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Go, and Do Likewise





Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” The full readings for this service can be found here.

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

A long time ago, in medieval Europe, they used to have what they called mystery plays. These dramas were often accompanied by a procession or a parade, and would depict scenes or stories from the Bible, particularly from the Gospels. Now, I do something like that in my neighborhood. Anyone who knows me knows that I have two dogs, and they’re not very good dogs at all. In fact, they are terrible dogs. I take them for a long walk at least twice a day, but they are ill-behaved and are committed to that bad behavior. And every now and then, we run across an animal that’s been hit by a car or killed somehow—a squirrel or a cat or a bird.

And my dogs always insist that we stop. They insist that we investigate and consider these incidents very carefully. Now, I’m not sure that they want to bandage up the creature’s wounds, or to carry the poor animal to an innkeeper and pay for its lodging. But I’m always trying to get them to keep walking, to move along, because there’s nothing to see here. I don’t know if that makes me the priest or the Levite in the story, and I’m not sure I like where this analogy is going so let’s get back to the Gospel.

So, Luke begins this fabulous story with a lawyer, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus. And this lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I want us to look at the assumption in this question. The assumption is that eternal life is somehow linked to something we do. And I think Jesus’ response will unsettle that assumption. Initially, Jesus answers with a question, and then he answers with a story. Neither directly answers this lawyer’s question, by which I mean Jesus’ response calls us into a discussion that goes beyond a simple answer. It calls us to walk with our rabbi, rather than simply solving a puzzle.

So, this lawyer asks Jesus to give him the secret to eternal life, and I love Jesus’ response. He asks him two very important questions: what is written in scripture; and what do you read there? In other words, Jesus asks him: (1) what is the text; and (2) how do you interpret it? Sometimes, I hear people say that they just want the plain meaning of scripture without any interpretation. We have a theological term for that idea: we call it “poppycock.” Every reading of Scripture requires our interpretation, requires that we bring our understanding filtered through our lives to the work. Our Bible is less like an encyclopedia and more like a chess partner against whom we struggle and sharpen our wits and moral sensibilities. Or, as Bishop Hibbs used to say, biblical fundamentalism is fundamentally unbiblical. Jesus recognizes that principle in his questions to the lawyer.

The lawyer has an answer at the ready; he knows his scriptures. He tells Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer answers with a passage from Deuteronomy which is sometimes called the Shema, and a passage from Leviticus. Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” In other words, you already knew the answer. If you want to know what to do, do those things. And anybody would be happy with that answer. Anybody, that is, except a lawyer. So, now he wants to drill down, “But who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus answers this question with a story, a story about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, we know that Jericho is the place where God knocks down walls, and Jesus is going to knock a few down himself with this story. We may have lost a bit of the geography here: the story takes place on the long, downhill road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road also known at the time as the “Bloody Pass” or “The Way of Blood.”  The road meanders and the topography provides the perfect environment for an ambush:  a paradise for bandits and robbers.

So, I don’t think Jesus’ audience would have been surprised at all about the man being beaten, robbed, and left for dead on that road.  Nor would Jesus’ audience have been particularly surprised to hear Jesus tell them that the priest and the Levite both passed the man by, in fact, they walked by “on the other side” of the road.  (The laws of ritual purification at the time might actually have recommended this practice to devout Jews.)  We aren’t surprised by Jesus’ casting the priests and Levites in the role of the villains:  both Jesus and John the Baptist had been doing that for a while.

However, the notion that the Samaritan showed the quality of mercy, the notion of the Samaritan as the hero of the story, would have astonished and befuddled Jesus’ first-century audience.  The Samaritans and the Jews had despised each other for hundreds of years at the time Jesus told this story.  The Samaritans had desecrated the Temple with human bones.  The Jews reciprocated.  According to the Mishna (the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism), “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). So, hearing about a “good Samaritan” would have bewildered Jesus’ audience.  It would be the equivalent of a modern parable about the “good Klansman” or a “good member of the Sinaloa cartel,” or the “good fascist.”

The parable reports that the Samaritan came near to the man and was “moved with pity.” The Greek word here implies being moved to compassion at the deepest part of who we are. Thus, most of us assume the good Samaritan in the parable is like Jesus, or God, who loves inclusively with a kind of promiscuous empathy for everyone. But suppose for a moment that it’s actually God in the ditch, and the question is what are we going to do about it? And while the question the lawyer originally asked was about what we have to do for eternal life, suppose the real issue isn’t so much about what we do as it is about the kind of people we’re going to be. Are we going to be the kind of people who notice the suffering in the world around us and are moved by it, or are we going to walk on the other side of the road? I’m wondering who I didn’t notice? Who did I walk to the other side to avoid? Lord, spit on our eyes so that we can see.

