10 July 2008

Free with Purchase

14th Week OT (R): Hosea 11.1-4, 8-9 and Matthew10.7-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Though I have been an English teacher now for some twenty-two years, I’m not one of those fussy grammarian types who go around correcting “who” for “whom,” nor do I wag my finger at the barbarians who have killed the subjunctive mood of our verbs: “If I were going” not “If I was going…” Maybe I don’t do this sort of thing b/c I am a bad grammarian; regardless, there are two occasions when I get my school-marm bun in a twist. Go to WalMart or Kroger. Find the express lane. Does the sign indicating the express lane read, “Ten items or less” or “Ten items or fewer”? If the sign reads “less,” find the manager and make him write 500 times, “Less in amount, fewer in number.” Apparently, in Wally’s World, less is less prim and proper than fewer. The other annoying grammatical gremlin is the “free gift” offered with purchase. First, if it is truly a gift it is free by definition, so the adjective “free” in “free gift” is redundant. Second, if you have to purchase something to get the free gift, it is not a gift but a bribe. Marketers aren’t stupid; I mean, they aren’t uneducated in the ways that people respond to language, so why do you think that they make this mistake over and over again in their advertising? If “ten items or fewer” sounds prissy to the average American and so the signs read “ten items or less,” then “gifts” must be labeled “free” b/c how many of us really believe that anything anymore comes to us freely?

That question leads us to this one: why would anyone upon hearing the proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom and the gracious wish of peace upon one’s household, refuse to receive that word and the wish of peace by listening? Jesus tells the disciples that they are to proclaim the kingdom in whatever town or village they find themselves in. Upon entering the house of their host, “wish [the household] peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace be upon it…” If the house is not worthy, Jesus tells his friends, “let your peace return to you…go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” In other words, let nothing of their disobedience stay with you. They have refused the gift of peace that comes from hearing and doing—that is, listening—to the Word of God. Why would anyone refuse to listen?

Before instructing his friends on how to go out and proclaim the kingdom, Jesus reminds them, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” How many of those who hear the disciples proclaim the kingdom truly believe that the message is a “free gift”? The cynics will say, “Yea, free, suuure.” The pessimists will say, “Who needs a gift that promises to kill us?” The optimists will say, “I’m happy now; besides happiness can’t be given?” And the truly world-wise will say, “What do I have to buy to get this allegedly ‘free gift’”? Like the modern consumer, these folks do not believe anything is truly free. If they cannot believe that the proclamation of the gospel message is a gift, then how will they ever come to believe that something as infinitely valuable as their rescue from sin and death is a “free gift” from God?

We have to wonder even now if we, the teachers and preachers of that freely given gospel, perpetuate the prejudice against the gospel being truly free. Jesus tries to help us now by telling his friends then not to preach with silver or gold or copper rattling around in our pockets; to go out preaching without a sack for the journey or a change of clothes or an extra pair of shoes. In other words, when we go out proclaiming the kingdom we are to appear as though the message we preach is free. So, the better question here might be: do those who refuse to listen to the freely given message of salvation through Christ see us as messengers who really believe that the message we bring is free? If the medium is the message, then we must look like the gospel we proclaim. Otherwise, those who hear but do not listen can say, “Looks like an expensive Way to go to me.”

This psalmist this morning prays, “Let us see your face, Lord, and will shall be saved.” Looking at His preachers, how much do you reckon folks think they will have to pay just to glimpse His face? What is the price of salvation if we who believe live as if there is a price for all to pay?

07 July 2008

"I do..."

14th Week OT(M): Hos 2.16-18, 21-22; Matthew 9.18-26
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Among Catholic mystics for quite a few centuries, it was almost a requirement for admission into the guild that they produce at least one meditation on the erotic theology of the Song of Songs. For those of us who tend to lean a little more to the creative side of the faith and revel in expressing that faith in gloriously poetic terms, the only text that rivals the Book of Revelation for weirdly vivid imagery and the opportunity for preaching right at the border of the naughty and the nice is the Song of Songs. But for all of its bridal imagery, espousal theology, and near-naked romping on the Judean hillsides, the Song of Songs is not the only book in our paternal scriptures that lays the foundation under the Bride-Bridegroom metaphor for Christ and his Church. We have, for example, the prophet Hosea reporting that after the Lord passes a severe judgment on His people for idolatry, He makes this promise to Israel: “I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth…on that day, says the Lord, She shall call me ‘my husband,’ and never again ‘my master.’” Though not as steamy as the proposals from the Song of Songs, Hosea’s prophecy makes the same erotic point: even in our adulterous affairs with other gods, our Lord comes to us as a people, espousing us to Him as His Bride and healing us of all our sin: “I will espouse you to me forever…”

