15 April 2019

Make room for the Cross

Monday of Holy Week
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St D.'s, NOLA

This is a week of “self-emptying” for Christ. Yesterday, he entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” By Saturday, he will have been betrayed by a friend; arrested, denied, tortured, and nailed to a cross. He will be dead and buried. Yesterday, we heard Paul tell us, that “though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself (ἐκένωσεν). . .” He emptied himself of what? Not his divinity. Not his humanity. We need both for our salvation! Christ emptied himself of all attachments, all sentiments, all worldly weights and anchors. As Mary pours the expensive funereal oil on his feet and as Judas the Betrayer objects to the terrible waste, Jesus begins to die. He lets go of friends, family, disciples, anyone and anything that might allow “this cup to pass” from him. Jesus doesn't cease loving his family and friends in order to let them go. He begins to love them sacrificially. He pours them out so that the Father's will might more perfectly take their place. This is the challenge of Holy Week: detach, pour out, empty yourself so that there is nothing left in you but your desire to be crucified with Christ on Good Friday.

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14 April 2019

Remember: you asked for his crucifixion

Palm Sunday 2019
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Imagine walking into the French Quarter as thousands of people cheer your name, throw flowers at you, and as you wave, they cry out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” IOW, imagine you are Drew Brees and that the Saints won the Superbowl last year. The city, the state, the whole world is yours! Now, imagine just a week later those same people, those same adoring crowds, are cursing you, screaming for your blood, spitting on you, and cheerfully handing you over to the Feds for execution. This isn't a lesson in the vagaries of celebrity, or how we create our heroes in order to destroy them. This isn't any kind of lesson at all. It's history. It's what happened. Jesus entered Jerusalem – exactly as he had told his disciples many times he would – and the people of Jerusalem hailed him as their savior and king. Perhaps the disciples remember at this point that Jesus also told them that he would be betrayed, handed over to his enemies, and executed. That also happened. It's history too. And now we've begun in earnest our inexorable march toward Holy Week and Easter. Come Good Friday, remember Palm Sunday. When we cheer for his crucifixion, remember that we once cheered his kingship. 
This week, I challenge you to consider this: our Lord's resolve to die for us on the Cross didn't change b/c we greeted him with joy on Sunday, nor b/c we cheered for his death on Friday. He knew he mission. He knew his goal. And our wish-washy wants made no difference to him. He went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. And his earlier prophecies played out exactly like he said they would. Judas betrays him. Peter denies him. Pilate scourges him. And the centurions nail him to the cross. As he prophesied – he dies, willingly, so that we might live and live eternally. Whether we boo or cheer, whether we believe or do not, whether we ask for it or not, Christ Jesus went to Jerusalem and died on a garbage heap for the salvation of the world. Receive this gift with praise and thanksgiving so that when he comes again you will be known and loved as child of the Most High.

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13 April 2019

When the mob comes -- bear witness!

5th Week of Lent (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic, NOLA

A mob – complete with stones – demands that Jesus defend his claim to be the Son of God. His defense: if you can't take my word for it, then look at my works – look at the good that I am doing. If my words and works are not enough. . .well, there's little hope that you will ever come to believe that I am who I say I am. For us, in 2019, coming to know and love Jesus as the Christ can be a sudden revelation – think: St Paul on the road to Damascus – or it can be a long, slow process of growing in familiarity and trust. Being 2,000 years removed from Christ's words and deeds means that we will struggle to know even a little something about Jesus. The point – the point of all of this – is not to know more about Jesus but to come to know him, personally, up close, and in a way we can never forget. The point is to love him so that we might love one another. So that we might be living witnesses to the power of God's mercy. 
Jesus gives the mob demanding an answer two options: believe my word or believe my works. Taken together – his words and his works – Jesus clearly and convincingly reveals that he is the Son of God come to offer sinners his Father's boundless mercy. If we have come to believe that he is who he says he is, and if we have accepted baptism for the cleansing of our sins, then we too – by our words and works – reveal the Christ to others. One this last Friday of Lent 2019, how's your witness? We are rapidly moving toward Holy Week and Easter and we need to take account of how and how well we have taken the stand to testify to the Father's great work in our lives. If you leave this evening and find yourself confronted by a stone-wielding mob outside your home, demanding to know who this Christ-fellow is, will you bear witness? Will you – in word and deed – tell them how his sacrificial death on the cross made your salvation possible? Will you tell them that you are a new man, a new woman, remade in the perfect image and likeness of the Crucified Christ? That you have been granted an eternal inheritance, and that you confidently hope in the resurrection of the body at the end of the age? If you are not willing to bear such a witness, you might need to re-do your Lenten pilgrimage! If you are willing, then know this: “the Lord is with [you], like a mighty champion: [your] persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. In their failure they will be put to utter shame. . .” Your words and works – spoken and done to bear witness to Christ – are spoken and done with Christ. He is with you – with us – always!

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02 April 2019

Latest Paintings. . .

I haven't posted pics of my paintings in a while. . .

Below of some of the latest:

 Calls into being what does not exist (18x24, acrylic, canvas board)

 Things of the past shall not be remembered (18x24, acrylic, canvas board)

 Do not be afraid, Mary (18x24, acrylic, canvas board) SOLD

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31 March 2019

Lost??? Get found!

