Monthly Archives: April 2023

Whom Are You Looking For? (An Easter Sermon)

Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)

In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us. Well, good morning, good morning. And, because we haven’t been able to say it during those long 40 days of Lent: Alleluia!

Don’t you hate it when you lose something? It’s very frustrating, it’s unsettling. Say, you have something very precious, or something terribly dangerous, and you lock it up and put it away where no one can get to it. You hide it, or seal it up, or bury it, and when you go back, it’s not there. You search and search, but it’s just not there anymore. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I want us to imagine the desperation of these disciples, particularly Mary Magdalene and the women who go to anoint Jesus’ body. They had lost just about everything you could lose. Some had betrayed him, some had denied him, many had run away, and almost none of them could bear to watch this horror show. They had lost their dreams of a life with God, their vision that finally someone was going to do something about the Romans and their brutal occupation. They had lost their hopes for a better world, and many of them lost their self-image, their idea of who they were. And so, these women come to anoint their dead friend, to honor their dead. As Henry Nouwen wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts…” Now, I don’t think those women went to the grave that morning out of a sense of religious obligation, or some concept of duty. I think they went there out of love for their friend.

Now, we humans have known something for a very long time. We have known it ever since we crawled or loped out of the savannah, ever since those prehistoric people left their handprints on the Cueva de los Manos in Spain. We have known that “dead is dead.” Science teaches it, our experience teaches it, and our feelings of loss teach it. Dead is dead. Our broken hearts have always instructed us about the finality of death. Death is the end of the story. Or, is it?

Today’s gospel calls that assumption into question. As these women go to mourn their losses, they find that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. Don’t you hate it when you’ve put something away for safekeeping and then it’s missing? And after the other disciples have confirmed that Jesus’ body is gone, Mary remains at the tomb weeping. And she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Grief is like that, clouding our vision and consuming our ability to focus on anything but loss. And it’s not until Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him. My hope, no, my prayer for each of us is that we can hear God calling our names, calling us out of grief and loss and into new life.

Jesus then asks her a very pointed, and very important, question: “Whom are you looking for? In our world of heartache, loss, death, and empire, it takes a good deal of courage to go looking for Jesus. It takes a good deal of hope and strength to entertain the notion that death might not be the end of the story. Love is like that, you see. Love always goes looking for the beloved. Even when it’s scary, even when there are Roman guards there, even when it seems hopeless—love goes looking.

So, I want you to look here at the genius of John’s gospel. If you were with us for the Good Friday service, you’ll remember what John said. “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” Our story this morning is also set in that same garden.

If you were with us for the Vigil, you heard that story from Genesis of the very first day, the story of light coming into the world. So, I want us to look carefully at what that masterful poet John is telling us in his gospel this morning. John says these events took place “Early on the first day….” The first day. These events took place in a garden. The story of our creation takes place in a garden. This is no accident. There are no coincidences in John’s gospel. I think John is trying to tell us that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the story of God recreating the world.  It’s the story of Jesus “making all things new again.”

Now, the forces of empire knew exactly where they had put Jesus. He was sealed in a tomb, safely locked away where he could not cause them any trouble. In this story, the might of empire is represented by the soldiers guarding the tomb. Look at the reversal that takes place when they are confronted with the power of resurrection, the power of new life. John says, “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

God is in the business of creating life where there was no life before. St. Paul notes that the grave has lost its finality, writing: “O death, where is thy sting?” But I probably prefer the formulation of that fine mystic, the English poet John Donne, who said:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Death is not the end of the story. It’s not even a period, not even a semicolon. Death is nothing more than a comma, a brief pause. You see, when Jesus walked out of the tomb, he didn’t come out alone. God’s love escaped from the tomb, escaped from the grave where the forces of empire tried to contain it.

So, we come back to these stories, these same stories, year after year at about this same time. The church calls them the stories of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. But in a broader sense, they are something more: they are love stories. In fact, they are our love stories. They are stories of God’s love for you and me, of God’s love for humanity.

