Tag Archives: Christianity

Two Kinds of People

Anointing-His-Feet-2

The full readings for today can be found here. The Gospel reading follows below:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

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

It was back in my hometown, Odessa, Texas, in the mid-1990s. My father had retired, along with two of his closest friends, from the oilfield where they spent almost all their working lives, and I had gone home to visit my family. And Dad used to meet with these two friends at the bank every Tuesday morning for coffee, because the coffee was free and they were notorious cheapskates.

Now, these men became known as the Board of Directors, and each of them had a given area of responsibility. Luther Stewart was a worldly man, and so he was put in charge of politics. Homer Pittman was from Oklahoma, and he was in charge of weather because people from Oklahoma know a lot about weather. And because I was a lawyer, my father was in charge of the O.J. Simpson trial. And if something went wrong in their area of responsibility (the wind blew too much, or Judge Ito made a ruling no one could understand) the board member in charge of that area would catch nine different kinds of perdition.

So, one day I was with them, taking my coffee, and Homer Pittman opined that there were two kinds of people in this world: people who were just chasing money, and people who weren’t. Well, we discussed that for a while, and then Luther Stewart suggested that there were in fact two kinds of people in the world, but they were people who were happy by nature and people who weren’t. On the way home my father (a man of considerable wisdom) looked at me and said, “James, I think there are two kinds of people in this world. There’s people who think there’s two kinds of people, and people who don’t.”

So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending time with two kinds of people: sinners and Pharisees. And we come to realize that most of us fall into one or the other of these categories. And the extra-good news is that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Many of us are skilled enough that we can be both, sometimes at the same time.

You know, I love Luke’s Gospel. As I read it, I can’t wait to find out who Jesus is going to spend his time with next: blind people, the lame, lepers, Gentiles, Roman soldiers and prostitutes. It’s like he went around, looking for people no one else liked, people no one with good sense would pay any attention to, misfits and scoundrels. It’s like he didn’t care what other people thought about him. And just in case you missed that observation, Luke tells us at the end of the story that Jesus went and passed his time with people who had been possessed of evil spirits and diseases.

Jesus has a habit of doing this kind of thing. Whenever we draw a line in the sand and say “on this side of the line is where God happens,” Jesus walks across that line. And then, he hops back over to the other side, and then, he hops back. That’s especially true when people try to tell Jesus who is worthy of God’s love.

So, we have this woman, this woman of the city, this sinner. She’s the kind of woman most people avert their eyes from when they encounter her. She’s the kind of woman most people try to ignore. She has the invisibility of the forgotten. And Jesus has to ask the Pharisee Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

That’s just the kind of guy Jesus is. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once observed, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

And then, we have the story about a second kind of person, this Pharisee Simon. And the Pharisees weren’t bad people; they really weren’t. They wanted to get closer to God. They wanted to lead holy lives, and they wanted everyone else to lead holy lives, too. And they had one superpower: they were really good at looking at other people (including Jesus) and telling them what they were doing wrong. Just like Simon, who was convinced Jesus wasn’t really God’s messenger because Jesus apparently didn’t know what kind of woman this was. And Simon was disgusted by this scene, particularly by this woman’s touch. Jesus should have known what kind of woman this was touching him.

The Gospels portray the Pharisees as suffering from the sin of self-righteousness, which from a moral perspective isn’t necessarily worse than other sorts of sins. But the problem is, self-righteousness operates like a kind of spiritual cataract, clouding our vision of our own shortcomings. And that’s the problem from which this Pharisee Simon suffers. Simon is frozen is a wilderness of self-assured piety. And we might wonder, along with Lady Violet of Downton Abbey, “Does it ever get cold there on the moral high ground?”

You know, this Gospel reading reminds me of an old story I heard about a church not too far from here. We’ll call it St. Episcolopolis. And like us, it was a downtown church and they had a large homeless population in the area. And the rector convinced the vestry that they should begin feeding the homeless people around the church. So they did, and everything went swimmingly, until one week the rector invited all these homeless people to come to church after breakfast. And they came.

Well, the next vestry meeting, the senior warden spoke up. He said, “You know, Father, it was all well and good when you told us to feed these people. I mean, that’s what Jesus wanted us to do, and we’re okay with that. But when you invited them to church, well, I mean, I’m not sure they fit in well here. Some of them smell real bad, and they sit there and talk to themselves during the service. I think, Father, you’ve gone too far.”

And the Rector looked at his vestry, and noticed that they were all in agreement. And then he looked down and said, “I’m sorry. Maybe I did try and move too fast. You know, I was just trying to save a few souls.” And the room fell quiet and then the senior warden spoke up. “Father, I suppose you’re right. We didn’t really think about your efforts to save their souls.” And the priest said, “Oh, I wasn’t talking about them.”

