27 August 2007

Blind Fools! Hypocrites!

St. Monica: 1 Thes 1.1-5, 8-10 and Matthew 23.13-22
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Listen here!

Woe to you, Pharisees and scribes! Hypocrites! Blind guides! Fools! Ah yes, Jesus is on a tear. He targets those most directly responsible for access to the Divine, painting them as obstacles, obstructions, as perverse things-in-the-way, and then he loudly and squarely accuses them of turning hard-won converts into children of Gehanna! So, not only are the Pharisees and scribes preventing the children of the Father from entering the kingdom—avarice fogging their obedience—but when they do manage to make converts, they turn these men and women, by their corrupt teaching and worse example, into heirs of the burning garbage heap, sons and daughters of refuse and waste. Having locked the kingdom against themselves, those who sit on the chair of Moses lock the kingdom against all those trying to enter, packing on their backs the Law, traditional interpretation of the Law, editions to the Law, interpretations of the editions, editions of the editions, intepretations of the interpretations, and, finally, practical distinctions so fine, so subtle that they push God’s people to edge of blasphemy and idolatry. And so Jesus cries to the crowd and his disciples: Woe to you, Pharisees and scribes! Hypocrites! Blind guides! Fools!

Could we ask for a starker contrast to this scene than the one we read about in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians? Here Paul gives thanks to God for the “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope” of those chosen to lead the church in Thessalonia. Paul notes that though the gospel came to this thriving church through apostolic preaching and work, it also arrived “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.” In other words, the gospel arrived as testimony in human word and deed, full and bright; AND the gospel arrived as the passionate love of God, the Holy Spirit snatching up cold-hard hearts, whacking open locked minds, and punting comfortable tushies up and down the beaches of the Aegean Sea!

And what difference does any of this make in how the contrasting modes of spiritual leadership handle their responsibility to mediate the divine to the people in their charge? Here’s the difference between the Temple in Jerusalem and the Church in Thessalonia: Paul writes, “In every place your faith in God has gone forth…” Gone out. Away from. Branched upward. Their faith is diffusing, scattering, circulating; it is spreading like seed, like good news, like wealth. The faith of those who sit on the chair of Moses is hog-tied, strung-up, caged in craft and guile; what true faith they have is hoarded like gold, like food in famine, like water in a desert so meagerly shared that even those who possess see little benefit from having it. Therefore, they are blind guides leading blind tourists. Hypocrites teaching the accumulated minutiae of legal precedent—footnotes to footnotes, cross references to more minutiae, bibliographical trivia, citations and indices—all piled-high trivia labeled “Faith.”

What are we to do? Obviously, we’re not to look the scribes and Pharisees for spiritual leadership! And we are to watch carefully our own legalistic tendencies—so easy and neat, aren’t they? So simple, uncomplicated and clean. I think Paul hits the right note on our jobs in the spirit of Love: “…to serve the living and true God and to await His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus…” To serve and to wait. To serve only is busy work done to stay busy. To wait only is a lethal quietism, a posion against lived-charity. Our ministry is service and waiting. More precisely, our service is service to God insofar as we do it while waiting on the coming of His Son, Christ Jesus. And it is the waiting, the anticipation of his coming again that pushes us to witness our lived-faith and to serve the least of His.

You can be a lock or a key. Show your joy in Christ: unlock the Kingdom!

26 August 2007

Widening the Narrow Gate

Hey! There's nothing in the gospel about having to climb any stairs to the Narrow Gate!

21st Sunday OT: Isa 66.18-21; Heb 12.5-7, 11-13; Luke 13.22-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul
, Dallas, TX

Listen here!

That narrow gate ain’t getting any wider, and the wider I get the more I worry! There are times when I make a run for the gate, hoping to hit it hard enough to squeeze most of me through. You know, just hope that momentum pushes me on through. And there are other times that I think I might be able to slowly twist and turn, wiggle and jiggle in the right angles and pop on through. It’s a matter of finesse and know-how. And there are still other times that I just fall on the ground in front of the gate, kicking my feet and squalling like a baby needing his diaper changed! Let me through! Let me through! But fits and tempers don’t widen the gate either. Here’s my theory about that Narrow Gate: the gate is inversely proportionate to the size of the Pride trying to get through. The bigger the Pride, the narrower the gate. Humility—that lived-knowing that we are totally dependent on God for everything—my humility, your humility widens the gate and our Lord will say to us on the other side, “Hey! I know y’all! Come, recline at my table.” Momentum will not propel you through. Spiritual fervor, religious athleticism won’t help either. Nor will finesse or knowledge or good family connections wave you through ahead of the line. Infantile belly-aching about fairness and justice won’t reward you eternal life. Nor will whining about what you think you are entitled to / help you force your way through.

