28 August 2021

Not processes or procedures. . .Sacrifice!

22nd Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


I grew up as a Baptist hearing about the idol-worshiping Cat-licks and how they didn't really know Jesus because salvation for them was just about lighting candles and rattling rosary beads. Cat-licks put their faith in vain rituals and not eating meat on Fridays and whispering their sins to some guy in box. They think the Pope is God, and they aren't allowed to read the Bible! Of course, we all know this is nonsense. But it would be easy for someone who isn't Catholic to get confused. Watching us (as a stranger) must be a surreal experience. We do have statues, candles, rituals, rosaries, and. . .some guy in a box. If your faith is purely intellectual – that is, not incarnated in world – then all of our sacramental prayer and use of the things of the world in worship must look terribly pagan. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to run into Catholics who do themselves and the Church no favors by living up to the stereotypes our Baptist brothers and sisters hold. So, Jesus reminds us that it is not religious procedures or processes that save us. It's a humble and contrite heart sacrificed to God that gets us into heaven.

I've run into Catholics who insist that This or That prayer guarantees the user the exact results prayed for whether God wills it or not. As if God is somehow forced to grant us a wish b/c the ritual was performed correctly. That's witchcraft not Catholicism. God is not a genie bound to our will by incantations. The Pharisees, attempting to observe God's law carefully as Moses said, built up over time an elaborate ritualistic code that purported to insure the believer he or she was always in compliance with the Law. As these thing do, the code inevitable became the Law and merely following the code was sufficient in fulfilling the Law. Procedures, processes, vain rituals substituted for the sacrifice of a humble and contrite heart. So Jesus accuses the Pharisees: You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” The Pharisees had kept the script but lost the plot. Jesus wants us to remember the plot and live it. Reciting our lines and acting the part isn't enough. Showing up for Mass, saying your lines, paying your dues, and not eating meat on Friday doesn't cut it. We've not been hired to play the role of Catholics on a cosmic stage. We've been saved to live our lives in the world as men and women being perfected into Christs.

We like our rules, we Catholics. We like our bright lines and hard sayings. We even yearn for the occasional tough talk from Father or Bishop. But we also enjoy the idea that living out our faith is mostly about coloring within the wide lines of procedure. Staying just close enough to the world that we aren't too terribly inconvenienced by the rules but far enough away that the stench of hell can't overpower the bayou. We can live our whole lives walking that edge and never once think that what we've signed onto is about sacrifice and surrender, praise and thanksgiving. So, allow me to say this plainly: if you think being a good Catholic is about doing the absolute bare minimum required by Church law, then you might be a baptized Pharisee! The bare minimum is there as the final net before you experience the stench of hell up close and personal. It's meant as a final warning, a last call, and does little more than prevent you from going Full Pagan. You're here this afternoon and that's great. There's a hurricane on the way. But you're here. Now, have you sacrificed your heart – humble and contrite – to the Father? Have you given everything you have and are to Him for Him to shape you into another Christ for the salvation of the world? Celebrating Mass is an excellent step in the right direction.

Jesus teaches us that the traditions of man won't save us. The rules of religious etiquette won't save us. Saying 10,000 rapid-fire rosaries won't save us. Neither will donating a wad of cash to the parish or taking Father to the Saints game. What will save us, what has saved us is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. The Son became Man so that Man might become the Son. That's our job as followers of Christ – to become Christ in this world for this world. To do that we have to do more than live as baptized Pharisees. Jesus says that it's what's in the heart of a person that defiles. He lists off several common sins – adultery, theft, murder, deceit. What all of these sins have in common is the failure to love as Christ loves us. IOW, a failure to be Christ when that is exactly what we've all agreed to be. No doubt our resolve to become Christs will be tested as we ride out another hurricane. This isn't the first or the last time we'll be tested. To pass the test we look to Christ. And we do what he did: we sacrifice for the love he showed us on the Cross. We become everything he died to make possible for us to become.  

