07 May 2011

And the number of disciples increased. . .

2nd Week of Easter (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

Anyone who's worked with college students in ministry can tell you that there is one persistent frustration for the campus minister: a phenomenon I call “overbooking.” Students will commit to several school projects with overlapping schedules and, at the last minute, pick one that seems to be the most interesting. Of course, this leaves whatever project campus ministry is working on with fewer than expected helping hands. We don't need to look too closely at why hyperactive, over-scheduled children of the internet age pledge themselves to multiple, mutually exclusive projects. The serious challenge for the organizer of any volunteer community project is making your project worthy of being selected and attended by those afflicted with a short attention-span and an overbooked schedule. Compared to the merely mortal campus minister, Jesus had it easy. He multiplied fishes and loaves; healed the blind and crippled; exorcised demons; walked on water, and performed the one miracle that would impress even the most jaded college student—changing water into wine! But even more impressive than these miracles is his refusal to be made into a pop celebrity, his stubborn unwillingness to be seen as a circus act, a freak show character. True, Jesus draws the crowds with miracles but he keeps the faithful attentive by doing nothing more than teaching the truth and serving the least among his Father's children.

If there's a theme to the lives of the apostles after the resurrection it has to be: live the gospel faithfully and the Church will grow. We reads in Acts that the apostles went around fervently preaching the gospel, standing up to their persecutors, and organizing their tiny community of believers. There were miracles—Peter healing the crippled man—and there was a dramatic confrontation with the chief priests, resulting in some jail time and an angelic rescue. No doubt these drew the attention of the curious. But there's little enough in these incidents to maintain the faith a large group of believers, especially given that their faith that requires self-denial, constant sacrifice, and could earn the believer a chance to spend some time in prison. So, what's the Something More about the infant Church that lures people in and keeps them there? Free food and wine? Good company? The chance to meet a famous Jewish heretic or two? Maybe but probably not. Luke tells us in Acts that after the apostles laid hands on Stephen and six other “reputable men” that “the word of God continued to spread and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.” When Christ's disciples believe the gospel and act on their belief, God's Word spreads and the crowds see and hear the truth behind the miracles.

We could easily double the size of the congregation here at St. Joseph's by spending a couple of million on high-tech A/V equipment; TV advertising and other promotional material; hire several well-trained ministers for specific groups within the parish; start-up a nursery school, a food bank, maybe a shrine to St Joseph. We could stuff our schedule with programs, seminars, and guest-speakers; invite celebrity musicians and preachers. Our parish rolls would grow and grow. But we'd have to ask: why are we growing? What's drawing people in? If we're drawing crowds with gimmicks, with “attractions,” we have to ask, will they stay? Will they grow in holiness? As disciples, our first and only task is to do give witness to the gospel in our thoughts, words, and deeds—to be disciples and act like disciples; to be filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, seeking God's wisdom and proclaiming the excellent fruits of believing on the name of Christ. Jesus avoided the glamors of celebrity, the foibles of popularity so that he could faithfully preach God's truth in season and out. If we do that and nothing but that, they will come and they will stay. And the number of the disciples in Ponchatoula increased greatly!

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05 May 2011

Grace is not rationed

2nd Week of Easter (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

One of the more unfortunate metaphors from understanding our redemption in Christ Jesus comes from the world of economics. Christ's death on the Cross established a “treasury of merits” in heaven that we can tap into when we are “short on grace.” The saints, especially the Blessed Mother, also contribute to this treasury and are able to dole out favors when properly petitioned. As western Christians steeped in the economics of wealth exchange that makes use of money, it is all too easy for us to start thinking of grace as a form of currency between heaven and earth. Since nothing worth having can truly be free of charge, we fall into the trap of believing that even grace comes with a price. Good works, prayers, devotional practices—all these are often seen as ways of earning a little extra grace on the side. Besides the fact that grace cannot be earned or bought, this economic metaphor for redemption creates another problem for our understanding of how we are saved: scarcity in the market. Prices for commodities are influenced by their availability. For example, there are more portabello mushrooms in the world than there are truffles, so truffles are more expensive. Applying the metaphor too literally: grace—God's favor—is very rare, so obtaining it requires extraordinary expense and skillful bargaining with God. Jesus sticks a big fork in this metaphor: “[The Father] does not ration his gift of the Spirit.” No rationing, no scarcity; no scarcity, no expense.

