07 July 2016

Staking a spiritual vampire with Yes or No

14th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Jesus carefully instructs his newly appointed apostles on how they are to do their jobs in his name. He instructs them on what to say: “As you go make this proclamation: 'The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” He tells them what they are to do: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.” He tells them what not to take with them and how to greet those to whom they will preach. Then he concludes this lesson in practical ministry with an ominous statement: “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” Among our Protestant brothers and sisters, this is what is called a “hard-saying of Jesus.” It's not hard b/c it is difficult to understand or carry out, but b/c it offers both the apostles and those who hear the gospel from them a hard choice between saying Yes or No to God's offer of salvation. This a hard choice b/c there are no soft options between receiving the Word and not receiving the Word. So, is there any sandal dust outside your house?

First, think about what Jesus is telling the apostles to do here. Notice that all of his instructions in this gospel passage give his apostles practical ways of dealing with common human flaws. He tells them what to say, thus eliminating the temptation to preach falsehood. He tells them what to do, thus ruling out a long list of work not properly done for the gospel. He tells them what to take with them, thus limiting the temporary stuff in their lives, freeing them to travel more efficiently and to bear witness to eternal matters. And finally, he tells them what to say and do when the Word is ignored or rejected, thus saving them from the temptation to hang around a stubborn household or town and waste what little time they have. Jesus' demand for either a Yes and a No to God's offer of His salvation puts one of our most obstinate habits into hard relief. We want what we want when we want it. We like options. Lots of them. And we like to change our minds when what we want turns out to be inconvenient, not what we thought it would be, or something better comes along. Jesus stakes this spiritual vampire squarely in the heart.

But why would he insist on such a black and white choice? Why stand so resolutely against the beauty of diversity and difference when choosing a spiritual path? His instruction to the apostles seems downright mean, even cruel and intolerant. Jesus is not only a careful teacher but an expert on the human soul as well, a divine psychologist, if you will. He understands the human heart and mind and knows that our love for vacillation and change is quite nearly hard-wired in us. The habit of loving and trusting our own preferences over and above what is true, good, and beautiful is too deeply settled in us to root it out with half-made choices and soft commitments. God knows that our answer must be Yes or No, or we will be tossed around with every storm that comes. We will be lost if we are not anchored. And our anchor must be unshakably caught in His Word, Christ Jesus.

Let's not pretend that saying Yes to the gospel once is all it takes to make us perfect followers of Christ. We know better. We are offered the Word everyday and everyday we say Yes or No. We live out that choice in all we say and do or fail to say and do. Does this make the sum total of our lives a long, drawn out Maybe? No. What it means is that we are committed to making the choice between Yes and No. We are refusing to settle for the lazy way of a Daily Maybe, a little life of soft compromises and easy choices. Say Yes or say No. There is no browsing in the marketplace of squeamish options. We are given the Word daily; there can be no muttered Maybe.

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06 July 2016

Break Up a New Field [Audio Link added]

14th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If you are confused after hearing the gospel, you're not alone! The same teacher who tells his disciples to go out into the world and preach the Good News. . .the same teacher who heals Gentiles in the presence of those disciples; talks to an unclean Samaritan woman and fusses at his disciples who tell him not to; and even eats with tax collectors and prostitutes over the objections of his disciples. . .the same teacher who sets himself the task of breaking just about every purity law on the books and earns for himself a reputation as a dangerous heretic and madman. . .this same teacher is now sending those same disciples out as apostles to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, saying to them before they go, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” After violating so many Jewish taboos, why is Jesus suddenly so squeamish about his apostles preaching to pagans and Samaritans? Jewish officialdom has rejected him, so why waste time and energy preaching to those who have heard the Good News and said, “No, thanks”? God promised the Messiah to the Jews. And so, to the lost sheep of Israel are the apostles sent.

How do we reconcile Jesus' words and deeds during his public ministry with his parting orders to the newly minted apostles? The Lord knows something that his apostles do not: the apostolic ministry to preach the Good News will not end when the last of them dies. In fact, their preaching ministry as apostles won't truly commence until the Holy Spirit arrives and sets the whole bunch of them on fire! Given the Lord's inclusive words and deeds in their presence; then, his instructions to limit themselves to the Jews; and then, the Holy Spirit's inspiration to set the whole world on fire with his Word. . .we can safely assume that Jesus isn't limiting their ministry, he's concentrating it; that is, with a truly daunting task ahead of them – evangelizing every living creature – the Lord focuses his apostles on a workable task: just preach to the Jews. If we think about this for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Who is better prepared to hear that the promises made by God through His prophets have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ Jesus?

