20 July 2007

Mercy OR sacrifice? BOTH!

15th Week OT(F): Exodus 11.10-12.14 and Matthew 12.1-8
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation (Serra Club), Irving, TX

If the Devil can quote the Bible as a means for his ends, then we can be properly warned, without fear of impiety, “Be careful: read scripture and be tempted!” That we even think that reading the Bible might tempt us to disobedience seems not just odd but downright freaky, if not plainly blasphemous. But we all know that the thrill of the Word, the rush of the unveiling will strike a passionate note and quickly, swiftly swirl us away, dropping us carelessly at the foot of the first fool thought that floats too close to escape our curious eye. And we can start believing utter nonsense as if it were wholesome logic in a breath and two heartbeats. Jesus, always the clarion cure for foolishness, says to the Pharisees who have accused his disciples of impious labor on the Sabbath, “I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned these innocent men.”

Ah ha! Jesus is admonishing the Pharisees for following the rules; he’s berating them for being concerned about the Law, about procedure and process; therefore, we, as followers of the Way of Christ, are under no obligation to follow the Law or any law, and all of those puritanical restrictions against our favorite, former sins are now abrogated! We are free indeed! God desires mercy from us, not our empty, choreographed sacrifices inside an over decorated, incense-choked building! Thanks be to God we are free. . .!

As I said, in a breath and two heartbeats utter nonsense starts to sound like wholesome logic. This is our temptation here: to take what is a profoundly subtle ethical teaching from Christ, ignore the subtleties in favor of what we want to hear, and make Christ’s teaching into an excuse for sin. The Devil’s means for the Devil’s ends indeed. Where do we go wrong with this teaching? We go wrong with this teaching when we place mercy and sacrifice against one another, in conflict with one another, and we come out believing that we are to do one and not the other. The truth that Jesus is trying to push into the legalistic brains of the Pharisees is that showing mercy to a sinner is a sacrifice; to be merciful is sacrificial.

The logic of mercy requires you to forgive an offense against you w/o asking for what you are justly owed in compensation for the offense. You “sacrifice” what is rightfully yours in exchange for nothing, for nothing at all. In effect, there never was any offense. We can say that this or that bad act was committed—Jesus doesn’t deny that his disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath—but once sacrificial mercy is shown to the actors, we cannot say that any offense was given by the act. Jesus calls David and the priests and his disciples “innocent men.” No offense, no sin.

Divine mercy then is that kind of love that sees clearly into the heart of the sinner and rightly discerns what drives him to offend. However, only God has such clarity, the clarity to know perfectly a heart’s intent; you and I are called to a far more difficult task: to show mercy as a sacrificial habit; as a virtue faithfully, daily practiced without the benefit of a divine mind to see inside another person’s motive!

So, does God want mercy from us rather than sacrifice? Yes, if by “sacrifice” we mean “merely following the Law jot and tittle.” Does God want mercy from us rather than sacrifice? No, if by “sacrifice” we mean “offering to God what we are owed in order to make it holy.” God wants us to be merciful as a sacrifice. Why is this difficult for us? My guess: being offended makes us the creditor, we are owed. And being owed a debt gives us power. This is the Devil’s means to another one of his favorite ends: you in Hell with all the foolish. Poke him in the eye by giving up what is owed you—sacrifice in mercy and live among the wise.

18 July 2007

Knowing the Truth to do the Truth

15th Week OT (W): Exodus 3.1-6, 9-12 and Matthew 11.25-27
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Listen to this homily here*

They were here long before we came along. The spirits of rivers, trees, rocks, and animals tell them about mysteries only they can reveal. Even the stars speak to them about celestial influences and memories. They have gods; we have God. They have sacrifices; we have the one sacrifice. They have priests; we have the priesthood of Christ. They have altars, candles, incense, water, wine, bread, blood, flesh. And so do we. They have heroes, heroic stories, miracles, sacred texts and places, taboos and totems, moral systems. And so do we. How, then, do we distinguish between the so-called “pagan” religions—the Greek and Roman Mystery cults, for example—and the Way of Christ Jesus?

