Up to the Temple to Pray

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  Luke 18. (The full readings for today can be found here.)

In the name of our Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.  

Well good morning, good morning.

          You know, I love today’s gospel, and every time I think about it and about the spiritual danger of comparing ourselves to others, I remember a story my great grandfather used to tell.  It’s a story about two brothers, who like my great grandfather, came over from Ireland, from the old country. And the Flanagan brothers, well, they weren’t very nice men. In fact, they were terrible men. Although they were filthy rich, they were very stingy. They were terrible drunkards and beat their wives and children. Even the neighborhood dogs were afraid of the Flanagan brothers.

          Well, one day Tommy Flanagan died, and his brother Michael went to the parish priest. And Michael proposed a terrible bargain to the priest. He said, “Father, I know my brother wasn’t a good man, but I want people to think well of him. And I will give a million dollars to the church orphanage if you will tell people he was a saint at his funeral. But you must use those exact words, Father. You must tell them that Tommy was a saint.”

          Well, this caused a terrible crisis of conscience for the parish priest. He knew that the orphanage was deeply in debt and the children of the parish had a terrible need for that money. But he just couldn’t imagine lying about Tommy Flanagan and losing all moral authority with his parish. Well, the day of the funeral came, and the priest rose to the pulpit to give the homily.

          He said, “I knew Tommy Flanagan, I knew him all my life and I knew him well. He was a drunkard and a cruel man. He beat his children and his wife, and never came to Mass. He was stingy, and a bully, and a lout. But,” the priest said, “compared to his brother Michael, Tommy Flanagan was a saint.”

Like I said, I love this gospel because we find at least three aspects of this passage that are classic Luke. The first of these is the way in which Luke uses pairs to tell a story. Not long ago, we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and last week we heard the story of the widow and the unjust judge. Luke begins the story this week: “Two men went up to the temple to pray….” The opening echoes with the resonance of another story from Luke: “A certain man had two sons….” And just like in the story of the prodigal son, when we hear that these two men went up to pray, we suspect there’s going to be some trouble.

Another aspect of this story that is classic Luke is the notion of inclusion. Luke’s gospel is the gospel of radical inclusion. In Jesus’ time, it was clear that there was a circle of holiness and some people were inside that circle and some people were outside of that circle—including women, lepers, those who were sick, especially tax collectors.

Tax collectors were particularly despised because they did not simply collect the amount of tax owed. Because the position was unpaid, they had to collect more than was owed to support themselves. They often used violence and extortion to collect the taxes. And most importantly, they were seen as collaborators, working with the occupying Roman government to suppress the people of Israel. Tax collectors were dreaded, and they were despised. But in Luke’s gospel, everyone is invited into the circle of holiness, and that includes tax collectors. Jesus eats with them; he even calls them his friends.

The third aspect of this story that marks it as squarely fitting into Luke’s gospel is the way it upends our expectations. Luke constantly does that. Jesus constantly does that. This story is sort of like one of those mirrors at the circus where our reflections are distorted. They’re still recognizable, but not at all what we expect. We’ve already talked about one of these, and Jesus upends our expectation that the tax collector would be the villain of the story.

A second expectation that is frustrated is the place where this story occurs—the temple. For most good, devout Jews in first century Palestine, the temple was the holiest place on earth. It served as the fulcrum of the world, the place where heaven and earth intersected. And I suspect if you asked Jesus about how he felt about the temple his feelings would have been richly and profoundly ambivalent. While he knew of its scriptural importance, he also knew of the ways in which the temple system had been compromised and corrupted.

So, the temple was traditionally a place where sacrifice was offered. Yes, it was a place of prayer, but one could pray most anywhere. The temple system was built on sacrifice and a transactional approach to washing away one’s sins or having one’s prayers answered. In Jesus’ story, however, rather than a place of sacrifice, the temple becomes a place of mercy. And rather than a system of merit, mercy seems to rain down upon some shockingly undeserving people.

And then Jesus capsizes our expectations about the Pharisee. He’s a fine specimen of a faithful churchgoer. We get the feeling that he prays often, he fasts regularly, and he gives money to the church. Honestly, that’s a good, solid spiritual regimen. He’d probably fit in well over at St. Elsewhere Episcolopolus Church; he might even fit in well here with us.

I suspect he really was a good guy, a decent sort, and a fine churchman. But he was blind to two critical issues: the source of his blessing; and the purpose of his blessing. He cannot see that the source of his blessing was not his own good character. And he cannot understand that all of his blessings were to be used for God’s purposes. Luke offers us a sharp contrast: the tax collector’s focus is inward (on his own sins and his failure to live a holy life), but the Pharisee is focused on others, and how they live.

We so often attempt to summarize our brothers and sisters in one glance, as this Pharisee does. And therein we find ourselves mired in a spiritual quicksand: the sin of dismissal. It points us to one of the greatest risks to our spiritual lives—comparing ourselves to others. I want us to examine the many ways we might compare ourselves to others: the books we’ve read, what we do for a living, where we went to school, the car we drive, our exercise regime, who we vote for, the neighborhood we grew up in, and where we go to church.

The Pharisee is convinced that he’s in good shape with the Almighty. His claim to righteousness is based upon his own accomplishments while the tax collector realizes his only chance is God’s mercy. Without that, he hasn’t got a prayer. In a classic upheaval of expectations, Jesus says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s a close parallel to the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first.

          Jesus tells us that the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified. In the Greek, that word “justified” carries a lot of connotations, including the connotation of having gone through a judicial proceeding. It means having been acquitted, restored, forgiven, made right, or rebalanced. Here, we find another inversion of what we expect because the Pharisee offers a number of justifications for his life and his goodness. The tax collector offers no defense. He can rely upon nothing other than God’s mercy.

          In one sense, learning to live without self-justification is a terrible burden. It leaves us vulnerable to the judgment of others, and vulnerable to our harshest critic, ourselves. In another sense, it’s terribly liberating because we come to realize that our justification or our salvation depends upon God’s mercy rather than our merit. And one of the things we can let go of, one of the things we must let go of, is keeping score. We don’t need to keep score against our brothers or sisters, or against God, anymore. It’s a hard lesson, my friends.  But this parable teaches us that in the spiritual life if you are keeping score, you have already lost the game. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Unjust Judge

In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ Luke 18. (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)

In the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.  Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you again here at St. Michael’s. And many thanks to Brynn and all of you for your generous hospitality.

