18 September 2015

Does God's mercy scare you?

24th Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Simon the Pharisee gets it wrong. He can't help it. His heart and mind long-suffocated by the rigors of threading needles Mosaic Law, Simon cannot see or hear or feel the mercy radiating from Christ. When the sinful woman falls at Jesus' feet, the Pharisee's thoughts are squinted and mean, “If this guy were a prophet he would know that this woman is a sinner!” What Simon doesn't know is that Jesus knows perfectly well that this woman is a sinner. And that she has come to offer thanks and praise for her salvation. What prevents Simon from seeing and hearing what is so obvious to Jesus? Sure, he's blinded by religious ideology. He's deafened by ritual and power and status. He's anxious about his reputation, and worried that the woman's presence might render him impure under the Law. But what if Simon's ignorance is driven is fear? What if he's afraid of mercy, afraid of what God's mercy means for him personally and professionally? What if – he might be thinking – this Jesus guy is the Real Deal and my life, my faith, my entire reason for being is about to be hauled up and dumped into the Jordan? If God's freely offered mercy to sinners scares you, think hard and ask yourself: why?

With his attention focused on the sinner at his feet, Jesus whispers to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then, a little louder, over the heads in the audience, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Her faith has saved her? What faith? When does the woman profess the faith? When does she confess her sins and express contrition? She never speaks! All she does cry on Jesus' feet, wipe them off with her hair, and then rub some oil on them. Apparently, this is enough for Jesus to pronounce his forgiveness. Twice. BUT! This is exactly backwards. Note what Jesus says to Simon: “. . .her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” So, her sins are not forgiven b/c she has shown great love; rather, she shows great love b/c her sins are forgiven. It's her faith that saves her not her works. Her works express gratitude for her salvation and her great love for Christ. This scandalous public display of affection is best understood as testimony. The scandal of Jesus' ministry among the Jews is made manifest in the scandalous gratitude of the sinful woman. What is her witness? Faith forgives. Faith defies. Faith humbles and frees. So, while Simon waits for cleanliness to happen; Jesus does the cleaning. And great love flourishes.

But if great love so obviously flourishes, how does Simon misread a scene so carefully staged to teach him the rewards of faith? Fear competes with faith for control of his soul. Simon fails to understand b/c he has no faith, no faith in Christ. And having no faith in Christ, Simon cannot greatly love. The woman's many sins are forgiven b/c of her faith, therefore, she greatly loves. “But,” Jesus says to Simon, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Those deepest in debt rejoice loudest when their debts are canceled. And their gratitude is louder still. How much do you love? A little or a lot? If we are truly grateful to Christ for forgiving us our sins, then our love must always be great, always greater than any sin we might commit and greater still than any sin committed against us. Social conventions, religious ideologies, moral legalisms cannot be allowed to render us blind and deaf when it comes to seeing and hearing the abundant signs of God's forgiveness, nor leave us paralyzed when it's time to act in love. Your faith has saved you; therefore, live in the peace of God's mercy.

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16 September 2015

On not being a Devil's Fool

Cornelius and Cyprian
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

If wisdom is vindicated by her children, then what injustice has wisdom suffered that needs to be avenged? Jesus accuses his generation of being fickle, attention-deficient children who can't figure out who they want him or John the Baptist to be. John comes out of the desert neither eating nor drinking, and they call him demon possessed. Jesus comes out of Nazareth both eating and drinking, and they call him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend to tax collectors and sinners! God's wisdom, which John preaches, is avenged by the miracles Jesus performs. And both John and Jesus – and all who follow him – will be vindicated on the Last Day. Until then, how do we live in God's wisdom? How do we live among the Devil's fools w/o becoming fools ourselves?

Thriving among the Devil's fools in this world is a whole circus of distractions, snares, and tar pits. Some are designed to slow us down, others to kill us outright. Most, however, are created to keep us very much alive as newly minted fools. Our medieval brothers and sisters identified seven of these deadly traps. Each a snare waiting for an unwary soul. What they called Pride, the fools now call Self-esteem. Like pride, self-esteem has its proper, holy uses. The trap is snapped, however, when self-esteem becomes bloated with unearned entitlement and petulance. Another trap, Lust, is now Sexual Liberation. Our sexual appetites are a holy gift from God. But the fools have “liberated” sex from its divine purpose, turning God's creating gift into a recreating hobby. Envy now wears the mask of Social Justice. When you have what I want, I'm not envying you; I'm simply demanding social equality and just reparations. Wrath is no longer disordered anger but Righteous Rage. Gluttony is now Consumer Preference. Sloth is “I'm Spiritual But Not Religious.” And Greed is just Good Business Sense. The Devil gives his fools a particular talent: the ability to tweak every Godly Good just enough to hide his temptations to sin but not enough to expose his evil as evil.

