Monthly Archives: August 2015

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?


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

The text for this sermon can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Oh My Son Absalom


The readings for this morning can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

The Bread of Life

Bread of Life

The readings for today can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis