23 March 2007

Killing Christ

4th Week of Lent (F): Wisdom 2.1, 12-22 and John 7.1-2, 10, 25-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation


What are you looking for? What are you running after? You know there’s something missing. A hunger, a thirst that drives you out there for satisfaction, for completion. And everything you eat or drink or read or buy or steal to quiet the growling…all of it is…wrong? Less than your need? Like dripping a palmful of water into a desert sand. Too little, not nearly enough. And seeing this, knowing this plants a black frustration in your heart and nurtures it until you are ready to burst, ready to implode in a self-destructive crash of thwarted desire: disobedience, impatient searching, cyclical failure. You mistake a desire for the Creator as a desire for something creaturely and mire yourself in the bad habits of the world. Sinking, you grasp at what passes by: politics, hobbies, New Age superstition, food/drink/sex, shopping, academic achievement, the will to power, the idol of the Self, whatever runs by and reaches for you. All dribbles of water in a vast desert sand.

What are you looking for? What are you running after? Maybe the better questions are: Who are you looking for? Who are you running after? John tells us that “the Jews” were looking for Jesus in order to kill him. Rightly so. Jesus was a dissident, a heretic, a blasphemer. He claimed to be God, broke the Law, roused the rabble. He claimed to bring a sword that would destroy families, end friendships, turn husband and wife against one another. He threatened eternal condemnation for those who refused to believe his word and follow him. He failed to affirm the value of religious diversity and uphold the universal validity of all spiritual paths. Truly, he deserved to die. And so, they looked for Jesus to kill him. But they were blinded by their wickedness; the wisdom of God was hidden from them and they couldn’t see his innocence. How odd.

Who are you looking for? Who are you running after? And why? Are you trying to kill Christ? Think hard before you answer! Those chasing after Jesus in Judea failed to catch and kill him this time around b/c his hour had not yet come. Has his hour come now? Liturgically, no. Historically, yes. We know the story yet we live through it each year, go again through the details—lash by lash, bloody step by bloody step, nail by nail—and we know that his hour has come, is coming, and will come again. And so we look for him. To thank him? Praise him? Question him? Kill him? Yes. He came to us and comes to us for our thanks, our praise, our education, and our lives. And for us to live, he must die. His death…for us…at his hour and by his choice…ends every search for redemption, every search for peace, every hunger, every thirst; no longing is left to hurt, no anxiety is left to worry, no fear left growling in the dark. We are freed. We are free. And we are freeing.

There is no empty tomb of Easter without the cross of Good Friday. And there is no Cross without the desert. Turn your face to Jerusalem and feel your desire, know your hunger for Christ. Where are you? Who are you looking for? Do your palms and feet itch for Roman nails? Are you ready to bleed?

19 March 2007

Who's ya daddy?

Solemnity of St. Joseph: 2 Sam 7.4-5, 12-16 ; Rom 4.13, 16-22; Matt 1.16, 18-24
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


Anywhere one Mississippian meets another there is a ritual exchange that establishes a familial bond to rival actual blood relations. First, we have to find out exactly where in Mississippi our new friend is from. If we know anyone—literally, anyone at all—from that county or town, we name them. Second, we ask the ageless question of familial identification: who’s your mama and daddy? Once this question has been answered both parties enter a truly mystical state called Figuring Out If We’re Related. The calculations involved in this rite of bonding are complex and arcane and the ability to complete them accurately is inherited genetically. If we are not related, we console ourselves with the possibility that somewhere in the deeper end of our common genetic pool our ancestors mated and that we are, in fact, cousins of some sort. If we are related, we immediately exchange info on who’s dead, sick, divorced, recently married, or newly born. That we might not know any of the people mentioned is irrelevant. They’re family and we need to know. After a glass or two of syrupy sweet iced tea, we part company satisfied that the world is rotating in balance and that fried chicken and butterbeans will be served at the heavenly banquet. And, truly, is heaven worth the effort w/o cornbread?