4th Sunday of Lent (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

If you were the older son in this parable, I'm betting you'd be angry too. I'm also betting that if you were the younger son – the Prodigal Son – you'd be overwhelmed with joy to be received back into your family. This parable remains a powerful spiritual lesson after 2,000 years b/c on any given day, each one of us can identify with either the Older Son or the Prodigal Son. We might even identify with both at different times in the same day. Who here hasn't been relieved of the burdens of sin and felt truly grateful? And who here hasn't resented That Sinner Over There being forgiven w/o so much as a slap on the wrist? When TSOT is me, I'm delighted. But when it's someone else – esp. someone who's hurt me – I'm resentful. During Lent, we face our temptations head-on and deny them through our victory with Christ on the cross. The temptation we are confronted with this evening is envy. So, our question is: are you envious of the Father's mercy toward others? Do you resent His generosity in forgiving the sins of others?

The older son is angry b/c his father welcomes back his wastrel of a younger brother. There's a feast of fattened calf. Gifts. Wine. Back-slapping. Tears of joy. Lots of hugging. And no one seems to be paying much attention to the fact that the young man abandoned his family; left the older brother to do his share of the work, and all the while blowing his inheritance on wine and prostitutes. Why is our father celebrating my brother's sins? Why isn't he heaping scorn and abuse on him? Why aren't we all shunning him and making sure that we knows how much we disapprove of his behavior? It doesn't take much for us to put ourselves in the older son's shoes. Other peoples' public sins need to be point out, named as such, and the sinner admonished. Even better: shame the sinner into repenting publicly and then show him/her doing penance. Call this a deterrent to future sin. If we don't see all this Penitent Drama for ourselves, then we really can't say for sure that the sinner has been properly punished, now can we? From the Christian perspective, what's missing here? What is the Older Son missing in his petulant anger? His father answers, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’” 
The father in the parable tells his angry son to celebrate the return of his repentant brother. Our Father in heaven tells us to celebrate the return of our repentant brothers and sisters. Rather than worry about the sin, rejoice that a sinner has come home. Rather than agonize over whether or not forgiveness signals that a sin isn't really a sin, rejoice that a sinner has turned back to the Lord. Rather than be angry that a sinner – even a lately repentant sinner – has finally repented, rejoice that the Father's mercy is freely given to all who ask for it. In other words, if you are going to choose to be a character in this parable, always choose to be either the Prodigal Son or the Forgiving Father. . .never the angry, envious Older Son. Choose to come home, repentant and receive the Father's welcome. Choose to be the one who welcomes the sinner home and throws him/her a party for finding the way once again. Never choose to be the one who out of jealousy and petulance separates himself from his Father by being envious of God's infinite and unfailing generosity. That infinite and unfailing generosity includes you. . .always. As we quickly close on Holy Week and Easter, now is the time to repent of any jealousies, envious thoughts or words, esp. if those thoughts and words begrudge others of the Father's mercy for their sins. Remember what Jesus said to us last week: “Repent, or you will all perish.”

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24 March 2019

Sin, repentance, & Roto-Rooter

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

We – all of us! – are sinners. And all of us need to repent. That's the Word of God spoken to us this evening. Now, you might respond to this bit of news with a heartfelt, “Duh, Father. Like I don't know that.” Or maybe a less enthusiastic but still sincere, “I'm trying, Father, I really am. Lord, help me!” Or you might choose to push back a little by saying, “Come on, Father. . .the Church got ride of all that Sin and Repentance Stuff years ago. Fire and brimstone is so outdated and offensive.” What you might think but not say is this: “Yeah. I'm a sinner. But I know some people who are a WHOLE LOT worse sinners than me! Compared to THOSE people, I'm a regular Mother Teresa!” Objectively speaking, you're probably right. I doubt anyone here this evening is a serial rapist, a child molester, or a cannibal. I doubt anyone here is secretly worshiping Satan, or planning a terrorist bomb attack on St. Louis Cathedral during the Easter Morning Mass. Nonetheless, the Word of God spoken to us tonight tells us that we are all sinners, and that we all need to repent. My neighbor's greater sins do not diminish my small sins. And my repentance can show him a better way.

You don't have to be a church historian or theologian to know that preaching about sin has become something of a fashion faux-pas in the past few decades. In an effort to bring the Church “up to date,” we've largely abandoned the notion of sin and prefer instead to talk about mistakes, struggles, addictions, or lapses in judgment. All of these things happen, of course, but not all mistakes, struggles, addictions, and lapses in judgment are sinful. Sin is something else entirely. At its root, sin is a deliberately chosen thought, word, or deed that prevents us from receiving God's grace, a conscious decision we make to refuse God's offer to share in His divine life. Large or small, sin blocks the free-flowing graces we could be receiving from the Father. If you need an image, try this one, familiar one: sin is the hairy, gelatinous gunk clogging your spiritual pipes. At baptism you were given the gift of freedom, the grace of redemption, so you – and only you – can freely receive the divine help you need to blow your pipes clean. The first step is recognizing the sin in your life. The next step is repentance, conversion. Jesus warn us, “. . .if you do not repent, you will all perish.”

