James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022
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Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (The full readings for this morning can be found here).
In the name of the living God who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.
Way back a very long time ago, back in the early twelfth century, I was a boy in Odessa, Texas. And I can tell you my very first memory. I was riding in a golf cart with my father, and I couldn’t have been older than three or four years old. And the sun was coming up, and I smelled the scent of freshly cut grass, and I thought I must have gone to heaven.
And I remember going to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, and the house was full of the most wonderful smells: ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, about 5 kinds of pie, and a pot of coffee on that old stove. Oh, I can still smell those thanksgivings.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.” And Hellen Keller once observed, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Neuropsychologists tell us that smell is one of the most powerful gateways into our memories, in part because those two parts of the brain are very close to each other. Think about your first new car, or your favorite book, or your first trip to the library as a child, and you will almost automatically be drawn to the way they smelled. I think this is true in part because our sense of smell is so closely tied with the act of breathing—we don’t just detect a scent, we take it into our lungs and our bodies through our breath, which is another way of saying we take it into our spirit.
So, this morning, the Church offers us this wonderful story of a dinner party. It takes place in Bethany, which is bordered by the Mount of Olives, and only about two miles from the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; in fact, it’s his last trip to that city. And nothing very good is going to happen there.
The story takes place, as John tells us, “six days before the Passover.” My friend John is a careful writer and a fine poet. There aren’t any accidents or coincidences in John’s Gospel. So when he says “six days before the Passover,” I think he wants us to think back to the book of Genesis, to the six days of creation. Because these six days we’re approaching, the days we now call Holy Week, are God’s re-creation: God is making all things new again.
Now, this is sort of an odd dinner party, for a number of reasons. It takes place at the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus—yes, that Lazarus. And just one chapter before this, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. And even Jesus, knowing all that he knew and was about to do, wept at that tomb. He wept over the death of his friend, and he wept over the grief he shared with his friend’s sisters. And when Jesus told them to roll away the stone, Martha voiced her concern: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” She was concerned about the stench of the grave, the odor of death and decay. But Jesus called Lazarus back from the grave and ordered them to unbind him from the strips of cloth in which he was entombed.
So, we have these two sisters at this dinner party, along with Lazarus (who was dead, but is alive) and Jesus (who is alive but will not be for much longer). And then, we have Judas. I’ll circle back around to him in a bit. And they are gathered at the table.
Then, one of the sisters (Mary) does something remarkable. She does something scandalous, something embarrassing, something shocking, something prodigal. (See, I told you last week we’d come back to that idea.) She takes a pound of perfume made from pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it and then she wipes them with her hair. Let’s break this down a bit.
Nard was a very expensive perfume with a strong, distinctive aroma that clung to the skin. It is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, in the Song of Solomon, which is also a sensuous and erotic, and sometimes scandalous book of the bible. The value of the oil with which she anoints Jesus’ feet is approximately a year’s wages. So, this is a lavish, sensuous act of devotion. And women of that time did not loosen their hair, let alone wash a man’s feet with it. But just as her brother Lazarus was unbound from his death shroud, Mary unbinds her hair and begins to wash Jesus’ feet. Washing someone’s feet—well, that was dirty work for the servants or slaves. In fact, women of that time did not touch a man at all unless they were married.
So, all the good, proper ladies over at the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem would have been clutching their pearls at this scene.
And then Judas asks a question, “Why didn’t she do some good with this money? Why not give it to the poor?” Now Judas is the consummate cynic, right? You know what a cynic is—a cynic is someone who knows what everything costs but doesn’t know what anything is worth. The stench of betrayal and stinginess and violence clings to him. And he cannot recognize the worth of this moment as this woman pours out her wealth, pours out her life and her dignity, upon this man Jesus.
And Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” And I don’t want you to think that Jesus was unconcerned with the plight of the poor. The gospels tell us, rather, that he was profoundly concerned with the poor. But this is a special moment, a moment of lavish, unselfish tenderness, and I’m sure it strengthened Jesus for those horrifying days that lay ahead.
