03 September 2020

Preaching in the Deep


St. Gregory the Great

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

You won't catch a fish big enough to brag about in a pond. A fish worthy of boasting about has to be caught in deeper water. But deeper water comes with a number of hazards – bigger waves, bigger storms, better chance of getting lost, and less chance of getting rescued. Those are the chances you take to enter the world of Big Fish Boasting! What if we take Jesus to be talking about preaching instead of fishing? What does it mean then to “go out into the deep”? Well, if we think of preaching as a pond-side afternoon of dropping a hook and taking a nap – as a hobby, or something to do when we feel like doing nothing –, then “going out into the deep” has to be that sort of preaching that demands planning, preparation, research; a willingness to challenge and be challenged; a deeply seeded desire for adventure; and an openness to the possibility of both getting lost and catching your White Whale. Preaching in the deep like fishing in the deep not only increases the odds of catching more and bigger fish, it also intensifies the thrill of the chase and hones the preacher's skills.

That's the good stuff. What about the dangers of preaching in the deep? Well, you will ride bigger waves – higher highs and lower lows; more turbulence, opposition. You will confront bigger storms – louder noise, frightening headwinds; risk lightening strikes and the threat of going overboard. The chances of getting lost are greater the further out you go, the further away you travel from a safe port, a safe pulpit. And all these combine to make it harder and harder for you to be found and rescued from your apparent folly. Even so, to fill your boat to the point of sinking must be worth the risk. It's what we signed for. As Dominican preachers we didn't sign up to be amateur fishermen napping the afternoon away by the side of a pond. We signed up as pros to compete in the international Deep Water Championship. When the Lord says, “Go out into the deep,” we know he means for us to bring everything we have and everything we are to the sport and ready ourselves for whatever hazards we encounter and whatever rewards we reap. All the fish – big and small – belong to him. So do the fishermen. So, as we prepare for our next trip out, hear him one more time, “Do not be afraid.”



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30 August 2020

Beware False Christs


22nd Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP


Oh, how quickly the mighty fall! Just last week, Jesus crowned Peter “the Rock,” giving him the keys to the Kingdom; making him the Royal Steward, the foundation stone of the Church. Tonight, we hear Jesus call that same Peter “Satan,” accusing him of betrayal and scandal; putting Peter firmly behind him, clearing the way to his cross in Jerusalem. What happened? What happened to Simon Peter's rock-like faith in Christ? He'd suffered no significant losses in the meantime. He'd had no major existential crises; no tragedies of epic proportions. As far as we know, he'd followed along behind Jesus all this time, happily listening to his Master, taking it all in and just being a faithful disciple. Then the Lord shows his students that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly [. . .] and be killed and on the third day be raised.” How does Peter's rock-like faith prompt him to respond? Does he leap for joy, knowing that our salvation is at hand? Does he pack his bags, ready to follow Christ to the Cross? No. Instead, he rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Peter's faith meets Peter's fear in battle, and fear wins. 

Consider: Peter is first among the disciples. Destined to be the first pope, the first Vicar of Christ on earth. He's set among the other disciples as the one to whom the Father revealed Jesus' identity and mission as the Messiah. The Lord's revelation that he must go to Jerusalem and die for the sins of the world must've shocked Peter to his core. Peter's reaction to this news probably arises out of a genuine love for Jesus and a genuine love for his own skin. Following Christ means following Christ. To Jerusalem. To the Cross. To a sacrificial death. And, eventually, to a resurrection from the grave. But getting to the resurrection part entails suffering through the persecution, torture, and dying parts. Peter's rebuke is understandable from a merely human standpoint. But Jesus isn't seeing his mission and ministry from a merely human standpoint. He's seeing it from all eternity – the whole of the Father's plan for His people. From this view, Peter is an obstacle, a scandal for Christ. He's literally standing in the way, tempting Christ – as Satan did – to abandon his mission in favor of a fully-lived life on earth. Jesus stops this temptation in its tracks and teaches Peter and us how we must proceed: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” IOW, do as I do. 

All of our lives as Catholics we've heard the refrain “deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.” We've turned the phrase “a cross to bear” into a pale platitude, meaning little more than “well, that's a terrible problem to have.” Got arthritis? Your cross to bear. Got unruly teens in the family? Your cross to bear. Got a bad financial situation? Your cross to bear. The cross Jesus bears along the streets of Jerusalem kills him. It is not only a heavy burden but an instrument of execution. And an instrument of salvation. Arthritis, unruly teens, and an empty checkbook can be heavy burdens, but they are not likely to kill you AND save others. The cross you bear is given to you to build up your faith muscles. To stretch your reliance on hope and tone your eagerness to love and love sacrificially. I can't tell you what your cross is. That knowledge comes with prayer and fasting. But I can tell you that your cross will be most unwelcome, painful, and – if you give God thanks for it – for you, a source of eternal joy. Peter rebukes Christ b/c Peter is scared. For Christ, he is afraid. He is also afraid for himself. No one wants to endure pain and suffering. But if we follow Christ, then the comforts of our middle-class, suburban, American Christianity stand in the way. Like Satan in the desert, this comedic version of the Gospel tempts us to hell.

The False Christs we see everyday attempt to lure us away from The Way, the only way. The False Christ of Legalism tells us that our salvation is found in following the rules. The False Christ of Emotionalism tells us that our salvation is found in feeling the right feelings. The False Christ of Scientism tell us that our salvation is found in “believing in science.” The False Christ of Princes tell us all we need do to be saved is support the right politician. We can add to the list the False Christs of More Money, Career, Prestige and Popularity, Wellness, Revolution, Race/Class/Gender, etc. What all the False Christs have in common is Christ w/o the Cross. Christ w/o sacrifice. Christ w/o Divine Love. Peter wants Christ w/o Jerusalem, w/o the Mount of Skulls. What Christ himself offers is the chance to redeem your life by following him in sacrificial love. That's hard. It's a narrow gate. A potentially bloody path. But it's The Way, the only way. Do not be deceived: Christ w/o the Cross is an obstacle, a scandal. It's the way to nothing at all.

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