So, this morning in the lectionary, the Church offers us this story which is sometimes called the parable of the unjust judge. And this passage of the Gospel reminds me of one of my favorite stories about the religious life. Several years ago, there was a young woman who became a nun. And she made her vows and entered the convent. Now the rules of this particular Order required that she be cloistered and keep silence, although every ten years the sisters were allowed to say two words. So, for the first ten years, she was assigned to make the beds. And she changed the sheets, and washed them,  and made every bed throughout the monastery. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and said, “Bed hard.” Well, the next ten years, she was assigned to the kitchen. And she peeled the potatoes and cooked the oatmeal and cleaned every pot in that monastery. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and told her, “Kitchen hot.”

After ten long years she was next assigned to clean the bathrooms. And she washed every sink and bathtub and scrubbed every toilet they had. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and said, “I quit.” And the elder nun looked at her and said, “Good. You haven’t done anything but nag me since you got here.” Contrary to that story, and today’s gospel, I don’t think prayer has much to do with nagging God.

And we may be a little confused by this parable, or by many of them. The Hebrew word for parable is mashal, which carries with it connotations of a story, or an allegory, or a riddle. And many of these parables may leave us scratching our heads, including the one this morning, but that’s their function. They’re kind of like a picture frame that is intentionally hung so that it’s not level, so that we’ll have to really think about and puzzle over what’s portrayed. These parables are meant to make us think, to examine, and to turn an idea over in our minds until we come to a deeper understanding of it. And the broader question that I think Luke wants us to look at is how do we think prayer operates, and what does faithful living look like in a fallen world?

So, let’s take a deeper look at this parable and see what it offers us. Jesus begins his story: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Oh, I’ve been to that city. And I’m pretty sure that I know that judge. I was a lawyer for a very long time, and on more than one occasion, I ran across that judge who did not fear God nor respect people. And without revealing too much about this judge, I can tell you that the county seat is Beaumont. Now, I should have known there was going to be a problem because in French the name Beaumont means “beautiful mountain.”  Have y’all ever been to Jefferson County? Well, it’s not beautiful, and there’s no mountain.

Seriously, if you’ve ever met someone like that—someone who doesn’t fear God and doesn’t respect people—you know how truly frightening a person that is. And I don’t think for a moment, Jesus is trying to tell us that God is like that. The God we worship loved and respected humanity, embraced all sorts of people, prayed regularly, and his blood watered the hill we call Golgotha. I want to circle back to the contrast between God and this unjust judge in just a moment, but first let’s look at one of the other characters in the story.

When we examine the widow in this parable, we remember the biblical direction about taking care of widows because in that world they were fragile and vulnerable. And yet this widow doesn’t seem vulnerable at all. She constantly goes to the unjust judge asking for justice against her opponent. Some translators tell us the better translation is “give me revenge.” And we might re-think our notion of her as fragile when we realize that the judge is actually being worn out by this woman.

So, is Jesus actually telling us that the real secret to a rich prayer life is becoming a bother to God, pestering the Almighty until He just gives in? Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point, especially since Jesus is on the receiving end of so many of our prayers. Now, there are some folks, and a few preachers, who will tell you that if you close your eyes real hard, and give money to the church, and believe just right, God will give you anything you ask for—as if the Almighty were some sort of a cross between a celestial ATM and a divine Santa Claus. We have a name for that sort of theology. We call it “heresy.”

I think Jesus is talking to us about two things. First, he’s telling us not to lose heart. And it’s so easy in this world to lose heart. There are unjust judges everywhere. Our political discourse has been reduced to the snarkiest common denominator. And in our prayer life, help never seems to come as quickly as we’d like, if it comes at all. And if we view prayer as a transaction, we might lose heart all the more quickly.  I don’t think our prayer life is like a Vegas slot machine, where if we just keeping putting in enough tokens, we’ll hit the jackpot.

            I do think, however, it’s like another bible story, one we didn’t hear today but I’ll bet you know it. I think our prayer life is a lot like the story of Jacob. And you’ll remember that Jacob was trying to come back home, knowing that his brother Esau was furious with him and he’s worried that his brother is coming to kill him. And that night a man comes to Jacob and wrestles with him. And the scripture is unclear about whether Jacob is wrestling with a man, or an angel, or with God himself. The two of them wrestle all night.  And although in the struggle Jacob’s hip is thrown out of joint, he tells his opponent, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Our prayer life is like holding onto God, struggling with God all night, even when we are injured in the struggle. It is a stubborn insistence on a blessing, oftentimes a blessing we do not yet understand. As Saint Paul says, we train ourselves to be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. We will wrestle all night, holding on for that blessing. We will lift up our eyes to the hills, knowing that our help can only come from the Lord. And if we remain obstinate, if we stubbornly cling to God even when our strength is failing, the Son of Man will return to find that we are a faithful people. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Go, and Do Likewise





Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” The full readings for this service can be found here.

In the name of our God, the One who creates, redeems and sustains us.

A long time ago, in medieval Europe, they used to have what they called mystery plays. These dramas were often accompanied by a procession or a parade, and would depict scenes or stories from the Bible, particularly from the Gospels. Now, I do something like that in my neighborhood. Anyone who knows me knows that I have two dogs, and they’re not very good dogs at all. In fact, they are terrible dogs. I take them for a long walk at least twice a day, but they are ill-behaved and are committed to that bad behavior. And every now and then, we run across an animal that’s been hit by a car or killed somehow—a squirrel or a cat or a bird.

And my dogs always insist that we stop. They insist that we investigate and consider these incidents very carefully. Now, I’m not sure that they want to bandage up the creature’s wounds, or to carry the poor animal to an innkeeper and pay for its lodging. But I’m always trying to get them to keep walking, to move along, because there’s nothing to see here. I don’t know if that makes me the priest or the Levite in the story, and I’m not sure I like where this analogy is going so let’s get back to the Gospel.

