20 April 2007

Serving the crumbs...

2nd Week of Easter (F): Acts 5.34-42 and John 6.1-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation


Here Jesus turns the disciples doubt around and shows them how a little faith can manifest God’s abundance. It’s a miracle. They share a stingy meal with a vast crowd and even have leftovers that need collecting. Variously, this gospel story is repeated as either a “divine-miracle” or as a “social-miracle.” That is, the story is interpreted either in terms of BAM! fishes and loaves appear out of thin air at Christ’s blessing—a miracle defying natural law; or in terms of the willingness of the little boy to share his meager lunch and thereby inspiring others to bring our their lunches and feed themselves—a miracle of charity and generosity. Now, we can spend a lot of time arguing about which interpretation is more faithful to the gospel text. I don’t think it much matters to be honest. The much most intriguing moment in this story isn’t a miracle of any kind. When lunch was done, Jesus said to the disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted. And so they collected them…”

Is he talking about bread here? Yes. And no. Ever practical, Jesus didn’t want to waste any good food. There were many more crowds to feed down the road. But we also know that any time Jesus speaks to the disciples directly, he is teaching them. What’s the lesson here? We know this is a lesson b/c the gospel says that Jesus framed this event as a “test” for his students. The problem? How to feed 5,000 people on almost nothing? No. The problem is: how to feed all of creation for all time on one man’s Body and Blood? The whole event of feeding the 5,000 is the answer Jesus seeks. This lesson isn’t about Jesus’ “magical powers” nor is it about his “ethical affect” on others. This lesson is about showing the disciples the path to suffering and death and eternal life. And showing them all those welcomed to follow him.

Notice: the people gather to hear the Word proclaimed and preached. To see Jesus heal the sick. When he sees the crowd, he wants to feed them. He turns to his disciples and asks a perfectly reasonable question: can we afford to feed this many with what we have? Philip, avoiding the question, anxiously notes that even if they spent the wages earned over 200 days, they wouldn’t have enough food. Andrew, hearing at least one of the questions, pushes forward a boy with food, but gloomily notes that his food won’t be enough for the crowd. Can’t you hear and see Jesus give a Simon Cowel sigh and a roll of the eyes!? At this late date, they still don’t get it!

We have in Philip one who can only see scarcity in possibility. In Andrew, we have one who sees scarcity in manifest abundance. Jesus doesn’t berate them. He teaches them: “Have the people recline.” In other words, have the people prepare to feast. And they do. And afterward Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the excesses of the feast, what’s leftover, the abundant remainder of what they could only see as scarcity. Of course, Jesus is pointing them to the Church—the hungry, the welcomed, the blessed, the fed, and everything leftover; nothing, no one to be wasted but rather gathered into the Twelve Baskets—gathered in the Father’s covenant with His people.

When you look at the Church gathered in a crowd, standing before Jesus—hungry, cold, desperate for a teacher and preacher of Truth—do you see: Abundance? Scarcity? Leftovers worth keeping? Fragments best left scattered? Do you see in front of you work, blessing, joy, frustration, maybe exhaustion? Do you see a broken miracle? Or a well-made wreck? Do you see Christ staring back at Christ?

Nevermind. There’s work to be done. Start collecting crumbs and scraps, bits of fish and cups of wine. Whatever belongs in the basket, put it there. This party’s just getting’ started!

17 April 2007

Virginia Tech: Office of the Dead

Office of the Dead: Vespers for the Living and the Dead of Virginia Tech
Reading: 1 Corinthians 15.50-58
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX


We the living here pray this Office of the Dead for the living and the dead of Virginia Tech. May the splendid light of our Risen Lord shine through your loss and bring you all to his peace.