So, Mary had purchased this perfume for the time of Jesus’ death, but instead chooses to do so now. In a profound sense, she chooses life over death. This woman was willing to risk shame and embarrassment and ridicule— all for a reckless love. That kind of love always leads to the cross. Always. And maybe sometimes, every now and then, we might remember that loving God sometimes means a reckless refusal to consider the cost of love, and focus on what it’s worth. And maybe we might remember that God, as Isaiah tells us, is about to do a new thing.
Now, in just a few days we will celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It’s the very next chapter of John’s gospel, and again, it’s very intimate and embarrassing. But, when we get there, I want you to remember, it was this woman Mary who showed Jesus how to do that, who showed him what love looks like.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Breathe that in; breathe in her tender, reckless devotion and breathe in the life of Jesus. And then, exhale love.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022
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.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021
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
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9. (The full readings for today can be found here.)
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
In the name of the Living God: who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.
Good morning, good morning. So, in today’s gospel, we hear Matthew’s story of Jesus being transfigured, in the Greek, the word is metamorphosis. So, it’s a story about change.
But before we get there, I thought we might review our journey through this season of Epiphany, and see where the Scriptures have taken us this season. We began this journey with the story of the wise men, these men from the east, these Gentiles who were following a star. Matthew told us how the new life of Jesus on earth had implications for the cosmos. Even the sky has changed. Now maybe that was a new star, or a comet. Or maybe, just maybe, these wise men were simply able to see something that was always there, hidden in plain sight. Maybe they could see God at work in the heavens because, well, they were looking for it.
The following week we were down at the river Jordan, where John was baptizing and announced that the kingdom of God was near. John, that holy wild man, announced that we would need to repent, to change, because God was in our midst. And as Jesus comes out of the water, having been baptized, we hear the same voice we heard this morning. “This is my son, my beloved.”
So, on the second Sunday after Epiphany, we heard John’s version of that same baptism, and heard John the Baptist testify that Jesus was the son of God. And we heard Jesus call his disciples, who had overheard John proclaim Jesus as the lamb of God. And as the disciples are drawn to Jesus, Andrew goes and tells his brother we have found the Mashiach, the Messiah. And when his brother Simon goes to Jesus, Jesus tells him you’re not going to be Simon anymore; you’re going to be Cephas, or Peter. Again, we mark the notion of change: you’re going to be a different person, so you need a new name.
The following week, we heard Matthew’s version of that story. And we heard Jesus reminding us to repent, to change, because God’s kingdom is breaking into the world. And Jesus called to Simon and Andrew, telling them to leave behind their jobs as fishermen and follow him. And they did. Because encountering the Christ, encountering Jesus, will require us to change.
And then in the fourth week, we heard Jesus tell us that we were salt and light. In fact, he went further than that. He said that we were the light of the world! Us? The people who bicker all day about politics? The people who live so selfishly, who are consumed with being entertained rather than enriched, the people whose fear motivates them far more than their love? Yes, us. In fact, he said we were the light of the world. He said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That is our calling; that is our place in the kingdom. That, my friends, is going to require a change.
And last week, we heard Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus reminds us that it’s not just about what we do, but what we think and what we say. Last week, Jesus told us: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” This is not just about what we do, it’s about our hearts. My brothers and sisters, we are going to have to change.
And that gets us to the gospel for this week. The story takes place, in Matthew’s phrase, six days later. We might ask, “Six days after what?” Well, it’s six days after Jesus announces he’s going to Jerusalem: Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. And there aren’t any coincidences in Matthew’s gospel. That six days harkens us back to the story of creation in Genesis. Because what Jesus is going to do there, in Jerusalem, well, it’s going to make a new creation. It’s going to make all things new. And nothing is going to be the same after that.
