02 September 2012

See that Justice is done

22nd Sun OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

AUDIO file

When our power went out last Tuesday around five o'clock, I gave a mighty sigh and prepared myself for a day or two of no A/C, no hot water, no lights. Like any good Dominican would, I went to my bookshelf and asked, “What does one read while a hurricane rages outside?” I rejected poetry—too ethereal for a storm. I rejected current events—what can I do about Iran's nuclear build-up or the collapse of the Eurozone during a hurricane? I rejected theology—that's too much like work for a priest. That left philosophy. It took me about two minutes to find William Barrett's classic 1958 study of European existentialism. Given that Isaac was slowing reducing New Orleans to a Stone Age village, the title of his book seemed more than appropriate, Irrational Man. (After four days w/o A/C and a hot shower, “irrational man” pretty much describes me to a tee)! Barrett argues that as a philosophy outside the mainstream western obsession with science and technology, existentialism challenges the human soul to face the deeply abiding problems of what it means to exist, to simply Be. He writes, “A single atmosphere pervades [all truly human problems] like a chilly wind: the radical feeling of human finitude”(36). At the root of being human is the gnawing truth that we are limited, impermanent. The Psalmist rebuts, “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” 

Living in the presence of the Lord is the Father's promise to His children; it is the one hope that keeps crippling despair at bay. If we cannot and do not live with one another in the hope of the resurrection, then the oppressive weight of our mortality, the various spiritual diseases of our finitude can and will crush us, leaving us broken and dying. Barrett notes that as modern men and women we are confronted by a curious problem: as citizens of an increasingly secular culture we have come face-to-face with this “radical feeling of human finitude” at a time when our science and technology promise us nearly limitless knowledge, nearly limitless control. IOW, as our culture abandons the possibility of life beyond death (abandons God) and falls into mortal despair, we find some glimmer of hope in the power we possess to manipulate our physical world through the tools of material science. Our hope is not in the name of the Lord; our hope is in the name of Genetics, Physics, Chemistry, Nanotechnology—a pantheon for 21st century man, these are the gods who will save our bodies but cannot save our souls. The Psalmist patiently reminds us, “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” 

So, you must be wondering: what does the fragility of human life and our deeply seated fear of nothingness have to do with this morning's gospel? Where's the Good News among the bad? The Good News is that even as we lament the death of our innocence in the face of war, terrorism, and natural disaster; even as we mourn the loss of reason's rule in our politics, our universities, and our media; even as we cry over the impoverishment of our collective imagination to exclude God, the saints, angels, demons, miracles, and the promise of eternal life after death; even as we surrender—as a culture—to the idolatrous practice of depending on science and technology to grant us hope for the future, the Good News remains constant, steadfast: we are creatures, crafted beings, drawn from the dust of the earth and given life by a God Who loved us at our creation, loves us now, and will always love us. This truth is not “worn over” creation like a garment but woven into everything and everyone that exists. God spoke the Word “Love” and we are. And nothing—not economic crises, not princes nor presidents; not wars, terrorist bombs, plagues; not science, technology, genetics; not even hurricanes can change the fundamental constitution of God's creation: we live, move, and have our being in Love. 

That's the Good News. Now that we know the Good News, what do we do about it? Barrett argues that modern man's confrontation with the “radical feeling of human finitude” has hobbled us with indecision and angst—a deadly moral impotence that allows violence and power to thrive in the vacuum abandoned by Christian virtue. Once upon a time, no one in the West denied the existence of God. They argued over His nature, His attributes, His will; but no one argued for atheism. Flowing naturally from a belief in the reality of God came a belief in the natural law—that all things were created to become perfect in themselves. From revelation and the natural law we derived the virtues, those good human habits that define us as loving creatures living in community. And from the virtues we derived natural human rights and legislated through our kings, parliaments, and congresses laws to uphold justice and peace. When a human law violated the natural law, we rebelled and overthrew the human law. There is no moral obligation to obey an unjust law. In fact, there is a moral obligation to disobey an unjust law. Justice always trumps the merely legal. 

What does the Good News tell us to do? Jesus shames the Pharisees for imposing unjust rules and regulations on their people. He quotes Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” Then he adds, “You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition.” Why is their worship vain? The honor they pay to God is from their lips not their hearts. The Pharisees have abandoned hope and embraced regulation; they've surrendered to the lazy spirituality of following rules, thus giving up on the hard work of actually loving one another. Jesus goes to the root of the problem, saying, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” A hardened heart, a heart that has willed itself closed to love will produce “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” These are the sins that kill a soul, that murder charity and turn us away from God. James reminds us of our origins, “[The Father] willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” We are born of truth and from truth justice flows. We are the firstfruits, the first born from His justice. And it is God's justice that stands with us when human finitude threatens us with despair. 

The Psalmist sings, “One who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” The Goods New of Jesus Christ does not urge us to do justice. We are not encouraged or hectored to do justice. We are given a simple, elegant choice: do justice and live in the presence of the Lord, or don't. If we love the Lord and love him in service to one another, then justice abides where love prevails. The despair that might dawn on us when we come to realize our mortality, our finitude is nothing when set side-by-side with the promise of eternal life. Barrett is right: modern western men and women are besieged by the problems of that arise when they rapidly and recklessly abandon of God. As lovers of God and followers of His Christ, we are gathered and sent to be missionaries, living reminders that though human beings are finite creatures, we are not yet perfect, not yet made perfect. When we love and act lovingly; when we hope and live hopefully; when we trust God and demonstrate that trust, our creaturely limits are defeated, and God receives the glory. So, “humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you,” and in justice, see God's will done. 

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  1. Ahhh - thanks for the little brain stretch. Though there were a couple of parts where I did have to go back and re-listen to a sentence or two (too bad the congregation doesn't have the "rewind" option....well, no, maybe not such a good idea!), just to be sure I understood you correctly. Reading it did not present that problem.

    I really enjoyed your delivery, and was struck by: "This truth is not 'worn over' creation like a garment but woven into everything and everyone that exists." And your final paragraph was, as usual, spot on and a helpful reminder.

    Thank you.

    1. This one I was passionate about. . .I enjoyed writing and preaching it. Wasn't sure how it was gonna hit the congregation. No one threw a hymnal at me. . .so, there's that.