The question, at its root, is this: to whom do we owe our allegiance: our Roman occupiers or our God? They want him to say either Caesar alone or God alone. If he says Caesar alone, then they can claim he is a heretic and discredit him. If he says God alone, then they can claim he is a rebel and discredit him. The question is a trap. And Jesus answers, “knowing their malice,” and neatly springs the trap with the trappers’ heads caught inside.

So, how do we tell this gospel story so that it makes sense to us now? The two worlds story of Church and State makes no sense. The public duty/private duty story makes even less sense, so what are we left with? Jesus has taught his disciples that they cannot serve two masters. They serve God or they don’t. He’s taught them over and over again that they either line up with the blessed, the righteous or they burn with the damned. They serve the poor, the naked, the hungry, the oppressed or they serve selfishness, avarice, despair, and oppression. The prophet Isaiah says it rather nicely: “I have called you by your name…I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no god but me.”

This gospel story is about knowing who your God is. It is about who and what you are in relationship to Him. It is about how we, as bapitzed sons and daughters of the Father, walk and work and play in the world as living images and liknesses of the Father. We can only give to God what is God’s b/c there nothing that isn’t God’s in the first place. This is the answer under the answer that Jesus gives his malicious questioners. It is the answer that they will not understand b/c they cannot see and cannot hear the truth. They are consumed with political intrigue and the need to beat Jesus at an argument. It is a partisan fight. Jesus’ answer takes the fight out of the question and teaches us again a truth we have known from Genesis onward: there are no creatures w/o I AM THAT I AM. No earth, no sky, no ocean, no man or woman, nothing w/o the breath of God, the Word breathed over the void, and the telling description of our Creator, “It is very good.”

Everything we have and everything we are is owed to God. Not Caesar. In the waters of baptism, the chrism of confirmation, and the Body and Blood of the Eucharist, we are indelibly stamped with the image and likeness of Christ. We are washed, stamped, and fed with Christ. We are taken up, anointed, and healed by the Spirit. We owe to God our creation, our redemption, and our daily lives. Though we dutifully pay taxes, obey the law, participate in civil elections, we are not Caesar’s. There is a prior claim on us, a divine first dibs. Though we are citizens of a state and subject to secular power, we do not belong to any secular power. We cannot. Caesar changes names over time and takes on different forms. Whatever his name, whatever his form, his claim on us is secondary at best.

Of course, pay your taxes, obey the law, vote. But do these knowing that you belong to God alone. We owe Him our lives, our allegiance, and we owe Him first everything we could ever possibly owe Caesar.

What belongs to Caesar? Nothing. What belongs to God? Everything else. So, give to Caesar everything that is his. And give to God everything else.
28th Sunday OT: Isa 25.6-10; Phil 4.12-14, 19-20; Matt 22.1-14
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

Another parable of the kingdom and another warning that those unprepared for the heavenly feast will find themselves cast into darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Jesus has been on a roll these last few weeks, preaching a gospel message that Catholics aren’t quite used to hearing! Maybe I’m wrong, but my sense is that most of us don’t often hear many homilies about the goats, the weeds, the bad fish, the lazy virgins, or the ill-dressed wedding guest. We hear a lot about the sheep, the wheat, the good fish, the well-prepared virgins, and the festively dressed wedding guests. These images better fit a comfortable, American vision of who we hope Jesus was back then, and who we want him to be now. I don’t intend to blast you with a Hellfire and Brimstone sermon! But I can’t claim to be a preacher of the gospel, and then fail to preach the gospel right in front of me. This is not a comfortable, American Jesus.

So, let’s get something straight from the start: you do not have to spend eternity with God. You do not have to make use of the grace you’ve been given. You do not have to repent, confess, or enjoy freedom from sin. You don’t have to go to confession, come to Mass, take communion, say your prayers, do good works, live charitably with one another, or even forgive a single offense against you. You can ignore the grace you’ve been given. You can stride along the path of rebellion and disobedience. You can remain a slave to sin and do the bidding of your lowest passions as much as you want. You can skip confession, blow off Mass, forget your prayers, ignore the needy among us, hate one another and wallow in self-pitying angry and regret.

