15 December 2006

Petulance, Pretension, and Playing to the Mob

2nd Week Advent (F): Isaiah 48.17-19 and Matthew 11.16-19
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass, Church of the Incarnation

We demand that the Pope change the rules on the use of artificial birth control. He does and then we shout for changes in gender exclusion in marriage. The Pope allows gay marriages and we shout for women priests. The Pope allows women priests and we start protesting for gender equity in the College of Cardinals. The Pope gives us 50/50 male to female in the College and we shout for his resignation b/c he is so unresponsive to the voice of the people! Or maybe b/c he’s turned soft…

This is the reward of those who play to the crowd, hoping, in vain, that the crowd can be persuaded or lead or bought off to give its allegiance to the truth. Not likely. Jesus makes this very point this morning: “Your generation is like a bunch of kids playing in the street. You whine when we don’t dance to your favorite music and you whine when we don’t cry when you play your funeral dirges. You call John the Baptist demon possessed b/c he doesn’t eat or drink. And I come among you eating and drinking and you call me a glutton and drunkard.” Jesus is frustrated b/c he’s having to confront again and again the invincible ignorance of the crowds who clamor for glamour, that is, crowds who are following him and gathering about him who want to be see the miraculous done for their amusement. Some will believe, some will remain unbelieving, and most will tag along to see the show, perhaps hoping that something of Jesus’ healing power will pour over and travel to visit their ailments. They were there and we are here.

To what shall we compare this generation? Hyperactive rabbits? A computer with hundreds of lines running in and out? A cyborg with technology stuck in every hole? Needy children on too much sugar? We seem to climb about, swinging away, growing and eating, but left deeply hungry and thirsty in the absence of the Divine. I mean to say that God is always here with us, of course, but that his presence to us is spiritually fruitful only when we invoke His name, go get His gifts to us, and use them honorably in service to others. This generation—yours, mine, or the ones to come—best honor Christ by following his Way; forget the manipulation and craft; we can best use his grace by putting it in front of us to clear our path to Him, to open the Way, to allow His wisdom to be vindicated in us by wisdom’s good works.

The children in the market are petulant, proud, and probably a bit bored. They play their music for reaction, for reflection, or maybe just plain ole for fun. And so too the crowds. They gathered around Jesus for all sorts of reasons. Some pure. Some private. And some for simple delectation. Why do we gather around Jesus in 2006? What draws us to him? Surely he radiates power and we are always ready to vibrate at that hum. Is it his life-philosophy: personal sacrifice for public good? How about his teachings on peace or marriage or eternal life? Do we gather to be seen? To be in control, in charge? To be attention-seeking servants? How ready are you to serve w/o recognition?

Perhaps we do well to keep the words of Isaiah firmly in mind: “I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go.” Ministry is God’s work. You and I are the subcontractors; we’re the hired help. Apparently, we work for a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Not company we can boast about. But this is the company that will see our souls before the Throne of the Most High.

If divine wisdom is vindicated by her works, then rank foolishness is celebrated by our pretensions: “if you would hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river…”

14 December 2006

Mission One: Sin

Advent Mission One: Galatians 5.13-26
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alva, OK

Do we like sin? I don’t mean do we like to sin. The answer to that is obvious. I mean, do we like the idea of sin, that is, the very notion that there is a category of behavior or a set of attitudes that count as Sins. I think we might prefer “inappropriate behaviors” or “unhelpful attitudes.” These carefully morally neutral phrases allow us to wiggle around the problem of defending absolute moral standards, the problem of standing up for Right and against Wrong. The word “sin” demands our attention in a way that no other theological word does. Words like Incarnation and Redemption and Resurrection are HUGE! They are too big, too large and complex to soak into our daily routine, our hum-drum pecking about getting things done. But Sin. Well, Sin goes straight to the heart of what it means to be believers. Calling this or that act or attitude a sin immediately places the actor into an intricate web of meaning, reference, history, spirituality, and religious commitment. The act is not just inappropriate or “uncalled for” or rude—it’s a SIN!

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s take a controversial subject like homosexuality. For centuries, men and women with same-sex attractions were “handled” in western culture in basically two ways: religiously or legally, that is, the idea of homosexuality was defined in religious terms (morally disordered, sodomy, sin, etc.) and in terms of the law (crime, penalty, violation). It wasn’t really until the late nineteenth century that homosexuality received both its scientific name and a whole range of scientific terms and treatments to go with it. Now we have a huge body of literature from the scientific world along with a huge body of literature from the religious world and legal world to handle same-sex attraction. None of this touches on the more recent political treatments of homosexuality. My point here is that a human act can be understood through a number of competing explanatory languages. We can understand homosexuality as a sin to be forgiven in religion, as a crime to be punished in the law, as a pathology to be cured in medicine, or as a alternative lifestyle choice to be celebrated or condemned, depending on your political proclivities.

Labeling an act or an attitude as a sin instantly places that act or attitude into a big machine, a language system that determines how we treat it. And that label, “sin,” that description requires that the act and the actor be handled according to an entirely different set of rules and guidelines. The actor is now a Sinner, and we can no longer avoid the problem of Right/Wrong, Good/Evil, Obedience/Rebellion, Virtue/Vice, and Salvation/Damnation.

As committed Christians, I would argue that we are first and foremost about our relationship with the Father through His Son in the Holy Spirit. Other humane discourses might require our allegiance momentarily, but the bottom-line for us, faithful Catholics, must be obedience to revealed truth as taught by the Church and understood within the limits of human intelligence. Thankfully, as Catholics we know that there is no fundamental conflict between faith and reason, so we are free to pay attention to other discourses w/o chucking the faith or becoming fundamentalists!

