18 October 2015

If you will be great. . .

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church/O.L.R., NOLA

We spend a lot of time and money avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death. To avoid discomfort we have invented air conditioning (thank God!), recliners, elastic waistbands, and arch support inserts. To avoid suffering we invented political philosophies that guarantee us that no one will be rich or poor, and religions that teach that suffering is as an effect of desire and so we must work to destroy desire. To avoid death we have invented surgeries, drugs, diets and exercises, and genetic therapies. To avoid death we have also invented ways of creating and re-creating ourselves beyond death – the beautiful artifacts of literature, monuments, memory, music, and art. As rational animals destined for immortality, we can waste our mortal lives avoiding the inevitable discomforts and sufferings of living in this world. So, our Lord wants to know, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Can you suffer and die like I will suffer and die?

How much of your daily life is about avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death? Better question: as members of the Body of Christ, heirs to the Father’s Kingdom, are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? Is this part of our ministry as disciples, as apostles? Well, when is sacrificial service NOT about discomfort, suffering, and death?

Isaiah teaches us exactly how suffering is essential to sacrificial service: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Note these three: “if he gives his life,” “because of his affliction,” and “through his suffering.” And note the progression: the Lord’s servant freely offers himself for the sin of others…he sees the light in fullness b/c of this sacrificial service…and through his suffering – his willing acceptance of our sin for a higher purpose – the servant brings many to righteousness. He justifies us before the Lord. In other words, because he was discomforted, b/c he suffered, b/c he died, we do not have to. We are instead comforted, free of anxious worry, and we may live eternally.

So, if this is true why then do we still work so hard to avoid discomfort, run so fast from suffering, and dodge around death strenuously? We do not want to be last. We are creatures of Firsts – first across the line, at the top of our game, highest score, fastest time, strongest lift, best grade, first prize, deepest soul, hardest body…all to weaken, all to weaken and fade, all of it weakening, fading, dying. And for what?

Who wants to be a servant? Who wants the work of serving others? There is no glamour there, no applause, no dramatic ovation or a big bouquet of roses. It’s humble work that makes someone’s life better, but all it does for me is leave me with sweaty armpits, dirty hands, a sore back, and a logjam on my own housework or my DVD watching. Surely, it is better to be served; better to be first and not last; a Master and not a slave. It is!

If you will be in this world and of it, then you are morally obligated to pursue the best, the first, the highest. To be in and of the world is to be in and of the virtues the world holds up as Good. To be otherwise is suicide. You must honor the bottom-line. Praise efficiency. Worship at the altar of productivity. Practice winner-take-all competition. Lose the losers. Appeal to no power mightier than civil law. Here’s your bumper sticker: “If you have yours, I can’t have mine.” You must celebrate my needs as my rights, otherwise you are oppressing me. You must also celebrate my wants as my rights, otherwise you are hating me. Requiring me to serve others is just you trying to control me with guilt. I don’t do guilt. My adult spirituality is an eclectic weaving together of the best elements of a variety of religious traditions – none of which requires anything of me, especially not sacrificial service! If you will be of this world and in it, you must conform to its virtues: work-pride, self-avarice, power-lust, gift-envy, success-gluttony, failure-wrath, and soul-sloth. Play with these worldly virtues or risk their opposing vices: ignored in modesty, disrespected for generosity, mocked for purity, taken for granted in kindness, ostracized for abstinence, laughed at for any mercy shown, and hated for one’s holy industry.

If you will be great among the Lord’s disciples, however, you will serve. If you will be first among the apostles, you will be a slave to all.

The pain that Jesus endures on the cross does not save us. The beatings by the Roman soldiers, the betrayal of his disciples, the political backstabbing wheeling-dealing of Pilate – all of these cause Jesus pain. This pain does not save us. Pain itself is not redemptive. Isaiah hears the Lord say, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” If he gives. James and John ask Jesus to be honored in his kingdom. Jesus says to his honor-seeking disciples: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” They say, “We can.” We can drink the cup that you, Lord, drink – the same cup that Jesus later prays will pass him by! For the Servant’s pain to be redemptive, for Jesus’ pain on the cross to be redemptive, it must be suffered, that is, “allowed.” It must be taken on with a will and directed to the benefit of others. To wallow in pain is just to wallow in pain. Nothing more. To take up pain in the service of others, to designate pain as a sacrifice, to make it holy by giving it away for a holy end – that is suffering! And this suffering mocks the Devil, rotating the unholy virtues of pride and greed and converts them into humility and generosity.

