27 June 2008

Be made clean

12th Week OT (F): 2 Kings 25.1-12 and Matthew 8.1-4
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

In dramatic contrast to his later admonitions to his disciples to “go to all nations” with his Good News of salvation, our Lord tells the now-cured leper: “See that you tell no one [about your healing]…” We might think that given the physical condition of some of those following Christ and the condition of the spiritual lives of others and the condition of the religious leadership that Jesus would leap at the chance to demonstrate his healing power as a testimony to his sonship in the Father. Instead, he chooses silence over proclamation, stealth over transparency. Perhaps looking out over the masses of pitiful people following him that day and considering the incendiary message he embodied, he thought it better to be cautious with his power until his moment had arrived. Or, perhaps he fully intended to heal all those present in one gesture of divine mercy but decided—for whatever reason—that just one cured leper sent to the temple priest might make a better witness. His exact motives are a mystery. However, we might remember that just before this scene Matthew reports that the crowd was astonished at Jesus’ teaching, remarking, “…he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” In effect, Jesus has just claimed the mantle of the Father and in so doing he has broken the Law. Now he insists that the cured leper follow the Law exactly by reporting to the priest and offering the required sacrifice. Jesus breaks the Law but requires the now-cured leper to follow it. Is Jesus being hypocritical—one Law for me, another for the rest of you?

The Law is the Law, and Jesus is most certainly violating that Law by laying claiming to his Sonship; however, he has been steadfast to this point in teaching a message of prophetic authenticity, that is, he has been very careful to warn against false prophets, phony messiahs, and philosophies destructive to the spiritual lives of those who follow him. He says of these wolves in sheep’s clothing, “By their fruits you will know them…A good tree cannot bear bad fruit…So by their fruits you will know [my true prophets].” Jesus cures the leper to demonstrate to the crowd—by his good fruits of healing—that he is their true shepherd and not a wolf set loose among them. The witness given by the physical healing of leprosy is secondary to the witness that the leper himself will give in the temple. Not only is the leper healed of a deadly disease, he is also obedient to the Law fulfilled in Christ Jesus, giving thanks and praise to God in the manner ordained by God Himself.

But why the secrecy? Why not embrace the new-found virtue of transparency? This is not the first time that we have read that Jesus insisted on keeping his healing works a secret. Nor is it the last. Though of his motivations for ordering the leper to silence are ultimately a mystery, we can begin to understand the need for secrecy if we think in terms of humility rather than conspiracy. Remember the poor widow quietly giving her last few coins in the temple. Remember Jesus’ admonition to fast and pray in a way that refuses public attention. Remember Jesus’ frequent need for solitude and quiet in order to be with his Father. If the primary witness to the Good News in this case is the quiet gratitude of the healed leper at the temple, then the very thing that will destroy that witness is a triumphant parade and proclamation of Christ’s healing power. In other words, the message that Jesus wants to send—humble faith in the name of the shepherd heals all wounds—this message would be lost in spectacle, and his opponents would accuse him of self-aggrandizement. We have here a clear case of Jesus witnessing to the fact that he is the fulfillment of the Law by pointing up the need for basic humility when dealing with God in the Law. Many will say, “Lord, Lord, we followed the Law,” and he will say, “I never knew you.”

Christ’s teaching for us is simple: if we do not possess a humble spirit, that is, a relationship with God deeply planted in our full understanding of how absolutely dependent we are on His mercy, we cannot be healed. The leper does not demand healing as his right. He says, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” That naked faith and his plea for mercy buys the leper his health. To our humility and faith Jesus says to us even now, “Be made clean.” And we are.

24 June 2008

Jesus needs a PR man?

Nativity of John the Baptist: Isa 49.1-6; Acts 13.22-26; Luke 1.57-66, 80
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Zechariah’s tongue is freed to speak. Once he has agreed to name his son “John,” which means “God shows Himself to be gracious,” his tongue is unstuck, and he no longer needs a wax tablet to communicate. Having been punished with silence for failing to believe that God could give him and his wife, Elizabeth, a son so late in his life, Zechariah sees his son for the miracle that he is and blesses God with his first words! But how quickly his words of blessing become words of worry among the people of Judea when it becomes clear that this son is no ordinary child. Luke reports, “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” What will the child be? Who did he become? John the Baptist is the desert raging for our repentance before the coming of the Lord!

