20 October 2006

Beat Hypocrisy! Eliminate Standards!

28th Week OT (F): Ephesians 1.11-14 and Luke 12.1-7
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass and Church of the Incarnation

Here’s my solution to the problem of hypocrisy: let’s get rid of ideals! Get rid of standards and goals. That’s really what causes hypocrisy, right? We fail to live up to what we believe to be right and good and true and then we end up on the front page of the paper. The headlines blaring: CHRISTIAN IN SCANDAL, SOMEBODY’S GETTING SUED. You might be one of those hard cases who thinks we should try harder to live up to our professed values. That we should strive more diligently to be good example of Christian ideals. OK. Live in la-la land if you want. You idealists just make the world more difficult for us realists. Wake up and smell the failure, you glassy-eyed freaks! Standards and ideals are just ways to make us feel bad about being human, ways to create a false sense of hope that we can be better than the simple animals that we are. It’s easy, really: no standards, no failure; no goals, no let-downs. Don’t profess any values, no one can call you a hypocrite when you inevitably fail to honor those values. Easy. Too easy.

Jesus tells his friends that not even the smallest bird escapes the notice of God. He says, “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” If the sparrow is worthy of God’s notice, then how much more worthy are we to stand in His presence and be noticed by our Father? And not only noticed but loved and being loved by Him capable ourselves then of loving others. That we are able to love because we are loved first by Him is the key to understanding why we do not need to be afraid of Him who has the power to cast us into Gehenna. How so? If we are able to love b/c God loved us first, and love is Who God Is, then it follows that we are able to do all the things we need to do to grow in holiness b/c God did them for us first. He forgives us, so we are able to forgive one another. He died for us, so we are able to die for one another. After all, all of our hairs are counted and we are worth more than many sparrows.

God has set the standards for our lives. He has marked the goals and defined the virtues that will bring us to Him. And He has made it possible for us to meet these standards, to reach these goals by first showing us that they can be met, can be reached. He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, as a living benchmark, a breathing exemplar of His perfection. A human creature like one of us, flesh and temptation, he excelled in every test, hit every target. There was no hypocrisy in him because he was and is the completed union of human potential and divine act.

One way to end hypocrisy to eliminate standards. I think we’ve tried that already. Huge mess. We could also just say that everyone is a winner; everyone has met the standards. Bigger mess. Another way for us to eliminate hypocrisy is to admit up front that we will fail. And admit up front that our failure will sometimes be scandalous. This isn’t permission to fail; it’s an acknowledgement that we are not yet whole. We also have to say that despite our failures and despite the probability of scandal we do not lower the standards, shorten the goals, or create easier targets. The benchmarks of human holiness aren’t ours to revise. They belong to God. What we can do is confess that we are creatures, wholly and entirely—made, loved, redeemed, and brought to perfection as children of the Father. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “In Christ we were also chosen…so that we might exist for the praise of his glory…”

Hypocrisy then is not the failure to live up to the standards that we profess in God’s name. Hypocrisy is the prideful refusal to admit that we will fail. It is the refusal to admit that we will fail if we will not live and love in the life and love of Christ.

Perhaps the road to Gehenna is paved with the skulls of tight-lipped realists!

16 October 2006

Semiotic illiteracy

28th Week OT(M): Galatians 4.22-24, 26-27, 31-5.1 and Luke 11.29-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

I was lost in Nice, France with my good friend, Patrick. We had decided to take a bus from Villefranche to Nice to visit the Chagall and Matisse museums. When it was time to head back to our ship, we took a bus to the Garibaldi station and waited for the transfer back to Villefranche. And we waited and we waited. Three or four buses stopped but none was ours. We asked a woman at the station how to get back to Villefranche. I should say, we mimed and shouted and grunted and wildly gestured b/c neither of us speak French. The poor woman energetically responded to our desperation with what I can only assume was beautiful French. Let’s just say, her gestures were impressive! She repeatedly pointed to the signs on the bus stop and the signs on the street corners and the signs on the many construction barriers along the road. No good. Patrick and I wandered the Garibaldi area of Nice for an hour or so—illiterate and lost. Finally, we found our bus and made it back to the ship. The moral of the story? All the signs in the world will do you no good if you can’t read them.

