A Scoundrel’s Dream: Jacob’s Ladder


jacobs-ladderThe full readings for today can be found here.

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.

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

Well good evening, good evening. It’s a great pleasure to be with you here at St. Stephen’s, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality and your rector for the invitation to preach, especially on Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael and all angels.

You know, I love the story of Jacob. I love it for a lot of reasons, including that I’m his namesake and I’m so much like that rascal. I mean, he swindles his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew, and then he lies and cheats his way into his father’s blessing. And when he brother figures out what’s happened to him, he does the only thing he can do: he skeedaddles out of there and goes to a foreign land.

And we find these stories time and again. Moses was a murderer with a speech impediment; Rahab was a prostitute; King David was an adulterer and a terrible father; St. Paul was a harsh, judgmental and cruel man who tortured and probably killed the early Christians. And Jacob, well, he’s a certified mess. These men and women were frail and broken and troubled—you know, like you and me.

And yet we call this book that talks about them holy; we call their stories sacred—not because they were such delightful and upright people, but because of the surprising and inconceivable ways that God used them. God takes this weak clay, these broken vessels, and says, “I can do something with that.” He does it in the same way that he looked at the cross, an instrument of shame and torture and humiliation, and said, “I can do something with that.”

So, let’s get back to the story of Jacob. Jacob is on the run from his brother Essau, who intends to kill him. And he’s travelling at night, back to his mother’s homeland. So he’s left his home, and he’s in the wilderness. And there’s no place quite so alone when you’re away from home as a wilderness landscape at night. As Barbara Brown Taylor observed, “Jacob “is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”

Funny things happen in unexpected places. God is born in a cow barn. God speaks from a burning bush. On the road to Damascus, the Church’s greatest enemy becomes its greatest advocate. And here in this wilderness, in this nowhere, this scoundrel Jacob has a dream. Dreams are funny things: they occur outside the boundaries of time and place. But in that “unplace” Jacob the refugee dreams of heaven and earth. And God, the God of his forefather Abraham, comes looking for Jacob in that dream.

Jacob sees the angels, God’s messengers, as they travel up and down that ladder between heaven and earth. This is Jacob’s dream: a constant traffic between this life and the divine life. And in this place of limbo, where Jacob is cutoff from both his past and his future, in this wilderness, it is YHWH who speaks to Jacob.

Scripture tells us., And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” So, the Lord does three things there: the Living God traces his presence back through Jacob’s family tree, promises Jacob the land and God’s blessing, and assures this rascal of the divine presence in his life.

And when he wakes up, Jacob announces one of the most profound statements in the whole of Scripture: “Surely the Lord was in this place— and I did not know it.”  It is a remarkable observation, but I think Jacob was only half-right. You see, the point of the story isn’t exactly that God was in Beer-sheba, or Haran, or Bethel, or Jerusalem. All those things are true, but the point of the story is that God was in Jacob, with Jacob.  And he didn’t even know it.

Now, if that were true of only Jacob, it would be an interesting biblical fact, but not especially important. But through the incarnation, through God becoming flesh and walking among us, and through our baptism and the bread and wine we take into our lives, God is with us, too. God is in us and with us, and like Jacob, most of the time we don’t even know it.

In the late 1700s, there was a very famous rabbi named Levi Yitzchok, who lived in Berditchev (in the modern country of Ukraine). In trying to interpret this passage of Scripture, he wrote that the ladder represents all of humanity. Our feet are firmly planted on the earth, but we are forever reaching toward heaven, toward the divine. I like that idea. We are called to be instruments of the traffic between heaven and earth; we are called to be the conduit of the divine recreation, heralds of the incarnation, and called to make a pathway for messages to and from the God of Abraham, of Sarah, of Isaac and  Rebecca, and the God of Jacob.

Soon, our brother Wesley will make his vows as a Dominican novice. I can’t speak for him, but one of the startling things that took place as I began to live into those vows was the recognition that God was with me, that God was in this place, and I didn’t even know it.