So, Luke begins this fabulous story with a lawyer, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus. And this lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I want us to look at the assumption in this question. The assumption is that eternal life is somehow linked to something we do. And I think Jesus’ response will unsettle that assumption. Initially, Jesus answers with a question, and then he answers with a story. Neither directly answers this lawyer’s question, by which I mean Jesus’ response calls us into a discussion that goes beyond a simple answer. It calls us to walk with our rabbi, rather than simply solving a puzzle.

So, this lawyer asks Jesus to give him the secret to eternal life, and I love Jesus’ response. He asks him two very important questions: what is written in scripture; and what do you read there? In other words, Jesus asks him: (1) what is the text; and (2) how do you interpret it? Sometimes, I hear people say that they just want the plain meaning of scripture without any interpretation. We have a theological term for that idea: we call it “poppycock.” Every reading of Scripture requires our interpretation, requires that we bring our understanding filtered through our lives to the work. Our Bible is less like an encyclopedia and more like a chess partner against whom we struggle and sharpen our wits and moral sensibilities. Or, as Bishop Hibbs used to say, biblical fundamentalism is fundamentally unbiblical. Jesus recognizes that principle in his questions to the lawyer.

The lawyer has an answer at the ready; he knows his scriptures. He tells Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer answers with a passage from Deuteronomy which is sometimes called the Shema, and a passage from Leviticus. Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” In other words, you already knew the answer. If you want to know what to do, do those things. And anybody would be happy with that answer. Anybody, that is, except a lawyer. So, now he wants to drill down, “But who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus answers this question with a story, a story about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, we know that Jericho is the place where God knocks down walls, and Jesus is going to knock a few down himself with this story. We may have lost a bit of the geography here: the story takes place on the long, downhill road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road also known at the time as the “Bloody Pass” or “The Way of Blood.”  The road meanders and the topography provides the perfect environment for an ambush:  a paradise for bandits and robbers.

So, I don’t think Jesus’ audience would have been surprised at all about the man being beaten, robbed, and left for dead on that road.  Nor would Jesus’ audience have been particularly surprised to hear Jesus tell them that the priest and the Levite both passed the man by, in fact, they walked by “on the other side” of the road.  (The laws of ritual purification at the time might actually have recommended this practice to devout Jews.)  We aren’t surprised by Jesus’ casting the priests and Levites in the role of the villains:  both Jesus and John the Baptist had been doing that for a while.

However, the notion that the Samaritan showed the quality of mercy, the notion of the Samaritan as the hero of the story, would have astonished and befuddled Jesus’ first-century audience.  The Samaritans and the Jews had despised each other for hundreds of years at the time Jesus told this story.  The Samaritans had desecrated the Temple with human bones.  The Jews reciprocated.  According to the Mishna (the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism), “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). So, hearing about a “good Samaritan” would have bewildered Jesus’ audience.  It would be the equivalent of a modern parable about the “good Klansman” or a “good member of the Sinaloa cartel,” or the “good fascist.”

The parable reports that the Samaritan came near to the man and was “moved with pity.” The Greek word here implies being moved to compassion at the deepest part of who we are. Thus, most of us assume the good Samaritan in the parable is like Jesus, or God, who loves inclusively with a kind of promiscuous empathy for everyone. But suppose for a moment that it’s actually God in the ditch, and the question is what are we going to do about it? And while the question the lawyer originally asked was about what we have to do for eternal life, suppose the real issue isn’t so much about what we do as it is about the kind of people we’re going to be. Are we going to be the kind of people who notice the suffering in the world around us and are moved by it, or are we going to walk on the other side of the road? I’m wondering who I didn’t notice? Who did I walk to the other side to avoid? Lord, spit on our eyes so that we can see.

In just a little while, we’re going to come up to this altar, and the priest will put a bit of bread into our mouths. And the Church spent a lot of time, and energy, and struggle, trying to figure out how the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. And I have to tell you, I’m not really that interested in that question. But I am profoundly interested in the question of how you and I become the body of Christ in the world, and I think this parable holds a good part of the key.

This world is so polarized today. We want to fight about guns, about abortion, about race, about money, and about who’s got the moral high ground. Like the Jews and the Samaritans, we have been carrying these grudges along for so very long. And it may turn out that we really are in for the fight of our lives. Suppose, just for a moment, that learning to love our neighbors, learning to care for God’s children recklessly, really is the fight for our lives. It’s a great irony: the fight of our lives is learning how to love. As Bishop Monterroso recently observed, there are thousands and thousands of ways for us love our neighbor. There is only one way to love God; and that’s to love our neighbor. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Divine Risk and the Work of Liberation

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (The full readings for today can be found here.)

In the name of the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

So, it’s a special day today, and I want to begin by telling you a story, or a couple of stories actually. I don’t know if y’all have noticed this, but whenever I mention that I’m going to tell a story, our clergy have one of three different reactions: sometimes they wince a little bit (the way one might wince sitting in the dentist’s chair as the drill approaches), sometimes, they close their eyes and wish they were someplace else, and sometimes they just bow their heads to pray.

            Today is the nineteenth day of June, in the year of our Lord 2022. And it’s an important day in our history, but the story begins a bit before that. Way back on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. He announced that enslaved people held in the Confederate states were free. Now while that was a fine idea, for many of our enslaved brothers and sisters, it had very little meaning. Pronouncing our fellow countrymen free did not actually change their lives much, especially for those in the southern states. And here lies one of the great contradictions of our nation: we were born out of a yearning for liberty, conceived in language that exalted liberty, and built on the backs of men and women we kept in chains. It was, in short, our country’s original sin. And to proclaim it was over meant very little to the men and women who lived under the yoke of slavery.

            Here in Texas, that situation continued for another two and a half years. On June 19, 1865, just a few miles down the road in Galveston, General Gordon Granger finally arrived at the port of Galveston with Union troops. He delivered General Order No. 3 which provided: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Many of our African American brothers and sisters would have to wait still longer for their freedom, wait until the harvest was completed.

