27 February 2011

Expelling the smaller gods of worry

OK. . .this homily was a BIG flop.  Don't know why.  It just was.

8th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

I was sitting on the floor, wedged into a corner with about fifteen of my friends and colleagues leaning in over me. The cards were laid out in the traditional pattern at my feet. I didn't know the question, but I knew the cards and the cards told me that the middle-aged woman sitting cross-legged in front me was considering marriage. Not so unusual until you consider that she was already married. As I always did, I interpreted the cards as they lay—without prejudice or favor—playing the role of fortune-teller as best I could. When I announced the verdict of the cards—death and marriage in her future—, the woman whose future I had just exposed got angry and told me to shut up. She stormed off, throwing a few select curses behind her. Before her spot on the floor got cold, another friend took her place, and I repeated the process. For a couple of months in grad school back in the 90's, I was the departmental Tarot Card reader. My job was to connect these otherwise well-educated people to their murky futures. They were never happy with what I saw and reported; basically, they never happy. Knowing what was coming did little to ease their anxiety, did nothing, really, to help them worry less or succeed more. After a while I stopped bringing my cards to parties. What did Jesus say about a prophet in his own country? Oh yea, he will likely get executed. Knowing your future might help you plan for the inevitable material difficulties that will come your way, but no amount of planning for these difficulties will help you grow closer to God.

What will help you grow closer to God? Jesus says to his disciples, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need [food, clothing, shelter]. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” Seek first the kingdom of God. Seek first His righteous. And then you will be provided with what you need. Not what you want. What you need. But why should be seek God first? Wouldn't it make more sense to get what we need and then we would have the time and leisure to seek after God? It would be much more practical to get settled into a job, a house, a family and then go out looking for the peace that only God can provide. This approach makes perfect sense if we served Mammon rather than God. If security and comfort are our goals, then by all means, let's get secure, let's get comfortable, and then see if there are any holes left to fill in our lives, any tiny, cramped, God-shaped holes that need filling. Of course, what we need more than food, clothing, shelter, and a new car is God. He is our fundamental need, our most basic necessity, the staple without which nothing else really matters. So, if we seek Him first, invite Him into our lives, and listen to all that He has to teach us, then everything else that might come along is a luxury. We serve God, or we serve Mammon. “No one can serve two masters.”

If I were to ask you to stand up and shout out your most difficult spiritual struggle, what do you think we'd hear? Pride. Lack of charity. Sexual temptation. Gossip. Envy. Hatred and anger. Do you think anyone would shout out, “Anxiety! Worry!” Would anyone confess to serving Worry as a god? Would anyone admit to sacrificing their lives on the altar of Anxiety? It could happen. But whether we confess it or not, worry and anxiety are likely among the smaller gods we worship in secret. Do you burn away a day like incense worrying about money? Do you regularly pray the Litany of Anxiety, wishing you had a better job, or that your kids will stay healthy? Maybe you or a loved one is already sick, so you sacrifice a large portion of each day allowing all the possible bad outcomes to roll around in your head? Has it ever occurred to you that worrying about a future you cannot control is a form of worship, a kind of prayer? It is; it's a form of idolatry. Think about this way: your heart, the center of your life, is a tabernacle. Who lives there? Your heart, the center of your being, is a throne. Who sits on that throne? In all likelihood, if you are like most of us, Christ resides in that tabernacle and sits on that throne. . .at least one day a week. The other six days rotate among other, smaller gods: revenge, disordered love, greed, jealousy, maybe joylessness. Since we become what we worship, before long, we are transformed into these sins, wholly given over to them. Then, it takes a massive amount of strength and determination to dislodge these usurpers, a great deal of patience and peace to kick them out of the tabernacle and off the throne. Seek God and His righteousness first and His Spirit will give you all the help you will ever need. 

Jesus says to the disciples, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap. . .yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” The answer is no, we can't. But we might want to ask Jesus if he means that he should lay back and let God do for us all that we could do for ourselves. Tell us, Lord, are you commanding us to kick back and wait for our Father to pour goodies into our laps? Obviously not. Remember: Jesus chose working men to serve as his disciples. And the women who followed Jesus were hard-working housewives and mothers. All perfectly ordinary folks with ordinary lives. Even if Jesus had told them that God would magically conjure food, clothing, and shelter, they would have kept on working as they always had. Jesus' point here is not “Stop providing for yourselves b/c God will give you a handout.” His point is that worrying corrupts our relationship with God; anxiety corrodes our trust in the promises that the Father has made over and over again to care for us. God's people complain that He has forgotten them. The Lord replies through Isiah, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” Nor will He abandon us. And we cannot abandon Him for the smaller gods of anxiety and worry. When we serve God, truly put ourselves in His service for His greater glory, and we make His righteousness the only well from which we draw our faith, then not only will He provide for our needs, but He will transform us as well. What we “need” changes. How we experience the world changes. Who we are as His children changes. . .it all changes. 

Seek God and His righteousness first. What comes second, third, fourth, etc. follow from this first quest. Knowing your future might help you plan for the inevitable material difficulties that will come your way, but no amount of planning for these difficulties will help you grow closer to God. Whether you seek to know the future in Tarot cards, or Ouija boards, or stock market reports, or strategic growth forecasts, all your plans—if they become your gods—will inevitably drive Christ from his tabernacle and throne and leave you more anxious than ever. When these smaller gods start to harass you for attention and sacrifice, remember the psalmist singing, “Only in God is my soul at rest. . . Only He is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold. . .Be at rest only in God, my soul, for from him comes my hope. . .Trust in him at all times, O my people! Pour out your hearts before him!”

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  1. Anonymous2:41 PM

    Father, there is A LOT to worry about in American society today. America has become a society hostile to Catholic faith and morality. Catholics who stick to the principles of their faith and courageously live them can expect to be shunned by friends and coworkers, fired from their jobs, estranged from family members. If the Middle East erupts in mass Islamic revolution, if China asserts its dominance, if America collapses economically under the weight of government debt, it's going to be very difficult for people of ordinary means to get by in this country, nevermind difficult for Catholics. Facing such uncertainties, I think it is prudent to plan for a future of economic depression and persecution of Catholics. Adhering to Jesus' words stringently, it would seem that people shouldn't plan for their retirements; they should trust God to provide. But if you do not or cannot take care of yourself, you become a burden to others. Look around at all the grey hair at Mass in many parishes in this country: in fifteen years, who's going to be filling the pews and paying the bills? I am worried about America and I'm worried about the Church in America, and I'm worried about my future as a Catholic in America. I don't think it goes well for Catholics in this country over the next several decades. Of course we have to keep our eyes on eternal life, realizing that this world is passing away, but in the meantime we have to live here and the future doesn't seem to be one in which Catholics are going to have a comfortable or easy time, and it will be difficult to be joyful in the midst of suffering.

  2. Sharon4:47 AM

    What makes you think that the homily was a flop?

  3. Sharon, it got no reaction from the congregation. . .not even the usual, "Good homily, Father."

  4. You never payoff the set-up of you reading Tarot cards that you begin with.

    If your parishoners don't know about your dalliance with the occult prior to discerning your vocation, they may draw one of several erroneous conclusions. That would leave them hesitant to offer even token congratualtions.

    After the first paragraph, I had to focus to read it. It feels meandering and unfocused -- like you're trying to say too many things all at once.

    The transition out of that intro paragraph is very rough -- you may have lost your audience by that point even if you didn't scandalize them with the unqualified bit of personal history.

    From this distance, and having read it four times, I can see how it pulls together. But hearing it once while hot, possibly bored, dealing with squirming children, etc., it's a tough homily to follow fruitfully.

    Also, don't underestimate what a shift in perspective you are thrusting upon them: the idea of things like gossip or envy or anxiety or a thousand myriad quotidian activities as "little gods" who really do get the first fruits of our worship rightly due the Almighty alone is HUGE.

    Speaking only for myself, that revelation took me about three years with the help of a good spiritual director to sort through.

    In the EF yesterday, we heard the Parable of the Sower. Remember that your homilies are as seeds and your preaching is the sowing for even in this you are an alter Christus. Some will fall on hard ground, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some little on fertile ground from which it yielded a bountiful harvest. But in all cases, the seed sown required time.

  5. Peggy4:55 PM

    Father Philip, Your Sunday homily was definitely not a "Big Flop". This happens to be my favorite Bible reading. In my life I continually go back to it. Time and again when troubles come, I find great comfort in knowing that if we just place everything into the hands of God, He will take them from us and bring us peace with His Will not ours. We all need reminding of how many idols our world offers us nowadays. We would do well to "Let go and let God" more often. P.S.-- It's good for us to see how human our priests are from time to time, so don't worry about the page mix up.

  6. This is also *my* favorite reading in the Bible and I'm bookmarking the homily, i.e. it was a 'keeper' for me.

  7. Just what I needed to hear! Not a flop -- a message that's not easy to hear because it requires such a tectonic shift in the way many of us order our lives. I think the notion that if we work hard enough we can take care of everything is prevalent in our culture because of the idea of the American self-made man achieving the American dream, along with the notion that "God helps those who help themselves." I think it was Ignatius of Loyola who said "Work as if everything depends on you -- pray as if everything depends on God." I think we often forget the second half of that, and if we do pray it's more often a list of requests than glorifying in the love and goodness of Our Father.

    I certainly tend to take pride in my ability to plan and set up the future so everything will run smoothly and be under control. Not being able to figure everything out causes me lots of anxiety and joylessness. I need to hear this homily every day! I will re-read it!