09 July 2020

The immovable rock of preaching

14th Week OT (R): Crisis Preaching
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP


The Catholic preacher stands on the ancient witness of Scripture; the incarnated revelation of the Father in the divine person of Christ Jesus; and the ordered, intelligible beauty of creation. He stands on God's Self-revelation in the Bible, in Christ, and in creation to accomplish one necessary task: to proclaim the Father's freely offered mercy to sinners. The Catholic preacher gives his voice to the Word of God so that the People of God may know that their Father has forgiven them their sins through Jesus Christ. Knowing that their sins are forgiven, God's people are then exhorted to receive His mercy through the sacraments, thus growing in holiness. And with their growth in holiness, they are charged with going out into the world to bear witness – in word and deed – to the mercy they themselves have received. In season and out, the Catholic preacher preaches one Word, one message, one revelation, one Gospel – Jesus Christ is Lord! From the throne of one's heart, Christ rules. In season and out, in sickness or in health, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, the Church is the eternal bride of the bridegroom. The preacher preaches standing on this immovable rock.

Jesus says to his disciples, his apostles: “'As you go, make this proclamation: The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” The kingdom IS at hand. Not used to be at hand, or will be at hand at some point. But IS at hand. Right here, right now. Whether that right here, right now is a hurricane or a beautiful spring day; an economic depression or record economic growth; a bloody civil war or a nation celebrating its unity in peace – right here, right now – the Kingdom of heaven is at hand, and Jesus Christ is Lord. The tides of history in this world will ebb and flow, will come and go, but the Lordship of Christ for those who follow him never wavers. When confronted by a crisis, some disastrous eruption in the ordinary patterns of daily life, the Christian remembers faith, hope, and charity. He/she remembers to trust in God's divine providence; to expect that God's promises will be fulfilled; and to love sacrificially for the good of the Other. The Catholic preacher will be a personal sign, an embodied symbol of this memory among his people. The proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom is ancient, contemporary, and eschatological. Then, now, and to come. If you will serve the Lord as his priest, you will serve him as a voice crying out into whatever wilderness he sends you.

Our Enemy, the spirit of this age, will tempt you to compromise the Word, to make “prudent adjustments,” to skirt around the Hard Stuff and focus on the Easy Stuff. You will come to think that you are being cooperative when you succumb to this temptation. That you are being a “team player.” After all, there are bigger problems to tackle. Larger issues to consider. There's the parish budget. The diocesan tax. The capital campaign. There's the media to think about and how this will be received in the chancery. If you are being an ass in the pulpit, you should worry about these things. But if you are preaching the Good News that the Father has freely forgiven our sins through Jesus Christ, then you have nothing to worry about. Hurricanes? Your sins are forgiven; receive God's mercy. Record unemployment? Your sins are forgiven; receive God's mercy. Civil war? Riots? Pandemic? Your sins are forgiven; receive God's mercy. Every crisis is a chance for both the Church and her greatest Enemy to preach their respective gospels. For our Enemy, that gospel is: fear, anger, paranoia will keep you safe. For the Church, that gospel is and always will be: your sins are forgiven; receive God's mercy.

Just in case I haven't made myself clear: a crisis changes nothing about the Gospel or its preaching. Preach the Gospel before a crisis, and how you preach the Gospel during and after a crisis should look exactly the same. Did the Roman Imperial persecutions change the Gospel? No. Did the Gnostic nonsense of the Patristic period change the Gospel? No. Did four hundred years of the Arian heresy change the Gospel? No. Did the collapse of the Roman Empire; the invasion of the Moors; the nominalist revolution of Luther; the French Revolution; the rise and fall of Napoleon; the 19th century modernist scourge; the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Maoists, the Sexual Revolution, or the Internet change the Gospel? No. When we preach faith, hope, and charity, and live these virtues well, we participate in the Divine Life. The Divine Life does not change. But we do. We grow in perfection and though the world around us may be falling apart, we endure not b/c we are immune to natural disaster or disease, but b/c our inheritance is the Kingdom. The Catholic preacher preaches standing on this immovable rock.

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07 July 2020

Preaching God's Funeral

NB. Spent my day preparing for a formation conference at NDS on Thursday. I ran across this post of mine from 2013. Thought it deserved re-posting.
Among the books and articles I'm reading to prepare for the Advanced Preaching Seminar at NDS this spring is an excellent book by Phil Snider, titled, Preaching After God.

The first two chapters of this book lay out what Snider calls "the modern homiletical crisis." Basically, he argues that the liberal/progressive theology of modernist Christianity has left progressive ministers and preachers with little to say about God.