You can be, if you choose, a goat, a bundle of weeds, a bad fish, a lazy virgin, or a badly dressed wedding guest. God will honor your choice out of His limitless love, and you can live your afterlife as you lived in this life: without Him. And that’s the Catholic definition of Hell: “[a] state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed […]” (CCC n.1033).

In the parable of the Wedding Feast, the guest who arrives ill-dressed is thrown out into the darkness b/c he has refused to put on the garments of repentance. He wears his slave clothes. These rags are a gift from the Liar who has convinced him that he’s wearing Gucci! In fact, his rags identify him as a willful servant of disobedience. The master of the house invites good and bad alike, but everyone allowed in—good and bad—have on the garments of repentance. Not the garments of absolute moral perfection. Not the garments of spotless holiness. But the garments that identified them as willing—if imperfect for now—servants of the Master Himself.

The poorly dressed guest, the unrepentant one, is not tossed out b/c he comes to the feast for the free food, the free liquor, the good company—the Party! No, he’s tossed out b/c he comes seeking all the benefits of the Master’s Truth and Goodness and Beauty, but he himself is unwilling to take on truth, goodness, and beauty in return. In other words, he wants to feast at the Master’s banquet table, but he’s unwilling to abide by the Master’s Party Rules. “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Paul gives us the secret of the Wedding Feast: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me…My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” God will provide the party dress, the tux for the feast. There is no reason for any of us to show up at the feast improperly dressed. From the limitless riches of Christ Jesus we are provided with everything we need to celebrate the feast when we are and where we are right now. Just ask. Paul says that he is able to live with scarcity, live in abundance, live well-fed and hungry, in every circumstance b/c his strength, his purpose, his drive comes through the Father. Not through his willpower. Not through his mighty character. Not through his education or his social standing. But through Him who empowers us.

The Good News this evening is that you don’t have to be a goat, a bundle of weeds, a bad fish, a lazy virgin, or an ill-dressed weeding guest. You can be. But you don’t have to be. Jesus died to give you the option of coming to the Wedding Feast decked out in the spiritual equivalent of Prada, Gucci, DKNY, and Burberry. Just ask. Just ask. “[Our] God will fully supply whatever you need.”
27th Sunday OT (Is 5.1-7; Phil 4.6-9; Matt 21.33-43
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

What is the greatest spiritual problem facing the church right now? Would you say: Heretical clergy? Dissident theologians? Homosexual priests? Lack of faith in the Real Presence? Failure to attend Mass? Vatican Two? Liberalism? Traditionalism? I wonder how many of you would say, “anxiety.” I don’t mean the psychiatric term denoting a nervous physiological and psychological response to enviromental stimuli. I mean “anxiety,” as in “protect us from all anxiety as we await with joyful hope the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” I mean anxiety as in “Brothers and sisters, Have no anxiety at all…” I mean anxiety as in a failure to trust God, a failure to hold firm to faith, and to know that the promise of the Father is completed; it is done. What could be more of a spiritual problem than a failure to trust the One who created us, made convenant with us, redeemed us from our sin, and dwells among us even now?

The Spirit of this world trembles. Not with fear. Not with pain. But with anticipation. The Spirit of this world delights. Not in triumph. Not in victory…not yet. But in self-congratulation and pleasure for a job well-done. There is nothing for him to do now but relax and watch the well-fed virus of anxiety unravel the careful work of faith, unwind the intricate morality of charity, and attack all the defenses of those best equipped to do the Father’s will in the world.
This virus of anxiety is simply and elegantly coded to attach itself to the one thing that Christians most need to survive and thrive—anxiety hits prayer; it attacks our life-line to God, our means of communication with the Divine, stranding us in a silence so profound that despair is inevitable and the work we are called to do goes undone for lack of trust in God.

