06 October 2012

Divorce, remarriage, and the love of God

NB. I have a Dominican laity Serra Club retreat all day today. So, this homily is an edited repost from 2006. 

27th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio File

What does it mean to accept the Kingdom of God like a child? Jesus says quite plainly that we must come to accept his Father’s Kingdom like a child would, open our lives to His rule if we are to be a part of the glory that is to come. Living with God forever is not a reward for good behavior or right belief, it is the supernatural consequence of a life lived in right relationship, in righteousness, with He Who loved you into being, loved you into redemption, and loves you even now, drawing you to Him, seducing your heart, wooing your soul back to the source of all peace, of all happiness, pulling you back to Him. 

To accept the Kingdom of God like a child means first that you respond to our Father’s clarion call to come home to Him without argument, without pretense, without guile, without need for evidence or proof. You come home to rest because home is where you most belong. Because resting in God is the rest that comforts your nastiest hurts and eases your most tedious worries. You come home to rest in God because you know and accept—as any child would—that there is no argument for love, no pretense in belonging. The bond between you and God, between all of us and God was forged at the welding of creation, from the instantaneous explosion of Nothing into Everything, we are bound to Him, indelibly marked by His love precisely because He is Love and Love is Who He Is. To know as true and accept as real that you are brought out of nothingness, shaped body and soul by Love, held in being by Love, and seduced back to Love while you seek after holiness—to know these as true, to accept these as real—THIS is what it means to look up into the face of Jesus, to come to him, to be embraced and blessed by him as a child and to live with him forever. 

Forgive me, I’m going to become a professor for a second: Coming before everything we have freely chosen ourselves to be is the primal kinship between each of us and God. There is nothing about us more basic, more fundamental than the fact that we exist. We ARE. This fact means that we are loved. God is Love. And we continue to exist because He loves us. God made us in His image and likeness. He made us for no other reason than to live in perfect relationship with Him. It follows then that every relationship we can name, every connection we can point to, every single kinship we have is given to us by God and is a reflection of our most primitive relationship with Love, with God. We can have no relationship with each other or with anything in creation that is not first a relationship with God, first a kinship with Love Who made us. Now, I can say: the question the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce obscures the purpose of our creation, misses the point of our very existence; in fact, it betrays a deep misunderstanding of who we are made finally to be. 

You are probably saying, “Wow, Father, took you long enough to get to divorce!” It did. Here’s why: how easy for me to stand up here and teach what the Church teaches about marriage and divorce, pointing to all the relevant texts—all read this afternoon—and pointing to the CCC and telling you what you already know: marriage is permanent, therefore, divorce is impossible. But you might think that this is a social policy issue, or a cultural problem, or a private choice. You might think that the Church needs to loosen its teachings on marriage or ease its strict understanding of divorce. I spent so much time laying out our childlike relationship with God so that I can say this: divorce is impossible because it is impossible for us NOT to have a relationship with God—even if that relationship is broken and deeply impaired, it is still a relationship in love. What God has joined, no man must separate. 

OK. That sounds odd. Divorce/remarriage is impossible because it is impossible for us not to have a relationship with God. Think about it: God created Man, Adam and Eve. In the more detailed telling of the two Genesis stories of creation, God uses Adam’s rib to create Eve. God brings this newly created person to Adam for a name. He names her “woman.” The story continues with this explanation of marriage: this is why a man leaves his mom and dad and clings to his wife and the two become one flesh. Perhaps it should read, “and the two become one flesh again.” 

My point is simple: our most basic relationship is with God, the One in Whom we find our completion, our wholeness, and our end; marriage then embodies the search for and discovery of wholeness and the consummation of a single person’s separated existence into a completed existence. In other words, the sacrament of marriage signifies and makes present the joining of the creature with his or her Creator. Marriage is a sacrament of redemption. Divorce/remarriage is impossible because divorce/remarriage implies that marriage, a sacrament of our healing, can mean something else entirely. It cannot. It cannot mean anything other than the sacramental joining of one man and one woman into one flesh for the purpose of expressing Christ's love for his Church and the raising of a natural family. This definition of marriage was not born in hatred or bigotry. It simply expresses the stark truth of reality. 