          And I want you to imagine all those years following the Emancipation Proclamation. “They tell me that we’re free, but it don’t seem no different to me at all.”  Or maybe, “I have heard rumors of my liberation, but nothing in my life tells me that’s true.” And I have heard those voices in AA meetings, and I have heard those voices as various groups (women, the poor, those subjected to human trafficking, and those suffering from addiction and frightening diseases) struggle for their dignity. And many years ago, that first celebration we call Juneteenth led the people to the Reedy Chapel, which is an AME church in Galveston. Because those people know it was not their enslavers who had liberated them; they knew they had been freed by their God.

          And it’s a very old story, that struggle for human dignity and liberation. Our Scripture records Moses going to Pharaoh and telling him that he must set the captives free. It seems that the divine plan, God’s intention for humanity, is intricately tied up with our freedom. And that brings us to the gospel for today.

          The gospel story has Jesus wandering far from his home, in the country of the Gerasenes. So, if we look at this story, let’s examine where Jesus is, and what he’s doing. He’s in gentile country, he’s in the tombs (which means ritual impurity), and he’s talking with a demon. He’s in an unclean land, in an unclean place, talking with an unclean spirit. This is the last place a good Jewish boy should be.

That region was also the site of a horrifying event in Jewish history, a terrible war crime. According to the historian Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa. The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. So, many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.

           As soon as Jesus crosses the Lake of Galilee and steps on shore, he is met by this man who is the victim of demonic possession. The portrait of this man is truly horrifying. He goes about naked and does not live in a home, but rather in the tombs. Luke is telling us that this man is more dead than alive. Mark’s account adds to this man’s torment. He tells us: “He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:3-5.

          So, it is this man, this tortured fragment of a man, who raises one of the most important questions in the Bible: He asks, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  It’s a question most of us should ask, and ask regularly. What exactly is the role of Jesus in our lives? For this man, and I hope for many of us, Jesus has come to set us free. I’m wondering how well we know Jesus as liberator. This man, who is never named in the Gospels came to know Jesus as the man who set him free. And just as the Jewish homeland was occupied by Roman legions, this man was occupied by a legion of forces which robbed him of his full humanity.

          When Jesus asks the man to identify the spirits which had taken possession of him, he answers: “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. I don’t know about you, but I have heard the voices of those many demons. You see, the most dangerous message those satanic forces have for us is “This will never change. This will never get better.” I have heard those voices in those who struggle with addiction, and they are legion. We heard those voices as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and we saw thousands of refugees forced to leave their homes. And they are legion. We heard those voices use scripture, our holy book, to justify the chains on the enslaved people in the American South. And they are legion. We hear those voices every time there is another mass shooting, and we are paralyzed because some of us are committed to the notion that that’s just how things are. And those voices are legion. And we have heard the voices of anger and grievance in our political discourse, and they are legion.


            As was the case on that morning in Galveston in 1865, as was the case that morning in the country of the Gerasenes, the divine movement is always a movement of liberation. Let me say that again, the divine movement is always a movement of liberation. We should not confuse this movement as a license to do whatever we want. We know that the movement of liberation is of divine origin when it calls us, not as a charter or privilege for a disordered freedom from all constraint, but rather the liberty to become the people God intended for us to become, the freedom to become fully human. We find the intersection of the divine and the human impulse toward liberation when we hear the call toward becoming more deeply human and restoring our brothers and sisters to the imago dei, the image of God in which they were created.

            Jesus understood this was his mission—to release the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But we profoundly misunderstand our faith if we think that we should sit back and applaud this work of Jesus from a distance. Christianity, my brothers and sisters, is not a spectator sport. I’m always amazed when we give the newly baptized a candle. We should give them seat belts and a crash helmet. Because that work of casting out the demonic forces in the world, that work of setting the captives free and restoring men and women to God’s vision for them—that’s our work now.
            Amen

The Beginning of the Good News

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)


In the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

Well, good morning, everybody, good morning. And welcome as we join together to celebrate the feast day of our patron saint, St. Mark. And I’ve been wondering….no, no, I’ll talk about that later.

So, today, we hear the opening of Mark’s gospel. And our friend Mark’s gospel is unique. There’s no fancy star in the sky, there’s no manger or shepherds, or wise men. There’s no trip into Egypt, or Jesus at the dawn of creation. He begins the story with a baptism. Jesus’ story, for Mark, begins with his baptism. And I wonder, I just wonder, if that doesn’t tell us something about Mark’s community. I think for his community, and maybe for ours, too, the story of who we are begins with our baptism. It is as though Mark sets aside genealogy, history, geography and political context, and tells us: “If you really want to know about a person, learn about their baptism.” Because for Mark and his community, that’s our real beginning. There, we’ll find the real origin of our lives.

We really don’t know all that much about Mark. By the way, I’ve been really trying…no, we’ll talk about that later. We don’t know much about Mark although we think his community may have lived somewhere around Rome. And we believe his community suffered under the early persecutions of the Christian Church.

So, I mentioned today was the feast of St. Mark. It is also the Sunday after Easter, which is sometimes called Low Sunday or if you really want to be arcane, Quasimodo Sunday. If you’ve read much Victor Hugo, you know that the famous hunchback named Quasimodo was left and found at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the Sunday after Easter. Now some people say it’s called Low Sunday because of the contrast to the High Holy Days of Easter. Some people will tell you that it’s because church attendance is generally low. So you see, I’ve been trying to convince myself…I’ve been working for the last several weeks to convince myself, that’s it’s just a coincidence that today is the day our clergy asked me to preach. But so far, I haven’t had any luck at all.

So, back to this Gospel passage. We think Mark’s community was a fairly small band of persecuted Christians. And certainly, the community of early followers of Jesus would have known hard times. They were occupied by the Roman empire, subjected to a harsh system of domination and taxation; the poor were everywhere, and their religious system was collaborating with these villains. And our patron Mark tells us: Now, hear the word of the Lord. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.”

Onto this stage, into this troubled setting, strides this eccentric, bizarre, maybe whimsical character. He is neither charming nor winsome. He rants. He is uncombed and indecorous and unkempt. He’s dressed in camel hair and eats honey and locusts. Now, I don’t care how much honey you cover a plate of locusts with; it still tastes like bugs. And he is amazing. He is amazing mostly because the people come from miles around to hear him preach baptism and the forgiveness of sins.

