08 September 2012

Stand Strong & Do Not Fear!

23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio File

Hear God's promise. If your heart is weary and your mind confused: Stand strong; do not be afraid! Here is your God! The Lord, He comes to our defense. With justice, with divine restitution, He comes to heal all our afflictions, rescue us from all our foes. Then, will the eyes of the blind see and the ears of the deaf hear. Then, will the beaten and bruised find shelter and the hungry recline to feast. Then, will the tongue of the mute sing and the innocent find protection. Rivers will freely flow in the wastelands, and springs will water the deserts. Thus says the Lord to His prophet, Isaiah. And thus, do we—the adopted children of God the Father; brothers and sisters in His Son; and heirs to the Kingdom through His Holy Spirit—lay claim to this promise and bear faithful witness: the Lord God fulfills His promises and has done so in Christ Jesus. Our ears are open and our tongues set free. We see clearly and speak the truth. Nothing and no one frightens us. As the one body of Christ—living in the world but not of it—we are servants of God and stewards of His mysteries. So, if your heart is weary and your mind confused: Stand strong and do not be afraid! 

We need to this reminder of God's promise of salvation b/c underneath Isaiah's prophesy of renewal is a potentially crippling reality: fear and confusion—if left to fester—will deafen us to the Lord's word and still our tongues in speaking His truth. That Isaiah is given this prophecy is evidence enough that God's people are edging toward spiritual deafness and silence. And it's fear that's pushing them. Amidst every human failure and flaw we can list—war, famine, poverty, political and religious oppression—right in the center of every disaster writhes the dark spirit of fear. Fear drains away hope and attacks faith; it lifts up disorder and discord as the exclusive and inevitable finish-line for being alive. What does the spirit of fear want us to believe about ourselves and our world? To thrive in the hearts and minds of God's creatures, fear must convince us that we are wholly subject to the random workings of a universe w/o purpose; that we are nothing more than the most highly evolved animals currently occupying a delicate fly-speck planet in a fly-speck galaxy; that even as we live and move among six billion other highly evolved animals, we are, in the end, completely alone. And more than all of these combined, fear must convince us that in our aloneness, we are nothing. 

We need Isaiah's reminder of God's promise of salvation b/c fear does its best work when we surrender to the lie that we are nothing. Our philosophers and theologians have given this lie a name, Nihilism. Nihil is the spirit of nothingness, a devil that can possess a single soul, a family, a nation; and it drives one and all to embrace existence w/o meaning or purpose. French novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus, asks the ultimate nihilist question, “Why not commit suicide?” If you are a random genetic accident, an animal who just happens to think, and your life is nothing more than pain and suffering, why not skip to the inevitable end and kill yourself? Nihil speaks the language of despair fluently and sometimes persuasively. In fact, if you close your ears to God's word and refuse to speak His truth, you begin the process of learning Nihil's preferred way of speaking, phrases like “product of conception,” “termination of pregnancy,” “painless expiration,” “acceptable collateral damage,” and “capital justice.”* When you become comfortable using Nihil's voice, you have been emptied of hope, and bereft of faith. Love—God's own life-giving presence in each of us and among us—is abandoned. And what do we get in exchange? Not hate. Not anger. We get Fear. 

He couldn't hear, couldn't speak. Jesus takes him away from the crowd and ministers to his closed ears and his locked up tongue. “Be opened!” And the man hears and speaks, and the crowd is exceedingly astonished. Jesus orders them to keep quiet about the miracle, but the more he insists on their silence, the more they witness to his power, “He has done all things well.” They could not be silent about this miracle of hope. They would not be silent about the awesome power of a loving God. Nor can we. Our silence now is a vanity, a luxury. We cannot afford to pretend that we do not hear God's promise to Isaiah, “Here is your God, He comes with vindication!” We cannot afford the social privileges and cultural power that our collective silence buys us. We cannot hide behind modesty, “tolerance,” or the dubious benefits of accommodation. Jesus frees the poor man's ears so that he might hear. And he frees his tongue so that he might speak. Whether or not he will listen and speak, whether or not he will put these gifts to work for the sake of Christ is his choice. Nihil is at work on him already, encouraging the man's disobedience and silence. And he is constantly at work on us as well. 

Thus, we hear Isaiah prophesy, “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” And we hear Jesus say to the man who cannot hear or speak, “Be opened!” And we hear the Psalmist sing, “Praise the Lord, my soul!/The God of Jacob keeps faith forever; He secures justice for the oppressed. . .” We heard and we hear. But do we listen, and do we speak? Through all the white noise and violence at us thrown by Nihil and his servant, Fear, do we listen and do we speak? If our hearts are frightened and our minds confused, then listening is not only difficult but probably impossible. If we do not listen to God's word, how can we speak His word? And if we are unwilling to speak, to give witness to His power in our own lives, how will anyone else hear Him speak? God says to us, “Be strong and do not fear!” It's not our own strength that we rely upon. It's not our own words that move hearts and minds toward Him. In that moment of crisis—physical or spiritual—that instant of emergency, it is the Holy Spirit who stands us up and gives us the words we need to speak. This is why there is nothing and no one for us to fear. 

So, how do we conquer fear and clear our minds? A good start to answering this question is to remember God's promise and keep our eyes squarely focused on where we are headed. Of course, we must pay attention to where we are at the moment, but everything we say and do in the moment is given its meaning, its purpose by our final destination. Nihil would have us believe that our end is nothingness. Fear pushes us to panic and passion. As the world around us swirls the bowl, we swirl along with it: we're in it but not of it. With our hearts and minds wholly owned and operated by the Holy Spirit, we believe—we know—that nothingness is not our end. Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in the coming of the Christ. And we are his brothers and sisters. Not random collections of thinking genetic material. Not cosmic accidents just eating and breathing 'til we drop dead. But children of a loving God who promises a restoration, a renewal in His mercy. That's the Good News that we must share and share often. Therefore, stand strong and do not be afraid!

* A very attentive parishioner brought to my attention that this sentence appears to draw a moral equivalence btw abortion and capital punishment.  I disagree.  The plain language of the sentence indicates that I am talking about how nihilism encourages us to use sterile, medical, or high-minded terms for what is basically killing.  There is no mention of the relative moral status of the related acts described.  My point is that nihilists' want us to use language that strips killing of all teleological sense.   Besides, there is no moral equivalence btw abortion and capital punishment.

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  1. The attentive parishioner perceived a connection because you used "capital justice," in the same sentence. You were speaking about nihilism and not the relative moral status of the terms.
    Anyway, now you know you have a good listener.

  2. Enjoyed reading and hearing - great message: applying the readings to today, and giving practical encouragement for how to live this today, now, in these current times. As Frank Herbert put it: "Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total annihilation."

    I have resembled/do resemble much in this homily -- and while I really appreciate it, it is not necessary to write these Just For Me! (even though I know I AM your favorite reader!!) ;-)


    1. Anonymous1:46 PM

      Congrats for succeeding in the car trip...!

    2. Thanks, Matheus! If you go to my blog you'll see some pictures I took of the pretty part of the trip. We live out on the "edge of nowhere", so the journey to the mainland is always an adventure (if you let it be!). Take care.