OK! Let’s get to what sin is. Here’s an excellent definition from the Catechism: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and the right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law’”(n. 1846). Perfectly clear. Let’s break that down a bit and look at the pieces.

First, sin is an offense. It is a transgression or a trespass, a violation or breach. Second, it is a violation against reason, an embrace of irrationality or a welcoming of uncontrolled passion, an act without proper, rational deliberation. It is a trespass on truth, a willful lie, a distortion or knowing twist of what is real—what is Good and Beautiful. And sin is a crime against right conscience, a deliberate move against one’s properly formed sense of the Right, an assault on what you recognize as God’s will. Third, sin is a failure to love God, neighbor, and self; because, fourth, we are inordinately attached to some good in the world, some temporary good like food, sex, money, power, etc. In other words, we have replaced God in our lives with some other good, replaced The Good with a good and now we worship an idol. Fifth, sin injures who we are as individual creatures of God and it injures who we are together as a community of God’s creatures. This is personal sin and social sin, respectively.

Clearly, as the Catechism says, “Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil”(n. 1850). All sin then, great and small alike, is like the first sin of Adam and Eve. These two sinned—violated God’s love for them—by believing and acting on the serpent’s lie that they could become “like God” w/o God, in other words, they believed the lie that they could be gods, deciding as they willed which acts were good and which were evil. Sound familiar? When we take it upon ourselves, as creatures of a loving God, to determine for ourselves what is Good and what is Evil, we take upon ourselves the judgment proper to God alone; we take upon ourselves the vain task of creating reality using ourselves as the blueprint, our desires, our wills, our wants and, guess what?, we get along with these all of our faults, our flaws, our pathologies, our crimes and illusions. Instead of living now as if we were already in heaven, we brutally chain ourselves to our limits, our smallest ambitions, our grandest mistakes, and our meanest tendencies. We repeat the Fall and suffer the consequences.

If all of this is true—and it is—then we have to wonder why anyone sins at all! Why do we insist on pitting ourselves against the love of God, against the charity and mercy He has shown us in our creation and in our salvation through Jesus Christ? The Catechism’s definition tells us a little about why we sin. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, this evening’s reading, tells us even more. Basically, we sin when we choose the works of the flesh over the works of the Spirit. This is not to say that every choice for the flesh is a sin. We need to eat, drink, have babies, etc. But it is when we are facing a choice between a fleshy work and a spiritual work and we choose the fleshy work over and against the spiritual work that we sin. This choice is made in freedom—an abuse of freedom, by the way—and you are choosing to pay attention to this world and to use this world’s things to satisfy a disordered want, a lack of some sort.

It is not disordered to want food. It is disordered to want to eat your own weight in food at one sitting. It is not disordered to want sex. It is disordered to want sex outside the marriage bond. It is not disordered to be angry about an injustice. It is disordered to be angry about a social slight. And once you eat your weight in food at one sitting and have sex outside the marriage bond and get angry because someone has slighted you socially, once you have done these things, you have replaced The Good—God—with a good—food, sex, anger—and you have attempted to make yourself into a god—one who determines what is Good and what is Evil.

Now that we have a good definition of sin, I want to take you back to our attitudes about sin itself. Earlier I said that we have something of a tendency to think that it is better to talk in terms of “inappropriate behaviors” or “unhelpful attitudes.” These are carefully morally neutral terms that do not allow us any room to argue about objective moral standards or absolute Good and Evil. These terms have a very particular use in the workplace or the classroom. Basically, they are designed to allow us to express disapproval of someone’s behavior or attitude w/o appearing to be “judging them,” in other words, we can say to someone, “Your attitude right now is unhelpful” and really mean something like “Your smart mouth is causing me problems. I wish you would just shut up!” These two phrases (and all their kin) are dodges; they are faux assertions that mean almost nothing in themselves and simply disguise a desire to make a moral judgment. Though controlling this impulse is good, controlling it in this way—using these dodgy, morally empty phrases—reinforces the false notion that there is no place for moral evaluation in our daily lives or that differing moral viewpoints should be reduced to psychobabbly “I-statements” and treated with equal respect, regardless of the potential social damage some moral viewpoints will cause.

My point here is simple: when we, as Catholics, replace our moral vocabulary with pop-psychology terms or “educationese,” we risk losing out on enchanting our workplace with the Spirit of love that God calls us to carry into the world. When we honor Political Correctness with a sacrifice of truth on the altar of “tolerance,” we sacrifice more than fact, we sacrifice identity, history, family, and faith. That’s right! We sacrifice it all b/c there are but a few delicate steps between surrendering our public moral language and surrendering our necks. The linchpin issue here is sin—its reality for us, its effect on our community, and, finally, its forgiveness. The pressure to adopt morally neutral language comes from those who would see our relationship with God damaged b/c they themselves fear what a relationship with God might mean for themselves. Without a proper understanding of what it means to disobey God, to sin, we cannot understand what it means for us to obey, to be in right relationship with him.

I’m not suggesting here that you run back into your offices in the morning spouting the Ten Commandants or flinging moral condemnations left and right. I am suggesting that you become more aware of how gentle pressures in the workplace slowly creep up on your core beliefs, your basic virtues and try to wrest from you your sense of being a Christian in the world. Righteousness is surely about knowing where we stand with God, and as Paul makes clear: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.” That means living, working, playing, loving, serving, dying in ways plainly in the life of the Spirit. Your witness to God where you are, your obedience to His will for you, is your ministry as priests, prophets, kings. Please understand then: the move to remove God from our public discourse is rooted in a fear of anything being called Sin. When we get to the point where nothing is sinful, anything will be permissible and we will have failed to minister to the world in Jesus’ name.

