15 December 2019

I say again, "Rejoice!"

3rd Sunday Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Patience is the good habit of knowing that you are not in control. . .AND acting like you know that you are not in control. Moms tell me that patience is learning to watch a toddler tie her shoes w/o helping. ER nurses tell me that patience is trying to get an EDP to lie still for an IV. As a professor, I can tell you that patience is waiting for a student to give you the answer you've repeated in class at least twelve times that week. New Orleans traffic requires patience, a supernatural God-given patience that elevates one to near sainthood if you manage it w/o taking a tire-iron to your fellow drivers. However, none of these examples of patience truly illustrate the strength and persistence in virtue that Christian patience requires. The Church has been waiting for 2,019 years for the Second Coming of the Christ. That's 24,248mos. 736,935 days. Genuine Christian patience is fed by hope and grounded firmly in joy. Without hope, we wait in vain. Without joy, we reach for that tire-iron and start swinging. James says, “You must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

Since the coming of the Lord is at hand, we need to know how to make our hearts firm. We know that hope feeds our patience. And that joy fends off the temptation to despair while we wait. Hope is the good habit of expecting the Lord's promises to be fulfilled AND knowing that they have been fulfilled. Joy is altogether something different. Joy is not a habit or an emotion. Joy isn't what we normally think of as glee or gladness or delight. No, joy is something far more fundamental to the Christian, something deeper and wider than just a good feeling. Joy is the child of love, the daughter of charity. So, when we rejoice, as we do knowing that the Christ Child is coming, we commit an act of love – for God and for one another. IOW, to rejoice is to almost perfectly participate in Divine Love Himself. To know joy fully, our desire for God must be fulfilled, and that cannot happen until we see Him face-to-face. But rejoicing now, right here and now, we come as close as we possibly can this side of heaven to knowing and loving Him as He knows and loves us. So, until we meet Him, our desire for Him remains unfulfilled, not-quite-full. . .and, while waiting, we rejoice so that we may come closer and closer to heaven. Joy firms the heart. 
Our Lord asks the crowd a vital question about John the Baptist: “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Did y'all go all the way into the desert hoping to find a flexible, supple teacher who easily bends the truth with every breeze that comes along? No? Did you go out there to find a man wearing fine robes like a prince? “Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” They go out into the desert to find a prophet, a prophet with a firm heart, a clear vision, and a motivated message. They find Christ's herald, his forerunner; and they find a straight and level path to Christ. They find that the lame can walk, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, and the dead can live. They find forgiveness and mercy, and they find eternal life. And so do we when we bring our sins, our diseases, our faults, our disabilities, our hatreds and pains, our mourning and weeping, and anything else that clouds our hope and joy. We find eternal life. Not a pie-in-the-sky promise from some long dead teacher. . .but the living, breathing promise of a Savior who is himself life. Are you here this evening looking for a promise that bends with the wind? Or you looking to have your hearts firmly established in the truth, goodness, and beauty of God Himself?

If you are looking to have your heart firmly established in the truth of the Gospel, then you will wait patiently on the Lord. And while you wait, you will strengthen your feeble hands, firm up your weakened knees, and you will “say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” What tragedy or crime or disaster made in this world can steal the hope and joy of a Christian who knows and loves God? What temptation to sin can overcome the promise of eternal life? What fear or anxiety or hatred can kidnap a Christian's peace in Christ? With your heart and mind firmly grounded in the truth of the Gospel nothing and no one can move you from your place at the wedding feast. . .unless you want to be moved. Patience, courage, persistence, fortitude – endure, endure, endure. And never fail to rejoice in the coming of the Lord. Rejoice always! I say again: REJOICE!

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08 December 2019

Show Christ your face

2nd Sunday Advent 2019
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

How long do you think John the Baptist would last in parish ministry? With his poor wardrobe choices, his unprofessional hygiene standards, and his aggressive preaching, I'd give him a week, maybe two. And that assumes he makes it out of seminary. I can just see the truckloads of letters pouring into the bishop's office even now. And while no self-respecting Catholic wants a slovenly, smelly pastor. . .his clothes and his hygiene are not his worst offense. Far, far worse than the animal skins and pungent body odor are the content and style of his preaching. Where are the jokes to put everyone at ease? Where's the pastoral concern spoken in a soft tone? Where are the cute stories to illustrate his homiletical point? Where are the reassurances of God's niceness? What we get instead is this: “Repent, you brood of vipers, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees and very tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” If you listen, you can hear John's bishop sobbing quietly in the background.

We could spend some time this evening exploring all the reasons John preaches the way he does, but one reason is immediately obvious: he believes what he preaches. He believes that repentance is necessary for salvation. He believes that God's judgment on the His people is imminent. He believes that unrepentant sinners will burn in hell for eternity. AND he believes that the long-promised Messiah is coming and will come again. Now, we don't know if John took any special joy in yelling at people or cursing them for their stubbornness, but we do know that he worked tirelessly to herald the arrival of Christ and to ready God's people to hear his saving Word. Why did he do this? Again, the answer strikes me as obvious: he loves God's people. In his mother's womb, John encounters the Christ Child, receiving his prophetic mission to go ahead of his Savior, preparing his way, making straight his paths. From that first meeting with Mary, and Jesus in her womb, John fiercely, steadfastly loves God's people and desires nothing more for them than their salvation. So, if telling them that they must repent hurts their feelings, well. . .so be it. The consequences of unrepented sin will do far, far worse than hurt their feelings. And no letter to the bishop will change that.