We want to know where we came from. Not just the raw biological facts of our conception and birth, but the longer story of how All This came about. Grand narratives like the Creation Story of Genesis serve to place us squarely in the longest possible telling of history. That we can pick our way back through the paragraphs and pages of what went on before gives us the power to plow on confident that we are plowing ahead with a purpose at our backs and a goal before us. We need to know where we came from in order to know who we are. This bit of knowledge doesn’t mean we have no choices in defining our paths or personalities. We do. It does mean, however, that we are brought into the world with Givens. We are given life itself, reasonably predictable genetic coding, a socio-economic status, etc. We are also given a legacy, an inheritance, some wealth that needs our protection, our fruitful use. We need to know who we are in the greatest story ever told b/c that story ends with our immortal souls and resurrected bodies forever giving praise and thanksgiving around the throne of the Most High.

We are the sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. Mary, the virgin, and Joseph, her righteous husband, gave us Christ, our Savior, and made us not only children of a covenant authenticated by and unbroken genealogy, but also heirs in Christ to the jewels of our Father’s bottomless treasury. Joseph, our adopted father, stands for us as the man of men who think and act in and out of a holiness that can only be a gift of the Father Himself. Like Abraham he acted out of a raw trust in God’s promises and established a nation, a holy people, and tribe made worthy by his faith. Joseph, encouraged by the angel, is unafraid and obedient. He drops his perfectly just objections to Mary’s pregnancy. He drops his anxiety and fear. He listened to the Lord and gave Mary and her child a home. He made his own fiat. His own Yes to God.

Knowing Joseph and Mary’s familial line gives us a sense of stability, a sense of being well-grounded, well-connected. Of course, the purpose of the genealogy is to authenticate Jesus’ claim to David’s throne, but it does more than that. For us, in this era of decentered narratives and ideologies of violent power, knowing who Joseph was places him firmly within the apostolic faith and binds us ever more tightly to God’s promises of eternal life for those live in the righteousness of Christ.

Unlike Abraham, we do not have to hope against hope that our Father’s promises will be made good. We know they have been made good. Joseph and Mary made them good. We have a Savior and his name is Christ Jesus. So when we meet a fellow Christian along the way and we ask, “Who’s your mama and daddy?” we can say, “Joseph and Mary, cousin.” And all is right with the world b/c we are not orphans nor are we neglected. We are His children, His heirs and He has taken us into His home to live forever.

18 March 2007

You will betray Christ...

4th Sunday of Lent: Joshua 5.9, 10-12; 2 Cor 5.17-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX

(NB. I didn't actually preach this homily this morning. Turns out I didn't have the Mass at St. Paul's after all! I recorded it in my office.)


Can you smell the wood of the cross from here? It’s still too far to see…just the smell of it is closer. Just about eighteen days more in this desert and we will be there to see him nailed to the wood. Then it will be the scent of wood and blood. Maybe vinegar and sweat as well. And some stinging smoke from the trash fires. And more caking dust. Will you run with the disciplines from Gethsemane? Will you walk with him along the sorrowful way and jeer with the other invisible bodies, adding your cowardly squeak to all the other taunts and cries from those he loved and fed and healed? Will you deny him to protect your safety, to conceal your once-professed love? Will you betray him? Of course you will. And so will I. It is what we do when given the choice to die for a friend or live for a cause. These moments of truth-telling make prudence easy and courage foolish. Praise God then that He does not wait for us to come to Him but rather comes to us first. His memory is holy and ours in need of sanctification.

Paul teaches the contentious Corinthians that “…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to them the message of reconciliation.” So, we are forgiven and then given the ministry of forgiveness to spread in the world, the work of bringing together those split apart, broken under, distant and made alien. The first reconciliation is with God. No other bond of friendship or love makes the least bit of sense outside the bond of love that our Father has for us. That we love is His doing. We cannot love without Him. And without love we can know nothing of Him or His creation—nothing about ourselves, others, or the things of this world. Just beyond the moment of creation itself, to be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus is the primitive move of love. Nothing stands before His love and remains broken, sick, injured, lonely, or distant…nothing, that is, but the stubborn refusal to be loved.

