05 November 2013

Rejoice, endure, persevere

31st Week OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St Dominic Church, NOLA 

“One by one, they all began to excuse themselves.” That is the saddest sentence in scripture. Not the angriest, or the most eloquent. But the saddest. Instead of saying yes to dinner, these would-be guests simply turn away. Given the chance to attend a great feast given by a great host, they just walk away. And what are they walking away from? Good food, good wine, excellent conversation, an evening of entertainment and friendship. Think of the business deals they will miss out on. Not to mention the chance to make friends with a great man of their city. But sadly their excuses leave them outside the feast. The gracious host doesn't exclude them; they exclude themselves in exchange for. . .what? Some alone time? To tend some animals? To catch a Saints' game? Jesus tells this parable of the Ungrateful Guests when a fellow-guest at a party notes, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God.” Indeed, and better yet: bless is the one who wills to dine in the Kingdom of God. All are invited. You and I are invited. Will we say Yes, or will we send an excuse. . .and exclude ourselves? 

The target of Jesus' parable of the Ungrateful Guests is unmistakable: he's aiming it right at some of his fellow Jews, those among God's people who have heard his Father's invitation to the heavenly feast and yet consistently decline that invitation in order to soothe worldly worries, to run after temporary treasure. Just like the great man of the parable, our Father, upon hearing the wonderfully inventive and self-serving excuses for declining his invitation, our Father accepts the absence of His invited guests and opens His feasting hall to the least of His people—the blind, the lame, the sick. And when these prove too few to fill His hall, He sends His servants out to poke around in the bushes for more guests. They find the Gentiles. And the Gentiles join the feast. Blessed are they who will to dine in the Kingdom of God. For God says, “I tell you, none of those men who were invited [and excused themselves] will taste my dinner.” Indeed, and better yet: none of those men who were invited [and excused themselves] willed to taste my dinner. All are invited. You and I are invited. Will we say Yes, or will we send an excuse. . .and exclude ourselves? 

Do you will to taste the abundant graces our Father invites you to taste? If so, just remember: every feast, every party—in heaven and on earth—has its own rhythm, its own life. Parties in the school gym are not the same as parties in a frat house. A family dinner is very different from a dinner with the Pope. If you accept the Father's invitation to celebrate with Him in heaven, then know that while you live, you will be working your way toward His party through the revelry and mess of this world's celebration of excuses, through the Enemy's riot of pernicious temptation and outright debauchery. Paul knows this bit of truth all too well, so he urges us: “Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection. . .Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer.” We might call this advice, Paul's Party Etiquette on the Way to the Father's Big Party in Heaven! Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Rejoice, endure, persevere. Hang on to your invitation from God, and more importantly, hold tight to your Yes to Him. As Christ himself shows us, there is nothing the Enemy can offer us that does not already belong to God, nothing that our Father will not give us out of His love for us, including His only Son for our sins. 

Rejoice, endure, persevere. And do not wallow in ridiculous excuses! Those worries we love to rub? Those anxieties we love to feed? Excuses. Those flashes of anger at being hurt? Those moments we spend desiring vengeance for being hurt? Excuses. Love to point out the hypocrisy of others? Love to savor someone elses failure? Excuses. I don't need to be loved by God or anyone else. Excuse. I don't need to forgive or be forgiven. Excuse. I'm not broken, so I don't need to be healed. Excuse. My sins are not my fault; it's my family's, friends', society's fault. Excuse. Rejoice, endure, persevere. And do not wallow in ridiculous excuses! These excuses may dull some immediate pain or temporarily steer you away from taking responsibility, but ultimately, in the end, they will leave you outside the party—alone, despairing, and wondering what on earth could be more important spending eternity feasting at the table of the Lord? What on earth could be more important? Nothing on earth is more important. Say Yes to that invitation now, will to taste all the gifts that our Lord wants to give you. Then rejoice, endure, persevere. With all the gifts you receive from Him: rejoice, endure, persevere. 
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One of our Greats has died. . .

