14 May 2011

Cut to the heart

4th Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

While in the studium—the Dominican version of seminary—the student brothers were often told that agricultural metaphors for the Church weren't all that “helpful.” For example, using images such as harvesting grain, planting seeds, plowing fields, pruning trees, etc. to talk about complex theological ideas like redemption, justice, etc. is virtually meaningless in our postmodern age. Our fussy, urbane professors were particularly hard on the sheep/shepherd metaphors in the gospels. They really got wound up about Jesus describing his followers as sheep. Sheep are dirty, stupid, and prone to being killed unless well-guarded. And it didn't help matters at all that those who guard the Lord's sheep—the shepherds, you know, the bishops—were exclusively male and celibate! By the time our enlightened profs were finished foaming at the mouth against the image of the Church as a bunch of filthy, ignorant animals led by an all-male cadre of celibate shepherds, we poor seminarians were quaking in our habits, silently vowing to never-ever speak about or even think about the Church in terms of the sheep/shepherd metaphor! Of course, one or two of us were farm boys so we knew one thing about sheep that our profs didn't: Sheep don't follow shepherds. No one leads a flock of sheep. Sheep are driven, herded by a skillful shepherd with a big stick and a pack of feisty dogs. Now that's an image of the Church that Catholics can understand! So, what are we to make of Jesus saying, “. . .[the shepherd] walks ahead of [his sheep], and [they] follow him, because they recognize his voice”? 

Well, by nature, metaphors are always imperfect, so we don't want to spend too much time dissecting the parallels between Christians and sheep, or between bishops and shepherds. Jesus' point seems to be that those who have chosen to follow him will know his voice when he speaks and obey his word b/c he speaks with a familiar authority. Jesus emphasizes his point by noting that those who love him “will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” In other words, Christians do not hear, cannot hear in the voice of a false teacher, a false shepherd that familiar ring of authority that proclaims the authentic faith, the Real Deal of Gospel Truth. We could play with the sheep metaphor a bit and say that the voice of a false teacher, a false shepherd always sounds like a wolf growling with hunger even when it looks, smells, and acts like a lamb. Oh sure, the occasional individual sheep—the lapsed or lukewarm Christian—may be fooled, seduced by the hypnotic thrill of the wolf's promises, but the flock as a whole is never fooled, never taken in by a stranger's voice. Together, as one flock, we remember the Chief Shepherd's voice; we remember him saying, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. . .I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” There is no other gate to the Father's eternal pasture, no other Shepherd for His faithful flock. Christ Jesus alone brings us to a more abundant life!

As faithful sheep, we should ask: how do we come to recognize the authoritative voice of our Shepherd? In his Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke gives us a clue. Peter stands with the Eleven and proclaims to the crowd, “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Luke tells us that when those in the crowd heard this truth spoken, “they were cut to the heart. . .” Cut to the heart! Peter utters a simple sentence, twenty-one common words strung together, a declarative sentence that rings out over those gathered, seizes their attention with absolute clarity, and instantly convicts their hearts in the truth: the man Jesus, the one whom they crucified, is the Lord and the Christ long-promised by their God. Peter's pronouncement slices through their guilt; their recriminations; their religious and legal defenses; their logic, their doubts, and their fears. They were cut to the heart, that place in their souls where no lie can easily rest and b/c they recognize their sin, they ask, “What are we to do?” And Peter tells them what to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. . .Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Among those who heard Peter preach that day were three thousand souls who accepted his message and were baptized. Those three thousand, once convicted in the truth and baptized in the name of Christ Jesus, would always recognize the voice of the Lord and his shepherds. A cut to the heart made by the sword that Christ himself yields is always deep and always permanent. It cannot be forgotten nor can it be mistaken for the mark of a stranger.

As men and women baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are deeply and permanently cut by the truth of the gospel. Christ's voice always rings true; the familiar authority of our shepherd is unmistakable, and we cannot be lead astray if we graze with his flock, the Church. The apostle Peter and his successors proclaim the central, abiding fact of our two-thousand year old flock: “God has made both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” That's the sound, the voice of gospel truth, the words and the spirit that cuts the hearts of all those who long to see their lives redeemed, who desire a life beyond this one, who know that they will be perfected only when they come to see their Father face-to-face at the foot of His throne. Do you recognize that voice? More importantly, can you speak with that voice and spread the good news it proclaims? Sheep may be dirty, stupid, and prone to being eaten by wolves, but we are no ordinary sheep! We belong to the Eternal Shepherd and the world is our pasture to cultivate for him. Having heard his call, it's time for us to answer.

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13 May 2011

Back amongst the gators. . .

I'm back in Ponchatoula!  Had a great time with the OP Nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary.  They were enthusiastic students/participants in the Spe salvi seminars. . .as usual, I come away from these kinds of meetings convinced that I've learned more than I've taught. 

The food was good. . .really good.  And I am looking forward to going back next year!

The nuns have a great gift shop that features their handmade soaps and creams. . .give it a visit.

Almost forgot. . .all those books from the Wish List were delivered while I was gone.  No name on the shipping invoice.  Mille grazie to my anonymous benefactor.

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09 May 2011

Coffee Cup Browsing

Sensible suggestions for revising the Dallas Charter.  Here's an opportunity for our bishops to drop their newly acquired role as Lawyer-in-Chief and renew their roles as defenders of the faith. 

Why is it Amateur Hour at the White House over the death of OBL?  My guess:  B.O. wants to take credit for the terrorist's death but he finds the method used distasteful and potentially damaging among his lefty base.

Various reactions from religious leaders on OBL death.  I'm a little surprised at the consistency of the responses.