In just a little while, we’re going to come up to this altar, and the priest will put a bit of bread into our mouths. And the Church spent a lot of time, and energy, and struggle, trying to figure out how the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. And I have to tell you, I’m not really that interested in that question. But I am profoundly interested in the question of how you and I become the body of Christ in the world, and I think this parable holds a good part of the key.

This world is so polarized today. We want to fight about guns, about abortion, about race, about money, and about who’s got the moral high ground. Like the Jews and the Samaritans, we have been carrying these grudges along for so very long. And it may turn out that we really are in for the fight of our lives. Suppose, just for a moment, that learning to love our neighbors, learning to care for God’s children recklessly, really is the fight for our lives. It’s a great irony: the fight of our lives is learning how to love. As Bishop Monterroso recently observed, there are thousands and thousands of ways for us love our neighbor. There is only one way to love God; and that’s to love our neighbor. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Divine Risk and the Work of Liberation

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (The full readings for today can be found here.)

In the name of the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

So, it’s a special day today, and I want to begin by telling you a story, or a couple of stories actually. I don’t know if y’all have noticed this, but whenever I mention that I’m going to tell a story, our clergy have one of three different reactions: sometimes they wince a little bit (the way one might wince sitting in the dentist’s chair as the drill approaches), sometimes, they close their eyes and wish they were someplace else, and sometimes they just bow their heads to pray.

            Today is the nineteenth day of June, in the year of our Lord 2022. And it’s an important day in our history, but the story begins a bit before that. Way back on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. He announced that enslaved people held in the Confederate states were free. Now while that was a fine idea, for many of our enslaved brothers and sisters, it had very little meaning. Pronouncing our fellow countrymen free did not actually change their lives much, especially for those in the southern states. And here lies one of the great contradictions of our nation: we were born out of a yearning for liberty, conceived in language that exalted liberty, and built on the backs of men and women we kept in chains. It was, in short, our country’s original sin. And to proclaim it was over meant very little to the men and women who lived under the yoke of slavery.

            Here in Texas, that situation continued for another two and a half years. On June 19, 1865, just a few miles down the road in Galveston, General Gordon Granger finally arrived at the port of Galveston with Union troops. He delivered General Order No. 3 which provided: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Many of our African American brothers and sisters would have to wait still longer for their freedom, wait until the harvest was completed.

          And I want you to imagine all those years following the Emancipation Proclamation. “They tell me that we’re free, but it don’t seem no different to me at all.”  Or maybe, “I have heard rumors of my liberation, but nothing in my life tells me that’s true.” And I have heard those voices in AA meetings, and I have heard those voices as various groups (women, the poor, those subjected to human trafficking, and those suffering from addiction and frightening diseases) struggle for their dignity. And many years ago, that first celebration we call Juneteenth led the people to the Reedy Chapel, which is an AME church in Galveston. Because those people know it was not their enslavers who had liberated them; they knew they had been freed by their God.

          And it’s a very old story, that struggle for human dignity and liberation. Our Scripture records Moses going to Pharaoh and telling him that he must set the captives free. It seems that the divine plan, God’s intention for humanity, is intricately tied up with our freedom. And that brings us to the gospel for today.

          The gospel story has Jesus wandering far from his home, in the country of the Gerasenes. So, if we look at this story, let’s examine where Jesus is, and what he’s doing. He’s in gentile country, he’s in the tombs (which means ritual impurity), and he’s talking with a demon. He’s in an unclean land, in an unclean place, talking with an unclean spirit. This is the last place a good Jewish boy should be.

That region was also the site of a horrifying event in Jewish history, a terrible war crime. According to the historian Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa. The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. So, many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.

           As soon as Jesus crosses the Lake of Galilee and steps on shore, he is met by this man who is the victim of demonic possession. The portrait of this man is truly horrifying. He goes about naked and does not live in a home, but rather in the tombs. Luke is telling us that this man is more dead than alive. Mark’s account adds to this man’s torment. He tells us: “He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:3-5.

