14 July 2016

Audio File: 15th Sunday OT

Audio file for 15th Sunday OT. . .First Mass for Fr. Sean DeWitt.

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Let God do the work

St. Kateri
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic, NOLA

Jesus tells the disciples that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Is this how we experience our lives in Christ? Light and easy? It's a fair question and one many of us ask. However, we shouldn't worry about doubting that the life we have chosen in Christ is light and easy. The demands of growing daily in holiness are few. All we need do is love God and others as God Himself loves us. Be merciful, avoid evil, witness with our every word and deed the way to salvation through Christ. The demands are few, but they are relentless – unwavering and constant. Even the smallest task done all day every day for years will eventually exhaust the strongest body and soul. It's not the weight of our work toward holiness that burdens us but the repetition this work requires that can send us into despair. Anyone can be holy, do holy work for an hour or a day. But being holy, doing holy work for a lifetime is much, much more difficult, if not impossible – well, impossible, that is, if holiness were measured by what we manage to accomplish in a lifetime, or measured against the perfection of achieved by Christ. His yoke is easy and light, and so is the life in Christ to which we have vowed ourselves. Isaiah shares the secret of being a follower and doing God's work: “The way of the just is smooth; the path of the just [God makes] level.”

If we experience our lives in Christ as a heavy burden is it probably because we believe that our work toward holiness includes the arduous task of clearing away the wreckage of our sin. How can I come to Christ and do and be what and who he demands if I am loaded down with the garbage of a dissolute life? Don't I need to be clean before I start down the Christian path? It makes sense to hold that nothing clean can come from a filthy source. We cannot do evil to achieve goodness. And this would make sense if we were talking about human goodness, human evil. But we're not. Isaiah says it plainly, it is God Himself who levels the steep hills, straightens the crooked paths, and sets us right by washing us clean. It is God Himself who prepares us for the work we must do. Christ's yoke on our shoulders is light and easy not because we come to him as self-made, ready-made holy men and women, but because the really hard work of our holiness has already been done for us. All we need do is persist, endure in the work. And even then we persist and endure only because of His grace.

If Christ's yoke is heavy and difficult around our necks it is likely because we ourselves weigh it down, because we ourselves have tried to put it on without Christ's help. Knowing that only Christ forgives us our sins, does it make sense to believe that we are burdened by sin and that we must come to Christ cleansed of that sin? Can sin remove sin? If you believe that you cannot take on Christ's yoke until you are strong enough to bear it, then how do you get strong enough w/o Christ? Can weakness strengthen weakness? Obviously not. The burden our Lord lifts is not only the actual sin that we carry but also the heavy and false belief that the job of lifting this burden is ours alone. It is not. Never has been. It is God's job to smooth the steep hills and straighten the crooked paths. Let Him do His work. It is your job to travel His smoothed-out, straightened-upped Way. Now, that your work is light and easy and the yoke around your neck is a joy, count yourself among the loved ones of the Lord, hurry to Him and find your rest.


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13 July 2016

Loving God is Knowing God

15th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Our Lord declares to his apostles and to us that he comes among us to break the bonds of sin and to bring peace btw heaven and earth, btw God the Father and His fallen creatures. With the bonds of sin forever cut, those who claim their freedom in Christ will find themselves uncomfortably set apart from those who choose to remain slaves to disobedience. The peace he establishes btw heaven and earth disrupts whatever temporary, worldly peace we might hope for in this life. Christ's explosive entrance into human history as a squalling baby and his bloody exit as an executed criminal uncovers a divine plan for creation's redemption. That plan can only be revealed. It cannot be deduced from evidence, discovered by exploration, or guessed at by chance. What God has hidden, no man may find. . .unless God Himself shows the way. In the presence of his apostles, Jesus praises the Father, saying, “. . .for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” Thus, the sword Christ wields against the bonds of sin creates another division: those who trust their own judgment and those who trust the way of the Lord.