Why is Jesus being so mean about the reasonable request of the crowd for a sign of his identity and power? Why is he being so stubborn all of a sudden?

There are at least two ways of reading Jesus’ signs, that is, two ways of interpreting his miracles. First, they can be seen as magical events, mysterious tricks that tickle the imagination and satisfy some sort of basic human need for the mystical. Second, the miracles can be seen as helps, as divine assistance for and confirmation of our initial trust in Jesus’ word that he is who he says he is. Signs as magical tricks have to be repeated, done again and again, and rarely if ever do they establish anything resembling faith in the human heart. Signs as help for our trust in Jesus’ word require faith first. They cannot confirm in us what doesn’t exist in us. Looking out over the crowd, Jesus knows that those clamoring for a sign are really clamoring for a circus trick. They will not believe even if he stops the sun and calls angels by the thousands.

The only sign he will give them is his death, his three day stay in the grave, and his resurrection. The sign of Jonah. They will either read this sign as a trick or it will confirm their faith. If they fail to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they will be condemned by the queen of the south and the Ninevites at the judgment. She came looking for the wisdom of Solomon not knowing that the Messiah had come. How could she? No one believed, so no one witnessed. The Ninevites repented at the sign of Jonah. They believed and were confirmed in their faith. They will judge this evil generation for its stubbornness and willful ignorance. Christ risen from the tomb three days later is a greater sign than Jonah’s three day stay in the belly of the fish.

Do we clamor after signs? Look for indications that our faith in Christ is justified? Are we running after apparitions or miraculous events or private revelations to confirm what we already know to be true? Will we be like the Ninevites who hear the Word preached and repent? Or will we be like those of the evil generation and chase after signs to have confirmed what we do not believe in the first place?

We are set free in Christ. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. The greatest sign of Christ’s fidelity to us—greater than Jonah and Solomon—is the Christian living a holy life of sacrificial witness and service. This is a sign easily read and universally understood. No magic. No tricks. No stage. No drama. Just charity in action—the surest sign that Christ is among his people.

15 October 2006

You are lacking one thing...

28th Sunday OT: Wisdom 7.7-11; Hebrews 4.12-13; Mark 10.17-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

Here’s what I know to be true about everyone in this church, everyone who can hear my voice right now, here’s what’s true about you: you desire to know God, you long to be touched by His spirit, you want more than gold, silver, or cold hard cash to be in His presence and to know his healing grace. How do I know this? There is no other reason for you to be here. No other incentive or reward to come to this place this evening than to encounter the living God. If you are here—and you are—then you are here b/c the Holy Spirit has thumped your ear, kicked you in the rear, or maybe even two-by-foured you upside the head. You are here b/c you know that you will not be filled, will not be settled, will not be gentled or graced or rested with anything or anyone less than the One Who made you. No gold, no silver, no cash, no love, no job, no amount or kind of power will slake your dry thirst, feed your yawning hunger, or tame your wild longing for our Father’s love. He is our beginning and our end, our source and our finish. And nothing shortens His love for us or diminishes His mercy to us. He knows what we need more than air to breathe and water to drink and He is here to give us all that we need. And this is why we are here.

So let me ask you: what riches do you put between you and our Father’s love for you? What possesses you and holds you back? If Jesus looked into your eyes and said to you: “You are lacking one thing for eternal life.” What is that one thing?

The rich young man asks Jesus how he might inherit eternal life. Jesus patiently recites the commandments given to Moses. The young man tells Jesus that he has observed the Law all his life. And then in an moment that deserves its own gospel, Jesus looks into the young man’s heart, loves him, and with this love sees the gaping hole in the young man’s soul—the lack, the longing that defines him. Jesus sees the young man’s enslavement to things. What the young man lacks but desires is poverty. Freedom from stuff. Freedom from ownership. He has many possessions. He is possessed by many things.