Nuns' votes voided in WI Supreme Court recount.

Human rights for Nature?  Hint: it's really just about accruing more power to the gov't.

Boorish Americans and our E.U. Betters.  Oh, if only we Cowboys had the moral fiber and intellectual stamina capable of producing such Wonderful Cultural Phenomena like WWI, WWII,  Nazism/Fascism/Communism, and those tiny cans of Coke Lite that barely produce a single burp.

The U.N. (i.e. Useless Nannies) is demanding answers from B.O. about OBL's death.  The irony of this Back and Forth drips.

Some notes on that Vatican-sponsored blogger convention.

Giving kids Christian names!  Amen.

Coptic Christian churches burned in Egypt. . .12 killed by Muslim mobs.

"Dear Human. . ."  Kinda funny.

A letter from the Texas Dept. of State, Missing Texans Division.  I think this is a joke.  Maybe.

Skittle-infused vodka?  Hmmmm. . .not too sure about this.

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08 May 2011

Path to Life, Path to Death: You choose.

3rd Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

“Lord, you will show me the path of life!” A declaration, not a request; not a demand, but an outcry of hope. “[Y]ou will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption. . .You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence. . .” Who might be consoled by this psalm? Someone who hears temptation whispering. Someone abandoned by family and friends. Someone barely hanging on to their faith. No, that's not right. That someone would be asking for refuge, begging for mercy. “Lord, please, show me the path of life!” Someone who declares faith in God with such vehemence, cries out in hope with such assurance is strong in their faith, confident that God will never forsake His loved ones. Someone who declares, “Lord, you will not abandon my soul. . .” is convicted by truth, and at the same time, sorely tested by the enemies of truth. That someone is Peter preaching to the Sanhedrin. All of the Eleven remaining apostles standing before the lawless men who crucified the Lord. Who gives them such confidence, such zeal? The Risen Lord, the one God raised up, “releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.” Eleven of Christ's ambassadors to a fallen world are brought to man's justice before the Sanhedrin. There they lay claim to the legacy of the resurrection. Sure of their inheritance, Peter quotes David's declaration, “Lord, you will show us the path of life!” This is our claim, our inheritance as well.

Around the year 100 A.D. an anonymous author writes out a booklet and titles it, The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. We refer to it as The Didache. Besides the gospels themselves, this booklet is probably the first written witness we have to the teachings of Christ and the early life of the Church. The guiding principle of the text is found in the opening paragraph: “There are two paths, one of life and one of death; but there is a great difference between the two paths.” The rest of the work is a map for the path of life, a map any 21st century Catholic would immediately recognize: “The path of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would not have done to you, do not do to another.” There is a summary of the Beatitudes and instructions on how to give alms. The book's description of the path of death is also easily recognizable. “And the path of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse. . .” Then follows a long list of sins, in which we find: “. . .murders, adulteries, . . .fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts,. . .false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, . . .not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God. . .” The path of life is taken by those willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. The path of death is taken by those determined to sacrifice others for their own benefit. Lord, you will show us the path of life!

 For a couple of the disciples, after the Lord's resurrection, the path of life begins on the road to Emmaus. While walking along the road, the Lord joins his students and reminds them of all he had taught them. He begins with Moses and the prophets and reveals to them his constant presence in scripture. He reminds them that the prophets foretold his suffering and death and his entrance into glory. Once they arrive home, the Lord sits at table with them, blesses the food, breaks open the bread, gives it to them. “With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. . .” The Lord vanishes the moment their eyes are opened, but they remember his presence, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” Their hearts were burning! In the company of Christ, listening to his words and breaking bread at the table, the disciples were set on fire with the truth that only he can reveal. That truth, the truth that burns but is never consumed, is that the Lord is indeed risen and because he is risen, we too will rise and join him. We will, that is, if we choose the path of life he has blazed for us, mapped out for us. Christ suffered death—he allowed death, “a death he freely accepted”—in order to reveal to us the beauty and goodness of sacrificing self for the benefit of others, the path of life. Knowing this truth, Peter and the other ten apostles stand before the Sanhedrin and the “lawless men” and proclaim a message once sung by King David: “Lord, you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.”

Living as we do in a cynical and skeptical age, we are constantly tempted to complicate the simple truths of the faith. Some of us are likely tempted to dismiss historical texts like The Didache as examples of na├»ve, peasant piety; unsophisticated manuals for those who cannot handle nuanced thinking. Life isn't black and white; it's gray, mostly gray and the circumstances we find ourselves in determine truth, goodness, and beauty. The whole idea that the faith can be reduced to two, mutually exclusive paths is dangerously childish and possibly irrational. But if our choices aren't Life or Death, then what are they? What lies between? A living death? Breathing, eating, working, and all the while being dead inside, living for nothing more than serving self? If Peter and the other apostles are able to confront and defeat their enemies while praising God for showing them the path of life, why can't we? Why can't we choose this path, praise God for showing us the path, and then stand firm, resolute on the truth of the faith and bound eternally to the resurrection we are promised? We can. And we do. Each time we love the unloveable, forgive the unforgiveable, show mercy to the unworthy, and give God thanks for doing the same for us, we choose the path of life. And by choosing life, we see more clearly, hear more sharply, and love more abundantly. If you can leave here this morning and say to a spouse or friend, “Were not our hearts burning within us while [Christ] spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”, if you can say that and mean it, then know that God's truth burns within you and then do what the disciples did: make known to others, to everyone what Christ did for you. . .on the cross, out of the tomb, in the breaking of the bread. Tell them, all of them: the Lord showed me the path to life!

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