We might rightly wonder why learning and worldly wisdom prevents us from seeing and following the way to God's hidden truths. Knowing is not trusting. If you tell me that you trust your spouse's fidelity b/c your private detective lets you know what he/she is doing all day, every day, I would say to you that you might know that your spouse is being faithful but you do not trust his/her faithfulness. If you tell me that you trust in God b/c scientists now know that the laws of nature have an intelligent designer, I would say to you that you might know that there is an intelligent designer but you do not trust him. Knowing is not trusting; knowledge is not faith. Faith is freely given. Trust that comes from evidence, experiment, exploration is not trust. At most, it's a feeling of confidence, an assurance. If your faith is based on the testimony of miracles, apparitions, locutions, based on anything other than the apostolic witness of the Church and your own experience with the power of Christ's sword to sever the bonds of sin, then your trust is not trust; it's knowledge. And knowing is not trusting. Knowledge is not faith.

Does this mean that knowledge has no place in the life of faith? Absolutely not! It means that all that we come to know we know as those who have given their trust to God. It means that we begin with faith, a childlike trust in God, and then we walk His way to a more profound Truth, to those truths that take us behind and beyond the knowledge that reason alone acquires. Worldly learning and wisdom cannot reveal God's truth, but they can supplement all that God has revealed. The trap we must avoid is the belief that knowing all there is to know about creation tells us all there is to know about the Creator. If – in some possible future – we come to know the most fundamental elements and operations of the universe, exhaust every scientific tool we have in the exploration of matter, energy, force, motion, space, and time, and uncover the unifying law of nature, we have learned no more about trusting God than a child learns by loving his mom and dad. Loving God is knowing God. If you will know God, then love Him and love all that He has created. No matter how much we might learn, how wise we might become, nothing can replace the saving power of faith.

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11 July 2016

Weak Love won't cut it. . .

15th Sunday OT (Fr. Sean R. DeWitt's First Mass)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Martin d. Porres, Austin, TX


The lawyer starts by asking Jesus a religious question: “What do I have to do to get heaven?” Jesus asks him a lawyer's question, “What does the law say?” The lawyer gives Jesus a religious answer by quoting from several different books of the Old Testament, concluding with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, “Good job. You know your stuff. Do all that and you'll get to heaven.” Seemingly puzzled, the lawyer finally asks a lawyer's question, “Um, exactly who is my neighbor?” In other words: define your terms! Kids do it to parents. Students do it to teachers. Workers do it to bosses. And we, the children of our Father, do it to Him. “Define your terms, please.” We do it for a lot of reasons. Some good, some not so good. If we make the demand to better understand – truly understand – what's required of us, then we're probably on the good side. However, if we demand better definitions in order to look for loopholes, then we're definitely not on the good side. In fact, we are probably wanting to do what our lawyer friend is trying to do: to justify our weak love.
So, let's define our terms! What is “weak love”? Our Lord answers with a parable. Weak love is the sort of love we have for those for whom it is safe to love. The sort of love that costs nothing; never puts us in danger; always produces immediate reward; the sort of love that the world expects, even demands from us; the sort of love that marks us as “good people” in the eyes of those who watch us for signs of hypocrisy and deceit. Weak love also walks on by in fear, disgust, and self-righteousness. In other words, weak love is not love at all; it requires no sacrifice and yields no spiritual fruit. In order to justify his own weak love, to make right his own unwillingness to love as he ought, our lawyer friend asks our Lord to define his terms – who is my neighbor? Our Lord answers with a parable. Who is your neighbor? Anyone who needs your sacrifice. Anyone who requires your compassion. We can imagine that our lawyer friend is not happy with this answer. He wants to ask, “What do you mean by 'sacrifice'?” and “Can you define 'compassion'?” When you say, “go and do likewise,” do you mean that I can get into heaven by helping a robbery victim with medical care? Does that include follow-up doctors' appointments? I've done it. Maybe you've done it. Weak love compels us to ask these kinds of questions. Sacrificial love compels us to be merciful.

