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The First and the Last

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The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

The Wind Ceased

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The full readings for today can be found here.

And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

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

You know, every now and then, the stars align, the gears click into place, the dice roll reveals our hopes to be well founded and the Lectionary gives us just exactly what we need. So today, we hear the story of a man named Peter who is willing to leave relative comfort and security because he hears the call of Jesus. As Einstein used to say, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

So, we know that one of the consistent metaphors used throughout the Old and New Testaments is the image of the sea as representing trouble or difficulty. These waters represent the nothingness before creation: in the Hebrew, the tohu wa-bohu. The sea was perceived as the vortex around which danger and chaos and evil spun. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus calling the disciples, not away from the storm, but into it. In fact, Jesus sends the disciples into the boat while he dismisses the crowds and goes to pray. Jesus goes to the mountain, like Moses, to encounter the God of Abraham. Thus, while he retreats to the mountains, he compels the disciples to face the sea of chaos. Literally translated, they are being tormented by the waves. Jesus compels them to confront their own frailty, their own vulnerability.

This story reminds us of another story in Matthews Gospel, in the eighth chapter. If you’ll remember that passage, Jesus was sleeping through the storm while the disciples cried, “Save us, Lord, for we are perishing.” And if you’ll recall, that story ends with the disciples wondering what kind of man Jesus is, if even the wind and the water obey him.
So, in today’s reading, it’s worth noting that the disciples have been out in this storm, on the water, for a long time. They’re sent away before evening and they don’t see Jesus again until early in the morning. So, like many of us, they’ve been struggling to stay afloat for a good while. And I love the nonchalant way the Gospel writer reports, “he came walking toward them on the sea.” Mathew records it as matter-of-factly as if he were saying that Jesus then ate a ham sandwich. The disciples, as is so often the case, fail to recognize Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, it’s their fear that keeps them from knowing Jesus, just like our fear sometimes keeps us from seeing Jesus when he’s right beside us.
While the disciples are initially afraid that they are seeing a ghost, Jesus reassures them it’s him. And our translation really doesn’t do Jesus’ words of comfort justice. In the original Greek, Jesus’ announcement is more sparse, succinct, and significant: he tells them “I Am.” He harkens back all the way to the God of Abraham and Moses, reminding them of the presence of God even on this storm-rocked sea.

And then, we have this wonderful story of Peter. Now, if you’ve heard me preach before at all, you know I love Peter. Peter is full of confidence and bravado and a genuinely good heart which is regularly undone by his clumsy efforts to accomplish his tasks. Peter usually opens his mouth only to change feet, but he rushes in where angels fear to tread. He is full of well-intentioned, but impetuous folly.

And so, he sort of invites himself to join Jesus on the water. This is why I love Peter: he is so eager and yet, not quite ready. And he joins our Lord on the water and for a moment….the laws of nature and gravity are suspended. I suspect that, for just a moment, the angels stopped their singing and all heaven held its breath. And then, he began to notice the strong winds around him and he began to sink. And, whatever else you can say about Peter, at least he has the presence of mind to know where to turn in trouble. He turns to Jesus. He cries out, “Lord, save me.”

And when Jesus returns to the boat with Peter the wind dies down and the disciples all acknowledge that Jesus, the Jesus who walks across the storm and calms all our troubled seas, is the Son of God. And I don’t think we should judge St. Peter too harshly, in fact I don’t think we should judge him at all, because he embodies one of the fundamental principles of the Christian life: we are going to screw up. We fall down five times, we get up six.

Changing our lives is hard. It was hard for Peter and it’s hard for us. If we want to live for Christ, live whole-hearted lives, it’s going to take some time, and we’re going to make mistakes. In the religious life, that’s why we have a novitiate. Living with courage and hope and taking chances means we’re going to fail sometimes and we need to be prepared for that. And yet, God is always stronger than the sum of all our fears and failures.

