16 August 2014

There are no foreigners in the Church

NB. I'll be concelebrating the Mass for the opening of the new school year at Notre Dame Seminary tomorrow, so here's my first "Roman homily." Never been preached!

20th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, ROMA

Foreigners! Gentiles! Annoying, unclean women! Ah, I feel right at home [here in modern Rome]. Throw in busloads of Sweaty Tourists, gaggles of Midget Nuns, schools of Language School Students, and fleets of Highly-Primped Twenty-something Chauffeurs, and you would have much more than the foreign yet fertile fields of St. Paul’s evangelizing —you would have Rome in August! Rome in August always means unbearable heat, odd odors on the streets and alleys, lots of bared skin, and the shouted music of broken Italian spoken with Babel’s accents. Rome in August (perhaps more than any other month) also means beggars. Hundreds of beggars. Everywhere. With bambini and without. Dangerously bent grandmothers. Sweet, newly-minted mothers. Men who would have made John the Baptist look tidy and clean. Beggars everywhere. And why not? I mean, why should souvenir hawkers, gelato scoopers, and tour guides get all the euros available in God’s Town? These beggars—the legit and not-so-legit—raise a question for me that the Canaanite woman in Matthew raises for Jesus. Paul raises the same question by speaking the Word to the Gentiles in Romans. However, it is Isaiah who begins this line of questioning for us with a simple declaration: “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD…all who keep the Sabbath from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain.” Our Lord’s Word this morning brings us to contemplate access, admission: who gets to hear and see and touch the Lord? Who gets to eat and drink at the Lord’s table? As preachers of His Word, to whom do we preach most readily? And most tellingly, to whom do we refuse to preach?

Jesus goes into Tyre and Sidon for a little rest and like an American tourist snapping pics of the Trevi Fountain, he is hounded by a woman screeching at him, “Have pity on me…have pity on me…” Rather than listing off all the ailments and physical afflictions of her many, many bambini, this woman yells at Jesus, “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” And like most of the American tourists visiting the Trevi, Jesus ignores the woman; “[he] does not say a word in answer to her.” No doubt Jesus too has discovered that if you speak to the beggars they will follow you, demanding a bounty for your daring. The disciples, sick of this demanding woman, her screeching and carrying on about demons, go to Jesus frustrated and say to him, “Send her away…”

Now, this is the moment in the story where the question of access/admission is carefully balanced. Jesus says to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Imagine Jesus carefully watching to make sure his students are listening. The woman comes forward and pays Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus, still watching his less-than-generous disciples, repeats for the woman what he had said to the disciples, only this time he uses much harsher language: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” If the disciples were scandalized by this, Matthew doesn’t note it. But we should note: the house of Israel is composed of the children of God, the Jews; everyone else, especially Canaanite women, are dogs. Beloved children have access to the Lord’s table, unclean dogs do not.

Let’s dispense immediately with the ridiculous claim that this story is about a “marginalized woman of color teaching Jesus a lesson about radical inclusively.” Creatures teach the Creator nothing. Jesus and the woman, however, do manage to teach the disciples that access to the Lord’s table is about trusting in the Living Word and not about one’s lineage, nationality, or relative status according to the Law. The Canaanite woman is made a child of God by her faith! In her humility, she asks for help and then testifies that any help she receives will be a gift and not an entitlement. Jesus rewards her faith by giving her her greatest desire: “…the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

Let’s admit up front that more often than not we are the disciples in this story. We’re the ones wanting to protect Jesus from harm, to prevent others from defiling him or abusing his name. We will set ourselves outside the tent as guards against the unworthy, as gatekeepers against the annoying and the merely curious. With stout arms crossed across our proud chests we are vigilant against the unclean dogs sniffing around for hand-outs; those who have not earned an audience by showing loyalty; those who would waste the Lord’s time with trivialities; obviously, as his only loyal disciples, we are best selected as his secretaries, his guards, his watchers. Occasionally, we may even have to protect him from himself. Imagine if he wanted to do something stupid like sacrifice his life in order to save everyone! Everyone! Not just the deserving, the observant, the righteous, and the clean, but just anyone who might accept his invitation to join his eternal table. Oy! What a mess. Sometimes we might have to protect Jesus from Jesus. Sad but true.

