17 June 2012

Where's your courage? (2.0)

[NB.  This is a tweaked version of yesterday's first draft.]

11th Sunday OT (2)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio file download

Are we courageous? Do we possess the strength of heart necessary to speak the truth, walk by faith, and live in hope; to speak, walk, and live righteously with our God; to do always and in every circumstance the right thing? Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We are always courageous, brothers and sisters, although. . .we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous. . .” Do we walk by faith? Live in hope? Do we aspire to please the Lord? Why should we aspire to please the Lord? “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense,” correction, and repair. Christ will sit in judgment of our actions, whether good or evil, and so it is Christ we must work to please. But b/c “we are away from the Lord” and caught in the world of men, the temptation to work for man's approval is nearly overwhelming. And so, we desperately need courage: the strength of heart necessary to speak the truth, to walk by faith, and to live in hope; the righteous spirit required to turn the temptation of disastrous compromise and to seed the world with the Good News so that the Lord's harvest may yield abundant and excellent fruit. 

Paul says that we are always courageous, that our hearts are always strong in the faith. But we might rightly suspect that he's flattering us, shining us on, so that we will hear and obey his call to faithfulness. You and I both know that fighting the temptation to please the world with the weapons of Christian courage is a day-to-day accounting. Some days we barely hold our own. Once and a while, we eek out a small win. One, maybe two days in a lifetime, we are truly pressed against a wall, and through sheer, muscular courage face down the temptation and declare victory. But most days, most weeks and years, the fight seems hardly worth the blood and sweat of a win. Hardly worth the time it would take to muster a defense. It's a tiny compromise in principle to keep the peace. We will gain so much in exchange for something so small. How do I know that this is the right thing to do? We all have different ideas of what's right. I don't want to lose my job, my friends; anger my neighbors, my spouse, my kids. Everyone else thinks this is OK; who am I to say otherwise? I feel like this is right, so it must be right. We have the right to do this, so doing it must be right, right? These are the small, daily challenges to your courage that probe your heart, poking and prodding for weaknesses so that the grand challenge to come might see you defeated. The smallest seed—of cowardice, of bravery—can produce abundant fruit, whether good or evil. 

Jesus grasps for a parable, an image that will help him to explain the Kingdom of God. He settles on the image of a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree. In his parable, the Kingdom of God is “the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” This enormous tree, deeply rooted and supporting many large branches, springs up from a single, flyspeck of a seed. All those leaves, all those branches, the weight of its trunk, the depth of its roots, its resting shade, all of it comes out of the smallest of seeds. The smallest act of faith, the tiniest word of hope, no matter how small, how apparently insignificant the seed, properly sown and nurtured can spring up and grow into a heart courageous enough to withstand the most savage temptations wrought by the world of men. Jesus says that a farmer sows his seed-wheat and overnight his harvest is ripe, ready for reaping. When we sow the seeds of faith, hope, and love, the Kingdom of God sprouts in our hearts—growing and growing and growing—just waiting for the final reaping, waiting for the Christ to come so that we might go before his judgment seat and have him weigh our harvest, our words and deeds, whether good or evil. But before the harvest, before our judgment, we are tested; probed, prodded, and poked, in small ways and large, so that our courage might be measured. 

Writing to the Church in Thibaris in northeast Africa, in the first century, St. Cyprian of Carthage warns the faithful there: “. . .the day of affliction has begun to hang over our heads. . .so we must all stand prepared for the battle.”* Like most of his contemporaries, Cyprian believed that the Anti-Christ roamed the world in his day and that the Last Days were only weeks or months away; thus, he warns his brothers and sisters in Christ that their martyrdom for the faith was imminent. So, he exhorts them, “. . .a fiercer fight is now threatening, for which the soldiers of Christ ought to prepare themselves with uncorrupted faith and robust courage. . .” Our own battles threaten, so we too are rightly exhorted to prepare ourselves with an uncorrupted faith and a robust courage! It is unlikely that our battles will end in violence and bloodshed, but this actually makes the fight more dangerous for us. Threatened with a gun or a knife, we would fight with all our physical strength and all our determination to survive and win. But what if the faith is threatened by a piece of legislation, an executive order, a court decision, or the possibility of being ostracized for following Christ? What are our weapons then? 

Cyprian tells the Christians in Thibaris, “Let us be armed, beloved brethren, with our whole strength, and let us be prepared for the struggle with an uncorrupted mind, with a sound faith, with a devoted courage.” When we are tempted to please the world of men, to compromise in the smallest way against the faith, we are to arm ourselves with all the strength given to the children of God: a mind uncorrupted by inordinate desires, base passions, and irrational prejudices; a sound faith solidly rooted in the apostolic tradition, guided by the Church's authentic teachers, and lived with wholehearted charity; and a devoted courage, a heart strengthened by a true love for God and an eagerness to see God loved by all. When threatened, are we courageous? Do we reach up to Christ and down into our spirit for the strength of heart necessary to speak the truth, walk by faith, and live in hope; to speak, walk, and live righteously with our God; to do always and in every circumstance the right thing? Even when the right thing will take us to court, to jail, to the unemployment line, the hospital, away from family and friends? 

Every act of faith, every word of hope sows a tiny seed, a miniscule germ of love from which the mighty tree of God's kingdom can take root and grow. But the sower of these seeds must be courageous, stout-hearted, and bravely immune to any temptation to worry about the approval and applause of the world of men. It is Christ himself who will sit in judgment of our words and deeds, whether good or evil; it is Christ himself who will weigh our hearts, measure our trust, and sift from us the wheat from the chafe. If you are courageous, go out and sow the seeds that will bring about the Kingdom. If you live with a spirit of cowardice, pray for strength and then go be strong anyway. The battle against corruption in our faith is has always been with us, is with us now, and will be with us until judgment day dawns. Arm yourselves with the best weapons Christ and his Church have to offer, and prepare to repel—with faith, reason, and love—the darker spirits of this corrupting age.

*Epistle 55

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  1. Thanks for reminding me how I fall short of what I should be so often.

    1. My motto: "The preacher preaches to himself first!" However, glad you found it useful and thanks for commenting.

  2. Good tweaking, I like how just adding a few questions made such a difference. I prefer the challenge laid right out at the beginning; it makes me think and then really listen to what you are trying to say - but how about "Are YOU courageous? Do YOU possess....?"

    1. You will notice on the audio version I actually switched from "we" to "you." Using "you" can be tricky, but this parish seems to respond well.

    2. Enjoyed the audio version even more. My 13 yr old son said: "Wow! Great sermon!" - so you've got the teenage vote, too :-). Take care, and have a great week. SP

    3. The Teen Vote! Excellent. . .

  3. Fr. Phililp, I edit a newsletter for LFSD and I was told to put this sermon in it. She thinks it's that good. I'll put you and this blog in, as the source, OK?