11 February 2012

The Way of Life, the Way of Death

NB.  I'm seriously considering revamping this homily.  It started in one place and ends in a completely different place.  It's almost three daily homilies just stuck together.  Feedback, please.

6th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

The Psalmist sings, “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation!” Turning to the Lord in times of trouble is an old, old tradition of the sinner. Lord, I made another dumb choice, so I'm turning to you! Lord, I didn't anticipate the consequences of my behavior, so I'm turning to you! Lord, I know we don't really talk all that often, but I'm in real trouble here, so I'm turning to you! We've all done it. When all else fails, turn to prayer; turn to the Lord. God as Last Resort is a constant in human history and it is far better that we see Him as the Last Resort than it is to see Him as No Resort At All. But the Psalmist isn't wagging a finger at us for our infidelity. Quite the opposite. What we hear reaffirmed in this verse is the constancy of God's help and protection, most especially in times of trouble, most especially when we are least able to help and protect ourselves. Of course, the Lord watches over us; of course, the Lord lends us the help we need. However, that help may not always come in the shape and substance we want. His protection may not always look and feel like the protection we ask for. Sometimes, more often than not, the help and protection He provides is the joy of salvation, the elation of knowing that whatever trouble plagues us now cannot follow us into a righteous life. Nothing can trouble a soul at peace with the Lord, a soul that walks the Way of Life.

The Psalmist sings, “Lord, I turn to you in time of trouble, and you fix everything to my liking!” That's not right. It's “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you rescue me from the bad consequences of all my dumb choices!” No, wait. That's not right either. That should be: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you remove my free will so that I won't make those dumb choices ever again!” No. The solution of our troubles is not a magical fix, or a divine rescue, or the extinction of free will. The Psalmist sings that the solution to our troubles is to be filled with the joy of salvation! To be delighted with the fact that we are children of a loving God. To take pleasure in the knowledge that while this world passes away, we remain constant in His mercy. God doesn't erase our troubles like some sort of heavenly Mr. Clean. What we are given in tumultuous times is the joy, the delight, the pleasure of knowing, feeling, living His divine love and knowing, feeling, living the absolute hard fact that there is nothing—no trouble, no disaster—greater than His love for us. God cannot love us more than He already does. He cannot be greater than Himself. But we can always be more than we are. And that is the purpose of His love for us. 

A man suffering from leprosy begs Jesus to make him clean. Jesus says to the man, “Be made clean.” And he is. Jesus tells the man to be quiet about his healing. Completely ignoring this order, the man runs around town shouting with joy, spreading the good news of his miraculous healing. Can we blame him? Leprosy is a rotting skin disease that can take years to kill. Not only is it a terminal illness, in those days, it turned the sufferer into a social pariah, someone to be exiled, avoided. Moses ordered that all lepers were to tear their garments, keep their heads bares, cover their mouths, and shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” everywhere they went. They were exiled to live outside the camp, outside the protection of the tribe. When Jesus heals the leper, he not only cures his disease, he lifts a social death sentence. No wonder the grateful man ignores Jesus' order to remain silent and runs the streets shouting the joy of his salvation. 

The purpose of God's love for us is to boot us into being better than we are. He will not overwhelm the freedom that He has given us nor will He punish us for making the wrong choices. We freely choose to love, to hate, to lie, to forgive, and then we live with the consequences of those choices—good or bad. God's love for us shows us the way to His peace, the way to His righteousness. We follow the Way, or we do not. Both those who follow and those who choose another way suffer disease and disaster. But those who follow the Way know the joy of salvation in their suffering, the delight of being wholly loved through their trials. We who follow the Way may experience a miraculous healing, a miraculous intervention that relieves our pain and distress, but all we are sure of is the company of a Father's love for His child. That surety alone brings us closer to being perfect as the Father is perfect. It brings us that much closer to the knowledge and peace that surpasses all understanding, that much closer to seeing our troubles as God Himself sees them: temporary, of a moment. He draws us into eternity, seduces us into living our lives as if we were already with Him face-to-face, doing nothing other than giving away everything we have always been given. To use a contemporary image: we are recycling machines for the love that gave us life. God's love goes in at our creation, and we live and grow by turning that love into righteous human thought, word, and deed. When we fail to function properly, when we turn divine love into spite, revenge, despair, selfishness, we turn to the Lord and He fills us again with the joy of salvation!

The Way that leads to a peaceful soul is always the way of life. In the first century, an unnamed Christian wrote a small book called The Didache. The first sentence of this book reads, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.” What is the Way of Life? He writes, “First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would not have done to you, do not do to another.” What is the Way of Death? He writes in part, “First of all it is evil and full of curse. . .hating truth, loving a lie. . .not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God. . .” The way to peace is the Way of Life—loving, forgiving, trusting in God. The way to trouble and trial is the Way of Death—destroying the handiwork of God. 

When we hate truth and love a lie, we walk the Way of Death and set up for ourselves an idol, an image to worship. What idol tempts us in 2012? The image of the human person as an animal w/o a soul, an animal that only needs to eat, drink, sleep, have sex, and get all that it can before it dies. When we reduce the human person to nothing more than an animal, we invite upon ourselves a darkness and despair that will not permit us to see or feel or think beyond our next meal, beyond our next bed partner. When we understand ourselves as nothing more than soulless animals, we begin to think that the destruction of God's handiwork—the destruction of our children—is a duty, a right, even a blessing. When we think of ourselves as nothing more than soulless animals, we begin to think of ourselves as gods, as masters of creation with the power to deal death at a whim. This is not who we were created to be. God loves us to make us better than we can be on our own. He gives us the joy of salvation in the time of trouble so that we might overcome death and despair. We turn to the Lord and His Way of Life. We turn away from the Way of Death and rejoice that we are healed!

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