He charts the development of modernist theology through several philosophical veins, including the usual suspects: Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and, of course, Schleiermacher. 

Despite his embrace of progressive theology, Snider laments the "death of God" in liberal Protestant preaching, noting that preaching in the mainline churches has become little more than politically tinged ethical exhortation. 

In theory and practice, Christian progressives have replaced theology with anthropology.*

He writes, "Activism became the rule of the day in modern preaching largely because God was not longer identified as anything other than a projection of the best intentions and ideals of the human spirit, if anything at all, and religion was reduced to activism. . .When one considers the import of Kant and Hegel on liberal theology, it's no coincidence that sermons that fall prey to the modern homiletical crisis (1) place primary emphasis on a Christianity that is boiled down to ethics. . .and (2) lose sight of the infinite qualitative distinction between God (the wholly other) and human beings. When God is just a manifestation or extension of our best selves on our best days, when there is no infinite qualitative distinction between human beings and the 'wholly other,' then God is, for all practical purposes, dead" (66).

To any Catholic who's been paying attention to parochial preaching in the last 40 yrs. this diagnosis of liberal Protestant preaching should sound eerily familiar. 

Having misinterpreted and misapplied the Second Vatican Council's invitation to engage modern culture in dialogue, ecclesial elites have so domesticated the Divine that it is almost impossible for them now to understand the Church as anything other than a social service agency.  

The task of Catholic homiletics in the 21st century is to explore ways of returning a sense of the "infinite qualitative distinction" btw Creator and creature to our preaching w/o portraying God as inaccessible. Part of this project then will be to re-establish the event of the Incarnation as a central theme of Catholic preaching.

* Snider sees some hope for progressives in deconstructionism. My sense is that this is a dead-end for Catholic preaching as a solution. There may be uses for deconstruction as a heuristic but ultimately Catholic preaching cannot jettison metaphysics. 

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Healing the imago Dei

14th Week OT (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

One of God's gifts to us – just one among many that marks us out from His creatures as rational animals – is our ability to communicate with one another through the spoken and written word. A philosophy professor of mine, a former Jesuit, used to yell us in class: “If you can't write it, you can't think it! And vice-versa.” So indicative of our rationality is the use of language that some ethicists have proposed that its absence renders one fatally non-human, not a person at all. Catholics won't that far, but it doesn't surprise us that the possessed in our Gospel accounts are all painted as insanely violent or mute or blind, or some combination of the three. Attacking the created imago Dei is exactly what we would expect the demonic to do. When Jesus rebukes the demons, sending them out, he restores to the possessed that which makes them most like God – their intellectual faculties, their ability to think and speak. He does this out of compassion, out of an abundance of love for those for whom he will die on the cross. As Dominican friars, we can ask ourselves, “Does my preaching and teaching bring healing to those who have lost their grip on the reality of who and what they were created and re-created to be?” We are sent as laborers among an abundant harvest, and Christ's compassion for God's people goes with us. To the troubled and abandoned, we can bring freedom and healing, and at the same time, witness ourselves freed and healed.

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05 July 2020

Finding Rest & Learning Along the Way

NB. Deacon is preaching tonight. . .

14th Sunday OT (2008)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX
If you have spent any time at all splitting cord-wood for the fireplace; or digging a foundation for a new house; or shoveling gravel for a roadbed; or if you have spent most of a Saturday washing and drying laundry, vacuuming the carpets, dusting and polishing the furniture, and cleaning up after a late dinner, then Christ’s invitation to take on his yoke as a lighter burden could be very appealing. Even the day to day grind at the office, the store, the classroom, the bank, wherever it is you grind away a day, the work you do can easily become a burden, not just a difficult job but a tremendous weight, an unbalanced unload that threatens to topple you over into despair. Perched on top of this leaning tower of worries and work, none of us needs a religion that imposes another set of burdens, an additional heavy-bookload of obligations, penalties, policies, and rules. The last thing we need is for our relationship with God to become work, a tedious job, a dutiful burden. And so, Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father…Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” 
We might wonder what sort of yoke Christ would use. He says his yoke would be easy and the burden light, but a yoke is a yoke no matter how easy, and being tied to any sort of burden means pulling a weight no matter how light. I start thinking about being yoked to a burden and several questions come to mind: will I be pulling this light burden uphill? Or across sand? Stone? In traffic or out in the wild? Will it be raining or snowing or will I have to pull this burden in the heat and humidity of a July in Texas? Other questions come to mind: what’s in it for me? Is this a paid gig? Insurance, benefits? Is there a Light Burden Haulers union? Vacation time, sick days, opportunities for advancement? Does Jesus offer a tuition credit for further studies? And, by the way, exactly what is it that I will be hauling? Since I’m a peaceful man I really can’t in good conscience haul military equipment. I will haul medical equipment and supplies so long as none of them will be used for abortions or sterilizations. Will I have to haul loads going to churches other than the Catholic Church? Anyway, all good questions, but questions that miss the point entirely. These questions are asked “according to the flesh.” All Jesus is asking us to haul under his easy yoke is the light load of knowing that he is the Christ sent by the Father to free us from sin and grant us eternal life. He says, “…for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.”
Find rest of ourselves…is this what we do when we come to believe that Jesus is the Christ? Isn’t it more often the case that we find ingenuous ways of throwing scattered junk and assorted debris on top of our easy burden, weighing down the load with more and more waste, more and more unnecessary rubbish? And as our load grows larger and the burden more difficult to manage, who is it that we blame? Jesus? The Church? Religion in general? Our Lord tells us that his Father has hidden certain truths from the “the wise and the learned,” but that He has revealed these truths to the “little ones.” Are you wise and learned, or are you a little one? The difference between the two has everything to do with whether or not you think your burden is light enough, your path straight enough, and his yoke easy enough.