Discomfort is eased. Suffering is avoided. Death is delayed. We will invent and re-invent human civilization after human civilization in order to ease our discomfort, to avoid our suffering, and to delay our deaths. And we will lift up and parade the secular virtues to justify our refusal to take on service for others. But is this what we as Christians are called to do? Are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? No. We are called to transform discomfort, suffering, and death; to make each into the good habit of being Christs for others. We are called to turn discomfort into the virtue of humility; to turn pain into the art of redemptive suffering; to turn death into a witness to everlasting Life!

Our Lord did not die on the cross so that we might be blue ribbon winners or gold medalists. He died on the cross to show us how to be the friends of God. How to be servants to one another. He gave his life as a ransom for many so that we will know how to give our lives as a ransom for many more.

What does your life stand for? What do you represent in the world? Whom do you serve? Here’s a question for you: will you die for me? For that guy behind you? For your next door neighbor? If you will give your life as an offering for sin, the will of the Lord will be accomplished through you. And because of your affliction you will see the light in fullness of day. Will you be small in the kingdom of God by dying to pride and greed in the service of others? Or will you insist on being great among the Great of the World and in the end find yourself among the Great who proudly rule the smoking trash heaps of Gehenna?

Can you drink the cup our Lord's drinks? Can you suffer and die for name's sake?


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  1. Dear Father Phillip

    I have already suffered enough ..........

    I was born into a non-catholic family which embraced the hedonism of the world and to parents who did not forbid, nay encouraged the sins of the flesh, I am autistic which means that I cannot pick up on non-verbal communication, know when someone (even my parents) is showing me affection and have only began to form strong friendships as the result of years of psychological treatment. When I was 12 my parents divorced; with the attendant social, economic and psychological issues affecting both my sister and I unto this very day - but of course the theologians would say that my suffering was worthless because I wasn't even baptised then.

    I spent the best part of the last 5 years trying to join the ranks of the Holy Priesthood and to become a Religious, only to told that the mere fact of my parent's divorce ruled me out by vocation directors, one Bishop said yay and had all but accepted me to study before saying nay. I was once very much in love with a girl I met at University and it was hard to get over her rejection of my stated intention to court her, It took me three years, how can I get over Jesus? I offered him my very soul and through his ministers he through it back in my face.

    So I've returned to what I know in the world, which is the world of the Stockbroker, its not an environment where humility pays off, its a rough and tumble world but what the heck it pays fairly well and I expect to be earning quite good money before I turn 30. I go to Mass every day during my lunch hour try and say at least 5 decades of the Rosary every day (throughout the day). I don't want to be amongst the 'great of the world as you put it' but I do think that I've earned some creature comforts and a decade or two of respite from being' God's punchbag

    1. Just Another, the point of this homily is that pain is redemptive when it is directed toward the salvation of another. Undirected pain is just pain. God does not cause pain. He allows it, but He does not cause it. The whole point is to offer your pain as a sacrifice for the benefit of others. Doing so is an act of humility.

    2. Dear JAMC, I am glad you are a stockbroker. You allow people like me who are all alone in the world to support ourselves. Don't worry about what professional religious people say, they live in a fantasy world, in more ways than one. The way things are today is just sick and twisted and the Church is a large part of the problem. The truth will eventually come out. Surviving is the important thing. Helping others survive is good too if you have the opportunity.

      I work as a scientist and I find many Christians in surprising places so there may be a bunch where you are too. Just keep on doing what you know you are supposed to do.

    3. "Don't worry about what professional religious people say, they live in a fantasy world, in more ways than one."

      Um, thanks? I lived in the "real world" for 35 yrs before becoming a religious. . .two entire careers before becoming a religious. I daresay that "professional religious people" understand the world far better than those who do not hear confessions; do spiritual direction, marriage counseling, crisis intervention; and work directly with the world's sickest, poorest, most dangerous folks.

      Just sayin'.

