10 February 2019

Leave it behind and put out into the deep!

5th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

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

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

Time and physical distance do not limit Christ. His words to Peter on the boat are spoken directly to us, each one of us: “Put out into the deep. . .do not be afraid.” As this world grows older and its spiritual and moral foundations become more and more fragile, our hold on things true, good, and beautiful seems to grow more and more precarious. We don't need to recite the litany of sins our culture of death revels in. It's the same list Isaiah, Paul, and Peter knew so well. It's the same list that ancient Israel and Judah knew. It's the same list the serpent wrote in the Garden and the same list men have been carrying around for millennia. That list tells us how to degrade and destroy the dignity of the human person, the image and likeness of God that each one us shares in, the imago Dei that makes us perfectable in Christ. It is the mission of the Enemy to tempt us into racial suicide, to kill ourselves as the human race by separating ourselves – one soul at a time – from our inheritance in the Kingdom. The Deep that we are commanded to evangelize is at once both the individual human heart and the whole human community. And lurking in that Deepness is both Eden's serpent and Christ's cross, both the voice of rebellion against God and the instrument of sacrifice for God. As we choose, hear Christ Jesus say again, “Do not be afraid.”

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

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03 February 2019

The Gospel is worth a riot or two

4th Sunday OT (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus causes a riot. I don't think he wanted to cause a riot, but he must've known that his announcement in the synagogue would make people angry. He does it anyway. He tells the synagogue-goers that Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah “has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning: he is proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. Some are amazed. They speak highly of him. His words are gracious, grace-filled, they say. Then they begin to question. They question his credibility. His authority. His family. They want to know just who he thinks he is. At this point, if Jesus were a 21st c. politician or CEO, he would immediately hire a P.R. firm, issue a non-apology apology, donate money to an orphanage, and check himself into rehab. But Jesus is not a politician. He's the Messiah. And so, he causes a riot. Basically, he scolds the doubters by comparing them to the people who refused to believe God's prophets, Elijah and Elisha, leaving only the pagans to place their faith in Abraham's God. The angry crowd chases Jesus to a cliff so they might hurl him headlong to his death. The lesson here: the truth will set you free. . .and probably get you tossed off a mountain. But tell it anyway.

Now, we know that Jesus wasn't tossed off the mountain. He “passed through the midst of them and went away.” The question I have is this: why did he announce his mission and ministry in this way? In the middle of Sabbath services at a synagogue? He just sort of blurts it out! He could've done it more gently, more “professionally.” I don't know, maybe start small with a few close friends and let the word spread in its own time. Let people get used to the idea. Expand slowly to make sure that only those who truly believed in him would be admitted into the Church. Instead he does the one thing that any sensible consultant would tell him is guaranteed to make people angry – he proclaims the truth boldly, clearly, and in public. And sure enough, people get mad. They get mad b/c the truth hurts AND b/c the one proclaiming the truth is someone they know – a prophet come home to find that he is not honored as a prophet. Does this bit of inconvenience stop him? No. He does what prophets do. He proclaims God's truth. And he stings the conscience of those who refuse to believe. Their faith is smaller than that of the pagans who believed Elijah and Elisha. And they know it!