Following Jesus is no assurance of smooth sailing. Following St. Dominic does not shield us from the hard knocks of life and death. In fact, the biblical witness would tell us something quite to the contrary: we are assured of the storm. You know, we clothe our new brothers and sisters with cowls and scapulars. I’m not sure we wouldn’t do better to give them life jackets and crash helmets.

I’m reminded of a poem by a fellow named Andrew King. He wrote:

 

Consider the wild wave, its wet tension,
tissues of torn foam in its curled fist;
contradiction of calm, enemy of evenness,
it says to the stormed soul: fear my strength.

Consider the flinty wind, its walled power,
shreds of white clouds in its biting teeth;
uncaring and unkind to brittle weakness,
it says to the scoured soul: fear my strength.

Consider the fragile flesh, its limitations,
gravity’s slave and tattered by time;
weak against wave and wind’s toughness,
it says to the struggling soul: I’ve little strength.

Consider Christ who walks through storm toward us,
who reaches out, compassion in his hands,
counters fearing with God’s loving faithfulness.
Who says to the yearning soul: here is strength.

You see, like St. Peter, God wants more from us than lives of safety and stability. God’s dreams for the world are bigger than that. God has called us to be explorers on an adventure: seeking God in unlikely places, and pointing out his presence when others cannot see it. And so it is with our brother Peter, who will make his life vows this evening. Like Joseph in the Old Testament reading today, he has come, seeking his brothers and his sisters.We have seen in him the love of God, reflected in his love and commitment to this Order and the path of St. Dominic. We have watched him grow in marvelous ways. God has wonderful dreams for our brother, and we do, too. And so, we join him in stepping out of the boat, sinking sometimes, but always proclaiming the presence of God in the storm. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

There’s Going to Be Trouble

 

The full readings for today can be found here.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 

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

You know, every now and then, my friend Father Chris calls me and asks me if I’d like to come down here and be with you good people and preach. And without fail, before looking at the readings, I always say “yes,” because I love him, and love my godchildren and love you all.

And then, a week or so later, I go look at the readings, and I see that my friend, my priest, my brother has invited me to preach about Jesus tearing families apart, and bringing trouble between children and their parents. And I scratch my head and wonder at the nature of my friendship with Father Chris. But here we are, and this is the Gospel we have, and so we might as well get on with it.

So, it’s worth putting this passage in context. In the 9th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been doing that Jesus stuff. He has healed the woman with the blood disorder, healed two blind men and a mute with a demon, and raised a girl from the dead. And now, in chapter 10, he’s sending his disciples out to do that very same work: to cast out unclean spirits and cure every disease and sickness.

That gets us to today’s Gospel. Before he sends the disciples out, he warns them: this isn’t going to be easy. There’s going to be trouble. He tells them, if they called me the devil, they’re not going to treat you any better. Those who follow Jesus can expect that sometimes they’ll be met with fear and smugness and slander.

One of the things Jesus is doing is inviting the disciples to face their fears. Jesus was sending the disciples out, alone. Traveling in the ancient world was a risky business, and most people didn’t venture far away from their homes or their families. But Jesus sent them out, without any money, without even a staff. He sent them out like sheep among the wolves, so they would learn to trust God and trust each other.

For them, like all of us, fear could be crippling, it could be paralyzing. Fear is a terrible thing to see in children, but it’s dreadful to watch the grip of fear take hold of adults. Many of you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to Germany to stand up against the Nazis. Now Nazi Germany was a petri dish in which the bacteria of fear flourished. And Bonhoeffer wrote:

Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.

Now fear leers that person in the face, saying: Here we are all by our­selves, you and I, now I’m showing you my true face. And anyone who has seen naked fear revealed, who has been its victim in terrifying loneliness— fear of an important decision; fear of a heavy stroke of fate, losing one’s job, an illness; fear of a vice that one can no longer resist, to which one is enslaved; fear of disgrace; fear of another person; fear of dying—that per­son knows that fear is only one of the faces of evil itself, one form by which the world, at enmity with God, grasps for someone. Nothing can make a human being so conscious of the reality of powers opposed to God in our lives as this loneliness, this helplessness, this fog spreading over everything, this sense that there is no way out, and this raving impulse to get oneself out of this hell of hopelessness.

