01 September 2006

The moral obligation to be a well-prepared fool

21st Week OT (Fri):1 Cor 1.17-25 and Matthew 25.1-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

How did you come to the faith? What fool brought you to Christ and persuaded you to sacrifice you life for the cause of the Gospel? How did he or she do it? How did they catch you, seduce you to say yes to God? Have you really ever thought about the trip you’ve taken to this spot? Have you ever really contemplated the steps, the one after another steps that brought you here? You didn’t just land here, you know; you didn’t just tumble out of the sky, land on your feet, brush off and find yourself a Christian! If you haven’t given much thought to how you got here, I suggest you do. Start by asking yourself this question: what fool told me about Jesus?

Yes, I said “fool.” What fool told you about Jesus? Paul is clear in his letter to the Corinthians, “For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.” In other words, God, in His wisdom, decided to make Himself known to us in the foolish proclamation of the gospel, the foolish preaching of his disciples and not through the wisdom of the world. Those who are fools enough to believe the scandal of the cross, those brought to Life by the Holy Spirit, those whose mouths are stuffed with the Word—not a human eloquence but holy fluency—these are the ones who tell us about Jesus and we who believe their witness and have faith are saved. Not with wondrous signs. Not with worldly wisdom. But with a living, breathing faith that batters dark doubt and seduces the stoniest heart.

Who melted your icy refusal to listen to the Word? Who broke the seal on your lips, lips that now say AMEN and LORD? Who pushed you out of the darkness into the light? I ask b/c you need to give thanks. This is no so much about self-understanding as it is about lifting up the gift of gratitude and praise—given to us by God—and offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the fool who told you about Jesus. Let them benefit from a small offering of praise. You are here now b/c they were not afraid to speak the Word given to them by the Holy Spirit. Their courage struck the spark that set your soul ablaze.

Now it’s your turn. The five wise virgins are prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom. Patient, well-groomed, rehearsed, and eager, they wait for him and benefit immediately from their readiness. For us, being ready and willing to give witness to Christ in our lives is how we prepare for the Bridegroom, it is how we work for his arrival. Certainly a large part of this readiness for us is our academic preparation, the time and energy we spend developing the divine gift of our mind. Whether your preparation is theological, philosophical, scientific, biological, economic, artistic, or literary, you prepare to witness of the foolishness of the Cross so long as you prepare knowing and believing that what you study—the subject of your intellectual preparation—is a revelation of God from God to you, to us for our holy progress.

We are, you are morally obligated to prepare your mind to serve the Lord by assiduous study, by faithful attention to His revelation in all the arts and sciences that He has gifted you to investigate and learn, and you are obligated to share the fruits of this study with us so that we may see and hear His wisdom with you. Your witness as students and teachers is the witness of the disciple, the faithful scholar in the School of Charity, apprenticed to Christ—you are excited to learn and excited to teach.

Prepare yourself then to be the fool who tells some dark soul about Christ. Prepare yourself in the wisdom of the Cross to be the lips and tongue of the Lord’s saving Word.

30 August 2006

Throw the bums out!

21st Week OT (Wed): 2 Thes 3.6-10, 16-18 and Matthew 23.27-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

Jesus to the Pharisees: Hypocrites! Whitewashed tombs! Full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth! You are evildoers, children of murderers, and hypocrites! So much for the pablamed nonsense that Jesus never condemns, that Jesus is always open to and accepting of every human failure. So much for the nancied notion that Jesus gently guides, sweetly persuades, and never, ever uses harsh words to correct error or call sin “Sin.”

Plainly, Jesus is perfectly capable and eagerly willing to bounce the stubborn Pharisees and scribes around a bit for their spiritual posing. Clearly, Jesus is perfectly capable and eagerly willing to lob a few “Bill O’Reily” grenades amongst his religious enemies. Obviously, Jesus is perfectly capable and eagerly willing to insult his opponents in order to startle them, anger them, stir them up, maybe even incite them to violence! Why? Why is he so ready, willing, and able to take these guys on with such offensive, alienating, and unhelpful rhetoric? That’s easy: he loves them.