So, let me ask you this: do you have a healthy sense of sin? I mean, do you understand what sin is, how it happens, why it happens, and what to do about it when it does? My experience as a priest tells me that Catholics these days tend to fall into one of two very large demographics when it comes to sin. Those for whom everything is a sin and everyone a sinner. And those for whom nothing is a sin and no one is a sinner. No one ever accuses me of being shy, so I’ll say it now: both of these are nonsense, both are heretical.

The first group is perhaps the smaller of the two. Since VC2 we have as a Catholic culture shrugged off much of the odd anti-body spirituality borrowed from the French Janenists. This spirituality condemned the flesh as evil, called for constant purification of the body for the benefit of the soul, and just generally held a rather gloomy outlook on life. Much of that spirituality immigrated to the US and we went through a period where everything was a sin—a mortal sin, at that!—every thought, word, and deed was tinged with sticky sin. No good deed was purely good. No selfless word was truly selfless. And we were never confident that we moved in God’s grace. There was a persistent fear that God was playing a GOTCHA! game with our souls, so we dwelled not in love or mercy, but abiding fear and tragedy. This fear is translated into a constant worry about offending God, about crossing boundaries with Him or violating His will. Sin becomes the language that we use to talk about God and our relationship with Him. This understanding of sin denies God’s love. It fails to grasp mercy and fails to respect God’s promise of rescue. There is an almost obsessive quality to the need for spiritual cleanliness—understood in sacramental terms as a need for frequent confession and a deep sense of being unworthy to receive communion. No amount of priestly assurance or cajoling or teaching touches this Catholic’s gnawing anxiety that he or she sits on the edge of Hell, wobbling toward the fire.

The second is definitely more prominent in the Church. No doubt this group constitutes most Catholics to varying degrees. Some theologians have interpreted the documents of VC2 in ways directly contrary to the plain text of the documents and contrary to the received tradition out of which they were written. One of the most egregious examples of this is the use of the document, Diginatius humanae, to undermine our proper Catholic sense of freedom and conscience. Without this proper understanding of freedom and conscience, we can (and have) easily arrive at the conclusion that I create what is good and evil, I decide what is right and wrong for me.

The oft-quoted bit from this document is this: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience”(n. 3). OK. Good enough. This is perfectly Catholic so long as you understand conscience properly. What happened after VC2, however, is that purely secular notions of freedom were imposed on the language of this document and we ended up with Catholic theologians, clergy, and laity arguing that VC2 has declared that nothing is sinful unless my conscience—my private arbitrator of truth—tells me it is. The problem here is that the above quoted is what gets quoted. What doesn’t usually get quoted is the sentence immediately preceding the favored quote. It reads: “On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience”(n.3). Exactly! Conscience mediates divine truth. Conscience does not create truth or decide the goodness or badness of an act. Conscience is our God-given faculty, God’s gift to us for recognizing His truth. There is a huge moral difference between “creating a truth” and “finding a truth.” Can you tell me difference between “baking a pie” and “finding a pie”? Big difference.

The result of this willful misinterpretation of the DH is that we have at least two generations of Catholics who feel unbound by the teachings of the Church, the teachings of scripture, the magisterial office of the bishop and the pope, any reason or deliberation. It is enough for them to shout the magic words, “In conscience, I do not believe that!” Please hear me plainly, folks: say that with great care. You might be committing your soul to a truth. Or you might be selling it to a lie. Without the guidance of the Spirit through His Church, you just don’t know. And if it isn’t the teaching authority of the Church—for all the problems of the teachers!—that guides us in the tradition, who helps us then to understand? Who tells us again and again the faith story of this family? Who recognize falsehood and has the courage to label it as such?

You are not freed from sin by declaring nothing sinful. You are simply once again enslaved to falsehood. It is not enough to invoke the voodoo of conscience to justify your sin, your dissension, your disobedience. A properly formed conscience can misunderstand a moral teaching. It can not quite fully grasp the fullness of a teaching. You can even disagree with the way in which a teaching is taught or communicated or argued for. But a properly formed conscience stands humble before 2,000 years of tradition and rather than saying defiantly “I won’t believe that!” says instead “I will believe it to the degree that I am able right now and will continue in humility to learn more.”

To believe that every human act is a sin denies God’s love. To believe that nothing a human can do is sinful denies God’s will. We are freed to follow Christ in the Spirit. We are freed from sin so that we are free to obey. Paul says that we are never freer than when we are slaves to Christ. How odd! But when we understand that our perfection lies in Christ, then it makes sense to say that being obedient to the source of our perfection is necessary.

Let’s conclude by looking a little more closely at Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I have been drawing on this reading all through this homily, but now I would like to be more specific about the text. Paul teaches some amazing doctrine in this passage. Taking each in turn: first, he shows us how to use our freedom to oppose sin; second, he gives us a quick teaching on Jesus’ first commandment of love; third, he shows us how sin arises out of a conflict between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit, listing in some detail prominent sins; fourth, he teaches us about the fruits of the Spirit; and finally, fifth, he encourages us to follow Spirit.

