22 August 2010

Among the freaks and lunatics (need feedback!)

HELP!  Immediate feedback needed on this one.  Does it make sense?  Where does it go wrong?   

UPDATE:  Just goes to show ya. . .not only do I not like this homily, I think it is incoherent. Despite my dislike, I couldn't revise it, couldn't think of anything else to say.  Nothing.  After Mass tonight, a young couple approached me and told me that they were returning to the Church after years of being away.  They said that they had heard that the preaching at Blackfriars was intelligent and worth a listen.   They said that the homily had touched them right where they needed it and that they were deeply appreciative.  Go figure.  One day I'll learn. . .maybe.

21st Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of Notre Dame/Blackfriars, Oxford

Some see it as a door. Others see it as a path. Jesus says it's a gate, a narrow gate.  Flannery O'Connor's creation, that paragon of 1950's white rural middle-class Protestant respectability, Mrs. Turpin, saw it as a bridge. She stands at the fence of her hog pen, the pigs have gathered themselves around an old sow: “A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.” She watches them 'til sunset, “her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.” Finally, ready for the revelation, Mrs. Turpin raises her hands and “a visionary light settles in her eyes.” A purple-crimson dusk streaks the sky, connecting the fields with the highway: “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” Mrs. Turpin is surprised to see not only poor white trash on that bridge but black folks too. And among the “battalions of freaks and lunatics,” she sees her own tribe of scrubbed-clean, property-owning, church-going people—singing on key, orderly marching, being responsible as they always have been. We might imagine that it was a distant relative of Mrs Turpin who asked Jesus that day, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” 

Some say it is a door or a path. Some think of it as a key or a tabernacle. Jesus says that it is a Narrow Gate, a gate so narrow that most won't have the strength to push themselves through. There will be some on this side of the gate and some on the other side. Most of us imagine that we will be on the right side of the gate when the master of the house comes to lock the door. We will be on the inside listening to those on the outside plea for mercy, shout out their faithfulness, and cry for just one more chance. We will be on the inside when the master shouts at those on the outside, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” When we hear this brutal rebuke, do we flinch? Do we beg mercy for those left outside? Do we try to rejoin them in a show of solidarity? 

These questions matter only if we have gathered the strength necessary to squeeze ourselves through the gate. If we are weak, exhausted, apathetic, or if we really are evildoers, then staying on this side of the gate, away from the table of the kingdom, probably seems more attractive, easier to accomplish, not so much sweat and tears. Do we really want to be part of a banquet that excludes so many? Do we want to lend our support to a homeowner who crafts a narrow gate for his front door, knowing that most will not be able to enter? We may be lazy or stupid or just plain evil, but we would rather suffer righteously with sinners than party self-righteously with the saints! 

Mrs. Turpin's distant cousin is insistent, however: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus never answers the question. Rather than giving a straightforward yes, no, or about one-third, he moves the question away from the number of those to be saved toward the method by which they will be saved. Those who are saved are saved b/c they have used their strength to push through the Narrow Gate just before the Master locks the door. How many are saved? Don't know. Who are these people? Don't know that either. What happens to those who didn't make it through? Wailing, grinding teeth, and being cast out. Despite all their pleas, they are cast out. 

Is there anything for us to do now in order to build up our strength for that final push through the Narrow Gate? Anything for us to do to fortify ourselves for that last surge, that last run at the battlement's gate? We read in the letter to the Hebrews: “. . .strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.” This is a call to righteousness, not just the sort of uprightness that comes from following the rules, but the righteousness that comes from calling on God to correct our infirmities—our drooping hands and weak knees—so that what is lame is healed and not made worse by time and trial, not left to become disjointed. Our rush through the Narrow Gate is not a test of physical strength, nor is it a marathon of virtue. The narrowness of the gate is a test of our determination, a trial against a tepid heart and irresolute mind. The narrowness of the gate challenges the sharpness of our focus on being among the blessed who will be called upon to sacrifice everything for Christ's sake, everything for the love of just one friend. It is not enough that we have been to dinner with the Lord; that we have shouted his name from a crowd; that we have witnessed his miracles, praised his preaching, memorized his teaching, or invited ourselves to recline at his table. It is not enough that we are respectable, well-educated, middle-class, religious, worthy citizens of a civilized nation. We might manage to squeeze our respectability, our diplomas, our tax forms and churches and passports through that Narrow Gate, but none of these will assist in the squeezing. Yes, we will likely end up on Mrs Turpin's bridge, heading into the clouds with all the other freaks and lunatics, but we will end up there b/c we have placed ourselves at the mercy of God to forgive us the sins that impede us, that slow us down, and all but guarantee that we do not make the gate in time. 

