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You Are What You Eat

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Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” [The full readings for this morning can be found here.]

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

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

Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you here this morning, and I’d like to thank your provost and your clergy for this kind invitation. I should also thank you for your warm hospitality while we’re visiting with you today.

You know, when I was growing up, out in West Texas, one of the things my mother used to tell me all the time was, “You are what you eat.” She was trying to be wise, trying to convince me to avoid junk food and so she often repeated, “You are what you eat.” This, of course, explains my lifelong aversion to cauliflower, asparagus and brussels sprouts. You see, I did not like brussels sprouts, asparagus and cauliflower, and I did not want to be brussels sprouts, asparagus, and cauliflower. Thus, I did not eat them. That being said, I have come to believe, as has happened so often, that my mother was right. We are, we become, what we eat.

Our gospel passage this morning sort of operates as a summary of a fairly long discourse Jesus began in Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. It’s well worth exploring. If you’ll remember, this chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand, one of the signs in John’s gospel that reveal the true identity of Jesus. As in the earlier passages, there’s a clear We also hear the echo of the story of Moses and the burning bush, when God tells Moses: I am who I am. John piles layer of meaning upon layer.”

Now, it’s worth remembering that for Jesus’ audience, “bread” probably meant something very different than it does to most of us. For most of us, bread is something nice to accompany an otherwise pleasant meal. We might even shun it if we’re watching our carbs because there’s plenty of other things to eat that are good for us.

But most of Jesus’ audience, and most of John’s audience, lived on a subsistence income, making barely enough to live on for that day. And for them, “our daily bread” often meant the difference between living and dying. Just as for the five thousand who came to hear Jesus, or the Hebrews wandering in the desert, bread was the solution to the ever-present problem of hunger. Bread was the solution to the problem of living another day.

Remember that Jesus says that whoever eats of his bread will live forever. That’s a variation of the Greek phrase for “eternal life.” Too often, we hear that and we think Jesus is talking about going to heaven, but I think Jesus understood that phrase differently. Notice Jesus says whoever eats this bread “has” eternal life. Both in the Greek and in our translation, the phrase is in the present tense. So this life is “eternal,” signifying that it is imbued, or a sharing, with the divine. And that’s a characteristic that belongs exclusively to the divine. Because we know every created thing fades away; nothing lasts forever.

But this divine or eternal life Jesus is offering is available now, not simply later on, in heaven, somewhere out there or up there. Jesus was telling his audience, and by that I mean us, that this life is already available to us: right here, right now. The sacramental life is not like a mortgage, where you wait until you make the last payment until you get the title. The sacramental life is a sign that God is already waiting for us—right here, right now.

I don’t want you to walk away from this passage with the impression that Jesus is only talking about some misty, ethereal, spiritual food. As Frederich Buechner has observed, “We don’t live on bread alone, but we also don’t live long without it. Remember, Jesus has just fed lunch to five thousand people. In part, Jesus is talking about real food in the kingdom that he announces. In his sermon in January 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke of the great poverty of most of the people of El Salvador. “There is hunger not because the land has not produced enough food,” said the archbishop, “but because some people have monopolized the fruits of the land, thus leaving others hungry.”

Romero knew that the church, in the effort to announce the kingdom of God and establish signs of its present reality, could never restrict its mission to people’s spiritual problems and dissociate itself from their temporal ones. If we want to share in the life of Jesus, in the kingdom, then our concerns should be the concerns of Jesus. And he was concerned with feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and binding up the brokenhearted. Or, as Saint John Chrysostrom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the door, you will never find him in the chalice.”

We cannot tend to the spiritual needs of people and ignore their lives. We cannot look after their souls and ignore that they are starving. For the same reason, we cannot follow the “spiritual Jesus” and ignore the real man who was born in a stable and died when they hung him on a tree like a scarecrow. Toward the end of this chapter, when the crowd is horrified at Jesus’ teaching, he asks the disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of life.”
Peter was right, or he was almost right. Jesus not only has the words of life, he is the Word of life. And we are called to feast on that word, that life, so that we may share in it. We are, after all, what we eat.