The Devil doesn’t really have to tempt us into sin. He only has to convince us that the Father isn’t listening. He doesn’t have to fill our lives with violence, pornography, or death. He only has to lead us to believe that we can do this Christian-thing on our own—that we don’t really need a healthy prayer life. That we are strong enough, smart enough to take charge of our holiness and do this thing by the numbers so that nothing goes wrong, nothing falls outside the lines, nothing ever looks crooked, smells fishy, or feels twitchy.

Once we’re convinced that we can color this Christian coloring book without slipping outside the lines, that we can seek and attain perfection on our own, once we’re cruising along comfy and satisifed in the quality of our spiritual work, the Devil throws us a curve, he tosses a grenade, and watches with a smirk as we panic, crash, and flop around, thrashing in the mess we’ve made. Then he waits with angelic patience for the moment of his greatest joy, his sharpest glee. It is the moment we look to heaven, spread our hands over the devastation we’ve created in our arrogance and pride and cry out in anguish, “Where were you, Lord?” Ah, Despair! Can’t beat Despair with a stick.

Jesus instructs the chief priests and elders with a parable about the salvation history of the Jewish people and the advent of the long-awaited Messiah. The Father sent the Law to forge a covenant with His people. The stones were broken in disobedience. He sent the Prophets. And they were beaten, killed, exiled, or just plain ignored. Finally, he sends his Only-Begotten Son, the long-awaited Messiah, to bring them back to righteousness, and they kill Him—a death He freely accepts for our sake. The parable makes it clear that those who refuse the salvific effects of the Messiah’s vicarious death will themselves die a wretched and permanent death. Those who come to the Lord, take on his death as the death of their own sin, and place themselves in trust to Him, they will be given the Kingdom of God, and they will cultivate its fruit. Those who would build the kingdom of heavem on their own reject Jesus Christ as a cornerstone. Those who would seek and attempt to attain perfection on their own reject Jesus Christ as a cornerstone and delight the Devil in his work.

And so Paul tells the Philippians, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. THEN the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Trust God always and in everything that you do make what you need known to God through prayer, ask and say “Thank You,” and the result will be that your anxiety—your lack of trust—will be silenced with a peace that outshines everything you have ever known and this unsurpassing peace will shield your relationship with God and settle your mind into the lordship of Jesus Christ.

If the peace of the Lord is to remain with you, if it is to remain as a shield against the wily arguments of the Devil you must dwell on what is true not what is false, what is just and not unjust, what is lovely and not ugly, what is gracious and not crude, what is excellent and not vile, what is worthy of your praise and not what is worthy of your rebuke. And do not be afraid b/c this is not a job you can do alone. If you would build the kingdom of heaven in your heart and mind, you must do so with the grace of the Father under the Lordship of the Son and in the Spirit, and you will think and pray what is true, pure, gracious and excellent with God’s sure help.

We could make a list a several hundred feet long, a list of the problems of the Church, a list of the ways that the kingdom of God is defied on earth, in the church herself, and in the hearts and minds of individual Christians. No list, no matter how long, will make any sense at all if it does not include at the very top this name: “A List of Ways that Anxiety Makes Itself Known in the Church.” Heretical teachings. Dissident theologians. Unfaithful priests and religious. Usurpers of legitmate ecclesial authority on the left and the right. All of these are insidious manifestations, instances of our anxiety when we try to control, examples of our fear to risk trust in God, our need, our deeply planted need to make the church, all of creation in our own image and likeness.

Jesus’ parable tonight is really very simple. He says, “Make the cornerstone the builders rejected the cornerstone of your spiritual castle. No other stone. No other god. No self-help guru or alien philosophy. Entertain no anxiety. Ask for what you need, say thank you, and know my peace.”
26th Sunday OT: Ez 18.25-28; Phil 2.1-11; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

What do you hear when the call for repentance from sin goes out? What words enter your hearing? And what do you do about it?