And other times we might have to protect friends and family from the truth of the Word. Of course, what we are really protecting is our comfortable relationships, our prized friendships. Just as we sometimes do not preach the whole gospel of Christ’s saving grace in order to protect Jesus from Jesus, so sometimes we skip over the hard parts of the gospel because they tell us what we do not want to hear, demand from us what we do not want to give. Maybe we fail to preach the whole Word because those to whom we are preaching share with us an ideological agenda that we know is nothing like what the Lord has spoken to His prophets or to His Church. Our timidity in the face of possible aggressive opposition in effect denies access to those who need to hear the Word preached in its entirety. Or perhaps we leave out what we know our audience does not want to hear so that the applause at the end will be louder, longer, and more appreciative of our talents. Regardless, we might as well tell the Canaanite woman, “Yea, dogs do get scraps from the table but dogs also get kicked out the back door! Now get outta here!”

Normally, we ask questions about access/admission to resources in terms of who has the resources and who doesn’t; who distributes and who receives; and who gets what and why. Our questions this morning—to whom do we preach and to whom do we refuse to preach?—can be understood in these terms as well. But let’s frame these questions in terms of our commission from the Lord, vowed to in our own baptisms, to preach his Word to all nations, teaching everything that he taught, and baptizing all the willing in his name. As baptized Christians and preachers of the Word, we are not little McJesus franchises marketing and selling McGrace and McSalvation. We are not Christ-Marts or Jesus.com’s or Messiah, Inc. We do not own God’s grace. We do not market God’s grace. We do not buy or sell God’s grace on the NASDAQ or the NYSE. In no shape, no form, no fashion, have we ever, do we ever, or will we ever control the distribution of God’s grace to His people. Our vowed task is much more difficult: by our daily obedience to the Word and our faith in God manifested in the world, to all who will see and hear we are to bear witness to the abiding effects of God’s grace in our lives, living lives of deep charity, quick mercy, and enduring hope. Whoever sees your faithful witness, hears your faithful witness will have access to the Lord’s Word precisely because as you witness—as you bear out testimony—you manifest the Spirit of the Lord. He is there. Right there. With you. Shining out and drawing in any who will see, any who will hear.

Isaiah reports that the Lord said to him for us to hear: “Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice about to be revealed.” As you walk out of your house each morning, ask yourself: today, who will see and hear the Lord’s salvation because of my witness? To whom will I reveal the Lord’s justice?

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15 August 2014

From "Whatever" to "Yes!"

Assumption of the BVM
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

“I don’t know” and “I promise” are the two most oft-repeated sentences in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road.* A man and his ten-year old son travel a road in a post-apocalyptic world. Everything is burnt to ash and poisoned. Remaining are Good Guys and Bad Guys. Bad Guys hunt other humans for food. And the Good Guys run. And occasionally roast over an open fire. All through the novel, as the man and his son travel along the road, the son questions his father about the the right and wrong of surviving. More often than not the father, in the post-trauma of witnessing his entire world destroyed, simply says, “I don’t know.” Since the father no longer knows what is true, good, or beautiful, he begins to build a two man civilization on the power of another sentence, “I promise.” And the son, hearing this tiny silver of hope over and over again, responds each time with the universal fiat of a near exhausted faith: “OK.”

In a novel or movie or dream, there might be a world where Divine Love does not animate all life; does not lift up and bring forward His children; does not create and re-create in His image and likeness. A world not haunted by the spirit of holiness would be that sort of world where ignorance of living beyond life and death would be fundamental and the only way up and forward would be the promise of other creatures. That is dismal. And no way to live. But how precarious is it for us to live on promise in this real world of ours? Haven’t we all here surrendered our lives—body and soul—to what we hope is a Divine Lover? Haven’t we all here submitted ourselves to His obedience and service after just a promise? Yes, we have. And no, we haven’t. Yes, there is the promise but there is more than a promise. We have been shown the promise in action—twice.

