What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

blind_bartimaeus_arminian_225h

This homily was preached at Chapter, the annual gathering of Anglican Dominicans, on Friday, August 14, 2015.

The text for this sermon can be found here:

In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Good morning, my brothers and sisters, good morning.  As the Psalmist says, how good it is when the brothers and sisters live together in unity. Well, close enough. And we come together this morning and find ourselves compelled to confront this text, this story of a blind man named Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. And I want us to try and view this story, and perhaps the readings today, in the light of our own vocations as Dominicans, our vocation as followers of St. Dominic and Jesus.

Jesus finds Bartimaeus  in Jericho, a city where walls come down, a city that resonates with the deliverance of Israel and the promises of God.  And all we know about Bartimaeus at the outset of the story is that he is blind, and he is a beggar. He is, as the Psalmist writes, “like an owl among the ruins.” But to be blind in those days didn’t just mean to be handicapped. Blindness was much more than an impediment. Blindness was a mark of being unclean, of being impure. Blindness meant that you would be ostracized from both God and his people.  So, blindness carried with it a spiritual separation as well as a physical impairment.

And Mark often uses blindness to connote a spiritual impairment, an inability to see what’s going on around you. He contrasts those who are physically blind with those who are blind to the reality of Jesus. And that’s a theme carried forward in this Gospel reading today.

It is much the same notion that we find in one of the Church’s favorite hymns, which tells the story of John Newton, a slave trader who awakened to his participation in the industry of sin and bondage. Newton wrote, “I once was lost, but now I’m found; I was blind, but now I see.”

Hold that thought for a moment, while we meander back through the readings for today and look at the story of St. Paul in Acts. Paul tells us that in his former life he was “zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison….”  He tells us that on the way to Damascus to engage in further persecutions of the early Church, he was confronted by a great light and the voice of Christ accused him of persecuting Jesus.  And Paul was struck blind and could not see until Ananias spoke the word to him, because Paul had a special mission to see the Righteous One and bear witness. The confrontation with the light of Christ required Paul to set aside all that he thought he knew about God, joining those who trod the Way. So Paul, like John Newton, who had acted as an instrument of cruelty, bondage and spiritual blindness himself, found his way out of his own darkness only through the light of Christ.

So, let’s get back to the story of Bartimaeus the beggar sitting by the road. When he hears that Jesus is there, he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In his opening address, Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as God’s Messiah. In some ways, Bartimaeus reminds me a bit of my spiritual director, a retired Bishop. He often says of his own ministry, “I’m  just a beggar myself, trying to show the other beggars where they keep the bread.” We don’t know how, but somehow Bartimaeus knew where the bread of life was.

If Jesus came to the world as part of God’s self-revelation, if he was God’s way of telling us “This is what I am like” then what do we make of the humble life He lived. This is a notion sometimes referred to as The Poverty of God. Bartimaeus could see the divine life in Jesus. But I think we should ask whether we can see the divine in the life of Bartimaeus. Because, as St. John Chrysostrom said, “If you cannot find God in the beggar on the street, you will never find him in the chalice.”

And Jesus asks him a really important question. He asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus was able to minister to this blind beggar because of two important factors: he cared, and he took the time to find out what the problem was. Too often, I think our fumbling efforts to fulfill the Christian life look like the missionary who shows up at a burning house with a stack of bibles, or the evangelist who goes to a land of famine with a handful of crucifixes. That’s all pretty, and interesting, but it’s not exactly what they need.

As Dominicans we are called to meet the needs of God’s world and God’s children, proclaiming and preaching the good news of God’s love. This world can be a very dark place. There are 60 million refugees in the world today, displaced by war and human hatred. In America alone, 5 million people suffer from Alzheimers. Worldwide, 3.5 million children die from hunger each year.  We daily confront the horror of war, of genocide, of one natural disaster after another. Joseph Stalin once famously said that one death was a tragedy, but a million deaths were a statistic. We live in a world where pain and misery have been reduced to a statistic.

And this world groans, not only in pain, but also in exhaustion. Many people, many good people, suffer from compassion fatigue. They just don’t feel up to the challenge of another crisis, another story of misery in a very long collection of such stories. And yet, there is this blind beggar on the road. Lord, let us see him.