This passage focusses us on one of the great mysteries of John’s gospel: the mystery of the Incarnation. Unlike the story of the manna in the desert where God feeds the Jews, God (in the person of Jesus) has become our food. And Jesus promises that this food is God’s invitation to participate in the divine life: not later, when we die, but now. We don’t need to, and shouldn’t, wait until the moment of our death to feast on God. It’s right here, at this table: so take, and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

What Are You Looking For?

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The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter). [The full readings for today can be found here.]

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’

In the name of the Living God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
It’s an interesting choice, this passage that the Church has given us for the feast of St. Dominic. It’s an interesting choice, the choice that Andrew and Simon Peter made, to follow this wandering rabbi named Jesus. And it’s an interesting choice, the choice that Andee, Jason, Rosie, Wesley, Patti, Travis, Craig and Rafael are about to make. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, one of the few things that all four gospels agree upon was that John baptized Jesus. And in each Gospel, it’s a dramatic event. In Mark’s Gospel, the heavens are riven apart. In Matthew and Luke, we hear the very voice of God calling Jesus the beloved. But in John’s gospel, we get a kind of second-hand report, a report from John the Baptist, who says that he saw the Spirit coming down like a dove. And that Spirit announces that Jesus will baptize, not with a baptism of repentance and forgiveness like the Baptist, but with the Holy Spirit. And John then announces that Jesus is the Son of God.
I want to pick up this story on the next day, however. The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples and as Jesus walks by, John shouts, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” John hearkens back, perhaps to the story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, or perhaps to the Passover lamb, with an insight into the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ ministry. It’s an early hint that following Jesus might not lead us down an easy road. As St. Thomas More said, “No one gets to heaven on a featherbed.” And yet, these brothers and sisters here with us today have chosen to follow Jesus, in the path of St. Dominic. It’s an interesting choice.
Then, the following day, John repeats his curious announcement and Andrew and another of John’s disciples begin following Jesus. The text has always left me wondering: what was it about Jesus that was so compelling? One of the giants of Anglican theology, Archbishop William Temple once observed, “We are Christians because we have been taught; and those who taught us were taught themselves.” But Andrew knew so little when he began following Jesus. My sense is that these two disciples had a profound hunger, a deep thirst to drink from the living water of the logos, the Word made flesh.
In John’s gospel, we meet a number of people who have this longing: Andrew, Nathaniel, Nicodemus, Thomas and the beloved disciple. Each of these are looking for the Truth, the veritas, the divine logos walking among us. They have the same spiritual hunger that we have all seen in these brothers and sisters who are about to take their vows this evening. And when one is full of that kind of passionate longing, nothing short of the Truth will do.
In our world, millions of people are looking for the truth. They look for it in wealth, in politics, on the television, on the internet, in dark conspiracies, in songs and books and art. We live in a nervous, anxious age. As St. Augustine observed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are forever restless until they rest in You.” And while we may find hints of truth in art, or science, or music, the real Truth most of us are looking for isn’t an idea or a scientific discipline or a bit wisdom: it’s a person. It’s a person who asks us, just as he asked Andrew: “What are you looking for?”
So, when these two disciples begin following Jesus, the first thing he asks them is “What are you looking for?” What are you looking for? It’s a profound question. And it’s almost exactly the same ancient question Dominicans have been asking those about to make their vows for a very long time: What do you seek? What are you looking for?
As the gospel passage progresses, these two disciples ask Jesus, “Where are your staying?” The translation falls a bit short. In the Greek, the word is basically “abide,” the same word Jesus uses when he tells the disciples: “Abide in me.” It carries with it the connotations of “Where do you remain, where is your home where do you abide, where is your center?” And Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” He doesn’t give them directions, he tells them, “You have to follow me to understand.”
There’s a rich sense in which we cannot understand the heart of Christianity at all until we begin to follow Jesus. There’s a real sense in which the Christian life, the practice of abiding with Jesus, cannot be understood or explained—it has to be lived.
And then Andrew, well Andrew does something remarkable. He runs and tells his brother about Jesus, certain that he’s found the Messiah. So, I suppose in that sense Andrew may be the first Dominican. You see, he does what we Dominicans have been doing for years: he brings the world to Christ.
And when Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a new name. He tells him that rather than Simon, he will be called Cephas, or Peter. Again, there’s an old tradition in the religious orders of the brothers and sisters taking a new name. (I wanted to do that, but the Master at the time wouldn’t agree to call me Brother Batman.) Now, this tradition of taking on a new name makes sense, because our vows in the religious life are simply a continuation of the baptismal promises, and our baptism calls for us to be named.
But Peter isn’t only one who gets a new name: Jesus is called the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and the Messiah. This renaming tells us something very significant. In Christ, we are made (as Peter was made) a new creation. This is a story about new beginnings—a new beginning for Jesus, and a new beginning for Andrew and Peter, who decide to follow him. It’s an interesting choice.
Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