Jesus and his disciples go up on a mountain. And there, Jesus is transfigured; he is changed. His face shines like the sun. Now, maybe Jesus is changed, or maybe for the first time the disciples can see Jesus for who he was all along. Maybe for the first time they can see that hidden reality, the reality that’s not beyond this world, but within this world and sometimes obscured by our shallow expectations. And they see Jesus, talking with Moses and Elijah.
It’s worth noting that both Moses and Elijah encountered God on a mountain. And like Moses, Jesus’ face shines with the reflection of the God he meets there. Now, for the Jewish people (people like Matthew), Moses was the lawgiver, who brought the people the Torah. And Elijah was considered perhaps the greatest of the prophets. And there they were, on the mountain, with Jesus, upon whom all the law and all the prophets hang.
And the disciples hear God’s voice, echoing from Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved son.” And this time, the voice of the Lord adds something. “Listen to him!” So, here we have the core of our journey through epiphany: here is the light; here is the way the world changes; listen to him.
And change, well, our response to change hasn’t evolved much since the first century. Whether it’s a divorce, the loss of a job, or a deep spiritual movement in ourselves, change frightens us. And I think that’s why Jesus reached out to his disciples, touched them, and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” He’s still telling us that today.
So, as we reflect upon our journey through the season of epiphany, we look forward to the next season into which the Church calls us: the holy season of Lent. Here we find our opportunity to really change our lives: to become the light of the world. And it’s about so much more than giving up sweets, or bread, or meat. Lent is about drawing closer to God, repenting of our mistakes and setting out on a new life, a better life, a more abundant life.
If all we do during Lent is give up chocolate, that’s not a Lenten discipline, that’s a diet. And that’s fine, but that’s not the life we’re called into. We are called during that Holy Season to abandon anything that gets between us and God, to lay down our burdens and begin again.
I thought I’d close this morning with something from one of my favorite saints, St. Sam of Mississippi. He wrote,
It’s been too hard living, And I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky
It’s been a long, long time coming
But I know, but I know a change is gonna come
Oh yes it is
Oh my, oh my, oh my
And so that’s my prayer for us this Sunday. Let us become that change; let us incarnate that change. Let that change come. Let it come. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2020
The text for today’s sermon (delivered for those taking vows on the Feast of St. Dominic) can be found here.
You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
In the name of the Living God, who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.
It may be the most important question in all of Scripture: “But who do you say that I am?” It’s a question that’s particularly potent for our brothers, Todd, Lee, Mike and Steve, but it’s one we must all face, and face regularly. It encompasses several other questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you doing?” “What do I mean to you?” At the same time the question inquires into Jesus’ identity, it implicitly wonders about our own sense of self, our coherence, our particularity.
Matthew is profoundly concerned with the issue of identity. He tells us that right from the outset. Remember, his gospel begins with a lengthy, complex, structured genealogy. In part, that’s Matthew’s answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” For Matthew, the question doesn’t simply call for some inner exploration, nor even who we spend our time with, but calls us to examine all those who have gone before us.
It’s a question I have to ask, sometimes several times a day, because my answer is often different. In a way, the question is a bit like a kaleidoscope….turn it just a bit, and you see something completely new. And perhaps that’s what’s happening with our brothers here this evening, a bit of a turn, and something very new emerges.
At the outset in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to engage in a sort of shift in perspectives. At first, he asks them who the people say the Son of Man is. And the answer is kind of predictable, although kind of telling: ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Each of these candidates for Jesus’ identity have a few things in common. Each of them was a prophet, each spoke as the voice of God and demonstrated the power of God. So, that’s the predictable part.
The telling part in that answer is that it reveals what the people, and perhaps we, expect of God. What they expected of God, what they expected of Jesus, was more of the same. They expected that Jesus was simply one more member of the Dead Prophets Society. And in so doing, they underestimated both Jesus and God—because God was doing something completely new.
So then Jesus asks the follow up question: who do you say that I am? This time, no one speaks up but Peter, Petros in the original Greek. It’s funny you know: how many of us can give the Church’s answer, or the answer we’ve heard about Jesus. But are we prepared to give an individual accounting for our understanding of Jesus?
In part, we can look at this story through the lens of the importance of names. This pericope offers us several to examine: Son of Man, John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets, Simon, Peter, Messiah, rock, church, Lord. These words all have layers of meaning: theological meaning, the meaning we learned in catechism, just more churchy talk, the meanings implicit in the Hebrew Bible, filtered through a new understanding and the Greek language. Turn the kaleidoscope just a little, and you see something completely different. And the crux of this lesson lies in our reaching an understanding: what does this all mean to me? How does this play out in my life?
Peter faced that moment in this passage we usually refer to as “Peter’s confession.” For Peter, that answer was: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Now, at the time Peter spoke these words, Messiah or Mashiach, didn’t necessary connote divinity. It encompassed several meanings: a religious and a political doyen, a great judge and military leader, and a good, observant Jew. So, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the anointed, the Christos, that name is laden with meaning and the hopes of political independence.
In both Mark and Matthew’s gospels, this story takes place in Caesarea Philippi; that’s not an accident. The story takes place in the shadow, and against the backdrop, of the city that Caesar built. Thus, Jesus’ identity will arise in the context of God’s relationship with the occupied land of Israel and the regnant empire. But Jesus will turn that kaleidoscope as well….
And there were all sorts of ideas suggested as far as when the Messiah might come: if Israel observed a single Sabbath properly; if a single person could keep all the law for a single day; if a generation were completely innocent; or if an entire generation lost hope. Perhaps the great mistake in all these theories lay in assumption that the Messiah’s arrival depended on human action rather than the impulse of divine love.
On the other hand, to call Jesus the Son of God, well, that’s something else. That’s an entirely different layer of meaning, inescapably implicating the divine, inescapably pointing toward the incarnation.
Brother Todd, Brother Lee, Brother Mike, and Brother Steve, you are all called to answer that question: “But who do you say that I am?” And, as Dominicans, we are all called not only to answer it for ourselves, but to walk with others as they struggle to answer it—from the pulpit, in the classroom, in our pastoral work, in a soup kitchen. Who do you say that Jesus is?
When Jesus asks the question, not surprisingly, Peter is the only one who speaks up. And Jesus offers a remarkable analysis of Peter’s answer: He says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus recognizes the divine voice speaking through Peter, recognizes that God is at work in Peter’s life. Now, Peter would screw up again. And again. And again, like most of us. In fact, Peter would go awry in the very next paragraph. And it takes a profound love to recognize that somewhere in that mess, there’s some God stuff, too.
In a movement that has echoed throughout the monastic tradition, Jesus then gives Simon a new name. He calls him Peter; Kephas in the Aramaic, or Petros in the Greek. And here comes the play on words. He tells him, “Upon this rock (petras in the Greek) I will build this church.
So, we might wonder, exactly which rock is that? Some have suggested it was the person of Peter himself. But we should at least consider the possibility that the rock upon which the church would be built was actually Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Perhaps the rock upon which the church stands is our own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” In our lifelong struggle with that question, as we turn the kaleidoscope over and over, we not only understand Jesus anew, we come to understand ourselves differently. Like Peter, we find a new identity in Christ. And so, the question remains crucially important; in fact, it’s definitive. Who do we say Jesus is?
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019
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
The full readings for today can be found here.
Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In the name of the living God: Who creates, redeems and sustains us.
I think it’s hard for most of us to imagine the Temple in Jesus’ day. It was a magnificent structure, with gleaming white marble pillars. Its exterior walls were about the height of a modern 20 story building. The central structure of the inner Temple glistened with white marble and gold and immense bronze entrance doors. Herod built it to rival the great religious structures around the world. Like all massive building projects, it was a source of economic growth.
But for the Jewish people, it was so much more. You came to the Temple to have your sins forgiven, to celebrate, to worship, to ask for a blessing. For the Jewish people, quite literally, the Temple was the place where God lived. It was the intersection of heaven and earth.
I think if you were to ask Jesus how he felt about that Temple he would have been stunningly ambiguous, fiercely equivocal. He could see the beauty of the place, and he knew that for many it was a place of prayer and devotion. And yet, it also was a place that took advantage of the poor, that betrayed widows and orphans, that collaborated with the occupying Romans, and it was also a monument to Herod’s narcissism.
Nevertheless, to predict its destruction, to even speculate about that sort of thing, was bad form. It’s not the kind of thing a nice Jewish boy would talk about. In fact, later in Mark’s gospel, that suggestion would be used as evidence against Jesus in his trial. You see, what Jesus said, well, that’s the kind of thing that could get you killed.
And yet, after one of the many Jewish revolts, around 70 A.D. (around the time Mark was writing his gospel), the Romans marched in and destroyed the Temple. The historian Josephus, who was admittedly prone to exaggeration, says that over a million people were killed. Many others were taken slaves. The Temple was levelled, and fire consumed much of the residential areas in Jerusalem. For the Jewish people, it was a catastrophe. I’m sure they wondered how God could let this happen, whether God cared about them anymore. And not one stone was left upon another.
You know several years ago, I was teaching a class on a Wednesday night at another church here in town. And when I got out of class and went to my car, I checked my phone and there 16 missed calls and several messages from my no-good brother Patrick. I immediately called Patrick and learned that my brother Sean Michael, had taken his own life.
Now my baby brother Sean Michael was one of the bright lights in this world. He was brilliant, with a PhD in environmental chemistry. He had worked as a chemist cleaning up toxic waste sites, and later became a high school chemistry teacher. He was funny, and bright and kind and warm, and had a nasty habit of breaking into show tunes for very little reason. In many ways, he was the best of what my family could offer to the world. And then, he was gone. And not one stone was left upon another. I’ll come back to this in just a moment.
I think many of us have had moments like that, times when our entire world comes crashing down around us, times when not one stone is left upon another. A soldier comes home from the Middle East after multiple deployments. And once the initial celebration ends, his family begins to notice that he’s just not the same person anymore. And their lives begin to unravel. Or a woman meets with the human resources director and learns that her job has been eliminated. And she doesn’t have any idea how she’ll feed her family. And not one stone is left upon another.
Or one more gunman walks into a church and plucks several lives away from a decent, gentle, holy congregation. Or a young couple travel to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston with their three year old daughter. While there, they receive a terrifying diagnosis. Or a marriage of two people who genuinely loved and cared about each other falls apart. And not one stone is left upon another. So, what are we to do about these events? How do we respond as a church? How do we carry on when not one stone is left upon another?
I think Jesus offers us a bit of a clue in today’s gospel, when he tells us these events, these tragedies, these famines, these moments of devastation, are the “beginnings of the birthpangs.” Something remains to be born out of our pain, out of our loss, out of our devastation, God will bring forth something new.
So, back to that night in 2007 when I learned about my brother’s death. I turned around and went into the church and knelt down in one of the chapels and began to pray. And I wept like a baby. And one of the priests there, to whom I will always be grateful, came into that chapel and knelt down beside me and I noticed that he was crying, too.
So I asked how we deal with those moments when our world falls apart, when not one stone is left upon another. The writer of Hebrews talks about “holding fast to the confession of hope.” We are called to defy terror and oppression and sorrow with hope. It may seem an insufficient weapon when confronted with the blunt force trauma of this world, but Scripture and the Cross assure us that hope is, in the end, insurmountable. The reading from Hebrews continues: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” That’s the Church, that’s the real church. Two men, praying and crying in the dark.
In this season of stewardship, we might well ask how we are going to be good stewards of the people God has placed in our lives. Our confession of hope lies in provoking each other to love more intensely, forgive more completely, and challenging each other to care for God’s children more deeply. As Saint Paul said, we can hold fast to what is good, care for each other with profound affection. And they’ll know we are Christians, not by our architecture or our programs or our average Sunday attendance. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018