          So, it is this man, this tortured fragment of a man, who raises one of the most important questions in the Bible: He asks, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  It’s a question most of us should ask, and ask regularly. What exactly is the role of Jesus in our lives? For this man, and I hope for many of us, Jesus has come to set us free. I’m wondering how well we know Jesus as liberator. This man, who is never named in the Gospels came to know Jesus as the man who set him free. And just as the Jewish homeland was occupied by Roman legions, this man was occupied by a legion of forces which robbed him of his full humanity.

          When Jesus asks the man to identify the spirits which had taken possession of him, he answers: “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. I don’t know about you, but I have heard the voices of those many demons. You see, the most dangerous message those satanic forces have for us is “This will never change. This will never get better.” I have heard those voices in those who struggle with addiction, and they are legion. We heard those voices as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and we saw thousands of refugees forced to leave their homes. And they are legion. We heard those voices use scripture, our holy book, to justify the chains on the enslaved people in the American South. And they are legion. We hear those voices every time there is another mass shooting, and we are paralyzed because some of us are committed to the notion that that’s just how things are. And those voices are legion. And we have heard the voices of anger and grievance in our political discourse, and they are legion.


            As was the case on that morning in Galveston in 1865, as was the case that morning in the country of the Gerasenes, the divine movement is always a movement of liberation. Let me say that again, the divine movement is always a movement of liberation. We should not confuse this movement as a license to do whatever we want. We know that the movement of liberation is of divine origin when it calls us, not as a charter or privilege for a disordered freedom from all constraint, but rather the liberty to become the people God intended for us to become, the freedom to become fully human. We find the intersection of the divine and the human impulse toward liberation when we hear the call toward becoming more deeply human and restoring our brothers and sisters to the imago dei, the image of God in which they were created.

            Jesus understood this was his mission—to release the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But we profoundly misunderstand our faith if we think that we should sit back and applaud this work of Jesus from a distance. Christianity, my brothers and sisters, is not a spectator sport. I’m always amazed when we give the newly baptized a candle. We should give them seat belts and a crash helmet. Because that work of casting out the demonic forces in the world, that work of setting the captives free and restoring men and women to God’s vision for them—that’s our work now.
            Amen

The Beginning of the Good News

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)


In the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

Well, good morning, everybody, good morning. And welcome as we join together to celebrate the feast day of our patron saint, St. Mark. And I’ve been wondering….no, no, I’ll talk about that later.

So, today, we hear the opening of Mark’s gospel. And our friend Mark’s gospel is unique. There’s no fancy star in the sky, there’s no manger or shepherds, or wise men. There’s no trip into Egypt, or Jesus at the dawn of creation. He begins the story with a baptism. Jesus’ story, for Mark, begins with his baptism. And I wonder, I just wonder, if that doesn’t tell us something about Mark’s community. I think for his community, and maybe for ours, too, the story of who we are begins with our baptism. It is as though Mark sets aside genealogy, history, geography and political context, and tells us: “If you really want to know about a person, learn about their baptism.” Because for Mark and his community, that’s our real beginning. There, we’ll find the real origin of our lives.

We really don’t know all that much about Mark. By the way, I’ve been really trying…no, we’ll talk about that later. We don’t know much about Mark although we think his community may have lived somewhere around Rome. And we believe his community suffered under the early persecutions of the Christian Church.

So, I mentioned today was the feast of St. Mark. It is also the Sunday after Easter, which is sometimes called Low Sunday or if you really want to be arcane, Quasimodo Sunday. If you’ve read much Victor Hugo, you know that the famous hunchback named Quasimodo was left and found at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the Sunday after Easter. Now some people say it’s called Low Sunday because of the contrast to the High Holy Days of Easter. Some people will tell you that it’s because church attendance is generally low. So you see, I’ve been trying to convince myself…I’ve been working for the last several weeks to convince myself, that’s it’s just a coincidence that today is the day our clergy asked me to preach. But so far, I haven’t had any luck at all.

So, back to this Gospel passage. We think Mark’s community was a fairly small band of persecuted Christians. And certainly, the community of early followers of Jesus would have known hard times. They were occupied by the Roman empire, subjected to a harsh system of domination and taxation; the poor were everywhere, and their religious system was collaborating with these villains. And our patron Mark tells us: Now, hear the word of the Lord. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.”

Onto this stage, into this troubled setting, strides this eccentric, bizarre, maybe whimsical character. He is neither charming nor winsome. He rants. He is uncombed and indecorous and unkempt. He’s dressed in camel hair and eats honey and locusts. Now, I don’t care how much honey you cover a plate of locusts with; it still tastes like bugs. And he is amazing. He is amazing mostly because the people come from miles around to hear him preach baptism and the forgiveness of sins.