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22 August 2021

Will you also leave?

21st Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


In a moment of high drama, Joshua confronts the tribes of Israel and demands that they make a fundamental choice: will you serve the Lord God; the gods of your fathers; or the gods of the land we now occupy? To help them make this choice, Joshua recites the salvation history of Israel, from Abraham and Nahor to Isaac and Jacob; from Moses and Aaron in Egypt to the crossing of the Jordan and the tribes' arrival in Jericho. Each step of the way, along centuries of conflict and victory, the Lord remains faithful to Israel while Israel backslides again and again into adultery with foreign gods. Now, Joshua, the Lord's prophet, demands that a choice must be made: whom do you serve? Joshua asked this question some 2,600 years ago. But it is as fresh now as it was when it left his lips. Do we return the Lord's faithfulness with a faithfulness of our own, or do we wallow in idolatrous adultery with foreign gods? Jesus, seeing some of his disciples slink away in response to his difficult teaching, asks the question this way: Do you also want to leave?” The decision to serve the Lord, the choice to remain faithful is a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour choice. Do I stay, or do I go?

Many of the disciples listening to Jesus teach at Capernaum are stunned by what they are hearing! Did he just say that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to achieve eternal life?! He did. Jesus asks, “Does this teaching shock you?” It does. He assures them that his words are “Spirit and life.” Regardless, some of his disciples did not believe and left him to return to their former way of life. Many are invited; few are chosen. And even fewer choose to be chosen. But the choice must be made. Whom do you serve? Jesus turns to the Twelve and to us and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” Eating his flesh and drinking his blood for eternal life is not the shock now that it was then. We are more likely put off by a different set of teachings. So accustomed are we to living in the world that we have – to some degree – become part of the world. Even if Christ remains at or near the top of our pantheon, we are tempted to bow to other gods. To set aside bothersome teachings, seemingly minor virtues, and allow the spirit of this world to sneak in and goad us into adultery. Social and economic pressure. Legal and political coercion. Cultural arm-twisting and familial force. It all adds up to the same thing: we wander away from Christ, hoping to just comfortably get along.

Unfortunately, like Christ himself, the Spirit of this world is jealous; that is, like Christ, the Zeitgeist tolerates no competition. Jesus says to the disciples, “. . .no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” The Zeitgeist replies, “And anyone who goes to the Christ cannot live comfortably in my world.” To follow Christ means setting aside unrighteous anger and the need for revenge; surrendering control and anxiety; being perpetually grateful in praise; loving, forgiving, and hoping in ridiculously extravagant ways. It means living according the revealed Truth of scripture: the Father created man, male and female. He created them for marriage and procreation. He created them with an end to be fulfilled in time and at the end of time. That all human life is sacred from conception to natural death. That pain – physical and emotional – is to be suffered well, suffered redemptively in light of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. That there exists moral absolutes that do not bend “with the times” nor do they bow to the demands of “social justice” and political expediency. That Christ established a holy Church founded on the rock of Peter to be his sacrament of love in the world. That through Christ alone does anyone achieve eternal life.

These teachings are difficult. Who can accept them? Do they shock you? Do you also want to leave? Many have. More will. But regardless of how many walk away, the Truth does not and cannot change. Our Lord is eternally faithful. So, the question returns to us: whom do you serve: Christ Jesus or the gods of this world? It should be clear to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that it is becoming increasingly difficult for a faithful follower of Christ to live comfortably in this world. Good! We weren't made for this world. We were made for eternal life. The choices we make here and now echo into the hereafter and shape our lives in eternity. That's the reason for the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Christ did not suffer and die willingly on the Cross so that we might go-along-to-get-along with the gods of this world. He died and rose again so that we might bear witness to him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life – the exclusive means of achieving salvation through radical, sacrificial love. Whom do you serve? Choose now. Choose every single time you are tempted to give way and bow to the Lie. Choose a life in Christ. Choose eternal life. 

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