Just barely two weeks beyond our celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord, we are confronted with the heart-rending news that a young man, lost to all reason and swallowed by despair, has killed thirty-three men and women at his university. What seems at first a distant act of criminal insanity quickly becomes a tragedy played against the joyous drama of Easter, and we cannot help but think that each shot fired, each plea for help, each cry for a reason why betrays our trust, turns us opposed to the emptied tomb, and begs us to wade—just a toe! just to the ankles!—begs us to wade angrily into the same despair that dragged this young man to murder. It has happened again. Evil wears a face and dares us to answer in kind! And what do we say? How do we answer this horror?

We know that our Lord is risen from the tomb! Fewer than two weeks ago, in this church, we raised our alleluias in praise of Christ who defeated death in the grave and joined his Father in heaven. We renewed our baptismal vows, welcomed new brothers and sisters into the Body, and heard over and over again in prayer and song that nothing binds us to death; nothing holds us against despair; nothing, no one defeats us—not sin, not the grave, nothing of this world has the authority to catch and hold the hearts of those who blind the darkness with God’s joy and silences the voices of despair with hope—hope sung or shouted or even whispered! Our answer to death then was: alleluia! Amen! He is risen!

But now, right now: do those alleluias sound weak? Do they echo back from Virginia—alone and vain? Paul asks, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Death’s victory is in the hallways and dorm rooms and labs and courtyards of Virginia Tech. Death’s sting sits proudly on the cheeks of mothers and fathers who stare into a future once full of graduations and weddings and grandchildren. Death has stung husbands and wives. Professors, cafeteria and facilities workers, students and cops. Death stung Cho-Seung Hui long before he surrendered his life to the bullet that killed him. Is this Death’s victory? In this mourning hour, watching the misery and grief pour out of Virginia, aren’t we sorely tempted to answer, “Yes. Yes, this time, death has won.”

And what will we do now? Tighten security. Screen students more carefully. Offer better counseling. Put up more cameras. Pass stronger laws, better enforcement. No doubt, we will do all these things. But will we do the one thing, the only thing that will defy this spirit of Dark Loss, that will deny this horror its despairing power; will we do the one thing, the only thing that will matter to eternity? Will we HOPE more and better, will we LOVE more and better, will we TRUST more and better? Will we do the only thing that will deny evil another face? Will we carry those joyous Easter alleluias with us? Put them on our lips? Wear them on our sleeves? Will we bring them closer to our hearts than our own names? Eveready to shout: He is risen!

We know how to answer despair’s seduction and death’s sting. What do we here in Irving have to say to our brothers and sisters in Virginia? I simply do not know right now. Everything comes out muddled. My chest hurts just imagining the pain and loss, the incredible desecration of it all. The waste. I just don’t know. There is a great silence, however, a stillness that says everything that can be said. Put your heart’s voice there and sit for a while with both loss and abundance.

16 April 2007

Speak the Word with all boldness

2nd Week of Easter (M): Acts 4.23-31 and John 3.1-8
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


If we must be born again of water and spirit in order to see the Kingdom of God, we have to ask: why isn’t our first birth good enough to get us into the Kingdom? Surely, we want to say that our full entrance into creation, our completed exit from the womb, is sufficient for seeing and enjoying the Kingdom. Isn’t it true that “created things” serve as revelations of God—incomplete and fragile, yes; but nonetheless they are glimpses of divinity? And why would we want to strain the limits of reasonable discourse by suggesting that there is some sort of additional Thing To Be Done or believed or practiced in order to partake in the divine nature? Isn’t just being a creature of the divine enough? Aren’t we just promoting a sort of gatekeeping mentality here? This “born again” gibberish is too easily abused by those wanting to keep the church—what was the phrase? Oh yes!—“small and faithful.” More like “tiny and closed minded!” So, why isn’t just being born one time good enough to participate in the divine nature? Being “born from above” sounds privileged and classist.