I want to suggest to you that on that day in Jericho, it was Bartimaeus who heard the same call we have heard: to proclaim and preach the rightful place of Jesus in the world and in God’s kingdom. Lord, let us listen to his message. Lord, let us hear and heed the call, as Dominicans, to testify to the light in a world that wanders in darkness. Amen.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Oh My Son Absalom

absalom

The readings for this morning can be found here:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

In the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

          It was 49 years ago, almost to the day, back in my hometown of Odessa. It was my birthday, and my parents had given me a Gilbert chemistry set. (To this day, I still don’t know what they were thinking about.) And in that chemistry set was the formula for a certain explosive. But the chemicals were in little tiny plastic vials, and I knew I couldn’t do much with that. So I strolled down to the drugstore with my birthday money and I bought a pound of each of the ingredients of this compound.

          Then I walked into our kitchen and asked my mother if I could borrow one of her pots. When she asked what for, I answered: “a science experiment.” She beamed with pride as she handed me a copper-bottomed Revere ware pot. The effort to further my education was working. And I mixed the three chemicals together, and made a long fuse, and placed the pot underneath my tree house and sought shelter behind our home.

          Later that afternoon, after the fire trucks left, my father asked me, “Son, I just want to know what was on your mind?” And I tried to keep from crying as I told him that I didn’t know that it would work. Now, my father was a man with a great capacity for wrath. And he visibly shook as he tried to control himself and gave me a bit of advice, advice that he would repeat several times during my life. He said, “James, the process of elimination is no way to live your life.”

          Now, I was not in open revolt against my father…not yet. That would come years later, during the years my parents would refer to as “the intifada.” But I’m sure my father understood how David felt when his son took up arms against him.

          You know, sometimes, I hear people say that what’s wrong with this country, or this time, or this world is that we need to return to old-fashioned biblical family values. And I wonder whether they’re thinking about King David, and about his family, or exactly what they have on their minds.

But before we get to the text for this morning, it’s worth thinking about the back-story concerning King David. David was a young man when God called him out to succeed Saul, the first king of Israel. He was a shepherd, a good looking boy. He was a poet and a musician, and a fierce warrior who killed a giant named Goliath. He was the pride of the land and a just king who united the people of Israel. And when things were good, they were very good until….until they weren’t good anymore.

          You may recall that later on David committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and then a whole bunch of trouble began. Bathsheba’s husband was a man named Uriah, one of David’s soldiers. And when Bathsheba got pregnant, you’ll remember that David sent Uriah into battle to be sure that he’d be killed so David could take Bathsheba for his wife.

I think one of the things we learn from this story is that sin works a little like the science of forensics, particularly bullet wounds. As the bullet enters the body, the wound is often small and sometimes almost imperceptible. But as it travels through our lives, it tears through bone and tissue and flattens, and the exit wound is often much, much larger. Sin works like that: we cannot imagine the consequences for ourselves or for those we love. It was like that with David.

          So God sent his prophet Nathan to have a chat with David. And Nathan told him the consequences of what he’d done. Nathan said, “the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house….”

          Now that doesn’t end the family troubles for David. Not by a long shot. You see, his oldest son was a boy named Amnon.  Amnon raped his half-sister, a girl named Tamar. Her brother, Absalom, was David’s favorite son. But when David did nothing to punish Amnon, Absalom took matters into his own hands. He apparently believed in that old proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold, and he brooded and waited two years before setting a trap and having his servants kill Amnon at a feast.

          And after a few years in exile, and a few more years of a cold silence, Absalom lead a revolt against his father, against the King, against God’s chosen servant. So, as far as family values go, neither Paris Hilton, the Kennedys, the Jackson family, nor the Kardashians had anything on King David. Or, as Elvis Costello said, “There’s no such thing as an original sin.”

          The text this morning begins as David’s armies are prepared to smash the armies of his son, Absalom. And we hear tenderness in David’s voice as he asks his generals to deal gently with the man, Absalom. Now, notice that at this point, David calls him “the man” rather than “my son.” I suspect David felt a little conflict between his competing roles as king and father. I suspect that some of us here may have felt that conflict between our roles as father and salesman, or mother and doctor, or mother and priest. My friend Rabbi David Wolpe has observed that many times during this story of David and his son, we find not so much a lack of love as a refusal to love. Often David seems frozen, monstrous in his distance from his sons and daughters. He has riven an icy separation between himself and his children.