Look at how we are to use our freedom in Christ: to serve one another through love! That love is not ours from our own hearts, but God’s from His very nature. We are able to love one another b/c God loved us first and most. Paul quotes Jesus when he says that whole of the Law hangs on the commandment of Love: love God, love neighbor, love self. But what does any of that mean? How can we tell if we are loving, if we are loved? One easy test: do you will the Good for others? Do you actively seek out and pursue what is best everyone in your life? Are you stingy, mean, tight with your affection? Paul says to love and not to bite and devour one another, not to consume one another. We are not hungry dogs at a dinner bowl, anxious over the lack of plenty. We are children of a Father who loves us and gives us all that need to grow in holiness with Him. Only our sin, our disobedience blocks the flood of blessings, diverts all the good He pours out for us.

Look at the sins Paul lists for us: idolatry, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, selfishness, dissensions, factions, bouts of drunkenness, and many others. What’s the common thread here? God doesn’t want us to have any fun, right? No. God is a prude with no sense of humor? No. The common thread is this: each of these acts, each of these attitudes will set up an altar in your heart and demand your devotion, require your honor, your allegiance, and your very life. Each will consume you like fire on fall’s leaves. Sin demands a wholehearted welcome, a warm embrace, and it will leave you lonely, cold, and starving. It can’t do anything else. When we sin we turn from God to Nothingness and nothingness cannot feed a soul hungry for love.

Chew on sin and spit out ashes. Swallow, if you will, and burn from the inside out. Nothing good can come from sin. Nothing true or beautiful for you will ever come from sin. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit are joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. What’s common here? God writes for Hallmark? No. God is a hippie on an acid-love trip? No. The fruits of the Spirit are ways that we use our gifts from God to serve others and the ways that God comes to us to perfect His love in us. Good works are not about being socially conscious do-gooders. Good works are not about parading around showing others how open we are to difference and diversity and how ready we are to engage those left out. Surely we can do-gooders and surely we can be open to engaging those left out. But the point of the works of Spirit is the perfection of God’s love in us and among us in preparation for the coming of His Kingdom.

Sin is real. You know this. To pretend otherwise is foolish. To dress sin up in the latest fashions from the university or the coolest new outfits from the lab is pointless. Don’t we feel the burn of sin? Don’t we see the consequences of our disobedience? Tangled lives, stunted relationships, wasted chances to love? Sin is hard. Love is easy. Sin is complicated. Love is simple. Sin takes time, energy, wasted talent. Love takes a YES. And a life of YES’s—a life of service. Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh. Have you kept out a part? Saved back a piece to rot and stink? Give it all! If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Christ gave it all. Follow him. Give it all.

Mission Two: Grace and Divinization

Advent Mission Two: 2 Peter 1.3-7
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alva, OK

I was born in the Mississippi Delta into a cotton-growing family. This means that I grew up in the middle bible-believing Baptists—hard-shell, heart-felt, deep-down Jesus folks who were certain of their salvation, possessed of a perfect understanding of their redemption. There was no doubt, no hemming or hawing, not even the passing shade of a question that Jesus is Lord. Their personal meeting with Christ defines who they are and who they will become: upright, moral people, righteous, God-fearing and heaven-bound. Salvation for them is an acre-sized mural painted with sharp lines, undiluted colors, and exactly framed. And this mural hangs, perfectly balanced, in the center of their lives. These folks know their faith. They can tell you what you need to know about Jesus, the Bible, about sin and salvation, and they can do it with profound conviction.

Here in Alva, OK you have no doubt heard the following questions: are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you know Jesus?

As a Catholic, how do you understand your salvation? When we talk about our redemption, what do you hear? If you were asked by a Protestant friend—“Are you saved?”—what would you say? Another (more indirect) way to ask this same question: what are you doing when you come to church? Why do you show up here on Sunday morning? Meeting an obligation? Did mama drag you outta bed? Wife badger you into showing up? Guilt? Habit? Piety? The need for true worship? The presence of the Risen Lord in the sacrament? Why do you come here? Answer me that and you can answer me this: “Are you saved?”

Do you as a Catholic understand what it means to be in a redeeming relationship with the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit?

In his second letter, Peter points us unswervingly to the conclusion that for us to be saved in Christ we must become Christ; we share in his cup and his sacrifice, partake in his divine nature. There is no other name under heaven given to us by which we can saved. We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed, but we do know that when what we will be is revealed we shall be like him. Ss. Irenaeus and Thomas Aquinas have proclaimed: Brothers and sisters, see what love the father has bestowed on us—He became man so that we might become God!

Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior? Why are you here this evening? I hope you are here this evening to hear of God’s mercy; to listen to the Word proclaimed and preached; to offer praise and thanksgiving to God; to ask for what you need and to ask for others what they need; to place yourself—your worries, your loves, your resentments, jealousies, your impatience, yourself—all of you, placed on the altar to be offered to God, sacrificed, made holy in surrender. All of your wounds can be closed up. Now the question is: do you want to be healed? Will you do what is necessary to properly use God’s gifts to you? In other words, will you go out there and look and work and play like a redeemed child of the Father? Or will you refuse your redemption by failing to use your gifts for the service of others?

For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “holistically integrated as a person,” if by this we mean nothing more than to be made psychologically balanced. Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again to treat a psychiatric diagnosis. For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “made one with Earth.” All of creation will be redeemed in time, but Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again to show us the love and faithfulness of Mother Earth. For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “absorbed into the Universal Oneness.” Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again so that we might be dissolved into stardust and fall back into the ocean of space like a drop of water. For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “liberated from oppressive economic and gender hierarchies” Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again to spark an academic revolution that fetishizes authoritarian political correctness and moral anarchy.