Hosea sets the scene for us. The nation God gave to His people is decadent, luxurious, ripe to the point of being rotten. The more it prospers under His blessing, the more it turns away from Him to idolatry, erecting altars and pillars to alien gods. They blame their spiritual adultery on political turmoil, and Hosea asks, “Since they do not fear the Lord, what can the king do for them?” Then his prophesies, “Sow for yourselves justice. . .break up for yourselves a new field, for it is time to seek the Lord.” And it is time for those who belong to the Lord to seek His lost sheep; thus, Jesus sends his apostles to those who are in most urgent need of the Good News, those who know the Covenant of Abraham yet live as if Abraham never spoke to God. Peter, James, John go to the lost sheep of Israel and along the way they find more and more lost sheep needing a shepherd. The Holy Spirit will not let them leave these abandoned, so the Word – like a wild fire – spreads. And the people of God, those adopted as His children, grows and grows, beyond the lost sheep, into a nation of priests and prophets, a body of apostles sent out to find and rescue the lost, the wounded, those thrown away, anyone who desires to be loved as a creature created in the image of God. Go out, then, and show the world that no one is too small, too poor, too idolatrous, too sinful to be called unworthy of the Father's saving mercy!

04 July 2016

Two Revolutions

Independence Day

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

St Dominic, NOLA

Jesus says to John's disciples, “No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth...People do not put new wine into old wineskins.” What does this bit of homespun wisdom have to do with weddings, fasting, the Pharisees, mourning the death of a bridegroom, and the price of camels in Jerusalem? Better yet: what do any of these have to do with the American Revolution and this country's declaration of independence from the tyranny of Old King George? Is Jesus teaching us to party while we can b/c we won't be around forever? Is he arguing that we ought to be better stewards of our antiques—human and otherwise? Or maybe he's saying that the time will come when the older ways can no longer be patched up and something fundamentally new must replace what we have always had, always known. When “the way we have always done it” no longer takes us where we ought to go; when the wineskin, the camel, the cloak no longer holds its wine, hauls its load, or keep us warm, it's time to start thinking about a trip to the market to haggle for something new.
We celebrate two revolutions today: one temporal and one eternal, one local and the other cosmic. The political revolution freed a group of colonies in the New World from the corruption of an old and dying Empire. The spiritual revolution freed all of creation from the chains of sin and death. Today, we give God thanks and praise for the birth of the United States of America by celebrating our 4th of July freedoms. And we give God thanks and praise for the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ by celebrating this Eucharist, the daily revolution that overthrows the regime of sin and spiritual decay.

The revolution of 1776 not only toppled the imperial rule of George III in the American colonies, but it also founded a way of life that celebrates God-gifted, self-evident, and unalienable human rights as the foundation of all civil government and social progress. The revolution that Christ led and leads against the wiles and temptations of the world fulfills the promise of our Father to bring us once again into His Kingdom—not a civil kingdom ruled by laws and fallible hearts, but a heavenly kingdom where we will do His will perfectly and thereby live more freely than we ever could here on earth. In no way do we understand this kingdom as simply some sort of future reward for good behavior. This is no pie in the sky by and by. Though God's kingdom has come with the coming of Christ, we must live as bodies and souls here and now, perfecting that imperfect portion of the kingdom we know and love. No revolution succeeds immediately. No revolution fulfills every promise at the moment of its birth. The women and slaves of the newly minted United States can witness to this hard fact. That we continue to sin, continue to fail, continue to rebel against God's will for us is evidence enough that we do not yet live in fullest days of the Kingdom. But like any ideal, any program for perfecting the human heart and mind, we can live to the limits of our imperfect natures, falling and trying again, knowing that we are loved by Love Himself. With diligence. With trust. With hope. With one another in the bonds of Christ's love, we can do more than live lackluster lives of just getting along. We can work out our salvation in the tough love of repentance and forgiveness, the hard truths of mercy and holiness.

Christ is with us. The Bridegroom has not abandoned us. His revolution continues so long as one of us is eager to preach his Word, teach his truth, do his good works. Today and everyday, we are free. And even as we celebrate our civil independence from tyranny, we must bow our heads to the Father and give Him thanks for creating us as creatures capable of living freely, wholly in the possibility of His perfection.

03 July 2016

Go and be a fat and happy lamb for Jesus [Audio Link Updated]

Audio File Link

14th Sunday OT 2016
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP

Isaiah tells God's people to rejoice with Jerusalem! Their mourning is over. Flourish and rejoice! The psalmist leads us to sing, “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth, sing praise to the glory of his name; proclaim his glorious praise.” And our Lord watches the seventy-two he appointed return to him rejoicing from their work against Satan in the world. So much shouting and cheering and rejoicing. Jerusalem returns from exile. Rejoice! God rescues His people – again. Rejoice! Christ's workers return victorious from the field. Rejoice! It may seem obvious to us why there is so much rejoicing this morning. There's homecoming and divine rescue and victory against an enemy. And that's probably why many of those rejoicing are rejoicing. Can we rejoice with them? In a way but not truly. We can only share their joy second-hand through scripture, believing – as we do – that God again and again fulfills His promises of protection and loving-care. Fortunately, we have our own reasons for rejoicing. Our Lord says to the seventy-two and to us, “. . .do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven."

