06 July 2007

Mercy Crushing Comfort

13 Week OT (F): Genesis 23.1-4, 19; 24.1-8, 62-67 and Matthew 9.9-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation/Serra Club Mass

Listen to my homilies here!

No doubt we are meant to find some comfort in this gospel scene. Jesus picks out Matthew, a customs officer, a Jew who works for the Romans as a tax-collector. Jesus says to Matthew, “Follow me.” And he does. Jesus takes Matthew to his table and eats with him and other notorious sinners—an unclean act for an observant Jew! And the Pharisees are scandalized. They question Jesus’ students, “Why does your Master eat with sinners?” And Jesus gives them an answer that probably shocked the puritanical Pharisees but comforts us in our self-conscious frailty: “The well don’t need a doctor,” Jesus says, “but the sick do…I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” We do find this comforting. But there’s nothing comfortable about it. The biblical tradition Jesus is calling on here is this: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And there is perhaps nothing more disconcerting to comfort than mercy.

Have you ever found yourself defending your fallenness by saying, “Like Jesus said, ‘The well don’t need a doctor.’” Or maybe when you have fallen into sin you say on your own behalf, “Thank God Jesus came to call sinners. . .” What are we doing when we use these phrases in this way? Obviously, we’re quoting Jesus from today’s gospel, but are we doing getting at the root of the teaching here or just casting off a line, hoping to excuse a sin? There is a way in which we can use these phrases to be flippant about our fallenness and our redemption in Christ Jesus. There is a way in which this fundamental lesson on mercy can be turned into a divine permission slip for ignoring disobedience.

Let your own experience bear this out: how often have you heard faithful Christians use the phrase “but Jesus ate with sinners” to gloss over the notorious public sin of those who would use a veneer of Catholicism to lend social credibility to their otherwise starkly barren spiritual lives? The implication of the excuse seems to be that by eating with sinners Jesus somehow teaches us that the sin of a notorious sinner isn’t sin at all. This is simply false. Jesus is, in fact, demonstrating something far more profound with unclean act, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

How much easier it is for us to accept punishment for our sins than it is to accept mercy! There is in us something that seems to demand balance, desire recompense; something that wants our faults whipped but not eliminated entirely. Do you ever feel justified in sinning again b/c you feel like you’ve been punished already? We want to sacrifice! We want there to be clean and unclean acts, good and bad attitudes; we want these b/c we want boundaries; we want totems and taboos. There is something immensely comforting about being told, “Do no cross the line!” Great. Now I know where to stop. The road is not endless. And Jesus is truly messing things up when he says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Mercy is a wild freedom, a near chaotic dispersal of undeserved forgiveness, of amnesty broadcast unbounded; mercy is health freed from medicine, the good end without the ugly means; mercy comes from sacrifice but not from any sacrifice you and I are capable of making. That sacrifice, made once for all, was made and is still being made by the Physician himself.

He can eat with sinners—and he calls them unequivocally “sinners”—b/c he is the sacrifice that will bring them to healing. He does not require an atoning sacrifice of them b/c he is the willing sacrifice for us all, once for all, and what he desires from us, his disciples and children, is that we live our lives—lives given to us—in the discomforting messes of mercy: that great destroyer of expected balance, the needful waster of perfectly good self-righteousness.

If you are prepared to welcome the spiritual anarchy of Christ’s mercy into your sinful life, then follow him to the table where the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the pro-abortion politicians, the war-mongers, where all your favorite sinners eat. Show mercy. And do not demand from them the sacrifice that was never demanded of you.

Lori Kay (Pic Credit)

04 July 2007

Independence in the Lord

Independence Day USA (4th of July): Isa 32.15-18 and Luke 12.15-21
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

If we were to look to our country for signs of the Lord’s favor, what would we find? First, would we even recognize signs of the Lord’s favor? Can we tell the difference between what the Lord has given us all as a gift and what we have earned by our ingenuity and hard work? It’s a trick question, of course. For us, that is, for Christians, there is no difference really between what we work to earn and what the Lord gives us. Those skills, those attitudes of industry and creativity, all of those spirits of innovation, commerce, longing for growth, all of it, everything we use to work for our prosperity is first given to us by God. Whatever abundance, whatever excess, whatever generous plenty that we enjoy as a result of sweat, bent backs, calloused hands, or talented minds hurting at the edges of possibility; whatever good or truth or beauty we build; all bounty, all harvest, all of our riches as individuals, as a nation of citizens and immigrants, and as a tribe of priests and prophets baptized in the death and resurrection of Christ, all we call mine, ours, and theirs is first and always the treasure of our God; His abundance first, then His gift to us in grace, and only then do we rightly call this nation’s material and spiritual flourishing “a blessing.”

Isaiah reminds us because we forget: “In those days: the spirit from on high will be poured out on us”. . .then the desert becomes an orchard and the orchard a forest; right and justice will live in the desert and orchard and God’s “people will live in peaceful country…” God says to Isaiah, “My people will live in peaceful country, in secure dwellings and quiet resting places.” When do we forget this peace? When do we forget that our wealth is a gift and not a right?

There is a forgetfulness in wealth that poverty holds at bay. The prophetic witness of scripture testifies to the inherent dangers of possessing too much. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that scripture warns against the dangers of believing that and behaving as if we possess anything at all. The greater the imaginary treasury, the more tightly the acquisitive imagination binds the greedy dreamer to things and their accumulation and security. Bigger barns! More treasure! Bigger barns! More and more treasure…! Better locks, tighter control, limited access. Mine, mine, mine. And the narcotic stupor of acquiring without giving thanks, of possessing without surrendering to generosity, of storing up without abandoning to divine providence, that sedating haze of entitlement clouds the presence of the Spirit and we fail in our avarice—just me, just you, and all of us as one in a nation—we fail in greed to look back at the font of our blessing, to remember, and to put our faith in the only place where it cannot be exhausted: the heart of Christ Jesus!