So, in today’s Gospel, I think we learn about two other kinds of people. We learn about Jesus, who is always ready to give people a new start. We learn about his habit of looking around for those outside the circle of holiness, looking around the misfits.

And we learn about this woman, who loves him and knows that she needs what he has to offer, a woman whose tears bathe his feet. It’s an intimate event; in fact, it’s scandalous. I’ve often wondered about her: about this woman who found the courage to go into a house where she wasn’t welcome, about the source of those tears. Was she crying because she came to realize the cost of all those years she’d spent in her former life—a life of sin, doing degrading things she knew separated her from God, a life of pain, and humiliation? Or was she crying because she’d found something new in this man called Jesus, and wept for joy knowing she didn’t have to live that way anymore.

She must have been a rare woman—a woman with the courage to say “no” to the people who would push her aside, a woman willing to endure the sneers and shame of those who said she was too dirty, a woman willing to bear the laughter of those who would not accept her or this intimate expression of love for this man Jesus. She was profoundly….human. She was a woman whose courage told her that there was room for her at this table.
And she found that there was another way to walk through the world—a way that St. Paul describes: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This was woman who knew, somewhere in her heart, that love is always a terrible, scandalous risk. It is my hope, my prayer, that when we come to this table in a few minutes that we take that risk and that we find that new life. It is my prayer that we find that a faith that saves us, and that we go in peace. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

Mary and Elizabeth

aThe full readings for today can be found here.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Luke 1:39-55.

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

          I have a sneaking suspicion most of you know what I’m going to preach about this morning, but before I get there, there’s something I need to say. It’s kind of sad, but there are no words in the English language to express how grateful I am to this good parish for your warm welcome and loving care these past few weeks. I have been coming here for several years, and am always filled with a startling, wild, staggering gratitude for your hospitality.

          I know it’s a little early, but I thought I’d tell you a Christmas story this morning. It was about 48 years ago, and I was back with my family on Melody Lane one Christmas morning. And I don’t remember what it was, but I was disappointed with something I didn’t get among my Christmas gifts. And one of my brothers must have joined me in the muttering, because my mother packed all four of us, four little boys with burr haircuts, into the car and we went for a drive.

          We drove through Odessa, past the bad side of town, all the way to the Ranchito, where the poorest of the poor lived. And my brothers and I stared at the places those good people called home: cardboard boxes and plywood covered in black plastic to keep the rain out and dwellings made out of what we’d call garbage. And my mother didn’t say a word, but I understood perfectly. And I was ashamed of myself. It’s 48 years later, and I’m still ashamed of myself. I’ll circle back to that in just a bit.

          So, on this final Sunday of Advent, the Church offers us this wonderful Gospel story of two Jewish women meeting in a town in Judea. We’re told they were cousins, although Elizabeth was much older than Mary, who was probably not much more than a girl. Each of them knew shame and disgrace. Elizabeth had been without a child for a long time, and in that culture that was a humiliating thing. Mary was an unwed mother, and in that time, that was not only a shameful thing: it was the kind of thing that could get a girl killed.

          And, as they met, there was a moment of recognition: recognizing someone both familiar and yet wonderfully strange. Elizabeth recognizes Mary (her own people would have called her Miriam) and yet calls her “the mother of my Lord.” Now, in the Hebrew, that would be Adonai, the word commonly used to refer to God. So, Elizabeth recognizes Mary, and yet there’s something unusual: she calls her the Mother of God. And even the unborn child Elizabeth carries, who will grow up to be John the Baptist, knows that something wonderful is coming; something wonderful has already happened.

      But whenever I hear this story, I’ve always imagined the two of them giggling as they meet each other. First, I suspect they were laughing because they loved each other and it had probably been a while since they had been together. And secondly, because they were both with child, and neither of them was supposed to be.

          Scripture teaches that Mary was a virgin: and virgins just don’t get pregnant. Elizabeth was an old woman, well past child bearing years. And yet, here they were. If we go back through the Bible, that’s just the kind of thing that God does: he creates life where there isn’t any. He did it in Genesis, in our story of creation, created life out of nothing. God did for Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was too old to have Isaac. He did for the mother of Samson, who was also childless. He did for Hannah, who was desperately barren until God intervened and she bore Samuel. And He did it again with Mary the Virgin and Elizabeth, an old woman. And in one sense, He does it again in the stories of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.

          If we listen to Scripture, we find God creating life all over the place where there isn’t any: in old women, in the barren places, where there is nothing but death. We find God creating life so often and in so many places that we might come to the conclusion that that’s His business: making new life.

