13 August 2018

Deus providebit!

19th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Everyday during lunch at Notre Dame Seminary, the president of the Seminarian Association stands to deliver the day's announcements. When he finishes his list, he shouts, “God will provide!” The rest of us shout back, “Deus providebit!” God will provide. He will and He does. Precisely how He chooses to provide is often a surprise. A Big Surprise. But that's just part of the fun of being a follower of Christ. Take the strange episode we just heard from Matthew. Jesus and Peter are exempted from paying the Temple tax. In order not to offend either the Temple or the Empire, Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax anyway. Where will the money come from? Jesus tells Peter to go fishing. The fish he catches will have twice the amount of the tax in its mouth. God will provide. Now, Peter might have imagined any number of ways that Jesus could've produced the money for the tax bill. But I seriously doubt that he expected to find the coins in the mouth of a fish. Faith gives us every reason to believe that our loving God will give us all that we need to survive and even thrive. But faith cannot help us to know how these gifts will appear.

What faith can help us do is to rely on God's providence; that is, trusting in God's promises is the best way we have for living day-to-day. I know it sounds risky. Even irresponsible. But think about it: what's the alternative? Worrying about all the things we cannot possibly control? Living in a state of constant anxiety over every variable, every possible thing that can go wrong? That's not faith. That's the opposite of faith. In fact, it might be the height of pride for me to believe that I can control much beyond my own behavior. However, it's too easy a thing to say “Let Go and Let God.” He's not going to take over and manipulate us like puppets, relieving us of any and all responsibility. What we do is receive God's gifts. That's our job. God provides. We receive. And we put those good gifts to work for His glory. Unfortunately, sin prevents us from receiving all that God always has to give us. Instead of relying on His providence, we worry. We fret and wring our hands. None of which leads us to receive what's ours as heirs to the Kingdom. We are free men and women in Christ, free to ask, free to receive, free to give God thanks and praise for His generosity. Let the Devil worry. You, you go fishing.

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12 August 2018

"Take my life, Lord!"

NB. Deacon preached at OLR this morning. Here's mine from 2009. . .

19th Sunday OT (2009) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas 

Elijah, the prophet of God, prays for death: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life. . .” How thick, how deep must your despair be to pray for death? How heavy must your desperation be before you can no longer lift it? When do you cry to God: this is enough! Here and now, I am exhausted, weary beyond living. Elijah killed 450 prophets of Baal. For this reason, he confesses to his Lord, “. . .I am no better than my fathers. Take my life.” Elijah challenges Baal's prophets to a contest of power. He pits the real power of the Lord against the demonic power of the Canaanite god. Baal loses. And so do his prophets. Elijah marches the demon's priests to the River Kishon and cuts their throats. Fleeing the wrath of Jezebel for killing her prophets, Elijah goes into the desert and there he discovers—among the stones and sage brush—that he no longer wants to live. “This is enough, O Lord. Take my life. . .” Elijah, prophet of God, touched by His hand to speak His Word, despairs because he has murdered 450 men. What weight do you lift and carry? How thick and deep is the mire you must wade through? At what point do you surrender to God in anguish, walk into the desert, and pray for death? When you balance on the sharp point of desperation, poised to ask God to take your life, remember this: “When the afflicted call out, the Lord hears, and from all their distress He saves them! Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!” 

To varying degrees and in different ways, all of us have discovered in one sort of desert or another that we are tired, exhausted beyond going another step. Overwhelmed by studies, financial stresses, marital strife, family feuds, personal sin, physical illness, we have all felt abandoned, stranded. We might say that it is nothing more than our lot in life to rejoice when our blessings are multiplied and cry when the well runs dry. These deserts look familiar. We've been here before and doubting not one whit, we know we will visit them again. We hope and keep on; we pray and trust in God. This is what we do, we who live near the cross. But there are those times when the desert seems endless and only death will bring rescue. We find hope in dying. And so, we cry out to God: “Take my life, O Lord!” Is this the prayer we should pray when we find ourselves broken and bleeding in the deserts of despair? It is. There is none better. 

 The witness of scripture pokes at us to remember that our God provides. Beaten down and hunted by Jezebel, exhausted by his prayer, Elijah falls asleep under the broom tree. An angel comes to him twice with food and drink, ordering him to wake up and eat: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” Elijah obeys. Strengthened by the angelic supper, he walks for forty days and nights; he walks to God on Mt. Horeb. The Lord provides. Jesus reminds the Jews who are murmuring about his teaching that their ancestors wandered around in the desert for forty years, surviving on angelic food. Though they died as we all do, and despite their constant despairing, they survived as a people to arrive in the land promised to them by God. As always, the Lord provides. Paul reminds the Ephesians (and us) that Christ handed himself over “as a sacrificial offering to God” for us, thus giving us access to the Father's bounty, eternal access to only food and drink we will ever need to survive. Paul writes, “. . .you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Therefore, “. . .be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” We always have before us the feast of mercy. The Lord provides. So, wake up! And eat! 