Once a semester I assign my seminarians the task of preaching what I call a “revivalist” homily; that is, a fire-breathing, pulpit-pounding homily that will jolt people into doing what they need to do to get to heaven. Since most of my guys are not converts from Evangelical Protestantism, the results are usually. . .tame. But still pretty aggressive by Catholic standards. As a class, we'll discuss why Catholic preaching doesn't follow John the Baptist's example. It used to. Think: Savonarola, Vincent Ferrer, the old-school Redemptorist mission preachers. But in the last fifty years or so, Catholic preaching has become limp, flavorless, and weak. Why is this? For me, it's an easy answer: the US Church became professional and middle-class. Professional, middle-class people don't take to being told to repent, or face eternity in hell. Catholic preachers got the message, and stopped. Besides it's easier to preach the Gospel of Nice and receive the applause of those who don't want to hear the Gospel in all its fullness. Living out our baptism vows on the way to holiness is hard work. We can do it b/c we have God's grace to nudge us along. But – as Jesus himself says – the gate is narrow. And a soul bloated on sin ain't gonna squeeze through.

So, on this second Sunday of Advent, ask yourself: have I repented of my sins? Have I been to confession? Where am I on the way to holiness? We have these days and weeks of preparation in order to clean house and ready ourselves to receive the Lord at Christmas. On a larger scale, we have our whole lives – long or short – to ready ourselves for his second coming, for his coming again in glory and judgment. Standing before the purity of the Just Judge your unrepented sins will feel like anger and wrath and sorrow, and you will find yourself self-condemned. Or upon arriving at the throne, you will show Christ his face in yours, and you will welcomed to the eternal wedding feast. All the niceness in the universe; all the professional middle-class values in the world; all the theology, university degrees, and investment portfolios on the planet can't get you into heaven. What will get you into heaven is to go to the Lord on your last day and show him how much you resemble a child of the Father. Show him how you bore witness to his mercy. Show him how you loved the unlovable and forgave the unforgivable. Show him that you became a Christ for others.


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24 November 2019

Who rules your heart?

Christus Rex
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Every year on this solemnity I ask you the same question: who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules you? Someone or something has always ruled you and will always rule you. Christ sacrificial death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension makes it possible for us to choose who or what that someone or something is. We are free to choose our master. My annual question may seem an odd one to ask of a church filled with Catholics for a Sunday Mass. Isn't it obvious, Father, that we have all chosen Christ? We're here, aren't we? Well, in my long experience, even Mass-going Catholics can choose someone or something else to rule them when their lives in faith become too easy, or too difficult, or too routine. Christ can easily become second, third, or even fourth fiddle when the powers of this world offer us shinier, newer, cheaper, better-looking options. Therefore, the Church – in her wisdom – gives us this solemnity to reawaken in us the zealous need to place no one and nothing on the throne of our hearts other than Christ Jesus, and him crucified! He is the King of the Jews, and King of the Universe!

What does it mean to say that Christ is the King of the Universe? Turn to Colossians: “. . .in [Christ] were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible [. . .] all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” IOW, Christ is the principle of creation, the design; he is the blueprint and the final result; the logic, the reason, and the Word of reality. He is king not just in terms of power and influence but king in terms of fundamental matter and energy, of space and time; the Alpha and the Omega, first and last. Choosing Christ to rule from the throne of your heart is much more than just a moral choice or a religious/spiritual choice; it's a metaphysical choice. That is, to choose Christ is to choose to accept and live in a universe created to reveal God to human reason; a universe created to be observable, knowable, and explicable; it means understanding yourself as a person, a rational animal, a body+soul composite gifted with a supernatural end; it means accepting freedom from sin and death so that you can grow in holiness toward that end. Most importantly, it means choosing to become Christ for others by choosing to live and die in sacrificial love.

What does it mean to say that Christ, King of the Universe, rules from the throne of your heart? While Jesus hangs on the cross btw two thieves, the Roman soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” One of the thieves reviles Jesus with, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” What the soldiers and the thief fail to understand is that Jesus can save himself. . .but he chooses to save us instead by dying on that cross. That's what good kings do. They not only rule justly and wisely but they die for their people if necessary. They die to protect, preserve, and give their people whatever they need to flourish. Christ died to free us from sin and death, giving us the choice of who or what will rule our hearts. He gave us the apostolic faith, the Church, the sacraments. He gave his life – body and soul – so that we might have life eternal with his Father. He gave us the Holy Spirit to bind us together as One Body, offering one sacrifice through his priests to bring heaven to earth and to show us what's possible in faith. How do you choose Christ to rule your heart? Remember the Good Thief and repeat after him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I could spend a solid week listing the someones and somethings that we regularly choose to rule us: food, drink, sex, politics, careers, revenge, despair, cynicism. The big ones: pride, envy, wrath, you know the rest. Any one of these or some combo is deadly to the follower of Christ precisely b/c – given your permission – it will usurp Christ from his throne in your heart and corrupt everything you think, say, and do. And we know: we become what we worship. If you worship a created thing, an idol – alcohol, porn, food, a movie star/athlete, a politician – if you worship an idol, you become that idol, a thing of this world. . .blind, deaf, mute, and, inevitably, dead. For good dead. The way you keep Christ on the throne of your heart is simple: daily prayer; regular fasting; good works done for the greater glory of God; regular and worthy celebration of the sacraments, esp. confession and Mass; reading the Scriptures and other good religious books; and making sure that every morning upon rising and every evening going to bed, you give God abundant (extravagant) thanks and praise for all of the blessings He poured out on you that day AND for every blessing He is going to pour out on you tomorrow. “Today, Lord, I want to be with you in Paradise.”