Jesus calls upon the disciples, and by that I mean us, to confront every fear that stands between God and us.

Jesus warns his disciples that there’s going to be trouble, not peace, but a sword. He says that families will be set against each other. In the Old Testament, there were a number of false prophets who went around proclaiming “peace” and good times when that’s not at all what was happening. Jesus distances himself from those false prophets because he knows this isn’t going to be easy for the disciples, nor is following Jesus easy for us. There’s going to be trouble.

And Jesus talks about families turning against each other, and we know that did happen in the early Christian communities. Persecution of Christians and their families was common and still is in many places in the world. And that’s because, there’s going to be trouble.

I sometimes hear people say that bad news, or trouble, comes in threes. That’s not been my experience in my Christian walk: it comes in something closer to three hundred and thirty threes. Whether it’s broken families, illness, losing loved ones, or the God-awful ways that we’ve begun to speak to each other politically, we find ourselves sinking in the mire. And there’s going to be trouble.

Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, that if we want to be worthy of calling ourselves disciples, we need to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Now, picking up our cross doesn’t just mean that we bear troubles. It means that, like Jesus, we bear them in love, without letting our hearts become hardened, we bear them in forgiveness. It means that, when troubles come, we turn to God, we lean on God and we know that God is with us. Then, we will walk as children of light; then we will follow Jesus.

This is our proclamation as Christians. The great battle cry of the Gospels, of our faith and of the Church is the renunciation of the power of fear in our lives. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

And since we just celebrated the feast of Pentecost a couple weeks ago, it’s at least worth considering the possibility that our troubles may be one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. You see, our troubles can force us to abandon the illusion of our independence, and turn to each other for help and comfort. Our troubles can pull us out of our unreflective everydayness, and compel us to examine the things in life that really matter. Our troubles can turn us from a mean-spirited self-devotion to lives of compassion, lived in community and lived in the presence of the God who never abandons us, no matter how often we abandon God.

But here’s the linchpin of today’s reading, and the linchpin of our faith: we don’t have to go through our troubles alone. Jesus tells his disciples: look, sparrows are worth half a penny, but God watches every one of them when they fall. You don’t think God is watching over you? So, yes, there is going to be trouble, but you don’t have to be afraid. If we’re on Jesus’ side, God is on our side: the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who made all things, the God who makes all things new, the God who knows every single one of the hairs on our head. So, while we are going to walk through that dark land, Jesus reminds us that we aren’t going there alone. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

How Can These Things Be?

The full readings for this Sunday can be found here.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

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

          Back in 1975, my parents packed me up and loaded me onto an airplane bound for Lacombe, Louisiana. There, I would attend a minor seminary, which was a kind of a prep school for young men who wanted to become priests.  In addition to the regular courses, we would study Latin and theology. And we went to Mass every day.

          While I was there, I became close with three young men: Steve Delacroix, who taught me the benefits of being a rogue; Gerard Lascaux, who taught me how to play poker; and Jariet Randall, a young African-American man who taught me a great deal about courage.

          Well, every now and then, the four of us would sneak off from the seminary into the Louisiana night and go through the woods into the town of Lacombe. There was an old swimming pool there where the girls from town would go, and we would meet them for what my friend Gerard Lascaux called “general mischief.”

          So this one night, we snuck out of the dorm and went walking towards town, and it was way past dark-thirty. And I observed that if the priests caught us sneaking out, we would be in real trouble. And my friend Steve Delacroix said, “Oh no, chère.  They won’t be upset, cause we’re doing this for their benefit.” Well, I looked at him and said, “Delacroix, how do you figure we are doing this for their benefit?”

          Well, Steve, he looked at me and said, “You see, we’re living such holy lives here at the seminary that if we didn’t sneak out every now and then, we wouldn’t have no sins to confess, and the priests wouldn’t have nothing to forgive.”