For Catholics, to be redeemed is to be made a son and daughter of the Father through the freely given sacrifice of the Son in the love of the Holy Spirit. To be redeemed is to be repaired, to be rescued, to be healed. We are found by our shepherd. Loved as children; raised from death by the Only Name given to us for our salvation. To be redeemed is to be brought to Him as an votive offering, a sacrifice; made holy, perfected in His image and likeness. To be redeemed is to be transformed into Christ through Christ. And to do what Christ did while we wait for his coming again.

The longest tradition of the Catholic Church understands our redemption and sanctification, our one time rescue and our growing into holiness, as an on-going process of turning each of us individually and all of us together into Christ. The Biblical tradition, the Patristic tradition, the scholastic tradition, and all of the traditions of the Church loyal to the magisterial ministry of Peter agree: God became man so that men might become God. That’s right. You heard me correctly: to be saved is to be made God. We call this deification or divinization—the God-initiated, God-driven, God-bound process of bringing a man or woman into the fullest possible participation in the divine life. Think about what the phrase “to partake” means. We can partake in a meal. Partake in a game of poker. Partake in an discussion. This means that we are involved, engaged, deeply committed to the activity, and open to the players, the actors; open to the game, and ready to be caught up, absorbed, taken in and changed. You eat a steak and that steak becomes part of you. You drink a glass of water and that water becomes part of you. You marry and your single flesh joins another single flesh to become one flesh. You eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ and you become Christ. You are what you eat!

To partake of the divine nature, then means to share in, to participate in, to live with right now and forever the Blessed Trinity. To be supremely intimate with God the Father who loves His Son in the Holy Spirit. But we have to be absolutely clear about one thing: we do nothing to deserve this gift of the divine life; we do nothing to merit our redemption in Christ; we cannot reach for God until God teaches us to reach; we cannot grasp at an everlasting life until God teaches us to grasp; we cannot pray, sacrifice, sing, forgive, confess, repent, show mercy, grow in holiness—none of this!—we can do none of this until God teaches us to pray, sacrifice, sing, forgive, confess, repent, show mercy, grow in holiness.

Last night, I preached about Adam and Eve and their disobedience. They fell for the lie of the serpent who told them that they could become gods w/o God. Essentially, the serpent told them that they could make themselves into gods. Common sense tells us that no imperfect thing can make itself perfect. How can two creatures of the Creator make themselves into the Creator Himself? Impossible! It is not impossible, however, for the Creator to bring His creatures to Him and make them a part of His life. Adam and Eve enjoyed God’s favor until they decided to become gods w/o God. Now, thanks to these two, we are plagued by the same temptation, the same devilish bait; and we fight—I hope we fight!—against the seduction of a divinity that cannot be ours unless it is given to us by God Himself.

And thank God that He does want to give us a share in His life. God has been calling us back to Him for generations, for centuries, through empires, wars, prosperity, disaster, and leaps in human development, and we have responded eagerly at times, soberly at others, sometimes violently and sometimes joyfully. Regardless of our response, He wants us with Him but He wants us freely, of our own accord, or not at all. Because of the Fall we are unable—alone—to say Yes to God, to come to Him as He wishes. So, we are graced. The Catechism defines grace this way: “Grace is favor, the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”(n. 1996).

Thomas Aquinas teaches us that grace is God’s invitation to live the divine life with Him. To say, “I am graced” is to say “God has invited me to live with Him forever.” To say, “God gives me the grace I need to resist temptation” is the same as saying “God’s invitation to me to live with Him forever is all I need to obey His will for me.” Grace is not magic; it is not quantifiable in inches or pounds; it is not measurable in minutes or hours or days; grace cannot be bought, sold, or exchanged. There is no economy of grace that runs on barter, credit, or your good looks! Grace, by definition, is free. Gratis. It is a gift. Unmerited. Undeserved. And without limit or appeal.

God wills that you be with Him always. He also wills that you come to Him freely. To free you from sin—a slavery of disobedience—He sent His only Son to become one of us, like us in all things but sin, to take on our humanity in order to heal humanity, to restore us to a right relationship with Him so that His invitation to us to spend eternity with Him could be clearly heard. Jesus spoke this invitation over and over and over again, healing, preaching, teaching, praying, publicly witnessing to the Father’s grant of mercy, witnessing to the death sin’s power, calling everyone, from everywhere to come to Him, to confess their disobedience, to repent, and to live a life of holiness now, waiting on the coming of the Lord so that we might live in holiness with Him forever.

You see, brothers and sisters, the Devil has convinced us—at least some of us!—that we do not deserve God’s grace and that we should be horrified that He would grant us anything much less mercy for our sins. The Devil, as usual, is only half-right. We don’t deserve God’s grace. Getting what you deserve is called justice. Getting a favor granted when there is no good reason to have it granted is called a gift, a grace. The Devil needs for you feel bad about this grant of mercy. He needs for you to be upset that your sins so are easily forgiven. You are supposed to say, “I can’t believe that God just wiped all those sins away! I’ve been horrible!” Then you are supposed to worry that your sins haven’t really been forgiven or that only some of them have been forgiven or that God is playing a game where He says He’s given you but really He’s waiting to pounce later on and punish you for your disobedience. The Devil needs this from you b/c he wants you focused on your misery, your contrition; he wants you anxious about many things, the most prominent being the possibility, the likelihood that you will sin again and fall into despair. He wants despair. He wants you to come to think that your sins are so awful, so heinous that there is simply nothing God can do in the face of your terrible treachery, your murderous betrayal. If he can get you here, you will stop asking for God’s grace. What’s the point of grace when you’ve done nothing to deserve it?

