03 August 2007

Where did you get all this?

17th Week OT(F): Leviticus 23-27, 34-37 and Matthew 13.54-58
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation (Serra Club Mass)

Listen here!

An obvious question to ask after reading this gospel: do we reject the prophets among us and their prophetic message b/c we know them too well? Do we fail to believe, choose not to believe b/c our familiarity with the messenger somehow taints the message? Notice also that those listening to Jesus the Prophet not only find his message incredible, they also treat him with contempt and then take offense at his audacity. You to have wonder if his reception would have been more serene if he had preached to the congregation something they wanted to hear. No preacher with his head attached in all the important places sets out to offend his listeners. And yet, Jesus manages to hit all the right buttons in these folks and then find himself set in the middle of an unbelieving crowd; their lack of faith strangling their miracles at birth. Do we reject the prophets among us and their prophetic message b/c we know them too well?

Your first objection here might be: “But, Father, I don’t know any prophets. How can I reject familiar prophets if I don’t know any?” But you do know prophets! You’re sitting in a church full of prophets right now. Priests, prophets, and kings baptized into the ministry of Christ as The Priest, The Prophet, The King. Yes, clean, well-dressed, elegantly educated and fragranced prophets but prophets despite their lack of grubbiness and stench. Prophets tell us and show us how to live now as if we were in heaven already. Their job is to constantly point us to our End. To keep us focused on our goal, to thump and jab us along the Way to Christ, reminding us at each step, each breath, each bit forward or backward that God never leaves us alone, never abandons us to our own limited skills and desires; that He never stops lifting us up and urging us to turn to Him, to re-turn to Him. Prophets are nags. Yes. But necessary ones.

Your second objection might be: “But, Father, none of these people have ever said anything remotely prophetic.” Maybe so. But let me ask you this: do you hear/listen prophetically? I mean, we talk constantly in Church about “seeing with the eyes of faith;” about putting on faith-glasses and looking at the world through the gospel first. Are your ears tuned to a prophetic frequency? Could you hear one of these many prophets remind you to drop some piece of petty nonsense in favor of the kingdom? To take on a piece of difficult work for your spiritual satisfaction and the good of the Body? Could you hear a prophet here sing your praises, call you by name, and then give you a prophetic word to preach, a message to spread without prejudice? What stops your ears from hearing? What stops your heart and mind from listening?

When you prophesy, it is perfectly reasonable for one of us to ask you, “Where did you get all this?” This might sound like incredulity but the question is more about authority than disbelief. Who authored that prophecy? Do you speak out of a true sense of our Father’s justice—one consistent with divine revelation and the tradition’s familial understanding of what justice is? Is your voice free of mere secular politics? Do you speak from the Body to the Body, or are you standing outside shouting at us? Are you working with the Church or against it? Is your prophecy true; meaning, do your words to us convey the beauty and goodness of God as we know Him together? Truly, now, are you speaking prophetically from the tradition of prophets or are you babbling eccentrically from your fantasies? Are you speaking out of a need to fix us or control us or to make us into your private image of Church? Where did you get all this? Prayer, fasting, lectio divina, works of mercy? Or do you speak out of self-righteous anger, liberal bourgeois entitlement, or some alien political philosophy?

If you speak the Word powerfully, with a contrite heart and all humility, your tongue will whisper directly to the ears that need that Word most. That Word will remain forever spoken b/c you have given voice to that which will not pass away.

Noah Buchanan, Surrender

02 August 2007

Mama 'n 'em

Blessed Jane Aza: 1 Peter 4.7-11 and Mark 3.31-35
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Listen here!

Why is it that every time I hear Jesus say, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”—I hear another, louder, distinctly feminine voice from behind the crowd yell at him, “I’ll tell you who your mother is!” And then I see a large cast iron skillet soaring through the air and pinging Jesus right upside his head! Obviously, Jesus did not consider himself a southern boy. No southern boy in his right mind would 1) leave his mama and brothers standing outside the house and 2) question the identity of his mama where she could hear him! Who knows? Maybe Mark diplomatically skipped over the part of the story where Mary said to Jesus, “Boy, who do you say that I am? I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!” Perhaps being a Jewish son is more like being a Southern son than I realized. . .regardless, far greater than mere genetics or civil law is the One Who makes us family to one another, making us brothers and sisters in Truth if not DNA.