The Holiness of Remembering

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

I remember meeting Lea Courington over thirty years ago. We were both speaking at a legal seminar, and I recall that my first impression was that she was brilliant and very funny. That first impression survived a friendship of over thirty years, through a number of changes.
We had several things in common, besides the law. We both loved poetry, and music, and literature, and history. We were both Episcopalians, and shared similar politics, and we both loved to tell stories. Like me, Lea was convinced that the truth can always use a good stretch.
Through the years, Lea or I would call, always beginning with the introduction, “I just have a quick question.” Usually, we would hang up an hour or more later, having laughed loudly and recklessly throughout the conversation. And when I became a writer, Lea and Kris came to see me at book events. When my collection of poetry came out, Lea bought something like six copies, meaning that she was responsible for about one-third of the total sales of that book.
And about 10 years ago, I told Lea that I was joining a religious Order, the Dominicans. And several minutes later, after the laughter died down, we had a long talk about what that might mean. And about three years ago, our relationship and our discussions took on more of a spiritual nature. Through all these changes, our affection for each other remained. Genuine friendship and genuine love survive the odd curve ball’s life throws us, and I have every reason to believe that it survives death.
And if we look at the selection of Scripture that Lea chose for us today, they have a common theme: a theme of being recognized, of being known, of being in a family, of being loved. I know these were the things that drove Lea, that marked her life. These are the things that I will remember about her. If we look at the last reading, we find a theme of being bound together, to each other and to God. Paul wrote, and Lea believed: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God….” Our love binds us in bonds that our stronger than anything, stronger than death.
I know that many of you may have gotten, through the years, an email sent out by Lea on June 6. It was a memorial to the men who landed on the beach at Normandy on D Day. When Lea went to Normandy, she found it terribly moving and I know she loved that place. Lea was especially moved by those men, who knew as she knew that “none of us lives unto ourselves, and none of us dies to ourselves.” But there was something else going on in that email. Lea wanted us to remember, because she knew that there was something holy about our recollection, something sacred about our memories.
In fact, soon, we’ll all be invited to gather around this table, and we’ll hear the words of Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Our memories, particularly today our memories of Lea, bind us together in the sacred act of recollection. Oh my Lord, my Lord, my sweet Lord: I will miss that brilliant, funny, compassionate, fragile woman. I will miss Lea, but more importantly, I will remember her. I hope you will, too. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

Losing Our Lives

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The full readings for today can be found here.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In the name of the Living God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

It’s an odd passage, our Gospel for this morning. And you know, it’s not unambiguously “good news.” So, it’s probably worth setting the scene for today’s reading.

The eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is pretty much bursting out–full of a lot of that Jesus stuff. Jesus feeds the four thousand, argues with the Pharisees, and restores sight to a blind man at Bethsaida. And, after all this, he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And more importantly, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a marvelous question. Who is Jesus? More importantly, who is Jesus to me? What has he got to do with my life? That question alone merits 40 days worth of contemplation.