What are we promised, and what is provided? Even the slightest glance at scripture, even the most cursory perusal of our Christian history will reveal that following Christ on pilgrimage to the cross is no picnic. To paraphrase Lynn Anderson, “He never promised us a rose garden.” Sure, Christ promised us a garden alright. But it's the Garden of Gethsemane. Betrayal, blood, and a sacrificial death. He also promised us persecution, trial, conviction, and exile. He promised us nothing more than what he himself received as the Messiah. A life of hardship as a witness and the authority of the Word. The burdens of preaching mercy and the rewards of telling the truth. An ignoble death on a cross and a glorious resurrection from the tomb. What he promises, he provides. All that he provides is given from His Father's treasury. Food and drink on the way. The peace of reconciliation. A Father's love for His children. And an eternal life lived in worship before the throne. 

All of this is given freely to us. But we must freely receive all that is given. Elijah flees into the desert, seeking his freedom from Jezebel's wrath. The former slaves of Egypt flee into the desert, seeking their freedom from Pharaoh's whip. The men and women of Ephesus flee into the desert of repentance and conversion, seeking their freedom from the slavery of sin. Each time we flee into a desert to despair, we are fleeing from the worries, the burdens of living day-to-day the promises we have made to follow Christ to the cross. Our lives are not made easier by baptism and the Eucharist. Our anxieties are not made simpler through prayer and fasting. Our pains, our sufferings are not relieved by the saints or the Blessed Mother. Our lives, anxieties, our pain and sufferings are made sacrificial by the promises of Christ and all that he provides. We are not made less human by striving to be Christ-like. We are not brought to physical and psychological bliss by walking the way of sorrows. We are not promised lives free of betrayal, blood, injury, and death. By striving to be Christ-like, by walking behind our Lord on the way of sorrows, we are all but guaranteeing that we will suffer for his sake. And so, the most fervent prayer we can pray along this Christian path is: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life. . .!” Surrender and receive, give up and feast. Surrender your life and receive God's blessing. Give up your suffering and feast on the bread of heaven. 

What Christ promises, he provides. He says to those behind him, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Exhausted under a tree and running for your life; pitiful and despairing, wandering lost in a desert; chained to sin, wallowing in disobedience, yet seeking mercy. . .where do you find yourself? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Are you exhausted? Spent? Do you need to be rescued? Cry out then, “Take my life, O Lord. . .” Pray for death. Pray for the death of Self. Pray for the death of “bitterness, fury, anger, reviling, and malice.” Pray for the death of whatever it is in you that obstructs your path to Christ; pray that it “be removed from you. . .So [you may] be [an] imitator of God, as [a] beloved child[], and live in love, as Christ loves us.” Remember and never forget: “When the afflicted call out, the Lord hears, and from all their distress He saves them! Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!” The bread come down from heaven, Christ himself, is our promised food and our provision for eternal life.

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10 August 2018

Go Big, or Go Home

St. Lawrence
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

My father and grandfather decided that our family of six needed tomatoes. So, we planted 100 seedlings. They decided that we needed some purple-hull peas. So, we planted three acres of peas. We needed watermelons. Sixty or so we planted. And so on with corn, butter beans, okra, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash. You name it and we had metric tons of it. . .for six of us. We sowed generously and reaped bountifully! My father and grandfather insisted that we weren't going overboard. They insisted that all this planting and weeding and watering and harvesting was absolutely necessary. However, when I went off to college and my younger brother got married – that is, when the unpaid labor got scarce – the gardens and orchards disappeared. Apparently, my brother and I were eating enough homegrown vegetables to feed Grant's Army! Of course, I'm grateful for the time spent bent over a garden hoe. Every preacher needs a story for his homilies. For years, when I was a teenager, my family sowed generously and reaped bountifully! I saw firsthand that nothing grows without a seed being planted. And that seed must die.

Martyrs bear witness to the faith. They plant the seed of truth in the hearts and minds of those to whom they witness. Their deaths for the faith spark that seed. Their blood giving it life and nutrition. But not all martyrs die bloody deaths. The ones we celebrate as saints in the Church did – like St. Lawrence. The vast majority of martyrs – like you and me – probably won't die for the faith even when we die in the faith. Our witness, our martyrdom will be less grand, more ordinary. We seeds of witness we sow are the ordinary seeds of everyday acts of mercy and love. Small handfuls of forgiveness, comfort, kindness. Even tiny little moments of fraternal correction or refusing to deny the truth. Standing up for the faith when doing so imperils friendships or our jobs. Risking social embarrassment or our popularity in the neighborhood. God will take the smallest witness and grow it into a harvest of faith. Think about how you will bear witness out there today. What will you say or do that plants a seed, a seed that could grow into a disciple of Christ? Die to yourself in humility and receive the courage of heart to speak the name of Jesus. Die to yourself in humility and be Christ for another.

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08 August 2018

How great is your faith?

St. Dominic
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

The Lord guides Israel's people out of their Assyrian exile. He leads them back to Jerusalem, saying, “I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel, and they shall be my people.” When all are settled, the Lord appears to Israel and reassures them, “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt. . .” Despite Israel's faithlessness to the Covenant, the Lord keeps His promise. In His great love, He shows mercy. And His mercy brings restoration. The Good News is that God's love and mercy are not limited to the people of Israel. We Gentiles have a Covenant with God too. A Covenant that we too often forget and fail. When the Canaanite woman begs Christ to exorcise her possessed daughter, the Lord says to her, in effect, “I'm not here for you Gentiles. I'm here for the Jews.” The woman replies, in effect, “Even Gentiles get the leftovers from the Jewish table!” Christ, possibly glancing wryly at his disciples to see if they are paying attention, answers her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed.

