08 March 2007

No strength in flesh, no hope in anxiety

2nd Week of Lent (R): Jer 17.5-10 and Luke 16.19-31
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation (Alternative Spring Break Pilgrims’ Blessing)


What’s wrong with seeking and finding our strength in flesh? What could be more real, more immediate, more readily available than the helping hand or the generous heart? Seeking and finding our strength in the flesh—in our own hearts and minds and bodies, in our own humanity and communities—this seems more than just the obvious answer; it seems like the only answer to our weaknesses! We turn to one another in service, in generosity, trusting in compassion and endurance. And we often find in our most desperate moment of need, at that instant of near panic in the face of overwhelming hardship—what? Neglect, abuse, cruelty, cold criminal hearts, disdain for others’ needs, blaming those in need, a rationalization for inaction, and weak, weak flesh. Of course, we also find heroic generosity, self-sacrifice, zealous service, and compassion. And here we find the Lord and His hope.

Jeremiah says that comfortable flesh—the cold, stingy heart wallowing in abundance—is cursed. Why? Well, where is the hope of one who finds his strength in passing flesh? Where is his trust? What more can he hope for, long for, than more comfortable flesh and a smaller heart grown colder in meanness? Let me give you a simple analogy: you fall off the deck of a cruise ship. One sailor throws you a standard life jacket connected to a long nylon rope. Another sailor throws you a life jacket made of cardboard and connected to a long string of paper clips. Now. It is entirely possible that both could save you under near perfect conditions, but knowing the composition of both jackets, the effects of water on paper, the strength of paper clips hauling your wet weight, which jacket do you choose to save your life? The standard one, of course! But spiritually speaking, how many of us consistently choose the cardboard jacket b/c it’s more fashionable or the person tossing it to us is better looking or b/c we do not trust the one throwing the life jacket that will save us?

Do I really need to tell you that placing your trust in the flesh and your hope in the world is both foolish and vain? Look at the Rich Man in hell. Where is his hope? Easy answer: where was his treasure? Look at Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. Where is his hope? Easy, again: he had no treasure in the flesh but dies covered in lesions. Where does he die? And this is probably the most poignant moment in the gospel today…he dies lying at the rich man’s door! At the entrance to fleshy abundance, a door to comfortable safety, Lazarus dies wanting nothing more than table scraps. Having everything, the rich man dies wanting everything and now he pleads for a drop of water. From Lazarus. Who died at his door hungry.

Here’s a question for the ASB Pilgrims: where is your hope? Where is your trust? What is it that you think you’re taking to Peru? Shoes? Baseball caps? School supplies? Building skills? Do you think you’re taking Jesus to Peru? He’s there already! What are you taking? What will you leave? What will you bring back? Are you ready to see Christ revealed to you in a three year old orphan? A gangly teenaged boy? A middle-class Sunday school teacher? A grouchy airport clerk with a distaste for Americans? In one another?

We’re not going to Peru to save the Peruvians. We going to Peru to meet Christ. Our gift to the Peruvians is our love, our attention, our fellowship in Christ, our willingness to work side by side. They are letting us serve them. And that’s their gift to us.

Take Christ with you. Leave Christ there. And bring him back. No flesh—American or Peruvian—can be your hope for blessing. God alone is our help, our drop of water in a thirsty desert.

05 March 2007

PLAYBILL: "O, Wounded Me!"

2nd Week of Lent (M): Daniel 9.4-10 and Luke 6.36-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory


When I know that it is time for me to forgive, I resist. My grip on the hurt tightens. The hurt is like one of those egg layers from the Alien movies…those creatures that attach themselves to your face with a long, reptilian tail snaking around your throat. Try to remove them and they squeeze your throat until you surrender. Oftentimes our injuries, our wounds do the same. Try to remove them by forgiving their source and they tighten, squeeze. They dig in a little deeper and attach themselves to bone.