In response to Jesus’ question, Peter offers an answer and it’s stunning. Peter: who is always full of enthusiasm if not wisdom. Peter: the kid in class who raises his hand regardless of whether he knows the answer or not. I love Peter. He is hopelessly earnest although a bit clumsy. This gives me hope. He and I are so much alike. Well, except for that sainthood thing. And I’m working on that.

Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. And that gets us to the Gospel this morning, which is where everything begins to go haywire. Because while the disciples, and all of Israel, was waiting for a certain kind of Messiah, Jesus was busy being a different kind of Messiah. They were looking for a king, a godly king to be sure, but mostly the kind of king who would get rid of all those Romans around there. They were looking for someone to raise up a guerilla army and take back their country, to liberate them like Moses did, to fight for them like David did. They were looking for someone to make Israel great again. They were looking for someone to beat up the bullies who were beating up on them. And Jesus had no intention of doing that.

Jesus teaches his disciples about the cross—a cross that will ultimately stand at the center of the universe, binding it all together in an act of blessing and filling the world with his eucharist. Through the cross, Jesus will transform his life and ours into union and communion with God. The cross, this instrument of torture and shame, will become so bound up with our notion of blessing and hope and salvation that we can no longer separate them.

Jesus tells his disciples, “This Messiah thing isn’t what you think at all.” He tells them the Messiah will be rejected, will suffer, and be killed. Now, that’s not the worst part. Because then, Jesus tells them, if you want to be my followers, you have to deny yourselves and take up my cross and follow me. Let me rephrase that, Jesus tells us, you and me, that we have to pick up that cross.

So, I’m wondering, what exactly does your cross look like? What are the nails that bind you to that cross?

I’ll tell you a story about picking up the cross, and it’s a story that makes me proud, and it’s a story that makes me ashamed. It’s mostly a story about my baby brother, Sean Michael, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately because this week was the anniversary of his death.

You see, many years ago, out in West Texas, my mother lay in her home dying of cancer. And there came a time when the morphine just wasn’t working very well. And my mother, you see, she couldn’t stand to be touched at all. She would scream like the demons of hell were tormenting her. Well, the time came when my mother needed to be bathed, and her dressing needed to be changed. And I, well, I just couldn’t do it. I could not watch her suffer—this woman who taught me to walk, to read, to think for myself. I just couldn’t bear to hear my mother scream or cry; I couldn’t bear to see her in pain.

But my brother Sean could, and did. He would gently bathe her and change her dressing, while I remained outside. My baby brother, Sean Michael, picked up that cross and I did not. And I was ashamed of myself, but I was proud to call this strong, brave man my brother. And I want to suggest to you that the nails that bound my brother to that cross were the same nails that bound Jesus to his. They were not made of iron; they were made of love. You see, love is the only thing that ever really binds us to the cross.

Now, since that time, I have encountered other crosses. And some of them, I have been able to pick up and carry for a while. I think that’s how the Christian life works: we learn much more from our failures than from our successes. And slowly, bit by bit, we are changed. Bit by bit, the stuff in our lives that isn’t Jesus begins to fade away until more and more of the divine part of us begins to shine through.

And that’s the fundamental purpose of Lent: bit by bit, we are changed; we become more Christlike. Through grace, we grow in faith, we learn to deny ourselves and pick up the cross. We learn to give up our false selves, in order to save our true lives, the lives God meant for us to live. We learn to surrender our selfishness, until our true humanity shines through and we recover the Christ within us.

And that’s my prayer for you, and that’s my prayer for me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

Hearing the Words

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Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’

The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’* Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. John 8: 47-59.

Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.

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

You know, sometimes, sometimes, I absolutely hate the lectionary. I’ve got a sermon, or I’ve got a theology, or I have an understanding, and it just won’t fit into the text that I’ve been given. Sometimes, the text just doesn’t have much to do with my idea of God, or Jesus, or holiness at all. But to paraphrase former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, we’ve got to deal with the lectionary we have, not the one we wish we had. In fact, as today’s gospel reminds us, we’ve got to deal with the Jesus we have rather than the one we wish we had.