In these difficult times, Christ could ask his Church, “How great is your faith?” If we were being honest, we might say, “Not so great, actually.” Or perhaps, “Our faith is being tested, Lord.” He might ask us to look carefully at how faithful we are to the Covenant he died to establish. He might ask us to look at how well we love, how well we forgive, how well we find hope in this mess. He might even suggest to us that as a gift from the Father our faith is not the sort of thing we can measure. Faith is received and put to good use, or it is ignored and left to shrivel up. So, maybe the better question for us is: “Have you received the faith our Father freely offers and put it to good use?” If not, why not? Israel was unfaithful to the Covenant established by Abraham. And the Lord allowed the Assyrian Empire to scatter His people all over the region in exile. When they were allowed to return to Jerusalem, the Lord said to them, “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt. . .” So, after suffering the consequences of their sin, Israel is restored and rebuilt. Please notice that the Lord never stopped loving Israel. Allowing Israel to be scattered, to experience the consequences of their unfaithfulness is what brings them back home. In His mercy, the Lord brings them home. 
How great is your faith? How well do you forgive, show mercy, live in hope? Not so great? Better than you'd expect? Maybe: needs improvement? However you answer these questions – your faith heals you. Your trust in God's promises heals you. You are freed from your sins using the same measure you use to free others from theirs. And remember the Lord's words to Israel as they return from their exile: “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you,  and you shall be rebuilt. . .”

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07 August 2018

Stay and Fight!

I've received some kind emails and blog comments, wondering if I am struggling with the current scandals and the general tumult in the Church. They point out -- rightly -- that my last three homilies have been focused on staying strong in the faith while the Church seems to Circle the Bowl. The preacher preaches to himself first. Indeed.

Yes, I am struggling.

No, I'm not on the brink of cracking up! :-)

In 1995 I left the Episcopal Church b/c I realized that the fundamental doctrine of TEC was up for grabs every three years at the Convention. In the 20 years before I was baptized in the TEC (1982), TEC moved from using the triennial Convention to tinker with canon law to altering Tradition. The weird thing is: I was one of the ones pushing the more radical reforms -- women's ordination to the episcopate, LGBTXYZ inclusion, etc. 

What broke my resolve was the move to further revise the Book of Common Prayer.  There was talk of revising the Nicene Creed and Scripture!

I saw the Whole Thing becoming little more than a bunch of humanities professors playing Church Dress-Up. 

So, I did what any Good Protestant would do -- I left and joined another church.

There's much, much more to the story here, including my grad school training in Marxist/feminist critical theory and deconstructionism, but that's all background. 

I didn't come to any real understanding of the Catholic faith until after my first year in the Dominican studium (2002). And I am still discovering elements of the faith that I've never heard of. 

The sexual abuse scandals of 2002 and the current scandals are aberrations; that is, nothing about them is in concert with the faith. Nothing about the faith justifies Catholic clergy violating their promises/vows. Nothing about the faith prompts bishops to commit or cover-up abuses. Nothing. 

My worry is that faithful lay Catholics will decide that their faith is no longer viable b/c some in the clergy have failed miserably in living out their vocations. 

My other worry is that radical elements in the Church will use the scandals and the Holy Father's change in the CCC to alter the faith according their to destructive agenda, e.g., ending mandatory celibacy, electing bishops, women's ordination, etc.

If the scandals have nothing to do with the faith, then altering the faith is not going to address the scandals. Leaving the Church is not going to address the scandals.

The current tumult is challenging Catholics to be more powerfully Catholic. The temptation of American Catholics is to act like Protestants -- just leave and find another church (as if all churches are equally valid). 

I urge us all to stay the course and fight for the Church! We must avoid a self-destructive Witchhunt, but we must also dig down and find the courage to confront abusers and exercise some much needed fraternal correction (Matt 18.15-17).

Pray for our good priests and bishops. Pray for me.

Frat., Fr. Philip Neri, OP

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05 August 2018

What crisis? What scandal??

18th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The Church is in a hard place right now. The media use the word “crisis” too easily – mostly to sell ads – but I don't think it's an exaggeration to describe where we are as critical. We've been here before. In 2002, in 1968, during WWII, in 1870, 1798, during the French Revolution and the Kaiser's Kulturekampf, all the way back to the 400 year long Arian heresy that started in third century of the Church. That we have been here before and survived should be a comfort to us. But somehow it isn't. Reading about a crisis and living through it are two radically different experiences. So, what do we do? As always, our Lord Jesus Christ shows us the way. The crowd finds Jesus “across the sea,” and asks him an innocent question: “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus hears and answers a different question, saying, “. . .you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. . .” Jesus is telling them – and us – to keep our hearts and minds stubbornly focused on his promise of eternal life. That's the food that will keep us fed through any crisis we must endure.

