22 September 2006

Get those nasty fingers out of your ears!

24th Week OT (F): 1 Cor 15.12-20 and Luke 8.1-3
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

The Corinthians are causing trouble again. They’ve been spending way too much time listening to their philosophers—the ancient world’s version of some of our itchy-eared career theologians in the academy. Speculation is rife. There is a prevailing spirit of free-wheeling conjecture, a ubiquitous riffing on borrowed intellectual fantasies, stolen fragments of Greek myth, mathematical idolatry, appeals to demiurge hierarchies, and some pop-star adoration in the form of personality cults centered on charismatic figures willing to scratch all those itchy ears in exchange for a little attention. One result of all this imaginative intellectual doodling is a denial of the resurrection of the dead. Essentially, a denial of Christ’s resurrection and a rejection of Easter morning’s Empty Tomb. This denial, this rejection is not simply one reasonable theological conclusion among many reasonable conclusions. It is an emptying of the faith, a draining off of the Spirit, the murder of our life in Christ. It is a mortal wound to the Body, the Church.

How so? Paul makes two very practical observations about the absurdity of a Christian denying the resurrection. First, he says that this denial renders your faith vain. Quite literally, your trust in the promises of God is worthless, without hope. Second, the denial of the resurrection is a conclusive admission that you have been a false witness to God, that is, to say that Christ was not raised from the dead and to say that no one else will be raised either directly contradicts the content of our apostolic witness, our historic faith and serves as testimony against God. We are pitiable Christians indeed if we turn so easily from vowing ourselves in baptism to the life-long proclamation of the Empty Tomb to having our itchy ears scratched by the dirty fingernails of mythic conjecture and itinerant theological curiosities. Remove those attention-seeking fingers from your ears. Turn away.

Turn instead to the women who traveled with Jesus and the Twelve, those faithful women who “provided for [Jesus and the Twelve] out of their resources.” No doubt Luke is reporting a very mundane reality here. The women made sure the preachers had basic food, clothes, the stuff everyone needs to survive while traveling around. Their generosity to the preachers of the gospel is more than kindness, more than bigheartedness. They were the instruments of the Lord’s providence. They were how the Lord chose to provide for His Son and Son’s student-preachers. The women’s generosity, their open hands and open hearts were a holy preaching.

These women witness against the urbane Corinthian boredom with the central truth of our apostolic faith. Your witness, literally, your martyrdom, must be as open-handed, as open-hearted as the preaching of these women. Your witness to the core hope of our trust in God—that as Christ was raised from the dead so too will those who believe in him be raised—your witness to this Christian truth must be exceedingly generous, ridiculously rich and disproportionately extravagant. If we cannot or will not testify to this truth, then we testify against God and we publicly renounce our baptismal vows. Truly, then, we are forever dead.

Rather than preaching a faith informed by vacant, speculative curiosity or a faith that merely monitors the Spirit dissected and comfortably pinned to fashionable secular prejudices, preach Christ crucified and risen, Christ raised and ascended. From the abundance of your godly trust, the excessive stockpile of our Christian riches, preach the Risen Christ…and get those nasty unfaithful fingers out of your ears!

20 September 2006

Getting Shot Everyday of Your Life

St Andrew Kim and Companions: Romans 8.31-39 and Luke 9.23-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Her whole family has just been shot in front of her. “’Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,’ the old lady mumbled[…]” With this moment of desperate doubt on her lips, the Grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” collapses in the ditch with the serial killer, The Misfit, standing over her. He expresses what can only be described as a distinctly western skepticism about things mystical, “I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t.” The Misfit goes on to claim that if he had been there, he would know for sure whether Jesus raised the dead or not. This knowledge might have saved him from becoming a murderer. The story continues: “His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.” The Misfit orders Hiram and Bobby Lee, his fellow misfits, to drag her body off into the woods with her family. Bobby Lee says, “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” The Misfit, his eyes “red-rimmed and pale and defenseless looking,” said, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Paul asks the Romans, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution…?” He then quotes Psalm 44, a lament, as his strange answer: “For your sake we are slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” We are being killed daily for God’s sake. You might say that it is b/c we are being killed daily that Paul asks the question about what will separate us from the love of Christ. Or you might say that since we are not being killed gratuitously but rather for God’s sake, Paul argues then that nothing can wrench us from Christ’s love. Regardless, both lead us to the same conclusion: we would be better Christians if there were someone to shoot us every minute of our lives.

The Grandmother’s empty and terribly haughty religiosity kept her pinned in a bourgeois mud hole. She wallowed in respectability, distant affection, whiny self-righteousness, and crisis superstition. It wasn’t until she found herself in a real mud hole with a gun in her face that her spirit grasped the truth of who she is. At that moment of the Misfit’s greatest vulnerability as a sinner, she reached out: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She took up her cross, perhaps for the first time. And died as Christ for her son. Her murderer.*

What does it take for you, for us to see with crystal clarity that nothing—not angels, not powers, not death—that nothing can separate you from the love of Christ? If nothing, nothing at all, can separate us from the love that gave us birth as new men and women in Christ, what are we waiting for? What fear, what anxiety, what worldly claim on our souls, what possible embarrassment holds us back from our witness, our daily martyrdom for God’s sake? The Psalmist cries out to God, “For your sake we are being killed all day long!” Daily we are being killed. Will your death today be a witness or a waste?

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

*The Misfit is a Christ-figure for the Grandmother. After all, it’s his moment of suffering that brings her to her own epiphany and his gun that martrys her.

17 September 2006

Who does Jesus say that you are?