If you ever find yourself infatuated with the kind, squishy, gooey caramel Jesus, I suggest that the eighth chapter of John is the best antidote for you. This is not a Jesus made for people who need puppies and unicorns and glitter: this is a Jesus in conflict. It’s a conflict that begins in the opening lines of the 8th chapter with the story of the woman caught in adultery, a conflict that will ultimate get Jesus killed.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know, back when I was just a kid, growing up in West Texas, some of the earliest questions I can remember people asking me were: “Where are you from? Who are your people? Are you any kin to those Dennis’ over in Scurry County?” We are fascinated with questions surrounding our origins. I think that’s based on the assumption that if we can know the origins of a thing or a person, we will then understand it, and know which box to put it in. These are the very questions that our gospel today centers upon.

So, we heard a bit about this conflict yesterday. And this morning, the conflict has accelerated. Jesus’ accusers go so far as to accuse him of being a Samaritan, or of having a demon. Now, in either instance, if he were a Samaritan or if a demon had driven him insane, the implication is that no one needs to listen to what Jesus had to say. Jesus turns away from the insult, returning to the notion of his origin, his source. The only authority Jesus claims for himself is the authority of the Father.

Jesus then makes a remarkable claim: those who keep his word will never see death. So, now we have the competing claims of authority. Those who oppose Jesus claim their authority arises from Abraham, the father of monotheism. They rest upon their link, their lineage, back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets. They ask Jesus, they mock Jesus: “Are you greater than our father Abraham, and all the prophets who died?” The question echoes with the question posed in the 4th chapter of John’s Gospel by the Samaritan woman at the well: “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?”
Jesus refuses to entertain the question of who’s greater. He says he’s not interested in his own glory (in the Greek doxa). Whatever glory Jesus has will come from the Father, and not from them. Jesus responds that they don’t even know the Father. Jesus argues that he knows both the Father and Abraham. Now the fight is joined: they know Jesus is crazy because he couldn’t know Abraham. Abraham has been dead for centuries.

And here’s the punch line: Jesus claims before Abraham was, I am. It’s an odd formulation. He doesn’t claim, I was before Abraham was. He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” I am. In the Greek, ego eimi. It is the same phrase Jesus uses when he says, “I am the bread of life, or “I am the true vine” or “I am the good shepherd.” It is the same phrase that answers Moses’ question, “Who are you?” I am who I am. It’s an origin story. Jesus’ origin lies at the beginning of creation: the Logos who was with God and was God from the beginning.

It’s a remarkable claim. It’s the sort of claim that’ll get you in a rock fight, get you killed, get you crucified up on a tree. So, I think there’s a lesson for us as Dominicans. Jesus, the truth, finds himself in conflict with those who cannot accept the truth. For those of us who follow Dominic, who belong to an Order whose motto is Veritas, this offers an important lesson. Our lives will not be free of conflict. We follow a man, a God, who was born and lived a good part of his life in conflict. You see, in a world full of comfortable lies, the truth will always fall under attack. Scripture teaches us that: we need only look to the stories of Amos, Elijah, the other prophets or Jesus.

The first weapon of our Ancient Enemy was the lie. Jesus told us, He was a liar from the very beginning. Our ancient enemy said, if you eat this fruit, you will not die, but you will become gods. Lies have a remarkable power. As my father used to say, a lie can travel three counties over while the truth is still tying its shoes.

In a land of lies, the truth will stand out like a sore thumb. And history teaches us that lies cannot bear the light of the truth. Modern history teaches us this as well. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King, lies and liars cannot suffer the presence of those who commit themselves to the Truth. They cannot, and I choose this word carefully, abide it. So, we should not expect our road to be easy. Ours is the road that leads to Jerusalem and to Golgotha.

So, as we leave this place, go home safely, go in peace and with our blessing and our love. But as you go, listen for God’s voice. Make that your home; abide there. But walk in truth, with the incarnate Truth, the Logos, the Christ. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

 

When Did You Get to Know Me?