Now, if you are wondering what in the world I'm talking about – what crisis? What scandal? – I'd urge you to spend some time reading about Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC. About the major seminary in Honduras. About the diocese of Lincoln, NE. I won't explain these now. Let it be enough to say: the sins of the Fathers are coming to light. . .again. And it ain't pretty. In addition to all this, a few days ago the Holy Father “adjusted” the Catechism's teaching on the morality of the death penalty. Whether this is just development of doctrine or a worrisome departure from tradition is a hotly debated question. As a Big Mouth Dominican Friar I'm ashamed to say that I can't answer that question just yet. My initial reaction to the adjustment was less than thoughtful. So, I've decided to just shut up and think on it some more. If you are aware of these issues then you are also aware that the Church is in critical condition; that is, we are at a point in our history where everything can change. And everything can change. Except one thing: God's promise of eternal life. Jesus reassures us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

And that's where our attention needs to be – believing in our Lord Jesus Christ and his promise of eternal life. I'm not saying we ignore the crisis. I'm saying that how we pay attention to the crisis and work to resolve it must be done with the heart and mind of Christ firmly in place. Like everything else of this world, this crisis tempts us to fall into the sin of despair; into self-righteous anger; calls for vengeance; and the sin I call Do-Somethingism – do-somethingism is the sin of rushing past our rational faculties “to do something” about a problem, to do something, anything!, to address what we believe to be the cause of our troubles. More often than not the solution we hastily put in place only causes more problems.* When we put on the heart and mind of Christ we see that sin is real. Human failure is real. And we also see that the Father's mercy is greater than any human failure. And do not forget: divine mercy does not preclude the possibility of human justice. Nor does it prevent the Church from making the changes necessary to prevent similar crises in the future. 

The bottomline here is this (and I'm saying this to myself as well as to you): Do not allow this crisis to undermine your faith! Your faith is deeply rooted in Christ Jesus. . .not a pope, not a cardinal or a bishop or a priest. We are the Body of Christ and him crucified. . .he suffered, died, and rose from the grave to sit at the Father's right hand. And so will we!

*For example, the Dallas Charter the USCCB put in place to address sexual abuse among deacons and priests. It does not include bishops. The way the Charter has been used by some bishops has driven a wedge btw the bishops and their priests, destroying trust and reputations. Not good. 

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29 July 2018

Are you living a life worthy of your call?

17th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

We need to hear this again – Paul writing to the church in Ephesus: “I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received. . .” Notice what Paul doesn't say. He doesn't say “live in a manner worthy of your pastors or your bishops or your cardinals.” He doesn't say “live in a manner worthy of your political leaders or your favorite movie star or pop-singer.” He says, “. . .live in a manner worthy of the call you have received. . .” What is this call? The call you have received? You – all of us – have received a call to holiness. To be set apart for a sacred task. The chalice we use for Mass cannot be used to serve beer at the parish fish fry. The altar cannot be used as a table for breakfast. These vestments cannot be used as a child's Halloween costume. The chalice, the altar, these vestments have been made holy, set aside for a sacred purpose. And so have you. You have been set aside to accomplish the work of Christ in the world. To multiply his love and mercy among those starving to be brought back to God the Father. Therefore, “. . .live in a manner worthy of the call you have received. . .” Feed the 5,000 right where you are.

The 5,000 gathered around Christ and his disciples are literally hungry. Stomach-growling hungry. He takes “five barley loaves and two fish” and feeds every man, woman, and child there. Make no mistake: this isn't a story about Jesus shaming the crowd into sharing the lunches they were keeping to themselves. This is a miracle. Christ's blessing on the bread and fish – his setting aside of this food for the crowd – gave the bread and fish a sacred purpose, a holy end. We see the Eucharist in this meal. We see the multiplication of disciples in this meal. We see that even the leftovers gathered up and saved. How is this miracle accomplished? John tells us, “Jesus took the loaves [and] gave thanks. . .” He gives thanks. Christ acknowledges the source of the bread and fish. He acknowledges his Father and offers Him gratitude for providing them all with food. That seemingly small gesture, just that tiny prayer of thanksgiving multiplied what little they had into all that they needed and more. When all those people finished eating, what did they do? Did they go home and forget about the miracle they had just witnessed? No! John says, “When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, 'This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.'” Jesus had to run for the hills b/c they wanted to make him a king.

Once Jesus got away from them, I imagine most in the crowd went home and told friends and neighbors about the miracle he performed. They bore witness to the signs he showed them. They fed those hungry for news about the coming of the Messiah. They performed their own signs and wonders by sharing the Good News that the Christ had come into the world. They found a way to live in a manner worthy of the call they had received. They fed the 5,000 right where they were. Even if the 5,000 only added up to a dozen or two. So, how do we live in a manner worthy of the call we have received? We don't do it staying quiet. Or by making our faith a purely private matter. Or by pretending that we are living worthily by occasionally showing up for Mass. We are all called to holiness. To be set apart for a sacred purpose, and that sacred purpose is to bear witness to the mercy of God to the world. To be living, breathing icons of Christ to those starving for a relationship with God the Father. When the 5,000 had eaten, Jesus says, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” Leave nothing and no one behind when you bear witness. They too have a call to live worthily.