Along with the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation, one of the great Mysteries of the faith is how grace works to liberate us and perfect us. We have libraries stuffed with books and articles dissecting the concept, and we may even come close on occasion to actually believing that God applies the saving merits of Christ's sacrifice free of charge. However, finding ourselves in spiritual peril, how often do we resort to bargaining with God, making desperate promises, or vowing reform? “Lord, I really messed up this time! Help me and I'll pray the rosary twice a day from now on!” Sound familiar? If it does, you need to hear Jesus say again, “[The Father] does not ration his gift of the Spirit. The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. . .” Daily Mass, praying the rosary, visiting the sick, etc. help you to grow in holiness once you believe, but only believing on the name of Christ saves you. Our Father does not parcel out His grace exclusively to the hardworking, the deserving, the privileged, or the especially favored. His saving grace, like rain and sunshine, fall on saints and sinner alike. Our daily challenge is receive the abundant grace He gives us and use it to produce better versions of ourselves, more perfect images of the divine in human form. In other words, to become more and more like Christ.

As difficult as it is to get under the notion that God has freed from the slavery of sin for no other reason than that He loves us, it is imperative that we come to believe that our redemption through Christ is a holy gift. Freely given, without obligation or exchange. No purchase necessary, no refunds. We are handed our freedom. All we have to do is receive it. And once we've received our freedom from sin, share the Good News of God's mercy through thought, word, and deed. By doing so, we grow closer and closer to God, becoming more and more like Christ. The Father does not ration the gifts of His Spirit. We cannot afford to think, speak, and act as if His grace is a rare, expensive commodity. What is freely given must be freely received and freely shared.

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Wow. . .just wow

WOW!  Clicked over to the Wish List last night only to discover that some generous H.A. reader had purchased all of the books on the list!   This happened once before in 2008 right before I left Irving to go to Rome. . .wonder if it's the same person (wink-wink)???

I've been saying this a lot lately:  blogging and parish ministry are good for my humility (such as it is).   Thanks so much!

God bless, Fr. Philip, OP

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04 May 2011

Two trials, one verdict

Second Week of Easter (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

While the members of the Sanhedrin are convening to try the apostles, whom they believe to be imprisoned, the apostles themselves are out in the temple area preaching and teaching. Having been freed the night before by an angel and told, “Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life,” the apostles are out doing exactly that—telling their stories. We don't have the texts of these stories, but it's not too much to imagine that they are preaching something like, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” While they preach, the Sanhedrin is preparing to render a verdict on the apostles' heresy, yet God's verdict on those who choose to remain in darkness has already been rendered, “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” In one day, we have two trials conducted under the authority of God's Word; one, under the Law of Moses heard by a jury of men; and another under the Law of Love where Christ himself sits as judge and jury. The proof of innocence for both trials is a straightforward principle of holy transparency: “. . .whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” 

From what we know of Jesus' encounters with his religious enemies, it's safe to say that the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, etc. have a great deal of difficulty wrapping their minds around the notion that one's behavior as a child of God must be a reflection of one's actual relationship with God. Acting holy in public is a necessary but not a sufficient way to be truly righteous. It's almost as if it is better to behave poorly if your relationship with God is poor than it is to pretend to be holy when you aren't. Jesus frequently calls his enemies “hypocrites” b/c they fake a relationship with God that they do not have. One lie is compounded by another. This is a problem for all the obvious reasons and for one that might not be so obvious. If you are to be tried for unrighteousness by a jury of men, the only evidence they have to judge you is your behavior. They don't know and can't know your heart, your interior disposition toward God. Because of this deficiency, Christ says over and over again that our words and deeds, our thoughts and intentions must match. If head and heart are properly aligned with God's will for us, then no verdict of mere mortals is ever permanent. The only verdict that matters is the one Christ himself rendered on the Cross. We are not-guilty by reason of having been loved by God into redemption.