And because he loves them he is willing to smack them around a little to make this devastating point: you are lying to yourselves and the rest of us when you say that you would not have killed yesteryear’s prophets; you are the children of those who murdered the Lord’s messengers, and you are, in fact, plotting even now to kill me! He loves them so he tells them what they will not believe. He loves them so he tells them the truth. Jesus’ “unhelpful” rhetoric, his “hurtful” speech is an instigation to repentance. And though his medicinal rant is delivered to the scribes and Pharisees, we hear it as well.

In his second letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes: “We instruct you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they have received from us.” This is not the practice of “no harm, no foul” we’ve grown accustomed to the contemporary American church. This is not the anemic plea for endless dialogue that we hear these days when a brother or sister walks a disorderly way. This is not an instruction from Paul on how to set up processes for consultation on dissension or committees for discussion and feedback on reform. Rather, Paul is instructing the Thessalonians to turn out those who reject the identity of the church, those who refuse to be formed by the community of believers that they have joined voluntarily. So, throw them out and be done with it! Right?

Not quite. Teaching and preaching the truth in love is a ministry of patience. Yes, it is also a ministry of naming sin “Sin,” but it also a ministry naming grace “Grace.” And it is first and always first a ministry of proclamation, the good spiritual work of telling every man, woman, and child by word and deed that the Lord has invited them to live life with Him and that they are given every chance, every opportunity to perfect His love by exercising their divine gifts for others. Patience and charity, then, are the good habits of seeing the Biggest Possible Picture and letting God be God in His own good time.

Those among us who vandalize the tradition, who walk a disorderly way but insist on doing it among us can be hounded, scolded, griped at and about, argued with, proven wrong, and even physically removed. But the question remains: what have they heard and seen from you, for us, in the way of patience, in the way of charity, in the way of medicinal help? Those who walk apart will do so sometimes despite us or even because of us, but why will they return to us, why will they order their lives and come back to this handed-on adventure of loving God and being loved by Him? Will any of them point to you, to me and say, “Because of him, because of her I am back”?

Jesus rakes the scribes and Pharisees because he loves them. He rakes them to wake them up. He wakes them up to repentance, not punishment, to cure and to healing. We are to be doctors of the soul not judges of conscience, healers of the Body of Christ, not jailers for the Church.

29 August 2006

Law, License, Hypocrisy

Beheading of John the Baptist: 2 Thes 2.1-3, 14-17 and Matt 23.23-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX
NB. I liked this homily at 5am this morning. Now, I dunno...it seems a little confused to me. Too many peices competing for too little space and time. (Fr. Philip @ 12.20pm)
Always in our struggles for holiness we are tempted to weigh too heavily on the side of the Law or on the side of License; we become unbalanced, top-heavy or bottom-heavy, and we either fall over or become immobile. The most obvious indication that we’ve given to much time and energy to one or the other—Law or License—is the presence of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is evidence for all to see that we have succumb to the temptation to take the quick and easy way out of our spiritual struggle and simply elect to either idolize the Law or idolize License. Hypocrisy is not about failing to live up the standards you truly believe in. Hypocrisy is the failure to apply to yourself the standards you apply to everyone else.

Jesus blasts the Pharisees as hypocrites because they pay very careful attention to the minutiae of the Law while ignoring the more difficult, the “weightier,” things of the Law. He accuses them of straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel, of being self-indulgent pirates. Blind to their own hypocrisy—as we often are—they cannot be reliable spiritual guides for others. The Pharisees have become top-heavy with the Law and they tumble easily at the word of a righteous man.

The Thessalonians seem to be dealing with another problem: a lack of direction, a failure in local leadership, and perhaps, some hypocrisy resulting from a bottom-heavy preference for the rule of License. Paul has to warn this Christian community not to jump at very “spirit” that claims authority to reveal secrets or get all wound up over some new letter or new gospel that shows up at their assemblies.

License rules here b/c the community is ignoring or even rebelling against legitimate ecclesial authority. Either some the Thessalonians themselves or recent converts from other places are trying to grab power and influence by appealing to new revelations about Christ, new revelations about salvation. Using false letters and false spirits, they want to undermine authentic apostolic authority with appeals to that same apostolic authority in order to set themselves up as apostolic authorities! Hypocrites!