You might think that our Lord is using scare tactics here, trying to frighten us with tales of eternal fire and torment. He's not. He's simply stating fact. Sin prevents us from receiving God's grace. Sin prevents us from participating in the divine life. If I die outside the divine life, then I live eternally in the same way I live temporally. . .outside the divine life. That's hell. Telling me that I am sinning and need to repent is an act of love not hate or judgment. Imagine a friend is driving at night on I-10 toward Baton Rouge. She calls you to chat. Suddenly, your friend turns off the headlights, crosses the median, and drives a 100mph the wrong way. All the while she's telling you what she's doing. You can hear horns blowing, tires squealing, sirens in the background. What do you say to her? Do you say, “Well, I understand your choice to drive the wrong way on I-10 at 100mph, and I want to affirm you in your decision. If you believe – in good conscience – that these actions will make you happy, then go for it!” NO! Of course, you don't. You beg her to recognize the foolishness of her choices. You tell her that if she continues on her chosen path, she will likely crash and burn. So, you beg her to stop, turn around, and head the right way. Telling her the likely consequences of driving recklessly isn't judgmental. It's an act of love. And Christ has given us the benefits of his supreme act of love – his sacrifice on the cross. 
One of the benefits of Christ's sacrifice for us is our ability to recognize sin and repent. The Devil obscures this benefit by tempting us to minimize our sin by comparing it with the sins of others. (You would think your friend insane if she said that her driving the wrong way on I-10 at 100mph at night was OK b/c some guy last week crashed and burned doing the same thing at 120mph). The temptation here is not just to minimize my sin but to call it something other than what it is – a mistake, a lapse in judgment, something I'm struggling with. Call it anything but what it is: a sin. You see, the Devil knows that you don't need to repent when you make a mistake. Mistakes aren't deliberate. Mistakes are just. . .mistakes. So, he tempts you to compare, measure your “mistakes” against the sins of others and conclude that you don't really need to repent. Jesus says that we do. We do need to repent. Or perish. Permanently. 
Lent is our time to look deeply and carefully at our lives in Christ. Not through some sort of ghoulish fascination with human failure. Or a legalistic microscope, nit-picking every choice. We can and should exam our lives in Christ with the joy and freedom we have received as heirs to the Kingdom. We all need the free-flowing graces we can only receive from the Father. Unclogging our spiritual pipes can and should be happy work. Think of Lent as your chance to become a Holy Roto-Rooter!

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22 March 2019

Who or what is your cornerstone?

2nd Week of Lent (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Here we are at the end of the second week of Lent, and we're reading about tenants and landowners, vineyards and stones. We are also reading about murder and fear – the murder of Christ and the fear of those who are threatened by the truth of his ministry and mission. They hear him say to the crowd, “. . .the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” They know he's talking about them. And their fear is compounded by his popularity with the crowd. How is this parable suitable for a Friday in Lent? Put yourself among the chief priests and Pharisees and ask yourself: is he also talking about me? Am I among those who will lose the Kingdom of God b/c Christ is not the cornerstone of everything I am, of everything I strive to be? If there's anytime in the liturgical year to ask this question, it's Lent. So ask: who or what grounds and supports my daily life? Who or what gives strength and purpose to everything I am building here at Notre Dame? When everything I am and everything I have is taken away, who or what remains? 
Lent is a season for destroying idols, a time for us to count the false gods we worship and un-name them in the name of Christ. We have this time – out and away – so that we can inspect the foundation of our faith, looking for cracks and loose stones. Upon inspection, what do you find? Are you motivated and inspired for ministry by a need for power, prestige, applause? Are you hiding away from a scary world – is the apparent safety and security of the priesthood your cornerstone? Maybe your cornerstone is the chance to set the Church aright, to get out there and fix what you think is broken; to whip us all back into shape with a regular regime of a spiritual diet and religious exercise. Or maybe your cornerstone is a packed schedule, a full calendar – the busyness of being busy. Lent is the time – out and away – to ask: Is Christ your cornerstone? Your ground and support, your strength and your purpose? If not, Lent is the time to receive the grace you've been given and set Him firmly, permanently in place. And b/c we are not yet perfect, we'll need to receive that grace and set that cornerstone daily, hourly for all of the time we have left. By the Lord this will be done. Isn't it wonderful in your eyes?

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17 March 2019

Seeing clearly in the dark

2nd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

We see God most clearly in darkness. That's a weird thing to say. We hear over and over again in Scripture that we are children of the light. That we bring light to the world when we bear witness to God's mercy and work for His greater glory. We hear again and again that we leave darkness behind and enter the light so that we might better see our true end – eternal life with God. But notice: “As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.” In the darkness, God made his covenant with Abram. In the darkness, Abram became the father of generations and those generations called God their Lord. As heirs to the Kingdom, as brothers and sisters of the Son, we call that same God Lord. And we come into a new covenant through a darkness. . .a darkness of sin, death, ignorance, and despair. Lent is our time to recall all that separates us from God the Father, all that extinguishes the light of Christ. Lent is our time to practice those feats of sacrifice that remind us that Christ's victory is our victory. And that the Devil has no more power over us than we give him. Lent is our time to embrace the dark night of the soul. What awaits us at dawn is Christ transfigured – “his clothing [becomes] dazzling white.” 
When Abram emerges from the “terrifying darkness [that] envelope[s] him,” God seals the first covenant with fire and grants to him descendants as countless as the stars. When Peter, James, and John emerge from their dark cloud on the mountain, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Having emerged from the other side of their darkness, these faithful men find waiting for them revelations of divine love beyond their imagining. Abram becomes the father of God's chosen people. The disciples become preachers of God's Good News to sinners. Beyond the dark clouds of their human ignorance, these men find their calling, their mission. They find in obedience to God their purpose, their holiness. They are gifted with all that they need to accomplish all that God has asked of them. And so are we. Holiness is not impossible. Living truly righteous lives as followers of Christ is not a ridiculous goal, nor some sort of improbable dream. Abram and the disciples emerge from their darkness by God's will, freely receive their gifts, and then work furiously to finish the job God has given them to do. Their holiness would be impossible if they labored alone in pride, alone in ignorance and disobedience. But they don't. 
And neither do we. The Church has given us prayer, penance, fasting, and alms-giving as faithful means of remembering that Christ's eternal victory on the Cross is our daily victory as his followers. Prayer unites us in the Spirit through Christ toward the Father, ensuring our progress in holiness by freeing us from the damning consequences of pride and deceit. Prayer is how we receive God into our lives and transform His presence into the words and deeds of witness. Penance moves us out of the center of our own lives and helps us to occupy the sufferings of Christ so that we are better able to love sacrificially. Penance is how we become smaller in the world so that Christ might become larger for the world. Fasting detaches us from all those things and people that tempt us to idolatry, tempt us to replace the Creator with His creatures. Fasting is how we remember Who made us and for what purpose. Alms-giving encourages us to imitate God's redeeming generosity, His creative and re-creative goodness and beauty. Alms-giving is how we recognize that everything we are and have is first a gift from the Father. These four Lenten sacrifices, practiced faithfully, take us out of the darkness and transfigure us into partakers of the Divine Life.