Be careful! When you start believing that you have to be good or do good to make God love you, you are standing on the edge of a bleak abyss, a soul-sucking desert that will draw you in like moisture to a dry sponge and set you on a spiral of self-destruction and chaos that has no other end than your permanent death in Hell. Let me say that again: if you think that you can earn God’s love, in some way work your way into God’s favor or somehow wrangle a bit more love out of Him by “being good,” then you are poised right on the edge of handing your soul over to the Devil. Do you think I’m being too dramatic? The whole point of grace, folks, is that it is undeserved. Gifts are freely given. If you give a gift to get a gift, it ain’t a gift! It’s an exchange of goods. If you give a gift to get a favor, it’s not a gift; it’s a bribe. We, as creatures, are in no position to bargain with God. We have nothing He needs. Everything we have and everything we are is His already. We don’t need to convince God to love us. God is love. It is Who He Is to love. And He loves us most of all!

Now, we have to be careful again. The Devil is always a liar and sometimes he lies by telling the truth. It is absolutely true that God loves us unconditionally. He grants us His favor without condition. Christ died once for all. Everyone is invited to the banquet table, everyone gets an invitation to the wedding feast. But remember: Gods wants us to come to Him freely. He freed us from the slavery of sin so that we might come to Him unhindered, that we might travel His Way to Him without restraint. No angel, no devil, no person can stand in the way of your journey. No one but you. God’s grace strengthens your legs to you to walk His path. But grace will not walk the path for you. God’s grace holds out a helping hand. But grace will not grab you and drag you home. God’s grace will enlighten your mind on the way. But grace will not overwhelm your will. You cannot be a puppet and love God. Only the freed children of the Father can love in freedom.

It is true that God loves us unconditionally. But this doesn’t mean that God’s love has no consequences for our lives. God loves us to change us. He loves the adulterer, the rapist, the murderer, the pornographer, the child molester. He loves the liar, the thief, and the wife beater. He loves men who gossip, women who cheat at cards, teens who lie to mom and dad, men who look too long at the check out girl, and boys who spend too much time in the bathroom. But we must not think of God’s unconditional love for us as approval for our sin. God loves the murderer to change him into a saint—to make him passionate for holiness. God loves the gossip to change her into a prophet—to make her tongue into a witness. God loves the wife beater to change him into a good husband—to change his rage into furious charity. God’s grace is never permission to sin or to remain in sin or to plan to sin some time down the road. The Devil will whisper to you on the Way, “Ah, go ahead and do what you want. God loves you regardless, right?” Yes, He does. And He will love you as you choose again and again to defy Him and He will love you when you make your final choice to live without Him and He love you right into Hell. Your choice. Not His.

Peter tells us tonight that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness [so that we may] become partakers of the divine nature.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, b/c God has granted you all that you need to live in abundance and to grow in holiness, work to enrich your faith with good habits and work to strengthen your good habits with wisdom and use your wisdom with temperance, with self-control and charity. Show your godliness with affection for your brothers and sisters in Christ. Mean-spirited holiness is like muddy cleanliness or dirt poor wealth. Doesn’t make sense. If you are unwilling to show charity. Don’t expect it. If you are unwilling to forgive. Don’t wait to be forgiven. Jesus assures us that we will judged in the same way that we judge others—measure for measure. You’ve been warned! So be careful that you do not become your sin. Be careful that you do not allow pride or envy or greed or lust to set up an altar in your heart and demand worship from you. The Psalms tell us that those who worship idols become the idols they worship. Will you become the nothingness that never gets full, the blackhole of want and need that never closes, never stops taking and taking?

Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? If you have been baptized by water into the Body of Christ and in the name of the Blessed Trinity, and you have received the seal of the Holy Spirit in the anointing of oil, and you have eaten at the altar the Body and Blood of Christ himself, then you had better believe you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior! And what’s more you have stepped into the adventure of living with Christ in the Father’s love and growing holier and holier with the grace of the Spirit. Do not be made a fool by the Devil: we are the freely adopted sons and daughters of a loving Father who wills that we come to Him now and stay with Him forever. We can’t live just Now and ignore Forever. Nor can we live just Forever and ignore Now. We are given the difficult task of living Now as if we were in heaven already. But thank God we are also give all the grace, all the gifts we need to do all this perfectly.

Tomorrow night we will gather here again to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Between now and then I want you to ask yourself two questions to prepare for your conversion: 1) when have I failed to use my gifts to serve others for God’s glory? and 2) how do I plan to make better use of God’s gifts tomorrow and tomorrow?

Remember: as Catholics we do nothing alone! Our holiness is an art and a science. We paint with bright lines and pure colors. And we grow in wisdom and knowledge. But we do so only b/c God has loved us first. And He loves us even now!

Mission Three: The Sacrament of Conversion

Advent Mission Three: James 5.13-20
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alva, OK

I think of sin and repentance and I think of wild prophets going about the nations shouting at anyone who would come close enough to hear: Repent and believe! Seeing the sin—the broken friendships, the worship of false gods, the mistreatment of the poor and sick and widowed; seeing the hungry go unfed, the lonely left alone, the stranger ignored—seeing all this, the prophets stood up in righteous anger and pointed; they said Look! See! Hear! Listen! The Lord our God calls you, shouts out to you, Repent and believe that my Law will bring justice. And obey. Your hard-hearts and stony heads and heavy hands disobey my word and you fall into grave, given to death, from where you cannot praise me. Repent then and believe b/c you live to give thanks and praise to the Lord your God.

