13 March 2016

Is your name written in the dirt?

NB. I was asked to celebrate and preach the 7.30am Mass for the nuns.

5th Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Monastery of OLR, Summit, NJ

Standing before him in the temple area is a woman accused of adultery. Standing behind her are her accusers, the scribes and Pharisees who hope to trip him up with a tricky legal question: should this woman be stoned to death according to the Law of Moses? The woman's accusers present their bear-trap case to him and then wait for his reply. What does he do? He bends down and writes in the dirt with his finger. Befuddled by this strange behavior, the woman's accusers continue to press their questions and demand answers. Finally, he straightens up and says to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he bends down to write again in the dirt with his finger. The woman's accusers drift away, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. This is what happens when the demands of justice collide with the need for mercy; or rather, what happens when our need for justice collides with God's demand that we freely grant mercy. Justice—to be truly just—must flow from righteousness, a righteousness that no man or woman possesses. The best we can do is imitate Christ and grant mercy. 

Jesus and the adulterous woman are left alone in the temple area. Her accusers have fled b/c they know the Law as well as Jesus does. They know that their accusations against her—though true—are also incomplete. According to her accusers, the woman was “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Where is her accomplice? The Law requires that a man caught in adultery be stoned as well. Since the woman was “caught in the act,” why is she not being accused by those who caught her? The Law requires that the witness to a capital crime throw the first stone. When Jesus challenges the accusers to carry out the death sentence, “in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Pouring salt in their wounded pride, Jesus publicly accuses the accusers of being sinners themselves and forces them to acknowledge their sinfulness. He knows the Law as well as they do, so he publicly humiliates them all by exposing their hypocrisy under the Law. How can they accuse this woman of violating the Law when they themselves violate the Law by accusing her as they have? Justice—to be truly just—must flow from righteousness, a righteousness that no man or woman possesses. 

Jesus shows the accusers that they are unjust by challenging them to follow the Law. They can't. Doing so would condemn them under the Law. To underscore his own accusation, Jesus writes in the dirt, following the Sabbath Law that forbids the work of writing on paper on a holy day but allows writing in the dirt. Though John doesn't tell us what Jesus is writing in the dirt, tradition tells us that he is alluding to the prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah cries out, “O Lord, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water. . .” Another translation reads, “The rebels shall be enrolled in the netherworld.” To have your name written in the dust is to be enrolled in the netherworld as a shameful rebel against God. The woman's accusers watch Jesus writing in the dirt; remember Jeremiah's righteousness cry to God; and then ask themselves: are we prepared to be consigned to the netherworld as rebels against God? “In response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Confronted—even subtly—by their own failures in holiness, the scribes and Pharisees simply fade away to plot another trap for the Lord. 

The story of the adulterous woman and Jesus' merciful response to her sin can be a trap for us. Has been a trap for us. When finally left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, sir.” Jesus is the only one left to pass judgment, the only one truly qualified to condemn her for her sin. He says, instead, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” The trap for us here is to read Jesus' challenge to the accusers and this final act of mercy as a judgment against calling out sin. In other words, b/c Jesus shows the accusers to be sinful themselves and b/c he does not condemn the woman, we're to believe that no one should ever call a sin Sin. When the Pope or our bishops challenge abortion or same-sex marriage, how often do we hear the culture respond, “They shouldn't throw stones given their track record on sexual abuse”? Somehow Jesus' challenge to the righteousness of the woman's accusers has been perverted into a blanket denial that sin can be named Sin. What's missing here is Jesus final word to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He grants mercy to the person while naming sin Sin. 

And that's the difference btw man's justice and God's mercy. Man's justice condemns both the crime and the criminal. God's mercy passes sentence on the sin and forgives the sinner. By forgiving the sinner, God does what God Is: Love. Forgiveness of sin, showing mercy to the sinner is in no way an admission that sin isn't sin. The righteous do not need mercy, therefore, only the unrighteous may receive it; that is, only those found guilty of sin require mercy in the first place. It's vital to our growth in holiness that we understand how God's mercy relieves us of the burden of sin. The weight of disobedience is crushing. Under the heavy load of sin, we cannot follow after Christ; we cannot complete our mission “to go and do likewise” if we are suffering in slavery to our disobedience. This is why the Father sent to Son to lift this burden off our backs. Christ has removed the yoke of sin and we are now free to follow him. When Jesus refuses to condemn the adulterous woman all he is doing is freeing her so that she might choose to take up his yoke and do the joyous work of witnessing to God's mercy. Adultery is still adultery. But no sin—not even adultery—can forever chain a soul in servitude when the Father's forgiveness is freely offered and freely received. 

