29 September 2008

Empty to be Filled

26th Sunday OT: Ezk 18.25-28; Phil 2.1-5; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Think about standing in line before the Pearly Gates and seeing in front of you the IRS agent who audited your taxes and ruined you financially; the infamous Hollywood Madame who kept a client list and caused the downfall of several prominent politicians and televangelist; the German serial killer who butchered his victims, stored their bodies in his deep-freezer, and on occasion thawed out a piece or two for dinner. Imagine these folks ahead of you in line and think about how they might have gotten where they are. Tax collector, a prostitute, a serial killer. We could add several others: the HIV-AIDS infected man who intentionally sleeps with other men to spread the disease; the bankers and portfolio managers whose greed helped cause the current economic disaster; political leaders in countries all over the world who starve, torture, murder their citizens for power; the list could go on, and so the line into heaven could get longer and longer. But the question here is: seeing these people ahead of you in line, you have to wonder, how did they get here? Such profoundly evil people in line to heaven. How?

The quick and easy answer, of course, is God’s grace. But that’s not much of an answer because no one is in that line without God’s grace. What does it mean for a serial killer or a avaricious banker to experience God’s grace, repent of his sin, and find himself in a line to heaven? Remember our question from last week: are you envious of God’s generosity? Man’s capacity to receive God’s grace is not limitless. However, there is no limit to God’s generosity. Limitless grace poured into a limited vessel means one thing: overflow; assuming, of course, that the vessel is indeed filled. But for a sinner to be filled requires a certain awareness that he/she is empty in the first place.

Is this the point that Jesus is making about the son who refuses to work but then repents and does as he is asked to do. Having refused to work, the son is ripe with disobedience, rigid with refusal and dissent. Being so far from his father’s will, he is keenly aware of being lost. That despair drives him back to his father’s will and saves him. The other son, accepting his father’s will, eagerly agrees to work but fails to follow through. His disobedience is compounded by deceit. Believing himself to be filled with his father’s will, he is not “empty enough” to repent. He coasts, if you will, on his initial good will, believing that this is sufficient to save him from his father’s wrath.

How do serial killers, corrupt politicians, prostitutes end up in heaven with you, the righteous son or daughter? If they end up there, they do so first because the absence of the Father’s will hurts too much to ignore. How long can a creature turn from its Creator and not feel the yawning emptiness of desire denied? To be created is to have purpose. We are purpose given flesh and spirit. You cannot NOT be what you were made to be for very long and fail to feel the corruption of your refusal. To repent of your refusal is like a tremendous rebound, the further you stretch away from God’s will, the harder, the faster, the tighter the comeback! A glorious SNAP! right back into the will of the Father.

Standing there in line with the other sinners, all of those who recognized the emptiness of their disobedience and repented, you can look around you and see some of the infamous wretches of history. If they are there, they are there because they figured out that they are limited vessels, overflowing with the limitless graces of a loving God. The ones you are not likely to see standing in line are those who believed to the end that they were vessels once filled, always filled, and needing nothing more from God than His push for their own initial yes, they pursue other, smaller desires. Having taken a sip of His grace, they believe their thirst is quenched and drink no more.

Is there a better definition of hell?

Are you jealous of God's generosity?

25th Sunday OT: Is 55.6-9; Phil 1.20-24, 27; Matt 20.1-16
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

We’ve all heard the joke about St. Peter welcoming a group of people from different denominations into the Kingdom of Heaven and then sneaking them past a room full of Catholics (or Baptists or Mormons, etc) and telling the new arrivals as they near the room, “Be quiet. They think they are the only ones here.” Har, har. Chuckle, chuckle. Isn’t it silly to think that only members of your own denomination are going to heaven? Isn’t it silly to think that only members of your own religion are going to heaven? In fact, it probably is silly, or even slightly prideful to think so. Does this mean that everyone will go to heaven? No. Does this mean that can go to heaven despite our denominational membership? Yes. Does this mean that we don’t need to be members of the Body of Christ to go to heaven? Absolutely not; it means nothing of the sort. So, why is it silly to think that only Catholics, or only Baptists, or only Methodists are going to heaven? Well, as our Lord clearly states in this morning’s reading from Isaiah, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways…As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Given this, let’s ask of ourselves the question the landowner puts to his whiney workers, only make it a question to us from our Lord, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