          Well, it turns out that my friend Delacroix had misjudged the priests’ attitude about our late night adventures, and they weren’t nearly as grateful as we thought they might be.

          So, in today’s Gospel, we hear about another fellow who has been sneaking around at night, albeit for reasons somewhat more noble than were mine and my friends’.

          We meet this man Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, who Jesus calls “the teacher of Israel.” He comes to Jesus as one of the stewards of the religious traditions of his people. Now the Evangelist John is a very fine poet, and when he says Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, we need to recognize that John’s not just talking about events that took place after sunset. John means that Nicodemus was walking in a spiritual darkness. And he comes to Jesus at night, in secret.

          Now Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he had inherited a rich, long tradition and had devoted his life to it. And yet, he was drawn to this man Jesus, drawn to the signs he has seen, drawn to the miracles, and drawn to the clear presence of God in Jesus’ life.

          And then, their conversation takes a very strange turn. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above if he wants to see the kingdom. Now this is a moment that transcends Nicodemus’ initial curiosity. This is not just a minor adjustment in Nicodemus’ ideas about God. This is a completely new way of being, which will require Nicodemus to let go of most everything he thinks he understands.

          And understandably, Nicodemus is confused. He doesn’t get it; he takes Jesus literally. He wonders how an old man is supposed to be born again, to go back to the womb. And Jesus’ response doesn’t necessarily clear that confusion up. He tells Nicodemus that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. In essence, Jesus tells him, you’ve got to be born all over again; you’ve got to start from the very beginning.

          Jesus tells him that Spirit goes where it will; we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t know where it’s going. A life in the spirit of God, a life like that of Jesus, isn’t neat or calculable or predictable. The Spirit is holy and wild and unrestrained. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God will not remain in the box that we try to keep God in.

          And Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He is confused. He reveals his amazement when he says, “How can these things be?” There is a certain terror in his confusion. Because like every birth, being born in the spirit will involve a certain amount of pain as well as some chaos. But there is a certain grace in that bewilderment.

          God will not stay inside the box of our comprehension. As a friend noted, “God, as I understand Him, is not well understood.” Or, to paraphrase the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, Not only is God stranger than we think, God is stranger than we have the capacity to think.

          We all like our mountaintop experiences. We love those moments when we think we can grasp God, or the movement of God in our lives. But those aren’t the moments where growth happens. Spiritual growth arises more often from moments when we say, “I don’t understand this at all” or “What is this happening here?” or “How can these things be?” If we want to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, we need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

          We might call these moments of “holy confusion.” In times like these, God draws us closer. God calls us to change. God calls us into something completely new. In such moments, we feel like the rest of our lives don’t make sense anymore. We feel like new people; we feel reborn.

          One of my favorite theologians is a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, who prayed that God would give him the gift of wonder. He once said “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As Heschel knew, we are far closer to God when we are asking questions than when we are convinced of our answers.

          But we know a few more things about Nicodemus. We know that at the trial of Jesus, he was the only person who stood up for Christ. Nicodemus, who had initially come to Jesus in secret, spoke up for him in public. And we know that when Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus (along with Joseph of Aramethea) who took the body to be buried and anointed it. Somehow, the encounter with this man Jesus changed Nicodemus.

          And we want to know more, we want to know what happened to him. But I think that John’s Gospel intentionally leaves that story unfinished. Our story, too, is unfinished. But God wants to make something new of us; God draws us into a holy vortex where God is making all things new again.

          For Nicodemus, like many of us, faith had become a beautiful heirloom rather than a living fountain from which we drink and are refreshed. You see, I don’t think we need a little more God in our lives. I think we need to be born from above, into the life of God. Every now and then, if we’re really lucky, God will shake us to our core.

          And in this holy season of Lent, it’s my prayer that we all walk through a bit of that night, a bit of holy confusion. As we approach the nightfall of Holy Week, it is my prayer that we find ourselves wondering at the meaning of the Cross and Golgotha, awestruck by the mystery of God.