Lent is our time to stare intently at the dirt to see if our names are written there. But the time for watching the dirt is almost over. We are rapidly approaching the empty tomb on Easter morning. Ahead of us, drawing us in, is the emptied cave where Jesus went to rest. But for our sakes, he didn't rest. Instead, he rose; he rose to the Father and sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us, strengthening us along his Way, encouraging us in our temptation to despair for a lack of holiness. Lent is a time set aside for us to search the dirt for our names. It's that time in our lives when we set ourselves against ourselves to fast, pray, give alms; to acknowledge our total dependency on God; to give Him thanks and praise for His blessings; and to generously share those blessings. If it seems that we pay too much attention to sin during Lent, remember: God's mercy frees us; His forgiveness unburdens us. But without the confession of our sins, without acknowledging our sins, we cannot receive His mercy. No man or woman possesses the righteousness required to free themselves from sin, or to dispense others from the rot of their sins. Christ alone is able to say, “I do not condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

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Whatcha got to lose?

Preached: Sat., March 12, 2016

NB. The Good Sisters have posted an audio version of this homily. 

Solemn Profession of Sr. Mary Jacinta, OP
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, Summit, NJ

Pondering a dodgy bet or a risky bit of business, a friend might ask you, “What you got to lose?” We can hear this question as a dare. Or as nonsense that just sounds right in the moment. We can hear it as a caution, a real question about the stakes and what could happen if things don't work out. But if we listen with the ears of Christ – as we ought – what do we hear? What do you have to lose? What do you possess that could be lost? For us, this is a question about sacrifice, about what it is that we could be rid of in order to follow Christ more perfectly. Paul writes, “I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For this come-lately apostle, the supreme good of knowing Christ as Lord pushes all of his stuff into the loss pile. When we are possessed by the love of God through Christ, and we know him as our Lord, nothing else that we might possess can be thought a necessity. While we strive to grow in holiness, while we work on being made perfect in Christ, nothing more is needed than that we consider everything – most especially our lives – that we consider everything a loss. So, Sr. Mary Jacinta, what you got to lose?

Can you, for example, say with Paul: “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him. . .”? To gain Christ and be found in him, will you accept the loss of all things and consider them rubbish? Will you accept the loss of what many American Catholics would call your “freedom”? The loss of a husband, children, in-laws? The possibility of a successful career, a good paycheck, benefits, and retirement? The loss of choosing where to live, what to eat, what schedule to keep? Will you expend all of your waking hours – until death – doing what most of us do for only an hour or two a week? What do you have to lose? If you answer, “I have nothing to lose,” then you are well on your way to being made perfect in Christ. However, I'm guessing that that would not be your answer. If it were, you wouldn't be here. You would not have enrolled in this school of charity called a monastery. You would not have spent the last several years as a Dominican nun practicing the art of loss for Christ's sake and for ours. By your solemn vow this morning, you admit to your sisters, your family and friends, to me and the whole Church that you have only just begun to lose, to lose everything, most especially your life.

To postmodern American ears this all sounds quite grim. Morbid even. What's this obsession with losing everything all about? Doesn't she want to be happy? How can she be happy locked up in the same building living with the same faces day in and day out for the next 40+ years? How does she know if she's succeeding with no markers for measure? No raises, no promotions, no awards, no bonuses. She can't even upgrade to a better monastery! All the measures we use “out here” in the non-monastic world count for nothing “in there” where the art of loss is practiced with all hearts and minds turned toward being perfected in Christ. Without a doubt, the life of a nun is strange. Even as a Dominican friar, I often find my cloistered sisters a little. . .weird. I don't mean individually. I mean the whole idea of cloistered life seems so out of the ordinary. . .even for a friar. The friars go out into the world to preach the Good News. The nuns go deeper into Christ in prayer to shine out as the Good News. The friars go out into the world to teach the truth of the faith. The nuns live out the truth of the faith with one another so that the truth always has a firm foundation in this world. The friars are itinerant, constantly moving around. The nuns are enclosed, stable, always present. Yes, the nuns are weird. And thank God they are!

