06 February 2016

Do not be afraid of The Deep!

NB. Not preaching tomorrow. . .so, here's one from 2013.

5th Sunday OT 2013
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church/Our Lady of the Rosary

When it comes to doing His will, God pays careful attention to our faithfulness, our strength, our perseverance. He smiles on our hope, our humility, and our willingness to sacrifice for others in love. These He nurtures toward excellence and rewards with perfecting graces. When we fall short of being faithful, strong, hopeful, or humble, He hears our petitions for assistance and help will arrive. However, when we try to excuse our failures, or justify our unwillingness to serve, or claim some sort of debilitating brokenness, we get the booming chirping of celestial crickets. Nothing. Or, if we are being particularly stubborn, we get the kind of help that Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter get. We get all of our excuses handled by divine intervention, and our mission as apostles grows in proportion to the intervention required to fix us. Our Lord says to his Church, “Put out into the deep!” Do we obey and plead for his help? Or do we wail excuses? Are we fearful and plead helplessness? Or are we faithful? Jesus says to Simon Peter, and to us, “Do not be afraid.” Leave everything and follow him. 

Our readings this morning/evening bear witness to three biblical legends: Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter. All three find themselves confronted by the glory of the Lord; all three hear His call to service; and all three serve up pitiful excuses for their initial failure to receive God's commission. Isaiah, upon seeing the glory of God, wails and whines in fear of death b/c no sinful man may see God and live. Paul reminds the Corinthians that he was “born abnormally” as an apostle and is not fit to be an apostle b/c he persecuted the Church. And Simon Peter fails to believe that Jesus will be able to help him with the catch. When he pulls up his full-to-bursting nets, he falls at Christ's feet, wailing, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Each of these men starts out as a pitiful sinner—a coward, an enemy of the Church, and a weary unbeliever. However, having wailed their excuses, God takes all that they are and graces them with all that they need to become a prophet, a preacher, and an apostle. The Lord wills that they “put out into the deep” of this world and fish for souls. He fixes their brokenness and multiplies the gravity of their mission in proportion to the blessings they require. Each one is astonished by the Lord's generosity. And in gratitude receives his godly commission. 

Christ says to his Church, “Put out into the deep!” Do we obey and ask for his help? Or do we wail excuses? We could, like Isaiah, spend copious amounts of time and energy nursing our sins, crying over our failures, and raising these up to God as excuses for our inability to go out into the world as apostles for the Good News. How can we bear witness to God's mercy when we ourselves are so dirty with sin? Or, we could, like Paul, see ourselves as “abnormally born,” that is, brought into the family of God from another church or another faith, and then claim that our unusual entrance into Christ's body disqualifies us from being proper preachers of the Gospel. I wasn't raised in the Church, what can I do for the faith? Or, we could, like Simon Peter, live as weary unbelievers, ever doubtful of Christ's power, and then ashamed of our unbelief when he shows us what he can do. I denied Christ too many times, I'm unworthy of serving him as an apostle! We could refuse, deny, demur, disbelieve, and beat ourselves up. But Christ says, “Do not be afraid! Leave everything and follow me.” Leave doubt, leave self, leave sin, leave the past. Leave it all and follow me. 

Isaiah leaves his history of sin behind when the seraphim purges his mouth with the ember from God's altar. Paul leaves his history of vengeful persecution of the Church behind when Christ appears to him on the Damascus Road. Simon Peter leaves his long and stubborn history of faithlessness and betrayal behind when he is consumed in the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Isaiah hears the Lord ask, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Purged of his sin, Isaiah shouts like a schoolboy, “Here I am, send me!” Paul sheds the scales from his eyes and receives his commission to bring the Good News to the Gentiles, confessing, “. . .by the grace of God I am what I am.” And Simon Peter, upon seeing the haul in his nets, confesses his unbelief, and receives from Christ himself an encouraged heart that will grow large enough to receive the love of the Holy Spirit. Each abandoned his history of disobedience; each leaves behind every obstacle, every trial, every excuse; and each follows the Lord in His will to become prophetic and preaching legends for God's people. They put out into the deep, and brought to the Lord a great haul of souls. 

Time and physical distance are no measures for Christ. His words to Peter on the boat are spoken directly to us, each one of us: “Put out into the deep. . .do not be afraid.” As this world grows older and its spiritual and moral foundations become more and more fragile, our hold on things true, good, and beautiful seems to grow more and more precarious. We don't need to recite the litany of sins our culture of death revels in. It's the same list Isaiah, Paul, and Peter knew so well. It's the same list that ancient Israel and Judah knew. It's the same list the serpent wrote in the Garden and the same list men have been carrying around for millennia. That list tells us how to degrade and destroy the dignity of the human person, the image and likeness of God that each one us shares in, the imago Dei that makes us perfectable in Christ. It is the mission of the Enemy to tempt us into racial suicide, to kill ourselves as the human race by separating ourselves—one soul at a time—from our inheritance in the Kingdom. The Deep that we are commanded to evangelize is at once both the individual human heart and the whole human community. And lurking in that Deepness is both Eden's serpent and Christ's cross, both the voice of rebellion against God and the instrument of sacrifice for God. Christ says, “Do not be afraid.” 