New life requires new birth. When you are washed in the waters of baptism and fortified by the Spirit in confirmation, you are indelibly marked as one who belongs to Christ. Permanently branded as one who has consented to being taught the faith and as one willing to step up and onto the arduous trek from slavery to sin to liberation from bondage to the daily exercise of holiness to a natural perfection in this life and eventually a supernatural perfection in the afterlife—a life lived eternally face-to-face with Christ—as God. Yes, your newest and last life as God. Your life in Beauty and the life you must live until you reach the Beatific Life is started, given birth, if you will, by dying with Christ in the waters of baptism and rising with him, freed from the slavery of sin. Jesus says, “What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit.” We have our flesh from the womb. Now we need our spirit from the Spirit.

To what end? I mean, why all the trouble here about new birth, new spirit, new this and that? We have Jesus’ teachings, his instructions for good behavior; we have the powerful witness of his exemplary death and the wonderful image of his transformation into New Life. Aren’t we just talking about the need for a more self-reflective way of living, a more conscious effort at living holistically with earth and others? Um, no. Not quite. Good Friday’s Blood and Guts and Easter’s Empty Tomb are not about shrinking our footprint on earth or becoming chummier with our chosen families. We are called to a new life through a new birth so that we can do all the things our Lord has given us to do in his name. If you will be Christ, you must be born again as Christ!

Taking note of their recent persecution, Peter and John lay claim to a prophetic heritage going back to their father, David. They pray, “…Lord, take note of [our persecutors’] threats, and enable your servants to speak your word with all boldness…” The ground shakes. They are filled with the Holy Spirit. And they preach the Word with all the boldness of ones born anew in the Spirit of Christ! Ah, glimpses of Pentecost so soon…

We must be reborn of water and spirit so that we our lives now can be transformed into lives given wholly to Christ and his work. There is no other reason for us to be here this morning. Do others look at your life and see the signs and wonders of the Spirit loosed? Do they see a new creature? If not, pray: “Lord, give me, your servant, a tongue to speak your Word with boldness.” Stand still. And wait for the quake that will rock your soul.

15 April 2007

Nothing to fear but faith safely guarded (revised)

2nd Sunday of Easter: Acts 5.12-16; Rev 1.9-13, 17-19; and John 20.19-31
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


Safety comes first! Our doors are locked b/c we are afraid! A new security system on all entrances. Four or five cleverly hidden but readily accessible guns. Guard dogs. Threatening yard signs. A panic room with enough food and water for a month. Cameras covering every inch of the property. Two personal bodyguards on duty 24/7: Rocky and Twinkie. Yes, we’re afraid. So afraid, in fact, that we are now prisoners in our own home and hostages to our obsessive need for security and control. Safety comes first!

And Jesus comes and stands in our midst and says to us, “Peace be with you.” The locks fall away. The guns melt. The security system starts playing remixes of “Ave Maria” by P Diddy and Shaina Twain. The guard dogs morph into kittens. The yard signs now read “WELCOME!” We use cameras now to catch funny moments for Youtube. Rocky and Twinkie serve margaritas by the pool and give foot massages. We are no longer afraid. Christ, our Lord Jesus, commanded that we be at peace. And so we are. If you aren’t, I wonder why?

Let’s say that our tightly wound and locked down house is your soul. Or maybe your heart and mind. As a Christian—baptized, confirmed, and in full communion with the Body—you have nothing to fear from anything or anyone. But how many of us here will clamp down on our spirit like a nervous dictator after student dissidents when someone threatens the security of our trust in God? Or challenges the veracity of our faith in the public square? Where is our apostolic spirit, that breath of Christ?

Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up. The disciples are locked up tight in a room for fear of the Jews, meaning they were hiding from the partisan Jews who arranged for Jesus’ phony trial and illegal execution. The disciples, despite their cowardly betrayal of Jesus in the garden, were probably right to worry that they were being hunted. It’s one thing to remove a tumor. Quite another to pick out all the infected cells. Fail in this and the cells might become tumors themselves. Jesus’ followers were a threat to the hegemony of the temple and the Romans. And so, they locked the doors for fear of their persecutors. Very understandable.