I can tell you what I heard and what I did. I was 10 years old and finishing out the week at Freameux Ave. Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School. Br. Oscar, the preacher, came to our classroom and gave a ringing message on the necessity of repentance and the joys of accepting Jesus Christ into one’s heart as Lord and Savior. Now, glancing around the classroom, I quickly realized that I was the only one not so saved. I did not know Jesus in the way that Br. Oscar insisted that I know him. That afternoon, after the big empty pretzel jar full of pennies made its round in the pews collecting new pennies, I decided that I had better walk the aisle to the prayer rail and make Br. Oscar—and for good measure, Jesus—happy. And I did. Later, one of my older friends asked me if I had been saved or had I just joined the Church. I said I didn’t know. He scoffed and said, “Well, you aren’t saved. ‘Cause if you were, you’d know it.” I had fooled no one.

When the call for repentance of sin went out, I heard the voice of social pressure to conform, the call of Baptist culture to align myself with the dominant religious “type” or model of salvation. I heard the snickers of my fellow Bible school vacationers when it became evident that I was the only heathen left on the playground. I heard the teachers wonder about the condition of my family life. I heard just about any and everything BUT the voice of God calling me to forsake my sinful ways and come to Jesus. I walked the aisle to relieve an embarrassing social problem, but true repentance was far, far away.

What do you hear when the call for the repentance from sin goes out? Do you look around and wonder who Father is talking to? Do you snicker inside knowing who Father is talking about? Do you wonder if you’re the target? Or is this repentance from sin stuff just for the grubby crowd—ya know: the unwashed, the uneducated, the not properly theologized herd, those people over there? You know, the tax collectors, the prostitutes…those people.

Well, those people heard the call from John the Baptizer before the chief priests and the elders. Or, more precisely, the tax collectors and prostitutes listened to the call and actually repented while the chief priests and elders heard, but failed to listen and failed to believe. Even before those trained to hear, to listen, and to obey the voice of God, before these, the worse sinners, the grubbiest of the grubby of the nation, heard, listened, and obeyed. And because of this failure, Jesus says to the priests and elders, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

Now, this parable isn’t about how tax collectors and prostitutes are holier than priests and elder. Nor is it about how tax collecting and prostitution aren’t really sinful after all. It is a parable about the difference between hearing the Word and doing nothing about it AND hearing the Word and doing the Work it requires. The sons in the parable are distinguished not by a difference in their agreement to do their father’s will—the second agrees immediately do his father’s will, the first agrees eventually—no, they are distinguished by a difference in what they DO with their father’s will. Both hear, both listen, both agree—one instantly, one later; however, one does the work, the other doesn’t.

The point of the parable is this: the difference that makes the difference for our salvation is doing the will of the father, not just hearing, not just listening, not just agreeing—but doing, doing that which the Father has asked us to do. Earlier, Jesus had taught his disciples this hard lesson: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7.21).

What do you hear when the call for repentance from sin goes out? Do you hear religiously sounding rhetoric? Sad attempts at clerical control? Do you hear the preacher speaking over your head to your neighbors? To your enemies? To your well-meaning but terribly immoral friends? What do you hear? Do you hear the gospel message of conversion, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and eternal life? Do you hear it? Listen to it? Agree with it? And then do it?

Jesus has spent the last two months teaching us how to live as a Church, how to be a body of witnesses for his passion, death, and resurrection. We forgive one another as many times as it takes. We correct one another in charity for the sake of the other’s salvation. We work the Father’s will in the world, not just agree to it and do nothing. We repent from our sins and turn back to God, knowing that we share with Christ an inheritance beyond this world.
Paul begs the Philippians, “…complete my joy, [brothers and sisters], by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”

In Christ we stretch our intellects to one end, our wills for the good of the other to one end; in that place where we meet God most intimately—our hearts—we find one another at rest; and we believe with single-mindedness a single thing: that Jesus Christ is Lord! It is here, in this single will, this single mind, this single purpose and belief, here that we participate in the Spirit; here that we find solace in love, complete compassion, willing mercy; and it is here that we do nothing out of selfishness or out of vanity seeking false glory. Here we are the Church.
What do you hear when the call for repentance from sin goes out? With the encouragement of Christ, hear the Father’s voice calling you—calling all of us—back to Him for forgiveness. Calling all of us back to the work of the Word in the world, the work our baptism requires of us, the work order we heard, listened to, and agreed to complete.