  2. Sorry for the long time in responding, I've been out on company business.

    Father, with all due respect I can empathise with Banjo Girl, last advent I tried reading "Divine Intimacy" by Fr. Gabriel of Mary Madgeline, I gave up after a week as it essentially said that I had to empty myself of all desire, well I'm sorry I DESIRE Divine Intimacy because I've never had the real thing even on a natural level. Priests and Religious do (from my perspective) seem to think that we should all live like them, I WANTED to live just like them but that desire was pooh poohed because of the sins of my direct ancestor. My problem is that I can never seem to win with either God or the Church, and to frankly its quite demoralising,

    I just spent the past 2 1/2 days socialising with non-christian colleagues after learning about the back office support, I did not get drunk at dinner (although they did), did not venture into dens of ill repute or do anything sinful save tell a white lie to try and stop the insinuations of one colleague that I fancied a girl in the Newcastle office. No doubt St Alphonsus, St John of the Cross or St Pio would tell me that these people were occasions of sin and that I should shun them, no matter the fact that they would shun me in return (the financial services industry is very relationship orientated and socialising is a big part of it); well I'll shun them and my painting, my salary, my (relativity small in comparison to our clients) stocks and shares portfolio and all worldly possessions and ambitions the day that St John appears to me, in person and tells me that he's convinced Fr. Joseph Mary and Fr Daniel Mary to admit their mistake and admit me to the Carmel.

    1. Hi JamC,
      Divine Intimacy was written specifically for cloistered Carmelite nuns. It has wonderful spiritual insights, but is not a beginner's spiritual handbook. When reading it, one has to remember for whom it was written and intended. Yes, we are all called to holiness .. to "Divine Intimacy" ... but our vocation chooses a large portion of our path. A Carmelite friar once told me: Lay people cannot live like religious; Religious cannot live like lay people. To try to do so is a lie to our vocation.

      It seems to me that you have misunderstood Father's homily. He already explained the point, above, so I will not rehash that, except to put it this way: offered up to God, pain (mental, physical, emotional, etc.) is no longer purposeless pain - by the very act of offering it up, it becomes a sacrifice and gives it both meaning and merit. God bless.

    2. well since neither you Father nor shelly seem to have understood me, let me spell it out.

      A) going back to my first post, my problem isn't suffering per see, more the fact that I haven't experienced (even on a natural level) love, or if we're going to nitpick affection, reading St Theresa I'm going to assume that God's affection is quite a bit more than that of his creatures ....... Look at it this way, suffering is NOT some abstract notion and neither is affection / intimacy, the former is made tolerable only by the presence of the latter, remove the latter (or deny its experience to someone) and tell them that they must put up with the former is to pass the Pharisees in sanctimony (quite a feat admittedly but one that many Saints seem to have excelled at)

      b) I'm heartbroken as from my perspective God doesn't seem to want me, when I offered up my soul to him, are you really going to tell me to just 'get over it'? As I said it took me a long time to get over Eloise, how can I possibly hope to get over God ?

      c) Give me the choice between being poor (even a secular) Priest whose heart had been grazed like St Theresa's and being a successful stock broker earning good money with the attendant trophy wife (although to be honest if forced into marriage I'd prefer someone like Ellie), big house, golf club membership and fine whiskies, I'd choose being a Priest every time. Working in the financial services industry happens to be something that I'm very good at, and even at entry level (where I am now) the pay is good, I work with cultured people who know their Homer from their Virgil and where my judicious risk taking (albeit with my own money) is something that has earned me respect (not something that autistic people are used to believe me), its not what I'd be doing given the choice.

      Then you Father and the other 'professional religious people' come along (and I appreciate this wasn't the point you were making 2 Sundays ago) lecture me harshly quoting St Vincent Ferrer, and St Leonard of Port Maurice so as to scare me into scrupulosity to the point where I dare not enjoy sports such as swimming for the simple reason that other participants might not be dressed modestly and I would be sinning by being in a near occasion of sin. You lecture me about how I'm 'praying wrong' ,yet also criticise me for not spending every spare moment of the day praying. Well if God doesn't listen because I supposedly don't grovel enough, then why would I bother?

      The tale of the Seven Dwarf Rings in LOTR (appendices to Return of the King) states that the Rings needed gold to breed gold, well in a similar way, the heart needs Love to breed Love, something that professional religious people frequently forget.

  3. Father P, I noticed this was preached at St. D's, so I listened to it. The last half of this homily, from "The pain Jesus suffers on the cross...." to the end I found to be quite good. It was well put together and clear in its presentation. However the section leading up to it I thought was both too long and potentially unclear. As I listened, I kept hoping it would end ... and kept wondering if people were misunderstanding, because I had to keep reminding myself of what you were saying. That wasn't a problem in reading it, so it might have been a preaching issue vs. a homily issue . . . though the last third wasn't as powerful when I read it as when I heard you preach it.
    (I figured my comment was better late than never!)