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17 November 2019

On Being Hated in Christ

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus makes us an ugly promise. We will be betrayed by brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. We will be arrested and persecuted; tried before courts and governors; sent to prison and even executed. We ask Jesus, “Why, Lord?” He answers, “Because of my name.” Because you have heard his Word and answered. Because you have repented and received his mercy. Because you have seen and heard and because you bear witness. His name – Christ Jesus – causes this world to recoil in disgust. This world cannot bear to hear the name of Christ b/c the ruler of this world cannot love or forgive or hope or trust. Power and the corruption power breeds is the lifeblood of this world. Christ, who preaches surrender to God and sacrificial love for others, is deadly poison to those who cannot bear to see their will thwarted. “The day is coming, [says the Lord], blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” But before that day comes, those who claim the name of Christ will be sorely tested. Those who persevere will pass the test; “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”

Now, if all this sounds a bit dreary, a little too much doom and gloom, we can find some comfort in the fact that these prophecies have been coming to pass since the Resurrection. That is, Christians have been persecuted, tortured, and executed all over the world by the world since the first Easter morning. None of this new. We aren't waiting for the Last Days to arrive. They're here. And they've been here since the stone was rolled away from Jesus' empty tomb. Our fundamentalist Protestant friends see the “Last Days” as a future event, happening sometime soon, so they spend a great deal of time looking for biblical clues and matching those clues to world events in order to find out when the Big Day will happen. The Church has always known that Christ's resurrection marks the beginning of these Last Days. So, rather than waste our time with dodgy biblical timelines, we look to history and find that the Church always survives when the world decides to try her. The Church survives b/c her members persist in holding tight to the name of Christ Jesus. When the world offers power, prestige, and applause, those who persevere in Christ respond with fidelity, hope, and sacrificial love. When the world persecutes us, we respond by testifying to Christ's saving power. 
We could call this testimony a form of bearing witness. By word and deed in our daily lives we reveal the saving power of Christ to others. We might also think of our testimony as a form of spiritual warfare. By word and deed in our daily lives we battle the worldly powers to expose their emptiness, their hopelessness, and their death-dealing schemes. Lest we come to think that this spiritual warfare is conducted between a great army of Good and another of Evil, remember: the only spiritual battle that matters in the end is the one you conduct within yourself. This kind of war isn't nearly as sexy and exciting as going up against the Forces of Evil with nothing but a rosary and a crucifix, but, alas, Jesus didn't consult any Hollywood producers before he prophesied how the world would treat his followers. We will have to be content with battling our own demons internally, and do all we can to help our brothers and sisters do the same. And this is where perseverance comes in. It ain't about winning the war. The war is won. On the cross, Jesus won the war. My battle, your battle is to persevere in faith, hope, and charity. To hang tough against every temptation to sin. Against every offer to betray your supernatural end in Christ.

“You will be hated by all because of my name but [. . .] By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” We were warned more than 2,000 years ago. We wear the name of Christ Jesus. We are branded his and belong to him body and soul. Because of this, the world hates us. And the world loves nothing more than to watch us hate ourselves. If it can convince you to forget or compromise or dilute the Truth Christ died to give you, then it has a victory. Not a cosmic victory. Just a victory over you. The great servant of Satan, Screwtape, says that his boss' best weapon against the Christian is “contented worldliness,” an attitude of self-assured, self-satisfied preoccupation with the passing stuff of this world. What better way to tempt you into forgetfulness or compromise than to tempt you into being fully satisfied with what cannot endure. Anchor your life in this world, and you will pass when it passes. Remember that you belong to Christ – body and soul – and when the tests come, and they will, you will persevere.

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12 November 2019

God is in control. . .not you

32nd Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic, NOLA

Jesus tells the apostles that they must forgive their sinning brother, even if he sins seven times in one day. How do the disciples respond? They plea, “Increase our faith, Lord!” I live with nine Dominican brothers. . .so, what's 9x7x365??? So I hear and feel the desperate cry of the apostles. I would add to their cry, “Increase my patience, Lord! And my prudence. And my fortitude. . .oh, and my peace.” And I am confident that each brother in the priory feels the same way about dealing with my sins against them. But the point of this Gospel is not calculating the required number of times we must forgive a sinner. This Gospel is about how deeply and broadly we trust in the Lord's promises to make all things right. It's about how much of our own strength and energy we invest in trusting that God the Father has both the first and last word on who receives mercy. When Jesus assures his despairing apostles that faith the size of a mustard seed can uproot a mulberry tree, he's not telling them that faith can be measured in pounds and inches; he's telling them that even the smallest faith is invincible when wielded with absolute confidence.

How can one's faith be invincible? Faith is not a magical power. It's not a means of manipulating God. Nor is it something that can be accumulated and counted like money. BXVI tells us that faith is the good habit of trusting in God's promises. He writes, “. . .faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see.”* So, faith is a stable disposition of the spirit. Firmness. Solidity. Consistency. Stability of temperament. The question of one's faith is NOT: how much faith do I have right at this moment? But rather: how stable/strong/consistent is my trust in God's promises over the long haul? When the inevitable storms of life beat me up, how strong is my foundation in Christ? Are the walls and roof of my relationship with Christ well-built? You can forgive a sinner 7x's a day or 77x's a day b/c you trust that God – as the infinite source of mercy – is doing the same for you. You can dole out forgiveness freely and easily b/c you are strongly disposed, permanently bent toward trusting that God is in control, and that His promises have been kept. Woe to you who cause another to sin. Woe to you who will not forgive. 

*Spe salvi, 7. 
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10 November 2019

Do you belong to Christ?

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

What does marriage and re-marriage have to do with the resurrection of the dead? Nothing, as it turns out. But Jesus' opinion on marriage and re-marriage was never in dispute. The dispute is about his teaching on the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees are practicing a time-honored form of argument – the reductio ad absurdum. Take an absurd but possible real-life scenario and challenge your opponent to explain this scenario using his beliefs. The goal here is find what's called a limiting principle, some rule or boundary that helps to define the reach of your opponent's position. If there is no limiting principle, then your opponent's beliefs explain everything, meaning they explain nothing thus making his beliefs useless. The Sadducees are probing for the limits of Jesus' explanation for what happens to the righteous after death. More specifically, since they do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, they are trying to refute this novel theological teaching. But Jesus doesn't play their game. Instead, he teaches them (and us): “. . .the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob [. . .] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” All who are alive in Christ are alive forever. Even in death there is no death in Christ.