All this is well and good. But what do we do with Catholics who have divorced and remarried? This will sound harsh. We do with divorced and remarried Catholics what we do with all those who disobey God, what we do with all those who manage to mess up their relationship with the One Who loves us completely. We do with divorced and remarried Catholics exactly what we do with fornicators, apostates, adulterers, abusive priests, irresponsible bishops, and heretics; we do what we do with you and with me when we sin—we stand here imperfect in the truth of the faith, clearly proclaiming the golden standard of holiness to which we are all called, readily naming our own sins, our own need for forgiveness, and we welcome them—all of them—back to a life of righteousness, always back to Love, always back to that which they and we resist in our most hateful moments of pride: Christ’s patient, loving embrace. There is no alternative here. No other way to go. Absolution of sin requires repentance. To freely receive God's freely given mercy, we must repent, turn away from sin. 

We cannot lie about divorce/remarriage or adultery or fornication, or any sin for that matter. Pretending that sin isn’t sin or renaming sin to hide its ugliness does nothing to the reality of a broken relationship. We might as well conclude that gravity is a hateful notion and decide to ignore it. Dropped dishes will still fall. Airplanes will still need speed and thrust to fly. And divorce/remarriage is impossible not because the Church says so, not even because Jesus say so, but because marriage is a living witness to the most basic hunger we have, the most basic satisfaction we can find: the love of God. Marriage cannot be what it is not. And neither can we. 

Know and accept, therefore, the embrace and blessing of Christ. If you are married, make that commitment shine like the sun for our good and yours. If you are divorced and remarried, come back; come back to us for your holiness and for ours. We need your matrimonial witness. We are one flesh, one Body in Christ. Pope Benedict writes in his letter, Deus caritas est, that when we embrace Christ and his blessing, “God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love.” There is no better measure of mercy and there is no better way home.

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P.C. ideology & the Republic

For readers who miss political commentary on HancAquam: I ran across this quote on Instapundit that sums up nicely my own views:

Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.   -- Robert A. Heinlein 

Heinlein's two categories of people implies a third, more dangerous category: those who want to control others using political means.  To my mind, there is a stark distinction to be made between using the law to establish civil boundaries for public behavior (boundaries that rule out direct harm to others) AND using the law to establish civil boundaries to shape attitudes and  convictions.

For example, the law can and should penalize murder.  However, it cannot and should not penalize the attitudes, convictions, emotions that lead to murder.  "Hate" simply cannot be made illegal.  To attempt to do so results in a transfer of political power from the individual to the State, a transfer that threatens a free conscience.

Political correctness is a subversive ideology that directly undermines critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas by ruling out huge swaths of civil discourse in the name of "protecting victims." It's the principal weapon that cultural Marxists use to gain power over their ideological enemies.
I would argue that PC ideology is the acid that's corroding our Republic.

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05 October 2012

Thanks and Prayers

Mille grazie. . .again. . .to a kind and generous and anonymous Book Benefactor!

Rec'd vol 5. of the Pelikan development of doctrine series and Dan Gioia's new book of poems, Pity the Beautiful.

Please continue praying for Fr. Christiaan Kappes.  He is still missing in Greece.

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Thanks & FYI

Yesterday, I rec'd vol 2. of Pelikan's A History of the Development of Doctrine from the Wish List.

There was no name on the shipping invoice. . .so, I will say Mille Grazie here.

FYI:  several weeks ago someone purchased The Gagging of God from the Wish List. 

It hasn't arrived yet.  Don't want you think I got it and haven't sent my thanks.

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I think I shall praise it!

26th Week OT (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Robert Hass opens his 1979 book of poetry, Praise, with an epigraph: “We asked the captain what course/of action he proposed to take toward/a beast so large, terrifying, and/unpredictable. He hesitated to/answer, and then said judiciously:/‘I think I shall praise it.’” The captain's awe-struck desire to praise so large a beast always brought to mind an image of Job standing before God in the whirlwind. Until this morning. Job questions God, presuming that his suffering entitles him to an explanation from the One who allowed it. Speaking Creator to creature, the Lord answers, “Tell me, if you know all: Which is the way to the dwelling place of light, and where is the abode of darkness, that you may take them to their boundaries. . .” I've always imagined that Job, like our awe-struck captain, would fall prostrate in praise. Instead, “Job answered the Lord and said: Behold, I am of little account; what can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth. Though I have spoken once, I will not do so again. . .” Rather than praise a beast so large and terrifying, Job judiciously covers his mouth and vows himself to silence. Before the mighty works of God, under His even mightier Word, silence is the richest praise His creatures can offer. 