          If we do, we may find that we, too, have been reborn and we are a new creation. Let it be, Lord. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

 

Hurry Down!

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Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke 19: 1-10.

The full readings for today can be found here.

 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.

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

          Good morning, good morning. It is always a great pleasure to be with you, to be among my friends in my second church home.

          One of my favorite stories in our Anglican tradition is about a young man in England. His mother died of consumption, which we now call tuberculosis, and at age 11 he went to sea with his father. He worked on merchant ships and was later pressed into service with the Royal Navy, and thereafter became involved in the slave trade, acting as a first mate aboard a slave ship and later as an investor in the slave trade. Years later, he became a priest and an abolitionist and was forced to confront what he had done. He apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” His name, of course, was John Newton and he wrote one of our most famous hymns, Amazing Grace. I love the story of John Newton because it illustrates that we’re never too far gone for God’s love and mercy to break our hearts and change our lives.

          Speaking of that, this is the second week in a row that we’ve had a story about tax collectors. We get the feeling that Luke is trying to tell us something. You’ll remember that last week we studied the story of the proud Pharisee and the tax collector who begged for God’s mercy.

          It might help us to understand just why tax collectors were viewed as such a loathsome bunch of people. It went deeper than simply saying nobody likes to pay taxes, although it almost certainly included that. First, under the Roman system, tax collectors were paid very poorly. The only way one could make a living at that profession was to charge more than the taxes that were actually owed. Yes, acting as collector almost required that one would engage in fraud and oppression. Further, we remember that the Jewish people were under a Roman occupation. Anyone who collected taxes for the Roman was viewed as a collaborator.

          Now, the other thing we know about the man called Zaccheaus is that he was rich, which means that he was good at the job of collaboration with the Romans. To be a wealthy tax collector almost certainly meant that he was involved in corruption, extortion and embezzlement. And Zaccheaus wasn’t just any tax collector, he was the chief tax collector.

          So, there’s a certain irony already hidden in this story, because the name Zacchaeus means “the clean one” or “righteous.” But at first blush, he doesn’t seem all that righteous at all. But Luke loves to turn our expectations on their head, just like his rabbi Jesus did.

          Now we know two other things about Zacchaeus.  We know he was a little man, and thus was compelled to climb into a sycamore tree to see Jesus.  We also know that he was looking for Jesus, that he was seeking Jesus.  In fact, he runs ahead so that he can see the Lord.

          Now, climbing into a tree tells us something else about the man called Zacchaeus.  Very few grown men can climb into a tree and maintain their sense of dignity.  Thus we know that Zacchaeus was willing to humble himself in order to see this man called Jesus. Perhaps that’s because his past had separated Zacchaeus from both his community and from God. I suspect it took a good deal of courage to climb into that tree. I suspect it took a good deal more to come down and face Jesus.

          But we get the feeling that just as eagerly as Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus, Jesus was looking for Zaccheaus as well.  Scripture tells us that Jesus looked up and saw him. Now the Greek word there is anablepo, which often implies looking up to heaven. But when Jesus looks up, he finds the face of a man who needs the love of God in his life.  Jesus calls out to him, telling him to climb down and invited himself to Zaccheaus’ home.
Although Zaccheaus has been living a terribly sinful life, Jesus accepts him as he is, embracing this little man, this tax collection, unconditionally.  Perhaps it’s that acceptance that brings about the change in Zaccheaus. Love can do that sort of thing.

          The response of the crowd to Jesus’ acceptance is predictable. Once again, people are grumbling about the company that Jesus keeps. He just seems to delight in spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. I’m reminded of something that Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said. He said “God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are really quite low.” And that’s why we call these gospels “good news.”

          In that world, at that time, no self-respecting Jew would have spent any time with, let alone spent the night with, a tax collector. And yet this man Jesus was eager to do just that, offering Zaccheaus acceptance and rejecting the notion that he was an outsider, that he was unclean. Jesus liberates Zaccheaus from his past and from his shame. And in the final analysis, it’s not just Zaccheaus’ house where Jesus stays; he takes up residence in his soul.