Walk this aisle tonight, receive Him with thanksgiving and praise. And walk out of those doors fully loaded, ready and willing to be His witness, to be Christ for others…not out of social pressure or b/c of the Catholic culture of U.D., but b/c you have heard His Word, listened to it, agreed to do His will, and, most importantly, b/c you find yourself impatient to be about your Father’s work!
25th Sunday OT: Is 55.6-9; Phil 1.20-24, 27; Matt 20.1-16
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

Sounding very much like Mary saying YES to the Lord’s angel at the Annunication, Paul proclaims without pride: “Christ will be magnified in my body…” Christ will be made larger, brighter, sharper, denser, louder, and more skilled in Paul’s body. Paul adds without fear, “…whether by life or by death.” Christ will be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death. Like Mary at the feet of the angel, Paul turns his life and his death over the Lord—and the work of the Lord—and confesses to his brothers and sisters that his life as a worker for the Lord will be larger, brighter, sharper, and more skilled precisely b/c the work he does will be done for the greater glory of the Lord. And this is just the work of his life! Death is no obstacle for Paul b/c “life is Christ, and death is gain.” So choose! Live in Christ and magnify His work on earth. Die in Christ, be with Him eternally, and still magnify His work in His presence. Now that’s commitment.

But here’s what I want you to notice: Paul does not donate his time, talent, and treasure out of his excess. He doesn’t give over to the work of the Lord the overflow of his riches. The leftovers. Paul does not say “Christ will be magnified in my checkbook.” “Christ will be magnified in my volunteer hours.” “Christ will be magnified in my talent.” He says that Christ will be magnified in his BODY. His very flesh. And whether he lives or dies the work he does for the Lord will bear abundant fruit for others. Paul does not parcel his life (or his death!) into neat packages addressed to different and equally worthy receipents: his family, his career, his friends, and, oh, one for the Lord too here on the bottom somewhere. Paul’s whole life—the first fruits, the abundant works, the failures and misgivings, and, finally, his last breath—all, his whole life is given to Christ for the enlargement of Christ.

What does it mean for Christ to be magnified in the body? The idea, I think, is to pull us out of the very human habit of abstraction, the very human temptation to loft our religious obligations to one another into the heavens where we can keep them safe from our duty to perform them on earth. So long as the obligation to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned remain abstracted moral imperatives far, far away, we are tempted to honor them in the abstract, neglect to perform them, and remain confident that the work of the Lord is getting done. Paul’s insistence that Christ will be magnified in his body is the clearest indication we have that the work of the Lord is to be DONE. Not just thought about. Not just written about. Not just preached about. And certainly not abstracted and lofted onto some kind of spiritualized “to do” list. The work is to be done. And done first for God’s greater glory.

Now. I know what you’re thinking! “Wow, Father is wound up tonight. He must think we’re all lazy bums laying around thinking about the good works of mercy, but watching Wheel of Fortune instead!” Not quite. I’ve seen the generosity of this community, and I know what motivates this community to be tools of the Lord in the world. There is a hunger here for others to see and hear what the Lord has done in your lives. There is an eagerness here, a tangible need to draw others to the Lord and to witness to them the power of Christ’s mercy—to forgive, to heal, to bless. I’m not wagging my finger at you tonight, but merely reminding you where you came from, where you are, and where you are going. You came from Christ. You are with Christ. And you will be with Christ.

But there is a temptation waiting for us. An eager little devil waiting to pounce on our witness to the Lord. It is an opportunity for us to sin and delight the Liar. What is this temptation? It is the temptation to believe that we work for the Lord out of our own generosity, out of our own time, out of our own resources, and we are therefore entitled to a greater reward when we outwork our neighbors.

This is exactly the parable of the whiny workers from Matthew, a parable about our salvation and our sanctification.