Surely it would be unusual to find a wildman prophet roaming the streets of Alva or Oklahoma City or even New Orleans or New York. A truly anointed prophet, called and sanctified by God to preach His Word among the people, is a rare thing these days. Our prophets are more subdued. Smaller and more subtle, perhaps. But prophets do what prophets do whether their public stature is great or small. Prophets call us back to God, away from our disobedience, to a life of lawful love, and forward into a kingdom of abiding peace and praise. A prophet hears the Word spoken out of his heart, words loudly proclaimed from his center, from where his human life touches the divine life and from where he finds the strength and favor to listen and obey. The single message of every anointed prophet is the same: Repent and believe!

Though I am no prophet, this is my message to you tonight. Turn from sin, to God, away from rebellion, to obedience and love, away from hatred, strife, diseased stress, to passionate charity, unity, and relaxation in the promise of our Father to bring you to Him if you will it and cooperate fully with His grace. My message tonight is that you are ill b/c of sin. Maybe not physically ill, but spiritually. To the degree that you are turned from God, you are turned toward sin and the sin you embrace is the sin that shapes your soul. What shape will your soul take on? Primitive violence? Consuming greed? Black despair?

What gift have you failed to use for the good of another and now in its disuse the Devil has found a way into your soul? He will twist truth into fiction, goodness into mere usefulness, and beauty into lust or gluttony—making what is attractive to us b/c it shows God’s beauty into an opportunity to abuse, defile, and exaggerate. The Devil is never happier than when he can tempt us into misusing our gifts for his ends. The Devil rejoices when we lie, refuse charity, and celebrate the ugly.

Have you ever thought of sin as a form of Devil worship? It is! We place his will for us, his desires for us, his needs for us at the center of our lives, dumping Christ from the tabernacle of our hearts and we replace the divine with the diabolical and pray, “Myself, who art on earth, hallowed is my name, my kingdom come, my will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Give me this day whatever I want. I have no sins to forgive b/c nothing is forbidden me. And I will never forgive those who have offended me. Lead me into every temptation and deliver me to evil as quickly as possible! For mine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory until I’m dead. Amen.” And why not, right? I mean, if we will not obey the Word of the Author of the universe, then we might as well obey absolutely the whims of our bellies, our eyes, our impulses and our excesses. And we might as well make a spirituality out of it, a whole religion for that matter!

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far during this mission: sin and grace. First, sin is an offense against God. It is a transgression, a trespass, and a violation of His will. Second, sin is a violation against reason; it is an irrational embrace of uncontrolled passion. Sin is a trespass on truth, a willful lie, a distortion of the Good and the Beautiful. And sin is a crime against right conscience, a deliberate move against one’s properly formed sense of the Right, an assault on what you recognize as God’s will for you and from us all. Third, sin is a failure to love God, neighbor, and self; because, fourth, we are attached to some good in the world, some impermanent good like food, sex, money, power, etc. In other words, we have replaced God in our lives with some other good, replaced The Good with a good. And now we find ourselves worshipping a creature, a thing in the world, an idol. Fifth, sin injures who we are as single creatures of God and it injures who we are together as a community of God’s creatures. Sin is chosen rebellion, a deliberate rejection of God’s Word, and it does bloody violence to our journey on the Way.

God’s grace lifts us to Him and makes our obedience possible. From the CCC, “Grace is favor, the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”(n. 1996). Thomas Aquinas teaches us that grace is God’s invitation to live the divine life with Him. Grace is not a mystical potion or spell; it is not measurable in feet or ounces; it is not numbered; purchased, sold, or borrowed. We cannot barter for grace or lend it on credit. Grace, by definition, is free. It is a gift. Unmerited. Undeserved. And without limit, unbounded. And we need it to say Yes to God. We need it to walk the Way. We need it to come through those doors, to step up to the confessional, to name our sins to God’s priests, to accept our penance, and hear with thanksgiving the words of absolution. We need God’s grace, b/c without that hand up we remain in darkness and envy the dead.

So what is required of us? Remember that we cannot earn or buy our way into God’s love. He loves us b/c He is Love. The question here is about how we are to respond to God’s love for us. First and foremost we are called to conversion, that is, we are required to change, to grow, to become people wholly perfect in God’s charity. How do we convert? Here’s a longish quote from the CCC on conversion: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance”(n. 1435). These are all tasks that presume a disposition of humility and surrender. I’m not talking about a passive surrender to circumstance or a quietism or a relaxation of vigilance. What I’m saying is that the proper disposition for conversion is docility—an old-fashioned word that means basically meekness or submission. Again, not a hopeless surrender to fate but a hopeful submission to God’s will through His grace.

We’re talking trust here. Can you trust God to do what He says He will do? You are forgiven. But for that forgiveness to become effective for you, you must accept it. A gift is a gift only if it is accepted. This is why we pray during the offertory of the Mass: “Brothers and sisters, pray that this our sacrifice may be acceptable to God our Almighty Father. May the Lord accept this sacrifice at your hands…” No acceptance, no gift. Money in the bank helps with the bills only if you access it. Medicine helps to cure an illness only if it is taken. Untouched money is useless. Untouched medicine is useless. For God’s forgiveness to work its miracle in your life, you must accept it and put it to work for you. You are poised here tonight to take the first step in accepting God’s forgiveness: you are preparing for the sacrament of reconciliation! By being here and by moving closer to the sacrament, you are showing God and your fellow travelers that you trust our Father to keep His promises. That’s faith!