          One of the overarching theme’s of Luke’s Gospel is the welcome that Jesus offers to sinners. We see that in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the woman of the city who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and the story of the prodigal son. Our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s capacity to love us and forgive us. That’s worth repeating: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s capacity to love and forgive. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Now we get to the linchpin of the story, and it’s an interesting and curious thing. This may be a moment of Zaccheaus’ conversion. Our text provides, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” But there are several good Greek scholars who think a better translation is something called the present progressive tense. In other words, they think it should read, “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.” In other words, rather than a sinner who promises he will repent, that reading presents Zacchaeus as a saint whose righteousness was known only to Jesus.

In one sense, it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus saw the goodness that was already there in Zaccheaus (a righteousness that no one else could see) or whether he saw a capacity for goodness to which the crowd was blind. Either way, Jesus recognizes Zaccheaus for what he really is: a son of Abraham, a beloved child of God.

            That, I think, leads us to the real challenge of this Gospel. Can we see the hidden goodness in God’s children? Can we see the capacity to repent? In this season of stewardship, can we learn to be good stewards of the people God has put into our lives? Just as we do with our money, can we use the gifts of the people that God brings to us for the kingdom? Can we encourage them to become their best selves, to live like sons and daughters of Abraham, to live into the image of God into which they were created? Can we call them down out of the trees in which they are observers, and invite them to join into the life of the kingdom? Or are we willing to crawl down out of the tree where we safely watch Jesus pass by, and invite the Son of Man into our homes? I invite you to hurry down, because He wants to stay with you. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2016

A Scoundrel’s Dream: Jacob’s Ladder

 

jacobs-ladderThe full readings for today can be found here.

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.

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

Well good evening, good evening. It’s a great pleasure to be with you here at St. Stephen’s, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality and your rector for the invitation to preach, especially on Michaelmas, the feast of St. Michael and all angels.

You know, I love the story of Jacob. I love it for a lot of reasons, including that I’m his namesake and I’m so much like that rascal. I mean, he swindles his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of stew, and then he lies and cheats his way into his father’s blessing. And when he brother figures out what’s happened to him, he does the only thing he can do: he skeedaddles out of there and goes to a foreign land.

And we find these stories time and again. Moses was a murderer with a speech impediment; Rahab was a prostitute; King David was an adulterer and a terrible father; St. Paul was a harsh, judgmental and cruel man who tortured and probably killed the early Christians. And Jacob, well, he’s a certified mess. These men and women were frail and broken and troubled—you know, like you and me.

And yet we call this book that talks about them holy; we call their stories sacred—not because they were such delightful and upright people, but because of the surprising and inconceivable ways that God used them. God takes this weak clay, these broken vessels, and says, “I can do something with that.” He does it in the same way that he looked at the cross, an instrument of shame and torture and humiliation, and said, “I can do something with that.”

So, let’s get back to the story of Jacob. Jacob is on the run from his brother Essau, who intends to kill him. And he’s travelling at night, back to his mother’s homeland. So he’s left his home, and he’s in the wilderness. And there’s no place quite so alone when you’re away from home as a wilderness landscape at night. As Barbara Brown Taylor observed, “Jacob “is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making.”

Funny things happen in unexpected places. God is born in a cow barn. God speaks from a burning bush. On the road to Damascus, the Church’s greatest enemy becomes its greatest advocate. And here in this wilderness, in this nowhere, this scoundrel Jacob has a dream. Dreams are funny things: they occur outside the boundaries of time and place. But in that “unplace” Jacob the refugee dreams of heaven and earth. And God, the God of his forefather Abraham, comes looking for Jacob in that dream.

Jacob sees the angels, God’s messengers, as they travel up and down that ladder between heaven and earth. This is Jacob’s dream: a constant traffic between this life and the divine life. And in this place of limbo, where Jacob is cutoff from both his past and his future, in this wilderness, it is YHWH who speaks to Jacob.