          And as the battle progresses, we find Absalom in a wooded area, in a forest, riding on a mule. And his head gets caught in the trees, and the text tells us that he was left hanging between heaven and earth. Hanging between heaven and earth. And every time I read that passage, I think of another son (this time, an obedient son) who also hung between heaven and earth. That son, our Lord Jesus, hung there not because of his rebellion, but because of ours.

          And then, despite David’s plea to the contrary, his soldiers surround Absalom and kill him. And when David hears of his son’s death, a death he had no small part in, he cries, “Oh my son, Absalom. Would that I could have died in your place.” Now, David had a complicated relationship with his favorite son. He sort of vacillated between spoiling him rotten and raking him over the coals. And the Bible tells us that Absalom was a beautiful boy, that he was “without blemish.” If we read scripture carefully, we’ll note that great beauty is almost always a bellwether of great trouble.

          You see, in one sense, I think we’re all Absalom. We’re all ungrateful children, all rebellious children. And in another sense, we’re all David. We’re all paralyzed by the consequences of our sins, watching them uncoil like snakes before us. We’re all frozen and withholding forgiveness, all demanding retribution rather than rushing toward reconciliation. This isn’t just the story of David and Absalom: this is our story.

          And David cries that if could have suffered these consequences instead of his son, he would gladly have done so. And there’s something deeply heartbreaking about that moment, when David should be celebrating his victory as king but is instead forced to confront his failure as a father, and as a man. I suspect every parent has felt that heartache. But David is telling us that he would have done this boy’s dying for him. But we know that even David, even a King, can’t do that.

          Only the living God can do that, dying for us, his son dying in our place so that we would live and have abundant life. It is that God who shows us a way out of rebellion, who rushes toward us in reconciliation. It is that God who calls us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” It is that God who calls to us, “Come to me.” It is that God who promises us that if we eat the bread of life, we will live forever. It is that God who invites us to this table. So take, and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

The Bread of Life

Bread of Life

The readings for today can be found here:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, we people, we the people of God, have a funny relationship with food. We have a biblical relationship with food. And it goes back a long, long way. When we were expelled from the garden of Eden, it was because we wanted to eat the food that God had not blessed for our use. Reaching far back into the Bible, both human and divine covenants were sealed with a ritual meal. The principle Old Testament story of deliverance, the Exodus, is celebrated in the ritual meal of the Passover.

Some of us really like to eat, some of us can’t stand to eat, and some of us are eating ourselves to death.  And when we don’t eat, even at the cellular level, our body sends us a message: “We are dying here.” Remember back in the book of Genesis, when Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright? Essau comes in from working in the field, and smells the red stew his brother has prepared.  He is famished and says, “I am dying.”

I have a confession to make to you. And it’s something of which I’m not very proud. I have never been hungry in my life. Oh sure, there’ve been moments when I wanted to eat. But there was always food there. Even when I’ve fasted for a day or so, there’s always been food there. I may have abstained from eating for a while, but I’ve never been more than a few steps away from a meal.

It was not so in Jesus’ time for most people. Most people not only knew real hunger; it was their constant companion. That’s what it means to live in a subsistence economy—never being more than a meal or two away from serious trouble. And that’s why the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of Jesus healing and teaching there had such a powerful appeal to the earliest Christians. And thus, all four gospel writers included that story in their attempts to explain who Jesus was. For people who lived their lives plagued by hunger, that’s a big deal. That’s…well, that’s dinner and a show. And today’s gospel takes place right after the feeding of the multitudes.

I have another confession to make to you. I think John’s gospel may well be my favorite among the four gospels. It’s the most poetic, it’s the most philosophical, and it’s the richest, with one layer of meaning piled onto another. And in John’s gospel, the conversation is never really about what the conversation is about.

So, when John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus and this woman have a conversation about water, but it’s not. And today, although the conversation is about bread, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. In today’s Gospel, as in last week’s, we find the people looking for Jesus. And I think many of us today are still looking for him. We look for him to come down and stop all this nonsense. We look for him to stop the church burnings, stop us from treating this fragile planet like a toilet, stop the demonizing of the poor. Lord, when are you going to stop us from shooting the lions? When are you going to stop us from shooting the people? And we wonder, “Lord, where are you?” And just like us, the people in this gospel have a lot of questions.