It is my prayer for him as he begins this new vocation that he have a vision of angels bearing messages to and from the Living God. And today, it’s my prayer for Father Wesley, and it’s my prayer for you and me as well, that we come to realize that God is in this place.
© 2016 James R. Dennis

The Lost and the Found


The full readings for today can be found here.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

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

          Good morning, good morning. It’s such a grace to be back with you good people at Holy Spirit again.

When I was growing up, out in West Texas, my parents used to tell me that you could tell a lot about someone by the company he keeps. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending his time with tax collectors and sinners . . . again. It’s the kind of thing that he does. Jesus runs around with the wrong crowd. He does it so regularly we might get the impression that he likes spending his time with them. But we know that can’t be the case. Surely, the incarnate God would rather spend his time with decent folk, you know, church going people: people like you and me.

But here’s the funny thing (and when I say funny, I mean the kind of terrifying thing that keeps me awake at night), Luke tells us there were good church going people there that day. And Luke tells us what they were doing that day: they were grumbling.

Now I know that comes as a shock to you. When I read it, you could have knocked me over with a feather. You see, I’ve never heard good church going people grumbling about what’s happening around them: I’ve never heard them complain about the music they don’t like, or the reckless spending in the Church, or about another member of the congregation who has done them wrong, or about the family that always comes in late or children that just won’t behave. But somehow, Luke tells us that’s what the good church people were doing that day, those Pharisees and scribes.

And we’re told that Jesus welcomed the sinners and the tax collectors. This is the scandal of the Gospel, the scandal of God spending time with sinners, the scandal of an unwed mother, the scandal of a God hung on a tree like a scarecrow. Jesus welcomed these sinners. That word, however, that we translate as “welcomed” means a little something more. In the original Greek, the root word is dechomai, which can literally mean to bring into one’s arms. It’s hard to think of that idea without thinking about the parable of the prodigal son, which we find just a little later in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. And in that passage, we have the story of a son who is lost and found, and of a brother who stands around grumbling about the situation.

So, I think this story today compels us to think about what it means to be lost, about who is lost and about who is out looking for them. Jesus offers a couple of parables to help us understand this notion, but as is usual, the parables force us into a place where we spend easily as much time looking for an answer as we do finding one.

In the first of these, Jesus tells us about a shepherd with 100 sheep, but one of the sheep is lost. He leaves the other 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and look for the one sheep that he’s lost. Jesus asks, “Who of you would not do that?” The answer is simple: nobody would do that. No one would put the other 99 sheep at risk, leaving them without protection or shelter. That’s just not the smart play.

And then, he tells a story of about woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them and spent all night sweeping up and looking for the lost coin. Then, she found it and was so excited she threw a party for her friends and neighbors, a party which probably cost as much as the coin she lost. Again, it’s unimaginable: a ridiculous kind of celebration.

And yet Jesus tells us this is the response in the Kingdom of heaven when one sinner repents, when one sinner decides to turn toward God. In one sense, each of the images Luke uses for God in this chapter of his gospel would have been a bit offensive, or at the very least shocking, to His audience: a shepherd, an old woman, and a father who has no pride. Shepherds occupied a very low place in the social order, followed by women. And the father in the story of the prodigal son, well, it seems like he’s making a bit of a sucker bet on his wandering no-good child. None of these images of God would have appealed to a first century audience in Palestine.

I think Jesus was intentionally shocking his audience into new ways of thinking about God―thinking about God not much in the celestial or the abstract, but about a God who could be found in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things. And Jesus brought the good news of the Gospel, for people who were desperately looking for God in the world, good news that God was desperately looking for them, too.

But as we read this passage, I think Jesus is forcing us to rethink our ideas of who is really lost. You see, in this story, it’s neither the sinners nor the tax collectors (who were collaborators with the Romans) who are lost. Rather, it’s those sitting on the sidelines, frozen in their self-righteousness and judgment who are really lost.