The apostles are freed from prison by an angel not b/c they are sinless or extra, extra holy. They are freed b/c the Good News of God's mercy—a mercy they have experienced for themselves—must be testified to, given witness to. Legally, they are guilty of heresy, and by the Law they should be in prison. But the Law of Love grants them mercy so that they can go out and do the work Christ gave them to do. This isn't an argument for secular lawlessness but rather a way for us to understand how head and heart must work within God's will to preach and teach His Good News. Essentially, the apostles are imprisoned for failing to be good hypocrites, for failing to separate their behaviors from their beliefs. Rather than pretend to be righteous while in fact being unrighteous, the apostles find themselves doing and saying things that threaten the power of the hypocrites-in-charge. They actually believe that the Law of Moses is based on the Law of Love commanded by Christ! 

If you were to be put on trial to test your righteous—to test your relationship with God—would you rather be judged by men under the Pharisees' notion of the Law, or judged by Christ who has already bailed you out of prison and found you not-guilty? If you long to live the truth, come to the light of Christ, so that your works may be clearly seen as done in God.

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03 May 2011

Coffee Cup Browsing

Hypocrisy Watch:  when W. was Prez the media called the Navy SEAL team that executed OBL Cheney's "personal assassination team."  Now. . .well, not so much.

Hypocrisy Watch 2.0:  Pelosi Edition. . .

A Google Maps pic of bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.  Geez, Google Maps can find anything, right?!  ;-)

Another amateur night at the White House.  Please, Lord. . .hurry the day when the adults will be in charge again!

Should Christians rejoice over the death of OBL?  No.

Blessed JPII saved the Church from going the way of the Anglicans. . .suicidal death-spiral.

JPII reported to have lost his temper twice.  Given the state of the Church when he was elected Pope in the late 70's, I'd say he deserved beatification for that miracle alone.

The Church's newest Blessed is placed in St Sebastian's Chapel, St Peter's Basilica.  I'll visit the chapel when I return to Rome in Oct and pray for HancAquam readers.

A personal report on the Beatification from the Anchoress.  Generally, I avoid large Vatican liturgies b/c the crowds wear me out.  "Nuns With Sharp Elbows" are legendary during these events.  Even a 300 lbs. Dominican friar in full habit is no obstacle to these fervent visitors!

Australian bishop sacked by BXVI. . .for the usual reasons:  support for women's ordination, blahblahblah, etc., etc.

Conservatives in Canada win big.  Of course, "conservative" in Canada means something like "Blue Dog Democrat" in the U.S.

Rednecks can fix anything!

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01 May 2011

A new birth to a living hope. . .

2nd Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

It's been one week. Just seven days. With more than a billion other Catholics and that many more Christians of all flavors from all over the globe, we celebrated the Risen Lord. We welcomed into the Body of Christ thousands of freshly baptized souls; newly adopted brothers and sisters; and Catholics coming home after years of wandering in the wilderness. Just one week ago, we watched as the light of the Easter candle spread through the Church—the light of Christ piercing the darkness, shining out over the shadows of sin, showing us the way back to God. We heard that the sisters-Mary, meeting an angel and their Risen Lord at his empty tomb, were “fearful yet overjoyed” and that a couple of the disciples, meeting Christ on the road to Emmaus, were “startled and terrified.” To settle their hearts, Jesus instructed his friends to touch his wounds. They did. And they were “incredulous for joy and amazed.” Just one week ago. Seven days. We were renewed, refreshed, and reminded. How are we now? Are you fearful or amazed? Joyful or terrified? Incredulous or startled? All of these, none of these? Wherever you are, however you feel, the Risen Lord is among us even now, and he says, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with your doubts, your fears, your worries; peace be with you. Because, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We have too much to do; and doubt, fear, worry all are foolish wastes our time and spirit. Now is the time to be overjoyed, reassured, and strong!