A good deal of today’s reading is about questions and answers. And often, the question Jesus answers is not the question they asked. I don’t think that arises because Jesus didn’t understand them. I think they, like us, were often asking the wrong questions. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and the people are still struggling to figure out what all this means. But as they ask questions, and Jesus answers, we get the feeling they aren’t really talking about the same thing.

For example, the people ask Jesus when he crossed the sea, when he got there. Jesus answers them, kind of. He says, you’re not looking for me because you saw signs of the Kingdom of God, but because you ate your fill of food. They’re following Jesus, but he invites them to examine why they’re doing that. He invites them to examine their motives. It calls to mind something the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral about the perpetual shortcoming of us religious people: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Jesus tells them, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that will endure forever.” I think we all spend a lot of our time working for the food that perishes. We work to pay for houses that will crumble, cars that will rust, clothes that will be packed away or thrown out. Like that crowd, we want security. Maybe that’s what we expect from our religion, too. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is offering us. How much of our work do we devote to eternity, to the life of the Spirit which we received at baptism?

And so the people want to know, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Again, Jesus’ answer suggests a conversational near-miss. He tells them, God’s work consists in believing in the one God sent. In other words, it’s not so much about what you have to do, it’s more about who you trust, who you’re willing to become.

And so, the people ask for a sign: if we’re going to believe in you, you need to show us a sign that you’re the one God sent. Now, it’s worth putting this request in context. By this point, Jesus has already changed the water into wine in Cana, healed a boy in Capernaum, healed a lame man at the pool near the Sheep Gate, fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and walked across the sea in a storm. We might wonder, “Exactly what kind of a sign are you looking for?” In John’s gospel, the signs largely go unseen. But that’s part of the richness of this gospel: people watch what Jesus is doing, but they don’t have any idea what it means. They look, but they don’t understand—they don’t really see.

And then the people suggest, you know, we’re looking for a real sign, something like Moses did. And Jesus reminds them about the manna in the desert: Moses didn’t do that at all. That came from God. Jesus tells them, “It is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Everything we are, everything we have: it all comes from God. And until we get that, we’re never really going to understand Jesus.

Because then, just like now, the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And Jesus isn’t really talking about bread here at all. I don’t think we can understand this passage without reading it along with the 4th chapter of John.  You remember, the Samaritan woman who has a talk with Jesus about the water in the well.

And Jesus tells her, if you drink that, you’ll just be thirsty again later.  But he offers her something else, something  called “living water,” and says  “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

And remember what she says? She says “Sir, give me this water.” So, when Jesus tells the people in today’s gospel that the bread of God gives life to the world what do the people respond? “Sir, give us this bread always.” But, something tells me they still don’t get it. Something tells me they still want that bread they had up on the mountaintop. They might want the bread, and think he can give them the bread, but they’re not ready to accept that he is the bread.

Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life.” And when he says that, it resonates with the echo of the God who told Moses, I am who I am. Just like that crowd that day, we might question why we’re seeking Jesus. What are we looking for? In what ways are we just using Jesus, rather than getting to know him and learning to love him. The Jesus of today’s gospel is a gift from God that offers us new life.

Too often, we live for security: the comfort of a full belly and a wallet flush with cash. But there’s another way to live, in which we turn toward a real home, a place to abide. The living God is the only response to our souls, which are not just a little peckish, not just hollow, not just hungry, but are starving for new way to live. There is a way to live that looks beyond wealth and power and taking care of ourselves. It’s amazing how many people have climbed to the top of that heap and found it to be profoundly empty. If we let him, God will take this emptiness and fill our lives. There is a way to live that values two things above all else: loving God and loving his children. That way lies life, and life in abundance.

There is a way to live that sets asides our own concerns and looks to the needs of others and the needs of the world. That was the way of Jesus, the way he taught. And if we share in that life, we have a real communion with our Lord. Then, we will find a real, holy communion.

So, when we’re called up to this altar in just a few moments, take and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Who’s In Charge Around Here?

Jesus Casting out demon

The full readings for this Sunday can be found  here:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”

In the name of the Living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Well, good morning, good morning.  And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.

Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.

But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?

In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”

And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting  as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.

God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.

You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.

Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.

And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.

And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.

In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.

And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”

You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.

I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.

You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.