Mrs Turpin sees her own people on that bridge. Somewhat bewildered by the strange company of white trash and black folks, her tribe of middle-class church-goers nonetheless sing on key: “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” Perhaps what will get us through that Narrow Gate is the willingness to have everything that seems so vital, so necessary, so absolutely true. . .to have all of it burned away.

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  1. There's a lot going on here, and it definitely is not one of your stronger sermons. I see the pointa that you're working on, but the execution did not work this time. The biggest problems that I have are the following:

    1. I think you're going borderline Pelagian saying that we get through the gate on our own strength.

    2. I think you're making a false equivalence with the "lunatics and freaks" angle for the sake of being edgy, and it doesn't work. I don't want this to sound too harsh, but there is an almost arrogance and certain isolation that comes in when you are setting yourself as being "with" the lunatics and freaks but at the same time not quite one of them. I find it hard to mesh with being part of the body of Christ to be essentially alone with the lunatics and freaks.

    My guess is that you have a sermon to write about Mrs. Turpin, but that this isn't it. I think you should wait until the right words are there to express the insight that you havc, but this is labored when it should be free, and it just doesn't work for me.

  2. fragranceofgod11:33 AM

    I think I would have included the need to be in an intimate relationship with Jesus, to be able to stand before him in a relationship of love, with the attitude of total surrender to his will, before we can enter in at the strait gate. It isn't enough just to have heard some of his teaching, to be slightly acquainted with him. It is the journey to the gate that is agonising, having to strip ourselves of all pride, self-righteousness, materialism etc. We need to lose self. We need to start that journey sooner rather than later and we need to have faith before God.
    There are many with the outward signs of religion, who know doctrine, who go to church on sundays, but are "almost" Christians who are still travelling with the multitude along the broad path to destruction. We should grab hold of Jesus Christ today. And we should live a life appropriate to that every day, no use making a final charge for the gate before the door is locked. And at the end of the day, it is only by Grace that any of us will be saved, will sit at the banquet table in his presence.

  3. I think you should be more careful not to call "white trash" and "black folks" "freaks and lunatics". Flannery O'Connor might have gotten away with that but even to my non-PC ears that was the thing that stood out. I fear others will also focus on that and miss the message. Other than that the idea is clear.

  4. Great! IF you are speaking to an English literature class. Otherwise I don't think listeners will be able to follow.

  5. You definitely have a lot of business going on here.

    Perhaps shorten the reference to Ms. Turpin? Mention her and her vision, then move on to the 'narrow gate.'

    That 'Virtues being burned away' line is terrific, but I think it's related to "sell all you have and come, follow Me." ALL you have, then w/the grace of God, you can squinch through the gate.

  6. I wouldn't change a thing, Father. When you deliver it, I would repeat the last sentence twice. Once in your normal delivery; the second time as though your speaking to yourself and reflecting on the thought...

    it's to be savored.

  7. Well, I'll be the dissenter in this crowd.

    I thought it was one of your stronger efforts of late. It's definitely more in the vein of a meditation suitable to mystical theology than the well-crafted intellectual precision that tends to characterize Dominican homilies (yours included).

    But it gets out of the "comfort zone" of the intellect and into that visceral area that Christ's parables and the greatest homilies strike -- I find myself both afflicted and comforted by the same passages.

    It makes me aware of some of the faults I've come to ignore, while reminding me that some things that used to be significant impediments in the spiritual life have been worn away by the corrosive action of Grace.

    It's not self-consciously smug or clever. I think it works.

    Perhaps the reason that you couldn't "improve" it or make it what you wanted it to be is that it was a homily that others needed to hear, and you needed to give, but not the kind you can compose left to your own devices.

  8. Gregg the obscure10:39 AM

    I'm nearing envy that you can call this "incoherent". This has a high level of coherence compared to what I usually encounter in life.

    The one thing that strikes me as problematic is the parallelism between the first two paragraphs is at an awkward interval for use in speech. It works beautifully to the eye, but the parallels need to be closer to each other to be effective for most listeners.

  9. Thank you all for your feedback!

    The homily sounded much better than it read...I preached it to a group of sisters at an earlier Mass. It bombed. Despite knowing that it was a bomb, I couldn't get myself to revise it or to just trash it and start over. There are usually four or five homilies banging around in my head. . .but not this time. Apparently, this homily (despite all its flaws) was to be preached!

  10. Fr., I wish I could listen to this kind of "incoherent" homilies in the masses I attend...

    If I'm not too late for a feedback, I think that perhaps it takes too long for the doubtful human questions from the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs to be answered (wonderfully) in the middle of the 5th paragraph.

    Thanks for the great homily, and for asking too.