The whiny workers begrudge the landowner’s generosity in paying full wages to the latecomer laborers. Why? For some reason they feel that their own labor and their own wages are diminished by the largese of the vineyard owner. Somehow their day’s labor is dirtied. Their dollar is devalued. They worked harder and longer under the fiery sun, so they deserve more than those who sauntered in at the last hour and barely broke a sweat!

These guys are upset b/c they are working out of a very human notion of justice, a temptation, I think, to believe that compensation is earned; to get what is owed you, what you deserve. But remember, this is a parable about salvation and holiness not a lesson on capitalist economics.
Is it a human notion of justice you want applied to your eternal life? Do you want forever what you deserve? What you’ve earned in this life? Do you want the Father to give you a just compensation for your life’s work? The whole point of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we won’t be given what we deserve; we won’t receive from the Father what is owed to us. As I have said to you many times: we don’t want God’s justice! We want His mercy! And Christ has bought that mercy for us.

Our Final Wage was offered on the Altar of the Cross once for all. Unearned. Free. Whether you came to your salvation as an infant sixty years ago or as a teenager ten years ago or as an adult three hours ago, your Final Wage comes from the bottomless cache of the Father’s generosity. Salvation is free. Holiness—the living out of that salvation morning, afternoon, and night—is work. But even that labor is graced by a loving God Who would see us with Him for eternity. That grace is sufficient to help us magnify the Lord.

Make Christ larger, brighter, louder, sharper, sweeter, stronger, kinder, truer, better, more beautiful, more loving, more faithful, more humble, more generous, and make Christ bigger, and bigger, and bigger in your life. Magnify the Lord til your knees buckle. Magnify the Lord til your back hurts. Magnify the Lord in your body til there is no room for sin. And when the Lord asks, “Are you envious b/c I am generous?” Be able to say, “No, Lord! I am grateful in life and death, and I live and die to magnify you.”
24th Sunday in OT: Sir 27.30-28.7; Rom 14.7-9; Matt 18.21-35
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Fraternal correction. Love one another. Spend more time looking in a mirror and less time looking through binoculars. Serve God by serving one another. Be fresh wineskins for the New Wine of the Lord. And on and on and on. It’s getting to where here lately it is difficult to hold a decent grudge, point fingers at other peoples’ sins, or justify a little self-righteous anger. Or just plain ole wallow in some sticky self-pity! Don’t be vengeful. Let go of rebukes. Do not hate your neighbor. Overlook faults. Be merciful. Do not cherish wrath. It’s too much! Perhaps we are right to complain that the Lord is too demanding of our faith, too demanding of our obedience. It is easier to find refuge in the ruins than to help build a new city.

And here today we come to Mass to hear another string of demands, perhaps the most demanding of demands: Forgive seven times seventy those who offend against you. We must forgive. This is not an encouragement. Jesus doesn’t say, “I urge you to consider forgiving them.” He doesn’t say, “Ya know, wouldn’t it be better if you just forgave them?” He, in fact, says, “You wicked servant! Unless you forgive your brothers from your heart your heavenly Father will give you over to the Torturers.” That’t not a suggestion or hint, folks. That’s a threat. Plain and simple.

In our dumbed-down, inoffensive, consumerist American religion, we’re not used to hearing about threats from God. But there it is. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.” Ouch. The admonition, no, the demand that we forgive seems odd given that forgiveness is generally thought of as something that must be given freely, willingly. Isn’t forgiveness that sort of religiously thing that we’re told to do but often fail to do precisely b/c we know Other People are supposed to do it too. I mean, of course, I know I’m supposed to forgive, but aren’t you supposed to forgive my refusal to forgive you? Of course you are! But you don’t b/c I won’t forgive you and on and on and on, round and round we go, spinning into Hell clinging to one another, teeth embedded, claws deep in the flesh, we fall, forever, together.

Forgive one another. How easily said. Forgive one another. Not so easily done. I wonder why? Why is it so hard for us to forgive? What problems do we run into when struggling with forgiving those who have hurt us?