Most of us would think it a matter of common sense to say that we receive information about the world based on our natural abilities to receive physical sensations; that is, we see, hear, feel, taste, smell because we have eyes, ears, skin, tongues, and noses. Our first contact with creation is sensual; we are made in a way that makes it possible for us to live and thrive, in a manner that prepares us for living day to day in a world of things and processes. But are we naturally prepared to received the Word Made Flesh? Are we made to see and hear and taste the arrival of the Messiah? Of course, this isn’t a question about our physical readiness to greet the Lord but one about our capacity to think and feel and live with the reality of his coming in the flesh and his staying among us in the Spirit. Here’s the question I’m getting at: why does the Messiah need a herald?

The coming of the Messiah is hardly a secret. The prophets of the Old Covenant have made his coming abundantly evident. God Himself promised that a virgin would conceive and bear a child named “Emmanuel,” “God-is-with-us.” This is not occult science but prophetic art, a clarion call to point the way to the eventual presence of God Himself among His people. So, why do we have John the Herald coming before the Messiah? At the very least, John’s conception, birth, life, and public ministry are all meant to prepare us to receive Christ as the gift he is meant to be. It is one thing for the Father to hand us Son to us; it is quite another for us to receive His Son as a gift. Clearly, John’s arrival means that we were not ready to say Yes to God’s gift of salvation through His Son. Luke reports in Acts, “John heralded [Jesus’] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel…” To be ready, we must turn around and face God head on.

John came out of the desert to preach his gospel of repentance. Out of a barren waste, the dry and weary land of sand and heat, John brings the cool cleansing waters of baptism, the fresh promise of renewal that—once taken in faith—prepares the eyes and ears to see and hear the good news that arrives with the birth of his cousin, Jesus the Christ. With John, our Father shows Himself to be gracious by preparing us for His coming among us; that is, John, God’s sign of grace, precedes God’s act of final mercy, Jesus; and He is with us. That we are to turn around and face this revelation of His gift is perfectly sensible. How, otherwise, would we come to know and love He Who dies for us? How would we reach out and receive what God desires to give us as gift if we were not facing Him, hands out, pristine and thankful?

The people of Judea worried, “What, then, will this child be?” John answers, “What do you suppose that I am? I am not [the Christ]…” No, he isn’t. Instead, he comes out of the desert to prepare us to accept—through our repentance of sin—the gift of God among us, our lasting cure, our final healing, the one who comes after him to die so that we might have eternal life.

22 June 2008

McCrory/Parker Wedding

Sacrament of Holy Matrimony: McCrory/Parker
Jer 31.31-34; Rev 19.1, 5-9; and John 15.9-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, Shreveport, LA

You are blind if you see no beauty here this morning! Open your eyes and see. You are deaf if you hear no truth here this morning! Open your ears and listen. See God’s beauty, hear God’s Word and wait for the Goodness that comes for the patient heart and mind, the heart and mind that waits on the advent of the Lord. I wonder what you will see and hear. Many of you will leave here believing that you have been to a wedding. Many others of you will leave believing that this man and woman have publicly expressed their love for one another and are now bound together until death. And there are probably some few of you here who will leave believing that we have celebrated a great moment in the lives of this couple, a moment that sets them on a holy path for life. These are all true. But how many of you will leave knowing that what we have actually done here is to help Sean and Anne become sacramental signs of Christ’s love for his Church? That’s right. Ultimately, finally, this day is about Christ and his Church. Of course! We will toast Sean and Ann, shower them with gifts, smother them with congratulations and perhaps whisper a suggestion or two for the honeymoon, but Sean and Ann know that the sacrament they celebrate today is finally about Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. They will walk out those doors and show the rest of us how much the Church is loved by her Lord. Our job—all of you and me—is to say “Amen” and mean it.

Jesus says to the disciples: “As the Father loves me, so I love you. Remain in my love.” Just as God the Father loves His only Son, so that only Son loves his Church…and what must the Church do: remain steadfast in the Love that loves us first and last. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love…” And his first commandment to us is “Love God.” Everything makes sense! God is love, so He loves by nature. Christ is God, so he too loves by nature. We are the creatures of Love Himself so we too love in the love that created us. So that song is right, “All you need is love!”