NathanielThe full readings for today can be found here:

Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51.

When did you get to know me?

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

Several years ago, I travelled to Toronto with my Dominican brothers and sisters for Chapter, our annual gathering. While we were there, I was lucky enough to spend some time at L’Ache, the community founded by Henri Nowen, the great pastoral theologian.
L’Arche is a home for people who face profound mental challenges. While I was there, I met a man named Tom. Tom had Down’s syndrome, but that wasn’t the most important fact about him. You see, Tom was deeply concerned with, one might even argue obsessed with, superheroes. I mean, all of them: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Ironman, even the Green Lantern.

As I had the chance to talk more with him, I got to see some of his artwork. He showed me one piece that was a little confusing. It portrayed a bearded man wearing what appeared to be a Superman outfit, with his arm around someone who was obviously Tom. I asked him if the other man was Jesus, and he told me that it was. Now, Jesus (or SuperJesus) had his other arm dangling out into space. I asked Tom why Jesus’ arm was just hanging there, and he said, “That’s for you.”

I was gobsmacked. Here was this man, with supposed mental deficits, who had completely grasped a profound theological concept that I had been struggling to live into for years. I asked Tom if there was anything he needed us to pray for, and Tom told me, “I want to be a superhero.” I told him, “Tom, I think you already are, but I’ll pray anyway.”

God is like that. God is sneaky. The divine will jump up and grab you from behind when you weren’t expecting it.

So, in today’s Gospel, we have a wonderful story, a story of calling and wonder and awe. It’s the story of one of my favorite cynics, Nathaniel. But we’ll get to that in just a moment. It’s worth setting the stage.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the day after Jesus is baptized, two of John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus where he is staying, or where he abides. He answers them, “Come and see.” That day, Jesus calls Andrew and his brother Simon Peter.

Our reading today takes place the next day, as Jesus is returning from Bethany to Galilee. John tells us that Jesus “found” Phillip. Now, John is a fine poet, and he doesn’t use words lightly. While he regularly contrasts light and darkness, he also contrasts the notion of who is lost and who is found. And if you want an interesting spiritual exercise, try putting your own name in that sentence: Jesus found Nancy, or David, or Rilda or Brad, or James, and said, “Follow me.” Listen for Jesus calling your own name, saying “Follow me.”

Now, Phillip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and tells him about Jesus, describing Jesus in fairly glowing terms. He describes Jesus as fulfilling all the hopes of Israel, the man who Moses and the prophets wrote about: Jesus son of Joseph, of Nazareth. That’s a complex description, and we’ll try and unpack it a bit, but there’s something else worth noting. Phillip says “we found Jesus,” although the text says Jesus “found” Phillip. So I suspect that if Phillip did the finding, it was only in following Jesus that he found Him. And perhaps that’s true of us as well: if we want to find Jesus, we have to follow Him.

In response to Phillip’s assessment of Jesus, Nathaniel asks a poignant question: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? The question may reveal Nathaniel’s understanding of the biblical prophecies: the Messiah wasn’t supposed to come from Nazareth. Or his response may reveal a general disdain for that area. Nazareth was a poor, unimportant, hillside village, and it was no place special. We might as well ask whether anything good can come out of Haiti, or El Salvador, or the poverty-stricken countries of Africa. But I think Nathaniel’s question betrays something more troublesome. I think it’s a question born of cynicism, born of waiting for the Mashiach, the Messiah, waiting for God to make things right. I think that kind of cynicism is usually born out of many disappointments, out of hope that has been smothered, out of the rough tragedy of disappointment. Perhaps it’s a disappointment arising because the word of the Lord was rare in those days, too.

But Phillip answers his friend Nathaniel, echoing Jesus’ response the day before when John’s disciples asked Jesus where he was staying. Phillip tells him: “Come and see.” They are warm words, words of welcome and invitation. And as Nathaniel approaches Jesus, Jesus announces: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” There’s a bit of wordplay going on here. You see, before Israel was the name of a country, it was the name of a man, the name of one of Isaac’s two son’s. But Israel wasn’t the name he was born with; that name was given to him after he wrested with God at Peniel. His name at birth was Jacob, which means the deceiver, the usurper.