This is our theology of hope; this is why we call ourselves an Easter People. Our gospel this morning teaches us that the forces of empire do not win. The powers of fear and intimidation and violence do not prevail. Death and grief do not have the last word. Darkness and the forces of hell do not win. Love always wins. Always. And even though we go down to the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

In the Beginning Again (Homily for the Great Vigil)

He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. (The full readings for today can be found here.)

            Good evening, my friends, good evening. And welcome to the Great Vigil of Easter.

Did you notice that opening line of that very first reading? It’s such a fabulous first line, a cardinal statement: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”

But we might well wonder, Why is the Church giving us that story this evening, as we celebrate the great vigil? What does this have to do with Easter—with the empty tomb? It’s almost as if the Church were trying to tell us something, as if the Church were offering a glimpse into the nature of God through the lens of these readings. I think the Church is trying to give us some insight into God’s professional life, God’s business. You see, I think God is in the business of creating life where there was no life before. And there’s only one reason for that sort of creative impulse, that need to form and shape something new. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, I want us to imagine the state of mind of the disciples, particularly these women, going to anoint Jesus’ body for his burial. Not only have they witnessed the brutal horror of Jesus’ death, not only have they lost their friend and teacher, but they’ve also seen a dream die. They had dreamed of a life with Jesus, of a life filled with God’s love; they had dreamed of a better world. So they went to the tomb to honor their friend, to honor their loss, to honor the dead.

But they didn’t find any death there, because our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Our God, as we said earlier, is in the business of new life. Our God is in the business of calling light out of the darkness, of creating new life out of nothing more than His love.

We see that new life happening this evening, right before our eyes. God is on the loose again tonight at St. Christopher By the Sea, doing that God thing. God is about to make a new thing, another Genesis story, in the baptisms of Addison and Wayne. And, while we don’t know yet what paths they will walk down in their lives to come, we know who will always walk with them.

Looking back to the readings tonight, I’m pretty sure that the forces of empire were certain that the story of Jesus was over. In fact, they were certain he was not only dead, but buried. But God, like love, is never static; neither God nor love will be contained. And I want to suggest to you that something more than Jesus escaped from that grave—pure love rolled away the stone, unadulterated love walked out of that tomb, and love told those dear women that he would meet them again in Galilee.

Many of us have tried to keep God in a box. We try to create a spiritual ghetto—over here is where I keep my work life, and over here is where I keep my family stuff, and this box here is where I keep my religion. That box we try to keep God in, well, it’s nothing more than a grave, a tomb. And if today’s Gospel teaches us anything, it teaches us that God will not stay where we put Him. This is our hope; this is why we call ourselves Easter people, my friends. He is not dead; he is risen. Alleluia!

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022



What is Truth?(Good Friday)

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)

In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.Good evening, good evening. It’s good to be back with you again.

 You know, sometimes, when I look at the readings for a given Sunday, my first thought as a preacher is “There’s just not much there to talk about.”  That is definitely not the case with the readings for tonight. Rather, this is like trying to get a drink from a firehose. So, I want to highlight just a few passages from this story of Jesus’ Passion. As we read the Gospel for today, we cannot help but wince as we recall Jesus’ words: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

 So, we talked yesterday about the wonderful observation of Jürgen Moltmann, who said that all of our thinking about God, especially our theology of hope, must be accomplished “within earshot of the dying Christ.” Well, tonight we can hear Christ all too clearly. In fact, we may want to plug our ears, but we mustn’t do that, or we’ll miss something very important.

Now, I love my friend John’s gospel. John is a poet, and everything is his Gospel is laden with layers of meaning. In this Gospel, there are no accidents, and there are no coincidences. So, we all remember the fabulous story of Moses on Mt. Horeb when he encounters the burning bush. God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he’s standing on holy ground and tells him that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses asks him his name, God replies, “I am that I am.” We call this the Great I Am, and it implies that everything that has existence, everything that is, exists because of and through God.