The Greek Orthodox theologian and bishop, John Zizioulas puts it best when he writes, “Unlike the pagan religions […] which sought salvation in escape from time and history through myths leading to extratemporal experiences, Christian spirituality, under the influence of the scriptural mentality […] focus[es] on history…the church’s outlook [is] not cosmological but historical.” He goes on to note that the Christian’s relationship with God “[does] not pass through nature but through obedience to the will of God,” giving Christianity its “ethical character,” its charge to “do the truth,” and it is “through personal relationships that the human person’s union with God [is] realized.” In all the ways that we relate to God, two differences mark us off from the pagans: 1) a “scriptural mentality” and 2) a personalist revelation of God.

In scripture we read, “[On the mountain of Horeb] an angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in fire flaming out of a bush…God called out to him from the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’” And then God reveals Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and charges Moses to go to Pharaoh and “to do truth:” lead my people out of Egypt! We also read in scripture: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” Jesus wishes to reveal the Father to us, and we know the Father first and best through the person of His Christ—Jesus our Teacher and Lord. Jesus, as a person like us in all things but sin, shows us, reveals to us, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In his person—both human and divine—he reveals. In his Sonship, his Lordship, in his teaching and preaching, in every word spoken and every deed done, Jesus unveils his Father’s face to us. This is not myth; it is history. This is not “once upon a time in a land far, far away.” God’s revelation of Himself to us, his creatures, took a place, a time, and a person and spoke to us: “Here I AM!”

And why does any of this matter to us now? Simple: if you will do the Truth, you must know the Truth. The Truth that is Love Himself is beyond measure, beyond words, beyond image or imagination or space-time, beyond any human art or science to know—fully, perfectly. To glimpse God, we must be shown God. And only God can show us God. Jesus shows us God the Father and so we know God as Father, Source of our being and Author of our freedom. If you will do His Truth, you must know His Truth. Knowing and doing His Truth will not only set you free, but it will make you into a means of freedom for others. What do we call a person who is a means of true freedom for others? We call him, we call her “Christ.”

In the record of our family’s faithful struggle with God, we find human histories—of hope, despair, obedience, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, greediness, any and everything imaginable. And we find Christ, the ancient promise of God given flesh and blood, and given up for us. Why does any of this matter? It matters b/c it is true. To do the truth, we must know the truth.

And God said to Moses, “Here I AM. I will be with you always.”

*My little digit recored crapped on me this morning at Mass, so I had to re-record this homily in my room...thus the poorer sound quality.

Pic credit:
The Burning Bush

16 July 2007

Jesus Must've Known

15th Week OT(M): Exodus 1.8-14, 22 and Matthew 10.34-11.1
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Listen to this homily here

Jesus teaches his apostles that he comes to us wielding a belligerent sword, a great blade of division and strife, setting man against father, daughter against mother. And we must not think that he brings peace! We must not think that the Word of his Good News, spoken from start to finish and through all creation, tranquilizes our discordant human hearts or smooths all the coarse ways we grind up and pit with sin. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth,” he warns us. Instead, know that I have come to dare you to receive a prophetic charge, a commission to lose your life for my sake, and in so doing, to find your life made worthy of Christ. Refusing this messianic dare is unthinkable, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” Our cross—the one cross we all share—is the graced burden of stepping into the world as prophets of a Truth whose light is blinding and razor sword-sharp.