Were you to suffer as Job has suffered and were you given the chance to demand a reason from God for your suffering, would you make such a demand; or would you remember Job's chastised pride and cover your mouth in awe? The idea of “suffering in silence” is not one we modern folks embrace with much enthusiasm. We are industrious complainers, founding whole factories to assemble our grievances against God, man, and country. It's repugnant to suggest that the best response to God's challenge—Who are you to question me?—is to cover our mouths and vow silence. It is even more repugnant to suggest that we praise God for allowing us to suffer. Praising a collaborator in our disaster and pain smells too much like submission, like a weak surrender. Aren't we more inclined to quote heaven's most beautiful angel, and defiantly answer, “I will not serve”? We are certainly free to shout a feeble non serviam at the whirlwind. We are also free to grant the beast of our suffering—so large, so terrifying and unpredictable—a word of praise. However, we are freest while suffering when we give God thanks for all His gifts, including the gift of suffering. 

Yes, that's right: suffering is a gift. If you understand suffering to be the experience of pain, then you might think I'm crazy. But suffering is not the experience of pain. To suffer pain is to allow it, to give it permission to be. Job does not suffer well. His legendary patience is no where in sight as one disaster after another crashes into him. He tries surrender; he tries philosophy. Though his patience is tried by his well-meaning friends, he endures their arguments in vain. When he seeks an answer from God, he's rebuffed with a reminder that he is dust and wind living in an unimaginably complex creation, and wholly incapable of grasping the smallest truths of its boundaries. Job does not suffer well until he learns that humble praise is best given in silence. This is not the answer he thought he wanted. Nor is it the answer we hoped to hear. But what would we do with a reasonable answer to suffering, a sensible explanation for why we must endure pain and disaster? Would we accept it? Challenge it? Greet it with pride and derision? When we give God thanks for giving us the gift of suffering—the gift of choosing how we will experience pain and disaster—we embrace our truest freedom: the freedom to give Him praise and know that we are loved by the One who set the boundaries on all that is. 

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04 October 2012

Only a new creation

St. Francis of Assisi
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Paul prays that he may never boast except to boast in the cross of Christ Jesus, the cross through which, he writes, “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” The zealous former persecutor of the Church is placing his pride, his worldly dignity squarely on the cross to die along with Christ, and by doing so, he is forever renouncing the temporary glories and passing rewards that this world offers. In context, Paul is comparing his apostolic preaching ministry to those false teachers among the Galatians who are insisting that circumcision is necessary for salvation. He writes, “. . .they only want you to be circumcised so that they may boast of your flesh.” These false teachers are using the scars of circumcision—both physical and spiritual—to brag about their privileged relationship with Christ and to draw in more followers. In rebuttal, Paul figuratively drops his tunic to show his own scars, a multitude of scars earned through years of suffering for the Gospel. What do these scars mean? Ultimately, nothing, w/o Christ and him crucified. “For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” And it is to the new creature that God reveals His wisdom. 

In another letter to a troubled church, Paul writes that he is “being poured out like a libation,” emptied of all that he is and all that is his. To the Galatians he writes that he has been crucified to the world and the world to him. All that he knew, desired, needed, and sought after died on the cross with Christ. And all the wisdom, knowledge, social standing, and privilege that the world laid at his feet also died on the cross with Christ. All he has left is the cross; Christ crucified; and his living body, the Church. And it is in the living body of Christ, the Church, that Paul finds peace and wisdom. Despite all of her scars, warts, abrasions, and disabilities, the Church is where Paul thrives in God's wisdom and peace as a creature newly made. If we will find this same wisdom and peace, we too must become child-like, newly made creatures. 

