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Hurry Down!

zaccheaus

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

Teach Us to Pray

a

The full readings for today can be found here:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray….”

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

Good morning, good morning. It’s good to be back with you at St. Paul’s.

You know, there’s an old family legend among my kinfolk about my great-grandfather, an Irishman who lived in Boston. One day, he had an appointment with the Bishop, and he was frantically running late. Well, he couldn’t find a parking spot, and so he lifted his eyes to heaven and spoke: “Lord, you know I need to speak with the good bishop. If you will find me a parking space, I promise that I will go to Mass every day for the rest of the year.”

Well, miraculously, the clouds parted on this dreary day, and bathed in a beam of glowing sunlight a parking space opened up right in front of the cathedral and my great-grandfather looked up to the heavens and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found it myself.”

So, today’s Gospel reading centers around prayer, and prayer for many of us is a bewildering thing. Sometimes, our prayer tumbles out so easily, as the need pours out of us and into God. Sometimes we stutter and stammer, lost in a wilderness of inarticulate mumbles. And sometimes, our prayers are nothing more than groans and silence. Sometimes, I think my best prayers are the simplest: I tell God “Help!” Or I simply say “Thank you.” And sometimes, there just aren’t any words for what I want to say. I just want to be, to abide in presence of the God who said I Am.

I know a lot more about what prayer is not than what it is. I don’t think God is some sort of sacramental concierge or holy genie who will give us three wishes. I don’t think prayer has much to do with making all our dreams come true, at least not in the way many people understand it. I suspect there’s not a one of you who’s not had a prayer go unheeded, and worried that it might have gone unheard.

And yet, the Gospel tells us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” What are we to make of this?

Well, I think we get a hint of that in the way Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. I think this whole reading is teaching us something about the idea of the Kingdom of God. It’s worth noting that when the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray, the first thing he tells them to pray for is the Kingdom of God. Now, maybe that’s just something he thought they needed because they were an oppressed people suffering under Roman occupation who were living a subsistence existence.

I mean, for people like that, the Kingdom of God looks pretty good.  But what about people like us? One of the bishops in the Anglican Communion, a bishop from Africa, once observed: “In America, you don’t need God. You have air conditioning.” And it’s true. In this country, we idolize those who stand on their own two feet, who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We idolize the “self-made man.” And I use that word deliberately. We idolize them. We have made an idol of them.

I don’t like to go to God asking for things. It makes me feel like a beggar. And then, sometimes I think, that’s exactly why I need to pray. You see, everything I have comes from God, and I need the humility of prayer to recognize that. Because I was born on third base, and mostly I strut around like I just hit a triple. I am prone to the delusion of my adequacy, my self-reliance. I need prayer to teach me about my dependency on God for all good things. I need prayer to teach me that I am a beggar.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying for the things we want or need, and I don’t think there’s anything too silly to take to God in prayer. I think all of our prayers, no matter how trivial or crude, involve what Evelyn Underhill called a “brush with Pentecost.” We who are fallen, we refugees from Paradise, have a chance to speak, anytime we want, with the Holy Trinity and to call Them into our lives. And it helps me to realize that while Jesus taught us to ask God for our daily bread, He also taught that He is the bread of life. And I think that whatever I pray for, in the final analysis, I end up with Jesus.

Many of us turn to God only when our lives seem out of control, when we are confronted by the violence of this world in places like Orlando, or Dallas, or Baton Rouge, or Munich, or Istanbul, or Kabul. Because then, everything seems out of control, at least beyond our control. So, maybe we do have a hint of what it felt like in first century Palestine, when the whole world seemed to have gone crazy.

Jesus told his disciples several things about prayer. The first of these is the story of the “friend at midnight” who comes knocking very late to borrow three loaves of bread. There are few things more troublesome than having a friend or being a friend. It doesn’t always happen when it’s convenient, and our friends rarely need us only when it’s convenient. I think Jesus is also telling us, and this is very good news, that it’s never too late to ask for God’s help. Prayer is an awkward thing. It is not always polite, nor can we put our prayers into some manageable cabinet or corner of our lives. Jesus counsels that we should turn to God when our hearts ache and we are in need.

Jesus then suggests we look at our relationship with God as we would look at a parent and a child. When our children ask for something, we don’t give them snakes or scorpions. Jesus reminds us, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It is the Holy Spirit that compels us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom, for a time of justice and mercy and for a time of peace. And once we have prayed for it, we can join with the Spirit in working for it in a world where these things are needed desperately. Even when God does not bring us the things we ask for, God comes and brings along the Trinity, and that is enough.

You see, I don’t think that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray that they were asking for a set of specific words to say, or an incantation to be sure that God was listening. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus really gave them. I think they were wanting to know how to get their hearts in the right place, so that they could have the kind of profound relationship Jesus had with the Father. I think they wanted to know how to imitate their rabbi, so that their whole lives would become extended acts of prayer.

There’s a wonderful story about Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the giants of the Anglican Church. Someone once asked Ramsey how long he prayed each day. Ramsey answered, “About five minutes. But it usually takes me about an hour to get there.” We have to be willing to take the time to allow our relationship with the living God to develop, to take the time to allow the noise of the world to die down. Only then, can we listen for the voice of the One God to emerge and to become the first voice we listen to in a world where it’s so rarely heard. Only then, can we join in bringing about the Kingdom which is to come. Only then, can our whole lives become a kind of prayer, a living icon of Christ in the world. Lord, teach us to pray.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

You Can’t Go Home Again

aThe full readings for today can be found here.