Proclaiming the truth of the Gospel – in season and out – is no easy thing. We, as good law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, are trained not to cause trouble. Not to rock any boats we might be on. Not to stir the pot. Or otherwise say or do anything that might offend. Good, middle-class manners keep us connected in the neighborhood, at work, and at school. We keep the family peaceful, friends friendly, and co-workers working with us by minimizing points of difference and maximizing points of similarity. This is basic human nature. We are tribal animals in many ways. We want/need to belong to the group – for safety, community, even survival. The earliest Christian churches around the Mediterranean were persecuted precisely b/c they refused to be part of the larger pagan culture. They lived differently. They married for life. One man, one woman. They did not kill their unwanted children. They went out of their way to help the poor, the disabled, the abandoned, and the sick. They forgave those who persecuted them. And they worshiped just one God. All of this made them outcasts in their own nations. And it is quickly making us outcasts even now. 
This is where you might expect me to grouse about the declining morals of a great nation, or lament at how poorly Christians are being treated by the culture. Nope. Not gonna do that! Instead, I'm going to point you back to Jesus in the synagogue and say, “Do as he did.” Tell the truth – the Gospel Truth – and tell it with boldness and clarity. There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing permanent, anyway. Christ promises his followers persecution. If you declare for him, follow him, and take on his mission and ministry as you own, then you are asking to be opposed by the world. So, don't be surprised when the world opposes you. Don't be surprised when the rioters form and start looking for a handy cliff to fling you from. Just do what Jesus did: tell the truth in love. Veritas in caritate. Truth in love. Yes, you will likely be questioned: Who are you to judge me? Everyone accepts [insert sin here] as a good thing! What's wrong with you? Why are you trying to take away my rights? Etc., ad. nau. Truth in love. Truth in love. You're not trying to win an argument, or trying to scores points against an opponent. You're bearing witness as a sinner to the freely offered mercy of the Father through Christ. Surely, that's worth a small riot or two. . .

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20 January 2019

From Water to Wine, Christ is our Savior

2nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The miracle at Cana tells us a lot about Jesus and Mary. That he is an obedient son, and that she is a generous guest. That he is well-aware of who and what he is – the Messiah. And that she knows this too. This miracle also tells us something about who and what we are, or who and what we can become. In fact, every miracle Christ performs to demonstrate his identity and mission can tell us something about who and what we are as his followers. If we follow Christ, then we participate in his identity and mission, making us, each one of us, a Christ. Now, I'm not saying that we can all go out and perform miracles. Or that we can all yell at random people on the street and initiate them into the Church. What I am saying is that when we faithfully follow Christ, we grow in holiness and become more and more perfect in how we love. This means that as we grow in the perfection of Christ, we ourselves are better able to help others go from the waters of baptism to the wine/blood of the Eucharist. How do we do this? How do we – imperfect as we are – help someone else to faithfully follow Christ? We have to be more than students of Jesus, the teacher. We must see him as our Savior.

That move from being devoted to Jesus as a holy teacher to following him as a Savior is a big move. It's the difference btw being a student of a great teacher and being a fellow-worker eager to share both his glory and his trials. I think most of us can say that we're ready to follow Christ. In theory, the whole scenario looks good, even healthy: repentance, forgiveness, penance, love, mercy, hope, good works, all tied together in the sacraments and supported by a vibrant religious culture. Think about the disciples. They have to make this same move. But their circumstances were very different. They are Jewish heretics. Their religious culture sees them as unclean, separated from family and friends,. Thus they are nearly overwhelmed when the ascended Christ sends the Holy Spirit among them at Pentecost, flooding each one of them with His fire for spreading the Word. In their darkest hour, they are given Divine Love, unmediated by law or prophets, undiluted by age or tradition. We are given this same Love: the Spirit to believe, trust, love, show mercy, do good works, to repent, and grow in righteousness. Like the disciples, we too come to believe that Jesus is the Savior and we show our faith in word and deed.

Our challenge as faithful followers of Christ becomes clearer and clearer every day. It's not our mission to defeat the world with holiness. The world is already defeated by Christ. It's not our mission to save the world with prayer. The world is already saved by Christ. It's not our mission to bring justice and peace among the nations through our good works. Christ did that too. Our mission is to live our lives as witnesses to all that has already been done by Christ. To live holy lives b/c the world is defeated. To live prayerful lives b/c the world is saved. To live lives doing good deeds b/c Christ's justice and peace lives already in us. We live lives of holiness and prayer, and doing good works not to change the world but to show the world all that has already been done for it. Christ gives one sign after another that shows his glory and the glory of the Father among us. All we can do is point to that glory with word and deed, and urge the world, “Do whatever he tells you.” That's enough to get us close to the Cross. But to get all the way to the Cross, we must be ready and willing to sacrifice everything. To show the world the glory of Christ, we must believe – by word and deed – and be ready to die for love of him.

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13 January 2019

Joining the Jesus Gym

Baptism of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Who here is on a diet? Who joined a gym January 2nd? I'm going to let you hate me for a second: I lost three pounds over the Christmas break! While cheating on my diet for two weeks. Losing weight, building muscle, increasing stamina, and getting ourselves as fit as we can be is no easy task. Diet. Cardio. Weight-lifting. If you've ever started down this road, you know that you will not drop 25lbs in a week, nor will you be able to show off a six-pack by the weekend. Getting a flabby, overweight, diet-stressed body into some kind of shape requires determination, focus, commitment, and lots and lots of time. It helps to have someone with experience – a professional trainer, a coach, or a friend to keep you motivated. All of this applies to our spiritual growth as well. Being Catholics, we understand the sacramental nature of creation: the physical world is a sign of the spiritual, an imperfect revelation of God that both points to God's presence and makes Him present to us. We cannot, therefore, rightly divide the human body from the human soul and expect our spiritual lives to be fruitful. Just as the body needs proper diet, exercise, and a little hard-lifting, the soul needs its strength-training too.

We start our life-long regime at The Jesus Gym on the day we are baptized. From that moment on, “the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age. . .” As Catholics, we don't have any trouble understanding grace as divine help. What we do have trouble understanding sometimes is that the help we get isn't always the help we want. We sometimes approach the throne in prayer and ask not for assistance to accomplish some goal, but rather we ask God to accomplish the goal for us, instead of us. We can be disappointed to learn that grace does not prevent us from traveling the ways of the godless nor desiring what the world would have us desire. Instead, grace trains us how to be godly men and women. The hard work of chiseling out a ripped spiritual six-pack is all ours. But we do not work alone.

And not only do we not work alone, we cannot work alone. Christianity is a team sport. We play as a team, so we train as a team and the perfect model for teamwork is the Holy Trinity: three divine persons, one God. The more perfectly we imitate this model of Love in action, we closer we get to that Jesus Gym spirit we've been wanting. As noted above, the first step on this new regime is baptism. I did not baptize myself. Nor did any of you. The Church baptized us all with parents, godparents, friends, fans, by-standers, accidental tourists, all the angels and saints – every one in attendance. So, what does baptism do for us? Paul writes to Titus, “[God] saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
First, notice: God saved. . .He poured out. We did nothing (nor could we do anything) to initiate the renewal of our relationship with God. It was His move and His alone. Second, notice: through Christ, by the Holy Spirit, through our Savior, by his grace. Christ Jesus is the only mediator, the only mechanism; he is the only way. Third, notice: us, us, our, we, heirs. Not “Me & Jesus.” Not “Jesus, MY Personal Lord & Savior.” His grace is poured out on US. . .WE are saved by the bath of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. . .Christ is OUR Savior. . .And WE are made HEIRS in hope of eternal life. This is what baptism does for us and to us: we are made just (righteous), so that we might work with God's abundant graces to get our spiritual bodies into the best shape possible.

But even before any of could be baptized in water and the Spirit the Jesus Gym had to be opened. Plans were laid long ago with the prophets. They rounded up the initial investors. The Plan was conceived and announced. And before it was fully born, there was one enthusiastic booster. Then, with some astronomical fanfare and a couple of sheep, the Plan was born, drawing its first foreign investors twelve days later. The Plan matured for a while and opened for business for the first time at a wedding in Cana. . .but the Grand Opening, the opening that makes The Jesus Gym not just another gym but The Gym for all peoples takes place at the River Jordan where Jesus' first booster baptizes him with water and then the Father baptizes him with His Spirit, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Now, The Jesus Gym is open for business.

If, after all the bad analogizing, you are still listening, let me quickly tell you why Jesus was baptized. By submitting to baptism, Christ demonstrated his acceptance of his Father's plan for our salvation. The Son submits in love to take on human flesh in order to bring the Father's offer of renewal to us. He becomes our sin; dies for us; rises again to the Father; and sends the Holy Spirit as our guide. The whole of his public ministry, inaugurated by the River Jordan, was to proclaim the Father's invitation and to leave us a body of teaching that serves to reveal what grace in action look likes. The Gospels answer the question: what does the perfected follower of Christ look like?