No doubt these problems are Legion. There is fear. Are we condoning the sin if we forgive? Are we saying that the forgiven sin won’t be a sin in the future. THAT sin is OK now? Maybe we fear becoming prey to bullies, becoming a victim to others’ wrath. To deny forgiveness to the bully is a sure way to guard our dignity, to be diligent against abuse. Along with fear, there is also wrathful anger. Maybe we like being indignant, the feeling of resentment, the grudge, the rancor of spitefully stroking every slight, every wound, counting up the injustices and hurts. We become the Devil’s Accountant and our denial of forgiveness, our disobedience, becomes a way of playing a very perverse version of God—refusing forgiveness to feel superior, righteous, holier than the offender. Here we are tempted to imitate Satan, the angel who went from being the glorious Morning Star to the Lord of the Damned b/c his envy of God, his need to be God, killed his love for God. If the Morning Star can fall, we must ask with Ben Sira, son of Eleazar, who wrote the Book of Sirach: “If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”

Perhaps we can look at this another way. The contemporary American poet, Eric Pankey, in a poem titled, “Prayer,” asks this question: “What do you love better: the ruin or its repair/Desire’s affliction or fire’s harsh sacrament?” The question of whether or not to forgive can be about whether or not to relinguish hurt and reach for healing. It can be about forgetting. It can also be about obedience and meeting the demands of your faith. But finally forgiveness is about figuring out what you love more: the ruin of sin or the repair of forgiveness, self-destructive suffering or the hard, hard choice of burning away the slights, the injuries in the “fire’s harsh sacrament”?

Paul writes to the Romans: “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Surely this is what we love best: that we are the Lord’s, we belong wholly—body, soul, spirit—to a loving God who has saved us from the need to be spiteful in the face of hurts, from the need to hold grudges, from the need to wallow in pity, wrath, and self-righteous anger. We are freed from the slavery of enmity, vengence, death, and decay. Put the chains back on if you will, but consider:

What do you love better: sin’s ruin or Christ’s repair?
What do you love better: the Father’s mercy or His justice?
What do you love better: your freedom or the nursed hurt?

Don’t be vengeful. Let go of rebukes. Do not hate your neighbor. Overlook faults. Be merciful. Do not cherish wrath. It is too much. It is too much if we go alone into the wilderness of holiness. Though it is easier to find refuge in the ruins than help to build a new city, we are promised to a God Who makes demands, Who wants our obedience, and expects us to live up to our end of the Covenant. Building His kingdom, the holy city, one soul at a time begins with the movement of love toward forgiveness. We can survive in the ruins. But we will flourish in the work of repair. And we will flourish more beautifully together than alone.
23rd Sunday in OT: Rom 13.8-10, Matt 18.15-20
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

Early in the school year, Brother Jim, an itinerant street preacher, would appear on campus, stand in front of the Student Union, and rant and rave at the passing students. He swung around a big KJV of the bible like a club. He was particularly fond of attacking the young women who were dressed in his words, “like prostitutes”—make-up, open-toed shoes, and styled hair.

He condemned with equal fervor communism, smoking, alcohol consumption, nearly every form of sexual behavior, and the Catholic Church. His rantings drew large crowds and a few brave students would argue with him about his theological positions. I never went up against Br. Jim. I wasn’t much of a Christian at the time. I thought he was joke. And I realized pretty quickly that Br. Jim was less interested in converting sinners than he was in reassuring himself that his half-baked prejudices were, in fact, fully baked. The crowd’s opposition only served to strengthen his resolve and affirm in his own mind the correctness of his preaching. Br. Jim was a self-declared martyr, someone who has put himself in the pagan arena and dared God to protect him as evidence of God’s presence, power, and love.

It was far too easy, far too simple for him to point the finger, make the accusation, and move on to the next campus, leaving in his wake an image of the laughable Christian obsessed with everyone else’s sex life. His was self-righteous ecclesiastical theater.