Thank God that they are here to show us through their faithfulness to prayer and communal life how to bear our crosses. Even if the crosses we bear up under look nothing their own. Peter discovers the difficulty of carrying one's cross when he rebukes our Lord for appearing to give himself up to his enemies. Jesus, in response, calls Peter “Satan” and “an obstacle.” Peter did not want the Lord to go to the cross b/c he himself did not want to go to the cross. And so Jesus teaches the disciples and us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” In other words, “Peter, what you got to lose, brother?” His ambition, his possessiveness of Christ's love, his fear of persecution and death, and his anxiety about what happens after the Lord is executed. Until he loses all these, he is Satan and an obstacle. This morning, our sister, Mary Jacinta, steps to the door of heaven and asks for God's mercy and ours. She will return to her cell and begin again the hard and holy work of being Christ for us in prayer. Her cross – the one she has chosen to bear – is total freedom in Christ, that freedom that the evangelical counsels help us all to achieve.

What cross have you chosen to bear? No one follows Christ w/o bringing along a cross. So, choose one and follow along. We might think of our crosses as burdens or afflictions. We might think of them as responsibilities or mistakes that we cannot correct. But the cross is the instrument of Christ's death for the salvation of the world. What Christ is telling us is that we too must carry with us the instrument of our deaths for the salvation of the world. How will you give your life for a friend? How will you show your Christ-like love when you are called upon to do so? What Christ is telling us is that just as he gave his life so that we might live, we too must be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for the life of another. That sacrifice might be motherhood/fatherhood; it might be a life given to the Church in lay service; it might be a life given over to ordained ministry, or consecrated life, or it might be a life given – literally – in blood for the truth of the faith. What cross have you chosen to bear? No one follows Christ w/o bringing along a cross. If you finding it hard to decide on a cross, ask yourself, “What do I have to lose?” What do I possess that prevents me from possessing the love of Christ?

If you need additional help in choosing a cross, look to the nuns of this monastery. Here you will find a school of charity, a place where the consecrated artists of loss practice their art. Absent any worldly measure fof success, stripped of pretense and the need for celebrity, detached from the things of the world that anchor us to sin and death, these nuns of St. Dominic create loss by living out Christ's command, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.” Are they perfect? I hope not. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here. Do they fail? Of course. And that's good for them and for us. But if they aren't perfect and sometimes fail, then why should we look to them as teachers? Simply put: they are happy with less and less and they delight in the Lord b/c they have so little that competes for his love and attention. Our sisters here practice the art of living as if they are already in heaven. This doesn't mean that they are closer to heaven than we are. But it does mean that they have given themselves to the arduous task living in the world while remaining apart from it. A task given to every Christian at baptism.

About five years ago, I was pulled into this nun's world to give a series of lectures to the sisters. I want to remember that I was nervous, but I wasn't. I want to remember being intimidated, but I wasn't. What I encountered behind the grille was a world of prayer, study, work, and cheerful communal living. I also discovered a large dog, Sr. Sabina. As I remember she was most attentive to my lectures! Though I could never understand her questions. Among the nuns was a shy sister who stood out. . .not b/c she sports a lovely Haitian tan. . .but b/c her smile and her desire to learn burned across the room. I eventually became her spiritual director and friend. Our once a month phone sessions are a delight for me b/c all I have to do is listen. That's a southern way of saying that sister does all the talking! I can't reveal what we talk about during our SD sessions, but I can say that over the last few years I've come to see Sr. Mary Jacinta as a fervent soul given wholly over to the pursuit of her perfection in Christ. The step she will take this morning bears witness to her drive to bear her cross, to lose what she has to lose, and to deny herself so that others might live. If all goes well, we might one say, pray, “St. Mary Jacinta, OP, pray for us!”

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