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22 July 2018

When the Shepherd becomes a Wolf

16th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Why does Jesus begin teaching the crowd gathered in front of him? The great medieval teacher of the faith, Thomas Aquinas, argues that knowledge is received by the hungry mind according to its hunger. How and what we eat depends on what we are hungry for. So, if you are hungry for a fervent, fiery lesson in the truth of Christ, then pursue his truth with fervor and fire. If you long for the meat and potato facts of the faith, then ask for the facts of the faith! If, however, you want spiritual junk food, then just go hang around on the corner for a while, a teacher who speaks falsely will be along soon enough. And he or she will be more than delighted to feed you your fill. Those in the crowd – the one chasing Jesus around – they do not know the truth. They have no teacher to teach them the truth. So, Jesus takes pity on these shepherdless sheep and teaches them. These days – with cable TV, the internet, social media, movies – teachers abound. All sorts of lessons are being taught to children and adults alike. What's worse is that some of these false teachers are shepherds. And some of the lessons they teach are not of Christ.

Listen again to what Jeremiah says about false shepherds, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture. . .You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.” How does a false shepherd mislead his flock? How does the flock become scattered? There are as many ways to mislead God's people as there are those who mislead. And as many ways for God's people to be scattered. One prominent method for misleading the flock is to fail to set an example of holiness. What's the saying? The fish rots from the head down. If the shepherd doesn't pursue holiness, why would the flock? Another method to mislead God's people is to preach and teach the Zeitgeist; that is, to ignore the Holy Spirit of God and proclaim the Spirit of the Age. Fail to preach and teach Scripture. Focus on politics or pop-psychology or whatever secular cause is trending right now. Perhaps the most common trap for the shepherd is set by a perverse understanding of his own job description – become aloof, distant, detached from the flock; lord authority over the flock like a weapon, seek privilege and prestige, look out for opportunities to climb the ecclesial ladder; ignore the lost and stolen. The flock scatters when the shepherd becomes a wolf.

Thanks be to God that our Shepherd is the Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus! Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and religious will fail us. We've known this most vividly since 2002. Those appointed our shepherds are men and women – fragile, wounded, subject to temptation and familiar with sin – are no different now than they were 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 2,000 years ago. Men and women fail us. Mothers and fathers, pastors and teachers, popes and politicians. But Christ and his Bride, the Church, cannot fail us. The Good News cannot fail us. The cross and the resurrection cannot fail us. Another scandal involving a cardinal. Another priest arrested. A deacon credibly accused. And Christ stands untouched. Christ stands unshaken; he stands with us, teaching us the truth. And that truth is that God the Father freely offers His infinite mercy to all repentant sinners. Christ made this universal offer on the cross with his body and his blood. No evil shepherd can change that. Do not be misled by scandal – “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. . .He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

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15 July 2018

Making idols of things

15th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic/OLR

When I received my letter of admission into the Dominican novitiate back in Feb of 1999, I rejoiced. . .and then I panicked. I was 34yo at the time, and I had most of what most 34yo men had: lots of stuff – suits for work, furniture for a house, a house, a car, about 300 CD's, kitchen equipment, a desktop computer, and boxes and boxes of junk that seem to travel around with me wherever I go. The letter from the Order made it clear that my room in the novitiate was small, very small, and that I was to bring the absolute minimum with me. I got rid of everything but the computer, some pants, a couple of dress shirts, and a two pairs of shoes. My room was a 10x12ft cell in a renovated Incarnate Word sisters' convent. Turns out: I'd brought too much! Since I joined the Order 19yrs ago, I've moved six times; lived in ten different priories in five provinces of the Order. The longest I've been in one house is six years – right here at St Dominic's. Our Lord knows what we often forget: the things of this world can weigh us down, keep us paralyzed, and eventually suffocate us. To do the work we've vowed to do, we must be truly free, unattached from the world and wholly, completely attached to him.

Way back in the 13th century there was a heated debate between the two begging Orders – the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Both Orders required their friars to take live out the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Early on in the history of the Order, the Dominicans friars realized the necessity of owning property in order to survive. We adopted a communal property notion of poverty – we own nothing individually but the community owns what is necessary to carry out our mission. The Franciscans – as they are wont – went to the extreme, claiming that poverty must be understood as destitution and that this kind of poverty was necessary for salvation! So radical was this definition of poverty that the Franciscans split into two groups and some members of the more extreme group were declared heretics in the 14th century.* The point of this brief history lesson is this: detachment from things is not about not owning and using the things we need; it's about knowing the difference between owning and using things and allowing those things to own and use us. Our Lord's instructions to his disciples are meant to free them from the necessities of owning and using things that they do not need.
We could call this view of poverty “simplicity” – live simply, humbly, detached from luxury and excess, owning and using nothing more than you absolutely need to do your work in Christ. But there's a danger here, one the Enemy recognizes and exploits. If simplicity is used as a means to an end, all is well. However, if simplicity becomes the end, simplicity for simplicity's sake, then you end up with a new attachment, new idol to worship. An example, how many of you here recycle? Recycling is a good thing. It's a good means to a good end. But if recycling becomes for you a Sign of Righteousness, a Badge of Goodness and Purity then you've elevated it to an idol. IOW, if recycling (or going to the gym or driving a Prius or wearing a veil at Mass) become your sole touchstone for being holy, then you've attached yourself to a creature, a created thing. There's nothing wrong with any of these activities in themselves. The question is: do you use them, or do they use you? Jesus wants his disciples – and us – to know how the world tempts us to attachment, tempts us to entangle ourselves in the things of the world to create little gods that we think we can control. Thus his admonition to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick – no food, no sack, no money in their belts.”