He seems so irrelevant to the problems people are facing. Their politics were a mess. John preached baptism. Poverty was everywhere. John preached the forgiveness of sins. And the amazing part is that the crowds were drawn to him. I think he’s still out there today, preaching like a madman. Vladimir Putin has ravaged Ukraine and committed terrible war crimes. John is preaching baptism. Look at our troubled economy, look at all this rising inflation. John is preaching the forgiveness of sins.  He’s still out there, preaching, as though the solution to our worldly problems lay in the spiritual realm.

And most of us, we don’t really like all that confession of sins part. We are a prideful people, and we cherish our self-esteem. We would much rather mount a good defense, or proclaim our denial, or offer a fine excuse rather make than a simple confession. The truth is, when I look back on my life, I have sinned some, I have sinned again, and I have sinned some more. It’s so hard to announce, as the old Prayer Book used to teach us, “There is no health in us.” We cannot avoid our shame; we cannot ignore it. But we can overcome it and find forgiveness. This is not comfortable, but it is the way to healing.

And there is John, calling to us, crying out in the wilderness, telling us this is the way to God. And that way always seems to lead through our baptism and our willingness to confess our failures—just as we will confess them before we come to this altar for communion.

Now, power is a dangerous thing, and perhaps spiritual authority is the most dangerous of all. It’s a strong temptation, but we can take note of John’s spiritual maturity in his recognition of his role. He knows he’s not the center of the story. It requires a lot to know that you’re the messenger and not the message. He tells the crowd that One “who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It’s hard to resist the limelight, but John’s humility speaks of the authenticity of his encounter with the divine. This is John’s confession: “I am not worthy. I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I’m not worthy.”

And then Jesus, the one who is worthy, comes to the river Jordan, to be baptized by John. We might wonder, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” We believe, and we’ll say so in just a few minutes, in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. So, why did Jesus, who was without sin, need a baptism? I think perhaps this was simply one of the many ways in which Jesus came to share with us in our humanity. He shared with us in the waters of baptism so that we might share with him in that Easter resurrection.,
And then, Jesus comes out of the water and a voice from the heavens announces that he is God’s beloved child, just as we are the beloved children of the Holy One. And as Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends upon him. Here, we have this remarkable collision of holiness, this intersection of the three members of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) at the river Jordan.  But it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert, into the wilderness for his time of trial and temptation.

And only after these events, after God’s affirmation of all that he is doing and all that he is, only after he is cajoled and tested in the desert, can Jesus announce to us all that it is time. This is the very time when God’s kingdom has come near. And it’s odd that we return to this story, the beginning of Mark’s gospel, right after we’ve heard the end of the story—Jesus’ passion and resurrection. But perhaps that displacement, that warp and weft of time, may remind us that we are no longer in ordinary, standard time. We are entering into sacred time here.


You see, Mark tells us, very carefully, I believe, that this is only the beginning of the good news. That story is still being written, in your life and mine. We who have been immersed in the water and the Spirit, we who have confessed, repented, and forgiven, we have our own story to tell about the good news of Jesus Christ. Tell that story out, my brothers and sisters, and tell them that the kingdom of God has come near. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Smell of Scandal in Bethany

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (The full readings for this morning can be found here).

In the name of the living God who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

Way back a very long time ago, back in the early twelfth century, I was a boy in Odessa, Texas. And I can tell you my very first memory. I was riding in a golf cart with my father, and I couldn’t have been older than three or four years old. And the sun was coming up, and I smelled the scent of freshly cut grass, and I thought I must have gone to heaven.

And I remember going to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, and the house was full of the most wonderful smells: ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, about 5 kinds of pie, and a pot of coffee on that old stove. Oh, I can still smell those thanksgivings.

      Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.” And Hellen Keller once observed, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Neuropsychologists tell us that smell is one of the most powerful gateways into our memories, in part because those two parts of the brain are very close to each other. Think about your first new car, or your favorite book, or your first trip to the library as a child, and you will almost automatically be drawn to the way they smelled. I think this is true in part because our sense of smell is so closely tied with the act of breathing—we don’t just detect a scent, we take it into our lungs and our bodies through our breath, which is another way of saying we take it into our spirit.

  So, this morning, the Church offers us this wonderful story of a dinner party. It takes place in Bethany, which is bordered by the Mount of Olives, and only about two miles from the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; in fact, it’s his last trip to that city. And nothing very good is going to happen there.

The story takes place, as John tells us, “six days before the Passover.” My friend John is a careful writer and a fine poet. There aren’t any accidents or coincidences in John’s Gospel. So when he says “six days before the Passover,” I think he wants us to think back to the book of Genesis, to the six days of creation. Because these six days we’re approaching, the days we now call Holy Week, are God’s re-creation: God is making all things new again.

Now, this is sort of an odd dinner party, for a number of reasons. It takes place at the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus—yes, that Lazarus. And just one chapter before this, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. And even Jesus, knowing all that he knew and was about to do, wept at that tomb. He wept over the death of his friend, and he wept over the grief he shared with his friend’s sisters. And when Jesus told them to roll away the stone, Martha voiced her concern: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” She was concerned about the stench of the grave, the odor of death and decay. But Jesus called Lazarus back from the grave and ordered them to unbind him from the strips of cloth in which he was entombed.

So, we have these two sisters at this dinner party, along with Lazarus (who was dead, but is alive) and Jesus (who is alive but will not be for much longer). And then, we have Judas. I’ll circle back around to him in a bit. And they are gathered at the table.

Then, one of the sisters (Mary) does something remarkable. She does something scandalous, something embarrassing, something shocking, something prodigal. (See, I told you last week we’d come back to that idea.) She takes a pound of perfume made from pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it and then she wipes them with her hair. Let’s break this down a bit.

     Nard was a very expensive perfume with a strong, distinctive aroma that clung to the skin. It is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, in the Song of Solomon, which is also a sensuous and erotic, and sometimes scandalous book of the bible. The value of the oil with which she anoints Jesus’ feet is approximately a year’s wages. So, this is a lavish, sensuous act of devotion. And women of that time did not loosen their hair, let alone wash a man’s feet with it. But just as her brother Lazarus was unbound from his death shroud, Mary unbinds her hair and begins to wash Jesus’ feet. Washing someone’s feet—well, that was dirty work for the servants or slaves. In fact, women of that time did not touch a man at all unless they were married.

So, all the good, proper ladies over at the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem would have been clutching their pearls at this scene.

And then Judas asks a question, “Why didn’t she do some good with this money? Why not give it to the poor?” Now Judas is the consummate cynic, right? You know what a cynic is—a cynic is someone who knows what everything costs but doesn’t know what anything is worth. The stench of betrayal and stinginess and violence clings to him. And he cannot recognize the worth of this moment as this woman pours out her wealth, pours out her life and her dignity, upon this man Jesus.

And Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” And I don’t want you to think that Jesus was unconcerned with the plight of the poor. The gospels tell us, rather, that he was profoundly concerned with the poor. But this is a special moment, a moment of lavish, unselfish tenderness, and I’m sure it strengthened Jesus for those horrifying days that lay ahead.

So, Mary had purchased this perfume for the time of Jesus’ death, but instead chooses to do so now. In a profound sense, she chooses life over death. This woman was willing to risk shame and embarrassment and ridicule— all for a reckless love. That kind of love always leads to the cross. Always. And maybe sometimes, every now and then, we might remember that loving God sometimes means a reckless refusal to consider the cost of love, and focus on what it’s worth. And maybe we might remember that God, as Isaiah tells us, is about to do a new thing.

Now, in just a few days we will celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It’s the very next chapter of John’s gospel, and again, it’s very intimate and embarrassing. But, when we get there, I want you to remember, it was this woman Mary who showed Jesus how to do that, who showed him what love looks like.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Breathe that in; breathe in her tender, reckless devotion and breathe in the life of Jesus. And then, exhale love.

     Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Let Me See

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The Greatest

The full readings for today can be found here.


Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

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

You know, sometimes I read Mark’s Gospel and I just cringe at the disciples. That’s probably not the right kind of thing for a preacher to say about these men who the Church would later call “saints,” but these guys are the worst. I mean, here Jesus is, trying for the third time in this 9th Chapter of Mark, to tell them—that he will be betrayed, that he will suffer and be killed, that he will come back from the dead. And all they want to do is argue about which one of them is the greatest. These guys are numbskulls, they are narcissistic, self-absorbed mercenary chuckleheads who don’t understand anything about the Gospel or Jesus or the kingdom of God or anything. And what really infuriates me about them, the really exasperating part about them, is that they are so much like me.

And it makes me wonder, what is God trying to tell us as we bicker and argue on the way? What message are we missing as we struggle for success, power, or achievement?

Admittedly, the world teaches us to love these things from a very early age. We have to get the best grades, so we can go to the best colleges, so we can get the best jobs and make the most money. In sports, we are consumed with who’s the best of all time. And we want to know who won the best picture, to stay in the nicest hotels, to drive the best cars. And we want to name among our friends those who are powerful, influential, and important.

I’m reminded that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proudly announced to the world, “I am the greatest.” He said, “I am the greatest.” I think I’ll circle back to that idea in a bit.

Things weren’t so different back in Jesus’ time. Sociologists have described 1st Century Palestine as an honor/shame culture. In this sort of culture, you would find honor if a person of great wealth or great importance came to your home or became your associate. On the other hand, you would be shamed if a person of low social standing came to your home for dinner or befriended you.

Now, in that world, children were of no social standing or significance at all. They were completely dependent, and vulnerable in the world around them. And so, Jesus continues to try to teach the disciples when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And right after that, he takes a little child into his arms. You see, children didn’t have any social standing at all; they didn’t offer anything of value. Like Jesus, children were completely vulnerable. They had little to offer that the world considers precious. So, Jesus was telling his disciples, all those things that make you a success in the world (drive, ambition, power)—you’re going to have to let that go.

St. James picks up on this idea in the epistle this morning. He says, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s a wonderful notion, and as I look back on my own life, it’s amazing how disorderly and chaotic my own appetite for recognition is. Once you start down that road, it’s hard to find an end. But the gospel tells us something else about that day. While Jesus was trying to explain that he was giving up his life for the life of the world, the disciples couldn’t understand. In fact, Mark says that “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

James suggests that our selfish ambitions will lead us to chaos. This gospel story today sort of reminds me of the Tower of Babel. Jesus is trying to talk with the disciples about the work of the Cross, and they’re having a completely separate discussion about their ambitions. And even their language has failed the disciples, because they don’t even trust Jesus enough to ask him what he means. Jesus was trying to tell them that there are hard times ahead, and they were afraid.

I’m reminded of something one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, once wrote: “Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. That these two are related (that private loneliness, for instance, will necessarily accompany public confusion) is clear enough…. What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” 

So, I want to circle back to an idea I talked about earlier. I told you that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proclaimed “I am the greatest.” He said this as he was preparing to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. At that time, he had won the Olympic gold medal in boxing and had never lost a professional fight. Ali would defeat Liston and become the heavyweight champion.

But life would knock Ali around a bit. In 1967, as a result of his protest against the Vietnam War and refusal to serve, he was stripped of his title. He could not fight for three years, three of the prime years of his career. He fought again for the heavyweight title in 1971 against Joe Frazier and he lost. He would fight Frazier again in 1974 and regain the title. He would lose the heavyweight championship again in February of 1978 to Leon Spinks. And that year, Ali said something very different from the braggadocio of his youth when he proclaimed himself the greatest. That year, Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Ali had been knocked around by the world, and he kept getting up, but he had come to a deeper understanding. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Something very similar would happen with the disciples. They would get knocked around a bit. They would lose their rabbi, their teacher, and their Messianic dreams. Jesus would be hung on a tree like a scarecrow, and they would run away and betray him. They would look deeply into themselves and feel shame at their cowardice. And yet, they kept coming back. They would spread the gospel to Syria and India, to North Africa and Asia Minor, to Persia and Ethiopia, and even to Rome, the heart of the Empire. And Church tradition teaches that these same men, these knuckleheads I spoke of earlier, would each die a martyr’s death. They would become great—great Saints of the Church—but not in any way that they had imagined. They would come to realize that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

And I think most of us have learned the same lesson. This pandemic has knocked most of us around a bit. Most of us have been knocked around by life, sometimes knocked down. We’ve suffered losses, and we’ve had our hearts broken—maybe the loss of a loved one, a parent or a child, or we’ve seen our dreams dry up and blow away in the wind of disappointment. We wear those scars.

But you know, my father used to tell me, “Anybody who doesn’t have any scars, well, they never found anything worth fighting for.”  The question of who’s the greatest, or a life lived listening to the siren song of our own selfish ambitions, that’s not even a fight worth winning. But a life lived struggling against my own ego in service to others, a life lived so that our brothers and sisters might know a better life—as Jesus taught us, that’s a fight worth dying for.



Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021

This Night

1

 

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The full readings for today’s liturgy can be found here.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

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

In the Haggadah, the ancient Jewish text for the Passover meal (the  Seder), the youngest child present always asks the question, “Why is this night different from every other night?” It’s an important question, a question pious Jews have been asking for almost two thousand years: Why is this night different from every other night?