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord. . .” If Lent is a time of testing, a long dark night of the soul, then make this time a test of your resolve to grow in holiness by imitating Christ. Make it a test of your faith that God is in the darkness, waiting for you. Like Abram, wait upon the Lord, sure in the knowledge that He keeps His word. That His covenant with us in Christ is accomplished and true. Take up these 40 days and treat each one as chance to step closer and closer to the consummation of your salvation on the Cross. When the clouds gather and, in your weakness, you fail – we all do, listen for the voice of God, speaking to you, “You are my chosen.” And confidently lay claim to Christ's victory over sin and death. . .and start again. We see God most clearly in the darkness. . .b/c that is where we most need His saving light.

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10 March 2019

Don't "fight" temptation!

1st Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

So, the Devil is brave enough or dumb enough to tempt our Lord at the end of his forty days in the desert. It might not be bravery or stupidity that drives the Devil. Maybe it's desperation. Regardless, whatever motivates him to tempt the Son of God, the Devil is certainly ambitious. And if he's desperate enough or ambitious enough to tempt the Christ, tempting you and me is child's play. And so, we have the season of Lent to train us in spiritual combat to survive for the rest of the year. We know our own weaknesses – all those sins that call our name day and night. We all know the weapons at hand – prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. We know the stakes – eternal life or eternal death. And we know the enemy – ourselves. This is the hard truth of Lent: we are created from dust, fashioned from the dirt of the earth and given life by the breath of God. We are also – baptized and confirmed – children of the Father and heirs to His Kingdom. Our Lenten battle is not btw Good and Evil out there. God has won that battle. He won it on the Cross. The battle is in here. The question is: do you believe that Christ's victory on the Cross is your victory as well? Do you live in Christ, knowing and believing that you are already victorious over sin and death?

I'm just guessing here, but I'm willing to bet that many of us here tonight are still fighting against temptation. Battling one sin or another in a desperate attempt to remain holy. You might be imagining a little devil on your left shoulder urging you to commit a sin and an angel on your right just as urgently exhorting you to resist. You might imagine that these two voices are equally powerful and persuasive. Both make appealing arguments and offer compelling evidence for why you should or shouldn't sin. Which one do you choose? Sinner or saint? This picture of temptation and holiness is a lie. It's a lie b/c you have already chosen. You chose to be a saint. You chose to put yourself squarely into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. You have already won. The victory is yours. Therefore, when a temptation arises, look at it squarely. Acknowledge it. Name it. Call it by its proper name. No euphemisms. No dodges. No psychobabble excuses. Give it its real name. And say, “I belong to Christ! His victory is mine!” There's no fighting, no struggle, no battling against the Devil. No spiritual drama. Just lay claim to the victory Christ won for you on the Cross. What sense does it make to fight a war you've already won? 
Jesus shows us what this victory looks like. But first, notice what's missing from our gospel account of Jesus and the Devil in the desert. No flaming swords. No battling angels or celestial beasts. No rumbling thunder or cracks of lightening. No raging hordes of demons crashing against a shiny host of saints. There's no point in the scene where Jesus is barely hanging on to his life and is rescued in a last ditch, desperate push by the Good Guys. The Devil doesn't fall into a puddle of bubbling muck while shouting curses and promises of revenge. In fact, there's very little drama here. The Devil makes an offer, and Jesus refuses by quoting Scripture. This would be one of those scenes in an action movie you'd fast-forward through b/c “nothing happens.” Why then do we make spiritual combat into some sort of High Drama Event right out of the Lord of the Rings? Why do we re-fight battles we have already won? Could it be that we don't really believe that we have our victory in Christ? Could it be b/c we have bought into the fable that we are fighting the Good Fight. . .and that fight isn't yet over?

Here's a radical suggestion for you to consider: the idea that we can “fight temptation” is itself a temptation used by the Devil to keep us from claiming our victory against him. Think about it. . .if believe that the battle against sin and death isn't over, then we aren't likely to claim victory. We'll continue to fight. If we fight there's always the possibility that we will lose. . .by our own choice. We'll choose sin. And the Devil wins that battle. But if we start by reminding the Devil and ourselves that the war against sin and death is over, then there is no battle to fight. If all of this is true, then why do we bother with prayer, fasting, and alms-giving? These are not weapons against the Devil. These are weapons against our own tendencies to forget that we belong to Christ. When we pray, we are reminded that our strength comes from God. When we fast, we are reminded that we are both dust and heirs. And when we give alms, we are reminded that everything we are and have was first given to us by God. We belong to Christ. Lay claim to your inheritance and march into this Lenten season ready to do battle. . .to do battle not with the Devil – he lost already – but to do battle with your forgetfulness. Remember: you are dust. But you are also a Child of the Most High!