We can celebrate our independence from the British Empire today. (I have it one good authority that they were more than happy to cut us loose!) We can celebrate political and economic freedom, religious and press freedom; we can even celebrate a certain material prosperity that comes from our long and assertive history as entrepreneurial capitalists and proponents of enlightenment democracy. But if these are godly treasures, harvests gleaned from a divine bounty, then they cannot be stored, cannot be hoarded in barns of privilege, heredity, merit, or in anything as flimsy and accidental as nationality or race. Some will argue that as Americans our claim to be heroes of a progressive manifest destiny ended in Vietnam. That’s a question for historians. Here’s a question for us Christians who would be heroes (American or not!): will you surrender—in absolute trust—all that you have, all that you are; abandon entirely your life and your things, hiding nothing, holding nothing back; sacrificing for the good of others your bountiful harvest to the Source of your life and all your wealth?

If so, you are free already. And today is truly a day to rejoice in the independence of the Lord!

02 July 2007

Reconciled in his fleshly body. . .

The reading for vespers this evening is taken from Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1.10-21). Though I have read and heard this passage many times, as Fr. Matt read out loud, I was floored by the power and clarity of what Paul is saying to us. I would be willing to argue that this passage, properly unpacked and presented, would make an excellent retreat mediation, or even something like a “mini-catechism” for reflection. Read it out loud and slowly. . .

“…we do not cease praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every good work bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God, strengthened with every power, in accord with his glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven. And you who once were alienated and hostile in mind because of evil deeds he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through his death, to present you holy, without blemish, and irreproachable before him, provided that you persevere in the faith, firmly grounded, stable, and not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven…”

Print it out. Post it on the inside of your front door or on the visor of your car and read it aloud everyday as you begin your day, remembering especially that you are “ now reconciled in his fleshly body through his death,” and that you have been made presentable, “without blemish…provided that you persevere in the faith…”

Pic credit: Faces of Christ

Are you making daily deals for Sodom?

13 Week OT (M): Genesis 18.16-33 and Matthew 8.18-22
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Listen to my homilies here

If God speaks to you today, do not harden your heart against His Word. That’s our gospel acclamation this morning. If we were to rewrite this acclamation to better suit our needs, to better reflect the reality of our spiritual lives, we might come up with: “If today you hear his voice, prepare a prioritized To Do list, noting which items are negotiable and which are deal-breakers; prepare another list of willing sacrifices—going to daily Mass, stop smoking, eating less—, prioritize these in order of increasing inconvenience and remember that July 4th is coming up (note to self: scratch ‘stop drinking’ from negotiation list); practice sincere pleading tones on recorder; enlist help of those God likes more than me (e.g., Sr. Mary Grace, Fr. Bill, and my mom); note to self: call Mom” and so on. If today you hear His voice, alert the tactical negotiation teams! We have deals to make, people!

Now, Abraham was the first host of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Standing over Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord tells Abraham that he, the Lord, must find out if the city is really as sinful as some claim. Abraham, hearing the voice of the Lord, launches into a negotiation that ends in a classic deal to save the city from divine destruction. Abraham, in a series of downsizing talks, persuades the Lord to spare the city if there are only fifty innocent people in the city, then forty-five innocents, and so on down to ten innocent people. It appears as though negotiating with God actually works! Does it? Not really. This incident is more about Abraham learning to ask for God’s mercy for others than it is about God’s mind being changed by a mere mortal. Nonetheless, Abraham heard the voice of his Lord, and rather than hardening his heart against the notorious sinners of Sodom, he risks the Lord’s anger, and asks that they be spared for the sake of the righteous.

In Matthew’s version of the story from Luke we heard read at Mass yesterday, Jesus is approached by a potential follower and Jesus invites a potential follower. The first is a scribe who says to Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Is this the opening line of a negotiation? I think so. Jesus could have said, “Good. Follow me.” Instead, he rather cryptically indicates that though the animals of the fields have homes, he himself has no home. Does Jesus sense hesitancy in the scribe? Maybe just a pinch of doubt about his claim of absolute fidelity? Jesus seems to be saying, “OK. You want to follow me wherever I go, uh? Fine. Know this then: my home is where I am and resting is not something I do much of. Still want to come?” The disciple that Jesus invites enters into a much more obvious negotiation: “I’ll follow you, Lord, but first let me bury my father.” Not one to pull punches or evade the truth, Jesus says simply, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” Meaning what exactly? Those who are dead in their faith can bury the truly dead. Those alive in their faith have a duty to both those who are already alive in the Spirit and to those living who seek the Spirit—the Dead who want to live again!

One habitual way that we harden our hearts against God’s voice is the negotiation ploy—the idea that we can bargain with God to get what we want. If prayer worked this way, Jesus would not have instructed us to pray in his name. It is the name of Christ Jesus, that is, who Jesus is for us and to us, that gives our prayers their power. Alone we are merely whispering words into the air. With Christ we are participating in his One Act of Worship, his One Act of Sacrifice on the cross; we throw our prayers into his one prayer of praise to God. No negotiation. No bargaining. Just a simple trust in God’s word that His promises will be kept. We follow Christ b/c we vowed to do so not b/c we want the divine goodies to keep on flowing.

And remember, the next time you want to negotiate with God in prayer, ask yourself: what happened to that classic deal He made with Abraham to save Sodom and Gomorrah?

Pic credit: Alessandro Bavari