Jesus sets the wise and learned of the world against the child-like and anoints the child-like with the true wisdom found only in God. If you think of yourself as the culmination of experiences, all the time you've spent on this earth, all that you've done, said, thought, and you pile it all up, you have who you are—not all that you are—but a good start on seeing a biggest picture of yourself as you are. All the warts and scars are there. All the failures and triumphs. All the times you've been helped and the times that you were the one helping. It all backs up into this moment, right now, as you sit here, and it gives who you are definition. Think about Paul again and all that he was bringing with him to Damascus. Roman citizenship, classical education, Jewish religious training, privileged social standing as a Pharisee, years and years of accumulated wisdom. And he meets Christ on the way and it is all gone. All crucified with Christ on the cross and now he can boast of none of it b/c none of it matters to who is as a follower of Christ. On that road that day he is made new, child-like and now he enjoys the peace and wisdom of God. We cannot wait for a Damascus Road lightening bolt to set us right. We don't have to. With our baptism we are already made new. What we might need is crucifixion; that is, a loud surrender to Christ that renders us poor in spirit and dead to the world. God's wisdom and peace doesn't come with age; it comes when we pour out of our lives all that which makes us foolish and restless. It comes when we arrive newly made in Christ. 

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Prayers for Missing Priest

Please prayer for Father Christiaan Kappes.  He's missing in Greece after calling his family in distress. 

I took several classes with Fr. Kappes in the philosophy school at the Angelicum.

He's a kind, generous priest and absolutely brilliant.

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8 Misc Questions

1. Q:  Are you going to post a pic of your new rosary?

A:  Yes.  My camera is charged up.  Just waiting for inspiration. 

2. Q:  Are priests allowed to have hobbies that aren't religious?  Do you have any hobbies?

A:  I'm not sure what a "religious hobby" would be. . .but, yes, priests can have hobbies and most do.  I know priests who: paint icons; crochet blankets, caps, etc.; collect DVD's of old movies; and most of the priests I know are sports fans.  My hobby (such as it is) is somewhat unusual for a priest. . .wanna guess what it is?  (Hint:  it's not collecting books despite all evidence to the contrary)

3. Q:  Afraid to ask but must, how's the weight loss coming along?

A:  What is this "weight loss" of which you speak?  'Nuff said.

4. Q:   Father, any chance you'll be made a bishop one day?

A:  Not if God loves me.  Meetings, paperwork, bureaucracy, politics, budgets. . .shudder. Religious priests are much less likely to be appointed to the purple. . .though we do have several rather prominent bishops right now from Orders (Chaput, O'Malley, George).

5. Q:  You're not discussing politics, I know.  But did you watch the debate last night?

No.  I've never watched a debate.  Principally b/c they aren't debates.  They are just scripted joint press conferences with the candidates.  I've read the aftermath reports and must say that I feel for B.O.  Some of us just do better with texts!

6. Q:  How's Fr. Aaron doing? [NB. Fr. Aaron Arce, OP is battling bone cancer.]

He's moved into hospice in St Louis.  I'm going to call him this weekend.

7. Q:  I heard you say that you're giving a day retreat for the Dominican laity this weekend.  What's the topic?

I'm going to present a very truncated philosophical history of how the Church found herself under attack in a largely Christian country.  We will start with Aquinas and end with Lady Gaga.

8. Q:  Do you actually read all the books you get?

Yes.  I may not read every book cover to cover, but I only ask for books that I'm pretty sure I will read and use.  Even the "fun books." Quite often I will use them for homily prep or in class.  It's vitally important for Catholic preachers to stay on top of what's going in the culture at large and be able to address it from a Catholic perspective.  For example, this Sunday's reading are about marriage and divorce. Here at St Dominic we will open the archdiocese's Rosary Eucharist Congress, and I'm the first preacher.  So, I need to be up on same-sex "marriage," contraception, etc. in order to address immediate spiritual concerns.  The message never changes. But the package it comes in sometimes does.

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03 October 2012

When the law counts for nothing. . .

“The Roman Republic fell, not because of the ambition of Caesar or Augustus, but because it had already long ceased to be in any real sense a republic at all. When the sturdy Roman plebeian, who lived by his own labor, who voted without reward according to his own convictions, and who with his fellows formed in war the terrible Roman legion, had been changed into an idle creature who craved nothing in life save the gratification of a thirst for vapid excitement, who was fed by the state, and directly or indirectly sold his vote to the highest bidder, then the end of the republic was at hand, and nothing could save it. The laws were the same as they had been, but the people behind the laws had changed, and so the laws counted for nothing.”