Our love for one another through the Love of the Father and our obedience to His will for us, binds us indestructibly together into a tribe, a nation, a people, and a priesthood. For the better of our nature this means we are given the glad duty of serving one another in Christ’s name for his greater glory. For the darker pieces of our nature, we are given the law—human and divine—to carve our a place in this world relatively free from violence and violation, free from forced obligation and manipulation, a time and place when and where we can truly be children of the Most High, “generous distributors of [our Father’s] manifold grace[s].” For us to be proper franchises of the gospel’s excellent news for the world, “[our] love for one another must be constant” and all we do and say and leave undone and unsaid must course out of us “with the strength provided by God. Thus, in all of [us] God is to be glorified through Jesus Christ…!”

I was kneeling at the journal rack, reaching for a copy of the latest edition of the American Poetry Review. The guy standing next to me was listening to someone on his cell phone. I heard him say in a lost voice, “Yea, I’m alone.” And then, “At Barnes & Noble. Bored.” I wanted to stand, snap his cell phone in half, and tap him vigorously on the forehead, saying: “You are in a huge, seriously crowded bookstore, stocked with every conceivable kind of knowledge—art, poetry, science, philosophy—and you stand there and admit that you’re alone and bored!?” Exactly, bored and alone. And rather than risk an unregulated conversation with a person in person, he dials an easy voice on his cell and maintains the detachment his lazy spirit requires to feel safe, unviolated by any obligation to risk meeting someone else’s blessing or hurt or loneliness. Bored and alone: empty in the presence of Self and Other.

Christ did not come to us to entertain us and keep us company. It is not the purpose of the Church, his Body, to provide social activities and age-appropriate fun in order to stave off boredom and unwanted solitude. It is the purpose of the Church to make real, to give substance to abstracted love and mercy, to fill up the Body with vigorous service done in His name, to lure in and capture the empty hearts and wandering minds of our increasingly distracted and alienated people, to teach them and preach to them the Word of God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life. Our focus is here and now AND then and there, “on earth as it is in heaven!” Jesus couldn’t be clearer or more forceful: “Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me.” Family in Truth if not in DNA; family bound in obedience to one Father, giving service to one another in His name, for His glory!

01 August 2007

Scaring Angels

St. Alphonsus Liguori: Romans 8.1-4 and Matthew 5.13-19
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Listen here!

What does it mean for us to live according to “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus”? This law—not the old and of the flesh but the fulfilled and of the spirit—this law “has freed [us] from the law of sin and death.” Any law that frees us from sin and death is a law worth knowing well. But do we know it well? Do we know it at all? Could we answer a simple question based on this saving law? If not, how are we to then live?

The old, fleshy law is simple enough to understand. Basically, it was an exchange, a divine-human covenant based on a contract that detailed obligations for both parties involved and carried with it both explicit and implicit duties and compensations—“I will be your God and you will be My people.” One was “faithful to the covenant” so long as one sacrificed at the temple, kept the kosher laws, observe the purity restrictions, etc. Any lapse, any relaxation was taken to be a sign of one’s failure to “keep faith.”

Since this law was “weakened by the flesh,” it was powerless to do what God did when He fulfilled this law in Christ Jesus. What do we mean when we say “the law was fulfilled”? This means that God took the old law, dragged it to its own final end and then made it possible for us to benefit from the work of the old law without the meeting all of the requirements of the law. In other words, God, by sending His Son in the flesh and giving him up to death, fulfilled all the sacrifices that the Old Law required, purified all food and utensils, released us all from the bondage of sin—something the Old Law was designed to do but failed b/c it required our constant faithfulness—and God made us holy (healed & whole) by adopting us as His sons and daughters, heirs to His kingdom.

Now, as sons and daughters of the Most High, we live out the New Covenant, fulfilling the spiritual law of life in Christ Jesus! We are back to the beginning. How do we do this, live out this law? Jesus is clear: “…not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” OK. Maybe not so clear. Do we follow the law or not? Yes, we do. But we follow the law as it is fulfilled in Christ Jesus; that is, we follow the law of love presented in the beatitudes, holding firm to the covenant of freedom in God that the old law expected of us but did not always provide. We follow this perfecting law as it is being perfected in Christ, anticipating its final fulfillment and our own, waiting against hope “until heaven and earth pass away.”