24th Sunday OT: Isa 50.4-9; James 2.14-18; Mark 8.27-35
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Last night I walked in the common room of the priory to hear a very familiar, distinctly southern voice on the TV. Even before I made it around the couch to see his face, I knew that Fr. Aaron was watching Brother Billy Graham preach. The logo in the corner of the screen told me that this was a “Billy Graham Classic.” Br. Graham’s powder blue polyester suit and full head of brown hair told me this classic was from about 1976. I listened with the ears of a child and I heard the familiar stories of the Bible, the familiar cadences of my Baptist past, the comforting assurances of a personal meeting with Christ, and I heard again and again the signature Protestant theology of faith alone, the lone sinner coming to salvation in a moment of decision, the instantaneous clarity of one’s relationship with God accomplished in a flash of acceptance, just one heartbeat of true openness to the Father’s mercy and BAM! you’re done! At the all too familiar altar call, I watched hundreds of people stream down the aisles of the stadium to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior. And I thought to myself: “You people have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into!”

Who here wishes to lose his life? Who here wishes to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Jesus? Who here will refuse yourself what you think you need, what you think you want, will reject all those people, all the stuff and prestige that seems so essential, reject all that in exchange for a life of sacrificial service? Who here will heft the instrument of your greatest pain and eventual death, heft it onto your shoulders and carry it to the garbage dump of your unjust execution? Who will follow Jesus?

Be careful. Be very careful. Denying yourself what you want and need, inviting suffering and death into your life, and walking on the path of Christ-like passion and righteousness is dangerous. It’s more than dangerous; it’s explosive, it’s a volatile risk, a decision reached with grace in awe and lived with ears wide open and tongue loosely freed. This is no stunt. No walk along the trimmed paths of a safely tailored wood. This is soul-shattering serious business, commitment to the brim of your deepest well, filled up and overflowing with just two words: “The Christ.” Who do you say that Jesus is? The Christ. The Anointed One of the Father. Messiah. Emmanuel. God With Us. Be careful. Be very careful. Risk nothing on a vain word, a futile gesture. Risk nothing on a pretense. Risk nothing on a drama, a skit, a made-for-TV moment of tears. We’re not playing at Church here! But please, risk everything, all things, on a steadfast truth, a faithful word. Risk everything answering that groaning longing, that bone-deep, itching desire. Rest your restless heart where Peter has rested his. With confidence, he takes his well-rewarded risk: “You are the Christ.”

Who do you say that Jesus is? Prophet. Brilliant teacher. Rabbi. Essene monk. Son of Joseph and Mary. Pacifist revolutionary. Radical social reformer. Delusional cult leader. Figment of the imagination. God. What possible difference does it make? Labels are peeled off as easily as they are slapped on. One label, two labels, three. No matter. Who he was then and who is now is largely irrelevant. Largely inconsequential to who I was, to who I am. He can be a teacher of ethics, a cultural pioneer, a non-violent demonstrator, an unwed mother, a suicidal teenager, a laid off fifty-something year old, a mad priest, a delicate child. He’s all things to all people. What does it matter who I say he is? If you do not know who he is, cannot or will not say who he is, how will you deny yourself for his sake? Whose sake? Will you take up an empty cross? Who will you follow? You must know who Jesus is and you must speak the name of Jesus so that your works may be signs of your faith. To demonstrate your faith, your works must be worked in the name of Jesus the Christ. Who do you say that Jesus is?

And perhaps more frightening than that question, is this one: when Jesus the Christ looks back at those claiming to follow him, when he looks over the crowd, all those yelling “Lord, lord!” who will he say that you are? Will he see a half-hearted wannabe or a hero of the Word? A mush-mouthed apostle or a proclaimer of the Good News? A wallower in anger and despair or a rejoicer in love and mercy? A slave to disobedience or a freed child of faith. Who will he say that you are? Who do you say that you are?

What do your works say about you? How do you demonstrate your faith? In other words, to say that you have faith, to say that Jesus is the Christ, and then fail, utterly fail to act as though you believe this, to fail to demonstrate concretely your claim to faith, this failure is death. And what a silly way to go. Do you think for a moment that our loving Father would ask us to believe in his Son for our redemption, to accept His invitation to live with Him forever, and then turn around and make it impossible or even difficult for us to do so? Everything necessary for our redemption and our growth holiness is freely given, freely infused in us for our use, just waiting for our cooperation. We are graced, gifted with all that we need to name the Christ, to deny ourselves for his sake, to carry our cross, and to walk in his ways. In other words, when he looks back at us, those following in his way, bearing our crosses, we may ask him, “Lord, who do you say that we are?” He can say, because his own suffering, death, and resurrection has made it so, he can say, “You are the Christs.”

If I were a Baptist preacher, maybe Br. Billy Graham, I would cue the choir to start “Just As I Am.” While they sang softly, I would ask all those touched by the Lord this night to come forward, to stand before the altar and ask Jesus into your life. I would urge you to accept Christ into your heart and make him your personal Lord and Savior. But since I am a Catholic priest and Dominican preacher, I will instead invite you forward to take into your bodies the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To take into your life—your flesh and blood—everything that he is for us. Teacher. Savior. Brother. Master. Son of Mary. Word Made Flesh. Father and Holy Spirit. God. And then I will invite you to leave this place with his blessing to grow in holiness by serving one another, to proclaim the Good News with your tongue and with your hands, to thrive wildly in the abundance of graces that the Lord hands you, the talents He gives you to use for His greater glory.

If you know what you’re getting yourself into, walk these aisles this morning/tonight, stand up and come forward to eat and drink, and know that you stand and walk and eat and drink and serve because he is the Christ, he is the Anointed One of God, and he says to us all and to each: “You are the Christs. Follow me and do our Father’s will.”