Jesus must have known that at some point in the history of his church, even his most devoted members would no longer be scandalized by his more outlandish teachings. At some point, someone would read the synoptic accounts and John’s gospel and realize what a master rhetorician Jesus was, what a masterful storyteller, a man gifted with the ability to speak memorably. He must have known that at some point, someone would deconstruct the texts of these evangelical memories and untie all the bound pairings—peace/sword, enemies/household, righteous/lost—and once done report back to us that his metaphors of power are really just grabs at establishing a totalitarian religious state or something equally ridiculous. He must have known that our weak human hearts would flail about, grasping at any tool to loosen his grip on our integrity, to pry away our vow of obedience, freeing our souls from his prophetic commission. He must have known, otherwise he would not have spoken the Truth with such blinding clarity, with such slicing strength: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Here’s the kicker, folks: we chose this life! The life described here in Matthew’s memories of his time as an Apostle. We chose this life. Jesus dared us to pick up his prophetic cross—of speaking the Truth of his Good News to the world—he dared us! and we jumped at the chance to die following after him. But we have to ask one another: have we left mom and dad behind? Have we given over every attachment, every clinging bit of need and want? The yearning after a half-lived life of stupored munching, rutting, sleeping, and polluting? We are his disciples if we can receive a single cup of cold water in his name. A single cup! And the one who gives us this water is truly blessed.

He must have known we would come to the point where very few stones littered our paths, where almost nothing stood in the way of carrying our crosses into the world…and yet we flinch at a clear path to our goal? Do we? I do. And often. Saying this life in Christ is not easy doesn’t make it difficult. Nor does it excuse the lack of blisters or bloody feet. Follow after me he says. Pick up that cross…you said you wanted it!...pick it up and follow after me. And make following him the first thing you do. The last thing you do. And everything you do in between. Then mom and dad and child and household and job—all that you have forsaken for his sake—all of it will make the best sense b/c the Good News that you bring to the world (bright as the sun and sharp as a sword) is that God’s mercy, though free, ain’t cheap. And the choice to pick up his cross as your own is a dare worth eternal life. Our reward then is a life—even a life of persecution—a life suffused with enduring glory, a Divine Love that makes all love possible and wholly prophetic.

15 July 2007

"Define: 'live.'"

15th Sunday OT: Deut 30.10-14; Col 1.15-20; Luke 10.25-37
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul
’s Hospital, Dallas, TX

Listen to this homily here!

Guy comes up to Jesus and asks, “How do I get to heaven?” Jesus says, “What does the Law say?” Guy repeats the Law, ending on the now infamous line, “…and love neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Yea. That’s it. Do this and you’ll go to heaven.” But the Guy couldn’t let it go at that. He just had to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” You’ve had the same question, right? Don’t deny it! We’ve all asked, usually in a lazy effort to avoid something we don’t want to do, we’ve all asked the Define Your Terms question. Daughter asks Mom, “Mom, can I go to the mall?” Mom, always suspicious of her offspring’s motives, uses a classic Mom delaying tactic, “Is your room clean?” Daughter, exasperated with Mom’s maternal machinations demands of her mother a little more precision. She says, “Define ‘clean’.” Teacher, assigning research papers to his freshmen, notes that the papers must be no fewer than five pages long. Freshmen, probably the Daughter from the Mall, asks, “What counts as a ‘page’?” You’ve done it too! But do we ask the DYT questions for the same reasons that the scholar of the law asked his? Yes, we do. Like the scholar, we want to justify ourselves in our diluted love.

And who is my neighbor? I’ve come to admire the classical theological approach to definition, the via negativa, a technique by which a term or concept is defined by what it is not. So, who isn’t my neighbor? Mostly anyone who disagrees with me. Anyone who doesn’t “fit” in my social circle. Anyone I don’t like the look of. Those who annoy me. Anyone with more money than me, or a better car, or a bigger book budget…that’s most everyone. Anyone who lives next door to me—come on, how cliché is it to call your neighbors “your neighbors”?! Anyone who might embarrass me in public. Anyone who doesn’t look like me, talk like me, think like me; anyone who doesn’t share my love of British comedy. Basically, “my neighbors” are only those people with whom I feel perfectly comfortable, completely unthreatened by, or possibly benefit from. In other words, I do not love. Not with my heart, not my being, not my strength nor my mind. I “love” God—abstractly, in principle anyway, the way one might love a long-dead rock star—but loving my neighbor? Well, again, who’s left? Who’s left to be my neighbor? And am I even absolutely sure that I truly love myself? If I am supposed to love my neighbor as my myself, and I don’t love my neighbor…well, it’s too important to worry about!