And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a  false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart.  You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Let It Be

Annunciation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In the name of the living God: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          She was just a little Jewish girl, not from a particularly important family. Not especially well-educated, almost certainly not wealthy in any sense to which anyone would pay attention. And she didn’t live in an important place, or hang around with the “important” people. She was just a teenage girl, living on the corner of a dead end street, in an occupied country at the outer edge of the Roman empire. She came from Nowheresville, and she was a nobody.

          In this final week of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on something miraculous: a virgin being pregnant, God becoming human, the infinite becoming finite. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, this is the sort of thing that God’s been doing all along: creating life where there was nothing: women too old to give birth (like Sarah and Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), life springing up where there where it was barren, where it was dead.

          The angel tells Mary that she is favored by God, that she is full of grace. This nobody, this teenage girl on the edge of nowhere, mattered to God. And the angel Gabriel called her “full of grace.”  You see, Mary found a place where all of her, and all of God, could dwell. A place deep within her life where her life and God’s life would be joined together in a bond that neither time nor trouble could ever break. Love was coming to dwell in her: to make a home there, to abide there. And I wonder if we can hear Gabriel saying that to us, telling us that we are also favored. God chose a very ordinary girl, in a very ordinary place, because God sees the grace in ordinary people and ordinary places. For all of us, that’s got to be good news.

          And there’s something remarkable about God coming to dwell among us, making an appearance, not on a fiery chariot or with bolts of lightning descending in some really cool special effects, but coming to us as a baby. Babies offer the bright, shining hope of something new, something full of promise, something noisy. And most importantly, something vulnerable. And Mary, in that moment, was remarkably vulnerable. Because you see, in first century Palestine, being an unwed mother wasn’t just something a little embarrassing, a little shameful. That was the kind of thing that could get you killed. So, Mary, took a risk. The risk of embarrassment and shame, humiliation and scandal. Well, that would mark her Son’s life, too. And that day, just like this morning, God took a risk, too.

          A lot depended on her response to God. For thousands of years, we had been mired in sin, separated from God, wallowing in our disobedience. A great chasm had opened up, long ago, in that garden, and we couldn’t get back across to the other side. Something had to change. We needed a miracle.

         Back in the 12th century, an important Saint of the church, a French Cistercian monk named Bernard, gave a really important sermon on the Annunciation and Mary’s response. And he wrote that for that brief instant, while waiting on Mary’s reply, time itself stood still.

          For that brief moment, all creation waited on her answer. In heaven, the angels and seraphim and cherubim stopped their singing. And in hell, for a moment, the screeching stopped. The principalities and the powers came to a halt. And even God leaned over the banister, waiting to hear Mary’s reply. You could’ve heard a pin drop, and then she said, ” “Fiat mihi secúndum verbum tuum.” Let it be with me according to your word. And a great music arose and the angels and all the host of heaven broke into shouts of joy, and in hell all the demonic forces cried in anguish because Lucifer’s plans for this world had been overthrown and God’s creation would be restored. But in a very real sense, Mary’s “yes” to God was simply an echo of God’s “yes” to humankind, the God who said “yes” to us time and time again, and is still saying that to you and me today.

          And in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, asked a very important question. He noted, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. But what good is it to us if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within us? And, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace if we are not also full of grace? What good is it to us for the Creator to give birth to his Son if we do not also give birth to him in our time and our culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

          So, I think we have to confront the question, are we willing to carry the Christ child, and bring Him into the world? Are we willing to risk God coming alive in us, here and today? Are we willing to answer yes to God, and share in God’s dreams for the world? You see, Mary’s story teaches us that very ordinary people (people like us), can do extraordinary, miraculous things when they are vulnerable to God’s choices in the world.

          This life is not always easy, but during this Holy Season of Advent, we might reflect on the words of St. John of Liverpool, who said:

 When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

          Let us cut a path through the noise and chaos and pain of this world. Let us make straight the way of the Lord, let it be.

          Let us build a temple in our hearts and make room for the Christ child in a world that still says there’s no room for God’s children. Let it be.

          In a world that is obsessed be power and wealth and stuff, let us turn to a woman who risked everything and a God who risked everything for the life of the world. Let it be.

          Let the lame walk, let the blind see, let us feed the hungry, and let the captives go free. Let the whole world look through that beautiful window and let them see nothing less than the kingdom of God in our hearts.

