14 July 2008

Cutting Both Ways

Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha: Isa 1.10-17 and Matthew 10.34-11.1
Fr. Philip Neri Powell
St Albert the Great Priory

Think twice before opening your door to a prophet wielding a sword. That could be a fortune-cookie fortune, or a Jewish proverb, or even a bumper sticker for your Volvo. Wherever you might read it, it is sound advice. Prophets by nature are dangerous people. Often they not only tell us secrets we do not want to hear but they perform in ways we do not want to see. They expose our sins; speak in weird parables; interpret dreams and nature wonders; they are almost always dirty, unnecessarily hairy, and not well-dressed. They rave and gesticulate wildly, sometimes cursing and calling down destruction on our lives. Prophets are indeed dangerous b/c like their more modern counterpart, the poet, they are mad. It comes with spending too much time in the desert listening to God. So, imagine if you will one of these guys showing up at your door late one night, wielding a sword and shouting your repentance. What do you do? The smart ones among us, call the police. The brave sneak around back and turn the water hose on him. The truly foolish open the door and invite him in. Being ourselves fools for Christ, we glory when he hear Jesus say to his Apostles: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.” Do you reach for the doorknob, the phone, or the hose?

We have been reading scripture long enough to know that Jesus is prone to these outrageous declarations, shocking pronouncements designed to smack us in the face with the hard reality he is preaching. If nothing else, Jesus refuses to dilute the strong wine of his gospel, to mix his wild message of divine mercy into a sweet pabulum. Almost nothing he teaches is easy for us to swallow whole. His lesson to the Apostles this morning is no exception: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me…whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” That sound you hear is the pounding of a prophet’s sword hacking away at our easy complacency. There is no peace, no worldly peace to be enjoyed once you have opened the door to this sword wielding prophet from the mountain. Get out the Glade air-freshener and draw a hot bath. He’s here to stay.

Though Christ’s message is freely given and hard to hear—a gift of eternal life to all who receive it—there is a price to pay. Not a price to pay before enjoying his peace, but a consequence to choosing to let him into your home. What could be divisive, violent, or seditious about a message of mercy, love, and forgiveness? Whether your heart is set on violent vengeance, or simply nursing petty wounds; or, whether you enjoy others being indebted to you, or live like a leech on someone else’s fortune, Christ’s presence in your home means choosing another way, another path to walk. Old habits of accounting grievances or racking up scores to settle must be abandoned in favor of choosing the good for your friends and enemies alike. Old habits of living with the privileges of rank and wealth, living on the harvest of those you see as less than worthy to live with you, these habits have to be turned toward service. The consequence is a home destroyed, a home turned outward and upside-down. Swords cut along both edges.

Jesus tells his Apostles that when one receives a prophet because he is a prophet, one receives a prophet’s reward. John the Baptist’s head was served to Herod on a platter. Peter and Paul received their reward nailed to a cross. Other prophets waste away in prison, or find their reward at the barrel-end of a gun. Maybe a prophet’s reward is not worldly peace but martyrdom. No one likes a prophet. They tell us things that we do not want to hear. Of course, Jesus also tells his Apostles that when one receives a righteous man because he is righteous, one receives a righteous man’s reward. Is this any better than a prophet’s reward? Not really. Rarely do the truly righteous find a comfortable reward in this world. The righteous are no less annoying than prophets and they are often persecuted for their stubborn refusal to compromise.

Where does that leave us? Do we reach for the doorknob, the phone, or the hose? Whichever you choose, reach with fear and trembling. The sword cuts both ways. And it always cuts.

13 July 2008

On Being Tractors for the Lord

15th Sunday OT: Isa 55.10-11; Rom 8.18-23; Matthew 13.1-9
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
, Dallas, TX

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled! Do we hear but do not understand? Do we look but do not see? Have we closed our hearts to God’s Word? Do we refuse to understand? Will we be converted? Will we be healed? Jesus says to his disciples, “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. Hear then the parable of the sower…Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Sitting on a boat in the sea, Jesus teaches the crowd standing on the shore with a parable. A sower of seed sows seed. Some of the seed falls on fertile ground and some on rocks and among thorns. Some of the seed takes root in shallow soil. Some in deeper, richer earth. The seeds that fell on deep, rich soil grew to produce fruit thirty, sixty, a hundredfold. The seeds that fell among the rocks and on shallow ground were easily scorched by the sun, or torn up because their roots were weak. Whoever has ears ought to hear: if your heart is deep and rich, the seed of God’s Word will flourish and produce a great harvest; however, if your heart is made of stone or covered with shallow soil, the seed of God’s Word will not take root. Water the seed of God’s Word planted in your heart or the sun will burn it dry. And come harvest time, you will have nothing to give back to the Lord.

