16 January 2012

Freshly cured and newly sewn together

2nd Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, New Orleans

Listen Here (8.30 Mass)

Like many converts to the Church, it took me a few years to toss out some of my religious, philosophical, and cultural baggage. I grew up a largely unchurched Baptist-Methodist. Was baptized an Episcopalian in college. Dabbled in various neo-pagan practices. Thought of myself as a Buddhist for a while. Returned to Anglicanism as an atheist-leaning agnostic. And eventually settled into that most American of religions: eclectic spirituality w/o a church. When I finally got around to swimming the Tiber, I packed up all my baggage and dragged it along with me, joining the Catholic Church as a fire-breathing progressive bent on reshaping this medieval museum of ours into a body worthy of having me as a member. Elected bishops, female priests, inclusive language bibles, and term limits for the pope were all good starts on reform. As I started seminary training, the possibilities for revolution were legion! It took one semester for me to feel the weight, the beauty of our 2,000 year old tradition and another year for me to realize the dangers of trying to cobble together a spirituality from both old and new pieces of my religious history. When the seams of my self-made cloak started to burst, I was left with two choices: continue on completely naked, making the same mistakes and suffering the same consequences; or wrap myself in the whole cloth of our centuries-old story of faith. When Samuel tells King Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice,” he was speaking to me as well.

So, why does Samuel berate his king? While Saul more or less complies with the Lord's commands, he does not obey; that is, he acts as God has ordered (more or less), but he does not listen, he doesn't “take in” the heart of the Lord's will and follow Him. In the imagery of Jesus' teaching from Mark, Saul sews the old patches of his willfulness onto the new cloak of the Lord's will. He pours the new wine of God's orders into the old wineskin of his habitual disobedience. Predictably, the seams of both the cloak and the wineskin tear apart, leaving Saul to clean up his own mess. His first attempt at cleaning up—excusing himself in virtue of his sacrifice—fails miserably. Samuel sets him straight right away, “Obedience is better than sacrifice!” Not just compliance, not just doing what you're told to do w/o question or doubt, but obedience, hearing and listening and taking in the heart of God's will and following Him. 

Samuel—with a rough tongue—sorts out Saul's disobedience and Saul eventually repents of his sin. This is probably a familiar pattern to all of us. Old habits left over from a Life Before Christ intrude into our Life With Christ, and we find ourselves in disobedience and in need of repentance. Sometimes it takes a brother or sister in Christ to play the role of Samuel to our Saul. Sometimes circumstances are prophetic enough to turn us around. Sickness, accident, disaster. When confronted with our disobedience to God's Word, we do well to remember the conclusion of Jesus' teaching: “. . .new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.” The Spirit of God is the new wine and we are the new wineskins, if we will be. Freshly cured, newly sewn together, and lovingly washed and oiled, we are the brand spanking new containers of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in our pasts left to mar us, nothing remaining to pollute the new wine of the Spirit; there is nothing for us to carry around but our willingness to follow Christ. No baggage, no sad habits, no sin. Obedience—listening to and then doing God's will—is better than sacrifice, better than dotting religious “i's” and crossing ritual “t's.” It is better to wrap ourselves in the new cloak of Christ than it is to go naked and alone into the cold darkness of error and sin. 


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