We might ask ourselves who is lost in today’s world. Could it be the parents who wrap their whole lives into their children’s ball games and dance recitals, instilling a drive to succeed that crushes the joy out of those things? Could it be those who have struggled their whole lives to save for their retirement, only to find that there’s no meaning left in their remaining years? Could it be those whose addictions have taken over their lives until they can no longer find any peace in the world? Or maybe it’s the woman who’s trying to raise her family while taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s until there’s just nothing left of herself in her life. Or could it be those of us whose sense of our own piety and holiness compels us to look at those who are down on their luck with the smug assurance that such a thing could never happen to good people like us. You see, I think we’re all a little lost.

And I guess today we can’t help but think about the anniversary of those tragic events 15 years ago in New York.  And we all know about the sorrow of those days and the terrible losses that were suffered. But there’s another story about that day that I’ve heard recently. It’s the story of the man in the red bandana.

His real name was Welles Carothers, and he was 24 years old and worked as an equity trader on the 104th floor of the south tower. His building was struck at 9:03 in the morning, when United Flight 175 crashed into the tower. But he was alright and left a voicemail for his mother 9 minutes later in which he said, “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know that I’m okay.”

And there are lots of people who remember seeing him, a tall man in a red bandana, helping people get out of the building. One of the survivors, told this story: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief. He was looking for a fire extinguisher.” As a survivor named Judy Wein recalls, the man in the red bandana pointed to the stairs and made an announcement that saved lives: Anyone who can walk, get up and walk now. Anyone who can perhaps help others, find someone who needs help and then head down.”

He went back into the towers several times. He saved at least 12 people’s lives. And then, he never made it back out. That man, that man in the red bandana went looking for those who would be lost, he went looking regardless of the cost. And I think that’s kind of what God’s like. God goes looking for us in the rubble of our lives. And God tells us, “If you don’t need help, find someone who does.”

All these parables are about more than what’s been lost. They’re about the foolish, reckless ways in which God goes looking for us when we’re lost. They’re about a God who will bet on us, even when we’re not a smart bet. Right now, God is lighting a lamp and searching everywhere for us, even when we don’t want to be found. And if we want to be Christlike, if we want to be like Jesus, we’ll join in that search. Amen.

© 2016 James R. Dennis

Teach Us to Pray


The full readings for today can be found here:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray….”

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

Good morning, good morning. It’s good to be back with you at St. Paul’s.

You know, there’s an old family legend among my kinfolk about my great-grandfather, an Irishman who lived in Boston. One day, he had an appointment with the Bishop, and he was frantically running late. Well, he couldn’t find a parking spot, and so he lifted his eyes to heaven and spoke: “Lord, you know I need to speak with the good bishop. If you will find me a parking space, I promise that I will go to Mass every day for the rest of the year.”

Well, miraculously, the clouds parted on this dreary day, and bathed in a beam of glowing sunlight a parking space opened up right in front of the cathedral and my great-grandfather looked up to the heavens and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found it myself.”

So, today’s Gospel reading centers around prayer, and prayer for many of us is a bewildering thing. Sometimes, our prayer tumbles out so easily, as the need pours out of us and into God. Sometimes we stutter and stammer, lost in a wilderness of inarticulate mumbles. And sometimes, our prayers are nothing more than groans and silence. Sometimes, I think my best prayers are the simplest: I tell God “Help!” Or I simply say “Thank you.” And sometimes, there just aren’t any words for what I want to say. I just want to be, to abide in presence of the God who said I Am.

I know a lot more about what prayer is not than what it is. I don’t think God is some sort of sacramental concierge or holy genie who will give us three wishes. I don’t think prayer has much to do with making all our dreams come true, at least not in the way many people understand it. I suspect there’s not a one of you who’s not had a prayer go unheeded, and worried that it might have gone unheard.

And yet, the Gospel tells us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” What are we to make of this?

Well, I think we get a hint of that in the way Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. I think this whole reading is teaching us something about the idea of the Kingdom of God. It’s worth noting that when the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray, the first thing he tells them to pray for is the Kingdom of God. Now, maybe that’s just something he thought they needed because they were an oppressed people suffering under Roman occupation who were living a subsistence existence.