Fr. Joseph Konkel, OP, long-time pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Houston, TX. Fr. Joe was also pastor of St. Peter Church in Memphis, TN and the campus minister for the Newman Center at the University of Houston.

I lived with Fr. Joe and two of the world's greatest punsters, Fr. Albert and Fr. Boley during my deacon year in Houston. It was a treat watching Fr. Joe moan in pain at some of the puns those two invented!



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03 November 2013

Do you seek to know who Jesus is? (updated)

(An edited version of the 2007 homily I posted earlier. . .)

UPDATE: I ended up ditching this text and preaching off-the-cuff. Don't know why. It went over well. One older gentleman told me that in 60+ yrs of listening to homilies he'd never heard a preacher explain the significance of the sycamore tree! The Egyptians thought of sycamores as the Trees of Life and used the wood for coffins. 

31st Sunday OT(C) 
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Like Zecchaeus, do you seek to see (to know) who Jesus is? This could be a good definition of hope. When you hope, you seek to see (to know) who Jesus is. Living in us, redeemed creatures that we are, is a beastly longing for God, a need that roars out for our Lord, reaching for him, yearning for He Who made us and re-makes us. Knowing that He is there and knowing that He makes it possible for us to be with Him only sharpens the aggravated need, hones the fine steel of our wanting. That knowing, that knowledge of His presence and the keenness we feel in moving toward Him, that is what we call Hope. But for how many of us is hoping a kind of gamble? Think how you use the word “hope.” I hope my paycheck has arrived. I hope the children are OK. I hope the doctor’s report is good. Hopefully, the car is fixed. Is this really hope? Or, is it “crossed-fingers-wishing-on-a-star-where’s-my-lucky-charm-so-I-can-rub-it-and-increase-the-odds-in-my-favor” thinking? How often, when you hope, are you actually doing little more than wishing yourself good luck? Christian hope, that is, that sort of hope that Christians experience in Christ and that sort of hope that we live by is never a gamble, never a wish, never a spell for good luck. Hope is our gnawing hunger for God, a hunger we KNOW will be satisfied.

“Zacchaeus…was seeking to see who Jesus was;…so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus…” Christian hope—our longing for Christ—is what pushed Zacchaeus up the tree; hope is what pulled him up into the branches to see who he needed to see. And what’s important for us to remember about Zacchaeus is who he is; that is, not only his name, his short stature, and his need to see Jesus, but his place in the Jewish scheme of things as well. He is “a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man…” Zacchaeus is doubly damned as a sinner by his neighbors because he has betrayed them by working for the enemy, and because he has grown rich in his chosen, traitorous profession. Only lepers and pagan temple prostitutes were considered more sinful! And yet, he seeks to see who Jesus is. Do you seek to see (to know) who Jesus is? 

Who is he? The Book of Wisdom tells us that “before the Lord the whole universe is a grain from a balance…a drop of morning dew…” However, despite our smallness, in spite of our insignificance before Him, “[the Lord has] mercy on all, because [He] can do all things; and [He] overlooks people’s sins that they may repent.” If Zacchaeus knows this, if he knew his scripture, and if he knew and believed that Jesus is his Lord, then climbing that sycamore tree is sure sign of his hope. Zacchaeus knew, and we must learn, that “[The Lord] love[s] all things that are and loathe[s] nothing that [He] has made; for what [He] hate[s], [He] would not have fashioned.” 

Why must we learn this? Simple. If you believe that our Lord hates what He has fashioned, including you and me, then your hope will always be a gamble. Your spiritual life will be full of good luck rituals, charm bracelet prayers, and magical thinking. You will turn every corner tensed, expecting a nasty, divine surprise. You will go to bed every night believing that your hateful god will take the opportunity to punish your laziness, to strike your sinful heart dead. You will look at your family, your friends, your fellow Christians and see nothing but walking, talking occasions of sin, breathing temptations that plague your worried attempts at finding favor, finding love in God. And you live a life that daily, hourly makes a lie out of the truth of our Father’s self-revelation to us: “…you spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all thing!” All things! Including your family, your friends, your fellow Christians. 

