Category Archives: Anglican, Bible, Disciple

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

Just One Thing

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The full readings for today can be found here.

“You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

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

You know, it’s hard to be the oldest sibling, the oldest sister or brother. I was the oldest, and I promise you, I know how hard it can be. I was the eldest brother of four boys. And for reasons I still don’t really understand, my brothers (my no-good brothers) did not always really appreciate my leadership skills.

Now, growing up in West Texas, there was one thing we were absolutely certain of. It wasn’t spelling or astronomy or even mathematics

 

We knew for a fact that if a horned toad spit blood in your eye you would go blind. I’ll repeat that, because some of you may not be aware of this guiding principle of the universe: if a horned toad spit blood in your eye, you would go blind. And while they have since become endangered, back in those days they were everywhere, at least out in West Texas.

Now this story, however, isn’t really about horned toads. It’s about my no-good brothers. You see, one summer morning, while I was still asleep, my brothers decided to stage a revolt, a kind of coup d’état. So that morning I awoke to find that my no-good brothers, my no-good mutinous brothers, had tied me to the bed. So there I was, bound to the bed, like Gulliver surrounded by the Lilliputians, thinking it couldn’t get any worse. But I was wrong.

Just then, my no-good brother Patrick leered at me as he showed me a shoe box containing between one and two dozen horned toads. He shook them onto the bed and they began running up and down and, it seemed at the time, heading straight for my eyes.

So, I did what I always do when a situation calls for remarkable courage. I squealed like a little girl. I screamed like the banshees, like the demons of hell, were after me—because, well, they were. And when finally, after about a thousand years, my mother came into the room, she looked at me as though she were looking at Lazarus and said, “Unbind him.” Now, I’m not sure that my brothers intended to blind me, not exactly. But I do think they were at least…indifferent to the possibility. So, I know how hard it can be to be the older brother or sister.

Let’s turn our attention to the gospel for this morning. It’s a very short passage: in fact, it consists of only six sentences. There are several things to note. First, I don’t get the feeling that the day of Jesus’ visit was the first time these two sisters had this discussion. I think Jesus kind of walked into the middle of a long-running squabble between these two about their respective roles. We can sort of hear that in Martha’s request to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” This is sort of the first century equivalent of “Mom, make her stop!”

That leads me to one of the spiritual lessons we can draw from this passage: Jesus does not like tattletales. In fact, as a friend of mine has observed, “Tattletales make the baby Jesus cry.”

Secondly, when Jesus and the disciples come to this village, they come to Martha’s house. It’s her house. And Jesus has come with several of the disciples, so there’s a lot of work to be done. And in that culture, at that time, hospitality was a big deal—it was a cultural norm, and it was a religious norm. The task she busies herself with is the spiritually essential task of extending hospitality to strangers. So, I sadly don’t think the point of the story is that doing housework is sinful, or less valuable than studying. I only wish the point of the story was that housework is a sin. I could get behind that.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the point of the story isn’t that the practice of hospitality is less important than spending time with God. If you’ll remember back to just last week, earlier in that very same chapter of Luke, we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, a story which at its core, is a story about hospitality. Jesus says that we inherit eternal life by loving God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we do that, we come to learn that loving God and loving our neighbor (or, to put it another way, practicing hospitality) aren’t two things at all. They’re the same thing. In fact, they’re the “one thing.” But, more about that in a bit.

Now, unlike Martha, her sister Mary, sits listening to Jesus. In effect, she is studying the Torah with Jesus. She sits at his feet and calls him “Lord,” assuming the posture of a disciple. We might miss how odd that is, because in that culture at that time, men and women did not study Torah together.

I don’t think this story is about the false choice between action and contemplation. I say “false choice” because right Christian action is always the fruit of contemplation, and our contemplation should push us toward apostolic action.

Martha, actually, is doing a lot of things right. She recognizes Jesus as her Lord; that’s what she calls him. Moreover, she’s engaged in the holy task of serving her guests, in the Greek diakonia. That’s good and holy work; in fact, that’s the same Greek word root for our word “deacon.” So, where does she get off the track?

I think the key lies in what Jesus tells her: she was “worried and distracted by many things.” The word we translate as “distracted” (in the Greek periespato) carries with it the idea of being pulled, or dragged, or torn in several directions. She is consumed by her worry. So, while her sister Mary is feasting on the bread of life, Martha, is making a meal out of the bread of anxiety. This anxiety sabotages her hospitality and subverts the very essence of hospitality—the gracious attention to the care of others.

We can serve God through the practice of hospitality, preparing a meal for example. Or, we can just cook dinner. If we chose the latter, it’s easy to get distracted. But Jesus calls us into a life of unity—of seeing all our labors, the entirety of our lives, as joined in a single sacred task: the one thing. The great Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously said that, “A saint is someone who wills the one thing.” That’s the better part.

Like Martha, we are all so helplessly distracted. We need to remember the one thing: we are not defined by what we do, but by our relationship with the living God in whom we live and move and have our being. Now, we don’t know how this story ended—whether Martha was able to regain her focus and realize the joy of being with Jesus. I suspect Luke left that ending out intentionally, because we get to write the ending of that story for ourselves. How do we want to live, to spend this wild, beautiful, priceless time we have been given?

The great Spanish poet Pablo Neruda once said:

If we were not so single minded
about keeping our lives moving,
And for once could do nothing,
Perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves.

So, today, that’s my prayer for us, that we come to recognize the one thing, just one thing, that binds all the parts of our lives and all of us together. We only need one thing. Just one. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

Two Kinds of People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

You Can’t Go Home Again

aThe full readings for today can be found here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

 

Advent Study, Week 3

a

My friends,

Here’s the link to the third week  of the Advent study. You’ll find both audio files and a PowerPoint presentation. I wish you a good and holy Advent.

http://christianformation-dwtx.org/middle-content-block-middle/mary-the-mother-of-god-overview/mary-mother-of-god-session-3/

God’s peace,

Br. James

Advent Study, Part II

My friends,

Here’s the link to the second week  of the Advent study. Again, there are both audio files and a PowerPoint presentation. Hope you find it useful.

http://christianformation-dwtx.org/middle-content-block-middle/mary-the-mother-of-god-overview/mary-mother-of-god-session-2/

God’s peace,

Br. James

a

Advent Study, Part I

My friends,

I’m leading an advent study for several weeks. If you’re interested, there are both audio files and PowerPoint slides associated with the class.

You’ll find the link below:

http://christianformation-dwtx.org/middle-content-block-middle/mary-the-mother-of-god-overview/mary-mother-of-god/

Wishing you all a good and holy Advent as we await the coming of the Christ child. God’s peace,

Br. Jamesa

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

blind_bartimaeus_arminian_225h

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