What does it mean to be envious? Our Lord blesses all of us with certain gifts that He then nurtures in order to move us closer to Him. His love in us is perfected as we use His gifts to serve others. So long as we are using our gifts to serve others, His love is being perfected in us. The constant temptation, of course, is to covet the gifts of others, to envy their blessings and pine for the gifts we do not have. As I lust after your gifts, I ignore my own and God’s love is not being perfected in me. Envy is one of the easiest means the Devil has for distracting us away from our charitable duties. Not only do we serve his ends by failing to serve one another, we fret away in envy, allowing the seed of our Lord’s love in us wither from inattention. For the Devil, it’s a two-fer, two sins for the price of one.

What do we mean by God’s generosity? By nature, God is diffusive Goodness; that is, what God is is Goodness in limitless abundance, diffused without diminishment across His creation. We are attracted to His perfection so that our imperfect nature might be made whole. That it is even possible for us to be made whole in His perfection is His gift of Himself to us. This gift of human nature perfected in the divine was made flesh in Christ Jesus. Think of it this way: Jesus is who we will be if we accept the gift of his sacrifice for us; Jesus is who we were made to be if would only use our gifts in the same way that Jesus gave (gifted) his life for us—willing, sacrificially. The Cross of Calvary and the Empty Tomb of Easter are the fulfilled promises of a generous Father who knows no limits to His abundance. God is not generous; His is Generosity per se. Being generous is not what God does; it is Who He Is.

So, what does it mean then to ask, “Are you envious of our Lord’s generosity?” This question is a direct challenge to and a rebuke of the stinginess of spirit exemplified in the whiney workers who complain to the landowner about the pay they receive for a day’s work. Why do the latecomers receive the same pay when they have not done as much work? What’s the real complaint here? We’ve worker longer, so we deserve more pay. The landowner’s response is just: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go.” This parable is usually read as a rebuke to the Jews who complain that they have done the work of following the Law and now the Messiah pops up and offers the Lord’s mercy to any and all regardless of whether or not the latecomers have fulfilled even one obligation under the Law. The landowner (God) justifies his generosity, “What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?” As members of the Body of Christ, are we ready to say to the Lord, “No, you may not do as you wish with your gift of salvation. We’re earned ours; they haven’t.”

If this sentiment rises in our hearts even for a moment, we need to ask again, “Are we envious of the Lord’s generosity?” Now, does this mean that our Lord will save everyone? No, it doesn’t. It means that the possibility of salvation is universal. No one is excluded from the invitation to become a member of the Body. If our Lord’s generosity reached into the freed will of every person and compelled acceptance of this invitation, then we could say that we are not free. What has been made absolutely clear to us is that the Body of Christ was raised from the tomb on the third day, resurrected and ascended, he sits at the Father’s right hand. Also made perfectly clear to us is that the Body of Christ, the Church, will be raised on the last day; resurrected and ascended, she will sit at the foot of the throne in heaven.

Our Lord has every right to be jealous of our love. We tend to wander now and again, and His jealousy reminds us not that He is petty, but that His love is necessary for our eternal lives. Though God is jealous of our love for Him, we cannot be jealous of His love for us. By nature, our God is Love and His love, that is, God Himself, is diffusive. How do you hoard God? How do you “stock up” on God and ration His love for His creatures? You don’t! And if you try, you will fail, and you will fail with dire consequences. Are you envious that our God is generous? If so, then you are wallowing in a bit of dangerous irony, dwelling rather cynically in a very shallow, self-righteous puddle. We must be diffusive of the Love that saved us, or we must get out the way…