In his first letter to the Churches in Asia Minor, Peter reminds these newly converted Gentiles exactly what God has done for them and for us in the Risen Lord. He writes, “. . .through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. . . [God] in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope. . .to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. . .to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.” We are born anew to a living hope, to an indestructible inheritance, and to a final salvation. Why is it foolish to waste our time on doubts, fears, and worries? Because our Father has given us a new birth. We are born again. Given a new start, a new life. Our new lives in Christ are radically different—different at the root—from the lives we lived before. Where we were once stumbling in the dark and gambling against chance, we are now living in hope. And not the kind of hope that keeps us stuck relying on luck, crossing our fingers and wishing for the best, but the kind of hope that only Christ can give us—imperishable hope, undefiled hope, unfading hope. Peter writes, “In this [hope] you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials. . .” Why might we have to suffer trials? “[S]o that the genuineness of your faith. . .may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The metal of our faith will be stress-tested, subjected to trials, in order to establish that our trust in God is pure, authentic. This is one trial that the disciple Thomas fails.

We are used to calling the skeptical disciple, “Doubting Thomas.” But this is a misnomer. We should call him Denying Thomas. When the Risen Lord visits his friends, Thomas is absent. Upon his return home, the other disciples tell him that their teacher—three days dead—appeared to them and showed them the wounds of his execution. Incredulous, Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” I will not believe! Thomas doesn't say, “I doubt your story.” Or, “I doubt that a dead man can walk again.” He says, “I will not believe.” I will not to believe. This isn't doubt; it's denial, outright disbelief. To make matters worse, Denying Thomas sets a test for the Lord, declaring himself unwilling and unable to believe until he can touch Jesus' wounds. For a week, the disciples lived with Thomas' willful refusal to believe their testimony. Then, for reasons known only to him, Jesus reappears and allows his stubborn disciple to touch his wounds. Thomas shouts, “My Lord and my God!” His will bends and he believes. To this Jesus says, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Belief, faith, hope, love, trust—all the good habits required for growing in holiness—have nothing to do with evidence or proof. Blessedness belongs to those who love God, place their hope in His promises, and do the good works of His mercy without forensic testing, without physical proof.

Peter echoes this teaching in his letter, “Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. . .” Luke tells us what this glorious joy looked like among the faithful of the infant Church, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone. . .All who believed were together and had all things in common. . .They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.” What effect did their joy have on those who witnessed their love for one another? Luke reports, “And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Sincerity, exultation, and awe before the Lord draw hungry souls into the Body. Doubt, fear, and worry repel those who most need to be fed. So, I will ask you again, how are you this first week after we celebrated the resurrection of the Lord? Are you wasting away your time and spirit by wallowing in denial and anxiety, dreading another day, afraid to risk the dark security of disbelief and mistrust? If so, “Peace be with you.” Just as the Father sent His Son among us to announce the divine mercy to sinners, so the Son sends us to testify to the mercy we ourselves have received. But you cannot testify to what you have not witnessed. And you certainly cannot give what you have not received. If you have yet to receive the divine mercy, what are you waiting for? Denying Thomas spent seven days among a houseful of eyewitnesses to the Risen Lord. He bent his will to believe only after Jesus allowed him to touch his wounds. Are you waiting to examine Christ's nailmarks and the gash in his side? “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Perhaps you once believed but now you doubt? Or do you outright deny that our Lord is risen? If so, “Peace be with you.” Your trust in God is being stress-tested. Stay with us, show us mercy, show yourself mercy, and you will pass. 

Just a week ago, seven short days ago, we proclaimed the resurrection of the Lord from his tomb. The news spread to the disciples, to their families and friends, to their neighbors and from them to all the nations and peoples of the world, from 1st century Jerusalem to 21st century Ponchatoula. If the good news of God's mercy to sinners is going to continue to spread, continue to be repeated until history is exhausted, those of us who hope in the Lord must be joyful and sincere; our faith indestructible; and our love for one another unfading. Christ's peace is the sure knowledge that our salvation awaits us. His peace be with you.

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