05 June 2008

Barking the Gospel

St. Boniface: Acts 26.19-23 and John 10.11-16
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

One of the Vesper’s petitions from the Commons for Martyr’s goes something like this: “Lord, hold us fast to preaching the gospel even in the face of opposition, persecution, and scorn.” One of the greatest temptations for the contemporary Christian preacher is to let go of the Gospel when confronted by entrenched opposition. Like water seeking the fastest and easiest route downhill, preachers too are coaxed toward taking the most direct path to the dilution of Christ’s teaching and, ultimately, a betrayal of the Spirit that animates us. We see and hear this when preachers begin preaching a Prosperity Gospel—Jesus wants you to be rich!—; or when they begin preaching a Zeitgeist Gospel—Jesus wants us to “fit in” with our times so we can witness from within;—or when you hear the Gospel of Identity Politics—being American, Black, Gay, Male or Female, Left or Right is preached to be more important than being faithful to Christ. All of these, of course, are dodges, ways around the oftentimes difficult demands of what Jesus teaches us to be and do. Think of them as convenient filters for the intellect and will that allow us to sift out the hard stuff and celebrate that which most energetically tickles our too often and too easily bored ears. True martyrs (not self-appointed martyrs) present us with an extraordinarily hard reality: they believed the Gospel and died proclaiming it. Could we do the same if called upon to do so?

St. Boniface, an eighth-century English Benedictine bishop and martyr who served as a missionary to Germany, wrote to a friend, “Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent on-lookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf…Let us preach the whole of God’s plan…in season and out of season.”* Though this sounds benign enough, Boniface died doing it, or rather died because he did it—he barked and refused to be hired as a religious P.R. man for Zeitgeist, Inc. Paul found himself in a similar position. Paul reports in Acts that he was seized by the Jewish leaders in the temple and almost killed because “[he] preached the need to repent and turn to God, and to do works giving evidence of repentance.” Should we be shocked that Paul would find himself the target of the powers-that-be? Not really. Jesus warned his disciples that they would follow him to the cross if they persisted in preaching his word. And it is persistence that most often gets the Gospel preacher into trouble.

Jesus says, “A hired man, who is not a shepherd…sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…” The wolf attacks the sheep, killing one or two and scattering the rest. Why does the hired man run? Jesus says, “This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” A preacher hired by Zeitgeist, Inc. will do the same—cut and run when it looks as though the wolves of persecution, opposition, and scorn come bounding down the hill. The good shepherd will stay and fight. And though he will never lose, he may sometimes die.

There’s almost no chance that anyone here this morning will be called upon to die for preaching the Gospel. In the U.S. in the 21st century, the Zeitgeist has learned more subtle ways of tempting us away from the Good Shepherd. Perhaps the most powerful temptation comes from the devil of freedom, or more accurately named, the devil of liberty. Dangling before us the illusion of unfettered choice in a marketplace of unlimited options, the devil of liberty coaxes to us a powerful sense of entitlement, a sense of being owed our comfort, our liberality. And so, we stand dumbfounded in the Wal-Marts of religious goods and services, the Krogers of spiritual options, and we pick and choose. I will preach mercy but not justice; love but not responsibility; forgiveness but not sin. I will preach heaven but not hell; faith but not obedience. With a shopping cart full of liberty, we check-out and pay with our souls, and then go out preaching a gospel half-bought.

If our souls must be the currency with which we purchase a spiritual good, let that purchase be our eternal lives with Christ. As the Dogs of God, we can nothing less than die while ferociously barking the Gospel just as Jesus taught it.

*from the Office of Readings, St. Boniface

Pic credit: Godzdogz

04 June 2008

Do not fear death

St. Peter of Verona, OP: 2 Tim 2.3-13 and Luke 12.4-9
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

What do you think the Church is trying to tell us by giving us three martyrs’ feasts in a row? Marcellinus and Peter, Charles and his Companions, and now the Dominican, Peter of Verona. After all, isn’t this the “lean, mean green season”?! Beside showing us how to make the sacristan’s life a little easier, what is the Church teaching us by parading before us in the Eucharist the sacrificial deaths of so many men and women? Yes, the faith is worth dying for. Yes, we might be called upon to make the ultimate witness for Christ. Yes, our blood, if spilled while proclaiming the Gospel against it detractors will be the seed of a greater Church. But perhaps more subtly, the Church is teaching us the proper relationship between the body and soul, the flesh and the spirit. Perhaps we are being asked to remember that our bodies are not only temples of the Spirit, but they are also essential in understanding ourselves as persons, that is, as deliberative creatures moved by intellect and will. The gift of a body is the gift of time and space, a grace enfleshed that provides us with a way of abiding now in the Spirit so that we might have one opportunity after another—here and now—to will with the will of the Father and to come to Him body and soul on the last day.

So important is the body to our spirituality that Jesus has to remind us that we need not fear the death of the body: “I say to you who are my friends: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and can do no more.” We might read this to mean that the body is unimportant to our spiritual growth; however, the exact opposite is true. Jesus goes on to note that we need not fear those who can kill us because the One Who made us never neglects us: “In very truth, even the hairs on your head are counted.” Though your body may be killed now, you—body and soul—will come to live with God after the resurrection. Not just your soul, not just your body but YOU—body and soul, spirit enfleshed.