 

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Luke 4:21-30.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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

          Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you today, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality these past few weeks. I’m going to tell you all something and some of you may find this a bit shocking. Think of it as my confession. Those of you who know me well may not find this surprising at all, but I’m not sure I have been saved. I’m not sure that accurately describes the situation at all.

          I’m going to tell y’all a story about me, back when I was just a wee little boy back in Odessa, Texas. My family raised me as an Irish Catholic and I attended kindergarten and first grade at a Catholic school. But when I was in the second grade, my folks decided I should go to the public school and I began attending Burnett Elementary School.

          And it was during the first week when I was there on the playground, at recess, when I was surrounded by a ring of my classmates.  And I’m pretty sure they were Baptists because I think most everyone in Odessa was. And my new friends began to interrogate me and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” And I honestly don’t know where this answer came from because I was not a thoughtful child. There were a lot of words used to describe me in my childhood, but “thoughtful” is not one of them. But I looked at them and said, “Kind of. I don’t think he came just to save me. I think he came to save the whole world.” But I’ll circle back to that idea of salvation here in a bit.

          Speaking of hometowns, in today’s gospel we find Jesus back in his hometown, Nazareth. Now, Nazareth wasn’t a particularly important place, and it was largely known as a poor region, a place populated by rabble rousers and troublemakers. So when folks there heard about the good things Jesus was doing in other cities, I’m sure they were full of expectations and curiosity, a little pride, and perhaps a little envy.

And Jesus stood up there in the synagogue and he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

          And then, he tells them, “Today this has happened, and you’ve been here to hear it.” It’s a startling announcement: it’s shocking. And in the most clear expression we can find in the Gospels, Jesus makes the claim: “I’m him. I’m the Messiah you’ve all been waiting for.” And while the people are initially impressed, it doesn’t take long until they’re asking themselves, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

          They’re suggesting: Wait a minute. We know this man, and there’s nothing particularly special about him, or perhaps they are alluding to his dubious parentage. I’ve got a feeling that Jesus knew this town, these people and their narrowness. Jesus had probably heard the whispers about his mother and her “virgin birth.” And these people were confident they knew all about Jesus. Of course, we know that familiarity breeds contempt. And that’s not unusual: we all get accustomed to thinking about people in a certain way. Neuropsychiatrists tell us that human thoughts and ideas travel along well-worn pathways in our brains. These people pretty sure they’ve got Jesus all figured out, and they also know what the Messiah should look like and this upstart . . . well, this isn’t him at all.

          And Jesus knows they want him to do the same stuff in his hometown that he did in Capernaum. You know, all that miracle stuff. As C.S. Lewis once observed, one of our great human weaknesses is to tell God “Encore! Do that again!” Because we want God to be predictable; we want a God we can do business with.

          But Jesus, he’s going to thwart their expectations. In essence, He tells them, “I didn’t come just for you people.” This is not what we’d call an “effective marketing strategy.” Jesus reminds them about Elijah, who was also rejected by His own people, and brought deliverance from sickness and hunger and death to a Gentile woman. He reminds them about Elisha, who cured the Gentile Naaman although there were plenty of lepers in Israel. This is a bitter pill to swallow; this is hard medicine for the hometown crowd, and the crowd has what modern doctors would call an “adverse reaction” to this medicine.

          Luke tells us they were filled with rage, and they ran him outside town and were going to throw him off a cliff, when Jesus somehow just slips away. And that seems a little strange, because it’s hard to get away from an angry mob. But maybe Luke is telling us that when we are full of self-assurance and when we’re filled with rage, it’s very hard to find Jesus.  Rage and fear and self-assurance act like God cataracts: we just can’t see God when we feel that way.

          Jesus is always upending the expectations of those who think they’ve got God figured out: they’ve got a God they understand, a God they can do business with. He does it again and again. It’s one of his character traits, and I think He got that from his Father. The minute we think we’ve got God all figured out, He up and does something we just didn’t see coming. And for those disappointments which prove to be our salvation, we should give thanks every day.

          So, I want to circle back to that concern I shared with you early on. I don’t think I can honestly say that I have been saved. I don’t think my salvation is my rear-view mirror. But I do think I’m being saved. My salvation began over two thousand years ago when God’s son was born into the stench and muck of a cow barn and walked and lived among us until he walked up that hill called Golgotha, the place of the skulls. I am being saved daily, working out my salvation with fear and trembling, through prayer, encounters with the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the love of Christ’s body, the Church. And I believe I will be saved at the last day through God’s love and mercy: through the mercy of a God who, despite my best efforts, simply will not stay in any of the boxes I try to fit Him into. This, I believe, and this, I give thanks for. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

 

Advent Study, Part I

My friends,

I’m leading an advent study for several weeks. If you’re interested, there are both audio files and PowerPoint slides associated with the class.

You’ll find the link below:

http://christianformation-dwtx.org/middle-content-block-middle/mary-the-mother-of-god-overview/mary-mother-of-god/

Wishing you all a good and holy Advent as we await the coming of the Christ child. God’s peace,

Br. Jamesa

Who’s In Charge Around Here?

Jesus Casting out demon

The full readings for this Sunday can be found  here:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”

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

Well, good morning, good morning.  And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.

Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.

But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?

In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”

And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting  as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.

God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.

You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.

Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.

And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.

And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.

In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.

And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”

You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.

I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.

You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.

And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a  false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart.  You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis