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Who Do You Say I Am?

ChapterThe 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?

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

Just One Thing

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The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Spanish poet Pablo Neruda once said:

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

That’s Crazy Talk

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The full readings for today can be found here.

All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

In the name of the living God, who creates, redeems, and sustains us.

About 50 years ago, I was with my three younger brothers one Christmas morning in Odessa. One of us, I don’t remember who but I’m afraid it might have been me, didn’t get something he wanted for Christmas. Now I also don’t remember what it was that boy didn’t get: it could have been a Major Matt Mason Space Crawler or a utility belt for his Batman outfit. It could have been a “pop gun, pampoogas, pantookas, or drums!” It might have been a “checkerboard, bizilbigs, popcorn, or plums.”

But there we were, in our living room which was scattered with torn wrapping paper, stockings full of candy and our Christmas gifts, and one of us (again I’m afraid it might have been me), complained and grumbled about the unfairness of it all.

And without any explanation, my mother packed all four of us into the station wagon. And we drove for a good while, and as I remember the dawn was just beginning to break. And my mother drove us to the poor side of Odessa, where people literally lived in ramshackle houses built with discarded cinder blocks, two by fours, cardboard and black plastic lining the roofs. And my brothers and I stared out the window with wide eyes, because we didn’t know people actually lived like that. (It would be many years before I knew that people actually lived in much worse circumstances.) I saw people who surely didn’t have enough to eat, or clean water. And my mother didn’t say a word.

That morning, my mother gave me a beautiful, generous, terrible blessing. And I think of it every time Christmas rolls around, and often when I see a homeless person, or meet someone who’s down on their luck, or seems to be a little less kind or less educated than the people I like to consider my friends. My mother gave me a blessing; she opened my eyes to the world around me, to a world which is not always gentle or generous or fun. As John Newton wrote, I was blind and now I see. And I learned that a blessing is not always a happy event; it doesn’t always make you proud, and it doesn’t always feel like a kindness.

So, we should probably talk about this morning’s gospel, which scholars refer to as the Sermon on the Plain. It’s worth setting the scene. This story takes place fairly early in Luke’s gospel; Jesus has just called his twelve disciples. And he’s been up, praying on the mountain, and comes down to a level place, a plain, and a crowd has gathered.

So, one of the things we know about Luke’s gospel is that it is profoundly Greek. Luke’s Greek is the most elegant of the four gospels, and he often uses references to Greek literature. And in Greek literature, we know that the gods dwelt on Mount Olympus, and came down to the earth to interact with humanity. So, it’s probably not a coincidence that Luke’s Jesus goes to the mountain to be with God, and comes down to the plain to meet the people.

Luke’s gospel is also probably the most inclusive of the four Gospels. By this, I mean that everyone is within the circle of holiness. In Luke, Jesus reaches out to lepers, the lame, the blind, the tax collectors. Luke’s gospel pays particular attention to women, and to Gentiles. We find that in today’s text, because Luke notes that people came from “all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” So, when Luke says they came from Tyre and Sidon—that’s Gentile country.

As Jesus begins to preach he describes the poor, the hungry, the outcasts, and the broken-hearted as “blessed.” Now, in the original Greek that word is makarios. It was first used to describe the gods, the immortals who lived lives without worries, or work, or even fear of death. Later on, makarios came to encompass the elite, those whose riches and power put them beyond the everyday cares and the strife of most people’s lives.

Moreover, while Jesus announces that these people will share in a reward later, he says they are already “blessed.” That pronouncement is in the present tense. Most of us probably overlook just how radical and revolutionary Jesus’ sermon would have seemed. I think anyone looking at that rag-tag, dirty, collection of the detritus of the Roman empire would have found the suggestion that they were the “blessed” preposterous, irresponsible, and a little bit silly. Why, that’s crazy talk.

And then, in the second half of Jesus’ sermon, it gets even worse. You know, I sometimes hear people say they just love the sayings of Jesus, especially the Beatitudes. I don’t love them; they keep me awake at night. Because when I hear about the people that Jesus says are in trouble—the wealthy, those who aren’t hungry, those whom people speak well of, those who are laughing—well, I think I might be in that group. And all those characteristics—those are most of the things that most of us would think make up a happy life. And Jesus says those are the people who are in trouble. That’s crazy talk.

So, what’s going on here? Well, I think there are at least a couple of things. First, let’s look at the people Jesus calls “blessed”—the poor, the hungry, the outcasts, and the broken hearted. Now, I want you to remember back to the Gospel three weeks ago, when Jesus was preaching his first sermon back in his hometown of Nazareth. And he quoted from the prophet Isaiah and announced that he was there to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and break the chains of the captives and to free those who were oppressed. Well, those are the very people he’s talking about this morning, and calling them “blessed.”

Now, Jesus wasn’t romanticizing the poor. He knew these people; he knew that their lives were short, brutish and full of struggle and pain. But I think Jesus could see something that we can’t.

I think Jesus could see that beneath this world we live in, there’s an invisible structure that created it, that holds it up and sustains it. I think Jesus knew about this invisible architecture of God’s love that surrounds these people: the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And in that world, these people are the “blessed” ones.
And it was that unseen fabric that blest that petulant selfish boy one Christmas morning and put him in the car and took him for a drive and urged him: “Wake up! Look at the world around you! Pay attention here, because this is what’s important!”

So, this morning’s Gospel tells us that power came out of Jesus and healed everyone in the crowd that day. And maybe Jesus really laid hands on them and healed every one of them. Or maybe, just maybe, this sermon, this announcement of their blessedness is what actually healed them.

You know, the Church has told me that I can teach and preach, and I wear these robes and this Cross. But every now and then, I still run into that angry little boy from Odessa. And he’s still muttering and grumbling, mired in his self-centered little world. And I’m always surprised when he shows up because I thought he’d be smarter by now, that he’d be further along on his journey. But maybe someday this invisible current of God’s love and grace will heal him, too. God knows he needs it. God knows we all do. God knows.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

Not One Stone

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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

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