So, grace trains us for the godly life. What is the godly life? It is not scrupulous moral behavior. It is not meticulous orthodoxy. It is not righteous anger at injustice. It is not any one of these alone. The godly life is the life Christ left for us to follow. The godly life begins with baptism, grows with the Church, and ends with “Out of love, he/she ____for his/her friends.” How you fill in that blank will depend on how well you used your time and strength at The Jesus Gym. Most of us will spend our lives trying to decide if we have the courage to put “died” in that blank. Remember: grace trains. But we have to do the work.

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06 January 2019

Renew the Church with the Magi

The Epiphany of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Gift-giving in my family during the holidays is ever the practical art. Rarely do any of us receive sentimental gifts or anything merely decorative. We get “what we need.” I'm the easiest to shop for. CASH. Always the right color. One size fits all. Another example, over the years, my dad has given Mom as Christmas gifts – renovated bathrooms; fiber-cement siding for the house; and demolished a fireplace they never used. Mom was always genuinely delighted with these gifts. Had the three magi showed up in Mississippi and given Mom frankincense, gold, and myrrh she would've thanked them politely and then found a way to sell the stuff so she could replace her washer and dryer. Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with giving practical gifts. Gifts tell us something important about both the gift-giver and the gift-recipient. We know that the magi give the Christ Child frankincense, gold, and myrrh b/c they recognize him as the newly born King of the nations. Their treasures, and their homage tell us that they see him for who he is: the universal Savior. When we give our gifts to Christ we are also recognizing him as our Savior. But here's the thing: we belong to Christ. Everything we have already belongs to Christ. So, what's the point in giving him gifts? Gift-giving unveils the mystery of salvation.

Bear with me here. Paul explains to the Ephesians what the Magi's visit to the Christ Child means: “. . .the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That is, when we hear and receive the gift of the gospel – given to us by Christ and his apostles – we become members of the Body, the Church, and coheirs to the Kingdom. With the birth of Christ, salvation is no longer exclusive to the Father's chosen people, the Jews. Everyone else – the Gentiles – can now be part of the family of God too. God's family is catholic (universal) b/c the Magi (who were Gentiles) paid homage to Christ and gave him the gifts that a king would receive. This is the epiphany we celebrate this morning, the revelation that anyone and everyone can be a coheir to the Kingdom. The gifts of the Magi unveil the mystery of Christ's sacrifice – his own gift to us – and make manifest the truth that no one is excluded from the possibility of redemption. If you will to be a coheir, you will be a coheir. Christ's gift from the cross and the empty tomb is the primordial gift of re-creation – we can be made new in him.

So, what does any of this have to do with giving gifts to Christ? If Christ's gift to us is the primordial gift of re-creation, then – as new men and women in Christ – everything we are and everything we have belongs to him. When we return our gifts to Christ – the much mentioned time, talent, and treasure – we participate in a holy exchange that expresses our gratitude, deepens our humility, and prepares us to better receive those gifts from God we have yet to receive. In other words, we become pipelines that pump God's love and mercy into the world, unveiling again and again and again the mystery of salvation: anyone and everyone can be a coheir to the Kingdom. Our faith is essentially an exchange of gifts – a cycle of giving, receiving, expressing thanksgiving, growing in humility, being ready to receive more and more gifts from God, and all the while freely giving His gifts away so that His Christ might be better known to the whole world!
The lesson of the Magi and their epiphany reveals to us how we can renew the Church, bring her back from exile as a glorious nation of priests, prophets, and kings. To the degree that we have grown comfortable and complacent, we must once again become anxious for the salvation of souls. To the degree that we have grown mean and stingy with our gifts, we must once again become generous. To the degree that we have grown distant from God, apathetic toward sin, and proud of our religiosity, we must grow in gratitude and humility, acknowledging our faults and freely receiving God's mercy. The Church will be brought out of exile one soul at a time. The Magi show us the way. Bring gifts to Christ. Pay him homage. Give yourself in the world as a grace, a witness to the One Gift of Christ's love from the cross.

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