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

Seeing All Things with New Eyes





How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 

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

Well, good evening, good evening my brothers and sisters. Welcome on this holy night, this night when we gather to celebrate the feast of our patron, St. Dominic. And a special blessing upon our brothers Jeffrey, Lee, Mike, Steve and Todd. I wish upon you the special blessing of awe, because what you are about to do is an awesome thing: not in the common parlance or the sense of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (“Awesome”), but in the ancient sense of the word. My hope for each of you is the blessing of awe, of fear and trembling at what you are about to do.

In episode V of the Star Wars saga, the Empire Strikes back, Luke Skywalker tries to assure the Jedi master Yoda: “I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.” And Yoda replies, “Good. You will be. You will be.” When I made my life profession, almost 10 years ago, I was petrified. I was filled with what I now realize was a holy terror. Even that night, I wasn’t sure I was going to go through with it.

And there are good reasons to be afraid, because God is going to change your life in ways you don’t understand yet. And God is going to call you to do work you don’t want to do. God is going to call you to praise, even when you don’t agree with God’s work or understand God’s purposes.   And God is going to call you to be a blessing to God’s children, even when they don’t seem like they deserve a blessing, and you are called to enter into the darkest places of this life, to shine the lamp of God’s light and presence into those places. And God is calling you to preach, even when you don’t have anything to say. God is calling you to preach, even when the world is hostile, or worse, desperately uninterested in what you have to say.

The great theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious….” He continued: “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” And so, my brothers and sisters, I wish you the blessing of awe.

Our brother Thomas’s views rested very close to those of Heschel’s. In his Commentary on the Metaphysics, he wrote, “Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.”

Our world today lies in desperate need of awe. We have seen it all before and are wallowing in the doldrums of ennui. Proverbs teaches us that the people are dying for want of vision. We are paralyzed by our polarized politics. We live in ideological silos in which each side of the political spectrum is convinced that the other threatens the life of the country. The people are perishing for want of a vision.

In Texas, in my home state, there is a church called the Rod of Iron Ministries, which worships with AR-15 rifles and seeks to overcome “political satanism.” In the Middle East, some evangelical pastors are preaching that the Covid vaccine contains the “mark of the beast.” The people are dying for want of vision. And across the world, the loudest, shrillest, most divisive, and most authoritarian voices seem to have some strange gravitational pull on our political discussion. We have reached the point where an argument on Facebook looks like discourse, and that somehow passes for reason. The people are perishing for want of a vision.

I am old enough to remember the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison during the Gulf War. We actually engaged in a national debate over the question of whether torture was an effective way of obtaining information from prisoners. We didn’t ask the question of what kind of people we wanted to be; we asked whether it worked. My brothers and sisters, if we cannot find the humanity and dignity of each and every person we encounter, we will never stand in awe of the majesty of the God who created them.  The people are dying for want of a vision.

Last year, in Minneapolis, a police officer took an unarmed black man into custody and placed him in handcuffs. The officer then pressed his knee upon the black man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died. And in India, where our Sister Pamela lives, over 4 million people have died of Covid. And it’s just another bloody statistic. We have lost the capacity for wonder; we have lost the capacity for awe. The people are dying for want of a vision. As the Book of Samuel observes, there is no lamp that will bring light to darkness of this world other than the light of God.

Who will bring that light to the people? Or, as the author of Romans asked: “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” How are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? It’s an important question. Well, my brothers and sisters, it’s an odd thing, but the Church has authorized me to do this. And I am sending you, each of you (Jeffrey, Lee, Mike, Steve, Todd, and every single Dominican sitting here or watching on your computers), to proclaim the love of Christ in world. That is your work, that is your vocation.

We are called to speak to the world of the love of God. We find ourselves in a moment in time, a moment in history, when “spin” is struggling against history, when some claim to have “alternative facts.” I cannot recall a time when the world so desperately needed that which the Dominicans proclaim: veritas, or truth. But the truth we need is not mine or yours. As John’s Gospel reminds us, Jesus said: “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.”

We are not called to announce to the world our own speculations or opinions. We are called to proclaim the glory of God, the wonder of God, the awe of God. We are called to preach to the world the desperately counter-cultural message that living for others is a better life than living for yourselves. We are called to preach that God is ready, that God is desperately eager, to forgive sinners. We are called to preach that there is a better way, a new life, waiting for every single child of God on this planet.