He seems so irrelevant to the problems people are facing. Their politics were a mess. John preached baptism. Poverty was everywhere. John preached the forgiveness of sins. And the amazing part is that the crowds were drawn to him. I think he’s still out there today, preaching like a madman. Vladimir Putin has ravaged Ukraine and committed terrible war crimes. John is preaching baptism. Look at our troubled economy, look at all this rising inflation. John is preaching the forgiveness of sins.  He’s still out there, preaching, as though the solution to our worldly problems lay in the spiritual realm.

And most of us, we don’t really like all that confession of sins part. We are a prideful people, and we cherish our self-esteem. We would much rather mount a good defense, or proclaim our denial, or offer a fine excuse rather make than a simple confession. The truth is, when I look back on my life, I have sinned some, I have sinned again, and I have sinned some more. It’s so hard to announce, as the old Prayer Book used to teach us, “There is no health in us.” We cannot avoid our shame; we cannot ignore it. But we can overcome it and find forgiveness. This is not comfortable, but it is the way to healing.

And there is John, calling to us, crying out in the wilderness, telling us this is the way to God. And that way always seems to lead through our baptism and our willingness to confess our failures—just as we will confess them before we come to this altar for communion.

Now, power is a dangerous thing, and perhaps spiritual authority is the most dangerous of all. It’s a strong temptation, but we can take note of John’s spiritual maturity in his recognition of his role. He knows he’s not the center of the story. It requires a lot to know that you’re the messenger and not the message. He tells the crowd that One “who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It’s hard to resist the limelight, but John’s humility speaks of the authenticity of his encounter with the divine. This is John’s confession: “I am not worthy. I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I’m not worthy.”

And then Jesus, the one who is worthy, comes to the river Jordan, to be baptized by John. We might wonder, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” We believe, and we’ll say so in just a few minutes, in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. So, why did Jesus, who was without sin, need a baptism? I think perhaps this was simply one of the many ways in which Jesus came to share with us in our humanity. He shared with us in the waters of baptism so that we might share with him in that Easter resurrection.,
And then, Jesus comes out of the water and a voice from the heavens announces that he is God’s beloved child, just as we are the beloved children of the Holy One. And as Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends upon him. Here, we have this remarkable collision of holiness, this intersection of the three members of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) at the river Jordan.  But it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert, into the wilderness for his time of trial and temptation.

And only after these events, after God’s affirmation of all that he is doing and all that he is, only after he is cajoled and tested in the desert, can Jesus announce to us all that it is time. This is the very time when God’s kingdom has come near. And it’s odd that we return to this story, the beginning of Mark’s gospel, right after we’ve heard the end of the story—Jesus’ passion and resurrection. But perhaps that displacement, that warp and weft of time, may remind us that we are no longer in ordinary, standard time. We are entering into sacred time here.


You see, Mark tells us, very carefully, I believe, that this is only the beginning of the good news. That story is still being written, in your life and mine. We who have been immersed in the water and the Spirit, we who have confessed, repented, and forgiven, we have our own story to tell about the good news of Jesus Christ. Tell that story out, my brothers and sisters, and tell them that the kingdom of God has come near. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Smell of Scandal in Bethany

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (The full readings for this morning can be found here).

In the name of the living God who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

Way back a very long time ago, back in the early twelfth century, I was a boy in Odessa, Texas. And I can tell you my very first memory. I was riding in a golf cart with my father, and I couldn’t have been older than three or four years old. And the sun was coming up, and I smelled the scent of freshly cut grass, and I thought I must have gone to heaven.

And I remember going to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, and the house was full of the most wonderful smells: ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, about 5 kinds of pie, and a pot of coffee on that old stove. Oh, I can still smell those thanksgivings.

      Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.” And Hellen Keller once observed, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Neuropsychologists tell us that smell is one of the most powerful gateways into our memories, in part because those two parts of the brain are very close to each other. Think about your first new car, or your favorite book, or your first trip to the library as a child, and you will almost automatically be drawn to the way they smelled. I think this is true in part because our sense of smell is so closely tied with the act of breathing—we don’t just detect a scent, we take it into our lungs and our bodies through our breath, which is another way of saying we take it into our spirit.

  So, this morning, the Church offers us this wonderful story of a dinner party. It takes place in Bethany, which is bordered by the Mount of Olives, and only about two miles from the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; in fact, it’s his last trip to that city. And nothing very good is going to happen there.

The story takes place, as John tells us, “six days before the Passover.” My friend John is a careful writer and a fine poet. There aren’t any accidents or coincidences in John’s Gospel. So when he says “six days before the Passover,” I think he wants us to think back to the book of Genesis, to the six days of creation. Because these six days we’re approaching, the days we now call Holy Week, are God’s re-creation: God is making all things new again.

Now, this is sort of an odd dinner party, for a number of reasons. It takes place at the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus—yes, that Lazarus. And just one chapter before this, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. And even Jesus, knowing all that he knew and was about to do, wept at that tomb. He wept over the death of his friend, and he wept over the grief he shared with his friend’s sisters. And when Jesus told them to roll away the stone, Martha voiced her concern: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” She was concerned about the stench of the grave, the odor of death and decay. But Jesus called Lazarus back from the grave and ordered them to unbind him from the strips of cloth in which he was entombed.

So, we have these two sisters at this dinner party, along with Lazarus (who was dead, but is alive) and Jesus (who is alive but will not be for much longer). And then, we have Judas. I’ll circle back around to him in a bit. And they are gathered at the table.

Then, one of the sisters (Mary) does something remarkable. She does something scandalous, something embarrassing, something shocking, something prodigal. (See, I told you last week we’d come back to that idea.) She takes a pound of perfume made from pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it and then she wipes them with her hair. Let’s break this down a bit.