Someone asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Notice, please, that Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead he instructs, then warns, then prophesies. First, the instruction: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Then the warning: “…many, I tell you, will attempt to enter [the narrow gate]...” And finally the prophecy: “...but [they] will not be strong enough [to enter].” Unlike most of what we hear preached in our Catholic parishes these days and taught in our Catholic seminaries, this teaching is unambiguously exclusive, clearly it is not the all-inclusive, gates-wide-open-garden-banquet that we’ve been taught to believe represents salvation through Christ. Jesus couldn’t be more straightforward, more plain spoken: after the master of the house has locked the door, those standing outside will knock and plead, “Lord, open the door for us.” And the master will say, “I do not know where you are from.” And those outside will remind him that they ate and drank with him, listening to his teachings. The master will respond, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” Much wailing and gnashing of teeth follows. Now, is this the nonjudgmental, all-inclusive, diversity and difference welcoming Jesus we’ve come to know and ignore? I don’t think so.

Our Lord is not a way to God among various but equally valid ways to God. Our Lord is not a truth among numerous but perfectly legitimate truths. Our Lord is not a life among different but equivalently honorable lives. Jesus says, “I am THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life, and no one come to the Father, except through me. Christ is the Narrow Gate of salvation; he is the door to perfect freedom, perfect joy, perfect life, and that door opens for anyone, anyone at all—no one is excluded by Christ from the invitation to eternal life through Christ Jesus. Every human person, everyone, all of us are invited to knock on the gate in humility, to show him that we have been of service to the least of God’s children, and that we have put ourselves last in the kingdom by training our hearts and minds, by teaching our hands and feet through the daily exercise of righteousness—our workout routine in God’s Gym!

You might be confused now. Didn’t I say earlier that the teaching in this gospel is unambiguously exclusive? And didn’t I just say that Christ invitation to the gate and the party beyond it is all—inclusive! No one is left out. Exactly right. Christ leaves no one out of his invitation to follow him. No one. Jesus says, “And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” No race, no sex, no color, no religious creed, no nationality, no sexual proclivity, no nothing is excluded from the call to holiness in Christ Jesus. Aight. So, who are those people on the condemned side of the locked door? Who are the evildoers that the master is cussing at? The ones who couldn’t squeeze through the narrow gate? Those are the ones who hear the call but do not answer it. The ones who come to the gate swollen with pride, envy, greed, self-righteousness. The ones who work hard to get themselves through the gate but never love. The ones who think that their mama and daddy’s money or family name or political connections would get them through ahead of the trash in line. The ones who plan on forcing their way in, bullying God with witchcraft and theologies of liberation. The ones who will not be disciplined by any authority, any instruction, any law. The ones who consistently and finally chose to use their freedom as license and squander their heavenly inheritance on a gamble against the house, God’s house. Those who stand on the other side of the gate, wailing and grinding their teeth, are there b/c they choose to be there: unambiguously excluded.

I said earlier that the Gate’s size is inversely proportionate to the size of the pride/humility of the person seeking to get through. How do we shrink our pride and swell our humility? The letter to the Hebrews tell us that the discipline of the Lord brings “the peaceful fruits of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” OK. What is this discipline? “Discipline” is an ordered form of learning, an organized means of attaining knowledge and/or enlightenment. Most anything can be a discipline: exercising, dieting, reading/writing, study, prayer. The key to discipline is that it is done in an orderly way under some authority—a teacher, a coach, a supervisor, a spiritual director. We are not to disdain the “discipline of the Lord,” meaning we are not to deride or disrespect the orderly authority of Christ in teaching us his truth. From Hebrews we learn that his discipline is our faithful way of enduring trial, our obedient means of suffering well under testing. This endurance, this suffering is a witness; this is testimony under duress and evidence for the Kingdom!

To repeat: Hebrews tell us that the discipline of the Lord brings “the peaceful fruits of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Here’s your question for today: are you trained by the Lord’s discipline? Do you find yourself scourged by the love of the Father? He acknowledges you, so he treats you like a son; yes, even the women he treats like sons—as ones who will inherit His kingdom! Do you find pain or joy in your trials? Do you find peace or turmoil in obeying Christ? Do your hands droop and your knees grow weak thinking about the gospel-task in front of you? Do you give God thanks for your difficulties or do you complain? If you are made lame in your trials, it is better to make straight paths for your feet so that they may be healed and not disjointed. IOW, clear the path ahead of you by blasting it with gratitude to God! Yes, give God thanks for your diseases, your failures, your trials and persecutions, your disjointed bones and tired flesh. Thank Him and be disciplined. Be disciplined by the love that calls you to holiness, always calls to you to come to Him, and to pass through the narrow gate; you, shrunken in pride but swollen with humility; you, son of God, you, last of the least.