So, knowing that the young man seeks eternal life and knowing that he desires to be free of these things, why doesn’t Jesus free him from his possessions? Why not cast out the demons of avarice and liberate the young man from his bondage? Jesus does exactly that. Jesus tells him as precisely as he can: go, sell your stuff, give to the money to the poor, and follow me. His exorcism is complete. But you see, an exorcism is effective only on those willing to be freed from their demons. The young man desires to be free. But he doesn’t will it; he doesn’t act. And so he remains a slave to his possessions. Jesus offers him control over his greed, control over his stuff, and instead, at the words of exorcism, the young man’s face falls and he goes away sad to be sad all his days.

Here’s what you must understand about desire. Desire is at once longing and lacking, hungering and not having. To desire love is to long for it and to admit that you don’t have it. Jesus looks into the heart of the young man and sees his brightest desire, his strongest lack, and he loves him for it. But we cannot be a slave to two masters. We cannot give our hearts to two loves. We must be poor in spirit so that we can be rich in God’s gifts. We must be poor in spirit so that there is room for Christ, room for him to sit at our center and rule from the core of our being. This is what it means for us to prefer wisdom to scepter and throne; to prefer wisdom to health and beauty; to account silver and gold as sludge. In wisdom all good things come together in her company.

This is the point in the homily when I am supposed to exhort you to give up your earthly attachments. Exhort you to surrender your chains: your inordinate love of cars and money and gadgets and sex and drugs and rock and roll…But you know all that, don’t you? You know as well as I do that none of that is permanent. None of that can substitute for the love of God and the grace of his mercy. None of that will bring you happiness. It is ash and smoke and shadow and will never—despite the promises of luxury and attention—will never make you happy. You know this. I don’t need to tell you that nothing created can do what only the Creator can—give you a permanent love and life everlasting.

But let me ask you again: what riches do you put between yourself and our Father’s love for you? What possesses you and holds you back? If Jesus looked into your eyes and said to you: “You are lacking one thing for eternal life.” What is that one thing? Knowing UD students as I do, my guess is that not many of you are held back by expensive possessions. Not many are held back by lands and jewels and gold reserves! Not many of you are suffering under the weighty burden of Gucci, Prada, Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent!

Let me ask a different set of questions. Let’s see how many hit home. Are you rich in a fear that God doesn’t love you enough? Are you unlovable? Are you so rich in sin that a righteous God couldn’t possibly forgive you? Are you so rich in self-sufficiency, self-reliance that you don’t need other people? So rich in a personal knowledge of God that you don’t need others to reveal the Father to you? Are you so rich in divine gifts that you don’t need the gifts of others to make it day to day? Or maybe you’ve stored up your wealth in good works and can survive without grace for a while? Maybe you don’t need Jesus to look you in the eye and love you because your grasp of the theological and moral constructs of the human experience of the Divine are sufficient to elicit an affirmative response from the ground of your Being to the invitation of the Ground of Being Itself to become more Grounded in Being. Are you burning through your life on the fuel of self-righteous certainty—the false assurance that you’ve got it right all on your own (objectively and absolutely) and that there is nothing else for you to learn and no one competent to teach you? Are you so wise? Are you angry that no one else notices your wisdom? Does your desire for piety and purity bring you closer to your brothers and sisters in Christ, or is this desire an excuse to keep them at a safe distance? Is your public holiness also a private holiness, or is it a pretense that hides a furious lack of charity?

Let me ask the hardest question: what do you fear? More often than not we are slaves to our fears not our loves and we can dodge public responsibility for our fears. We cannot dodge Christ: no creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.

I’m not worried. Not even a little. Here’s what I know: we desire to know God, we long to be touched by His spirit, we want more than gold, silver, or cold hard cash to be in His presence and to know his healing grace. We are here b/c He loved us here and we got off the couch, off the computer, off the cell phone, and we made it here for this reason and no other: we cannot be happy w/o Him and there is no better or messier or more graceful place to find Him than among His mongrel children at prayer.

Bring your lack to Him and do what needs to be done to follow Him.