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24 February 2019

Choose your measure wisely

7th Sunday OT (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Sinners are a lot like saints. They love those who love them and forgive those who forgive them. Sinners will even do a good deed for someone who's done a good deed for them. Sinners go to work everyday, raise their kids, pay their bills, visit sick relatives, give Christmas presents. And they even show up to Church once in a while. In the eyes of the world, a sinner can be a Good Person who's trying hard to do and be better. Nothing wrong with that. But Jesus sets the goal higher for those who will follow him. We must be better than the sinner who's just trying to be and do better. Not “better” in the sense of being Holier Than Thou but “better” in the sense of being more deeply convicted of our sin and more thoroughly committed to growing in holiness. A big part of our on-going growth in holiness depends on how we choose to live in the world while not being of the world. Jesus tells us how to do this: “. . .the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” That's right – you get to choose the measure with which you will measured. Choose wisely.

Sinners can be a lot like saints. They can try hard to be Good People – like avoiding truly evil deeds – and even be Good People in the eyes of the world. In fact, without Padre Pio's gift for reading souls, you and I can look at a sinner and see a saint. We can also look in a mirror and see a saint. Perhaps we're deceiving ourselves when we do, perhaps not. Regardless, there's no deceiving God. He knows the size and shape of the measure we use to measure other people's souls. The sinner uses a Self Shaped Measure about the size of his/her pride. The saint uses a Christ Shaped Measure about the size of his/her humility. And that's largely the difference btw a sinner and a saint – not effort or intent but who designs the measure: Christ or the Self? Jesus teaches the disciples: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you. . .” What Christ is commanding us to do specifically is clear. What he is commanding us to do generally is presume grace, always assume that God's grace is working overtime to transform the hearts and minds of sinners – that's you and me. We can name the sin and call it sin without judgment. We cannot name the sinner and call him a sinner without presuming to judge the state of his soul. Grace builds on nature. And – as we all know – large construction projects take time.

What's the state of your personal construction project? Your project to grow in holiness, to become Christ for others? There's no denying that what Christ is commanding us to do – love our enemies, do good for those who hate us – there's no denying that he is commanding us to achieve near super-human levels of charity here. But that's what we signed up for. We signed up to enter the long, slow progression from sinner to saint, and progress according to plan is sweat-inducing, even exhausting. We can despair at the delays and wail about the weather of our project. . .but there's no getting out of the fact that we are – each one of us – is the foreman of our holiness. I am solely responsible for the set-backs, the shoddy construction, the wasteful overtime, and all the violations the inspectors might find on-site. By the same token, I am also the principal beneficiary of any progress I make. But I don't work alone. The Christ Shaped Measure I need to succeed is freely given and must be freely received. Without condition or pretense, the Christ Shaped Measure must rule my heart and mind, building me up so that mercy and gratitude flow abundantly. This is the gift Christ gives us: we can be sinners-turned-saints. Measure wisely. Measure as if you were becoming Christ.

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10 February 2019

Leave it behind and put out into the deep!

5th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Christ says to his Church, “Put out into the deep!” Get out there and risk it! What do we do? Do we obey? Or do we find excuses not to? We could, like Isaiah, spend a lot of time and energy nursing our sins, crying over our failures, and raising these up to God as excuses for our unwillingness to go out into the world as apostles for the Good News. How can we bear witness to God's mercy when we ourselves are so dirty with sin? Or, we could, like Paul, see ourselves as “abnormally born,” that is, brought into the family of God from another church or another faith, and then claim that our unusual entrance into Christ's body disqualifies us from being proper preachers of the Gospel. I'm a convert, what can I do for the Church? Or, we could, like Simon Peter, live as weary unbelievers, ever doubtful of Christ's power, and then ashamed of our unbelief when he shows us what he can do. I've denied Christ too many times, I'm unworthy of serving him as an apostle! We could refuse, deny, demur, disbelieve, and beat ourselves up. But Christ says, “Do not be afraid! Leave everything and follow me.” Leave doubt, leave self, leave sin, leave the past. Leave it all. . .and follow me.

Isaiah leaves his history of sin behind when the seraphim purges his mouth with the ember from God's altar. Paul leaves his history of vengeful persecution of the Church behind when Christ appears to him on the Damascus Road. Simon Peter leaves his long and stubborn history of faithlessness and betrayal behind when he is consumed in the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Isaiah hears the Lord ask, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Purged of his sin, Isaiah shouts like a schoolboy, “Here I am, send me!” Paul sheds the scales from his eyes and receives his commission to bring the Good News to the Gentiles, confessing, “. . .by the grace of God I am what I am.” And Simon Peter, upon seeing the haul in his fishing nets, confesses his unbelief, and receives from Christ himself a heart grown strong enough to receive the love of the Holy Spirit. Each man abandoned his history of disobedience; each leaves behind every obstacle, every trial, every excuse; and each follows the Lord in His will to become prophetic and preaching legends for God's people. They put out into the deep, and brought to the Lord a great haul of souls.