What do we do while we wait? Well, we don’t hide our hope nor do we let our faith in the Lord grow stale. Nor do we claim a secular liberty that is not true freedom in Christ. Nor do we work for others merely to gain favor or fame. Nor do we waste time with purity if we understand purity to be an end in itself. The Beatitudes fulfill the Ten Commandments; that is, the Sermon on the Mount is the miracle of Moses’ tablets from Mt. Sinai: God speaks and the Word streaks out, indelibly etching stone, wood, the flesh of the heart; carving in all creation the Word of re-creation, of return and completion.

Our joy must be so profound, so excessive and wild, that when we storm heaven, we frighten the angels! And here and now, our lives should be no different than our lives in heaven. Why would they be different? By choice? By accident? We do not hide our Christ light or flinch in fear or cringe away from the ugliness of this world, the pain and jeopardy of living. Your life and mine must be bright shining lamps set atop a tall stand. Not to be admired for the clarity of our shine but to be used for directions to divine safety. We are reference points on the way to God. Do we look the part? Act the part? More importantly, if someone were to ask you: how do I live the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus? Would you be able to say to them with confidence, “Yes, I do. Just follow me and I will show you”?

Pic: Rebecca Newell

31 July 2007

Weeds Among Us

St. Ignatius of Loyola: Exodus 33.7-11, 34.5-9, 28 and Matthew 13.36-43
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Listen here!

Every gardener, every farmer, every owner of a yard knows that when you till up a patch of ground, fertilize it, water it, sow it carefully with seed, there’s an excellent chance that along with the strong stems and healthy leaves of the desired plants, there will grow choking weeds, undesirable sprouts that steal water, food, and sunlight from the Good Plants you intend to enjoy. Weeds are as inevitable as bugs! No lover of a neat, manicured lawn, however, just leaves the weeds to take root and flourish and flower, seeding all over carefully cultivated ground. Weeds are pulled, poisoned, chopped, hoed out, and cut off. And then these thieves are piled high, allowed to dry, and burned. Jesus tells the disciples that there will be those in his garden who try to steal Life from those who wish to flourish in his Word. These thieves he calls, “The Children of the Evil One” and they are sown by the Devil. What do we do with the weeds among us?

Think back to the parable where Jesus introduces the idea of the weeds among the good plants. The planter’s servants ask their master if they should pull the weeds before the harvest. The master says, “No, let them grow and I will tell the harvesters to cut them, separate them out, and burn them.” Why does he leave the weeds? Why does he let them flourish, potentially damaging the good crop? The master reasons, “Pulling the weeds while the good plants are young might damage the good plants more than the weeds ever could.” So, he lets both the good and the evil mature in his fertile ground, knowing that the evil will be dealt with in the end.

Does this parable need any further explanation? No, I don’t think so. But it does provoke a question for us: for those of us who tend to think of ourselves as Good Plants, how do we deal with the obvious weeds among us? Notice the dangerous assumption in this question: that we know how to identify weeds! Now, there are extreme cases of Weeds Among Us—for example, those who would see us become unitarian-universalists; or, those who would turn us into new-age Buddhists or Mother Goddess worshippers; or those who would the whittle the church into a tiny remnant of apocalyptic survivors. We may also readily point out the self-proclaimed prophets of public dissent and those who mock the sacraments—especially Holy Orders—by play-acting at ordination rites. And there are those who willfully take on the identity of Weeds by throwing themselves in front of any live camera or open mike and denouncing the Church’s centuries old moral tradition in the name of "liberty." Beyond these extremes—few and far between they are!—Good Plants and Weeds can look a lot alike. So, in the end we must humbly submit to the infallible judgment of our Lord in plucking the weeds and leaving the righteous at the time of harvest.

We aren’t helpless against the noxious effects of the weeds right now, however. True, we must be patient in waiting for the weeds to be pulled; but, we can minimize their damage to the garden by carefully tending to that which makes the garden fertile in the first place: God’s gift of growing His love in us. No, this is not some lame deflection or crippled sentimentality put up to serve a faint heart too weak to fight the Weeds! There is nothing faint-hearted or weak or sentimental about God’s love being perfected in us. Jesus says that on the day of harvest, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” No darkness, no shadow, no fleck of sin. Nothing contrary to the brilliance of the Father’s glory. Nothing stands against His end, His means, His perfection. For us then, we need only be living Christs for others in order to show the weeds their fate. While they suck life from the air and poison the ground, the Good Plants must be more deeply rooted, stand taller, produce more and better fruit, and be more beautiful in flower than any weed can.

Being right is not our witness. Being faithful to the end…that’s the testimony that will turn heads and change hearts.