And we are commanded to love sacrificially. As cruel and unjust as it may seem, our Lord commands us to love as he loves us. He loved us all the way to his death on to the Cross. And he loves us still in the Eucharist. If we were left to love as we ought all on our own, we could rightly charge Christ with cruelty. As imperfect creatures incapable of doing anything good w/o him, we would necessarily fail again and again to obey his command to love as he loves us. We would forever be the priest and the Levite who rush past the robbery victim, looking back in fear, disgust, and self-righteousness. We would forever be the testing-lawyer who looks for loopholes in order to justify our weak love. If Christ is not being cruel by demanding the impossible from us, how do we love sacrificially as he commands? How do we show mercy when it seems that we are so irretrievably tied to Self? Here's the Good News: our weaknesses, our failures to love, our lapses in showing mercy – all of it – is made perfect in Christ Jesus. 
Paul teaches the Colossians that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Therefore, Christ is “the firstborn of all creation [and] all things were created through him and for him.” Himself uncreated, Christ comes before creation, and in him the fullness of divinity, all that God Is, is pleased to dwell, and so, “ in him all things hold together…” and through him all things are reconciled for him. We were created through Christ and for Christ. We were redeemed through Christ and for Christ. We are being perfected in our creatureliness through Christ and for Christ. And we will come to thrive in the fullness of God through Christ and for Christ. But we must love! We must love sacrificially. This is not a matter of weepy sentiment or mooshy affection. All things are held together in Christ, and Christ is love for us. Without the passionate divine willing of the Good for us, we simply cease to exist. So, whatever failures we cultivate, whatever lapses we tolerate, whatever targets we miss, all of it is made perfect in Christ Jesus. And if we receive his love – his sacrifice for us – if we receive his sacrifice, and if we take his sacrifice and make it our own – if we own it! – and put it to work for the glory of God and the salvation of man, then we participate in his perfection and grow and grow and grow in holiness. And we approach the supernatural end God set for us at our creation: we become Christs for one another.

Now, you may have heard me say that we shouldn't ask God for clarity; or that we shouldn't think too hard about what Christ requires of us. I'm a Dominican friar. Defining terms and making distinctions comes as naturally to me as breathing. We are all rational animals. Our reason is what makes us most like our Creator. Our reason is the “image and likeness of God” in which we are created. Our questions to God are not only not a problem, they are a necessity for our growth in holiness. Doubts, fears, questions, failures – all of it – are made perfect in Christ. When you need clarity for the sake of loving more perfectly, ask for clarity. When you need a distinction for the sake of serving God's people more zealously, ask for that distinction. However, if – like our lawyer friend – your doubts and questions are a test for God, or an attempt to justify your weak love, keep silent and show mercy to someone who needs mercy. That's your answer. Show mercy and wait for Christ to make your mercy perfect. Because you – none of us – can do anything good w/o him.

When Sean wrote to me in February of this year and asked me to vest him at his priestly ordination and to preach his first Mass, I rushed to the mirror and counted my gray hairs. . .in my beard. One of my U.D. freshmen was being ordained a priest! I first met Sean in 2007. He took Literary Traditions I & II with me at U.D. I left U.D. in 2008 and moved to Rome for advanced studies and missed out on teaching him theology. Though I was not part of Sean's formal seminary formation, I like to imagine that I had some part of play in his intellectual formation, meaning, of course, that I hope I managed to plant a Dominican seed in his head. . .one that will grow to fruition for the good of the Church. I visited with Sean only a few times in Rome while he was there. And I saw in him then a young man with a sharp mind, a faithful heart, a passion for serving the Church, and a zeal for the Gospel. Please don't tell Bishop Vasquez, but I worked overtime to lure him into the Order of Preachers. Bagging a vocation like Sean would have earned me three toasters and a shiny new habit rosary. Despite my best efforts, which I am ashamed to admit, included massive amounts of begging and bribery, Sean chose to return to home and serve you. Yesterday, Bishop Vasquez charged him with preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, and celebrating the sacraments. Today, as the fisherman who let the Big One get away, I take this opportunity to make my own charges. Fr. Sean, I charge with the duty to bear up under both the burden and the privilege of bringing the apostolic truth to God's people in season and out, whether you or they like it or not. I charge you with the burden and privilege of hearing and listening to God's people as their spiritual father, always compassionate yet never wavering in teaching the apostolic faith. I charge you with the burden and privilege of throwing yourself on the mercy of God when you fail – and you will – and asking for forgiveness from those you offend. And lastly, I charge you with the task of growing in humility through thanksgiving and praise to God. You have been set aside for a holy purpose. Never forget that you are an instrument. You are not the Carpenter. You are his tool. And so are we all.

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