Time and physical distance do not limit Christ. His words to Peter on the boat are spoken directly to us, each one of us: “Put out into the deep. . .do not be afraid.” As this world grows older and its spiritual and moral foundations become more and more fragile, our hold on things true, good, and beautiful seems to grow more and more precarious. We don't need to recite the litany of sins our culture of death revels in. It's the same list Isaiah, Paul, and Peter knew so well. It's the same list that ancient Israel and Judah knew. It's the same list the serpent wrote in the Garden and the same list men have been carrying around for millennia. That list tells us how to degrade and destroy the dignity of the human person, the image and likeness of God that each one us shares in, the imago Dei that makes us perfectable in Christ. It is the mission of the Enemy to tempt us into racial suicide, to kill ourselves as the human race by separating ourselves – one soul at a time – from our inheritance in the Kingdom. The Deep that we are commanded to evangelize is at once both the individual human heart and the whole human community. And lurking in that Deepness is both Eden's serpent and Christ's cross, both the voice of rebellion against God and the instrument of sacrifice for God. As we choose, hear Christ Jesus say again, “Do not be afraid.”

Whether we find the serpent or the cross or both dwelling in the Deep, we must not be afraid. The serpent was defeated the moment he chose to rebel. Sin and death were crushed from eternity before the first human walked upright. So, we can meet the serpent without fear. We can also meet the cross without fear b/c it is through the cross that the serpent is defeated. When we put out into the Deep of the human heart and the human community, there is nothing there for us to fear. Our job is a simple one: fish. Cast nets with service, humility, mercy, and joy. Bait our hooks with all the gifts we have been given to use for the greater glory of God. Leave behind bitterness, resentment, jealousy, and wrath. Follow Christ in strength, persistence, faithfulness, gladness, and sacrifice. Leave behind worry, doubt, fear, and hostility. Follow Christ in thanksgiving, rejoicing, praise, and courage. Now is not the time for cowardice. Now is not the time for waffling or compromise. We have our orders: put out into the deep! Risk, challenge, venture out. Hold fast to Peter's boat and cast your net wide and deep. Isaiah, Paul, and Peter made their excuses before God. He smiled and made them into prophets and preachers. So, go ahead: make your excuses. And watch God do His marvelous work through you.

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03 February 2019

The Gospel is worth a riot or two

4th Sunday OT (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus causes a riot. I don't think he wanted to cause a riot, but he must've known that his announcement in the synagogue would make people angry. He does it anyway. He tells the synagogue-goers that Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah “has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning: he is proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. Some are amazed. They speak highly of him. His words are gracious, grace-filled, they say. Then they begin to question. They question his credibility. His authority. His family. They want to know just who he thinks he is. At this point, if Jesus were a 21st c. politician or CEO, he would immediately hire a P.R. firm, issue a non-apology apology, donate money to an orphanage, and check himself into rehab. But Jesus is not a politician. He's the Messiah. And so, he causes a riot. Basically, he scolds the doubters by comparing them to the people who refused to believe God's prophets, Elijah and Elisha, leaving only the pagans to place their faith in Abraham's God. The angry crowd chases Jesus to a cliff so they might hurl him headlong to his death. The lesson here: the truth will set you free. . .and probably get you tossed off a mountain. But tell it anyway.

Now, we know that Jesus wasn't tossed off the mountain. He “passed through the midst of them and went away.” The question I have is this: why did he announce his mission and ministry in this way? In the middle of Sabbath services at a synagogue? He just sort of blurts it out! He could've done it more gently, more “professionally.” I don't know, maybe start small with a few close friends and let the word spread in its own time. Let people get used to the idea. Expand slowly to make sure that only those who truly believed in him would be admitted into the Church. Instead he does the one thing that any sensible consultant would tell him is guaranteed to make people angry – he proclaims the truth boldly, clearly, and in public. And sure enough, people get mad. They get mad b/c the truth hurts AND b/c the one proclaiming the truth is someone they know – a prophet come home to find that he is not honored as a prophet. Does this bit of inconvenience stop him? No. He does what prophets do. He proclaims God's truth. And he stings the conscience of those who refuse to believe. Their faith is smaller than that of the pagans who believed Elijah and Elisha. And they know it!

Proclaiming the truth of the Gospel – in season and out – is no easy thing. We, as good law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, are trained not to cause trouble. Not to rock any boats we might be on. Not to stir the pot. Or otherwise say or do anything that might offend. Good, middle-class manners keep us connected in the neighborhood, at work, and at school. We keep the family peaceful, friends friendly, and co-workers working with us by minimizing points of difference and maximizing points of similarity. This is basic human nature. We are tribal animals in many ways. We want/need to belong to the group – for safety, community, even survival. The earliest Christian churches around the Mediterranean were persecuted precisely b/c they refused to be part of the larger pagan culture. They lived differently. They married for life. One man, one woman. They did not kill their unwanted children. They went out of their way to help the poor, the disabled, the abandoned, and the sick. They forgave those who persecuted them. And they worshiped just one God. All of this made them outcasts in their own nations. And it is quickly making us outcasts even now. 
This is where you might expect me to grouse about the declining morals of a great nation, or lament at how poorly Christians are being treated by the culture. Nope. Not gonna do that! Instead, I'm going to point you back to Jesus in the synagogue and say, “Do as he did.” Tell the truth – the Gospel Truth – and tell it with boldness and clarity. There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing permanent, anyway. Christ promises his followers persecution. If you declare for him, follow him, and take on his mission and ministry as you own, then you are asking to be opposed by the world. So, don't be surprised when the world opposes you. Don't be surprised when the rioters form and start looking for a handy cliff to fling you from. Just do what Jesus did: tell the truth in love. Veritas in caritate. Truth in love. Yes, you will likely be questioned: Who are you to judge me? Everyone accepts [insert sin here] as a good thing! What's wrong with you? Why are you trying to take away my rights? Etc., ad. nau. Truth in love. Truth in love. You're not trying to win an argument, or trying to scores points against an opponent. You're bearing witness as a sinner to the freely offered mercy of the Father through Christ. Surely, that's worth a small riot or two. . .