I mean, for people like that, the Kingdom of God looks pretty good.  But what about people like us? One of the bishops in the Anglican Communion, a bishop from Africa, once observed: “In America, you don’t need God. You have air conditioning.” And it’s true. In this country, we idolize those who stand on their own two feet, who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We idolize the “self-made man.” And I use that word deliberately. We idolize them. We have made an idol of them.

I don’t like to go to God asking for things. It makes me feel like a beggar. And then, sometimes I think, that’s exactly why I need to pray. You see, everything I have comes from God, and I need the humility of prayer to recognize that. Because I was born on third base, and mostly I strut around like I just hit a triple. I am prone to the delusion of my adequacy, my self-reliance. I need prayer to teach me about my dependency on God for all good things. I need prayer to teach me that I am a beggar.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying for the things we want or need, and I don’t think there’s anything too silly to take to God in prayer. I think all of our prayers, no matter how trivial or crude, involve what Evelyn Underhill called a “brush with Pentecost.” We who are fallen, we refugees from Paradise, have a chance to speak, anytime we want, with the Holy Trinity and to call Them into our lives. And it helps me to realize that while Jesus taught us to ask God for our daily bread, He also taught that He is the bread of life. And I think that whatever I pray for, in the final analysis, I end up with Jesus.

Many of us turn to God only when our lives seem out of control, when we are confronted by the violence of this world in places like Orlando, or Dallas, or Baton Rouge, or Munich, or Istanbul, or Kabul. Because then, everything seems out of control, at least beyond our control. So, maybe we do have a hint of what it felt like in first century Palestine, when the whole world seemed to have gone crazy.

Jesus told his disciples several things about prayer. The first of these is the story of the “friend at midnight” who comes knocking very late to borrow three loaves of bread. There are few things more troublesome than having a friend or being a friend. It doesn’t always happen when it’s convenient, and our friends rarely need us only when it’s convenient. I think Jesus is also telling us, and this is very good news, that it’s never too late to ask for God’s help. Prayer is an awkward thing. It is not always polite, nor can we put our prayers into some manageable cabinet or corner of our lives. Jesus counsels that we should turn to God when our hearts ache and we are in need.

Jesus then suggests we look at our relationship with God as we would look at a parent and a child. When our children ask for something, we don’t give them snakes or scorpions. Jesus reminds us, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It is the Holy Spirit that compels us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom, for a time of justice and mercy and for a time of peace. And once we have prayed for it, we can join with the Spirit in working for it in a world where these things are needed desperately. Even when God does not bring us the things we ask for, God comes and brings along the Trinity, and that is enough.

You see, I don’t think that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray that they were asking for a set of specific words to say, or an incantation to be sure that God was listening. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus really gave them. I think they were wanting to know how to get their hearts in the right place, so that they could have the kind of profound relationship Jesus had with the Father. I think they wanted to know how to imitate their rabbi, so that their whole lives would become extended acts of prayer.

There’s a wonderful story about Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the giants of the Anglican Church. Someone once asked Ramsey how long he prayed each day. Ramsey answered, “About five minutes. But it usually takes me about an hour to get there.” We have to be willing to take the time to allow our relationship with the living God to develop, to take the time to allow the noise of the world to die down. Only then, can we listen for the voice of the One God to emerge and to become the first voice we listen to in a world where it’s so rarely heard. Only then, can we join in bringing about the Kingdom which is to come. Only then, can our whole lives become a kind of prayer, a living icon of Christ in the world. Lord, teach us to pray.


James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

Setting Our Faces to Go to Jerusalem


When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:51-62.

The full readings for today can be found here.

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

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

Good morning. It’s good to be back at Holy Spirit, my spiritual second home.

Several years ago, my mother lay in our home dying. Her cancer had overcome her, and she was in hospice care. Despite the morphine, she could not stand to be touched. And when it came time to give her a sponge bath, she would scream as though the demons of hell themselves were tormenting her. None of us could bear to bathe her, with the exception of my youngest brother Sean, who was terminally himself. And my other brothers and I would go outside because we could not stand to hear my mother cry like that.

But Sean Michael knew it had to be done. There was hard work, a painful task, but it needed doing, and he was going to take care of my mother. And my brother Sean set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Years later, I began working in a ministry with people who are terminal and their families. I have spent a lot of time in oncology wards. And the thing about that sort of ministry is, you have to be prepared to have your heart broken every six months or so.

And I have a confession to make. I’m really not good at it. It’s hard and it’s painful, and I try to stumble and stutter my way through these really heartbreaking moments. Because the people I have come to love are going to die, and I can’t really help them, other than go on this final walk with them. And every time I walk onto an oncology ward or an ICU, I try to set my face to Jerusalem.

Following Jesus can be terribly hard, and when I look at my own circuitous, halting walk of faith, I come to realize that I have let Him down too often. When I look at my own life, I remind myself of the Civil War General George Steadman. Steadman spoke to his Confederate troops just before the battle of Second Manassas, also known as Bull Run. General Steadman apparently had a reasonably good idea as to the outcome of the battle. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I want you to fight vigorously and then run for your lives. As I am a bit lame, I’m going to begin running now.” Sometimes, when I’m called to follow Jesus, I just want to start running.

 So, this morning, we have this passage, this hard passage from Luke’s gospel. It’s the kind of reading that keeps me awake at night.

By the time we get to this part of the story, Jesus has already had a number of discussions with His disciples. He’s warned them that he’s going to Jerusalem, and will suffer there. They’ve seen him with Moses and Elijah, seen Him transfigured, and probably can’t imagine the horror that’s coming. And now, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. You may remember the suffering servant in the book of the prophet Isaiah, who sets his face “like flint.”  Whenever I hear that phrase, I think of a stony determination to do the work He came to do, of a steel-eyed Jesus, Jesus with a thousand yard stare, fixed on the walk that would lead to our salvation.

The Jesus of today’s Gospel seems a little impatient. He doesn’t seem to have time to deal with a perceived slight from the Samaritans, and declines the disciple’s recommendation that they call down a consuming fire on them. Happily, even with His intent fixed on Jerusalem, Jesus declined the suggestion that his disciples burn these people alive.

We find Jesus today on the move. He has no intention of taking a break or settling down, and so he tells us that foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that even the animals and birds have a home in this world, but he doesn’t and neither do those who want to follow Him. One of the things we often find is that while we want to follow Jesus, we also want to stay where we are. Following Jesus means that we, too, will be on the move. It sometimes means waiting to see where Jesus is going, and then scrambling to catch up with Him.

And even in this moment, Jesus wants to be sure that his disciples understand what it means to follow him. There’s an old Jewish saying from the rabbinic tradition: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It meant may you follow your rabbi, your teacher, so closely that the dust he leaves behind falls upon you. Jesus wants to tell us just how costly that dust can be.

We get a taste for that kind of discipleship in the Old Testament reading for today in the story of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah, the quintessential Old Testament prophet, has been hounded by the king and queen. They have sought his life. And as he walks toward the end of his life, he tells his disciple Elisha to stay behind. But Elisha continually responds, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” When asked what he wants, Elisha wants nothing more than a double measure of the spirit of his teacher, his rabbi Elijah. And when Elijah is taken up into the clouds, Elisha takes up his mantle and continues his rabbi’s journey. That’s what it looks like to be covered in the dust of your rabbi.

Jesus explains the price of our discipleship. And one of the things we may have to do is let go of our former lives. He tells us that no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. If you’ve ever plowed a field, you know that you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight. If you look backward, you will swerve one way or another. And when I hear this story, I can’t help but think about the story of Lot’s wife, who disobeyed God and looked back at her past life rather than the life God had prepared for her.

The Christian life can be so difficult. It’s not all kittens and unicorns and rainbows and glitter. Sometimes, it requires us to set our face toward Jerusalem, and walk in the way of the cross. In his wonderful work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of following Jesus. He said, this “grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Jesus understands that we follow Him, if at all, at a price. And there is little time to waste. Jesus doesn’t even seem to make time for a man to go and bury his father. There were few, if any, rules more important than attending to the burial of a parent in the ancient world, and in particular, in the Jewish world. By telling this man to “let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus seems particularly dismissive and perhaps insensitive.

Now, I’m not sure this really happened. Rather, I think Luke is trying to tell us that there’s always something that we need to do before we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem. It’s worth noting that two of those men say they’re willing to follow Jesus, and both use the same phrase: “but first.” And if you’ve ever been caught there, you know that those things you have to do before you follow Jesus have a way of multiplying. We have family obligations, work obligations, social obligations, and they always interfere with following Jesus.

“Let me do this one thing, Lord, and then I’ll get right back with you.” But the Jesus of today’s Gospel is telling us that every single moment matters, and there’s not a moment to waste if we want to walk with Jesus. There is an urgency about this walk.

Today, the Gospel gives us a hard passage. This isn’t the squishy, cuddly Jesus we sometimes want to remember. No, this passage is about a Jesus who is determined to walk toward our salvation. It is a hard love: as hard as the wood of the cross and this love bores into us like the nails that bound Him to that cross. This Jesus tells us to put the kingdom of God first, and worry about the other stuff later. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you.” None of us are strong enough to walk this way alone, but if you will walk with me, I will walk with you.


James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

Two Kinds of People


The full readings for today can be found here. The Gospel reading follows below:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

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

It was back in my hometown, Odessa, Texas, in the mid-1990s. My father had retired, along with two of his closest friends, from the oilfield where they spent almost all their working lives, and I had gone home to visit my family. And Dad used to meet with these two friends at the bank every Tuesday morning for coffee, because the coffee was free and they were notorious cheapskates.

Now, these men became known as the Board of Directors, and each of them had a given area of responsibility. Luther Stewart was a worldly man, and so he was put in charge of politics. Homer Pittman was from Oklahoma, and he was in charge of weather because people from Oklahoma know a lot about weather. And because I was a lawyer, my father was in charge of the O.J. Simpson trial. And if something went wrong in their area of responsibility (the wind blew too much, or Judge Ito made a ruling no one could understand) the board member in charge of that area would catch nine different kinds of perdition.

So, one day I was with them, taking my coffee, and Homer Pittman opined that there were two kinds of people in this world: people who were just chasing money, and people who weren’t. Well, we discussed that for a while, and then Luther Stewart suggested that there were in fact two kinds of people in the world, but they were people who were happy by nature and people who weren’t. On the way home my father (a man of considerable wisdom) looked at me and said, “James, I think there are two kinds of people in this world. There’s people who think there’s two kinds of people, and people who don’t.”

So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending time with two kinds of people: sinners and Pharisees. And we come to realize that most of us fall into one or the other of these categories. And the extra-good news is that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Many of us are skilled enough that we can be both, sometimes at the same time.

You know, I love Luke’s Gospel. As I read it, I can’t wait to find out who Jesus is going to spend his time with next: blind people, the lame, lepers, Gentiles, Roman soldiers and prostitutes. It’s like he went around, looking for people no one else liked, people no one with good sense would pay any attention to, misfits and scoundrels. It’s like he didn’t care what other people thought about him. And just in case you missed that observation, Luke tells us at the end of the story that Jesus went and passed his time with people who had been possessed of evil spirits and diseases.

Jesus has a habit of doing this kind of thing. Whenever we draw a line in the sand and say “on this side of the line is where God happens,” Jesus walks across that line. And then, he hops back over to the other side, and then, he hops back. That’s especially true when people try to tell Jesus who is worthy of God’s love.

So, we have this woman, this woman of the city, this sinner. She’s the kind of woman most people avert their eyes from when they encounter her. She’s the kind of woman most people try to ignore. She has the invisibility of the forgotten. And Jesus has to ask the Pharisee Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

That’s just the kind of guy Jesus is. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once observed, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

And then, we have the story about a second kind of person, this Pharisee Simon. And the Pharisees weren’t bad people; they really weren’t. They wanted to get closer to God. They wanted to lead holy lives, and they wanted everyone else to lead holy lives, too. And they had one superpower: they were really good at looking at other people (including Jesus) and telling them what they were doing wrong. Just like Simon, who was convinced Jesus wasn’t really God’s messenger because Jesus apparently didn’t know what kind of woman this was. And Simon was disgusted by this scene, particularly by this woman’s touch. Jesus should have known what kind of woman this was touching him.