Somehow it feels good to pick at our scabs, to stroke our wounds and feel them hurt us all over again. My salt seems to burn a little sweeter. And how wonderful it is to discover that having been offended we now have power over our offender; we hold him or her dangling by the toes! There’s that tasty threat of vengeance or exposure. Not to mention the perverse delight of replaying the wounding over and over again for full effect. A sort of feedback loop where each rehearsal of the injury gets more and more vivid, brighter and louder; the details take on an epic cast, a Broadway drama starring Me as the victim. With top billing and my own dressing room, why would I choose to end this production of “O Wounded Me!”?

Besides the obvious advantages of being the victim, aren’t we just a little afraid of forgiveness? Just a little anxious about giving or receiving forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive someone who’s hurt me? Am I saying that he or she didn’t hurt me? That it was OK? Is forgiveness an implied permission to do it again? Am I telling my offender that I am weak? Does forgiving mean forgetting? Who do I become if I forgive? The hero? The saint? Jesus teaches his disciples that “…the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” So, the question is: what do you want forgiveness to be? Wiping the slate clean? A small start toward reconciliation? A grudging gesture just to keep the peace? A pro forma ritual to save face? The measure will be what you want it to be. And it will be exactly that for you when it comes time for you to be measured.

So, “give and gifts will be given to you.” This isn’t about a quid pro quo gift exchange; it’s about learning how to receive a gift as a gift. Gracefully. Full of grace. It helps to know who you are as the receiver of the gift! Look again at the sinners from the reading in Daniel. Who are they? They are wicked, evil rebels; disobedient servants, shamefaced traitors to God; they are base criminals. And despite all of this…their own description of themselves, by the way!...despite their wretched state, they can call on God’s compassion and forgiveness. Knowing yourself to be a sinner and calling on God’s mercy anyway is exactly how you learn to receive the forgiveness of others. And to give it. To be asked to forgive is a humbling moment. To forgive is even more humbling. To forgive as I would be forgiven is an act of total dependence on God. It is all about looking over the questions, through the objections, around the hurt and fear, and staring straight into the face of Christ on the cross and knowing that I cannot waste one lash, one nail, one thorn on another second of self-indulgent drama. Pampered wounds never heal.

Those egg laying creatures from the Alien movies eventually die, releasing their choke hold and falling from your face. But before they do, they plant a monster in your gut. In time, the monster explodes from your chest in a spray of blood and bone. And it runs off to create more monsters…

Forgive and be forgiven before your monster finds its way out.

04 March 2007

On a mountain closer to Jerusalem

2nd Sunday of Lent: Gen 15.5-12, 17-18; Phil 3.17-4.1; Luke 9.28-36
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. No PODCAST for this homily...I couldn't get the recorder to work at Mass!]

Lord! It is good that we are here! Here in your house. Here in your desert. With you and your family. With the Spirit and all the possibilities of your Love. But why are we here, Lord? In this desert: without, leaving behind, giving away, going further and further toward that bone-dry waste, in this desert of fasting and prayer? Why are we here? Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. He went so that he could be tempted, tested against his knowing who he really is, tested against his trust of the Father, his patience, his willingness to walk the bloody, sorrowful way to the Cross. The Devil started small, where most of us fail, with our stomachs, and then he went Big: power, prestige, wealth. Jesus calls on the Word and teaches the Devil. Jesus does not so much resist the temptations as he skillfully turns them upside down and reveals their goodness. Nothing wrong with bread. Nothing wrong with worship. Nothing wrong with calling on our guardian angels. There is nothing wrong with any of these per se if they are divinely ordered and used for their proper ends. The Devil gets his righteous lesson, but remember how that gospel reading ends: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Jesus for a time.” For a time. And that is why we are here! The Devil’s back.

Lord, it is good that we are here. Here in your desert. With you and your disciples. All your students and friends. We are fully awake and ready to hear, fully awake and ready to listen—a bit nervous, a little frightened maybe, but we’re here. We see Moses and Elijah and Jesus in their glory and we hear them talking with Jesus about his exodus to Jerusalem. We offer to build shrines in honor of the prophets, but we do not know what we are saying. The cloud comes and the shadow darkens the sand and we all hear the voice from the cloud: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” And everyone is silent……….are we fully awake? Can we be silent?

