4th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Joseph Church, Ponchatula
While thinking and praying about the Sermon on the Mount and what I would preach about this morning/evening, I read a review of the newly released movie, The Rite. Based on a book by an American priest who studies the art of exorcism in Rome, the movie takes some liberties with author's story and threatens to turn his spiritual battle into a demon-populated spring break flick. According to the all the reviews I've read, however, the movie does an excellent job of portraying the priest's battle with the Devil without becoming just another horror movie. One review in particular caught my attention. John Zmirak, who writes for the website, Inside Catholic, appreciates the movie b/c it goes a long way toward challenging the oftentimes Hallmark-like way that our faith is portrayed by Hollywood. He writes, “The Catholic faith is neither [simply bland nor inoffensive]. In fact, like really authentic Mexican food (think habeneros and fried crickets), it is at once both pungent and offensive. It offends me all the time, with the outrageous demands it makes of my fallen nature and the sheer weirdness of its claims. It asserts that, behind the veil of day-to-day schlepping, of work and laundry and television and microwaved burritos, we live on the front lines of a savage spiritual war. . .” If we need an example of the “sheer weirdness” of our faith, we couldn't ask for better than the Sermon on the Mount. Just about everything Jesus says in this sermon is “pungent and offensive” to just about everything our culture wants us to believe. Living as faithful Catholics in this world is often an exercise in contradiction and opposition.
Before we get to the Sermon itself, let's take a look at what Paul writes to the Corinthians. It's pretty clear that Paul understands just how weird our commitment to Christ can be. Consider, for example, who it is that God has called into His Church: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing. . .” This sounds to me like a recipe for disaster! Rather than picking the wise, the strong, the highly placed and well-loved of the world, God calls out the foolish, the weak, the lowly and the despised. Imagine if God had pitched His idea for establishing a Church to a group of American investors and told them, “Management and personnel will be recruited from the poorest of the poor; from the wretched, the broken and diseased; from the uneducated and poorly educated; from the mentally and emotionally crippled; basically, I want this new enterprise to be a place where all the rejects and throwaways of the world can come to find healing and peace.” Do you think the investors would jump at the chance to buy into this obviously doomed project? Or would they tell God that His plan was “sheer weirdness” and walk out? To the modern American sense of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, everything about the Church God has given us reeks of falsity, evil, and ugliness.
Of course, we don't have to imagine that God planned a Church like the one presented to the investors. He, in fact, established just such a Church, and we are it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out his business plan. Who will be among the blessed? The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger for righteousness; the merciful and the clean of heart; the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness' sake. Find a wretched soul, broken and beaten by the world, persecuted for his or her trust in God, a soul steeped in mourning, yet thirsting for justice, and you have found the Church God established. Everything about this picture of our faith is just weird, simply bizarre. What could be more offensive and pungent to the world than an organization that prizes above all else the blessedness of mercy, forgiveness, meekness, poverty of spirit, self-sacrifice, obedience, moral restraint, charity, and life-long fidelity? That Christians are the single most persecuted group of religious believers on the planet tells us that there is little about our strange faith that pleases the powers of this world. That Christians—especially Catholics—are safely ridiculed, discriminated against, and openly slandered tells us that the Church sits in the midst of our culture like a pungent, offensive prophet—a living sign of contradiction, a witness against the vanities of the world and the futility of trying to be wise without God.
The Sermon on the Mount is a prediction and a promise. Jesus predicts our persecution and promises us blessedness. He makes it perfectly clear that following him back to the Father will be not only difficult but dangerous as well, potentially deadly and most definitely discomforting. And even if we weren't persecuted for standing against the demands of a culture without God, the outrageous demands of the Church herself would be difficult enough. Think for a moment about what it is that we are asked to believe. We are asked to believe that there is an all-good, all-knowing, ever-present god who loves us. Yet, evil seems to flourish. Disease, violence, unimaginable suffering, natural and man-made disasters. We are asked to believe that this god took on human flesh and sacrificed himself for our benefit. We are asked to restrain perfectly naturally passions and desires so that we might imitate the goodness of this god. Perhaps the most outrageous demand for modern Americans is that we are asked to sacrifice in order that others might flourish, to set aside our own needs, our own wants and work diligently for the benefit of strangers and for our enemies. What sane person helps those who would see him dead? But therein lies blessedness. That's not just a promise made by a crackpot preacher 2,000 years ago. That's a promise made by the Word made flesh, God Himself, a promise already fulfilled and waiting for us to claim it.
Living in this world as faithful Catholics is often an exercise contradiction and opposition. We stand against a culture that promotes death as a solution to unwanted pregnancies, terminal illnesses, and inconvenient suffering. We stand against a culture that promotes the goodness of satisfying every base desire regardless of the consequences. A culture that rewards lying, self-promotion, greed, the prestige of wealth and celebrity. But while standing against the tides of this world, we stand with the blessed: the poor, the diseased, the oppressed, those persecuted for the faith. We stand with self-sacrifice, unconditional mercy, boundless hope, and the promise of freedom from the slavery of sin. Most importantly: we do not stand alone, as individuals but together as one Body in Christ. With all of our weirdnesses, all of our outrageous demands, with all of our pungent and offensive beliefs, we are of one heart, one mind, and we give God thanks and praise with one voice. Our hope lies in a single truth. Though we are engaged on the frontlines of a spiritual battle, the war has already been won. God is victorious. Our work—as His faithful sons and daughters—is to make sure that His victory shines through everything we do, everything we think, everything we say. As living, breathing testimonies to His redeeming love, we stand—as weird and offensive as we can sometimes be—we stand always as witnesses for His will that all of creation return to Him, whole, pure, perfected in Christ.
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