But then there’s that other song, “If wishes were horses, we’d all ride for free.” It should not surprise us that Jesus must command us to love one another. And even under direct orders from God Himself to love one another, we manage to wiggle and squirm enough to split the atoms of his intent and figure out ways to avoid the whole messy business of loving others, enemies, self and go on living a more practical and efficient life. All you need is love! Come on, who wrote that fortune cookie?

If love alone solved our problems then we would all get married around age seven. There would be no divorce. No separation. Priests would never have to see couples for marriage counseling. Teenagers would be obedient. And there would be war no more. Look. Let’s get real for a minute. Love starts this business on the right track and stands there open like a limitless trunk of treasure for anyone who would come along and snatch up a handful of mercy, a pocketful of compassion. But that treasure-trove of loving is the first thing forgotten when the VISA bill comes in and Ann has spent $3, 987.13 on shoes. Or Sean has to borrow money from the Library of Congress to pay his Amazon.com book bill. Or when Ann lets a small hurt grow into an open wound, or when Sean refuses to admit ALL of his mistakes, or worse yet, when Ann frowns upon Sean’s cigar-smoking buddies. What’s the first thing to suffer when those bratty kids don’t make the grade in English and history? What’s the last thing called up to assuage a guilty conscience or an angry word? Love. Love is easily forgotten because love sits quietly at the root of a marriage, silently drawing its strength from God and if God is forgotten, well…there is no joy. There can be no joy.

Jesus had to order us to love one another b/c as God he knows the final benefit of doing so, but as a Man he knows all the temptations against love. He knows all about possessiveness, jealousy, selfishness, a lusting eye, gluttony for attention, the sometimes ruinous draw of friends and family, greed for money, the traps at work, and on and on. He knows the dangers of loneliness, despairing for companionship, the craziness of isolation, and all those demons that tear at our holiness when we choose to withdraw from his Father’s other children. He knows that we must love b/c anything less is less than he died to accomplish. And he knows how and how often we fail to do the very thing we were created to do: to love Him above all else. This is why I say we are not here this morning to attend a wedding. We are here to witness Sean and Ann make themselves into sacramental signs of Christ’s love for His Church—a love that cannot die b/c God Himself is Life eternal.

If you thinking right now: geez, better them than me! Think again. I’m only going to warn you once. You will say “Amen” this morning. Several times, you will say “amen.” Say it loud if you mean it, otherwise: just be quiet. “Amen” is not a prayer made lightly. Saying “amen” means that you are committed to that which you have said “amen” to. In other words, “amen” means both “yes, it is” and “yes, I will.” If it is and you will, then, in the presence of God and this man and woman, say so. Amen. If it isn’t and you won’t: be quiet. You will be called upon to make good your promise. Do not make it lightly.

Sean and Ann, the prophet Jeremiah tells the people of Israel that the Lord will make a new covenant with his nation. This won’t be a covenant of animal sacrifice but rather a covenant where He will place His law within us, and write it upon our hearts; He will be our God, and we will be His people. He accomplished this on the Cross and by emptying the Tomb. Today you will stand before His people and bind yourselves together as a outward sign of His love for us. We will look to you to show us how and how much He loves us. This means that when envy tempts, jealousy rises, lust interferes, wrath hungers, you will look first to His love. You will look to one another and see what you promised here: to be his prophets of mercy, his priests of compassion—for each other and for us. There is nothing more essential than this: love one another. Money, sex, kids, in-laws, friends, school, work—all of these will find a place in your life together. But first you must love. So, keep his commandment to you, to all of us: remain in His love and let His joy in you be complete.

Let God be the Boss...

12th Sunday (OT): Jer 20.10-13; Rom 5.12-15; Matthew 10.26-33
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
’s Hospital, Dallas, TX