But is this what Thomas the Twin does when he denies, despite credible testimony, that Jesus visited his brother disciples after his death? Does Thomas lock up the doors of his spirit, his heart and mind, b/c he fears persecution for his belief? No. Obviously not. He doesn’t believe, so how would installing invincible security protect his faith? He has none. Thomas’ denial of Christ in the face of the apostolic witness of his brothers is scandalous. Note: he doesn’t doubt. He denies: “I WILL not believe…” And then he demands evidence no one else needs or wants. Thomas is not threaten by persecution for his faith. Thomas is threatened by the faithful witness of those who have seen Christ in the flesh. And what exactly is it of Thomas’ that is threatened by this faithful witness? Let’s pause here and turn the question back to us.

When we, when you detect some alleged threat to your faith and slam the security doors of your soul, your heart and mind, and call the ecclesial police and demand absolute safety for your faith, what is it of yours that is threatened? Please don’t say, “My faith is threatened”! How exactly could faith ever need or use the safety that anyone on Earth could provide? Your faith in God, the trust God has given you as His child, cannot be seriously threatened by anyone or anything outside your own intellect and will. Let me suggest that it is our Spiritual Comfort that gets threatened. Our comfortable, settled, cushy ways of being faithful, of “being spiritual” that get threatened by challenges from our worldly persecutors. And it is the Devil who convinces us that when our Spiritual Comfort is threatened it is actually our Faith in God that is threatened. Nonsense. Utter twaddle.

The disciples went around with Jesus listening to him teach and preach, watching him argue and heal, sweating with him to serve the poor, the wrecks, those abandoned. They saw him day in and day out, heard him every time he spoke, and accompanied him nearly everywhere he went. And yet! At crunch time, at the hour of his crucible, when he needed them most, they ran like weasels set on fire, denying him as they ran. OK. Would we have done any better? Probably not. I dunno. Maybe. But my point is this: with Christ their faith was comforted and defended and they had no need to fear. Without him they fled their persecutors behind locked doors. Christ came to them to console their anxieties. And Thomas, who was absent for Christ’s visit, denies that any such thing had happened. His comfortable ways of being spiritual were threatened by the disciples’ outrageous testimony and he slammed the security doors of his soul, his heart and mind, and called the police. He decided that his best way to defend his comfortable way of understanding Christ was to demand of Christ irrefutable empirical evidence: “Unless I see the mark of the nails of his hands…I will not believe.”

Now back to us. When our comfortable ways of being spiritual, our settled means of knowing Christ are threatened, what do we do? Don’t we become Denying Thomases? That is, we deny the power of God’s gift of faith and cast around for empirical evidence that we are right to trust God. Think about that phrase: “evidence that we are right to trust God”! What kind of trust in God needs evidence to warrant fidelity? We look to weeping statues, Blessed Mother tortillas, bleeding Hosts, a dancing Sun, Jesus’ face in a smeared store window, levitating rosaries, apocalyptic dream poems from “visionaries,” and on and on. All of which could be miraculous. But none of which need be for the truly faithful! You may answer me: “But Father! The faith has enemies everywhere! Fundamentalist Muslims. Fundamentalist secularist. Dissident theologians and priests and bishops. Schismatic archbishops and religious orders. Scandal in the seminaries, in the rectories, in the chanceries, in the schools. Perverts in collars and miters preying on our children and our young people. Call to Action! Voice of the Faithful! Women’s Ordination Conference! Catholics for Choice! Error and dissent everywhere, everywhere! And the Holy Father isn’t doing anything about it! Nothing!” And Jesus comes and stands in our midst and says to us, “Peace be with you.” And his servant, John Paul II, stands next to him and says, “Be not afraid.”