Here's what the CCC teaches us: “Christ is raised with his own body. . .but he did not return to an earthly life. So, in him, 'all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear,' but Christ 'will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,' into a 'spiritual body'” (nos. 999-1000). How does this happens? It starts at baptism. When you were baptized your “lowly body” was started on the path that leads to a “glorified body” and you were made a member of the “spiritual body,” the Church. In other words, all that you are – body and soul – was initiated (started) in the process of becoming Christ. If you remain in the body of Christ, the Church – through the sacraments, prayer, and good works – then, like Christ, you will, at your death, be raised like he was. So, even in death there is no death in Christ. The life you are living now is not your own. You belong to Christ. Your death belongs to Christ. And your life eternal belongs to Christ. The question to ask yourself at this point is: am I living my life as if I belong to Christ? If not, what can I do to change course?

Staying in the Body of Christ is a matter of consistently and worthily celebrating the sacraments, esp. confession and Mass; diligent and devoted daily prayer; and doing good works for the greater glory of God. As Catholics, we gather weekly (daily) to participate directly in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we gather as One Body to partake in a sacrificial meal, a meal where Christ is made present in the bread and wine, where we eat and drink his body, blood, soul, and divinity, where we take into ourselves everything he is for us and anticipate our own transfiguration after death. In the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “Just as bread is no longer ordinary bread after God's blessing has been invoked upon it, the Eucharist is formed of two things, one earthly, the other heavenly: so too our bodies, which partake of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.” Living in the hope of the resurrection is not just an intellectual exercise — it is living a Eucharistic life, one moment of thanksgiving after another, one instance of praise after another, taking into ourselves all that Christ is for us so that we might become Christs for others.

We find our strength and energy to be Christs for others in diligent and devoted daily prayer, receiving the graces that the Father pours out on us, clearing away any obstacles to reception and sharpening our ability and willingness to say, “Thank you, Lord!” Gratitude builds humility; and humility builds holiness. The further we are from the world while still living in the world, the closer we are to being perfected in the Christ who owns us. The closer we are to Christ, the more like him do we speak, think, feel, and act. And the closer we are to speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting like Christ, the readier we are to do the good works we are vowed to do. The old-school corporate works of mercy still apply: feed the hungry; give water to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; and bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy apply as well: instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; admonish the sinner; bear patiently those who wrong us; forgive offenses; comfort the afflicted; pray for the living and the dead. All who are alive in Christ are alive forever. Even in death there is no death in Christ. Are you living your life as if you belong to Christ?

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27 October 2019

Praying to Yourself

30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Anthony/OLR, NOLA

The tax collector prays to God. The Pharisee prays to himself. What difference does this difference make? Self-righteous prayer attempts to change God, while righteous prayer changes the one praying. In our desire to gain and maintain control of our lives – lives that do not belong to us in the first place – we can forget a basic theological truth: Nothing we can do, say, feel, or think changes God. We live and move and have our being in Him. He does not live and move and have His being in us. We are His creatures; He is our Creator. Prayer is one way that we align our will with His. Therefore, Christian prayer is not a form of persuasion; a way of bargaining, or a means of pestering God into giving us what we think we need or want. Christian prayer is not a magic spell, or a spiritual recipe, or a religious formula that can bend God to our will. We cannot trick God with novenas or litanies, nor can we browbeat Him with adoration or processions. None of these forms of prayer are designed to change God's mind or influence Him in the least. Jesus shows us that prayer changes the heart and mind of the one praying. And that righteous prayer is always prayed in genuine humility.

The first step in praying with genuine humility is coming to know and love God as His creature; that is, acknowledging and accepting that we are made beings, beings made in His image and likeness and re-made in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Man was created from dirt with the breath of God – body and soul. Remembering that we are dirt and that we will return to dirt, and living out that memory, is what it means to be humble. Genuine humility makes it possible for us to get out of our own way and receive all that God has to give us. We set aside our wants, our perceived needs. We set aside the need to control our lives and the lives of others. We give up the lie that we know what's best for us and ours. Above all, we accept that our end – our target – is not in this world or of this world. We are here temporarily, and nothing we do, say, think, or feel will last long after we die. So while we are here, our task is bear witness to the mercy of God, giving testimony from our own lives how He has made us His heirs, His children, through Christ Jesus. Our adoption into the Holy Family is a gift not a reward for good behavior or right-thinking. But a freely offered gift that we freely receive or freely reject. Prayer is our means of giving thanks and growing in humility.

The second step in praying in humility is coming to know and love all of God's creation, especially His sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The self-righteous Pharisee fails to love the tax-collector, judging him to be “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” How does the Pharisee make this judgment? He says, “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” In our self-righteousness, we might say, “I attend daily Mass. Go to confession once a week. Pray the rosary twice a day. And serve on the parish council.” So??? None of this makes you or me righteous. If we attend Mass, go to confession, pray the rosary, and serve on the parish council in order to be seen, to be noticed by the greedy, dishonest, and adulterous sinners who don't deserve God's mercy, then our humility is suffocated by self-righteousness, and we pray to ourselves not to God. To know and love all of God's creation, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, is not about calling sin good. It's about seeing in them and ourselves the desperate need for God's mercy and offering to them (and ourselves) the witness we all need to come out of sin and to surrender ourselves to Divine Love. The humble pray knowing they are sinners.