     Nard was a very expensive perfume with a strong, distinctive aroma that clung to the skin. It is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, in the Song of Solomon, which is also a sensuous and erotic, and sometimes scandalous book of the bible. The value of the oil with which she anoints Jesus’ feet is approximately a year’s wages. So, this is a lavish, sensuous act of devotion. And women of that time did not loosen their hair, let alone wash a man’s feet with it. But just as her brother Lazarus was unbound from his death shroud, Mary unbinds her hair and begins to wash Jesus’ feet. Washing someone’s feet—well, that was dirty work for the servants or slaves. In fact, women of that time did not touch a man at all unless they were married.

So, all the good, proper ladies over at the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem would have been clutching their pearls at this scene.

And then Judas asks a question, “Why didn’t she do some good with this money? Why not give it to the poor?” Now Judas is the consummate cynic, right? You know what a cynic is—a cynic is someone who knows what everything costs but doesn’t know what anything is worth. The stench of betrayal and stinginess and violence clings to him. And he cannot recognize the worth of this moment as this woman pours out her wealth, pours out her life and her dignity, upon this man Jesus.

And Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” And I don’t want you to think that Jesus was unconcerned with the plight of the poor. The gospels tell us, rather, that he was profoundly concerned with the poor. But this is a special moment, a moment of lavish, unselfish tenderness, and I’m sure it strengthened Jesus for those horrifying days that lay ahead.

So, Mary had purchased this perfume for the time of Jesus’ death, but instead chooses to do so now. In a profound sense, she chooses life over death. This woman was willing to risk shame and embarrassment and ridicule— all for a reckless love. That kind of love always leads to the cross. Always. And maybe sometimes, every now and then, we might remember that loving God sometimes means a reckless refusal to consider the cost of love, and focus on what it’s worth. And maybe we might remember that God, as Isaiah tells us, is about to do a new thing.

Now, in just a few days we will celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It’s the very next chapter of John’s gospel, and again, it’s very intimate and embarrassing. But, when we get there, I want you to remember, it was this woman Mary who showed Jesus how to do that, who showed him what love looks like.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Breathe that in; breathe in her tender, reckless devotion and breathe in the life of Jesus. And then, exhale love.

     Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Homecoming

The full readings for this morning can be found here:

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

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

Good morning. How’s your Lent going?  It’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, so we’re about knee deep in it. And you know, somewhere between the global pandemic, the Russian Invasion, and events in this parish, I think it’s about the lentiest Lent I’ve ever lented. But here we are, and this morning, the Church has offered us this magnificent story. We call this story the prodigal son. That word “prodigal” makes me wonder. It means extravagant, lavish, or sometimes wasteful spending and I promise you we’ll come back to that next week.

It’s one of my favorite stories, a story about how we should treat terrible sinners—you know, people like you and like me. So Jesus tells us this story that captures the essence of not only this season of repentance, but also of the heart of Christianity.

And he begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” Now, I think Jesus’ audience, when they heard this introduction, would have immediately thought, “Uh oh. There’s going to be trouble.” Because these people knew their Scripture, and they would have immediately thought of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Essau, and perhaps of Joseph and his brothers.

You see, I had several brothers, and I understand what kind of trouble younger brothers can be. But in this story, the younger son goes to his father and says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Now, we may miss the import of this request. In that world, at that time, that was in essence the younger son saying, “I wish you were dead” or at least, “You’re taking too long to die.” But the father complies and gives his younger son his inheritance early. So, the younger boy gathers all he has and goes off to a foreign country.

Oh, I know about that foreign country. I’ve spent time there. You see, there was a time in my life when, if you had asked me, I would have told you that I spent all my money on fine clothes, fast cars, good wine, and pretty women. The rest of it, I wasted. These are years when my father referred to me as Count No-Account. So, I’ve been in that foreign country where the younger brother went. And the boy spends everything he has on dissolute living and then trouble comes: a famine strikes the land. You see, there’s one thing about that foreign country: it’s a lot of fun—until it isn’t anymore.

And we know how far this younger son has fallen, because here’s this good Jewish boy in a gentile country feeding the pigs. Feeding the pigs! I mean, that’s no place for a good Jewish kid. And Luke tells us he would gladly have eaten the pig food, but “no one gave him anything.” “No one gave him anything.” That’s the way the world is sometimes, when you’re down on your luck. And it’s hard to find a way out.

But then, Luke tells us, something remarkable happens. The younger brother has what you might call an epiphany, or a moment of grace, or maybe he’s just desperate. But look at what Luke says: “when he came to himself.” Now, that phrase implies more than just a change of mind, it implies that for a while he had been lost to himself, he had wandered away, he had forgotten who he was. And while we may not have run off with daddy’s money, most of us have forgotten who we are at some point. And he decides to go home, even if that means being treated like one of his father’s hired hands.

And now the story gets really good. Luke tells us, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” That may be my favorite line in all of Scripture. Do you know why the father saw him from a long way off? Because he was looking for him. I suspect he’d been looking for him to come home ever since the boy left. And I take great comfort in that, in the idea of a God who is always anxious for us to come back home. Maybe I find that notion reassuring because…well, I’ve been a long way off myself.

The younger son tells his father, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He confronted his failures, and he recognized that the heavy cost of them. He recognized they might cost him his place in the family, just as our own failures carry a cost. We might add a pause here in the story, as the father weighs his response to the younger son’s words. But the father, in a moment of lavish generosity and forgiveness, tells the servants: Dress this boy up in something fancy and let’s have a party, “let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

And in a real sense, the younger son was dead to his father. He was gone; he was lost. Look at the father’s response: there’s no price to be paid for re-entry into the family; there’s no penance to be done. The father is full of nothing other than joy at his son’s return. Now, we call this parable the prodigal son, and remember that word prodigal means lavish or extravagant. But, I think we could just as easily call it “prodigal father,” because his response of love and forgiveness is just as extravagant as was his son’s spending.

And the family begins to celebrate the boy’s return—well, not everybody in the family joins in the party, the pachanga. The elder son, the good son, who never did a thing to take advantage of his father, can’t even bear to come into the house. Some of us may identify with that older son: he’s responsible; he does what’s expected of him; and he’s very good at keeping score. In fact, he is shacked and bound by his rage.