Tell them that Jesus is alive, that God is alive, in the world today. Tell them that how we treat the least of God’s children is the best indicia of how we feel about God. We are called to preach that Jesus offers a way out of pain, a way out of sorrow, and that the darkness in this world cannot and will not overcome the light of God. Preach that, my brothers and sisters. Preach that.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021

This Night

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Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The full readings for today’s liturgy can be found here.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

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

In the Haggadah, the ancient Jewish text for the Passover meal (the  Seder), the youngest child present always asks the question, “Why is this night different from every other night?” It’s an important question, a question pious Jews have been asking for almost two thousand years: Why is this night different from every other night?

For us, there are several answers. Liturgically, this is the night that we wash each other’s feet. We process up to the front of the church and we kneel down and we imitate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s one of the most moving services of the year, and we do it every year. But this year is not like every other year. I’ll circle back to that idea later.

Biblically, it’s a compelling story, full of mystery and pathos: it’s heartbreaking, and it’s unique. We find this story only in John’s gospel, and John’s gospel is not like any of the other gospel. Jesus has gathered with his disciples, his closest friends, for a final meal. And John tells us that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him, and understood the agony that was waiting for him. It’s an interesting question: if you knew you were about to die, what would you say to those you love the most. But Jesus does more than tell them—he shows them, because words are sometimes poor vehicles to carry the cargo of our most profound emotions.

So, after Jesus and his disciples have eaten, Jesus removes his robe, ties a towel around himself and begins washing his disciples’ feet. We may lose some of the stunning power of this shocking display. In that culture, at that time, washing another person’s feet was considered degrading work, work for slaves. In fact, if a Jew had a Jewish slave, they wouldn’t even ask a Jewish slave to wash their feet.  To wash someone’s feet was a shameful, humiliating task. And that humiliation offered a mere taste of the indignities that lay ahead—being stripped, beaten, whipped, and hung up on a tree like a scarecrow.

And so, we can understand Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed by his Lord, his rabbi. Not surprisingly, Peter feels embarrassment at watching his teacher debase himself in this way. Some of us may have shared that unease on occasion as we participate in this liturgy. And yet, Jesus tells us, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

It’s worth noting that Jesus washes the feet of all of the disciples that night. He washes the feet of the disciple who will betray him, the disciple who will deny him, and those who will abandon him. Real love means more than being nice, or romance, or the kind of love that ends up on Hallmark cards. Real love doesn’t always look like puppies, or glitter or rainbows. Real love requires strength, and often demands self-sacrifice—putting the good of someone else first, even when it hurts. Real love will sometimes call upon us to climb our own Golgotha. Love calls us into ever widening, ever more expansive, ever deepening, ever more daring circles of caring.  Real love cannot remain in the shallow end of the pool.

Jesus stands ready to wash our feet as well, washing away our insecurities, scrubbing off our shame, rinsing  our weariness away. Jesus stands ready to wash our feet even when we deny him, betray him, abandon him, and perhaps even worse, ignore him. And that, my brothers and sisters, is a very tough love. That kind of love stares right into the eyes of fear and humiliation, mockery and betrayal, and even death, and says: “Do you very worst. And when you are done, I will still be here.”

So, this year, this night, is not like any other night. We will not exchange the sign of peace. We will not break the bread; we will not drink the wine. We will not get on our knees and wash each other’s feet. But tonight, we will not do those things for the same reason that we normally do them. Tonight is different because tonight love means that we remain in our homes, rather than joining together. Tonight, we will not gather together because, in a time of pandemic, that’s not a very loving thing to do. In a time of contagion, with so many at risk, that’s not what love looks like. But the reason why we won’t do those things tonight is the same reason we do them every other year: because we love each other.

We observe the sacrament of this night, and rest assured, this is a sacramental act (regardless of what the Prayer Book purists tell you) when we reach out to those who are lonely, when we read to a child who needs a friend, when we volunteer at a food bank, or when we smile at a stranger. You see, we call this Maundy Thursday, a name which comes from the Latin word for commandment, mandatum. And the commandment wasn’t “wash each others’ feet.” The commandment was “love one another, as I have loved you.” Love one another, even when we’re not especially lovable. Maybe especially when we’re not lovable. Love one another, even when we let each other down. Love one another, even when it’s hard. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2020

A Change Is Gonna Come

Transfiguration

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9.  (The full readings for today can be found here.)

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

In the name of the Living God: who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.

Good morning, good morning. So, in today’s gospel, we hear Matthew’s story of Jesus being transfigured, in the Greek, the word is metamorphosis. So, it’s a story about change.

But before we get there, I thought we might review our journey through this season of Epiphany, and see where the Scriptures have taken us this season. We began this journey with the story of the wise men, these men from the east, these Gentiles who were following a star. Matthew told us how the new life of Jesus on earth had implications for the cosmos. Even the sky has changed. Now maybe that was a new star, or a comet. Or maybe, just maybe, these wise men were simply able to see something that was always there, hidden in plain sight. Maybe they could see God at work in the heavens because, well, they were looking for it.