The last step in praying with humility is coming to know and love ourselves as redeemed sinners; that is, as loved and saved creatures of Love Himself. Genuine humility is never about self-degradation. It's never about torturing ourselves into believing that we are worthless. Remember: we are made from dirt with the breath of God. Genuine humility requires that we remember both elements of our creation: the dirt and the divine breath. When we forget that we are dirt, we end up believing ourselves to be god w/o God. That's pride. That's the lie the Serpent whispered to Eve. But when we forget that we are also of the divine breath, we end up believing ourselves to be just dirt. That is also pride. We leave God out of our lives, living as if He has no part to play in how we came to be or where we need to go. The balance is struck when we genuinely humble ourselves and exalt God. God doesn't need our exaltation, but we need to exalt Him in order to remain humble. This is why Jesus teaches us, “. . .whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Pray like the redeemed sinner you are.

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19 October 2019

Be a Bullheaded Pray-er

Audio File

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Pray always. Pray always without ceasing. Pray always without ceasing, AND do not grow weary. Is there anything we can do always and without ceasing that doesn't make us grow weary? Even those things that we love to do will eventually grind us down, so why should prayer be any different? Why wouldn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? The intense focus required. Memories stoking conscious thought. Fingers counting out beads. Bowing, kneeling, standing, maybe even crawling, only to stand again and genuflect. Why doesn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? Maybe it should. But it doesn't. Perseverance in prayer – always, without ceasing – cannot weary us b/c prayer is our direct line to the source and summit, the center and ground of our being: God who is Love Himself.

Pray always, without ceasing and do not grow weary. Be persistent, persevering in prayer. That sounds good. It sounds like the sort of advice we want to hear from the pulpit. We want to hear our preachers exhort us to be persistent, to be persevering, but let's be frank with one another. Words like “persistent” and “perseverance” are just the polite substitutes we use to disguise a vulgar truth: a successful prayer-life requires a bull-headedness. I mean something akin to the sort of stubbornness that we expect from a rented mule. If you will live a life in God's blessing, weariness is not an option. Why not? B/c the stakes are too high. B/c the costs of laxity are too great. Consider: prayer does nothing to change the mind of God. Prayer changes the one praying. If we cannot or will not recognize the blessings that God has poured out for us, it's likely b/c we have failed to be stubborn enough in using prayer to open our own eyes to see. His gifts never stop coming; they never cease flowing. If we will to see and receive His gifts, our prayer can never cease. Gratitude must always be on our lips.

Writing to his disciple, Timothy, Paul urges, “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed. . .I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. . .proclaim the word; be persistent. . .” Remain faithful; be persistent. Why this focus on endurance, tenacity? Aren't we called as Christians to be tolerant and flexible? Aren't we supposed to be willing to compromise in conflict? That's what “love your neighbor” is all about, right? I mean, how do we love others and at the same time remain faithful to what we have learned, if what we have learned conflicts with Christ's command to love? When we love our neighbors, we participate in Love who is God Himself. He is also Truth and Goodness, so we can only love in the presence of the True and the Good. Paul's admonition to remain faithful and to persist in the Truth is a warning to us not to forget that we are vowed to proclaim the Word. We can only fulfill our vow if we stubbornly refuse to surrender our direct line to Love Himself, only if we tenaciously guard against the temptation to compromise what we have learned and believe.

How do we keep the weapon of prayer honed and well-oiled? By using it. What happens when we become distracted in prayer? Those aren't distractions you're experiencing. That's the Holy Spirit showing you who and what needs prayer. What about those dry periods when it appears that God isn't hearing us? He always hears us. Dryness comes when we aren't listening. The surest way of ending a dry-spell is to turn your prayer to gratitude. Gratitude grows humility and humility unplugs the ears. What about finding the time to pray? If you are still breathing, there's time to pray. Talk to God about washing the dishes; driving the kids to school; paying the bills; cooking dinner; mowing the yard. Keep a running conversation going about whatever it is you're doing. What if we grow weary of prayer? Ask yourself: am I tired of being loved? Am I exhausted by being forgiven? If you grow weary of prayer, then tell God that you are weary and give Him thanks for being alive to feel weary! If all you have to say to God is “O Lord! I am so weary!” then say that. Say it until you're no longer weary and then give Him thanks for the gift of being able to tell Him so.

NB: prayer is not a technique or a method. It takes no special training, no weekend seminar, or bookshelf full of How-To guides. You don't need to learn how to pray b/c God taught you to pray the moment you were conceived. He engraved into each one of us an indelible desire to seek Him out and live Him forever. In other words, in the great game of life, God made the first move and He continues to make the first move with every breath we take. If we're to be stubborn in prayer, then all we need to do is make each and every breath an exhalation of thanksgiving and praise. Breath in His gifts, breath out our gratitude. If you grow weary of prayer, then I must ask: have you grown weary of breathing? We live, move, have our being in the enduring presence of Love Himself. Prayer is no more difficult than seeing, hearing, touching, feeling His presence as we live and move. Stubbornly refuse then to be moved from His loving-care and just as stubbornly give Him constant thanks. 

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13 October 2019

Tenacious Christian Bulldog

Audio Link

28th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I grew up in rural Mississippi with more or less tradition-minded Baptist parents. My younger brother and I learned from Day One to say “yessir/no sir,” “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me.” Failure to express proper respect or gratitude earned a swift and terrible rebuke. I still use “Mr.” and “Ms” when addressing adults, and I cringe a little when people call me by my first name w/o asking, or shorten it to “Phil.” It's all very old-fashioned, I know, but there's something about the habits of good manners that makes life easier. In the case of the healed leper, his deeply felt sense of gratitude actually saves him! He discovers – probably to his great surprise – that giving God thanks for his healing is not only the polite thing to do but a way to salvation as well. For us, the baptized, giving God thanks for His blessings is way to persevere, a way to remain in Christ and thus end our earthly pilgrimage reigning with him in the Kingdom. Is it possible that the good manners many of us were taught as children is what remains of this spiritual insight? Saying “thank you,” especially to God, is a path to healing and salvation.

We hear Paul say to Timothy: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.” That persevering part is what most of us find difficult. Dying with him in the waters of baptism was easy. Living with him has its challenges, but we manage it with the sacraments. Persevering with him however is on another level entirely. Persevering here means staying close to Christ. Hanging on to him through the best and the worst. Living with him whether we “feel” his presence or not. Perseverance is the good habit of being tenacious in faith when every fiber of your being is screaming at you: “Compromise! Just fit in! Surrender! This is too hard!” Have you seen that video of a bull dog swinging himself around a tree, teeth clamped on the end of a rope? The rope will break, or the tree will fall before that dog lets go. That's tenacity. That's perseverance. Now, I wouldn't trust my teeth to hang on like a bull dog's. But I do trust that gratitude is the key to staying close to Christ. The leper proves this. Christ teaches this. And I can bear personal witness that giving God thanks for His blessings is essential in our long trek to holiness.
As a priest in an academic ministry, I don't have my own parish to run, so I spend a lot of time going out to parishes to hear confessions, give missions or talks, and basically just visiting with people over all the archdiocese. Every time I go out, I hear a lot of anxiety about the Church. I get confused questions about the faith. Angry comments about the news coming out of Rome. Questions and doubts about the future. Just generally an overwhelming sense that things aren't well with the Body of Christ. Something is wrong, something is upsetting the peace we've come to expect from following Christ. In response, I have to sharply suppress my professorial instincts and avoid giving a lecture on the history of the Church. No one wants to hear how good we have it compared to, say, the Church in communist China. Then I have to swallow the need to remind folks that the “peace of Christ” comes with a promise of persecution. What I usually end up saying is that difficult times require a bull dog's tenacity. It might be too much to say that we're being tested. But – we're being tested. Not tested in the sense that God is deliberately trying to scare us or trip us up. But tested in the sense that steel is tested under pressure to measure its purity and strength. Our test is measuring the purity and strength of our gratitude. If you will to endure with Christ, you will be grateful to God for His blessings.

You might ask here: why does God need our gratitude? The answer is: He doesn't. Giving God thanks does nothing for God b/c He needs nothing from us. Our desire to give Him thanks is itself a gift that benefits us alone. In other words, we are doing ourselves a favor by returning thanks for all that God gives us. Failing to give thanks breeds entitlement – I am owed. And entitlement is the rich soil of pride. If we nurture pride by failing in gratitude, we end up denying Christ – the ultimate gift from God. We end up being among the nine lepers who were healed but not saved. Ungrateful wretches living lives of resentment and anger b/c they believe that God owes them a debt. As followers of Christ, our best means of staying close to Christ is to be a tenacious Christian bull dog, refusing to let go of gratitude.

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29 September 2019

We've been warned

Audio File

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

All rich people go to hell when they die; and all poor people are whisked off to heaven by angels at death. Right? Rich people go to hell b/c they are rich, and poor people to heaven b/c they are poor. God hates the rich, and loves the poor, so this must be the case. . .just as our story this morning shows us. BUT our story this morning shows us no such thing. So, why does the rich man end up in hell and Lazarus in heaven? Abraham tells the rich man to remember that he – the rich man – received what was good in his lifetime and Lazarus received what was bad. Again, this doesn't seem quite right. Are we punished or rewarded for what life gives us (good or bad), or for what we have done or failed to do? The key to this parable is to start with the ending. The rich man begs Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers about hell. Abraham says that that have Moses and the Prophets to warn them. The rich man says that if someone they know is dead would appear and warn them, they would listen. Abraham, giving us the meaning of the parable says, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Why is the rich man in hell? He did not listen to Moses and the Prophets.

And since he did not listen to Moses and the Prophets, he failed to do all that God had asked him to do as a man abundantly blessed. Now, the obvious question: what did Moses and the Prophets tell the rich man – and everyone else in the Jewish world – to do? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, free the oppressed, tend the widow and orphan; and honor and obey the Lord your God. In other words, those who have been most blessed by the Lord are obligated in turn to bless those who have not been so blessed. St Paul adds a few additional elements to these commands, writing, “you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. . .I charge you before God, who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus. . .to keep the commandment without stain or reproach. . .” Which commandment? To love God and neighbor as Christ loves us. God abundantly gifted the rich man and he failed to abundantly gift those who had nothing. This principle applies to material blessings as well as spiritual blessings. If you have been blessed with material and/or spiritual gifts, you are obligated – in the name of Christ – to share those blessings.

This whole Sharing the Blessings Thing is part of God's plan for salvation. This isn't about social justice or political equality or economic fairness. It's about your salvation and your growth in holiness. God the Father breathed over the void. He breathed the Holy Spirit, speaking one Word: Christ. The creation of the universe in Christ and its recreation in his sacrifice tells us that the diffusion, the sharing of goodness, truth, and beauty is fundamental to how God made us and intends to bring us back to Him made perfect. The rich man is given much so that he might effect his salvation in giving more. Lazarus is given heaven b/c he suffers now from having so little. Both men have the same chance to attend the wedding feast, but only one perfects his gifts on earth – Lazarus. You and I have been given the greatest gift possible: forgiveness of our sins, freedom from sin and death. Do you share this gift? Do you bear witness – out loud – to the fact that you have been reborn in water and spirit to life everlasting? I could ask as well: do you freely share the material wealth you have been given? Make no mistake. Nothing we have or are belongs to us. All of it, everything belongs to Christ. And he is telling us: give it away. Spread it around.

We are at best temporary keepers of what we have and who we are. To believe otherwise is to believe that there is something or someone more fundamental than our commitment to Christ. And if there is someone or something more fundamental to you than your commitment to Christ, then that is who or what you will become at death. The rich man withheld his riches from Lazarus and died to eternal torment. He hoarded all that God had given him, and found himself deprived of the wedding feast. By his choice. It may sound like a threat now or a punishment later, but it is actually a consequence of how he chose to live. Had he listened – truly obeyed – the words and deeds of Moses and Prophets, he and Lazarus would have shared a feast at the table of the Lord. Our job as followers of Christ is to spread the Father's blessings far and wide. Whether those blessings are material or spiritual, we are charged with the sacred duty of making sure that no one goes physically or spiritually hungry. That everyone with ears to hear and eyes to see meets Christ in our person. We are here this morning to receive the gifts of Christ and then leave here, sowing those gifts like seeds.