         Let us set aside for the moment our commitment to human justice, and live lives full of mercy. And from the springs of that mercy, let God’s justice rain down like a mighty river. Let it be.

          Let us turn away from racism, from our disrespect for God’s people and his world, and from treating some lives as more important than others. Let it be.

          Let it be that we beat our swords, our aircraft carriers and our drones, into ploughshares, turning away from violence and struggle and war. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Let it be.

          Let it be that those who are hopeless, living in fear and those tormented by illness and darkness find the Light of the World, and come to know compassion in a world that’s simply tired of caring. Let it be.

         Let us turn in love to those who are forgotten, those who are broken, those who are down on their luck, and share the good news of God’s love with a world that’s forgotten what love looks like. Let us set aside our own ambitions and share in God’s dreams. Let it be.

Let it be with you, let it be with me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola: A Homily

Ignatius of Loyola

The readings for the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola can be found here:

 
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Good morning, and welcome as we come together to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, which most of us know as the Jesuit Order. I feel especially close to him, because many of my first teachers were Jesuits.

          You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the modern Christian Church, and it seems to me one of the central problems we have today is that many of us view our faith like a drunkard views a street lamp. We use it for support, rather than illumination.

          It was not always so. In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the brightest lights in the history of Christianity. He was born in 1491, and in his former life he was a Spanish knight from a Basque noble family. When he was seriously wounded in battle around the age of 30, however, he underwent a significant religious conversion. Ignatius became a mystic, spending many hours a day in prayer and also working in a hospice.

          During that time, he had a remarkable spiritual experience. He had a vision in which he said that he learned more than he did in the rest of his life. This vision seems to have involved a direct encounter with God, so that all creation was seen in a new light and took on a new meaning and relevance, an experience that allowed Ignatius to find God in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, serves as one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality.

          At the age of thirty-three, he began to study for the priesthood, although he was so poor at the time he found himself begging for food and shelter. He was also jailed by the Inquisition at this time. Around then, he and six companions made solemn vows to continue their lifelong work of following Christ. He founded what would become the Jesuit Order.

          While he was living as a hermit, Ignatius began to develop a set of exercises, designed to help believers discern the movement of the Spirit. One of the crucial notions in these exercises is the idea of “indifference,” of being indifferent to the concerns of the world—not in the sense of caring about people or things less, but in the sense of not letting our ego and our attachments get in the way of our relationship with God. As Christians, we are called to be indifferent to whether we’re well-known and influential or obscure, whether we’re rich or poor, or even healthy or sick. Our focus must be on whether God is present in our lives—and God is always present, is right there with us, closer than we are to ourselves.

          And I think that’s part of what Luke is trying to explain in today’s passage from the Gospel. It’s a harsh passage, a shocking thing: hearing Jesus tell a man to disregard the burial of his father, and it doesn’t give way to easy explanations. But sometimes we have to ignore a good thing to pursue a holy thing: our highest calling to follow God single-mindedly. I think Jesus is explaining that being a disciple sometimes requires us to make hard choices: to decide if we really do love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our strength. In the kingdom of God, traditional loyalties are going to be rearranged.

          If we want to follow Jesus, to be disciples, we’re going to have to learn to seek the kingdom of God first, and not let anything get in our way. Once our hand is on that plough, we cannot turn back. And we might find some help in this little prayer, the prayer of St. Ignatius:

“Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish, you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”

Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Trinity: A Sermon

Rublev, The Trinity

The readings for Trinity Sunday can be found here:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

 In the name of the living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, I’ve been doing that, and saying that, for a long, long time. I was probably one or two years old, back in Ector County, when my mother and father taught me to make the sign of the cross and to say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And in my family, you didn’t just do it several times during church. We did it at every meal and every night as we said our evening prayers. I’m not sure my parents knew exactly what they were doing as we followed that practice. You see, not only were they reminding us of our baptismal vows constantly, but they were also inviting us into that great mystery we call The Trinity.

And I remember when I was around six or seven, sitting in the pews there at Holy Redeemer  in Odessa, a little burr headed boy in short pants. And we got to that point in the Creed when we said, “We believe in one God.” And I thought to myself, One God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One plus one plus one equals One. And I scratched my little head. One plus one plus one equals One.