In one of his many sermons,* St. Augustine has this to say about our gospel passage, "All other burdens oppress and crush you, but Christ's burden actually lightens your load. All other burdens weigh you down, but Christ's burden gives you wings. If you cut away a bird's wings, it might seem as though you are taking off some of its weight, but the more weight you take off [by removing its wings], the more you tie the bird down to the earth. There it is lying on the ground, and you wanted to relieve it of a burden; give it back the weight of its wings, and you will see how it flies." The wise and the learned know that the heavier an object is the more work it takes to make it fly. Lighter objects need less work to fly. But the little ones know that a bird cannot fly without the weight of its wings. Christ’s yoke, his burden on us weighs less than bird bones and feathers.

Paul, writing to the Romans, teaches us, “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you…” As baptized and confirmed members of the Body of Christ, God’s Spirit does dwell within us. And since God’s Spirit abides in us, “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies…” And since our mortal bodies will be given the life of the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns for us, “brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh…” And so, we are to live as Little Ones—the poor, the broken, the thrown away, the diseased, those who rush to Jesus for a word of healing, just one touch to see justice done. 
Why must be become so little? Because to be filled with the Spirit we must first be emptied out as Christ himself was emptied out for us on the Cross. There is no room for God’s Spirit in a body crowded with fear, worry, anger, a lust for revenge, a desire to punish; there is no room for God in a soul stuffed full with the need to worship alien gods; to kill the innocent; to torture the enemy. Greed, jealousy, rage, promiscuity, dissent, all elbow sharply at our souls for more space for themselves but make no room for God. Paul warns us: “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die…” If we will live, we must “put to death the deeds of the body…”

Nothing that you have heard Jesus or Paul say this morning should surprise you. You know the consequences of sin. Firstly, sin makes you stupid. Disobedience quenches the fire of the intellect, so that you choose evil over good. Do this often enough and you become a fool. Secondly, since sin makes you foolish, you come to believe that you are wise. If you are also learned, that is, well-educated in the world, you might even begin to believe that you better than God Himself what is best for you. Enter all those nervous questions about the nature of Jesus’ burden and the weight of his revelation to you. Finally, since sin makes you a wise and learned fool, you may come to believe that you can do without God altogether, becoming, for all intents and purposes, your own god, worshiping at the altar of Self. At this point, you have excluded yourself from God’s love and the company of the blessed. Welcome to Hell. Maybe the Devil will let you rule a small corner of your favorite level, but don’t count on it. You know the consequences of sin. So empty yourself. Make plenty of room for God’s Spirit.

If we will come among the blessed and thrive in holiness, then we will take on the light and easy yoke of Jesus and let him teach us the one thing we must know above all else: He is the Christ sent by the Father so that we might have eternal life. This is not the end of our spiritual journey; it is just the beginning. Christ’s warnings about the wise and learned are not meant to push a kind of anti-intellectualism, a know-nothing party of prejudice and blindness. In fact, it is because we are first weighted down with the feather-light wisdom of Jesus’ yoke that we must then come to understand our faith, to use our graced minds to explore and comprehend God’s creation—ourselves and everything else. If we are emptied of the deeds of the flesh and infused with the Spirit of God, then our bodies too are graced, and we have nothing to fear from the mind, nothing to worry about in seeking out knowledge and understanding. To know God’s creation better is to know God Himself better, and when we know God better and better, we become smaller and smaller and more and more ready to receive the only revelation we need to come to Him, the only burden from Him we must carry: Jesus is the Christ!

*Sermon 126, my version

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