The Church recognizes two conversions. The first is the conversion from pagan to Christian in the sacrament of baptism. Having been made a member of the Body of the Christ and given a permanent seal of the Spirit, you are placed at the beginning of your journey to perfection and supplied with all that you will need to get to your destination. Along the way, you will ride across bumps, ruts, thieves, bad weather, and threats of abandonment! When we find yourself falling away from the shining path, you are called to a second conversion—the conversion of the sacrament of reconciliation. The CCC teaches: “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion”(n. 1446).

The ancient Fathers of the Church called this sacrament the Second Plank of salvation, the second chance for conversion, reconciliation, and the return to God’s invitation of eternal life. Notice that the CCC teaches that the grace of Baptism can be lost, that is, it is possible for us to sin in such a way that the favor we obtained in Baptism is destroyed. This destroys our relationship with God and injures the bonds we share in the Church with our brothers and sisters. To be reconciled to the Church is to be reconciled to God. To be restored to the grace of baptism is to be welcomed back into the Body of Christ and right relationship with the Father!

Our return to the Church from the darkness of mortal sin requires the work of the Holy Spirit and our own work as well. The Spirit of God, working in Love and mercy, grants the human heart all that it needs to come to contrition, to confession, and to make satisfaction. Through His ministers, God will forgive any sin for which we are sorry, any sin we confess, and any sin we are prepared to make satisfaction for. You demonstrate that you are prepared to accept the gift of forgiveness from God by making an act of contrition and by completing the penance given to you. The priest’s absolution forgives your sins and the sacrament strengthens you to obey God’s will for you in the future. This is why the Church urges us to celebrate this sacrament frequently.

Let’s take a moment to look a little more closely at the three basic elements of this sacrament. This will give you a better idea of what is required. First, the CCC teaches that your contrition for sin comes first. What does this mean? Basically, are you truly sorry for your sins? Do you feel the division btw yourself and God, btw yourself and the Church? Are you convinced of the ugliness of your sins and the need for forgiveness? Motivated by a fear of being punished for our sins, we can be imperfectly contrite. We can also be perfectly contrite, meaning that we are sorry for our sins b/c we know that they offend God who loves us above all things! Both kinds of contrition are motivated by the Holy Spirits and both will move you to confession. However, to grow in holiness, to develop in spiritual excellence, it is best to cultivate perfect contrition. A life lived in terror of God—rather than in awe—is perilous and not particularly good for one’s own charity to others.

Second, the CCC teaches that once moved by contrition—sorrow for our sin—we are taken to confession, or the disclosure of individual sins. This is an opportunity for us to clearly name our sins, to give them an unavoidable identity, and to expose them to God’s priests for their destruction. To name a thing is to give it a personality, a “face,” if you will, and makes that thing difficult to ignore. Naming our sins to the priest makes it possible for us to recognize them later if tempted again. Using euphemisms like “impurity with another” or “used impure images” deflects the weight of the sin and fails to give it a proper face. Say, “I had sex with someone who is not my spouse” or “I looked at porn on the internet.” Think of the demons Jesus confronts during his ministry. He demands their names to expel them. Name the sin clearly in confession and take power over it in God’s name.

After we are moved by sorrow for our sin and brought to confess individual sins to a priest, we receive God’s forgiveness in absolution and then a penance is assigned. Why do we need to complete a penance? The CCC teaches that our sin damages not only the soul of the sinner but the Church as well. More than absolution is required to repair of sin: “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins”(n. 1459). To be clear: your penance is not a purchase of grace; it is not the “price” of the sin you’ve committed. Your penance is your chance to take the grace of the sacrament and produce the first fruit of reconciliation: an act that openly repairs the damage you’ve caused.

Above all this is what you need to know about the sacrament we celebrate this evening: you are here b/c the Holy Spirit has thumped you on the head and said, “Go to confession!” We cannot pray w/o the urging of the Spirit. We cannot fruitfully partake of the sacraments w/o the Spirit’s help. If you are here tonight to come back to God and His Church, then you are here b/c God wants you back. You are feeling the longing for health, the desire for His love and peace. Your restlessness, the wandering, the anxiety, the frustration and anger are too much and the distance to travel back seems monumental and unbridgeable! It is monumental and unbridgeable. For you alone. You couldn’t cross the distance that one sin puts btw you and God if you lived twenty lifetimes. And that’s the point of this sacrament, brothers and sisters: you are here, on the edge of coming home, b/c God’s love has drawn you to Him, hooked you like a fish and reeled you in! And this moment of grace is the moment when you obey your heart’s deepest hunger and find perfect satisfaction in Him.

Honestly name your sin in sorrow. Resolve to follow Christ, bearing your cross, doing as he did, loving God, your neighbor, and yourself. Be God’s revelation of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to those around you and treat them as God’s revelations to you. And above all, brother and sisters: give God thanks for His grace. If you will grow in holiness, if you come to flourish in Christ, you will have constantly on your lips a prayer of thanks to God. Give thanks for everything you have and everything you are. Yes, give thanks for the trials, the illnesses, and the weirdoes in your life. Everything in creation reveals the Father’s love and teaches us more and more about Him. Your gratitude makes you humble and your humility will open better and larger ways of living with Christ.

Here’s my final warning: if you pray in gratitude and grow in humility be prepared for an outpouring of blessings that will test your resolve to be grateful! Opening yourself to accept the Father’s blessing in thanksgiving, especially in the frequent celebration of this sacrament, is the fastest means to sainthood. And, before you know what hit you, the mantle of the prophet may fall on your shoulders and the Word of God may fall from your lips and you will say to the rest of us: Repent and believe!