What we are made and remade in Christ to be and do is bear witness to the mercy of God to sinners. Whatever we need to accomplish this singular task is good and holy. But the things we need are means not ends. Our end is eternal life with the Father. Every single thing in our lives must be measured against that end. Christ frees to us to complete his work. And we cannot do his work if we are consumed with tending to the needs of our things.

*This is a ridiculously truncated history, of course.

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11 July 2018

Till He come to rain down justice

St. Benedict
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

The prophet Hosea prophesies to a nation in chaos. The northern kingdom of Israel has become prosperous and corrupt. Ruled by a succession of six Assyrian puppet-kings in just 26 years, the people have long since forgotten their duty to God. And b/c they have forgotten who and what they are, God will allow the Assyrian Empire to crush them. Hosea prophesies, “Their heart is false, now they pay for their guilt; God shall break down their altars and destroy their sacred pillars.” A people who lack gratitude, who lack a proper sense of religious duty have no use for altars or sacred pillars. What about a king to quell the chaos? Will the Lord send a king to ensure their safety? Hosea says, “Since they do not fear the Lord, what can the king do for them?” A king is only as good as the people's faith in God. No kingdom can replace the covenant. No king can replace the Lord. When a nation suffers the consequences of its collective sin, its failure to honor God, “it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain down justice upon you.” 
Whatever measure of peace and prosperity we enjoy now or later we must see as gifts from God and God alone. Of course, there are natural mechanisms that work out a good national economy or ensure the end of wars and violence. But it is the Spirit of God that moves the hearts of men and women to seek out the common good and work toward just ends. It is God who pours out His enduring Love and seduces us to do better, to be better when we are tempted with self-serving means and unjust ends. When we receive His love, we are better, we do better and b/c we are so blessed, He deserves our gratitude. Not b/c He needs us to be thankful but b/c being thankful only increases our humility, making it possible for us to receive more and more of His good graces. A people who have turned their backs on God cannot make wise decisions, nor can they prosper, nor can they long survive as a people under His care. No politician or Supreme Court Justice or Pope can save a nation that refuses to acknowledge the source of its material and spiritual wealth. The disastrous consequences of this refusal aren't a punishment from God on the people; it's God allowing these people to be who they want to be: a tribe cut off from His blessings, a nation grown sick with ingratitude. 
When a nation suffers the consequences of its collective sin, its failure to honor God, Hosea tells us that “it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain down justice upon you.”

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08 July 2018

You are a prophet of God!

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic/OLR, NOLA

Bakers bake cakes and pies. Florists arrange flowers. Firefighters fight fires. Doctors and nurses heal the sick. What do prophets do? If you had to write out a job description for a prophet, what would you say? “The prophet is primarily responsible for walking around the neighborhood, shouting 'Repent! The End is Near.' Must provide own animal-skin garments and locusts and honey. Good hygiene optional.” That's our image of the prophet, right? The lonely soul, wandering the streets, yelling at tourists and stinking up the place. We read about them in Scripture, of course. God calls them go out and warn people about their sin and their coming doom. Most of the time they are ignored and God punishes the wicked fair and square. They were warned after all. But here we are in 2018, and we're pretty sure that prophets are a thing of the past. God no longer calls out individuals to speak His word of truth, to foretell the destruction of a city or a nation b/c of sin. God no long uses a single human voice to put us back on the correct path. No, He doesn't use a single voice. He uses all our voices – the bold, prophetic voices of the baptized, the Church. You and me, generations of Christians past and those to come.

The singular purpose of the Church is to serve as the sacrament of salvation for all mankind – an outward sign, a visible manifestation of God's mercy to sinners. The Church is not – as Pope Francis has said – a religious non-governmental social service organization; the Church is not a social club or a business network or a non-profit political action committee. The Church is the Body of Christ on earth. And we – the baptized – are the Church's priests, prophets, and kings. As priests we meditate God's mercy, His grace. As Kings, we stand to inherit His kingdom, eternal life. And as prophets, we carry His saving Word into the world so that all those with ears to hear and eyes to see can hear and see His enduring love through our words and deeds. The prophets of the Old Testament served a specific purpose at a specific time. God chose them individually to say what needed to be said in order to bring sinners back to righteousness. Christ's death and resurrection and our baptism into his death and resurrection make each one of us carriers of his Word, his mission, and his ministry. You are a prophet of God. And you have work to do.

As men and women baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, we have vowed to be faithful to God, just to our neighbors, hopeful in crisis, loving to all, joyful even as we mourn, and as eager to show mercy as we are to seek mercy for ourselves. The key to our lives as prophets is not moral do-goodism or institutional credentials. Our prophetic key is humility – the certain and daily-lived knowledge that we are creatures of a loving God, wholly dependent, utterly reliant on the Love that gave us and gives us life. There is no other source of identity for us. No other means of doing what we have vowed our lives to do. Ezekiel is consumed in the voice of God. Paul is plagued by a thorn in his flesh. Jesus himself is rejected by his hometown folks. Their humility fuels a righteous fire for God's justice not a self-righteous grudge against the status-quo, not a self-serving envy for what is not theirs. Self-anointed prophets in lab coats, expensive suits, or liturgical vestments might tempt us with a scientific or political or spiritual utopia, but we know that any prophet who will not and cannot say, “Thus says the Lord God...,” we know that they are false prophets. They are not of God; they do not speak His Word. 
If you will fulfill your vow to be a prophet of God, you will be faithful, just, hopeful, joyful, and loving. You will speak the Truth and do the Good. You will set aside self-righteous anger, envy, and pride. And most importantly, you will be the Father's mercy to sinners.

