18 February 2006

I am doing something new...

7th Sunday OT: Isa 43.18-19, 21-22, 24-35; 2 Cor 1.18-22; Mark 2.1-12
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. The Lord is bringing us fresh water, good food, cheerful company. And we, well, we bring flat sodas, stale bread, and stingy, griping hearts. The Lord laughs and we cry. The Lord forgives and we nurse our wounds. OK! We’re not that bad, but I’m making a point: it is Who God Is to bring in, to make welcome, to spread abundance, to forgive offenses, to make well, induce joy, persuade to repentance, and to reconcile. It is Who God Is to send out over and over and over again the summons for us to come back to Him, to return to His family, and rest in His abundant love and grace. Like the man paralyzed, we can be made sick by sin, paralyzed—spiritually—with fear, anxiety, self-loathing, and a nearly insatiable longing for forgiveness. And like the paralyzed man, we can be healed. But do we (do you?) want it? Do you want to be healed?

The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. The Lord is healing the sick—the leper, the man born blind, the man born deaf and unable to speak—; he’s tossing demons out of long-possessed souls, freeing them from the grip of the Evil One; he’s teaching his law of love and his law of mercy to his students and the crowds; and he’s standing there and here, hand out, waiting, waiting, waiting for them, for you, me, for us to take it and get well. To be reconciled, made whole again. Do we (do you?) want to be healed? What possesses us and prevents us from the simple act of reaching back, taking Jesus’ hand, and making all things right again?

The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. The paralyzed man, lowered from the ceiling, is not hoping to be given the freedom of his arms and legs again. There is no guesswork there at all. He knows his healing is in reach. He knows his freedom, his recovery is right there in the person of Jesus Christ. The wiping away of his sin, the washing clean of his spirit is just inches away. And he knows that he will rise, pick up his mat, and walk home. The scribes doubt; they fidget and worry, murmur and twitch about the alleged blasphemy, the seemingly outrageous claim of Jesus to heal by forgiving sins. But they end up astounded; they end up glorifying God, and saying with everyone else: “We have never seen anything like this.” Their doubt is banished by undeniable evidence. What prevents us (you?) from reaching back to Jesus for healing, for forgiveness?

The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. One very harmful “same old thing” that we keep doing over and over is believing that we can come to good spiritual health on our own. We can work at prayer hard enough, labor away at fasting and abstinence long enough, plug away at fighting temptation, engaging in spiritual warfare, and building up enough credit with God over time that we can cash it all in and buy some grace, purchase for ourselves a little piece of divine real estate. Maybe turn away the Lord’s anger with a neat little gift of holy work. Yea. Good luck with that.

Let’s be perfectly clear: the battle against sin and death is over. We won. There is no battle to fight. To war to wage. There is no work left to do. Jesus won the last battle on the Cross. Sin and death are dead. We are free. That we continue to sin results from the exercise of that freedom; its abuse. The right use of our freedom enslaves us to God’s will and yanks us gleefully to the Father to do His holy work for others. Our Father’s love cannot be earned; it cannot be bought; it cannot be begged or threatened or negotiated for. How can it? It is ours already. Freely given on the altar of the Cross. Freely given on this altar of sacrifice. Why would it ever occur to us (to you?) to kill ourselves working to pay of something that is not only free but ours (yours) already?!

The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. Another harmful “same old thing” we do is cling to our sins once they are absolved. We mull them over, worry about them, fret that maybe, just maybe the Lord missed one, or that I didn’t really feel sorry enough for that one, so it’s still there. Sins forgiven are sins forgotten. Let them go. No one cured of cancer fondly remembers the tumor. So, why do we cling to our sins once they are forgiven? There is a appropriate sense of guilt at work here. Good people feel guilty about sinning. Good, they should. It means they are fundamentally good people and not sociopaths. But completing the assigned penance is enough. You are forgiven. Now forget and rejoice in your victory! If you won’t hear me, hear what the Lord said to us through Isaiah: “You burdened me with your sins, and wearied me with your crimes. It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” Your sins I remember no more.

The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. OK. You’ve had some time to think about it: what prevent us (you?) from reaching back to Jesus, from laying claim to the freedom of the Cross, from going to confession? No doubt it’s different for everyone, but my guess is that it is b/c the sacrament of reconciliation not only requires confession of sins, contrition, and penance, it also requires repentance, conversion of heart and mind and the resolve to sin no more. Conversion is the hardest thing we do as Christians. Conversion means taking a hard look at our lives from God’s view. Making a clear, honest assessment of where we are with God, where we’re going, and saying with some integrity: “I’m stuck. And I’m stuck b/c my sin is weighing me down.” The grace to move toward the sacrament, the spiritual energy (if you will) is provided by the Holy Spirit. If you feel moved, prompted to confess—do it! The Holy Spirit is thumping you on the head and saying, “What are you waiting for? Your sins are forgiven. Go claim your victory in the sacrament! I have work for you to do and you’re just sitting there stuck.”

Our Lord’s invitation to live with Him forever is open-ended. Always there, always new and fresh. The victory against sin is won. That battle is over. We just have to claim the victory, reach back to Christ through his church, name our sins, ask for forgiveness and feel the freedom of a white-washed soul, a pristine spirit, ready for doing the Lord’s work in the world. The Lord is doing something new. Always new. And we, well, we keep doing the same old things over and over again. But we don’t have to—we are freed from destructive routine, habitual sin, malicious memories of our past, the compulsive need to earn mercy, and the reluctance to face our sin and ask for absolution.

We are free. We are healed.

Rise! Pick up your mat! And come home!

