06 July 2012

You're a sinner? Welcome to the Church!

13th Week OT (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

I trace the call to priesthood back to 1981 during a high school trip to Mexico. The road I took to the Dominicans and ordination was long, pot-holed, twisted, and plagued by dangerous temptations and even more dangerous choices. Allowing the romance and idealism of youth to overwhelm good sense, I ran that road with my eyes closed and my mouth open. Though never doubting my vocation, I often and intensely resisted God's not-so-gentle prodding toward priesthood. Among the reasons for delaying the decision for 17 years was my obvious unworthiness for the office. There's no need for details, but let's just say that my life before the Dominicans would have made the young Augustine blush and the soldier Ignatius flinch. Very little about who I was back then indicated that God could use me to serve His people as a Dominican friar and priest. I imagine that the tax-collector, Matthew feels much the same way when Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me.” And I imagine that most of you jump a little when Jesus says, “Hey you, sinner! Come on, we've got work to do!” You want to resist. Rattle off your sins. Tell him how unworthy you are. How dumb or inarticulate or shy you are. He knows all that already. My advice: just go. He's not going to stop calling just b/c you won't answer. 

One way of looking at the Church is to see her as a collection of those who are called to serve in spite of their obvious unworthiness. The Church is a hospital for the sick not a spa for the healthy. In fact, we're Christians because we're also sinners. Coming to Mass is hardly scandalous behavior even though all you people are sinners! Jesus himself socializes with sinners and gets called out for doing so. What's the big deal? Sick people need healing, so Jesus is going where he's needed. But when Jesus eats with prostitutes and tax-collectors, he's doing more than just scandalizing the self-righteous scribes; he's making himself—a rabbi—ritually unclean. More to the point, Jesus is sacrificing his standing as a ritually clean teacher of the Law so that he might reach those who most need to hear word of his Father's mercy. When the scribes object to his ministry in the messy lives of these sinners, Jesus says, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What God wants from us is for us to give His mercy the use of our bodies here on earth. Our words, deeds, thoughts—all from each of us. And that's our sacrifice: to set aside our doubts and worries about being worthy of Christ and just follow Christ! 

But, Father, I'm not very smart. I'm not in a state of grace. I'm not good with words. People don't like me. I'm too shy. And Jesus answers, using the favorite word of my teenage nieces, “Whatever.” OK. So, you're a dumb, shy, inarticulate and unlikeable sinner. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Matthew was a traitor to his people by collecting taxes for the Romans. Paul killed Christians as heretics. Judas sold Christ to his enemies. And the whole lot of disciples ran like rabbits and hid when their beloved teacher was executed. So, whatever, dumb, shy, inarticulate, and unlikeable sinner. Welcome to the Church. Now, get to work! That's our sacrifice: give up sinning AND give up using our sins as an excuse not to do what we have been called to do. Jesus was willing to sacrifice his religious standing as a rabbi in order to bring God's word of mercy to the dredges of Judea. Can we find the courage to sacrifice our excuses for not being bodies for God's mercy? Forgiven sinners should be the first to shout to the rafters: we're forgiven, all of us are forgiven! 

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  1. Father - I'm still smiling after reading this, smiling through tears. Good thing you finally answered "yes" when you did: at the 20 year mark God is not so subtle to some of us and brings out the holy 2 X 4! Yes, it leaves a mark.

    My own reflection on these readings brought out "My words are too soft, my example too quiet. I am invisible, and those who do see me are blind to You." And ending with "...for I feel the battle looming." So your homily is, for me, another reminder to just do what God has asked me to do. Stop with the excuses and just do it.

    Jesus is usually the one gently asking - God, not so much. But I guess it is my fault, really, for I was the one who asked of Him: "What do you want me to do?"

    Nicely done. Thank you!

    1. Smiling?! Well, that's an unexpected reaction. But a welcomed one.

      Excuses are easy; witness is hard. He never promised us a rose garden, right?

    2. But in a way He did, didn't He? Roses require dealing with thorns - you can learn to be very careful, cautious, avoiding scratches, and never get to that most beautiful flower; you can be heedless of the thorns and risk damaging that which you are seeking; or you can reach for that perfect blossom, with confidence and assertiveness, knowing there may be thorns, but willing to risk a little pain (or maybe a lot) in order to find that which you are seeking.

      And sometimes, even in the most ill-kempt garden, a most beautiful flower will bloom. Amidst the tangles, and thorns, and weeds is a thing of incredible beauty.

  2. Thank you, Father - I came to the Lord the tough way. Like Shelly, hit by a holy 2 by 4 actually. Still, better that than losing my soul! Gave me a fondness for those "wicked saints"...lol.

    1. Add me to the 2X4 Brigade. Almost died from a staph infection before I got the message: you are not the center of MY universe, buddy.

    2. Excuse me, but now this "non-native English speaker" gotta ask what the heck is this 2x4 thing...(and I did look it up on Wiktionary...)

    3. :-) Matheus, a "2x4" (read: "two by four") is a piece of wood two inches thick and four inches wide. In varying lengths, it is used to frame the inside of houses.

      Americans in the south will say things like, "God had to hit me in the head with a 2x4 to get me to stop drinking!"

    4. Very kind of you, Fr...I've been wandering through the Catholic blogosphere for 8 years or so and have never seen that expression before...well, very providential that I learned it this week, when it seems I got a "2x4" of my own... :)

      Keep up the good work...(and I'm curious about the OP Master visit).

    5. Fr. Bruno is a very patient, contemplative soft-spoken man. He listens well and asks good questions. He is encouraging us all to participate in the Holy Father's program of evangelization. It boggles my mind that the poor man has to visit all 6,000 friars twice in two years!