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01 July 2018

Sin Makes You Stupid

13th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Paraphrasing Aquinas' moral theology: “Sin makes you stupid.” Quite literally – to deliberately violate right reason and God's law results in you becoming less rational and therefore less like God. A corollary to “sin makes you stupid” is “sin can kill you.” Death entered creation through human disobedience. As the Book of Wisdom tell us – we were made to be imperishable. We were made in the image of God's nature. God did not create us to die. He created us to live with Him forever. But death was born from the devil's envy and “they who belong to [the devil's] company experience it.” Not just mortal death but eternal death. Eternal separation from God the Father. Why such a profoundly dreary homily topic on this beautiful July evening? Because, as followers of Christ, we can speak about death – mortal death – as little more than “falling asleep.” 
We awake from sleep when we hear our Lord say, “I say to you, arise!” 
Paul tells the Corinthians how Christ accomplishes all this waking and rising among his people. He writes, “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The Son of God – from the richness of his divinity – became poor for us. He willingly took on the poverty of becoming man so that we might put on the richness of divinity. He could've simply restored us to our original imperishability. Instead, he raised us up to perfect union with the Father. While we are all subject to a mortal's death, none of us must remain dead. Like Jairus' daughter, Christ will say to us, “Arise!” and we will join him and the Father, sharing perfectly in the divine nature. That's our end. The means we use to reach this end is freely available to anyone and everyone who will receive it. Paul writes, “As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also.” This gracious act. What gracious act? The gracious act of Christ becoming poor as that we might become rich. In other words, the means you need to reach your final end is total surrender to God's will so that His will and your will are indistinguishable from one another. As Christ willed to give himself freely on the cross out of his love for us, so we too must will to give ourselves out of love for one another. There is no greater means to eternal life. 
Think of it this way: sin is the refusal or the unwillingness to be like God in all things. You could say, “But Father! I'm not God!” You're right. You aren't God. But you are created in His image and likeness, and you are re-created in the image of the perfect God-Man, Jesus Christ. In the first century of the Church, St. Irenaeus writes, “. . .our Lord Jesus Christ, through His transcendent love, become what we are, [so] that He might bring us to be what He Himself is.”* No only did the Son become us so that we might become Sons, he makes it possible for us to be Sons – heirs – even now, gracing us extravagantly with every gift we need to surrender and love sacrificially. When Christ cries out – “I say to you, Arise!” – he is not merely urging us to rise from death and enter eternal life. He is also commanding us to lift up our broken wills, our torn bodies, and our distracted minds so that we can be revived, restored for the work ahead. Arise, brothers and sisters, this world needs its Christs.

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24 June 2018

Do you fear a Savior?

The Nativity of John the Baptist
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

As soon as Zechariah confirms his son's name, John. . .Luke reports an odd event. He writes, “Then fear came upon all their neighbors.” Fear? Why? Why are Elizabeth's and Zechariah's neighbors fearful at the naming of the couple's son? John isn't a family name. We know that much. We know that Zechariah had his tongue frozen b/c he questioned the angel who brought news of Elizabeth's pregnancy months earlier. What's so horrible about the name “John” that it causes the whole neighborhood to quake in fear? “John” simply means “God shows Himself to be gracious.” Hardly terrifying. Well, you see, it's not just the name that's got people worked up. It's the whole way in which an elderly Elizabeth becomes pregnant and how Zechariah is punished by an angel and how his punishment is publicly lifted when he obeys the Lord and allows John to be named “John.” There's something special, something extraordinary about this kid. That mystery – "What, then, will this child be?" – is what's got them all whispering in fear.
If they knew then what we know now, they would be rejoicing. John is the herald of the Christ, our liberator from sin and death. Well, some of them would be rejoicing – those who actually want to be freed from sin and death and don't much mind the upheaval that Christ's birth, death, and resurrection will cause to their everyday lives. We can imagine that back then – like right now – there are those in the neighborhood who either don't believe that sin is a thing or don't believe that they themselves are actually committing a sin when they sin. If sin isn't real, or my favorite sin isn't really a sin in my mind, then I'm not going to be all that thrilled to hear about the birth of a prophet who preaches the necessity of repentance and the coming of the Savior. In fact, the birth of a prophet is probably going to shake things up and cause me a lot of inconvenience. . .not the least of which is having to hear about how sinful I am! So, yeah, I'd be afraid. Especially if I know my people's prophetic history. What does Isaiah say, “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword. . .He made me a polished arrow. . .” Sharp swords and polished arrows can only mean one thing: THAT kid is going to be a pain in the neck.