Now, in case you doubt that Jesus was directly referring to the story of Jacob and Israel, he returns to the story of Jacob at the end of this Gospel passage. When Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man, he’s alluding to the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob arose from his dream knowing that he was standing “at the gate of heaven,” the intersection of heaven and earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Nathaniel comes to recognize a new point where heaven and earth intersect: the person of Jesus. Jesus recognizes Nathaniel: tells him he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip called him. And then Nathaniel recognizes Jesus. He says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God and the King of Israel.” This is Nathaniel’s discovery, his epiphany, his confession. And he reveals himself as a true Israelite, one for whom God’s promises were intended.

Like Samuel in the Old Testament reading, Nathaniel didn’t recognize the divine initially. But God knew Samuel, just as Jesus knew Nathaniel. As the Psalmist says, God created their inmost parts; knit them together in their mother’s womb. And ultimately, they both came to recognize the call of the divine upon their lives.

I’m wondering if we can hear the God calling our names in the dark, calling us from under the fig tree. Because I believe each of us are called to be living icons in which God’s presence in the world is revealed. Regardless of what we do for a living, that’s our vocation. Regardless of how well we know God, God has searched us out and knows us. God “traces our journeys and our resting places.”

Sometimes, when the word of the Lord seems very rare, God sneaks up on us and asks us to share in God’s dreams for the world. God calls to us and says, “Come and see,” or “Follow me.” We may hear God calling to us in a sick friend, a neighbor who’s just lost a child, or a homeless person who’s down on their luck. Like I said, the Almighty is sneaky that way. And God can use many voices: dreams, visions, or a man with Down’s syndrome in a superman tee shirt. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

 

 

The First and the Last

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The full readings for today can be found here.

Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

In the name of the Living God, who binds all of us together: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Good morning, good morning. It is a great pleasure to be with you again at St. Paul’s and I want to thank your rector for inviting me and you for your wonderful hospitality.

You know, I grew up out in West Texas, and was the eldest of four boys. And although my parents never said so, I’m sure they were terribly grateful for my finely attuned sense of fairness. Because whenever they made a mistake in the allocation of resources (whether it was Christmas presents, dolling out allowances or apportioning dessert), they could count on my keen sense of justice and willingness to speak up and tell them: “That’s not fair.”

I had a profound sense of justice and of the urgency to get my fair share, to get what’s coming to me. And so, for a long time, the story in today’s Gospel bothered me. But as I’ve gotten older and my focus has turned to the spiritual life and perhaps a broader awareness of just how lucky I’ve been, I have come to realize that the very last thing in the world I want from God is for God to give me what’s coming to me.

So, let’s take a look at this parable, this story that Jesus tells to his listeners. First, we need to note that the whole story is set in the context of Jesus trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like. And I don’t think Jesus was necessarily trying to give them a description of heaven, because elsewhere, he tells them, “The Kingdom of God is within you now.” So, Jesus is trying to explain how we can live into, how we can bring about the kingdom, here and now. This story isn’t about some rarefied, ethereal event that will happen in the sweet by and by: it’s about how we live our lives right here and right now.

So, the parable itself is not that complicated. It’s not a hard story to follow. Then again, as Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
A landowner needed people to work in his vineyards. He hires workers early in the morning, and again at nine, and noon, at three in the afternoon and again at five o’clock. And when it comes time to pay the workers, he pays those who showed up last first, and to compound things he pays those who only worked for an hour the same wage as those who worked all day. When the day ends, all of them (those who showed up early and those who showed up late) are all paid the same wage. And the workers who worked all day in the hot sun begin to do exactly what we would expect—exactly what most of us would do—they engage in one of the most ancient practices of Christians everywhere; they grumble.