This feast today is a feast of promise, sure; but it is also a feast of transfiguring revelation, of God’s promise to us shown to us in the raising of Mary to heaven, her resurrection to His promise of glory fulfilled. Paul says that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Christ is the first of those raised. Mary is the second. And the Church will be the third. Follow here: Christ, Mary, the Church. Christ is the Son of the Father. Mary is the mother of the Son. The Church is the body of Christ, his brothers and sister in faith. Therefore, Mary is the Mother of the Church, the body of Christ, and we are children of the Father. We inherited the Father’s promise of resurrection in Christ through Mary. And her assumption into heaven, her resurrection, is our sign of God’s promise done. Like her Son who was transfigured on Mt Tabor, our Blessed Mother’s assumption is a transfiguring revelation, that sort of unveiling of truth that both educates and changes, informs and transforms. We do not celebrate a pious legend today but a divine promise shown to us to have been fulfilled. This is the end of us all!
In her fiat to the archangel’s announcement of her pregnancy, Mary sings out her people’s salvation history, the theodicies of God’s love for us, His interventions and interruptions in our time and place. He shows us His love. And reminds us of His promise of mercy, the promise He made to Abraham and his children forever. Mary is answering with more than a hesitant “OK” or a bored, whispered “whatever.” She is saying yes to it all—everything of the Father’s plan for her, for us. She knows. She knows. And she says yes. So then, how precarious is it for us to live on a promise in this world of ours? Here’s how: if you aren’t living on the promise of the Father, then you are living in the ignorance of the Enemy, traveling a burnt and poisoned road, just waiting for the Bad Guys to hunt you down and spit you like a pig.

* My second year pre-theologians will be reading this novel. I can't recommend it highly enough. Beautiful, haunting, grim, and hopeful. . .or is it?

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12 August 2014

What do you want/need to hear in a homily?

Classes at Notre Dame Seminary start back up on Aug 25th.

I'm teaching three courses by myself and one team taught course with Dr. David Liberto ("Preaching the Dogmatic Feasts").

I need some guidance from HancAquam readers. . .

As a faithful Mass-goer:

-- what do you WANT to hear in a homily?

-- what do you NEED to hear in a homily?

-- what do you GROAN at when you hear it?

These are questions about content not performance. 

So, "speak up," "enunciate," "slow down," "put some energy into it," etc. are not the answers I'm looking for right now.

If I get a good response to these questions, I'll share them with my seminarians in Homiletics Practicum II.


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Was Peter an idiot? (guest homily)

A homily for the 19th Sunday OT from Fr. Thomas Schaefgen, OP.

He's the chaplain at the Tulane Catholic Center here in NOLA.

I gave this homily a B+.  :-)

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10 August 2014

Doubting Peter's doubt

19th Sunday OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

Audio File

Peter is having a hard week. Our Lord has called him “Satan” and described him as an obstacle. Then there's the whole failed exorcism episode where the disciples' faith is too weak to drive out a demon. Today, Peter nearly falls into the sea b/c his faith is too small. Pulling him back from the drink, Jesus asks Peter, “Why did you doubt?” Peter doesn't answer, so we're left with the accusing question. Is this fair to Peter? Is it fair to accuse him of being a doubter? Keep in mind: it's Peter who, seeing Jesus walking on the sea, yells out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Yes, there's some doubt in there – “if it is you” – but it still takes some pretty solid faith and courage to test Jesus' power with one's own life. Peter had no way of knowing whether or not the “ghost” he was seeing was really the Lord. Of course, the accusation of doubt against Peter comes only after he's on the water and the sea becomes rough. Fearing for his life, Peter yells out, “Lord, save me!” Where's the doubt? Even knowing that he is looking at the Lord, Peter thinks that he has to ask Jesus to save him. As if Jesus had not already done so. 

Let's dig a bit deeper into Peter's doubt and ask the unasked question: what is Peter doubting? If we take doubt to mean something like “a failure to trust” or “a hesitancy to believe,” then there has to be someone we are failing to trust, or something we are hesitating to believe. Our gospel scene strongly suggests that Peter's near demise in the rough sea is caused by his lack of trust in Jesus; he hesitates for just a second to believe in Jesus' love for him. Is this the failure that nearly kills him? If so, then why does he immediately cry out, “Lord, save me!” Why cry out for help to the very person whose power you are doubting? In other words, if Peter is doubting Jesus, why turn to him for rescue? Yelling out for Christ's help when in peril seems to be an exemplary expression of faith in Christ. So, again, who is Peter doubting? Consider this: Jesus has called Peter “Satan;” described him as an obstacle; and rebuked him for his small faith. Despite all of these indications that the Lord is somehow displeased with Peter, Jesus establishes his Church on Peter and gives him the keys to the kingdom. Is it possible that Peter is experiencing just a little confusion about who he is? Maybe Peter – in a moment of panic – fails to trust in the faith he has been given. Peter doubts his own strength in Christ. 