This is not what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to correct one another when necessary. Nor is this how brothers and sister in Christ now should be correcting one another. Fraternal correction is about willing the good and not competition in piety. It is about hoping for the best from one another and not expecting the worst. It is about bringing salvation, not condemnation; it is about helping one another in the arduous work of perfecting our natures and sharing the good fruits of an abundant prayer life. Fraternal correction can never be about playing “gotcha” games or pulling down theological or ecclesial opponents. It can never be about undermining someone’s reputation for political gain. Or undermining their confidence in who they are as a child of the Father.

I’m not telling you all of this b/c I believe that you are abusing fraternal correction. Hardly. I’m telling you this b/c in teaching us how to correct one another in the content and practice of our faith, Jesus is also teaching us what his true church looks like. Paul puts it succinctly, “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” If fraternal correction is to do what it is supposed to do—bring the sinner back to Christ—it must be practiced out of a church that understands itself as a fulfillment of the law, a body of believers who hold the apostolic faith, teach the apostolic faith, and practice among themselves abiding charity, ready trust, and eager forgiveness.

Matthew’s gospel couldn’t be clearer on this point: go to the sinner yourself first. If he or she doesn’t listen, then bring in another member of the church along and bear witness to the sin and call for repentance. If that doesn’t work, then the larger church is to be called and the sinner treated like one cast out—not permanently cast out, but medicinally cast out, that is, removed from the community for his or her own good, an encouragement to repent and return—Jesus said that even the tax collectors and prostitutes can repent to come to him!

We know that this scenario can work b/c Jesus empowers the church to make it work. To the apostles he gives the authority to bind and loose, to tie up and free, to license and limit. The church must have the authority to welcome back the repentant sinner, otherwise, fraternal correction is just psychobabble and passive-aggressive control games. Real conversion, real reunion can be achieved through the grace of God working in the church.

How we do avoid allowing fraternal correction to become something like a crude political tool or self-righteous weapon? Look carefully at the reading from Romans: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” Have no debt to each other but the debt of love—the obligation to will the good for all the members of the body of Christ. If fraternal correction comes out of love, then it cannot be political or self-righteousness. The question to ask is: am I being motivated by a will that wills the good for this sinner? If your motivation is anything but love, then stop right there!

Another way to avoid allowing fraternal correction to become something other than an expression of love is to pay careful attention to the sequence of events in Jesus’ description of how to correct a sinner: one-on-one, first; then a smaller group; and then the larger church. Why this sequence? Why not go straight to the church and be done with it? The idea here is to allow the sinner an opportunity to admit his or her error and come back to the church w/o causing greater scandal to the community. If his or her heart can be moved to conversion w/o the pressure of the whole community knowing about his or her transgression, then this is by far the better way. It is, in other words, the more loving thing to do.

What is most astonishing to me about this reading from Matthew is the very familiar saying of Jesus, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them.” Is there a more powerful statement of the presence of Christ among us than this? And it comes at the end of his instruction on fraternal correction and his conferral of binding and loosening authority on the apostles. Christ has not abandoned the church to it own devices. He has not left us to fend for ourselves alone in a world packed with ravening wolves. He has given us a powerful tool for conversion, the authority to use it, AND he has promised to be with us when we come together in his name.

How we call one another back into God’s righteousness reveals the nature of the church. If the one correcting is turning himself/herself into a martyr for the cause, then the church is revealed as a weapon against ecclesial criminals. If the one correcting is correcting for political points or advantage, then the church is revealed as a club for powerbrokers. However, if the one correcting is doing so out of a genuine will for the good of the sinner, then the church is revealed to be what Christ left it to be: an apostolic witness to his teachings, an instrument of grace, and the hope of every sinner who has ears to hear and eyes to see.

Just starting...

Hello everyone...
This is Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP. I started this blog so that I would have a place to post my homilies. Please feel free to critique, question, comment upon, or even damn my efforts. I preach on a regular basis at St. Albert the Great Priory in Irving, TX and at the Church of the Incarnation at the University of Dallas.
Fr. Philip Neri, OP