Fear protects us. Fear makes us sensible animals when we are in danger. Our bodies are threatened by injury, disease, and death with every breath we breathe, with every step we take. Being afraid—being cautious, careful—is one way given to us by God in His creation to defend ourselves against recklessness, attack, disease, and accident. When faced with the probability of bodily harm, we run or we fight. Either way, the hoped for result is survival. And if we survive, we count ourselves as sufficiently adapted to our environment, or extraordinarily skilled, or maybe just plain lucky. Regardless, we’re alive to confront the next possibility of injury or death. Fear protects us. Fear makes us sensible animals. But we’re not here to be sensible animals. At least, we’re not here only to be sensible animals. We have to consider as well that gift from God which makes us most like Him: our being as it was created and is recreated in His likeness and image. Given the divine end programmed into us at our creation, we are much, much more than sacks of flesh and blood and bone. We are enfleshed souls with a purpose, rational animals with a single goal. Fear blocks our best efforts at achieving that goal. Fear makes us weak in light of our mission. Ultimately, fear is spiritual death. It kills our best chance—our only chance!—of coming to God. Therefore, Jesus says to the Twelve: “Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known…Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.” He adds rather ominously: “…whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” Fear tempts us to deny Christ; fear pushes us to reject God’s providence, His authority in our lives.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, preaches on the origins of death, arguing that sin and death entered into creation with the disobedience of our first father and mother, Adam and Eve. Believing that they could achieve heaven on their own, our first parents took on an awareness of good and evil that our heavenly Father wished to deny them. In other words, by disobeying God they chose death as their immediate goal, throwing away the original justice they enjoyed from God in Eden. Paul writes, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men…death reigned from Adam to Moses…after the pattern of the trespass of Adam.”

What is this pattern of trespass? Patterns repeat. Like houses built from the same blueprint, our trespasses against God look the same. Over and over—like our first father—we run after that which we think, we feel is best for us. And over and over again—like all of our ancestors in faith—we fall on our faces, suffering the consequences and wondering what went wrong. Most of the time, we act because we fear inaction; we makes decisions because we fear indecision. In deciding and acting outside the will of the Father for us, we deny His rule and both the natural and supernatural results are always disastrous. This is why Jesus tells the Twelve: “…do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Because we are loved by Love Himself, we have been given a gift to use against death. Adam lost our original justice in disobedience, but our Father has restored that justice in Christ. Paul writes: “For if by the transgression of [Adam] the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” Knowing this truth and his mission to save us from sin and death, Jesus says, “Fear no one.” What is there to fear? In every instance that we might find ourselves confronted by injury, disease, or death, God is with us; His Christ reigns. Jesus, using an absurd example, teaches the Twelve: “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without our Father’s knowledge…So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” And yet, we fear. We worry. We wring our hands and nurse our ulcers with dread. For the spiritual animal, fear is death.

But surely we must worry! We have responsibilities. We’ve made promises. Signed contracts. Sworn allegiances. Besides, the mid-west is flooded. Food prices are on the rise. Gas prices are heading to $5.00 a gallon. Marriage is under attack. Christians are being arrested from teaching the faith. Children are suing parents. Disease is rampant. Whole continents are starving. There are civil wars, invasions, terrorist attacks, the threat of biological warfare. All sorts of creatures—including humans—are being born deformed because of global environment pollution. We continue to believe that killing our children is the answer is overpopulation and the best way to remove inconvenient human obstacles to middle-class prosperity. We have to worry! We do? Really, we have to be worried? Has worry increased food production? Cleaned up our water supply? Stopped the killing of millions of babies? No. No amount of anxiety or fear will bring to light that which is concealed in darkness. We can wring our hands and cry until the End Times and nothing will change for the better. Does this sound defeatist? Quietist? Maybe. But that’s hardly the point.

Paul writes, “…the gift is not like the transgression,” meaning the gift of Christ’s life for our eternal salvation is not like the deadly transgression of Adam. Adam sinned and we all die. Christ died and we all live. Does this mean that we will be spared hunger, thirst, disease, war, natural disaster? No, it doesn’t. Does this mean that we can live comfortably in our gated communities out of harm’s reach, quietly consuming, blissfully ignorant? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that we are focused on a goal beyond the contingencies of this life, a goal that from the other end of history provides us with the meaning of our creation and charges us with acting boldly now to do what we can to right the wrongs of our sins. We will not end hunger. But we must feed the hungry. We will not end war. But we must make peace. We will not cure every disease. But we must care for those who suffer. Our job now is to face the tasks of righteous living without fear, to do everything we can in charity to speak the truth, shed His light, proclaim the healing Word, and to die knowing that we every word we have spoken, every decision we have made, everything we have done has been an acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord. Our gift to a tragically sinful world is Christ’s gift to his tragically sinful Church: words and deed that speak to the love of a Father well-beyond our worries and fear, the mercy of a God who will bring all things into His kingdom, and make right every wrong. So, do not be afraid, each one of us is worth more to our Father than the whole of creation itself.