So, how do we – who claim to follow Christ – live in God's wisdom among the Devil's fools w/o becoming fools ourselves? Wisdom is vindicated by all her children. We avoid becoming the Devil's fools by living as the children of Wisdom. Our medieval kin got this one right too. Humility sniffs out the narcissism in Pride. Chastity gives Lust a cold shower. Kindness opens Envy to true justice. Patience quiets and focuses Wrath toward God's righteousness. Abstinence tames Gluttony's frenzy. Liberality frees Greed to be generous in thanksgiving. And Diligence takes Sloth to the spiritual gym. Christ says that wisdom is vindicated by her children, by her works. And so are we. Thus, our way along the path to holiness includes these works of mercy: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger; clothing the naked; visiting the sick; ministering to prisoners; and burying the dead. Since the Devil can hide his temptations among our good works, we are careful to remember that all of our works of mercy are done for the greater glory of God and for no other reason than the greater glory of God. Not for our personal holiness – that's just a by-product. Not for the benefit of the ones we serve – that's just a happy consequence. BUT for the greater glory of God so that His mercy may be proclaimed in word and deed. 
Without His freely given mercy, our works are empty – useless and vain. Done for His glory, our works bear witness to the Good Work of Christ.
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14 September 2015

The Cross: this difficult tree

NB. A "Roman homily" from 2008. . .never been preached.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Go out, come back. Leave and return. Go out, come back. Exit and enter. Egress, ingress. Exitus, reditus. We are made, and we return to our Maker. How? The Cross. The cross of Christ Crucified is the via media, the middle way from God and the middle way back to God. From God: creation. Back to God: re-creation. Being made and lost, we cannot return to God without God. He set in history—human events, the human story—the means for our return to Him: Christ on the Cross, crucified as one of us, fully human and fully divine—a bridge from here to there. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” And Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, […] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, […] he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Now, we should hear the familiar refrain of our salvation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” And so we are saved from the eternal return to nothing from nothing; we are made perfect as our Father is perfect; “being merciful, [He] forgave [our] sin and destroyed [us] not.” 

We say: amen. Or do we? If we accept this gift, we say: amen. And then what? Carry on as before? Do we as please? Live in constant regret that we killed God? Try to make a sacrifice worthy of the gift? The poet, Christian Wiman, in a poem titled, “Hard Night,” asks the same question this way: “What words or harder gift/does the light require of me/carving from the dark/this difficult tree?” What words or gifts does the Cross require of us? Paul writes that the coming of the Christ and his obedient death on the Cross, moved God to exalt His Son and to “bestow on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend […] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” No other words. Let your tongue confess. There is no harder gift to give than the gift given on the Cross. Bow your knees at his name. And then what? It’s not so certain, is it? Once we have confessed the Lordship of the Christ and bent our knees to his rule, what we do next is no certain thing. With the Gift of the Cross in hand, we might worship it, take it around in procession, put it to work for our health and wealth; we might be embarrassed by its necessity or feel imposed upon to react with faint gratitude. Have you ever thought that there had to be a better way? Another way to achieve your eternal life? Something less bloody, something not quite so gruesome? Have you ever been angry with Pilate, the Jewish leadership, the mob that shouted, “Crucify him!”? Perhaps praying before a crucifix, you felt a dangerous rise of bile and wanted nothing more to do with the cruelty of a god who needs blood to love? Or perhaps you felt a dark fear that once we settled in your heart the gift of a bloody sacrifice, you would never be the same again?