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20 January 2019

From Water to Wine, Christ is our Savior

2nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The miracle at Cana tells us a lot about Jesus and Mary. That he is an obedient son, and that she is a generous guest. That he is well-aware of who and what he is – the Messiah. And that she knows this too. This miracle also tells us something about who and what we are, or who and what we can become. In fact, every miracle Christ performs to demonstrate his identity and mission can tell us something about who and what we are as his followers. If we follow Christ, then we participate in his identity and mission, making us, each one of us, a Christ. Now, I'm not saying that we can all go out and perform miracles. Or that we can all yell at random people on the street and initiate them into the Church. What I am saying is that when we faithfully follow Christ, we grow in holiness and become more and more perfect in how we love. This means that as we grow in the perfection of Christ, we ourselves are better able to help others go from the waters of baptism to the wine/blood of the Eucharist. How do we do this? How do we – imperfect as we are – help someone else to faithfully follow Christ? We have to be more than students of Jesus, the teacher. We must see him as our Savior.

That move from being devoted to Jesus as a holy teacher to following him as a Savior is a big move. It's the difference btw being a student of a great teacher and being a fellow-worker eager to share both his glory and his trials. I think most of us can say that we're ready to follow Christ. In theory, the whole scenario looks good, even healthy: repentance, forgiveness, penance, love, mercy, hope, good works, all tied together in the sacraments and supported by a vibrant religious culture. Think about the disciples. They have to make this same move. But their circumstances were very different. They are Jewish heretics. Their religious culture sees them as unclean, separated from family and friends,. Thus they are nearly overwhelmed when the ascended Christ sends the Holy Spirit among them at Pentecost, flooding each one of them with His fire for spreading the Word. In their darkest hour, they are given Divine Love, unmediated by law or prophets, undiluted by age or tradition. We are given this same Love: the Spirit to believe, trust, love, show mercy, do good works, to repent, and grow in righteousness. Like the disciples, we too come to believe that Jesus is the Savior and we show our faith in word and deed.

Our challenge as faithful followers of Christ becomes clearer and clearer every day. It's not our mission to defeat the world with holiness. The world is already defeated by Christ. It's not our mission to save the world with prayer. The world is already saved by Christ. It's not our mission to bring justice and peace among the nations through our good works. Christ did that too. Our mission is to live our lives as witnesses to all that has already been done by Christ. To live holy lives b/c the world is defeated. To live prayerful lives b/c the world is saved. To live lives doing good deeds b/c Christ's justice and peace lives already in us. We live lives of holiness and prayer, and doing good works not to change the world but to show the world all that has already been done for it. Christ gives one sign after another that shows his glory and the glory of the Father among us. All we can do is point to that glory with word and deed, and urge the world, “Do whatever he tells you.” That's enough to get us close to the Cross. But to get all the way to the Cross, we must be ready and willing to sacrifice everything. To show the world the glory of Christ, we must believe – by word and deed – and be ready to die for love of him.

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13 January 2019

Joining the Jesus Gym

Baptism of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Who here is on a diet? Who joined a gym January 2nd? I'm going to let you hate me for a second: I lost three pounds over the Christmas break! While cheating on my diet for two weeks. Losing weight, building muscle, increasing stamina, and getting ourselves as fit as we can be is no easy task. Diet. Cardio. Weight-lifting. If you've ever started down this road, you know that you will not drop 25lbs in a week, nor will you be able to show off a six-pack by the weekend. Getting a flabby, overweight, diet-stressed body into some kind of shape requires determination, focus, commitment, and lots and lots of time. It helps to have someone with experience – a professional trainer, a coach, or a friend to keep you motivated. All of this applies to our spiritual growth as well. Being Catholics, we understand the sacramental nature of creation: the physical world is a sign of the spiritual, an imperfect revelation of God that both points to God's presence and makes Him present to us. We cannot, therefore, rightly divide the human body from the human soul and expect our spiritual lives to be fruitful. Just as the body needs proper diet, exercise, and a little hard-lifting, the soul needs its strength-training too.

We start our life-long regime at The Jesus Gym on the day we are baptized. From that moment on, “the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age. . .” As Catholics, we don't have any trouble understanding grace as divine help. What we do have trouble understanding sometimes is that the help we get isn't always the help we want. We sometimes approach the throne in prayer and ask not for assistance to accomplish some goal, but rather we ask God to accomplish the goal for us, instead of us. We can be disappointed to learn that grace does not prevent us from traveling the ways of the godless nor desiring what the world would have us desire. Instead, grace trains us how to be godly men and women. The hard work of chiseling out a ripped spiritual six-pack is all ours. But we do not work alone.

And not only do we not work alone, we cannot work alone. Christianity is a team sport. We play as a team, so we train as a team and the perfect model for teamwork is the Holy Trinity: three divine persons, one God. The more perfectly we imitate this model of Love in action, we closer we get to that Jesus Gym spirit we've been wanting. As noted above, the first step on this new regime is baptism. I did not baptize myself. Nor did any of you. The Church baptized us all with parents, godparents, friends, fans, by-standers, accidental tourists, all the angels and saints – every one in attendance. So, what does baptism do for us? Paul writes to Titus, “[God] saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
First, notice: God saved. . .He poured out. We did nothing (nor could we do anything) to initiate the renewal of our relationship with God. It was His move and His alone. Second, notice: through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, through our Savior, by his grace. Christ Jesus is the only mediator, the only mechanism; he is the only way. Third, notice: us, us, our, we, heirs. Not “Me & Jesus.” Not “Jesus, MY Personal Lord & Savior.” His grace is poured out on US. . .WE are saved by the bath of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. . .Christ is OUR Savior. . .And WE are made HEIRS in hope of eternal life. This is what baptism does for us and to us: we are made just (righteous), so that we might work with God's abundant graces to get our spiritual bodies into the best shape possible.