Lest we worry too much that speaking of God in erotic terms borders on the blasphemous, let’s be clear about what an “erotic theology” really is. The Fathers of the Church make extensive use of seduction metaphors to describe how God lures us to Him; how God “wines and dines” us so that we are more willing and able to come to Him in love. If we hold that we come from God as creatures (created beings) and that our ultimate salvation is our return to Him as our source, then to say that God seduces us back to Him is no scandal at all. If this is the pleasant side of our seduction, then we can easily see how our persistent refusal to be espoused to God causes us tremendous stress and dis-ease. In the ancient world, sin and sickness are twined sisters of the devil. To be sick was to be sinful. To be forgiven one’s sins was to be healed of all sickness. Though we may not make this direct physical connection today, we understand all too well that sin sickens the soul. So, when we play “hard-to-get” with God, we are refusing to marry our only source of health. We say “No” to God’s proposal that we live with Him as a bride lives with her bridegroom.

What do the official and the woman suffering from chronic hemorrhages know about Jesus? They know that he can heal. Believing that Christ can bring about the marriage of the Father and His people both submit themselves in faith to the power of Christ to mend death and disease alike. The official kneels and pleads for his dead daughter’s return to the living. The woman touches the tassel of Christ’s cloak without speaking to him. The daughter arises from death. And the woman is saved, her bleeding cured. In their love and humility both are seduced by God, betrothed to His promise, married in His covenant, and the covenant is consummated in their return to health. Perhaps they remembered that the Lord said to Hosea, “I will espouse you to me forever…I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.”

Well understood in the early days of the Church was the notion that “knowing” a thing is to have an intimate relationship with that thing. To know a truth about a thing was to know its essence, its most basic nature. The known bonded with the knower, so that nothing was left unknown. What can be more intimate than the knowledge that comes from consummating a marriage bond? And to be bonded to the source of our being—the source of all rightness and goodness—is to be made righteous and good in the bonding. Our Blessed Mother says yes to God’s seduction and gives birth to the Word. Jesus himself says yes to God’s seduction and gives birth to our eternal lives. We can do no less if we are to live forever in the divine health that the Lord proposes for us.

“I will espouse you to me forever," says the Lord, “I will espouse you in right and justice, in love and mercy…and you shall know the Lord.”

06 July 2008

The Only Burden

14th Sunday OT: Zech 9.9-10; Rom 8.9, 11-13; Matt 11.25-30
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
’s Hospital, Dallas, TX

If you have spent any time at all splitting cord-wood for the fireplace; or digging a foundation for a new house; or shoveling gravel for a roadbed; or if you have spent most of a Saturday washing and drying laundry, vacuuming the carpets, dusting and polishing the furniture, and cleaning up after a late dinner, then Christ’s invitation to take on his yoke as a lighter burden could be very appealing. Even the day to day grind at the office, the store, the classroom, the bank, wherever it is you grind away a day, the work you do can easily become a burden, not just a difficult job but a tremendous weight, an unbalanced unload that threatens to topple you over into despair. Perched on top of this leaning tower of worries and work, none of us needs a religion that imposes another set of burdens, an additional heavy-bookload of obligations, penalties, policies, and rules. The last thing we need is for our relationship with God to become work, a tedious job, a dutiful burden. And so, Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father…Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

We might wonder what sort of yoke Christ would use. He says his yoke would be easy and the burden light, but a yoke is a yoke no matter how easy, and being tied to any sort of burden means pulling a weight no matter how light. I start thinking about being yoked to a burden and several questions come to mind: will I be pulling this light burden uphill? Or across sand? Stone? In traffic or out in the wild? Will it be raining or snowing or will I have to pull this burden in the heat and humidity of a July in Texas? Other questions come to mind: what’s in it for me? Is this a paid gig? Insurance, benefits? Is there a Light Burden Haulers union? Vacation time, sick days, opportunities for advancement? Does Jesus offer a tuition credit for further studies? And, by the way, exactly what is it that I will be hauling? Since I’m a peaceful man I really can’t in good conscience haul military equipment. I will haul medical equipment and supplies so long as none of them will be used for abortions or sterilizations. Will I have to haul loads going to churches other than the Catholic Church? Anyway, all good questions, but questions that miss the point entirely. These questions are asked “according to the flesh.” All Jesus is asking us to haul under his easy yoke is the light load of knowing that he is the Christ sent by the Father to free us from sin and grant us eternal life. He says, “…for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.”