Scripture tells us., And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” So, the Lord does three things there: the Living God traces his presence back through Jacob’s family tree, promises Jacob the land and God’s blessing, and assures this rascal of the divine presence in his life.

And when he wakes up, Jacob announces one of the most profound statements in the whole of Scripture: “Surely the Lord was in this place— and I did not know it.”  It is a remarkable observation, but I think Jacob was only half-right. You see, the point of the story isn’t exactly that God was in Beer-sheba, or Haran, or Bethel, or Jerusalem. All those things are true, but the point of the story is that God was in Jacob, with Jacob.  And he didn’t even know it.

Now, if that were true of only Jacob, it would be an interesting biblical fact, but not especially important. But through the incarnation, through God becoming flesh and walking among us, and through our baptism and the bread and wine we take into our lives, God is with us, too. God is in us and with us, and like Jacob, most of the time we don’t even know it.

In the late 1700s, there was a very famous rabbi named Levi Yitzchok, who lived in Berditchev (in the modern country of Ukraine). In trying to interpret this passage of Scripture, he wrote that the ladder represents all of humanity. Our feet are firmly planted on the earth, but we are forever reaching toward heaven, toward the divine. I like that idea. We are called to be instruments of the traffic between heaven and earth; we are called to be the conduit of the divine recreation, heralds of the incarnation, and called to make a pathway for messages to and from the God of Abraham, of Sarah, of Isaac and  Rebecca, and the God of Jacob.

Soon, our brother Wesley will make his vows as a Dominican novice. I can’t speak for him, but one of the startling things that took place as I began to live into those vows was the recognition that God was with me, that God was in this place, and I didn’t even know it.

It is my prayer for him as he begins this new vocation that he have a vision of angels bearing messages to and from the Living God. And today, it’s my prayer for Father Wesley, and it’s my prayer for you and me as well, that we come to realize that God is in this place.
Amen.
© 2016 James R. Dennis

The Lost and the Found

christ-good-shepherd

The full readings for today can be found here.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

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

          Good morning, good morning. It’s such a grace to be back with you good people at Holy Spirit again.

When I was growing up, out in West Texas, my parents used to tell me that you could tell a lot about someone by the company he keeps. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending his time with tax collectors and sinners . . . again. It’s the kind of thing that he does. Jesus runs around with the wrong crowd. He does it so regularly we might get the impression that he likes spending his time with them. But we know that can’t be the case. Surely, the incarnate God would rather spend his time with decent folk, you know, church going people: people like you and me.

But here’s the funny thing (and when I say funny, I mean the kind of terrifying thing that keeps me awake at night), Luke tells us there were good church going people there that day. And Luke tells us what they were doing that day: they were grumbling.

Now I know that comes as a shock to you. When I read it, you could have knocked me over with a feather. You see, I’ve never heard good church going people grumbling about what’s happening around them: I’ve never heard them complain about the music they don’t like, or the reckless spending in the Church, or about another member of the congregation who has done them wrong, or about the family that always comes in late or children that just won’t behave. But somehow, Luke tells us that’s what the good church people were doing that day, those Pharisees and scribes.

And we’re told that Jesus welcomed the sinners and the tax collectors. This is the scandal of the Gospel, the scandal of God spending time with sinners, the scandal of an unwed mother, the scandal of a God hung on a tree like a scarecrow. Jesus welcomed these sinners. That word, however, that we translate as “welcomed” means a little something more. In the original Greek, the root word is dechomai, which can literally mean to bring into one’s arms. It’s hard to think of that idea without thinking about the parable of the prodigal son, which we find just a little later in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. And in that passage, we have the story of a son who is lost and found, and of a brother who stands around grumbling about the situation.

So, I think this story today compels us to think about what it means to be lost, about who is lost and about who is out looking for them. Jesus offers a couple of parables to help us understand this notion, but as is usual, the parables force us into a place where we spend easily as much time looking for an answer as we do finding one.