Whether we find the serpent or the cross or both dwelling in the Deep, we must not be afraid. The serpent was defeated the moment he chose to rebel. Sin and death were crushed from eternity before the first human walked upright. So, we can meet the serpent without fear. We can also meet the cross without fear b/c it is through the cross that the serpent is defeated. When we put out into the Deep of the human heart and the human community, there is nothing there for us to fear. Our job is a simple one: fish. Cast nets with service, humility, mercy, and joy. Bait our hooks with all the gifts we have been given to use for the greater glory of God. Leave behind bitterness, resentment, jealousy, and wrath. Follow Christ in strength, persistence, faithfulness, gladness, and sacrifice. Leave behind worry, doubt, fear, and hostility. Follow Christ in thanksgiving, rejoicing, praise, and courage. Now is not the time for cowardice. Now is not the time for waffling or compromise. We have our orders: put out into the deep! Risk, challenge, venture out. Hold fast to Peter's boat and cast your net wide and deep. Isaiah, Paul, and Peter made their excuses before God. He smiled and made them into prophets and preachers. So, go ahead: make your excuses. And watch God do His marvelous work through you.

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05 February 2016

On carrying a cross

St. Agatha
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise…” and so here we are – the Foolish – to listen to Jesus say to us just a few days before the start of Lent: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Fools, indeed. But Happy Fools. IF we are foolish in the wisdom of the Cross, the wisdom what it means to haul such a grotesque thing onto our backs and carry it about. Our Crosses are not daily burdens, large or small; they are death, the always closing up of one’s life in sacrifice. To carry your Cross daily is to daily carry the cross of your transience, your impermanence; your cross is sign of surrender to mortal being and a spit in the face of despair – one final foolish loogie spat in the Devil’s eye! Our crosses make us both victim and king. At what point in Jesus’ life is he both Suffering Victim and Conquering King?

Carrying your cross is not a task like washing the car or doing the laundry. It is not a burden like taxes or daily reading quizzes. Nor is the cross meant to be a sign of pride or shame, something we find a way to excuse or explain, or something to brag about. A properly carried cross rests on the shoulder and pinches the skin just enough, rubs the bone just enough to keep vivid in our hearts and minds the ministry we do as we trudge along behind our Lord. We follow. That’s what we do: we follow. Doing as he does, preaching as he preaches, teaching as he teaches, healing as he heals. . .dying when he dies. This is not a job. It is a love. Paul reminds us, “Consider your calling, brothers and sisters. . .It is due to [God] that you are in Christ Jesus…” It is because we asked to carry our cross with Christ that we are allowed to do so. 
What do we carry when we carry our Cross with Christ? Variously, “the cross” has been described as sin or physical disabilities or a bad marriage or some sort of addiction, something that unavoidably weighs on us, makes it difficult for us to walk a straightened path. This is too small. How will shouldering the “burden” of an addiction or a mental illness save my life for eternal life? How do I lose my life to save it if my cross is an inordinate love of Krispy Kreme Chocolate Filled Chocolate Covered doughnuts!? Our inordinate desires, illnesses, sins, disabilities – all of that and more attach to the Cross when we lift it to our shoulders. But they will all die with us. None, however, will survive our transformation into the Christ – perfect God, perfect Man.

Jesus reveals four steps or movements in joining oneself to the Saving Cross. He says, first, “If anyone wishes to come after me;” second, “he must deny himself;” third, “and take up his cross daily;” and, fourth, “follow me.” Knowing what you know about the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, do you wish to go after him? If you do, then you deny yourself, renounce yourself; that is, surrender to an inevitable, mortal death; cease flirting with the temptation to become God without God. Now, pick up your death as a Cross like Christ’s and live daily with no fear of dying alone or without purpose. Freed from the suffocating burden of dreading death and what comes after, follow Christ! You have lost your life by embracing daily a sacrificial death. And whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will save it.


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31 January 2016

Confrontation: sacrificial love

NB. Composed most of this one in 2010 in Rome. Never preached it before tonight. . .

4th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

So, Jesus is busy making friends again! Like prophets before him, he tells people what they don't want to hear. By proclaiming that Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah has been fulfilled in their hearing, Jesus challenges those gathered in the temple to believe that he is the Messiah. Instead, after he insults them, the crowd tries to lynch him and then runs him out of town. He walks unharmed through the riot and goes away. Why do these people reject Jesus' claim to be the fulfillment of God's promise to send a Messiah? Two reasons: 1) Jesus is a local boy, and we all know that “no prophet is accepted in his native place;” and 2) Jesus' use of proverb, “Physician, cure yourself,” indicates his refusal to perform a showy miracle to confirm his identity. What does he do instead? He throws down a challenge and a rebuke. In essence, he says, “God's own people have always rejected His prophets, and look at the results. He graces Gentiles before Jews and you people never learn.” Ouch. BUT Jesus is a uniter not a divider; he's a peace-bringer not a trouble-maker He's all about harmony and consensus and living within the tensions of difference. Well, tell that to the screaming lynch mob. They might disagree. So, should we look to him and his prophetic style as a model for our own witness of the gospel?