Yet another poet, John Ashbery, writes, “…all was certain on the Via Negativa/except the certainty of return, return/to the approximate.” If we are afraid of the Cross, this is what we fear most: to walk the via media of Christ’s crucifixion means accepting the inevitably of joining him on the Cross. Peter, in a fit of fear and false love, denied the inevitability of Christ’s defeat and, in turn, pushed against the necessity of his own crucifixion. Jesus, knowing the certainty of his Father’s Via Negativa, pushed back, “Get behind me, Satan!” Even then, he was empty, obedient to death, and ready to die on the Cross. Perhaps we show our deepest gratitude to Christ by emptying ourselves, being obedient to death, and preparing ourselves to die in his name. Perhaps. But what does this mean for tomorrow? For today? Sitting in a room, cases packed, shoes neatly tied, waiting for martyrdom? Nothing so quietistic as all that! Paul says that we should bend our knees and confess Jesus as Lord. Walking this path of worshipful praise cannot be good exercise if we fail to do what Christ himself did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Add to this preach the Good News of God’s mercy and teach what Christ himself taught and we have beginning for our gratitude, just the barest start to what must be a life given over wholly to the path of righteousness. That’s a lot to fear. Especially when you know that the one you used to be will not be found again. At most you might think to “the return to the approximate.” But why?

Look at Moses and God’s people in the desert. “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses…” Not only are we made and made to return to our Maker, but we are rescued from death by the death of Christ on the Cross and expected then to prepare ourselves for following him to the Cross, obedient to death, bending the knee, confessing his name, and waiting, waiting, waiting for his return to us so we can return to Him. Has our patience worn out from this journey? Do we complain against God and His Church? Our desert is not getting smaller or cooler or less arid. Our days are no shorter. Our nights no brighter. Moses wanders and we follow. And our patience, already silk-thin, rubs even thinner, waiting on the fulfillment of the promise the Cross made in God’s name. While waiting, what do we do? Some of us persevere, walking the Way. Some of us withdraw to wait. Others walk off alone. Still others erect idols to new gods and find hope in different, alien promises. Some let the serpents bite and thrill in the poisonous moment before death. Perhaps most who were with us at first perish from hearts stiffened by apathy, what love they had exhausted by the tiresome demands of an obedience they never fully heard. Not all the seeds will fall on smooth, fertile earth. If those who walked away or surrendered or succumbed to attacks on the heart, if they are out there and not here with us, what hope do we have of going forward, of continuing on to our own crosses in the city’s trash heap? We exalt the Cross. And they are not lost. Never, finally, lost. Unless they choose not to be found.

We exalt the Cross. Lifted high enough and waved around vigorously enough, even those lost will find it. Even those who, for now, do not want to be found, may see it and be healed, if they will. But they will not see what they must to be healed if those of us who claim to walk the Way do so shyly, timidly, quietly. The Way of Christ to the Cross is not a rice paper path that we must tip-toe across so as not to tear it. Or a shaky jungle bridge over a ravine that we must not sway for fear of falling. Or a bed of burning coals that we must hop across quickly so as to avoid blistering our feet. The Way of Christ to the Cross has been made smooth, straight, and downhill all the way but nonetheless dangerous for its ease. There’s still the jeering mob, the scourge, the spit and the garbage, and there’s still the three nails waiting at the end. But this is what we signed up for, right? It’s what we promised to do, to be. Our help is in the name of the Lord. Bend the knee. Confess his name. Do so loudly, proudly and do so while doing what Christ himself did. Otherwise, who will find us among the jeering crowd, the spitting mob; who will see the Cross if we fail to lift it high?

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13 September 2015

Who will Christ say that YOU are?

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

A few years back, I walked in the common room of the priory to hear a very familiar, distinctly southern voice on the TV. Even before I made it around the couch to see his face, I knew it was Brother Billy Graham preaching. The logo in the corner of the screen told me that this was a “Billy Graham Classic.” Br. Graham’s powder blue polyester suit and full head of brown hair told me this classic was from about 1976. I listened with the ears of a child and I heard the familiar stories of the Bible, the familiar cadences of my Baptist past, the comforting assurances of a personal meeting with Christ, and I heard again and again the signature Protestant theology of faith alone, the lone sinner coming to salvation in a moment of decision, the instantaneous clarity of one’s relationship with God accomplished in a flash of acceptance, just one second of openness to the Father’s mercy and BAM! you’re done! At the all too familiar altar call, I watched hundreds of people stream down the aisles of the stadium to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior. And I thought to myself: “You people have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into!”

Who here wishes to lose his life? Who here wishes to deny herself, take up their cross, and follow Jesus? Who here will refuse yourself what you think you need, what you think you want, will reject all those people, all the stuff and prestige that seems so essential, reject all that in exchange for a life of sacrificial service? Who here will heft the instrument of your greatest pain and eventual death, heft it onto your shoulders and carry it to the garbage dump of your unjust execution? Who will follow Jesus?