For us, there are several answers. Liturgically, this is the night that we wash each other’s feet. We process up to the front of the church and we kneel down and we imitate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s one of the most moving services of the year, and we do it every year. But this year is not like every other year. I’ll circle back to that idea later.

Biblically, it’s a compelling story, full of mystery and pathos: it’s heartbreaking, and it’s unique. We find this story only in John’s gospel, and John’s gospel is not like any of the other gospel. Jesus has gathered with his disciples, his closest friends, for a final meal. And John tells us that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him, and understood the agony that was waiting for him. It’s an interesting question: if you knew you were about to die, what would you say to those you love the most. But Jesus does more than tell them—he shows them, because words are sometimes poor vehicles to carry the cargo of our most profound emotions.

So, after Jesus and his disciples have eaten, Jesus removes his robe, ties a towel around himself and begins washing his disciples’ feet. We may lose some of the stunning power of this shocking display. In that culture, at that time, washing another person’s feet was considered degrading work, work for slaves. In fact, if a Jew had a Jewish slave, they wouldn’t even ask a Jewish slave to wash their feet.  To wash someone’s feet was a shameful, humiliating task. And that humiliation offered a mere taste of the indignities that lay ahead—being stripped, beaten, whipped, and hung up on a tree like a scarecrow.

And so, we can understand Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed by his Lord, his rabbi. Not surprisingly, Peter feels embarrassment at watching his teacher debase himself in this way. Some of us may have shared that unease on occasion as we participate in this liturgy. And yet, Jesus tells us, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

It’s worth noting that Jesus washes the feet of all of the disciples that night. He washes the feet of the disciple who will betray him, the disciple who will deny him, and those who will abandon him. Real love means more than being nice, or romance, or the kind of love that ends up on Hallmark cards. Real love doesn’t always look like puppies, or glitter or rainbows. Real love requires strength, and often demands self-sacrifice—putting the good of someone else first, even when it hurts. Real love will sometimes call upon us to climb our own Golgotha. Love calls us into ever widening, ever more expansive, ever deepening, ever more daring circles of caring.  Real love cannot remain in the shallow end of the pool.

Jesus stands ready to wash our feet as well, washing away our insecurities, scrubbing off our shame, rinsing  our weariness away. Jesus stands ready to wash our feet even when we deny him, betray him, abandon him, and perhaps even worse, ignore him. And that, my brothers and sisters, is a very tough love. That kind of love stares right into the eyes of fear and humiliation, mockery and betrayal, and even death, and says: “Do you very worst. And when you are done, I will still be here.”

So, this year, this night, is not like any other night. We will not exchange the sign of peace. We will not break the bread; we will not drink the wine. We will not get on our knees and wash each other’s feet. But tonight, we will not do those things for the same reason that we normally do them. Tonight is different because tonight love means that we remain in our homes, rather than joining together. Tonight, we will not gather together because, in a time of pandemic, that’s not a very loving thing to do. In a time of contagion, with so many at risk, that’s not what love looks like. But the reason why we won’t do those things tonight is the same reason we do them every other year: because we love each other.

We observe the sacrament of this night, and rest assured, this is a sacramental act (regardless of what the Prayer Book purists tell you) when we reach out to those who are lonely, when we read to a child who needs a friend, when we volunteer at a food bank, or when we smile at a stranger. You see, we call this Maundy Thursday, a name which comes from the Latin word for commandment, mandatum. And the commandment wasn’t “wash each others’ feet.” The commandment was “love one another, as I have loved you.” Love one another, even when we’re not especially lovable. Maybe especially when we’re not lovable. Love one another, even when we let each other down. Love one another, even when it’s hard. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2020

A Change Is Gonna Come

Transfiguration

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9.  (The full readings for today can be found here.)

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

In the name of the Living God: who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.

Good morning, good morning. So, in today’s gospel, we hear Matthew’s story of Jesus being transfigured, in the Greek, the word is metamorphosis. So, it’s a story about change.

But before we get there, I thought we might review our journey through this season of Epiphany, and see where the Scriptures have taken us this season. We began this journey with the story of the wise men, these men from the east, these Gentiles who were following a star. Matthew told us how the new life of Jesus on earth had implications for the cosmos. Even the sky has changed. Now maybe that was a new star, or a comet. Or maybe, just maybe, these wise men were simply able to see something that was always there, hidden in plain sight. Maybe they could see God at work in the heavens because, well, they were looking for it.