The following week we were down at the river Jordan, where John was baptizing and announced that the kingdom of God was near. John, that holy wild man, announced that we would need to repent, to change, because God was in our midst. And as Jesus comes out of the water, having been baptized, we hear the same voice we heard this morning. “This is my son, my beloved.”

So, on the second Sunday after Epiphany, we heard John’s version of that same baptism, and heard John the Baptist testify that Jesus was the son of God. And we heard Jesus call his disciples, who had overheard John proclaim Jesus as the lamb of God. And as the disciples are drawn to Jesus, Andrew goes and tells his brother we have found the Mashiach, the Messiah. And when his brother Simon goes to Jesus, Jesus tells him you’re not going to be Simon anymore; you’re going to be Cephas, or Peter. Again, we mark the notion of change: you’re going to be a different person, so you need a new name.

The following week, we heard Matthew’s version of that story. And we heard Jesus reminding us to repent, to change, because God’s kingdom is breaking into the world. And Jesus called to Simon and Andrew, telling them to leave behind their jobs as fishermen and follow him. And they did. Because encountering the Christ, encountering Jesus, will require us to change.

And then in the fourth week, we heard Jesus tell us that we were salt and light. In fact, he went further than that. He said that we were the light of the world! Us? The people who bicker all day about politics? The people who live so selfishly, who are consumed with being entertained rather than enriched, the people whose fear motivates them far more than their love? Yes, us. In fact, he said we were the light of the world. He said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That is our calling; that is our place in the kingdom. That, my friends, is going to require a change.

And last week, we heard Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus reminds us that it’s not just about what we do, but what we think and what we say. Last week, Jesus told us: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” This is not just about what we do, it’s about our hearts. My brothers and sisters, we are going to have to change.

And that gets us to the gospel for this week. The story takes place, in Matthew’s phrase, six days later. We might ask, “Six days after what?” Well, it’s six days after Jesus announces he’s going to Jerusalem: Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. And there aren’t any coincidences in Matthew’s gospel. That six days harkens us back to the story of creation in Genesis. Because what Jesus is going to do there, in Jerusalem, well, it’s going to make a new creation. It’s going to make all things new. And nothing is going to be the same after that.

Jesus and his disciples go up on a mountain. And there, Jesus is transfigured; he is changed. His face shines like the sun. Now, maybe Jesus is changed, or maybe for the first time the disciples can see Jesus for who he was all along. Maybe for the first time they can see that hidden reality, the reality that’s not beyond this world, but within this world and sometimes obscured by our shallow expectations. And they see Jesus, talking with Moses and Elijah.

It’s worth noting that both Moses and Elijah encountered God on a mountain. And like Moses, Jesus’ face shines with the reflection of the God he meets there. Now, for the Jewish people (people like Matthew), Moses was the lawgiver, who brought the people the Torah. And Elijah was considered perhaps the greatest of the prophets. And there they were, on the mountain, with Jesus, upon whom all the law and all the prophets hang.

And the disciples hear God’s voice, echoing from Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved son.” And this time, the voice of the Lord adds something. “Listen to him!” So, here we have the core of our journey through epiphany: here is the light; here is the way the world changes; listen to him.

And change, well, our response to change hasn’t evolved much since the first century. Whether it’s a divorce, the loss of a job, or a deep spiritual movement in ourselves, change frightens us. And I think that’s why Jesus reached out to his disciples, touched them, and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” He’s still telling us that today.

So, as we reflect upon our journey through the season of epiphany, we look forward to the next season into which the Church calls us: the holy season of Lent. Here we find our opportunity to really change our lives: to become the light of the world. And it’s about so much more than giving up sweets, or bread, or meat. Lent is about drawing closer to God, repenting of our mistakes and setting out on a new life, a better life, a more abundant life.

If all we do during Lent is give up chocolate, that’s not a Lenten discipline, that’s a diet. And that’s fine, but that’s not the life we’re called into. We are called during that Holy Season to abandon anything that gets between us and God, to lay down our burdens and begin again.

I thought I’d close this morning with something from one of my favorite saints, St. Sam of Mississippi. He wrote,

It’s been too hard living, And I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky

It’s been a long, long time coming
But I know, but I know a change is gonna come
Oh yes it is
Oh my, oh my, oh my

And so that’s my prayer for us this Sunday. Let us become that change; let us incarnate that change. Let that change come. Let it come. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2020