And indeed he was. John the Baptist didn't make a lot of friends. He had his disciples. His followers. Those he baptized in repentance. And we all know the story of his demise. Dancing girl. Foolish king. Severed head. Silver platter. What we might not know is why the Church celebrates John's birth. We celebrate Christ's birth and the BVM's birth and John's. No one else's. So, why John? We celebrate John's birth b/c it is all too easy for us to forget our prophetic heritage; to set aside the ancient voice of God and misremember the promises He made ages ago. If we forget, our tongues become stuck in ignorance and we cannot offer Him thanks and praise for His gifts. We cannot bear witness to His goodness in our lives. We cannot ask for what we need, nor receive what He has given us. If we forget John, we forget that God shows Himself to be gracious to us, and we cannot show His graciousness to others. If we forget John, we forget the price we might have to pay for standing on the Truth, and we may fall to laxity in telling the truth. We remember John – his birth and death – so that we may never forget that we ourselves are heralds of the Christ. We are not The Christ. But we are on our way to becoming Christs. . .prophets of the Father's mercy in this world.

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17 June 2018

Are you courageous?

11th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

St. Paul assures the Corinthians, “We are always courageous. . .for we walk by faith, not by sight.” I wonder if this is true. Are you always courageous? I'm not. I like to think that I am, but I know better. I like to think that if push comes to shove and I am forced to defend the faith with my life I'd do so. I'd like to think that there's no way I would denounce the faith to save my skin, or allow myself to be compromised in such a way that Christ would be dishonored. I'd like to think that. And I hope you think that too. But we can't know how brave we would be if and when the time comes to be tested. Why then does Paul seem so sure that we are always courageous? To walk by faith and not by sight is an act of courage; that is, to navigate this world by trusting in God's loving care for is precisely how our hearts are strengthen for judgment. We are always courageous b/c it is Christ who reigns in the center of our being, our heart. Whatever decisions we make, whatever words we speak, whatever deeds we do, we do it all from the throne that Christ himself occupies – the heart. It is the Christ-ruled heart that sows those tiny mustard seeds to plant the Kingdom of God.

Notice that Jesus picks the smallest seed to teach us about the Kingdom. He could've chosen figs or olives or grapes. He's used grains of wheat before in his parables, so that's an option too. But he chooses mustard seeds. Tiny, rock-hard seeds that produce huge, hearty trees. Trees that can survive in arid soil under a blazing sun. The Kingdom of God is planted, nurtured, and brought to harvest by the rock-hard faith of courageous men and women – men and women tested by temptation and trial and found righteous by judgment. To be among them, we need only allow Christ to rule our hearts b/c only Christ can give us the strength necessary to both survive and thrive in this arid world. Every saint and martyr of the Church started with a mere mustard seed of faith, just a drop of trust in God's loving care. Now they reign with Christ in the Kingdom, perfected and everlasting. That's our goal as well – eternal life with the Father. And it's ours by inheritance if we remain in the family that has adopted us. How do we remain? We persevere in courage. We trust with everything we have and are. We never compromise the truth of the faith. And we love sacrificially, giving it all for the glory of God. 
Paul reminds us how it all ends, “. . .we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive [payment], according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” When in doubt about whether or not you are helping to build the Kingdom, ask yourself: “Does Christ rule my heart?” Ask yourself: “Am I compromising the faith, or am I standing firm on the truth?” “Am I giving in to cynicism, or am I living in hope?” “Have I given everything I have and everything I am to Christ for him to govern?” You are always courageous, and you will always be courageous if you work for the Kingdom and Christ the King sits on the throne of your heart.


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05 June 2018

Awaiting a new heavens. . .

St. Boniface
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
9th Provincial Chapter, Navasota, TX

Brothers, who or what are we waiting on? Who or what are you waiting on? One way of answering this question goes something like this: “I'm waiting on Popeye's to reintroduce its all-you-can-eat Spicy Fried Chicken Buffet.” This sort of answer is all about what I'm wanting and waiting on for the Here and Now. You might say instead, “I'm waiting on funding for my ministry project, or a medical breakthrough for my mom, or for my stingy prior to give me permission to replace my 2011 laptop.” We want and wait on things for the Here and Now. Nothing wrong with that. But if Peter is right, we also want and wait on more than just what we think we need Right Now. He writes, “. . .we await new heavens and a new earth. . .” We await something and Someone greater than ourselves, a time, a place. . .a person “where righteousness dwells.” How does this sort of wanting and waiting move us day-to-day? How does this sort of wanting and waiting move us during this chapter? Are we thinking and deciding in four year increments? Or, are we “waiting [on] and hasten[ing] the coming of the day of God”?

Now, given what Peter says about the Day of God we might not be all that eager to hasten its arrival – “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.” That might interfere with any plans Popeye's has on expanding their menu! Even more so, it sets our own plans for the Province within an “End Times” context. This does not mean that everything we do and say here is useless. Quite the opposite! It means that everything we do and say here takes on the flavor of that most Christian spice – the eschaton, our final goal as men vowed to preach and teach the Good News of Jesus Christ. When Peter says that we as Christians “await new heavens and a new earth” he means that while we live and move and have our being right here and right now, we also look toward a horizon sharply drawn by the Father's promise of eternal life. Christ has fulfilled that promise for us. Now it's our turn – daily, hourly, in everything we say and do in this chapter – it's our turn to live out that promise. Yes, we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. . .BUT we discern and come to understand with the mind of Christ. Therefore, Peter encourages us “to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

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