What does it mean to be “fully awake” and to be “silent”? Notice that Peter, John, and James see the glory of the three men before them once they become “fully awake.” Having fallen asleep while Jesus prayed, they awake to this glory and say, “Master, it is good that we are here…” Being fully awake in Christ then is not simply a matter of not being asleep. Being fully awake is a matter of attentiveness to Christ’s presence, a focused effort toward seeing and hearing and listening to Christ every minute, every second of your day. Being fully awake is being alive with the Spirit, electric white and dazzling! Can you confess that it is good that you are here? Here in this house? Here in this desert? Here with us?

Being fully awake is also about being completely aware of what would make us into fools, that which pulls us away from Christ and pushes us toward a truly empty desert. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, warns against the “enemies of the cross of Christ.” These enemies run to their own destruction, worship their appetites, and revel in what brings them shame. They minds are possessed by “earthly things.” You’ve heard me call out these “earthly things” before, all those “ism’s.” It’s become a litany for me. In fact, I’ve made it into a real litany.

A Litany Against the Enemies of the Cross of Christ

(Please stand)

Let us pray: “Lord, your servant Paul warns us against scratching our itchy ears with alien philosophies and foreign religions; he also warns us not to conduct ourselves like those who are enemies of the Cross of Christ. Clear our hearts and minds and keep us fully awake so that we may hear your Word as we pray: Save us, O Lord!


…the pride of materialist science and all its future Frankensteins… Save us, O Lord!

…the gluttony of petite bourgeois consumerism and fashion and war…

…the greed of corporate and governmental irresponsibility and the nanny State…

…the lusts of Hollywood, its minions in TV and radio and the idolatry of celebrity…

…the sloth of self-help psychobabble, New Age junk, and religious syncretism…

…the envy of Enlightenment “freedom” and the prison of reason without God…

…the wrath of secular diversity, tolerance, and moral anarchy…

Save us, O Lord from these enemies and keep us fully awake. In Jesus name. Amen.

OK. A bit a fun. But I hope my point is clear: to be fully awake is in large part to be fully aware of what the faith is and isn’t, what defines us and what pretends to define us in order to destroy us. Our citizenship is in heaven, true, but right now, we live down here, and in the meantime, we have to be awake to our personal enemies, our daily temptations, and the enemies that work on a much larger scale. Lent, the desert, is where we go to confront these enemies head on! And there we will find the Lord already victorious.

We’re fully awake. Now, what does it mean to be quiet? Being quiet is not just about being noiseless. There’s silence, of course; but there’s stillness as well. Waiting. Not being tensed to spring into action. Not being ready to race or hurry. In fact, being quiet means being fully awake and completely empty, empty of an all-consuming Self, empty of disobedience and capital dissent; empty of inordinate desires for prestige, power, and advantage over others; empty of despairing, self-loathing, and resentment. Being quiet in the desert is about slowly shuffling your feet in the walk to Jerusalem—no proud marches; no eager skipping along, racing to the end; no arrogant stomping in defiance of authority; just humble walking. In silence. Fully awake. Without. And with Jesus.

The Devil is here too, of course. He left for a time. He’s back. And that’s why we’re here in the desert: to meet the Devil so that we can be tempted; and we’re here to see Christ in his glory and to listen. So, let me ask you: do you run from temptation? Why? Are you afraid of sinning? Or are you afraid of what might tempt you? I mean, do you fear what you desire? Do you think fear is enough to drive away something as powerful as desire? Or does fear sweeten desire, pushing it into the forbidden and the inscrutable, thus turning a mere temptation into an obsession? Fighting temptation is pointless. That battle is won already. You are free; you do not have to sin. So, don’t. Look carefully at what the Devil is tempting you with. He will always tempt you with an apparent good. Look at the temptation. What’s good there? What has the Liar twisted? Untwist it. Find the Good and give God thanks for that Good. Turn an occasion of sin into a grateful event!

Master, it is good that we are here…with you, with each other. On the mountain, he showed us his heavenly glory and pointed us to Jerusalem. So, one foot in front of the other. One step, one step. And the cross comes closer…clearer, louder, rougher. And the enemies collect as they always do. Stand firm. Stay awake and be quiet. Keep watch in silence, ready to hear and see and obey his Word.

The cross pulls us to Jerusalem. Easter morning is dark still.