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26 September 2019

Do not be lost in confusion

25th Week OT (R)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Why would the king who murdered John the Baptist be confused by Christ's words and deeds? Why would he be curious about who and what Christ is? Despite his horrible sins, or b/c of them,* Herod is experiencing what all men and women feel – the desire to know and love God. Each human person – from Adam and Eve to infants born just this morning – is created with a longing for union with their Creator. Given his life of sin, Herod experiences this longing as confusion and curiosity. He is both attracted to and repulsed by John's rebuke of his adultery. Now, he hears rumors about a man preaching repentance, and salvation from sin and death. That part of him created to long for union with God is provoked, and he has a decision to make. Like each one of us, he has a choice: repent and turn to Christ, or continue to live in confusion and mere curiosity. For those of us given a supernatural faith at baptism, repentance and turning to Christ is as natural as breathing. So, when you are unsettled, stressed, exhausted, or despairing – turn again to Christ. Repent and embrace your Savior. Or live with Herod, lost and perplexed. 

*Trying to say something too complex here. Decided to omit it.  

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22 September 2019

Listen to "Can you be trusted with the faith?"

 Audio link for "Can you be trusted with the faith?"

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Can you be trusted with the faith?

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25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

As a seminary formator I sometimes have to sit one of my guys down and tell him that he needs to get a haircut, or to lose the handle-bar mustache, or to quit smoking, or even – ironically enough – to lose weight. Most of the times these guys nod solemnly and say, “Yes, Father.” Some grumble a bit but comply. And one or two resist and argue that whatever it is that I am asking them to do doesn't make sense or violates some unwritten Bill of Seminarian Rights. I always respond, “Brother, if we can't trust you to obey a simple request to get a hair cut, how can we trust you to keep your ordination promises?” The principle here is universally applicable: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.” Replace trustworthy with faithful. The person who is faithful in very small matters is also faithful in great ones. Replace faithful with loving. The person who is loving in very small matters is also loving in great ones. You get the picture. Being virtuous in small matters indicates an ability to be virtuous in larger ones. To be virtuous/faithful/loving in one area of your life but not in another is what it means to serve Two Masters. And what does Jesus say about serving two masters? “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” 
Well, why not? Who you to choose to serve defines who you are. In Jesus' day, servants were members of the family, part of the household. They weren't just hired help. If a servant said or did something shameful in public, the family he served would be publicly shamed. The idea here is that the servant holds his family's honor in his hands. He represents the integrity of the family as surely as the oldest son does. This familial set-up is partly why the early Church spread so quickly. If the father of the family was baptized, the whole family, the whole household was baptized, including the servants. A newly baptized servant could not serve his Christian family and, at the same time, continue attending pagan religious rites. If his family served God, and he served his family, then he served God. In other words, he was trusted with the family's faith and honor – in small things and large. And so are we. As members of the Father's household, heirs to His kingdom, we are held to account for the integrity of the faith we profess. We are responsible for upholding the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Father's faith in all things – great and small alike.

So, I ask you: are you trustworthy when it comes to keeping faith with Christ? In matters large and small? Or do you try to serve both God and Mammon, both the Lord and the World? As men and women who are consecrated to the service of God the Father but who must also live in the World, this is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer. What counts as serving the World – obeying secular laws? Paying taxes? Working for a gov't agency? Am I serving the World just by owning a house, or sending my kids to public schools? Think about the household servant in Jesus' day. He works for his family – cleaning, shopping, cooking, maybe even teaching the children. BUT. He is part of the family. Who he is is bound up with his family and their faith. In modern terms we might say that his identity as a person is tied to tightly to the family that he is no one without them and their faith. Do you serve the World in the way this man serves his household? Is your identity tied so tightly to worldly things and thoughts that you become no one without the stuff and noise of the World? If so, then you are trying to serve two masters. “[You] will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.”

As men and women consecrated to the service of God the Father we are entrusted with a Word that brings salvation to sinners. We are empowered to bear witness to God's mercy. We are charged with offering acceptable spiritual sacrifices and proclaiming the perfections of Christ. We are privileged to celebrate the sacraments of Christ and receive his healing help. We are made children of the Father and heir to His kingdom. Such greatness have we been given! Christ trusts us – each one of us – to complete his mission. To make known the manifold wisdoms of God and show those who will see that sin and death no longer hold the slaver's whip. And that whatever chains they may still wear they wear in ignorance and sloth. Christ trusts us – each one of us – to complete his ministry. To teach and preach the merciful Word to those with ears to hear. To shout out in word and deed that their freedom was not free. . .but to them it is freely given. Are you trustworthy in all things – great and small alike – to spend the faith Christ has given you? To purchase for God men and women hungry for the peace of Christ?

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15 September 2019

Don't get lost

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Here's the upshot of our three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son: if you're lost, you can found. As long as someone is looking and you want to be found, you will be found. Jesus isn't talking about being physically lost here like lost in a strange city w/o a working GPS. He's talking about being lost along The Way, lost off the path to holiness and salvation. This kind of being lost is the worse kind b/c it can end in being eternally lost. So, Jesus wants us to know that God the Father never stops looking. He never ceases searching for us. God the Father is always prepared to welcome us back, to take us in, and give us everything we need to become part of His family again. But we have want to be found. We have to will to come back. The wandering sheep is lost but doesn't know its lost. Same goes for the missing coin. The lost sheep doesn't understand the dangers of falling off a cliff or getting eaten by wolves. The coin doesn't know that it's basically worthless while wedged between floorboards. But the son, the lost son, he knows that being lost, being away from his father has caused him no end of grief. He comes back. He comes back to forgiveness, mercy, and a loving home. And so can we.