Now, let’s see what this poet John does with that idea. When the soldiers and Pharisees come to the Garden of Gethsemane asking for Jesus, he replies, “I am he.” As Jesus hangs on the cross, dying, he says, “I am thirsty.” Now let’s look at how John treats Peter, Jesus’ close friend. You’ll recall that Peter had sworn, “Even though they all fall away, I will not leave you.” And Peter does follow Jesus—right up to the courtyard of the high priest. But when a woman asks Peter if he’s one of Jesus’ disciples he replies, “ I am not.” I am….not. Again, as he tries to warms himself, the crowd asks if Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Peter again says, “I am not.” Peter’s repudiation is actually a denial of his association with God.

I don’t want to judge Peter too harshly. There have certainly been times in my life when I walked away from God, even pushed God away. Sometimes, we all find our fears to be overpowering. This is especially true when confronted with the power of empire, especially an empire as brutal as the Roman empire. You may recall we talked on Maundy Thursday about Jesus and the great commandment: the notion that people would know we follow Jesus by our love.

But a love like that will stick out like a sore thumb in a place like the Roman Empire. Whether it’s Pharoah or Caesar or Vladimir Putin, empire only wants one thing: more—more bricks, more oil, more guns, more land. Empire concerns itself with expansion and self-preservation. Love is concerned, fiercely, with the other.

We see this distinction exposed in the discussion between Pilate and Jesus. Revealing his primary concern with empire, Pilate begins by asking Jesus if he is a king. Jesus doesn’t answer the question, or rather, answers the question with a question of his own. Pilate then asks “What have you done?” And Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Rather, he now goes back to the first question, and says that he is a king in another place. Jesus tells Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Now, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Later, Pilate asks, “Where are you from?” And Jesus doesn’t answer. In frustration, Pilate then demands, “”Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Do you not know that I have the power to hang you up on a tree like a scarecrow?

Does it seem to you that these two men are having a failure to communicate? Although they may be speaking the same language, they don’t share a common vocabulary or a common point of reference. Pilate asks the question, “What is truth?” He doesn’t seem to know and I’m not sure he really cares. In reality, the Truth is standing right in front of him. The Truth is about to be beaten and crucified—because in a world dominated by empire, truth and love will stand out like a sore thumb. Empire doesn’t have any use for truth, but Pilate reveals his real concern. His concern, and his last question, is about power. That is the nature of empire.

Fear and violence are the principal tools, the fundamental weapons of empire. And the Cross was just such a tool. You know, it’s said that for the first century or so, the fish and not the cross, was the primary symbol of Christianity. And I think that’s because no one who had actually seen a crucifixion could bear to see the Cross used in that way, they could not yet imagine it as an avatar of faith. For them, the Cross marked only terror and brutality. Those forces can only be overcome through the strongest force known to humanity. Only love can overcome them.

We see that love demonstrated as Jesus hangs on the Cross, dying. He looks down upon his mother and the beloved disciple, the only ones who remained with him, or the only people who could bear to watch this horror show. And as he’s dying, he says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” He tells his disciple, “Here is your mother.” It is a moment of unbelievable tenderness, a moment of redefining family as a community of love and loss, an expression of God’s concern for those left behind even in these final moments of agony.

So, what does this story mean for us as Christians in the 21st century, some two thousand years after these events? Well, among other things, I think it means that God intended to share in the entire human experience: pain, hunger, thirst, weddings, joy, glory, sorrow and loss, and even shame and death. God reached into the entire human experience, knew it firsthand, touched it, and made it sacred. It means that there is no part of our lives that God does not understand and will not share with us.

I want to suggest to you that it was not iron nails that fastened Jesus to the Cross. Rather, Jesus was held there by the love of God for all of humanity. In a real sense, the Cross is God’s statement to the world: do your very worst. You can beat me, mock me, scorn me, betray me, deny me, hang me on a tree like a scarecrow, and even kill me. Do your very worst, and I will still love you. And thus, the Cross was changed, transubstantiated, from an instrument of torture and shame into a symbol of hope and love. God’s love overcomes empire, terror, and death. And that’s got to be “good news.”Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Maundy Thursday (The Great Commandment)

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 can be found here.)