The older son tells his father: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” And in the world he lives in, he’s right. He lives in a world of the zero-sum game, where anytime someone gets ahead, you’re falling behind. We call that an economy of scarcity. He cannot even bring himself to recognize his brother. Look at what he says: not my brother has come back, but this son of yours came back.

The problem isn’t that he has a sense of right and wrong. The problem is that he is a prisoner of it, chained to his sense of injustice. He can’t even go into the house. That’s a hard way to live. He reminds me of something we used to say about my family. We said that we suffered from a genetic case of Irish Alzheimer’s—that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.

Let’s contrast his response to that of the father, who tells him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Contrast the older son, who says “this son of yours” with the father, who says “this brother of yours.” The father had to celebrate because the joy and forgiveness overflowed from him. The elder son lives in an economy of scarcity; the father lives in something much closer to what we call the economy of grace, or God’s economy. In the economy of grace, love and forgiveness are the currency, the coin of the realm. And that’s the world, the economy, in which the father has chosen to live.

Now, here’s the brilliance of this story, the genius of this tale: we don’t know the end of the story. We don’t know if the older brother accepted his father’s invitation to join in the celebration. We don’t even know if he ever came into the party, into the house. We don’t know if the younger brother really did change his ways, or if he fell back into his old lifestyle. And I think Jesus meant for that story to remain unfinished, because we get to write that ending every single day in our own lives. We can choose to live like the younger brother, the older brother, or the father. We get to write the ending of this wonderful story in the way we live. It’s your story. Make it a good one.            

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Looking for the Light

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (The full readings for today can be found here.)

            In the name of the Living God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Well, good morning, everyone, good morning. First, I need to thank you all for your generous hospitality. It has been a joy and an honor to walk with you through this season of Epiphany. And I’m glad we could all be here together for this great feast day of the Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

            And we’ll get to the gospel for today, but before we do, I thought we might spend a few moments reviewing the magnificent kaleidoscope of images the Church has offered us during this season of Epiphany. We began with a crowd of people gathered around this strange prophet John who baptized Jesus by the river. And the sky broke open, and the Holy Spirit came down upon them like a dove, and God spoke: “I am well pleased with my Son, my beloved.” And I’m wondering if you good folk can ever hear God’s voice saying that about you, because I’m pretty sure that’s how God feels. And we wonder if that’s what a life with the Spirit is like—like being the favorite child.

            Now, turn that kaleidoscope just a little bit, and we find ourselves at a wedding. And we overhear Jesus’ mother, nudging him to do that God thing even though he says it’s not time yet. And we see this remarkable image: six stone jars, filled to the brim with astonishing wine. And we wonder if that’s what life with Jesus is like.

            The Church paints in a rich palette of wonder during epiphany—images of God manifest, God becoming clear to us in bright moments. If you sometimes go to church in the middle of the week, you found yourselves in Caesarea Philippi, considered a holy place for centuries, at the base of Mount Hermon, a place where springs of living water flowed out of nearby caves. And it’s there that Jesus asks that remarkable question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers that he’s the Messiah, the son of the living God. But I think Epiphany is about each of us struggling to answer that question for ourselves. Who do you say that Jesus is? And we might wonder: Are we, too, the rocks upon which Jesus will build his church?

            And then, the next week we saw Jesus, back in his hometown, preaching his first sermon. And he told them about God setting the captives free, and blind people regaining their sight because this was the year of the Lord’s favor. And he rolled up the scroll, and he told them (and he’s still telling us): this is going on all around you. It’s happening now. And we ought to be looking around for it.

            And the next week, we heard the rest of that story. We heard how the congregation became angry because Jesus dared to suggest that God’s love wasn’t just for a select few, that it was available for everyone. And the people were so angry they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. And we might wonder about our place in that story.

            And then a week later, we saw these men out fishing on the lake, and they haven’t caught a thing all day until Jesus shows up and tells them to go out into the deep water. And when they do, they get so many fish that their nets are bursting with the catch. And I want you to try and imagine these boats, so full of fish that the boats are about to capsize. And when they return to shore, these men are compelled to follow Jesus wherever he goes, to follow him even to the Cross. And we begin to wonder if that’s what life with God is like—if it’s like going out into the deep water.

            And last week, we hear the story of a brother returning home and confronting his brothers who betrayed him, who almost killed him. And we heard how Joseph, the dreamer, and his brothers wept together. And many of us wept together. And we heard Jesus telling us that we had to forgive our enemies because that’s the kind of thing God does and we are God’s children. And we begin to understand what God is like and wonder if we too can act like that.

            All of this was kind of a long introduction to this morning’s Gospel, the story of the transfiguration. Now, transfiguration is a churchy word for change, but a particular kind of change: a change in which the light of God begins to shine through in a person’s life. And we began this morning with the story of Moses, coming down from the mountain having wandered for a long time in the desert, with the stone tablets. And the people saw that Moses’ encounter with God left his face shining because a genuine encounter with God will leave you changed.

            And we fast forward to the story of Jesus, who takes his friends up on the mountain to pray, and something remarkable happens. Suddenly, they see Jesus bathed in light, with Moses (who represents the law) and Elijah (who represents the prophets). And smack dab in the middle of them is Jesus, who’s about to make his last trip into Jerusalem. And a cloud comes over them and they’re terrified. You see, sometimes an encounter with the living God will do that: it’s not all unicorns and puppies and glitter.

And I want to make a suggestion. I’m not so sure that Jesus was changed at all. Maybe it was the disciples who had changed, and for the first time, they were able to see Jesus for who he really was. And we’ve come full circle, back to that first week of Epiphany, and we again hear God tell us that Jesus is God’s son, and we really need to listen to what he has to say.

            But the Church wants to leave us with one more image, one more tableau before we leave Epiphany. We see a father, begging Jesus for his help because his son is terribly ill with something like a seizure. And we think about those troubles in our own lives that will scarcely leave us. And we see the power of Jesus to heal us, even as he’s on his way to Jerusalem, even as he’s on his way to the Cross.

            Sometimes, we see God in these remarkable moments, like the Transfiguration. But more often, we see God in some very ordinary places and times: a crummy day of fishing, at a wedding, a troubled family reunion, a father frantically worried about a sick child, and yes, even a sermon that didn’t go so well. God has a funny habit of showing up when we don’t really expect it. God is kinda sneaky that way.

            Now, throughout this journey the Church has taken us on during the season of Epiphany, we’ve seen the stunning power of God, a light that enters into the darkness of our world. But in each of these passages, people saw the light of God because they were looking for it—sometimes, because they were desperate for it. It’s what one psychologist has referred to as the “scout mindset.”  Think of it like those puzzles you used to do when you were a child, where there were shapes of animals hidden in the trees or the landscape. And you could find them because you were looking carefully for them.

If we go looking for the problems or the trouble in this world, we will surely find thembecause they’re out there. On the other hand, if we are looking for the love of God and the ways it’s shown in the world, we’ll find that, too. Epiphany is about learning to look for the blinding incandescence of God in the world. We train our eyes to look for those moments in which the world is aglow with the burnished presence and love of Jesus. I have seen that light here, in this good Parish, and I know it’ll be here when I come back. Amen.



James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Let Me See

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The Greatest

The full readings for today can be found here.


Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

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

You know, sometimes I read Mark’s Gospel and I just cringe at the disciples. That’s probably not the right kind of thing for a preacher to say about these men who the Church would later call “saints,” but these guys are the worst. I mean, here Jesus is, trying for the third time in this 9th Chapter of Mark, to tell them—that he will be betrayed, that he will suffer and be killed, that he will come back from the dead. And all they want to do is argue about which one of them is the greatest. These guys are numbskulls, they are narcissistic, self-absorbed mercenary chuckleheads who don’t understand anything about the Gospel or Jesus or the kingdom of God or anything. And what really infuriates me about them, the really exasperating part about them, is that they are so much like me.

And it makes me wonder, what is God trying to tell us as we bicker and argue on the way? What message are we missing as we struggle for success, power, or achievement?

Admittedly, the world teaches us to love these things from a very early age. We have to get the best grades, so we can go to the best colleges, so we can get the best jobs and make the most money. In sports, we are consumed with who’s the best of all time. And we want to know who won the best picture, to stay in the nicest hotels, to drive the best cars. And we want to name among our friends those who are powerful, influential, and important.

I’m reminded that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proudly announced to the world, “I am the greatest.” He said, “I am the greatest.” I think I’ll circle back to that idea in a bit.

Things weren’t so different back in Jesus’ time. Sociologists have described 1st Century Palestine as an honor/shame culture. In this sort of culture, you would find honor if a person of great wealth or great importance came to your home or became your associate. On the other hand, you would be shamed if a person of low social standing came to your home for dinner or befriended you.

Now, in that world, children were of no social standing or significance at all. They were completely dependent, and vulnerable in the world around them. And so, Jesus continues to try to teach the disciples when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And right after that, he takes a little child into his arms. You see, children didn’t have any social standing at all; they didn’t offer anything of value. Like Jesus, children were completely vulnerable. They had little to offer that the world considers precious. So, Jesus was telling his disciples, all those things that make you a success in the world (drive, ambition, power)—you’re going to have to let that go.

St. James picks up on this idea in the epistle this morning. He says, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s a wonderful notion, and as I look back on my own life, it’s amazing how disorderly and chaotic my own appetite for recognition is. Once you start down that road, it’s hard to find an end. But the gospel tells us something else about that day. While Jesus was trying to explain that he was giving up his life for the life of the world, the disciples couldn’t understand. In fact, Mark says that “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

James suggests that our selfish ambitions will lead us to chaos. This gospel story today sort of reminds me of the Tower of Babel. Jesus is trying to talk with the disciples about the work of the Cross, and they’re having a completely separate discussion about their ambitions. And even their language has failed the disciples, because they don’t even trust Jesus enough to ask him what he means. Jesus was trying to tell them that there are hard times ahead, and they were afraid.

I’m reminded of something one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, once wrote: “Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. That these two are related (that private loneliness, for instance, will necessarily accompany public confusion) is clear enough…. What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” 

So, I want to circle back to an idea I talked about earlier. I told you that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proclaimed “I am the greatest.” He said this as he was preparing to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. At that time, he had won the Olympic gold medal in boxing and had never lost a professional fight. Ali would defeat Liston and become the heavyweight champion.

But life would knock Ali around a bit. In 1967, as a result of his protest against the Vietnam War and refusal to serve, he was stripped of his title. He could not fight for three years, three of the prime years of his career. He fought again for the heavyweight title in 1971 against Joe Frazier and he lost. He would fight Frazier again in 1974 and regain the title. He would lose the heavyweight championship again in February of 1978 to Leon Spinks. And that year, Ali said something very different from the braggadocio of his youth when he proclaimed himself the greatest. That year, Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Ali had been knocked around by the world, and he kept getting up, but he had come to a deeper understanding. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Something very similar would happen with the disciples. They would get knocked around a bit. They would lose their rabbi, their teacher, and their Messianic dreams. Jesus would be hung on a tree like a scarecrow, and they would run away and betray him. They would look deeply into themselves and feel shame at their cowardice. And yet, they kept coming back. They would spread the gospel to Syria and India, to North Africa and Asia Minor, to Persia and Ethiopia, and even to Rome, the heart of the Empire. And Church tradition teaches that these same men, these knuckleheads I spoke of earlier, would each die a martyr’s death. They would become great—great Saints of the Church—but not in any way that they had imagined. They would come to realize that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

And I think most of us have learned the same lesson. This pandemic has knocked most of us around a bit. Most of us have been knocked around by life, sometimes knocked down. We’ve suffered losses, and we’ve had our hearts broken—maybe the loss of a loved one, a parent or a child, or we’ve seen our dreams dry up and blow away in the wind of disappointment. We wear those scars.

But you know, my father used to tell me, “Anybody who doesn’t have any scars, well, they never found anything worth fighting for.”  The question of who’s the greatest, or a life lived listening to the siren song of our own selfish ambitions, that’s not even a fight worth winning. But a life lived struggling against my own ego in service to others, a life lived so that our brothers and sisters might know a better life—as Jesus taught us, that’s a fight worth dying for.



Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021