Find rest of ourselves…is this what we do when we come to believe that Jesus is the Christ? Isn’t it more often the case that we find ingenuous ways of throwing scattered junk and assorted debris on top of our easy burden, weighing down the load with more and more waste, more and more unnecessary rubbish? And as our load grows larger and the burden more difficult to manage, who is it that we blame? Jesus? The Church? Religion in general? Our Lord tells us that his Father has hidden certain truths from the “the wise and the learned,” but that He has revealed these truths to the “little ones.” Are you wise and learned, or are you a little one? The difference between the two has everything to do with whether or not you think your burden is light enough, your path straight enough, and his yoke easy enough.

In one of his many sermons,* St. Augustine has this to say about our gospel passage, "All other burdens oppress and crush you, but Christ's burden actually lightens your load. All other burdens weigh you down, but Christ's burden gives you wings. If you cut away a bird's wings, it might seem as though you are taking off some of its weight, but the more weight you take off [by removing its wings], the more you tie the bird down to the earth. There it is lying on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a burden; give it back the weight of its wings, and you will see how it flies." The wise and the learned know that the heavier an object is the more work it takes to make it fly. Lighter objects need less work to fly. But the little ones know that a bird cannot fly without the weight of its wings. Christ’s yoke, his burden on us weighs less than bird bones and feathers.

Paul, writing to the Romans, teaches us, “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you…” As baptized and confirmed members of the Body of Christ, God’s Spirit does dwell within us. And since God’s Spirit abides in us, “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies…” And since our mortal bodies will be given the life of the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns for us, “brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh…” And so, we are to live as Little Ones—the poor, the broken, the thrown away, the diseased, those who rush to Jesus for a word of healing, just one touch to see justice done.

Why must be become so little? Because to be filled with the Spirit we must first be emptied out as Christ himself was emptied out for us on the Cross. There is no room for God’s Spirit in a body crowded with fear, worry, anger, a lust for revenge, a desire to punish; there is no room for God in a soul stuffed full with the need to worship alien gods; to kill the innocent; to torture the enemy. Greed, jealousy, rage, promiscuity, dissent, all elbow sharply at our souls for more space for themselves but make no room for God. Paul warns us: “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die…” If we will live, we must “put to death the deeds of the body…”

Nothing that you have heard Jesus or Paul say this morning should surprise you. You know the consequences of sin. Firstly, sin makes you stupid. Disobedience quenches the fire of the intellect, so that you choose evil over good. Do this often enough and you become a fool. Secondly, since sin makes you foolish, you come to believe that you are wise. If you are also learned, that is, well-educated in the world, you might even begin to believe that you better than God Himself what is best for you. Enter all those nervous questions about the nature of Jesus’ burden and the weight of his revelation to you. Finally, since sin makes you a wise and learned fool, you may come to believe that you can do without God altogether, becoming, for all intents and purposes, your own god, worshiping at the altar of Self. At this point, you have excluded yourself from God’s love and the company of the blessed. Welcome to Hell. Maybe the Devil will let you rule a small corner of your favorite level, but don’t count on it. You know the consequences of sin. So empty yourself. Make plenty of room for God’s Spirit.

If we will come among the blessed and thrive in holiness, then we will take on the light and easy yoke of Jesus and let him teach us the one thing we must know above all else: He is the Christ sent by the Father so that we might have eternal life. This is not the end of our spiritual journey; it is just the beginning. Christ’s warnings about the wise and learned are not meant to push a kind of anti-intellectualism, a know-nothing party of prejudice and blindness. In fact, it is because we are first weighted down with the feather-light wisdom of Jesus’ yoke that we must then come to understand our faith, to use our graced minds to explore and comprehend God’s creation—ourselves and everything else. If we are emptied of the deeds of the flesh and infused with the Spirit of God, then our bodies too are graced, and we have nothing to fear from the mind, nothing to worry about in seeking out knowledge and understanding. To know God’s creation better is to know God Himself better, and when we know God better and better, we become smaller and smaller and more and more ready to receive the only revelation we need to come to Him, the only burden from Him we must carry: Jesus is the Christ!

*Sermon 126, my version