Now, I love that word: grumble. It sounds like a cross between a grunt, a groan and mumble. We think it comes from the Middle French or Middle Dutch, and meant to “mutter between the teeth.” And if we look at the Old Testament lesson today from Exodus, that’s exactly what we find God’s people doing in the desert: they are grumbling, they are complaining. So, we have been doing this for a very long time, and have gotten pretty good at it by now.

If we think about Jesus’ parable, it’s probably helpful to think about those laborers. Day laborers probably weren’t all that different in the first century than they are today. The men who would have been hired first, early in the morning, would most likely be those who were young, strong, healthy and looked like they could do a hard day’s work. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the men left would probably have been the old, the weak and perhaps those who were lame. And yet, they had the same needs as those who were strong and healthy: they needed to feed themselves and those they cared for. So, maybe, part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that God is far more concerned with our needs than with our abilities. In other words, God’s economy may have a great deal more to do with generosity than with merit.

I know that will come as a great disappointment to many of us; our culture insists upon the importance of merit. Whether it’s athletic ability, intellectual capability, holiness and piety, wealth or beauty, we crave success: it’s the addiction of our age. So, whatever this kingdom of God is, I’m not sure it looks very much like our society today.

You see, it looks like God is much more concerned with mercy than with justice. Or at least, God’s justice looks a lot more like peace and mercy than some courtroom drama where the criminals get what’s coming to them. Which is kind of a shame, because we Americans really love justice. We love it when the billionaire is sent to prison for insider trading, or when the politician is caught perjuring himself before a senate committee, or when the sanctimonious preacher is exposed in a torrid sexual affair. Schadenfreude—the delight at watching another’s misfortune—may well be the emotion most characteristic of our age. As the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cogburn said, “Everybody loves to see justice done . . . on somebody else.”

But I’m beginning to think that God’s justice looks a lot more like what most of us would call mercy. And so, most of us can breathe a collective sigh of relief. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed, we may be quite surprised by the people who end up in heaven. “God has a soft spot in his heart for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

In the parable, Jesus points out something else that I think is really important for us today. It’s a curious phrase: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” In the original Greek it reads: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I think Jesus is pointing out one of the greatest spiritual dangers most of us face, the danger of envy, of thinking we deserve what someone else has. In the final analysis, when we feel that, we are saying God or the fates or life has treated us poorly, that we deserve what others have. And as Shakespeare once observed, “Comparisons are odious.” But they’re worse than smelly; they are dangerous in that they encourage us to continue the practice of keeping score. And in the spiritual life, that is a sure road to Nowheresville, a long, rocky path to unhappiness and bitterness.

Jesus talked about the same thing in the Gospel reading last week, when he spoke about forgiveness. If you’ll remember, Peter asked if he would need to extend forgiveness as many as seven times. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, you’re going to have to do it so often that you lose count, that you give up the practice of keeping score. You see, when I’m looking at whether someone else deserved an award, or a raise, or a new car, I’m avoiding examining at my own life and the choices that I’ve made and the kind of person that I’ve become.

Jesus contrasts that kind of life with a life of radical generosity and a life full of grace. Grace doesn’t have anything to do with what we deserve; it is by its very nature an undeserved gift, a gift given out of love rather than obligation or merit. When we learn to trust in the Lord of heaven, we find a God who will rain down bread on us, who sets a table for us as we wander through the desert. What does it mean for us if God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, doesn’t depend at all on our effort, our achievement, or our merit? I think following Jesus may mean that we have to give up keeping score and recognize that we have enough for today, enough for this day’s journey. And enough, as my parents told me so often, is enough.

So, I’m wondering what this passage might mean for us in really practical everyday terms. It might mean that we give a coworker a second, or even a third chance. It might mean that we give something to a street person, regardless of whether we think they deserve it or not. Or it might mean that we forgive someone who hasn’t really shown they’re sorry, or that we are kind to those who have been unkind to us in the past. It may not change them, it may not change them at all, but maybe if we’re really lucky and God rains down his mercy on us, it just might change us. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017