In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us. Good evening, good evening. And thank you and Father John for inviting me to spend this Holy Week with you at St. Christopher by the Sea. And as we go through these holy days we call the Triduum, I want us to view these days, these sacred days, not as isolated worship services, but as a week-long single service that began last week with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was a day of joy, a day of laughter, a day when the crowds proclaimed that Jesus was the king. And things would end up so very differently.

One of my favorite theologians, a man named Jürgen Moltmann, said that all theology must be conducted within earshot of the dying Christ. We’re going to come back to that again over the next several days, but it’s worth repeating: all of our thinking about God, especially that which concerns our hope for ourselves and humanity, must take place within earshot of the Cross. Well, in our readings for this evening, the shadow of the Cross looms very large.

So, we’ve all heard the question before, and maybe we’ve even thought about the answer for ourselves: “What would you do if you knew it was your last night on earth?” In this passage from John’s gospel, we see Jesus’ answer to that question. He has a final meal with his closest friends, even those who will betray and deny him. And John tells us, “he loved them to the end.”

And then, Jesus does something astonishing. He washes the feet of his disciples. In that culture, a culture that placed tremendous importance on honor and shame, that was considered the work of a servant, a slave. And this scene is in stark contrast with the entry into Jerusalem in which the crowd proclaimed him a king. This shocking lack of dignity is not the work of a rabbi, let alone the task of a king. But this loss of dignity is nothing compared to that which will come just a few hours later. After all, we are, as Moltmann observed, within earshot of the Cross.

And so, it’s no wonder that Peter suffers from a bit of cognitive dissonance because these two things just can’t go together. Or maybe this scene involves a level of vulnerability that Peter just isn’t comfortable with. Jesus tells Peter that unless he washes his feet, Peter will have no share in him. It’s an unusual phrase. But I think Jesus is telling Peter that we, as disciples, must learn not only to care for each other recklessly, but also to allow others to care for us without regard to our dignity or theirs. We have to learn vulnerability if our love is going to mean anything at all.

You see, I think Jesus came to live among us to show us what God was like. That’s part of the mystery of the Incarnation. And Jesus shows us an image of a God who is willing to take the risk of looking foolish in order to show us what love looks like. We like to think that love is all soft, and cuddly, covered in glitter and bathed in golden light. But if you’ve been around a while, you know that love is more often about taking risks, sometimes terrible risks. And tomorrow, we’ll find out just how high a price God is willing to pay for loving us.

Now comes the lynchpin of this gospel passage. Jesus tells his disciples: “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” That’s what he said to the disciples; that’s what he’s still saying to you and me. Tonight, we’ll symbolically enact that teaching when we wash each other’s feet. But, when we leave and go into the world, we’ll have a chance to embody, to incarnate that teaching when we show God’s people—especially those who aren’t particularly loveable—that we love them.

That may mean working at a food bank, or offering a meal to a homeless family, or visiting someone who’s terribly ill. It might mean backing away from a party to look for someone who’s left out, who’s friendless, who’s lonely. It might mean going on a medical mission, or working with the water ministry. Through God’s grace, we are offered thousands of chances every day to show God’s people that we love them. Love them when it’s hard, love them when it hurts, love them until the end.

Jesus tells us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” It’s not a difficult rule to understand, but it’s hard to live out. It’s as hard as the nails of the Cross. Martin Luther King once explained the purpose of this commandment:

“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Love is a powerful force. It is the only force that has ever brought about real change in our world. Genuine love does not ask how much this will cost, or what people will think, or whether this person deserves our love.

Jesus tells us that by that kind of love, people will know that we are his disciples. So, it turns out that our identity as Christians has very little to do with sticking a fish decal on our car, or dressing in our Sunday best, or which political party we support. And it isn’t really about feet at all, except that it is. The last thing Jesus wanted his disciples to know, the most important thing he wants us to know, is that love defines our common life, defines our humanity. Tonight, we will strip the altar bare, take away all the finery, remove all the trappings. And if anything remains here in this Church, if anything remains in your heart, let it be love. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022