The Gospels portray the Pharisees as suffering from the sin of self-righteousness, which from a moral perspective isn’t necessarily worse than other sorts of sins. But the problem is, self-righteousness operates like a kind of spiritual cataract, clouding our vision of our own shortcomings. And that’s the problem from which this Pharisee Simon suffers. Simon is frozen is a wilderness of self-assured piety. And we might wonder, along with Lady Violet of Downton Abbey, “Does it ever get cold there on the moral high ground?”

You know, this Gospel reading reminds me of an old story I heard about a church not too far from here. We’ll call it St. Episcolopolis. And like us, it was a downtown church and they had a large homeless population in the area. And the rector convinced the vestry that they should begin feeding the homeless people around the church. So they did, and everything went swimmingly, until one week the rector invited all these homeless people to come to church after breakfast. And they came.

Well, the next vestry meeting, the senior warden spoke up. He said, “You know, Father, it was all well and good when you told us to feed these people. I mean, that’s what Jesus wanted us to do, and we’re okay with that. But when you invited them to church, well, I mean, I’m not sure they fit in well here. Some of them smell real bad, and they sit there and talk to themselves during the service. I think, Father, you’ve gone too far.”

And the Rector looked at his vestry, and noticed that they were all in agreement. And then he looked down and said, “I’m sorry. Maybe I did try and move too fast. You know, I was just trying to save a few souls.” And the room fell quiet and then the senior warden spoke up. “Father, I suppose you’re right. We didn’t really think about your efforts to save their souls.” And the priest said, “Oh, I wasn’t talking about them.”

So, in today’s Gospel, I think we learn about two other kinds of people. We learn about Jesus, who is always ready to give people a new start. We learn about his habit of looking around for those outside the circle of holiness, looking around the misfits.

And we learn about this woman, who loves him and knows that she needs what he has to offer, a woman whose tears bathe his feet. It’s an intimate event; in fact, it’s scandalous. I’ve often wondered about her: about this woman who found the courage to go into a house where she wasn’t welcome, about the source of those tears. Was she crying because she came to realize the cost of all those years she’d spent in her former life—a life of sin, doing degrading things she knew separated her from God, a life of pain, and humiliation? Or was she crying because she’d found something new in this man called Jesus, and wept for joy knowing she didn’t have to live that way anymore.

She must have been a rare woman—a woman with the courage to say “no” to the people who would push her aside, a woman willing to endure the sneers and shame of those who said she was too dirty, a woman willing to bear the laughter of those who would not accept her or this intimate expression of love for this man Jesus. She was profoundly….human. She was a woman whose courage told her that there was room for her at this table.
And she found that there was another way to walk through the world—a way that St. Paul describes: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This was woman who knew, somewhere in her heart, that love is always a terrible, scandalous risk. It is my hope, my prayer, that when we come to this table in a few minutes that we take that risk and that we find that new life. It is my prayer that we find that a faith that saves us, and that we go in peace. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

You Can’t Go Home Again

aThe full readings for today can be found here.


In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Luke 4:21-30.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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

          Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you today, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality these past few weeks. I’m going to tell you all something and some of you may find this a bit shocking. Think of it as my confession. Those of you who know me well may not find this surprising at all, but I’m not sure I have been saved. I’m not sure that accurately describes the situation at all.

          I’m going to tell y’all a story about me, back when I was just a wee little boy back in Odessa, Texas. My family raised me as an Irish Catholic and I attended kindergarten and first grade at a Catholic school. But when I was in the second grade, my folks decided I should go to the public school and I began attending Burnett Elementary School.