And years later, when I went to the University of Texas, my parents were surprised that I studied philosophy and poetry rather than engineering. And I thought to myself, really? Because for years, they had been preparing me to become accustomed to mystery, to make my home there, to abide there.

And when the poets of the Hebrew people confronted the great mystery of how we got here, the mystery of creation, they wrote that God spoke the universe into being. He spoke light and he spoke darkness. He spoke time into being. He spoke us into being as well. Genesis records, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Now, it’s worth noting that as God speaks humanity into being, Scripture records the Creator referring to himself in the plural, “according to our likeness.” We’ll circle back to that idea in just a bit.

And our modern poets, we call them physicists, have been studying some very old light, echoes from the dawn of the universe. They tell us that when time began, in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the universe began to expand to something that was about the size of a marble.All the stars, all the planets, the entire time space continuum, began to expand from a white-hot mass about the size of your fingertip.    When I think of that, I’m reminded of something Martin Luther once said. He said, “God is nothing but glowing love, and a burning oven full of love.” And that simmering cauldron of love exploded in creation.

Curiously, our scientists also tell us there are about as many atoms in your eyeball as there are stars in the universe. And we confess that God made all these things, visible and invisible — the God who creates, and redeems and forgives and comforts and sustains.

Love, even God’s love, does not exist in a vacuum. Love always arises in relationship, in community. We call that The Trinity.

Now theologians, they tell us that God created everything from nothing. In the Latin, they say ex nihilo. It’s impossible to imagine that: we don’t have a frame of reference for it. When I try to think of it, the closest I can get is the story of Beethoven, having gone deaf, creating symphonies when there was no longer any music for him to hear. But this was something much, much more — infinitely more. And while God didn’t create from any raw material, anything physical, I think he called the universe into being out of His love.

Divine love was the stuff out of which creation sprang into being. Divine love, which overflowed out of the Father, into the life of Son, who breathed out the Spirit onto the disciples and still breathes it into us. It was love that lit the fires of trillions and trillions of stars, love that crawled up that hill called Golgotha, and it was love that broke through the separation of our many languages on Pentecost.

As a friend of mine observed, we will not encounter the living God in doctrine, explanations or analysis. The Trinity is too wild, too beautiful, too expansive, and too intimate for that. God will not be contained in our thoughts or our language. Rather, we encounter the living God in unspeakable moments of awe and joy and wonder. One of the most profound thinkers I know of, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To confess our faith is to commit, not to any kind of understanding, but to an “endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

And when the book of Genesis records that we are made in the image of God, I think it means that we are made for love. Jesus told us as much, that we were made to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all of our strength, and to love each other as much as we love ourselves.

That’s why Saint Paul said to live in peace and greet each other with a holy kiss, because we are a holy people made from holy love and made to love. Because everyone we encounter, well, they were made in the image of God as well, even the gossips and the soreheads. Thus, C.S. Lewis observed that aside from the blessed Sacrament, there’s nothing more holy in this church today than the person sitting next to you in the pews.

We, all of us, were made for union with God. We came from God, and we’ll go back where we came from. We were made for union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the God who is both a plurality and a unity.

Now if the Father lives, and has always lived, in communion, in community, and if we were made in God’s image, that means that we were also made to live in community. Our lives, our salvation, must be worked out together. And that’s why, just two weeks ago, we heard Jesus praying that we would be one, just as He and the Father are one. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters prayed, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And just as we confess that “We believe in one God.”

We work out our salvation together, and the church acts like the church, when our caring for each other pours out, and God is revealed in this community. Our churches can be, must be, windows through which the world can see God’s love spilling out everywhere — down Pecan Street, through Travis Park, up and down Highway 281, reaching out into our homes and our workplaces, our hospitals and yes, even our prisons.

We were baptized into a community, to share in the life of the Trinity, marked as Christ’s own. And we aren’t called upon to love only our fellow believers, but to live our lives so that the whole world says, “See how they love.”

So, how do we get there, how do we achieve this union with God? Well, Jesus offered us a real good starting place. In a few minutes we’ll be invited up to the table, to take the life of Christ into us. He told us, “Take, eat.” And somehow, when we do, the life of Christ, the love of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit begin to take hold in us. And that’s what C.S. Lewis called The Deep Magic. Somehow, we begin to make our home in that wonderful mystery of the Trinity, to abide with God. And then, we find that Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.

Amen.

© 2014 James R. Dennis