It's one thing to wander away from the Church out of neglect or just plain old ignorance. It's quite another to be thrown away from the Church, to be run out of the Church by an angry pastor or haughty parishioners. But to simply walk away, to get lost on purpose is in a whole other realm of Getting Lost. Over my years as a priest I've heard dozens of reasons people give for abandoning the Church. I don't get anything out it. Too much emphasis on boring ritual. Too many hypocrites in the parish. The Church won't celebrate my favorite sin. Always talking about money. All the tradition is gone. Father was mean to me. Too much politics. All religions are basically the same anyway. I could go on for another hour. But each of these is like the lost son taking his abundant inheritance and blowing it on wine, women, and song. Blowing all that he inherited from his father on living it up in the world. And for what? To end up working for a pig farmer and eating what the pigs leave behind. Nearly starving to death on the garbage the world feeds him. Desperate and alone he does the only thing left for him to do. He swallows his excuses and goes home. He expects to find his father in a rage. Instead, he finds forgiveness b/c his father was waiting in love.

You and I are the lost son. Every time we sin, we walk away from the Father. Sometimes it takes nearly starving to death to bring us home. Sometimes it takes being humiliated or nearly ruined to bring us back. Whatever it is that turns us again toward the Father, the Father is always waiting to give us his best cloak and roast up his fattest calf. He wants us to know all this so that no matter how far we run away from Him, He is always right where He has always been. The shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for the lost one. And he rejoices when he returns home with that sheep across his shoulders. The woman sweeps her whole house looking for one lost coin. And she rejoices with her neighbors when she finds it. The father of the prodigal son rejoices when his boy comes home. Why? Because the son wanted to come home. He willed to return to his family. When you and I want to be found, we will be found b/c God the Father is always right where He has always been.

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31 August 2019

Serviam, non serviam. . .you decide

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22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Serviam. Non serviam. God has banished his brightest angel to Hell for rebelling against Heaven. Satan, the Arch-fiend, surveying his fiery kingdom and his fallen kin, boasts to his minion, Beelzebub: “Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav'n” (Book 1). Non serviam. I will not serve. And b/c Satan once and always chooses not to serve, he is eternally chained by his bitter pride, “rolling in the fiery gulf,” Milton writes, “Confounded though immortal.” As a creature of God, Lucifer, receives from God not only his very being but also every gift that he needs to thrive as a servant of the Almighty. Yet, out of jealously and pride, he rebels, placing himself above the duties and obligations of a creature and settles himself into an immortal existence of bitter and ultimately impotent rage against his Father. That is pride's pay-out: bitter, impotent rage. But a rebel against God doesn't have to be an angel first. We humans are quite good at rebelling against our Creator. Every moment of every day, we are all saying, in thought, word, and deed either: “Serviam.” I will serve. Or “Non serviam.” I will not serve. We serve Self, or we serve God. There is no third option.

So, if we are not serving God, then we are serving Self. But how? Sure we avoid the obvious, public displays of Pride that might've been thought good and true in Jesus' day – like marching up to the seat of honor at a wedding feast; or boasting loudly of our wealth; or bragging about our sexual conquests. We know now that that sort of thing is impolite. I hear my grandma's voice, “That's just tacky.” But there are many other more subtle ways that we can serve Self instead of God. You can serve your passions. You can allow your fears, lusts, anger, and loves to run wild, and believe yourself entitled to a forgiving audience. You can serve your will. You can assert your choices, your personal preferences and demand that they be honored simply b/c you asserted them. You can also serve your intellect. You can come to think that your reason by itself is capable of knowing any and everything worth knowing. In other words, in each case, you elect to serve a temporary, limited, unfaithful god. YOU. And like Satan and his minions in Hell, you can become quite proud of your rebellion. An impotent, bitter rebellion against the Very One who holds you in being.

So, what does non serviam look like for us? What does the refusal to serve God actually look like down here on earth? Think about your daily routine, your daily life. Think of each moment as a chance to serve God in love, faith, and hope. To be a living sign, a prophet of mercy to others. Think about each of those moments and then think what it means to say No. I will not love. I will not forgive. I will not believe. I will not hope. I will not pray, sacrifice, or give thanks. I will not be generous. I will not trust nor will I praise. I will not obey. What I will do is do and think and speak as I wish when I wish to whom I wish b/c I serve ME. My life; my choice. My choice; my right. My right; I'm right! This is the bitter, impotent rage of Pride and it places us in the company of the Devil, among his minions, ruling Hell. . .b/c I will not serve. Another way to say this: I will not to serve – deliberate, conscious, voluntary. To serve Self rather than God. And therefore the consequences that flow from this choice are mine to bear. Individuals makes these choices. Couples, families, states, and nations makes these choices. . .daily. And the consequences flow accordingly.

The better seat – the Best Seat – at the wedding feast is the seat offered to you by the Host. Not the one you choose out of Pride, believing falsely that you deserve a better seat, or that you've earned the best seat. But the seat given to you by the Host, the one He knows you deserve b/c you grasp the reality of your relationship with Him. You have lived a life in service to the Truth, serving Him by serving His; always giving thanks and praise for every gift; always bearing courageous witness to His mercy; always placing yourself last – not b/c you are worthless but b/c you know you have been made worthy by His Son. Made heirs in the family. We do not earn that seat. We don't buy it or rent it. We can't steal it or bribe our way into it. We inherit a seat at the table. As loving and well-loved children of the Father, we inherit our places at the feast. And it is humility and godly service that keeps us firmly within the Holy Family. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Every second of every day until you die you are offered a chance to serve God and secure your inheritance. Which will it be: serviam or non serviam? Choose wisely.

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