- President Theodore Roosevelt

H/T:  The Anchoress

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Let the dead bury their dead

26th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

That settles it. Jesus is a hippie. We have biblical proof. It's all there: wandering band of misfits; goo-goo eyed groupies; Jesus being all hip with his “no where to lay my head” schtick; birds, trees, sky, butterflies. All he needs is a Jerry Garcia tee-shirt and a pair of tie-dyed knee britches. And if we stopped reading half way through verse 59, we'd be right to think that maybe our Lord is giving us a little taste of 1st century Haight-Ashbury. However, if we keep reading, the “Jesus as Hippie” idea becomes a whole lot less convincing. Jesus says to a man in the crowd, “Follow me.” Before joining up, he wants to go bury his father. Jesus gives him a very un-hippieish answer, “Let the dead bury their dead.” Another invited groupie asks leave to go say farewell to his family. Jesus gives another answer that belies any attempt to picture him as a hippie, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” The ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God is not a part-time job, a weekend adventure, a dilettante's hobby, or something to do when there's nothing better to do. The gospel must be preached first, always, now, and to the very end. 

We can probably sympathize with the disciple who says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Who here wouldn't jump at the chance to wander around with Jesus? We can certainly understand wanting to go bury a parent or to say farewell to our family. Jesus' response to these last two requests seems not only grouchy but downright cruel. What will it hurt to let these two go take care of some family business before getting started on God's business? Ah, my business before God's business. The question answers itself, right? When reading the gospel it is always necessary to keep firmly in mind that Jesus understands us better than we will ever understand ourselves. Had he allowed these two to skip off to take care of their own business before vowing themselves to proclaim the kingdom, a precedent would've been set in scripture: sometimes it's OK for the followers of Christ to set aside their baptismal vows to get other stuff done. Are we ever permitted to pause our witness to God's mercy and get other stuff done? No. That other stuff can get done as a witness to God's mercy but never instead of it. Let those who are already dead worry about burying the dead. We're alive still, so our business is living everyday as witnesses to the Gospel. 

Jesus reinforces this when he says to the first disciples, “. . .the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus isn't homeless b/c he's poor. He's homeless b/c he is sent to preach the Good News. He never rests in his divine mission to make sure that all receive the invitation to live with his Father eternally. He never stays put. Never lays down roots. Ours is a missionary faith by design—a way of living in right relationship with God through Christ that demands we go out there and show others what it's like to get, receive, and put into action God's mercy. Jesus insists that his disciples forgo performing two traditional religious obligations—burying the dead and saying farewell to family—b/c the proclaiming the Kingdom needs immediate attention and total commitment. Who will be lost while we attend to social customs, personal business? God's business comes first for those who follow Christ. That's the gold standard we have been baptized to follow. So long as you and I are alive, the standard we keep is clear: anyone who takes up his/her cross, follows Christ, and then stops to look back. . .well, Jesus says it himself, “is [not] fit for the Kingdom of God.” The gospel must be preached first, always, now, and to the very end. 

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02 October 2012

My political fast: a report

Q:  Father, please report on your fast from politics?  How's it all going?

A: HA! Never thought of it as a "political fast," but I suppose that's what it is.  To be more specific, I'm fasting from discussing politics, meaning I'm keeping up with what's going on but boycotting a scripted role in the faux drama.

Several noteworthy changes:

1). I feel much less aggravated, annoyed. . .much more at peace with the fact that God is in charge.

2). Boycotting the horse race elements of the campaign has freed me to pay more attention to substance.

3). The longer I'm in Script Detox, the sillier the whole political process appears.

4). Script Detox also makes the differences btw the candidates and parties seem easier to spot.

5). And at the same time, the embarrassing similarities are more obvious.

6).  None of my basic political views have changed, but my perspective on the process we use to select our leaders has become even more cynical.  Well, not the process itself but what we've allowed to happen to the process.