But even before any of could be baptized in water and the Spirit the Jesus Gym had to be opened. Plans were laid long ago with the prophets. They rounded up the initial investors. The Plan was conceived and announced. And before it was fully born, there was one enthusiastic booster. Then, with some astronomical fanfare and a couple of sheep, the Plan was born, drawing its first foreign investors twelve days later. The Plan matured for a while and opened for business for the first time at a wedding in Cana. . .but the Grand Opening, the opening that makes The Jesus Gym not just another gym but The Gym for all peoples takes place at the River Jordan where Jesus' first booster baptizes him with water and then the Father baptizes him with His Spirit, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Now, The Jesus Gym is open for business.

If, after all the bad analogizing, you are still listening, let me quickly tell you why Jesus was baptized. By submitting to baptism, Christ demonstrated his acceptance of his Father's plan for our salvation. The Son submits in love to take on human flesh in order to bring the Father's offer of renewal to us. He becomes our sin; dies for us; rises again to the Father; and sends the Holy Spirit as our guide. The whole of his public ministry, inaugurated by the River Jordan, was to proclaim the Father's invitation and to leave us a body of teaching that serves to reveal what grace in action look likes. The Gospels answer the question: what does the perfected follower of Christ look like?

So, grace trains us for the godly life. What is the godly life? It is not scrupulous moral behavior. It is not meticulous orthodoxy. It is not righteous anger at injustice. It is not any one of these alone. The godly life is the life Christ left for us to follow. The godly life begins with baptism, grows with the Church, and ends with “Out of love, he/she ____for his/her friends.” How you fill in that blank will depend on how well you used your time and strength at The Jesus Gym. Most of us will spend our lives trying to decide if we have the courage to put “died” in that blank. Remember: grace trains. But we have to do the work.

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06 January 2019

Renew the Church with the Magi

The Epiphany of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Gift-giving in my family during the holidays is ever the practical art. Rarely do any of us receive sentimental gifts or anything merely decorative. We get “what we need.” I'm the easiest to shop for. CASH. Always the right color. One size fits all. Another example, over the years, my dad has given Mom as Christmas gifts – renovated bathrooms; fiber-cement siding for the house; and demolished a fireplace they never used. Mom was always genuinely delighted with these gifts. Had the three magi showed up in Mississippi and given Mom frankincense, gold, and myrrh she would've thanked them politely and then found a way to sell the stuff so she could replace her washer and dryer. Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with giving practical gifts. Gifts tell us something important about both the gift-giver and the gift-recipient. We know that the magi give the Christ Child frankincense, gold, and myrrh b/c they recognize him as the newly born King of the nations. Their treasures, and their homage tell us that they see him for who he is: the universal Savior. When we give our gifts to Christ we are also recognizing him as our Savior. But here's the thing: we belong to Christ. Everything we have already belongs to Christ. So, what's the point in giving him gifts? Gift-giving unveils the mystery of salvation.

Bear with me here. Paul explains to the Ephesians what the Magi's visit to the Christ Child means: “. . .the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That is, when we hear and receive the gift of the gospel – given to us by Christ and his apostles – we become members of the Body, the Church, and coheirs to the Kingdom. With the birth of Christ, salvation is no longer exclusive to the Father's chosen people, the Jews. Everyone else – the Gentiles – can now be part of the family of God too. God's family is catholic (universal) b/c the Magi (who were Gentiles) paid homage to Christ and gave him the gifts that a king would receive. This is the epiphany we celebrate this morning, the revelation that anyone and everyone can be a coheir to the Kingdom. The gifts of the Magi unveil the mystery of Christ's sacrifice – his own gift to us – and make manifest the truth that no one is excluded from the possibility of redemption. If you will to be a coheir, you will be a coheir. Christ's gift from the cross and the empty tomb is the primordial gift of re-creation – we can be made new in him.

So, what does any of this have to do with giving gifts to Christ? If Christ's gift to us is the primordial gift of re-creation, then – as new men and women in Christ – everything we are and everything we have belongs to him. When we return our gifts to Christ – the much mentioned time, talent, and treasure – we participate in a holy exchange that expresses our gratitude, deepens our humility, and prepares us to better receive those gifts from God we have yet to receive. In other words, we become pipelines that pump God's love and mercy into the world, unveiling again and again and again the mystery of salvation: anyone and everyone can be a coheir to the Kingdom. Our faith is essentially an exchange of gifts – a cycle of giving, receiving, expressing thanksgiving, growing in humility, being ready to receive more and more gifts from God, and all the while freely giving His gifts away so that His Christ might be better known to the whole world!
The lesson of the Magi and their epiphany reveals to us how we can renew the Church, bring her back from exile as a glorious nation of priests, prophets, and kings. To the degree that we have grown comfortable and complacent, we must once again become anxious for the salvation of souls. To the degree that we have grown mean and stingy with our gifts, we must once again become generous. To the degree that we have grown distant from God, apathetic toward sin, and proud of our religiosity, we must grow in gratitude and humility, acknowledging our faults and freely receiving God's mercy. The Church will be brought out of exile one soul at a time. The Magi show us the way. Bring gifts to Christ. Pay him homage. Give yourself in the world as a grace, a witness to the One Gift of Christ's love from the cross.

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