The Dominicans were founded by St. Dominic to fight against the Albigensian heresy infesting southern France in the 13th century. Essentially, the Cathars held and taught that the body is an anchor in the world, a rotting corpse holding the soul captive. By starving themselves and engaging in painful, often torturous acts of asceticism, these folks believed that they were freeing the soul to soar to God! St. Dominic argued forcefully with these heretics and convinced some of them that God’s creation is essentially good, that the body is not only fundamentally good but absolutely necessary in coming to spiritual perfection. An ascetic practice (e.g. fasting) is properly understood as means of achieving rational control of the passions not as a way of punishing the body for sin. After all, isn’t the soul implicated in sin as well? Merely causing oneself bodily pain is not in itself a healthy spiritual practice.

So, what is Jesus worried about in today’s Gospel? At the very least, he is worried that we might flinch in the face of martyrdom, fearing the death of the body and allowing that fear to overwhelm his commandment to love, overwhelming his commandment to us to love others by witnessing to God’s mercy. Instead, he tells us to refocus our fear and fear more the one who can cast us into Gehenna for our unfaithfulness: acknowledge him before men and he will acknowledge us before God, fail to acknowledge him and he will say, “I never knew you.” The martyrs we have celebrated these past three days acknowledged him before men to their deaths, the deaths of their bodies, not a final death but merely a temporary end to their time in this world.

I said earlier that our bodies provide us with our best chance of growing in holiness because the possession of a body grants us the time and space we need to learn how to cooperate with God’s grace, the gifts He gives us to grow in holiness. We are not angels, pure spirit, fixed at creation in the divine perfection. We are men, body and soul, in need of instruction and patience, in need of a holy fear, a sense of wonder and awe at what we have been given. When we turn ourselves—bodies and souls—to the One Who made us to love Him, we see that we are not neglected, never forgotten, always in His presence, even in death, until we come to Him whole and perfected on the last day.

02 June 2008

Unbelief to belief...

Ss. Marcellinus and Peter: 2 Cor 6.4-10 and John 17.11-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Origen, in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, writes, “If passing from unbelief to faith means that we have passed from death to life, we should not be surprised to find that world hates us. Anyone who has not passed from death to life is incapable of loving those who have departed from death’s dark dwelling place…” Generally, we think of martyrdom as the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life in defense of the faith. We think of the apostles, all but one of whom died at the hands of God’s enemies fighting the good fight. We think of Lucy and Agnes and more recently, Friar Kolbe and Edith Stein in Nazi Germany. All witnesses to the faith, all testimonies written in blood. Origen is directing us to a more subtle, bloodless martyrdom, the so-called “white martyrdom” of everyday life, everyday faith. We should note here that Origen is not going soft on us in proposing the possibility of white martyrdom; after all, Origen is the one who, in his zeal, castrated himself in the pagan Greek fashion in order to show his dedication! Origen most definitely still hold a “red martyrdom as a glorious and sometimes necessary act of zeal. What he is doing when he suggests that moving from “unbelief to belief” is the same as moving from “death to life” is emphasizing that when we come to believe we die to the world, that is, we no longer belong to the appetites, princes, systems, philosophies, and gods of a fallen creation. We belong to the Father!

In his priestly prayer before going to the Garden, Jesus prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you gave me, so that they may be one just as we are one.” Just as the Father and Son are one, so we are one with the Father in Christ: “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world,” Jesus says, “Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.” Set aside by the Father for the task of preaching and teaching His mercy, Christ both heralds the truth of the Word and he is the Word made flesh. So, in him, as his brothers and sisters, adopted sons and daughters of the Father, we too are to be His Word made flesh in order to proclaim the truth of the Good News: “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” When we accept this commission—to go into the world, preaching the Gospel—we die a martyr’s death.

As bleak as this might sound—no one would ever accuse Origen of being cheery!—the martyr’s death (then and now) is hardly a lamentable event. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful;…as dying yet behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing…” What the world sees as a waste of life in obedience to the Word, we count as Life itself. What the world sees as prudish excess, we count as virtue and the way to holiness. What the world sees as slavery to poverty and service, we count as freedom to come to His perfection. We have nothing yet possess all things in Christ Jesus!

In his exhortation, Origen pushes us to suffer with Christ, to share in his sufferings, to purify and elevate ourselves by doing what Christ did. Christ did not suffer instead of us; he suffered for us so that we might see where we belong most beautifully: among those who listen to and act on the love our Lord has for us. Being loved by the Father and loving Him in return marks us—even scars us—with the sign of His ownership, the cross. And because we believe, the world hates us. Why? Origen writes, “In Christ and with Christ the martyrs disarm the principalities and powers and share in his triumph over them…” What the powers of this world will not tolerate is our refusal to celebrate its disobedience to God. Desperately in need of our acceptance and approval—think here of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost—the powers of this world see in us a body unwilling to bend to an authority that acts against the will of the Father.