So, where’s the balance for us btw Law and License? The balance is Freedom. And it’s expression is found in this letter from Paul: brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught; stand firm against false teaching, that is, teachings that clearly contradict the story of our salvation history; stand firm against attempts by apostolic posers to lay claim to Christ’s authority and lead us over a spiritual cliff; hold fast to the truth of the faith as spirits of dissent, disappointment, and anger wash over the church; hold fast to the beauty and goodness that the Father has revealed to us in His Son and in one another. Open your hearts to be fortified against the picayune naggings of legalistic bookkeeping spirits whom you imagine tally your sins and crank out a lengthy bills. Open your minds to be fortified against the corrosive waves of libertine spirits whom you know snatch at your reason and dissolve it in pretty of vats of sophist potions and stir it with the soft-headed rhetoric of relativism.

Freedom—the balance btw Law and License—is the gift of the ability to follow Christ to the Father and become perfect in His love. We are freed from sin, not freed to sin. When we preach the truth of the faith—even when we fail to live up to that truth—we hold fast and stand firm, avoiding hypocrisy.

To preach anything else but the truth of the faith is an exercise in self-indulgent pirating—stealing from the blind their chance to see, stealing from the deaf their chance to hear.

28 August 2006

Idols eating dirt

St. Augustine: I John 4.7-16 and Matthew 23.8-12
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

We’ve all had friends who work themselves into a sweat trying not to conform, trying not to be “normal.” One of my friends in my pre-Catholic days regularly outdid the most extravagant efforts of most pretentious bohemians. I won’t go into details…suffice it to say that her non-conformity involved multiple piercings, odd hair colors, lots of black clothing, and the imprudent use of peacock feathers. ‘Nuff said. When I would gently prod her about the extremes of her attention-seeking public theatre, she would defend herself by saying something like, “I hate those little 100% cotton suburban robots and their Mary Kay face paint and their stupid little lives. I can’t be them!” I never failed to point out that despite her protests to the contrary she spent a great deal of time letting these suburban robots master her life. They controlled her by example, an anti-example, perhaps, but she looked to them for instruction on how NOT to live and therefore gave them total control over how she actually lived. They were for her idols to both worship and destroy.

This is the problem Jesus tackles. Don’t call anyone on earth your Master or Teacher and don’t be called Master or Teacher. This isn’t about titles of respect, honorifics. It’s about who you will look to for instruction. Who you will follow. Who you will obey. And it’s about how others will come to follow you. How others will come to obey you. You will look to the Christ for instruction. You will follow and obey Jesus. And if you will lead, you will serve. Not dominate. Not control. But serve.

Those who put themselves on altars—or allow themselves to be put there by their followers—always find themselves eating dirt in the end. Why? Idols are caricatures. Bad imitations. And worse examples. The Psalms tell us that those who make idols and worship them end up just like them: with eyes that cannot see, noses that cannot breathe, hearts that do not beat. And since it is the job of an idol to fall, idol worshippers end up in the dirt with their god. Whether our idols are religious leaders, politicians, Hollywood stars, athletes, or the people we hate to love, they will fall; they will fail and we along with them.

If you would lead, you will serve. And you will do so in humility, in the full knowledge that everything you have, everything you are is a gift from the Father to you for you to give to others for His glory. We are given our lives by the Father through His Only-Begotten Son. As John says in the epistle: “In this is love”—the gift of our very existence is an act of love—“not that we have loved God”—not that we have done anything to merit this gift of existence—“but that he loved us”—but that He willed that we exist, that He loved us into life. And gave us each gifts of service so that “his love is brought to perfection in us.”

Lead us by serving us. Teach us in word and deed. Show us the humility that the gifts of God require for their perfection in you. Love us b/c the Father is love. And loved us on a cross to His only Son’s death. Make no idols to self-sufficiency or secular power or professional achievement or athletic prowess or intellectual ability; make no idols to poetic genius or scientific invention or musical virtuosity or artistic skill or technical know-how. Do not make idols of the Father’s gifts. Rather perfect those gifts in service. Call no one and no thing Master or Teacher but Christ. And do not be called Master or Teacher but servant—well-gifted by the Father, fully humbled, and worked into a sweat, ready to serve.