          And it was during the first week when I was there on the playground, at recess, when I was surrounded by a ring of my classmates.  And I’m pretty sure they were Baptists because I think most everyone in Odessa was. And my new friends began to interrogate me and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” And I honestly don’t know where this answer came from because I was not a thoughtful child. There were a lot of words used to describe me in my childhood, but “thoughtful” is not one of them. But I looked at them and said, “Kind of. I don’t think he came just to save me. I think he came to save the whole world.” But I’ll circle back to that idea of salvation here in a bit.

          Speaking of hometowns, in today’s gospel we find Jesus back in his hometown, Nazareth. Now, Nazareth wasn’t a particularly important place, and it was largely known as a poor region, a place populated by rabble rousers and troublemakers. So when folks there heard about the good things Jesus was doing in other cities, I’m sure they were full of expectations and curiosity, a little pride, and perhaps a little envy.

And Jesus stood up there in the synagogue and he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

          And then, he tells them, “Today this has happened, and you’ve been here to hear it.” It’s a startling announcement: it’s shocking. And in the most clear expression we can find in the Gospels, Jesus makes the claim: “I’m him. I’m the Messiah you’ve all been waiting for.” And while the people are initially impressed, it doesn’t take long until they’re asking themselves, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

          They’re suggesting: Wait a minute. We know this man, and there’s nothing particularly special about him, or perhaps they are alluding to his dubious parentage. I’ve got a feeling that Jesus knew this town, these people and their narrowness. Jesus had probably heard the whispers about his mother and her “virgin birth.” And these people were confident they knew all about Jesus. Of course, we know that familiarity breeds contempt. And that’s not unusual: we all get accustomed to thinking about people in a certain way. Neuropsychiatrists tell us that human thoughts and ideas travel along well-worn pathways in our brains. These people pretty sure they’ve got Jesus all figured out, and they also know what the Messiah should look like and this upstart . . . well, this isn’t him at all.

          And Jesus knows they want him to do the same stuff in his hometown that he did in Capernaum. You know, all that miracle stuff. As C.S. Lewis once observed, one of our great human weaknesses is to tell God “Encore! Do that again!” Because we want God to be predictable; we want a God we can do business with.

          But Jesus, he’s going to thwart their expectations. In essence, He tells them, “I didn’t come just for you people.” This is not what we’d call an “effective marketing strategy.” Jesus reminds them about Elijah, who was also rejected by His own people, and brought deliverance from sickness and hunger and death to a Gentile woman. He reminds them about Elisha, who cured the Gentile Naaman although there were plenty of lepers in Israel. This is a bitter pill to swallow; this is hard medicine for the hometown crowd, and the crowd has what modern doctors would call an “adverse reaction” to this medicine.

          Luke tells us they were filled with rage, and they ran him outside town and were going to throw him off a cliff, when Jesus somehow just slips away. And that seems a little strange, because it’s hard to get away from an angry mob. But maybe Luke is telling us that when we are full of self-assurance and when we’re filled with rage, it’s very hard to find Jesus.  Rage and fear and self-assurance act like God cataracts: we just can’t see God when we feel that way.

          Jesus is always upending the expectations of those who think they’ve got God figured out: they’ve got a God they understand, a God they can do business with. He does it again and again. It’s one of his character traits, and I think He got that from his Father. The minute we think we’ve got God all figured out, He up and does something we just didn’t see coming. And for those disappointments which prove to be our salvation, we should give thanks every day.

          So, I want to circle back to that concern I shared with you early on. I don’t think I can honestly say that I have been saved. I don’t think my salvation is my rear-view mirror. But I do think I’m being saved. My salvation began over two thousand years ago when God’s son was born into the stench and muck of a cow barn and walked and lived among us until he walked up that hill called Golgotha, the place of the skulls. I am being saved daily, working out my salvation with fear and trembling, through prayer, encounters with the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the love of Christ’s body, the Church. And I believe I will be saved at the last day through God’s love and mercy: through the mercy of a God who, despite my best efforts, simply will not stay in any of the boxes I try to fit Him into. This, I believe, and this, I give thanks for. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016


Mary, Week 5

aMy friends,

Here’s the final installment of the Mary course I’ve been teaching. Wishing you all a Happy Advent and a Merry Christmas:


Emmanuel, God is with us:

Br. James