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01 October 2012

Suffer with a divine purpose

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Job is much admired for his wealth and his piety. Most rightly assume that his wealth is largely a product of his piety. The angel, Satan, certainly sees the connection. When God points to Job and describes him as “blameless, upright, and fearing God,” Satan responses by saying, “It's not for nothing that Job is God-fearing. You've surrounded him and his family and all that he has with your protection.” In other words, the only reason that Job is God-fearing is b/c God is blessing the daylights out of him! Remove the blessing and even the Upright Job would curse God. We know the rest of the story and how it ends. Job is stripped of God's blessing and Satan is allowed to play havoc with his life. Despite the best efforts of the Enemy and Job's gaggle of earnest but clueless friends, he endures right to the end. And only the end does he break and question God directly, demanding an explanation for his suffering. This evening, we join Job at the beginning of his suffering, and at this point his attitude is admirable, almost heroic, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” Job can bless the Lord b/c he knows that all he has comes from the Lord. Knowing that all we have comes from the Lord, could we bless Him as we lose it all? 

Here's what the Enemy knows about God's human creatures: as long as we have what we need and most of what we want, we are perfectly content to flow along, living day to day in oblivious ingratitude and expecting to receive not only the same blessings we received the day before but more and better blessings tomorrow. The Enemy knows that if this divine gravy train of blessings is derailed, we freak out and start whining and crying and pitching fits, demanding to know why we are being made to suffer so. And on whom do we lay the blame for our horrible deprivations and destitution? God. All too ready and willing to blame Him for our suffering, we are unprepared and often unwilling to give Him thanks for our blessings. And why is this? Two reasons: 1) we aren't fully convinced that His blessings are truly gifts; and 2) being grateful for a gift requires a measure of humility that bruises our pride. Why should I be grateful for blessings I've earned? I went to Mass yesterday instead of the Saints' game. I'm not saying thanks to God for giving me what I deserve! Here's where Satan smiles and sidles up next to God and says, “Of course he's righteous. You give that miserable ingrate everything he needs. Take it all away and see how long he lasts.” 

Now, whole libraries of books have been written on the meaning and purpose of suffering with the Book of Job in a starring role. So, you're not going to hear the definitive answer in a five-minute homily! But here's the nitty-gritty of it. When we experience pain, loss, disaster, we have a choice, a deliberate decision to make: acknowledging the emotional turmoil I'm feeling, how do I respond to this loss in the long-run? How I respond to loss is called “suffering.” If I respond to my loss with gratitude to God for His many gifts, then I suffer redemptively; that is, my choice to suffer in thanksgiving redeems—saves, restores—the loss by drawing me closer to God. If I respond with petulance, self-pity, spite, then I suffer pridefully right along with the Enemy who lives eternally with the consequences of disordered pride and envy. Job cries out the one sentiment that Pride will never allow an unrepentant sinner to say: “Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I go back again.” We go naked into loss and pain. But we do not have to remain naked in how we suffer. Clothe yourself in thanksgiving and suffer well, suffer with a divine purpose. 

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30 September 2012

Belonging to Christ first (Audio file link)

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio file

To whom or to what do you belong? Who or what has a claim on you? Keeps you as a possession? To put it another way: to whom or what do you owe fealty, allegiance? This question may strike most of you as a bit old-fashioned or even rude? We aren't serfs who swear fealty to a lord! We aren't owned like personal property! This is 21st century America. . .we're free men and women! All true. Regardless, we all belong to someone or something else; in fact, all of us belong to many someones and many somethings. We have broken free from the brutalities of serfdom, personal loyalty oaths, and chattel slavery and replaced them with kinder, gentler sorts of being owned: family, friends, athletic teams, political parties, financial obligations, religious vows—each one a kind of belonging, each one requiring a commitment to someone or something else. Even if you say, “I belong to no one and nothing but myself,” you still live with particular duties to yourself that must be honored. To whom or to what do you belong? Your answer accurately predicts your eternal destination. Jesus says to his jealous disciple, John, “. . .whoever is not against us is for us.” 

In the silly season of political campaigning the use of the prefixes “anti” and “pro” becomes truly absurd. All sides in the arena jostle to smear their opponents with insulting labels: “pro-death tax,” “anti-women,” “pro-big government,” “anti-American.” These labels are meant to summarize, demonize, and dismiss whole groups of people and ideas. If a demeaning label doesn't work, there's another tactic that surely will: guilt by association. Governor Jones dines with known socialists. Well, Senator Smith quotes a leading racist. Do you want a socialist in the governor's mansion? No? Then vote for the pro-capitalist! How about a racist in the Senate? No? Then vote for the anti-racist! Labeling and guilt by association are just two of the many ways that political campaigns distill and distort the fundamental human need to belong and thrive among one's own. In-groups and out-groups are the inevitable products of picking and choosing to whom and what we will belong. Christians are not immune to this disease. We never have been and never will be. Thus, both Moses and Jesus warn us of the spiritual dangers that will trap us if we indulge our instinct to selectively include some and recklessly exclude others. 