Confrontation has its place in speaking the truth. The prophets of the Old Testament were known and feared for their unwavering commitment to speaking God's message even in the face of torture and execution. Kings dodged them when possible, summoning them to court to answer for their alleged treason only when necessary. Prophets were notoriously stubborn and seemingly self-righteous. Add to this the fact that prophets tended to be well-known local boys and you have the makings of a good sitcom. Is it any wonder then that the prophets of old resorted to confrontation when dealing with the cold-hearts and closed-minds of a nation's rulers? Sometimes the shock of hearing the truth spoken aloud is enough to cure the deafness of the worst sinner. And sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you have to smash through a wall when the door is barred. On these occasions, it's wise to get as far away from the condemned nation as possible. Why? Because quite possibly the scariest thing a prophet can say is: “Behold, you will suffer the consequences of your hard heart!” It's time to run.

Unfortunately, these days, it seems that every corner, every cable channel, every church/mosque/temple has its own prophet proclaiming the coming apocalypse. Like a flock of squawking crows, these folks fly around the world squeaking and squealing warning us of imminent local destruction and the inevitability of global disaster if we don't change our ways. They have adopted the confrontational rhetoric of the wildest biblical prophet. Do we listen? Some certainly do. Most don't. Confrontation oft repeated quickly becomes annoying harassment. Those ominous crows start to look and sound like Chicken Little's. What's missing from their squealy prophesying is Godly love, a sincere concern for the common good. What's missing is the divine authority that Jesus himself uses in the temple to announce his arrival as the Messiah. His authority is the power and glory of the most excellent way, the way of sacrificial love.

This leads us to the big question: can sacrificial love be confrontational? Take an example. Anyone who has ever marched in a pro-life demonstration or prayed outside an abortion clinic will tell you that the counter-protesters and the escorts can be vicious. For them this isn't just about freedom of choice and left/right politics. They hate us. Passionately hate us. You can expect that groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum to get feisty, maybe even a little rowdy, in the midst of a march. But the bile and venom spewed by pro-abortion activists at pro-life folks goes well beyond the kind of anger that normal politics generates. Why? The choice to have an abortion is intensely personal; it goes to the very core what most Americans think of us their untouchable autonomy in deciding what's best for them. An unwanted pregnancy attaches unwanted responsibilities and necessarily limits a woman's choice of options. But even more than this, pregnancy places a woman in the natural mode of motherhood and all that that implies. At the very core of motherhood is sacrificial love, giving oneself wholly to another. When pro-life marchers remind abortion advocates that the fetus is a person, a being deserving of love, those who would call the killing of this person a moral good react with unadulterated rage. They know the Church is right. And they must cultivate a self-righteous wrath in order to drown out their guilt. The gospel message of love used by the pro-life movement to stubbornly resist compromising with the culture of death shames them into hatred. Denied a convenient salve for their seared consciences, the venom flows and they fall more securely into the Enemy's hands.

It should be shockingly clear to the Church by now that our best witness to the culture of death is sacrificial love. Paul writes, “Love is patient, love is kind. . .it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” With some we can reason. With others we can demonstrate. But some we must simply love. Bearing up under the burden of hatred, believing solely in the power of mercy, hoping in the promises of the Father, and enduring insult, persecution, and trial, we must not be satisfied with merely presenting the truth of the gospel, flashing cue cards and murmuring sound bites. What will heal a seared conscience cannot be logically deduced and crammed onto a bumper sticker. Slogans on placards are easily refuted by other slogans on placards. What cannot be refuted is an act of love done in sacrifice, a willing act of surrender done so that another might be see the truth. Paul reminds us what we know by faith, “Love never fails.” Even as the prophet feels the sword cut into his flesh, he knows that he has succeeded in touching a conscience burned by hatred and malice. His persistence in telling the truth is not ended by death but rather vindicated by it, shown to be the undeniably divine power it truly is.

When he proclaims to the people in the temple that Isaiah's messanic prophecy has been fulfilled in their hearing and subsequently chastises the crowd for their unbelief, Jesus causes a riot. He holds up before the people their dishonesty, their faithlessness, their charred consciences. He shows them that they know he is telling the truth and yet still refuse to hear it spoken. For them to believe such a proclamation changes everything – uproots centuries of tradition and belief, revolutionizes everyday life, forces them to make a choice and live by it. Rather than surrender, they riot and pour out the hatred and malice of those who have seen the corrupted state of their souls. How does Jesus respond? He dies on the cross for them. If we will be his Church, we must be prepared to do nothing less. The march for life is a march to the cross, not for ourselves but for those who will not see, will not hear.

*Before I entered the Church in 1996, I volunteered as an abortion clinic escort. I can tell you -- they HATE us.

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