In the first of these, Jesus tells us about a shepherd with 100 sheep, but one of the sheep is lost. He leaves the other 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and look for the one sheep that he’s lost. Jesus asks, “Who of you would not do that?” The answer is simple: nobody would do that. No one would put the other 99 sheep at risk, leaving them without protection or shelter. That’s just not the smart play.

And then, he tells a story of about woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them and spent all night sweeping up and looking for the lost coin. Then, she found it and was so excited she threw a party for her friends and neighbors, a party which probably cost as much as the coin she lost. Again, it’s unimaginable: a ridiculous kind of celebration.

And yet Jesus tells us this is the response in the Kingdom of heaven when one sinner repents, when one sinner decides to turn toward God. In one sense, each of the images Luke uses for God in this chapter of his gospel would have been a bit offensive, or at the very least shocking, to His audience: a shepherd, an old woman, and a father who has no pride. Shepherds occupied a very low place in the social order, followed by women. And the father in the story of the prodigal son, well, it seems like he’s making a bit of a sucker bet on his wandering no-good child. None of these images of God would have appealed to a first century audience in Palestine.

I think Jesus was intentionally shocking his audience into new ways of thinking about God―thinking about God not much in the celestial or the abstract, but about a God who could be found in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things. And Jesus brought the good news of the Gospel, for people who were desperately looking for God in the world, good news that God was desperately looking for them, too.

But as we read this passage, I think Jesus is forcing us to rethink our ideas of who is really lost. You see, in this story, it’s neither the sinners nor the tax collectors (who were collaborators with the Romans) who are lost. Rather, it’s those sitting on the sidelines, frozen in their self-righteousness and judgment who are really lost.

We might ask ourselves who is lost in today’s world. Could it be the parents who wrap their whole lives into their children’s ball games and dance recitals, instilling a drive to succeed that crushes the joy out of those things? Could it be those who have struggled their whole lives to save for their retirement, only to find that there’s no meaning left in their remaining years? Could it be those whose addictions have taken over their lives until they can no longer find any peace in the world? Or maybe it’s the woman who’s trying to raise her family while taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s until there’s just nothing left of herself in her life. Or could it be those of us whose sense of our own piety and holiness compels us to look at those who are down on their luck with the smug assurance that such a thing could never happen to good people like us. You see, I think we’re all a little lost.

And I guess today we can’t help but think about the anniversary of those tragic events 15 years ago in New York.  And we all know about the sorrow of those days and the terrible losses that were suffered. But there’s another story about that day that I’ve heard recently. It’s the story of the man in the red bandana.

His real name was Welles Carothers, and he was 24 years old and worked as an equity trader on the 104th floor of the south tower. His building was struck at 9:03 in the morning, when United Flight 175 crashed into the tower. But he was alright and left a voicemail for his mother 9 minutes later in which he said, “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know that I’m okay.”

And there are lots of people who remember seeing him, a tall man in a red bandana, helping people get out of the building. One of the survivors, told this story: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief. He was looking for a fire extinguisher.” As a survivor named Judy Wein recalls, the man in the red bandana pointed to the stairs and made an announcement that saved lives: Anyone who can walk, get up and walk now. Anyone who can perhaps help others, find someone who needs help and then head down.”

He went back into the towers several times. He saved at least 12 people’s lives. And then, he never made it back out. That man, that man in the red bandana went looking for those who would be lost, he went looking regardless of the cost. And I think that’s kind of what God’s like. God goes looking for us in the rubble of our lives. And God tells us, “If you don’t need help, find someone who does.”

All these parables are about more than what’s been lost. They’re about the foolish, reckless ways in which God goes looking for us when we’re lost. They’re about a God who will bet on us, even when we’re not a smart bet. Right now, God is lighting a lamp and searching everywhere for us, even when we don’t want to be found. And if we want to be Christlike, if we want to be like Jesus, we’ll join in that search. Amen.

© 2016 James R. Dennis