For us, Christ’s peace is our security. We are secure in his presence. Secure in his love for us. Secure in the knowledge that he has won the last battle against darkness and despair. Secure in the church and her invincible yet always open gates. Thomas sticks in fingers in Christ’s wounds and says, “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus tells him that he has come to believe b/c he has seen. The truly blessed, however, are those who have not seen and still believe.

“Safety comes first” is the motto of the damned. There’s nothing safe or easy or comfortable about following Christ. There is only your life lived in absolute trust. Unlock your doors. Welcome the strange and the stranger. Stand firm in the Word. Celebrate joy in the Sacraments. And there will be nothing comfortable in your faith to threaten. Nothing settled to stir up. Nothing easy to complicate by a challenge from the world. Make trusting Christ the most outrageous thing you do, the most exhausting exercise of your day, the most thrilling adventure of this life. And there will be nothing out there or in here to stand up and demand that you fail your Lord. You must believe that he has won this war. There is nothing for us to fear from our enemies. So, peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit and live freely the life of a Child of the Risen Lord, the life our Lord died on the cross to give you!

[Addition for U.D.’s Church of the Incarnation…]

At the risk of provoking the crowd with a slightly longer homily, I want to address directly the presence of Divine Mercy in God’s plan for the restoration of creation. And I want to do this by noting a strain of piety, or maybe it’s a way of thinking about sin, here at U.D. that seems to deny the power of Divine Mercy. Let me lay these out plainly: 1) the tendency to turn every sin, no matter how small, into a mortal sin; 2) the seemingly unshakeable conviction among some that God just can’t wait to punish us for our sins; 3) that God is gleefully playing “Gotcha Games” with our spiritual lives by burdening us with temptations we can’t handle; 4) the audacious rejection of God’s grace in games of Religious Athleticism—I go to more Masses, kneel longer, sing in Latin, belong to this or that paraecclesial group, etc. and you don’t or can’t, so I’m holier than you!; 5) the bizarre notion that sexual sins are deeply, horribly offensive to God while pride, envy, lack of charity, and judgmentalism are simply unfortunate character flaws by comparison; 6) the perverse belief that my sins are too big for God to forgive or too many for Him to catch all of them in just one confession or too horrible for Him to look upon so I have to use euphemisms, etc.; 7) that mercy is for the weak, that forgiveness is for the impure and the willful, and the perhaps the most damning error of all: despite the freely given sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his glorious resurrection into heaven, I don’t deserve mercy, so I will just wallow in my prideful self-pity, thank you.

Here’s the truth: not every sin is mortal—stop this prideful manipulation of reality and get a grown up’s understanding of sin. God does not want to punish us for our sins. He sent His only Son to save us. If he wanted to punish us, He would’ve skipped the excesses of the Incarnation and the Resurrection and just damned us. God is not waiting under your bed to jump and yell “A-HA! GOTCHA! GO TO HELL!” It’s a paranoid fantasy. Your Religious Athleticism is pointless. It just makes you more and more self-righteous and less and less holy. Stop it. Don’t stop praying, of course, but stop thinking that you’re saved in these exercises of piety. You’re not. Sex is good, true, beautiful, and holy. Pride, envy, lack of charity, all distort everything that is good, true, beautiful, and holy. Sexual sins are not somehow more horrible sins b/c they are sexual. Sexual sins are usually expressions of pride, envy, lack of charity, etc. Nothing about you or me or this world or this universe is too big for God to handle. The Devil is telling you that your sins are special. They aren’t. Mercy and forgiveness are for the weak, the willful, and the impure. And if you think you’re going to be strong, obedient, and pure without God’s grace and mercy—you’re deluded.

Simply put: God wants His creation—all of it, all of us—restored. That’s His goal for you, for me, for everything He has created. You thwart your own growth in holiness by exaggerating your sins; refusing God’s mercy as a sign of weakness; and believing that there is anything you can do to save yourself. Let God love you, so that you can grow in holiness! What is there to fear in being shown mercy? In being loved?