17 February 2006

How do you train to die on a cross?

6th Week OT: James 2.14-24, 26; Mark 8.34-9.1
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club & Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Hear it!

To become a doctor, you major in something like biology or chemistry, go to med school, do your internship, and practice, practice, practice. To be a lawyer, you major in something like history or philosophy, go to law school, and practice, practice, practice. To be an English professor, you major in English, go to grad school, write a dissertation on a literary figure or genre, and you practice, practice, practice. And so on. Every profession, every career path, and job available to us has similar components: a desire to be or to do this or that, a period of learning, maybe a period on hands-on training, and then the actual practice of the profession, the performance of the job.

So, how do you train to die on a cross?

If we want to come after Jesus, that is, if we want to pick up the work he was doing then and continue on with it now, we need to be ready to be consumed by the effort—the first work of the Gospel is the work of saving our lives from pointless spiritual labor, from uselessly exerting ourselves on a religious treadmill, an exercise machine that tones but does not travel. We’re not summoned with the disciples and the crowd to hear Jesus say, “Piddle away your lives striving for vague spiritual wellness, contentless religious comfort, and your own personal revelation of Deity.”

Jesus tells his students and the crowd he has summoned that if they will come after him, take up his work, they will commit themselves wholly to the work of the Way, give themselves over to the best and worst of the job, even to the point of giving their lives for his sake. They will put aside every want, every entitlement, every privilege. They will put aside any priority, any demand, any claim. They will “do the faith,” lose their lives along the Way, and find themselves most alive, most profitable, most blessed.

So, how do you train to die on a cross? Practice, practice, practice.

Our lives in the gospel must be more than ritualized exercises of piety, of observance. There’s every benefit to devotional prayer, fasting and abstinence, and sacred reading. But where do these take you? Where do you go with these? Jesus warns his students and the gathered crowd that they are taking up a cross that will bear them to the end, to their end, with him in both terrible suffering and glorious resurrection. They are preparing themselves for the ultimate forfeit, the final exchange of expending their lives in the labor of spreading the gospel. Jesus isn’t telling them that they will best be about his work when they gather together in conferences to dialogue and process. Unless dialogue and process concludes concretely in the faithful witness to the truth of the gospel he taught us. Unless it ends in the doing of his work. He isn’t teaching them that his cross is lightly carried in the pious imitation of a favorite saint or in the recitation of affectionate prayers. Unless, of course, these conclude in doing his work, by doing that which will threaten one’s settled life.

We are to turn away from what eases us into a false security. Our security is the trust we place in the Lord. We are to pick up that which will kill us in the end: our loyalty to the gospel, our allegiance to Christ First. We are to follow him on the Way, to the Cross, through death, to life everlasting.

It is not enough to believe, to process, to gather, to pray, to read, to be pious. Our faith is done. Worked at. It is a labor. We cannot be ashamed to do the faith as strongly and as energetically as we believe it: what would you do in exchange for your life?

14 February 2006

What's to understand?

6th Week OT (Tues): James 1.12-18; Mark 8.14-21
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!

What’s to understand?! What is there for the disciples to understand? Taking almost nothing—a few fish and loaves—and increasing it to an abundance—enough for thousands—, Jesus shows, literally shows, the disciples what he is all about: growing the meager into the plenty, spreading a little around until it becomes a whole lot more. The disciples don’t grasp what Jesus is trying to teach them about the blessing and abundance of the Father, about the proper disposition of the heart to see and hear how the Word works in the world.

Jesus warns them not to allow the “leaven,” the negative influences, of the Pharisees and of Herod to poison their thinking about what they have heard and seen. The disciples take this to be an admonishment about forgetting to bring some bread along on their boat ride. You can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes and barely restraining himself from slapping the nearest disciple! He says, “Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend?” What’s to understand?! And why don’t they get it?

At least part of what’s going on with the disciples is that they are being tempted by the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. And who isn’t? The Pharisees are swallowed in procedure, scrupulously cataloging their behavior and comparing it to the perfection they believe the Law represents. They demand signs from Jesus because they are unable to bring themselves to believe beyond the available evidence and experience the workings of the Holy Spirit. Where the Pharisees reject Jesus with a kind of anxious longing for proof, Herod simply mocks Jesus, thinking of him as John the Baptist risen from the dead to haunt him. The Pharisees needle Jesus constantly for proof of his Sonship. Herod is a politically motivated skeptic. And Jesus is warning the disciples that both these attitudes toward the blessing and abundance of the Father are dangerous. Deadly dangerous.

Jesus questions the disciples to make sure they remember what they saw and heard when he fed the thousands. They answer correctly and Jesus concludes: “Do you still not understand?” What’s to understand!? With a heart settled squarely in the covenant, resting peacefully in the revelation of grace that Christ is for us, there is little to understand but the generous abundance of the Father’s mercy for us, the plenty of His goodness freely given and freely taken.

Perhaps we, like the disciples, mistake Jesus’ teachings for arguments. Or maybe we mistake his miracles for attempts at proof of his identity. Perhaps, like the disciples, we long for more concrete demonstrations, more “real” evidence, of who Jesus claims to be and the truth of what he teaches. Trust that requires proof is not trust. Hope that demands a guarantee is not hope. This is where we must step off into the beauty of the Lord, his revelation of himself to us, and trust and hope, and to believe and to be convicted of the truth without reference to Another, without looking away from him to some other “ism,” some other, more basic philosophy or scheme.

We trust a man not an idea. We believe in the blessing and abundance of the Father not a human, merely social system. What’s to understand?! James writes, “He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Do you understand: we are the blessing and the abundance of the Father!