The following week we were down at the river Jordan, where John was baptizing and announced that the kingdom of God was near. John, that holy wild man, announced that we would need to repent, to change, because God was in our midst. And as Jesus comes out of the water, having been baptized, we hear the same voice we heard this morning. “This is my son, my beloved.”

So, on the second Sunday after Epiphany, we heard John’s version of that same baptism, and heard John the Baptist testify that Jesus was the son of God. And we heard Jesus call his disciples, who had overheard John proclaim Jesus as the lamb of God. And as the disciples are drawn to Jesus, Andrew goes and tells his brother we have found the Mashiach, the Messiah. And when his brother Simon goes to Jesus, Jesus tells him you’re not going to be Simon anymore; you’re going to be Cephas, or Peter. Again, we mark the notion of change: you’re going to be a different person, so you need a new name.

The following week, we heard Matthew’s version of that story. And we heard Jesus reminding us to repent, to change, because God’s kingdom is breaking into the world. And Jesus called to Simon and Andrew, telling them to leave behind their jobs as fishermen and follow him. And they did. Because encountering the Christ, encountering Jesus, will require us to change.

And then in the fourth week, we heard Jesus tell us that we were salt and light. In fact, he went further than that. He said that we were the light of the world! Us? The people who bicker all day about politics? The people who live so selfishly, who are consumed with being entertained rather than enriched, the people whose fear motivates them far more than their love? Yes, us. In fact, he said we were the light of the world. He said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That is our calling; that is our place in the kingdom. That, my friends, is going to require a change.

And last week, we heard Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus reminds us that it’s not just about what we do, but what we think and what we say. Last week, Jesus told us: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” This is not just about what we do, it’s about our hearts. My brothers and sisters, we are going to have to change.

And that gets us to the gospel for this week. The story takes place, in Matthew’s phrase, six days later. We might ask, “Six days after what?” Well, it’s six days after Jesus announces he’s going to Jerusalem: Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. And there aren’t any coincidences in Matthew’s gospel. That six days harkens us back to the story of creation in Genesis. Because what Jesus is going to do there, in Jerusalem, well, it’s going to make a new creation. It’s going to make all things new. And nothing is going to be the same after that.

Jesus and his disciples go up on a mountain. And there, Jesus is transfigured; he is changed. His face shines like the sun. Now, maybe Jesus is changed, or maybe for the first time the disciples can see Jesus for who he was all along. Maybe for the first time they can see that hidden reality, the reality that’s not beyond this world, but within this world and sometimes obscured by our shallow expectations. And they see Jesus, talking with Moses and Elijah.

It’s worth noting that both Moses and Elijah encountered God on a mountain. And like Moses, Jesus’ face shines with the reflection of the God he meets there. Now, for the Jewish people (people like Matthew), Moses was the lawgiver, who brought the people the Torah. And Elijah was considered perhaps the greatest of the prophets. And there they were, on the mountain, with Jesus, upon whom all the law and all the prophets hang.

And the disciples hear God’s voice, echoing from Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved son.” And this time, the voice of the Lord adds something. “Listen to him!” So, here we have the core of our journey through epiphany: here is the light; here is the way the world changes; listen to him.

And change, well, our response to change hasn’t evolved much since the first century. Whether it’s a divorce, the loss of a job, or a deep spiritual movement in ourselves, change frightens us. And I think that’s why Jesus reached out to his disciples, touched them, and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” He’s still telling us that today.

So, as we reflect upon our journey through the season of epiphany, we look forward to the next season into which the Church calls us: the holy season of Lent. Here we find our opportunity to really change our lives: to become the light of the world. And it’s about so much more than giving up sweets, or bread, or meat. Lent is about drawing closer to God, repenting of our mistakes and setting out on a new life, a better life, a more abundant life.

If all we do during Lent is give up chocolate, that’s not a Lenten discipline, that’s a diet. And that’s fine, but that’s not the life we’re called into. We are called during that Holy Season to abandon anything that gets between us and God, to lay down our burdens and begin again.

I thought I’d close this morning with something from one of my favorite saints, St. Sam of Mississippi. He wrote,

It’s been too hard living, And I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky

It’s been a long, long time coming
But I know, but I know a change is gonna come
Oh yes it is
Oh my, oh my, oh my

And so that’s my prayer for us this Sunday. Let us become that change; let us incarnate that change. Let that change come. Let it come. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2020

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

Jesus_with_Mary_and_Martha_MG_3110_48-120-800-600-90

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