Though tempted to withdraw from the world, though tempted to rebel against the world, instead we stand up and unceasingly proclaim a single truth: Christ is Lord! In the power of the Holy Spirit, “in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness,” we fight the excellent fight until he comes again.

01 June 2008

Made by God to believe...

9th Sunday OT: Deut 11.18, 26-28; Rom 3.21-25, 28; Matthew 7.21-27
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation (Sunday Mass)

Moses says it first, and I say it now: “I set before you here, this day, a blessing and a curse.” We are blessed in our obedience to God’s wisdom. And cursed in our folly when we disobey. We are blessed when we see and hear and do the will of the Father. And we are cursed when stand blind, deaf, and lazy in the presence of such wisdom. Fortunately for us, our father in faith, Moses, gives us clear instruction on how to receive God’s blessing everyday, every moment. He teaches us, “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. I set before you here, this day, a blessing and a curse: a blessing for obeying the commandments of the Lord…a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord.” If you place God’s wisdom in your heart and in your soul, then your very being is made wise; that is, merely existing is an act of wisdom, a proclamation of God’s glory to the world. If you bind your hands and your mind with God’s wisdom, then every act, every job, every task and every thought, your very imagination is a sign of God’s presence, a pendant, a flag marking you as His. This is what Jesus teaches us in Matthew’s gospel this morning: it is not enough to think kindly of the Lord; it is not enough to do kind deeds in his name. We must obey: listen and act, one move—hearing the Word/doing the Word, listening to God’s wisdom/doing God’s wisdom. If you will to exist wisely in God, then you must place His wisdom in your heart, your mind and you must bind your hands and bind your mind with His commandments. How do we do that?

Paul writes to the Romans, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [the commandments], though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Let me break that down a bit: in the older covenant, God’s righteousness—His rightness: goodness, truth, beauty—were made known to humans primarily through the Law. Obey the Law and God is revealed to you. What Paul is saying here is that the advent, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ now manifests God’s righteousness apart from the Law. He does not say “instead of the Law,” but rather “apart from the Law,” meaning that we have access to the fullness to God’s Self-revelation through Christ. Remember: Christ came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, to make the Law complete, perfected. The Law and the prophets are witnesses to the Law—they are testimonies to His commandments but Christ is God Himself: the Real Deal Himself! So, Paul teaches us that we ourselves come to the righteousness of God Himself when we believe on Christ.

Again, how do we come to believe? Believing is a human act. But believing is not merely human. By the gift of the Father we are made to desire Him, made to want Him, created in His likeness and image to be seduced by His love for us! In other words, we are capable of belief in Christ precisely because God engineered us—genetically programmed us, if you will—to seek Him out. Even when we are misguided, lost, faithless, sinful, we yearn for His perfection. Paul writes, “[All] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus…” We are made just because Christ freely gave his life for us. Fully God, fully Man, Jesus bridged the gap between the human and the divine, and in dying sacrificially, made it possible for us to become God with God through God alone. We believe because it is our deepest need, our most profound urge. Greater than hunger, thirst, the drive to reproduce, greater even than the will to live, the imperative for God’s perfection comes first. The life you live daily, hourly is your answer to this primitive call.

How do you answer? Jesus teaches those who will see and hear: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Listens to these words/acts on them. Listen and act. To those who will not to listen, those who will not to act, Jesus will say on the last day, “I never knew you. Depart from me, evildoer.” You will say, “But Lord, Lord, did I not do mighty deeds in your name?” He will answer, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but ONLY the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Only the one who obeys, the one who listens and acts. To the ones who have placed God’s commandments in their hearts and souls and bound their hands and minds with His wisdom, our Lord will say on the last day, “I have always known you. Come to me, brothers and sisters.”

Always the poet, Jesus gives us a clear image of what it means to live and move and exist in his Father’s wisdom. A house built on rock is unmoved by natural disaster. A house built on sand is swept away. No flood or wind or quake will shake the foundations of house constructed on the rock of the God’s will. No pain or turmoil or doubt can threaten the integrity of a life built on hearing and doing the will of the Father in heaven. However, a house built on sand, a life constructed on the vagaries of human wisdom alone, human intelligence alone, human will alone will collapse and be completely ruined. It is not enough that we cry out “Lord, Lord!” It is not enough to manage an occasional good deed. It is not enough that we live and move through this gifted life as lukewarm but inactive believers, tepid but untrusting doers. The work we do in His name is good because He is Goodness. And we trust in His goodness because He made us to believe.

So, we go back to Moses, our father in faith and listen one more time, “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead.” Wrap yourself in the saving word and works of Christ so that everything you imagine, everything you do, so that everything you are is first and foremost an image, a deed, a being of the One and in the One Who made you to love Him. None of the other gods—not Stomach, Money, Pride, not Rebellion, Lust, or Death—none of the other gods know you nor can they know you nor can they perfect you nor can they save you. You are, we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus…through faith, by his blood.”

Can there be anything simpler, less complicated, easier and more righteous than being perfectly the creature you were made to be, than doing perfectly what you yearn most to do?