Think about your own relationship with God. There have been times when you doubted. Doubt creeps in a like a noxious bayou fog no matter how tight we think we are with God. Think about that doubt and ask: was I really doubting God's love for me? I mean, did I really think that Love Himself stopped loving me personally? Or was I really worried about the strength of my own love for Him? See, God is Love, so His love for us is a universal given. He loves us b/c Love is Who He is. And though we are made to love Him, we are also made with a built-in free will that is subject to sin. When doubt wiggles its way into our relationship with God, more often than not – if we're honest and thorough – we can trace that doubt back to a lack of confidence in our own “small faith,” back to our own anxiety about whether or not we are truly in love with God. When the sea gets rough and Peter panics, he does what any one of us here tonight would do: he calls on Jesus for help! That call, that cry for rescue isn't a sign that Peter doubts Christ's power to rescue him; it's a sign that he needs a stronger sense of himself as a man already rescued. How strong is your sense of yourself as a man or woman already rescued by the power of Christ? 

God knows we are limited creatures. Prone to making mistakes and even intentionally doing evil things. Part of being limited is needing to be reminded over and over again that we are loved by Love Himself. We forget that w/o His love we do not exist. Literally, God's love is what hold us in being. At those moments when we forget that His love holds us in being, we also tend to forget that we experience His love for us as caring attention. The $15 theological term is divine providence – God provides; He makes provision for us. He supplies all that we need. That we think we need all sort of things that we don't really need and never receive is not His problem. Strip away greedy wanting and lusting longing and all need is exactly what God provides – His love. So, when we forget that He loves us, when we forget – even for a split second – that we live, move, and have our being in His love, our confidence fails and doubt runs wild and free on the playground of our souls. Left unchecked, doubt will play and play and play until a moment's lapse in faith becomes a lifetime of anxiety and despair. What doubts needs to flourish is a soul that forgets that it is loved, rescued, and freed from sin and death. 

When the disciples first see the ghostly figure walking toward them on the water, “they were terrified. . .and they cried out in fear.” Why are they afraid? They are the hand-picked students of the Messiah. They are the foundation stones of the apostolic faith. Of all living souls at the time, these men should have been the strongest in faith, the least likely to flinch at the unknown. But upon seeing something they do not understand, they squeal and tremble. Jesus has to yell out to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The disciples' reaction on the sea could be seen as an embarrassing admission that they are cowards at heart. But like man, woman, or child who draws a breath, they are limited creatures, prone to forgetting who they are in Christ. So, Christ reminds them they are his: “Strengthen your heart, it is I; do not fear.” When a weakened heart is strengthened, the whole body is strengthened. When a weakened faith is renewed, the whole person is renewed. The disciples' fear, their small confidence in who they are as men of Christ sent them spiraling into doubt. It's almost as if they didn't know that they had already been rescued from the storm of sin and death. 

How about you: do you know that you have already been rescued from the storm of sin and death? Do you know that whatever disaster strikes, whatever fear grips you in a moment, that God loves you and will provide for you? He might not provide what you think you need or want, but He will provide all that you need to return His love. If your confidence fails – even for a split second – do what Peter did and cry out: “Lord, save me!” That's enough to remind you that you are already saved in Christ. It's just enough to strengthen your heart, to slay the doubt, and return you to knowing again the love that God always gives. Remember what Elijah discovers about the Lord – He's not in the tornado, the earthquake, or the fire. He's in the small, still voice, a voice that forever whispers, “Take courage, it is I; I am with you always.” 
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Acrylic Procrastination

I am the Platonic Form of Procrastination from which all lesser forms of procrastination emanate.

Having written three pages of today's homily, I decided to reward myself by watching one of my favorite artists on Youtube, Gerda Lipski.

I invite you to receive my Procrastination Emanation by clicking on this link.

Yes, she's German. No, I don't understand a word she's saying.

However, she does some amazing things with acrylic paint.

For example, I've watched this vid three or four times. Amazing.

Oh, I learned today that Haushaltsspiritus is German for rubbing alcohol.

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Am I being harassed, or am I just crazy?

Sitting here contemplating today's Mass readings and wondering if I will ever come up with an opening sentence for the homily, I am plagued by a mosquito or a no-see-um. 

It lands on my leg, buzzes around just out of sight, or flashes across my computer screen.

As I vainly search for the little bugger, a scene from The Simpson's pops into my head. . .


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