And why would anyone refuse to be loved by Love Himself? To be loved by God is to be changed forever. Clenched fists, an obstinately set jaw, a cold-heart do not easily release control to airy promises of safety and bliss. Even divine promises of safety and bliss. This an anxiety so profound that the Legions of Hell are frightened for us—even they believe! But we are capable of choosing still whether or not we will be changed forever by our desire for God or left squalling helplessly in our mulish refusal at the door to eternal darkness. There are worse choices than betrayal. There is the decision against love. And then crippling despair.

Though reconciliation with God is first, it is not the only reconciliation required of us. To love God is something too easily left in the world of forms, the merely abstract gesture of good will toward divine being. Something more concrete, more worldly is required of our love. We must be reconciled to one another in Christ. The Prodigal Son returns to a party thrown in this name. His father welcomes him home without reservation because he is the father’s son. Despite the son’s gross irresponsibility and near criminal immorality, the father opens his arms to receive the wretch, drapes him in his finest robes, slaughters a fat calf, and celebrates the feckless life of this reprobate. Sorry. I’m with the obedient brother on this one. Why the celebration? The natural consequences of the son’s irresponsibility are absolutely just. He wasted his inheritance, scattering it like seed on sand, and reaped the bitter harvest. He deserves his fate. Yes, exactly, he deserves his fate and his father’s harsh judgment! But he receives mercy, forgiveness, and a welcome home party. He is reconciled in love b/c he was dead and now lives. B/c he was lost and now he is found. Our faith is about excess and waste, overflowing love and beautifully squandered gifts. There is nothing pretty or genteel about the cross. Nothing efficient about the empty tomb. Love reconciles like a thunderstorm soaks dry earth.

We will betray Christ before he reaches the cross. Despite our fervent fasting and pristine prayers, despite our honest intent and good will, despite everything we did, do, and will do during Lent, we will come to the decision that it is best to live for the cause than to die for our friend. And we will go on…to be reconciled to God, to one another, and to become the ambassadors for Christ that Paul urges us to be. We will remember our betrayal as a sign of weakness, anxiety, sin. We will recall again and again the exact moment we did not speak up for Christ, the exact moment we let some insult to his faith slide by, the exact moment we chose to be his enemy dressed as his friend. We will remember when we choose to blend in with the crowd, to throw a stone or two on the sorrowful way, to shout a curse at his stripped and bleeding back. We will remember our betrayal. But he won’t.

Can you smell the wood of the cross? There are many more steps between here and now and the foot of the tree. The hot sand blows stinging hard and everything and everyone you’ve left behind calls to you out of friendship to come back. What’s ahead after all? Blood, bits of flesh, spit, gall, deception, cruelty, violence…your betrayal of a friend. You can turn back now. Do it. Just for a second. Look back to Ash Wednesday. What do you see? Hot promises? Eager intentions? A hunger for holiness? I’m going to do it this time!? Sure. And will you? Not likely. You’ll make it to the cross alright. But you won’t make it there any holier than when you left on Ash Wednesday. Do you think the purpose of Lent is to make you holy? Holier? The purpose of Lent is to show you your need for God. You will make it to the cross b/c God wants you at the cross. Holy or not. Your dieting and fasting and fussing about prayer and alms are at best distractions if they don’t serve to clear up God’s will for you: smell the wood, then see the wood, then taste it. Then feel it against your skin, your hands, your back and feet, feel it—burning, wet, raw, sharp. You are Christ. Lent is not your time to flee from weakness and temptation. Run to them! Lent is your time to pray like the Prodigal Son, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, I no longer deserve to be called your son…” And then wait for God the Father to forget your sins and drape you in His finest robes and slaughter the fattest calf to welcome you home again.

Sniff the air. The cross is coming closer. The cup is full. Will you drink from it? Or will you pour it into the desert sand?