Do you seek to see (to know) who Jesus is? 

Do you seek to see Jesus in your neighbors, your roommates, your parents? If not, why not? Is it that your neighbors, roommates, parents are all horribly wrong? Or, is it that they are pro-abortion, or homosexual, or divorced, or adulterers? Or, is it that they do not share your theology? Or pray as you do? Or share your devotional practices, your sense of social justice, your indignation with the anti-Christian Obama administration, or your disdain for the corporate Fat Cat Republicans? Or, is it because we so often fail to see the truth of our creation and our re-creation? Do we not see Christ in ourselves and others b/c we cannot see beyond our own sin? Why would we allow any of these to spoil our hope, to mess with our beautiful God-graced passion for the Lord? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever! 

If you are worried that this seeking Christ in self and others will lead to a license to sin, or will lead you to approve of sin, listen to the rest of Wisdom. Our Lord’s imperishable spirit is in all the things He created, “therefore, [He] rebukes offenders little by little, warns them and reminds them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in [Him]…!” Our Lord does not forget His creatures. He does not forget that we are His creatures and that we share His image and likeness. In fact, Paul tells the Thessalonians, that he, Paul, and his ministers will pray for them so “that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith…” Does this sound like a God ready, willing, and able to stomp on you at the first sign of disobedience? No! And not only NO! but God is ready to “make you worthy of his calling.” Isn’t it the case that our anxieties about sin, our worries about offending God are really just a disguise for a lack of hope? Aren’t we really worried about the sins of our neighbors, our children, our roommates b/c we are distrusting of our Father’s promise of mercy for ourselves? How ironic would it be if you put yourself in Hell because you spent your life worried about other peoples' sin and failed to hope in Christ!? 

Zacchaeus climbs that sycamore tree because he “was seeking to see who Jesus was.” And because he acts out of his longing for Christ, Jesus calls his name and says, “…come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus climbs down and “receives [Christ] with joy.” And what do the self-righteous do? What do those whose hope is a gamble, those whose hope is a lucky star, what do they do then? “When they all saw this, they began to grumble…” And rather than run away in shame or hide his face in disgrace, Zacchaeus, confident in his Lord’s word and his own repentance, gives half his wealth to the poor and makes restitution four times over for his extortion. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house…” 

Do you seek to see (to know) who Jesus is? Do you seek to see Jesus in your neighbors, your roommates, your parents, and friends? If so, then prepare to receive the Lord at your table; prepare to entertain him among those in most need of his mercy. Your hope is working for your perfection and Christ is coming to dinner! If your hope remains a wishing-star or lucky charm, then memorize this prayer from scripture: “Lord, you love all things that are and loathe nothing you have made; for what you hate, you would not have fashioned…But you spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!” 

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Where Catholic preaching needs to go. . .?

One of my holiday/summer projects is to reconfigure the homiletics program at NDS.

In my hubris, I've concluded that the problem with Catholic preaching is Catholic homiletics. Not the academic study of Catholic preaching as such, but the overall approach that most homiletics texts tend to favor: preaching is a personal performance rooted in the subjective experience of the preacher and relies almost entirely on an affective mood in tone and content. 

To counter this tendency, I want to introduce seminarians to a wider literary understanding of the imagination; that is, I want to give them some literary tools with which they can re-imagine the Gospel and present it to a contemporary Church. This entails reading novels, poetry, and creative non-fiction in a way that prompts the preacher to address real existential issues and questions through Gospel lenses.

Along with a number of other (better qualified and more experienced) preachers, I've also concluded that catechesis must take a backseat to evangelization in Catholic preaching. Preachers can teach all day long, but if their people haven't experienced Christ as a living presence in their lives, teaching is just mental work: memorization, recitation, etc. This doesn't mean that there is no place in Catholic preaching for teaching, it just means that the first focus of the homily needs to be on bringing our people to an encounter with Christ.

I have no idea where any of this will lead. . .St Dominic, pray for us!

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