Our names are written in heaven, but we still live in this world. Our citizenship is in heaven, but we abide – like alien residents – in a foreign land. That's the paradox of being a child of the Father and a subject of the world. Our hearts and minds are aimed at our perfection with Him, yet we still have to eat, sleep, love, work, and die among the temporary things He created. And not all those created things welcome our presence as witness-bearers to Christ. Our Lord appoints and sends out seventy-two witnesses to preach and teach the Good News. He says to them, “Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Note: they do not choose themselves for this work. They do not decide to go among the wolves as lambs and take charge of demons themselves. They are picked to do this and they are commissioned in Jesus name. He didn’t ask for volunteers. He named his workers. Matthew. John. Simon Peter. Philip. Paul. He named them. At no point did Jesus ever stand before the crowd and say, “I need seventy-two volunteers to go like lambs among the wolves! Let’s see those hands, people!” Jesus knows what he is sending his workers to do. And he knows where he is sending them to do it. This is why the seventy-two are appointed ministers and not volunteers. Jesus knows that the harvest is abundant – it’s HIS harvest, after all – but he also knows that there are wolves among the sheep. Satan has fallen like lightning from the sky. 

The world we live in welcomes us – our labor, our money, our votes – but it is less than welcoming when we bring the Gospel and try to live out our faith. Jesus give the seventy-two careful instructions. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; pray peace on whatever house you enter; stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered; cure the sick where you are; preach the coming of the kingdom of God; and, if any town refuses you hospitality, shake off their dust – Sodom’s fate will look kind compared to what will happen to this town. Know this: the kingdom of God is at hand! Clearly, Jesus knows that the wolves will attack his ministers, calling them money-grubbers, moochers, long-lingering guests, spiritual and civil provocateurs, and snake-oil salesmen. We hear these accusation this even now. We've heard it all before, and we will hear it again. And so, our witness to God's enduring mercy must be motivated by veritas in caritate, truth in love. That's our defense and our offense. Truth in love. We cannot defend ourselves by lying to the world – we tried that and it blew up into the abuse scandals in 2002. We cannot defend ourselves by hating the world – we've tried that too and it led us to hate ourselves as embodied souls. So, we endure as witnesses to God's mercy by telling the truth and loving our enemies. No easy task!

It is no easy task to watch this world pass by and find a reason for rejoicing. It's difficult to see why anyone could be joyful. Where do they find the time and energy to rejoice? So much to do! We could count the sources of temporal joy if we need to. But there is just one source of eternal joy: Christ Jesus. For those chosen for this work – all the baptized! – our delight, our moment of joy is bringing the peace of Christ to the world by preaching his gospel with our hands and feet, our words and deeds. Our enduring joy comes from the knowledge that our names are written in heaven. We are, you and I, inscribed – essentially, substantially – carved into the very book of God’s Beauty; we are Words of Truth and of Goodness. And so we rejoice not b/c of our power or our gifts or our deeds. We rejoice b/c we belong to God! And His kingdom is at hand. Remember that when the wolves begin to prowl: God's kingdom is at hand, and you have been chosen as His witness. Think of Paul. He writes to the Galatians that he bears the marks of Christ on his body. That he has been crucified to the world and the world to him. He is a new creation for whom the old law means nothing. How have you been crucified to the world? Does the peace and power of Christ rule your heart and mind? If so, rejoice!

And what good does rejoicing do us? God doesn't need us to rejoice. He doesn't need our prayers or our praise or our thanksgiving. We rejoice and pray and praise and give thanks b/c we need to do things to grow in holiness. We need them all to do the work we have vowed to complete. If we live in the world as citizens of the world, then rejoicing and prayer and praise all seem pointless, utterly useless wastes of time. However, if we rejoice and pray as children of God living in the world, then we bear witness to God's mercy and show – with our words and deeds – that His promise of eternal life is true and good and beautiful. Like hard exercise that builds muscle, or intense study that builds knowledge, persistent rejoicing and praise nurtures holiness, and we grow closer and closer to our Father. Think of it as getting fat on prayer! And go preach and teach and bear witness where you are. And wherever you are, rejoice b/c your name is written in heaven as long as you endure in his name. That assurance, that promise is sure spiritual protection from whatever the Enemy can throw at you. So, go out rejoicing, serving, preaching, teaching, bearing witness, being merciful, and all the while grow in holiness until you meet Him face-to-face.

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