What is the scholar of the law dodging in his DYT question? My guess: as a lawyer, this guy like definitions, limits, solid distinctions and clear ideas. The dodge? The same one we make when we ask the DYT question: Lord, you can’t be serious about this limitless love thing, this unbounded mercy thing! That’s too difficult. Not practical. Simply not doable. You can’t really mean that I have to love my neighbors exactly like I love myself. I have to pour my heart, soul, being, strength, and mind into willing (doing!) the ultimate Good for anyone who is considered “my neighbor”? Fine then. Who is my neighbor? See the dodge? Unwilling to love as you ought—freely and w/o frontiers—you rush to narrow the scope, to shallow-out the depth and shorten the reach of God’s love working through you, and then you discover that the first victim of your penny-pinching love is your salvation, your most basic friendship with Christ, with He Who Is Love for you.

Paul teaches the Colossians that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Therefore, Christ is “the firstborn of all creation [and] all things were created through him and for him.” Himself uncreated, Christ comes before creation, and in him the fullness of divinity, all that God Is, was pleased to dwell, and so, “ in him all things hold together…” and through him all things are reconciled for him. We were created through Christ and for Christ. We were redeemed through Christ and for Christ. We are being perfected in our creatureliness through Christ and for Christ. And we will come to thrive in the fullness of God through Christ and for Christ. But we must love! This is not a matter of mushy sentiment or weepy affection. All things are held together in Christ, and Christ is love for us. Without the passionate divine willing of the Good for us, we simply cease to exist. Blink, blink. Gone.

Quoting the Law, the scholar argues that God is telling you to love wholeheartedly, with all your being, all your strength, all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. This teaching is a plea for us to prepare ourselves to inherit lives lived in beatific eternity—love and be loved imperfectly here and now so that we will love and be loved perfectly there and then. We are not simply being warned, “Be morally good people.” We are being prepared, “You will not all die, but you will all be changed.” Follow the logic…we were created and redeemed (re-created!) through Christ and for Christ. To the degree that we love, we are being perfected through and for Christ to become Christ perfectly. And we will be brought to God through Christ and for Christ. Let’s translate just one sentence to make the point: to the degree that we are Christ, we are being perfected through love and for love to become love perfectly.

And this is what the Samaritan traveler does for the robbery victim. He loves him like a neighbor. Yes, of course, he bandages his wounds, provided for his care, and promised even more if needed, but it is not so much what he does that makes the hated Samaritan the man’s neighbor; it’s why he does it. Noting to the scholar that a priest and a Levite see the wounded man but do not stop to help him, Jesus tells the lawyer of the Samaritan’s compassion and asks him, “Who is the neighbor to the wounded man?” The scholar, who has been paying careful attention, says, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Exactly! Note: treated with mercy. Not just “treated” and not just “mercy.” The Samaritan could have treated him out of a sense of duty or fear. And he could have felt mercy, experienced compassion standing near the wounded man, done nothing, and moved on.

Here’s a another scene: Jesus tells the lawyer about a Samaritan traveler who comes upon a robbery victim, half-dead from his wounds. The traveler is moved to compassion at the sight of his injuries. He approaches the victim and asks, “Are you my neighbor?” Pondering what this might entail, the traveler rests near the wounded man and contemplates what it might mean to be neighbor to someone: How would one act toward a neighbor? Are there reasonable limits on what one can and cannot do for a neighbor? Does my love for myself translate directly into a love for neighbor, or is it somehow mitigated? While the traveler contemplates these vital questions, the wounded man bleeds to death. Jesus asks the stunned lawyer, “Did the traveler treat the man as a neighbor?” The lawyer, clearly upset, says, “No.” Jesus nods, “What should he have done instead?” The lawyer, eager now to show he has learned says, “The traveler should have loved the wounded man and cared for him.” Jesus asked, “But why?” The lawyer, near tears says, “So that he might know you, Lord.” Jesus smiles and touching the lawyer’s face says, “Go and do likewise.”