The spirit of the Lord appeared outside Moses' camp and came to rest on seventy elders who were gathered there. These men began to prophesy. Eldad and Medad were not among those gathered with Moses when the Lord rested his spirit on the seventy, yet they too prophesied. A young man hears them speaking in the spirit and reports this to Moses. Joshua hears the man's report and says, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” Despite the fact that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the spirit, the young man and Joshua want them excluded from those authorized to prophesy. What this man and Joshua didn't know is that both Eldad and Medad were on the list of those who were supposed to be gathered with Moses. In other words, their ignorance of the truth led them to indulge their instinct to protect their preferred in-group. Moses diagnoses the problem exactly when he asks, “Are you two jealous for my sake?” He goes on to give us a foretaste of the Church's fulfillment of the covenant, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” After the fiery arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there can be no jealousy among Christ's disciples. The name of every man, woman, and child, living and deceased, is on the list to be invited to receive the Spirit of the Lord. 

John reports to Jesus that there is a man who doesn't belong to him casting out demons in his name. Jesus probably smiles a little, remembering Moses and his lesson to Joshua, a lesson John has obviously forgotten. Jesus says, “Do not prevent him. . .For whoever is not against us is for us.” We have to be very, very careful here. We might conclude from this statement that Jesus himself is encouraging the kind of in-group/out-group instinct that Moses condemned. Though it is certainly true that there are those who are for us and are against us, in no way is Jesus lending his support to including anyone against their will, or excluding anyone who chooses to follow him. He tells John that anyone who gives him cup of water “because [he] belong[s] to Christ” is choosing to be included in the kingdom. Note well: Jesus doesn't say that just giving his disciple a cup of water indicates a choice to be included but a cup of water given because they belong to Christ. In other words, if anyone performs an act of charity for you because—for the reason that—you belong to Christ, then that person also belongs to Christ, “Amen, I say to you, [he] will surely not lose his reward.” 

Now, I hope you see the importance of the question we started with: to whom or to what do you belong? Your answer to this question accurately predicts your eternal destination. Does that sound like an ominous threat? It's not a threat at all. Simply a report of what it means to choose to belong to someone or something before you choose to belong to Christ. For the follower of Christ, Christ comes first, always and everywhere, first. You can follow Christ and be a Democrat, a Republican; a LSU or Ole Miss fan; a mom, dad, student, even a criminal; but in all cases and under all circumstances, if you will to inherit the kingdom and live eternally with Christ, you will belong to Christ first. You cannot allow any other someones and somethings that you choose to belong to to endanger your primary relationship with Christ. Jesus says more than once, “You cannot serve two masters.” If being a Saints fan takes priority over Christ, then you belong to the Saints and not to Christ. If being a Democrat or a Republican takes priority over belonging to Christ, then you belong to them and not to Christ. If being a Cowboys fan or a libertarian or a member of a religious order leads you away from Christ, then cut them off. It is far, far better to go into eternity without a team, a club, or a party than it is to arrive at Gehenna belonging to someone or something that could not rescue you from sin and death. 

When Moses corrects Joshua's error, he proclaims, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” This proclamation, this prayer is a foretaste of God's plan for His people at Pentecost. Because we belong to Christ through baptism, the spirit of the Lord has settled in us and among us to make each one of us His prophet, His preacher of the Good News. Whoever we choose to be right now—parent, partisan politico, sports fan, chess player, Dominican friar, whatever—we are first prophets of the Good News of Christ Jesus. Everything else we are, anyone else we may belong to by contract, covenant, or complicity is ordered to who we are first as the Lord's prophets. This must be so if we will to live in the hope of the resurrection and life eternal. As Christian prophets then, go out and welcome in everyone you meet. Jesus says, “. . .whoever is not against us is for us.” 

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