The Lord God says to Isaiah, “…my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” And so Jesus says to his disciples, “…blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.” Do we hear but not listen? Do we look but do not see? Have we closed our hearts to God’s Word? No, we have not. We see and listen and our hearts are open to receive he whom the Lord has sent as seed for our harvest. But do we understand? After Jesus finishes his parable, the disciples approach him and ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The disciples must be thinking: why not just say you mean; plainly, clearly say what you mean? Why not do what the farmer on his tractor does—just give them a straightforward, easy to understand description of what happens when the Word falls on fertile hearts, on dead hearts, on tumultuous hearts? Jesus says, “[I speak to them in parables] because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Not exactly agricultural science or nature’s art! The disciples are privileged to know something more about the mysteries of how we are rescued from sin and granted eternal life. They are more than by-standers on the shore; they possess more than curious ears hearing a story told from a boat. And so do we; as his disciples right now, so do we.

What do we see? Hear? What do we understand? As disciples of the risen Lord, we can see the evil one coming to steal away the seed of the Word from those who refuse to understand his Word. As disciples of the risen Lord, we hear those who receive the Word with praise and thanksgiving, but who never allow the Word to take root in their stony hearts. As disciples of the risen Lord, we see and hear those with thorny hearts, hearts ruled by anxiety and the lure of riches, we see and hear them receive the Word but then choke the seedlings of the Word with compromise, worldly contentment, and sin. How do we see and hear all of this? How do we understand? Because at one time or another we ourselves, the disciples of the risen Lord, till stony, shallow, sun-scorched hearts, soil deadly to the Word that Lord would sow and nurture if only we were better farmers, better disciples.

The farmer plows and plants year to year. Each year as the earth tilts to spring, the fields are tilled and planted. Each year the harvest grows and produces fruits. Some years are better than others. Some years are flooded or burned. Eaten by insects or frozen solid with ice. But each year the farmer plows and plants; each year the farmer sows what he has and waits on the weather. Are we any different? The cycle of plowing and planting and producing good fruit might seem futile, even cynical given the vagaries of weather and time. But we know as the disciples of the risen Lord is that “…creation awaits with eager expectation…in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains…and we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Our faith is not a gamble. Our faith is not two dice thrown on the chance that salvation comes with a pair of sixes. We hope! And the chances of circumstance and time cannot diminish the expected fulfillment of the promises of God. Nothing touches our hope. Nothing dries out our faith.

Of course, we fail. Of course, our hearts grow cold. Sometimes we spread the rich soil of our soul too thin and the Word cannot take root. But one year is not like another. Each year is a new year for plowing and planting. Each day is a new year. And today, this year, the Year of St. Paul, is our day, our year to plow deep and plant recklessly, excessively, expansively; to do what Paul did and go out as apostles to world we live in and the world we have never seen to plow and plant and offer to God the harvest of His Word. The Lord says to Isaiah, “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…” And so Jesus says, “To anyone who has, more will be given…” As disciples of the risen Lord, we have the most we can have and more will be given. We see what the prophets longed to see. We hear what the righteous longed to hear. If we will understand with our hearts converted, we see and hear even more. But if we do not share, if we do not ourselves plow and plant, what we have will wither and die. The harvest of the Word is not ours to keep, stored up in barns and stocks; but rather, His to freely give and ours to distribute.

Paul walked and sailed the known world to plow men’s hearts and plant the seed of God’s Word. He was questioned, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and eventually crucified. And yet, he says to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed to us.” As disciples of the risen Lord, we are baptized with that same spirit of revelation, washed clean in the same waters that freed Paul to be the apostolic farmer of the Word that he was. And so we too wait in hope, listening to the groaning of all creation, waiting on the redemption of all the Lord’s work, plowing and planting every seed of the Word we have received, and rightly expecting a harvest to frighten the world!

Farming is hard work. Long days, summer heat, fickle rain, even more fickle markets. There are no guarantees in farming. The worms and locusts may be thick this year. The weeds high and strong. The tractor may be old and often broken. The prices meager. But when farming is all you have, all you do, everything you are, you farm and you farm with the vigor and determination of a zealot. As disciples of the risen Lord, we have vowed to be zealous farmers, passionate plowers of the human heart, and planters of the Lord’s mercy and love. Nothing touches our hope. Nothing diminishes our faith. Not opposition, not scorn, not persecution or trail. Not even death. So, get on that tractor—endure the heat, ignore the markets, suffer the price, and plow the world! Plant the seed!

The Lord waits on His harvest.