Be careful. Be very careful. Denying yourself what you want and need, inviting suffering and death into your life, and walking on the path of Christ-like passion and righteousness is dangerous. It’s more than dangerous; it’s explosive, it’s a volatile risk, a decision reached with grace in awe and lived with ears wide open and a voice graciously freed. This is no stunt. No walk along the trimmed paths of a safely tailored wood. This is soul-shattering serious business, commitment to the brim of your deepest well, filled up and overflowing with just two words: “The Christ.” Who do you say that Jesus is? The Christ. The Anointed One of the Father. Messiah. Emmanuel. God With Us. Be careful. Be very careful. Risk nothing on a vain word, a futile gesture. Risk nothing on a pretense. Risk nothing on a drama, a skit, a made-for-TV moment of tears. We’re not playing at Church here! But please, risk everything, all things, on a steadfast truth, a faithful word. Risk everything answering that groaning longing, that bone-deep, itching desire. Rest your restless heart where Peter has rested his. With confidence, he takes his well-rewarded risk: “You are the Christ.”

Who do you say that Jesus is? Prophet. Brilliant teacher. Rabbi. Essene monk. Son of Joseph and Mary. Pacifist revolutionary. Radical social reformer. Delusional cult leader. Figment of the imagination. God. What possible difference does it make? Labels are peeled off as easily as they are slapped on. One label, two labels, three. No matter. Who he was then and who is now is largely irrelevant. Largely inconsequential to who I was, to who I am. He can be a teacher of ethics, a cultural pioneer, a non-violent demonstrator, an unwed mother, a suicidal teenager, a laid off fifty-something year old, a mad priest, a delicate child. He’s all things to all people. What does it matter who I say he is? If you do not know who he is, cannot or will not say who he is, how will you deny yourself for his sake? Whose sake? Will you take up an empty cross? Who will you follow? You must know who Jesus is and you must speak the name of Jesus so that your works may be signs of your faith. To demonstrate your faith, your works must be worked in the name of Jesus the Christ. Who do you say that Jesus is?

And perhaps more frightening than that question, is this one: when Jesus the Christ looks back at those claiming to follow him, when he looks over the crowd, all those yelling “Lord, lord!” who will he say that you are? Will he see a half-hearted wannabe or a hero of the Word? A mush-mouthed apostle or a proclaimer of the Good News? A wallower in anger and despair or a rejoicer in love and mercy? A slave to disobedience or a freed child of faith. Who will he say that you are? Who do you say that you are?

What do your works say about you? How do you demonstrate your faith? In other words, to say that you have faith, to say that Jesus is the Christ, and then fail, utterly fail to act as though you believe this, to fail to demonstrate concretely your claim to faith, this failure is death. And what a silly way to go. Do you think for a moment that our loving Father would ask us to believe in his Son for our redemption, to accept His invitation to live with Him forever, and then turn around and make it impossible or even difficult for us to do so? Everything necessary for our redemption and our growth holiness is freely given, freely infused in us for our use, just waiting for our cooperation. We are graced, gifted with all that we need to name the Christ, to deny ourselves for his sake, to carry our cross, and to walk in his ways. In other words, when he looks back at us, those following in his way, bearing our crosses, we may ask him, “Lord, who do you say that we are?” He can say, because his own suffering, death, and resurrection has made it so, he can say, “You are the Christs.”

If I were a Baptist preacher, maybe Br. Billy Graham, I would cue the choir to start “Just As I Am.” While they sang softly, I would ask all those touched by the Lord this night to come forward, to stand before the altar and ask Jesus into your life. I would urge you to accept Christ into your heart and make him your personal Lord and Savior. But since I am a Catholic priest and Dominican preacher, I will instead invite you forward to take into your bodies the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To take into your life—your flesh and blood—everything that he is for us. Teacher. Savior. Brother. Master. Son of Mary. Word Made Flesh. Father and Holy Spirit. God. And then I will invite you to leave this place with his blessing to grow in holiness by serving one another, to proclaim the Good News with your tongue and with your hands, to thrive wildly in the abundance of graces that the Lord hands you, the talents He gives you to use for His greater glory.

If you know what you’re getting yourself into, walk these aisles this tonight, stand up and come forward to eat and drink, and know that you stand and walk and eat and drink and serve because he is the Christ, he is the Anointed One of God, and he says to us all and to each: “You are the Christs. Follow me and do our Father’s will.”

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