          But the Gospel lesson today teaches us something else about God’s business. In the song of Mary, which we sometimes call the Magnificat, we hear Mary erupt into a song of hope. She sings about what’s coming into the world: overturning a system of violence and oppression and corruption and replacing them with mercy and justice and love. And if we hear this song of Mary as revolutionary, as radical, I don’t think we miss the mark. She announces that Jesus is coming into the world to challenge the structures of sin and death and oppression and fear. It is a song of defiant resistance, the song of a militant refusal to accept the way things are. Mary is so filled with hope that she sings as though all these things have already happened.

          If we read the story of the Exodus or the prophets and their concern with justice for the weak and the forgotten, or the story of the birth of Jesus, or almost any story about Jesus’ ministry, we begin to get the sense that that’s also part of God’s business. And if God is so desperately concerned with the lives of those the world has forgotten (the weak, the poor, the powerless), then I think we had better be concerned with their lives as well. If we really want to call ourselves Christians, I think we had better join God in the business of hope. Because I don’t think God is looking for a Church full of cheerleaders to sit on the sidelines and yell, “Yay, God.” I think God is looking for collaborators, partners in the business of hope.

          And that’s just one of the reasons I love the season of Advent. It is the season of hope: longing for a better world; hope of a world without fear; hope that God will dwell with us—in our lives and in our hearts. Christmas is about joy, and I’m a big fan of joy, but Advent teaches us the virtue of hope. And it offers that hope to those the world has forgotten, those on the margins: those people like these two Jewish women who were nobodies from nowhere. And yet God chose them to announce that he was breaking into this world and would walk among us. He chose these two Jewish women who hoped…against hope.

          We live in a world suffering from “compassion fatigue,” a world where hope has become a very rare commodity, where cynicism has become our currency. We live in a world where almost 13% of the globe’s population is hungry, and 3 ½ million children die of hunger every year. We live in a world where children are forced to become soldiers and are trained as killers in 20 countries around the world. We live in a world where every 30 seconds someone loses their freedom and finds themselves enslaved in the business of human trafficking. And together with the Psalmist, we wonder: “How long, oh Lord?” How long is this going to go on? And we are brokenhearted. And we are ground down. And we begin, bit by bit, to lose hope.

          George Santayana once observed, the world “has music for those who listen.” Somehow, from above the struggle and the pain, we can here that music sometimes. And I think Mary has a music for those who listen: she sings a song pregnant with promise, with new life, a song of God’s presence with us. Mary sings a song for those good people who live outside Odessa in the Ranchito, for those living in refugee camps, those in Detroit and in the Sudan, and for those good people who live on the outskirts of Dripping Springs.

          And so, it is my Advent prayer that we will all, like Mary, be ready to carry the Christ child into a world that is dying of hopelessness. It is my Advent prayer that we will lead lives filled with expectation, lives which announce to the world: Emmanuel, God is with us. That was Mary’s prayer, and I hope it’s ours, too. But the real measure of our prayer comes in how we act and the kind of lives we lead, after we say “Amen.”

Amen.

 

Advent Study, Part II

My friends,

Here’s the link to the second week  of the Advent study. Again, there are both audio files and a PowerPoint presentation. Hope you find it useful.

http://christianformation-dwtx.org/middle-content-block-middle/mary-the-mother-of-god-overview/mary-mother-of-god-session-2/

God’s peace,

Br. James

a

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

blind_bartimaeus_arminian_225h

This homily was preached at Chapter, the annual gathering of Anglican Dominicans, on Friday, August 14, 2015.

The text for this sermon can be found here:

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

Good morning, my brothers and sisters, good morning.  As the Psalmist says, how good it is when the brothers and sisters live together in unity. Well, close enough. And we come together this morning and find ourselves compelled to confront this text, this story of a blind man named Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. And I want us to try and view this story, and perhaps the readings today, in the light of our own vocations as Dominicans, our vocation as followers of St. Dominic and Jesus.

Jesus finds Bartimaeus  in Jericho, a city where walls come down, a city that resonates with the deliverance of Israel and the promises of God.  And all we know about Bartimaeus at the outset of the story is that he is blind, and he is a beggar. He is, as the Psalmist writes, “like an owl among the ruins.” But to be blind in those days didn’t just mean to be handicapped. Blindness was much more than an impediment. Blindness was a mark of being unclean, of being impure. Blindness meant that you would be ostracized from both God and his people.  So, blindness carried with it a spiritual separation as well as a physical impairment.

And Mark often uses blindness to connote a spiritual impairment, an inability to see what’s going on around you. He contrasts those who are physically blind with those who are blind to the reality of Jesus. And that’s a theme carried forward in this Gospel reading today.

It is much the same notion that we find in one of the Church’s favorite hymns, which tells the story of John Newton, a slave trader who awakened to his participation in the industry of sin and bondage. Newton wrote, “I once was lost, but now I’m found; I was blind, but now I see.”

Hold that thought for a moment, while we meander back through the readings for today and look at the story of St. Paul in Acts. Paul tells us that in his former life he was “zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison….”  He tells us that on the way to Damascus to engage in further persecutions of the early Church, he was confronted by a great light and the voice of Christ accused him of persecuting Jesus.  And Paul was struck blind and could not see until Ananias spoke the word to him, because Paul had a special mission to see the Righteous One and bear witness. The confrontation with the light of Christ required Paul to set aside all that he thought he knew about God, joining those who trod the Way. So Paul, like John Newton, who had acted as an instrument of cruelty, bondage and spiritual blindness himself, found his way out of his own darkness only through the light of Christ.

So, let’s get back to the story of Bartimaeus the beggar sitting by the road. When he hears that Jesus is there, he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In his opening address, Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as God’s Messiah. In some ways, Bartimaeus reminds me a bit of my spiritual director, a retired Bishop. He often says of his own ministry, “I’m  just a beggar myself, trying to show the other beggars where they keep the bread.” We don’t know how, but somehow Bartimaeus knew where the bread of life was.

If Jesus came to the world as part of God’s self-revelation, if he was God’s way of telling us “This is what I am like” then what do we make of the humble life He lived. This is a notion sometimes referred to as The Poverty of God. Bartimaeus could see the divine life in Jesus. But I think we should ask whether we can see the divine in the life of Bartimaeus. Because, as St. John Chrysostrom said, “If you cannot find God in the beggar on the street, you will never find him in the chalice.”

And Jesus asks him a really important question. He asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus was able to minister to this blind beggar because of two important factors: he cared, and he took the time to find out what the problem was. Too often, I think our fumbling efforts to fulfill the Christian life look like the missionary who shows up at a burning house with a stack of bibles, or the evangelist who goes to a land of famine with a handful of crucifixes. That’s all pretty, and interesting, but it’s not exactly what they need.

As Dominicans we are called to meet the needs of God’s world and God’s children, proclaiming and preaching the good news of God’s love. This world can be a very dark place. There are 60 million refugees in the world today, displaced by war and human hatred. In America alone, 5 million people suffer from Alzheimers. Worldwide, 3.5 million children die from hunger each year.  We daily confront the horror of war, of genocide, of one natural disaster after another. Joseph Stalin once famously said that one death was a tragedy, but a million deaths were a statistic. We live in a world where pain and misery have been reduced to a statistic.

And this world groans, not only in pain, but also in exhaustion. Many people, many good people, suffer from compassion fatigue. They just don’t feel up to the challenge of another crisis, another story of misery in a very long collection of such stories. And yet, there is this blind beggar on the road. Lord, let us see him.

I want to suggest to you that on that day in Jericho, it was Bartimaeus who heard the same call we have heard: to proclaim and preach the rightful place of Jesus in the world and in God’s kingdom. Lord, let us listen to his message. Lord, let us hear and heed the call, as Dominicans, to testify to the light in a world that wanders in darkness. Amen.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Oh My Son Absalom

absalom

The readings for this morning can be found here:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

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

          It was 49 years ago, almost to the day, back in my hometown of Odessa. It was my birthday, and my parents had given me a Gilbert chemistry set. (To this day, I still don’t know what they were thinking about.) And in that chemistry set was the formula for a certain explosive. But the chemicals were in little tiny plastic vials, and I knew I couldn’t do much with that. So I strolled down to the drugstore with my birthday money and I bought a pound of each of the ingredients of this compound.

          Then I walked into our kitchen and asked my mother if I could borrow one of her pots. When she asked what for, I answered: “a science experiment.” She beamed with pride as she handed me a copper-bottomed Revere ware pot. The effort to further my education was working. And I mixed the three chemicals together, and made a long fuse, and placed the pot underneath my tree house and sought shelter behind our home.

          Later that afternoon, after the fire trucks left, my father asked me, “Son, I just want to know what was on your mind?” And I tried to keep from crying as I told him that I didn’t know that it would work. Now, my father was a man with a great capacity for wrath. And he visibly shook as he tried to control himself and gave me a bit of advice, advice that he would repeat several times during my life. He said, “James, the process of elimination is no way to live your life.”

          Now, I was not in open revolt against my father…not yet. That would come years later, during the years my parents would refer to as “the intifada.” But I’m sure my father understood how David felt when his son took up arms against him.

          You know, sometimes, I hear people say that what’s wrong with this country, or this time, or this world is that we need to return to old-fashioned biblical family values. And I wonder whether they’re thinking about King David, and about his family, or exactly what they have on their minds.

But before we get to the text for this morning, it’s worth thinking about the back-story concerning King David. David was a young man when God called him out to succeed Saul, the first king of Israel. He was a shepherd, a good looking boy. He was a poet and a musician, and a fierce warrior who killed a giant named Goliath. He was the pride of the land and a just king who united the people of Israel. And when things were good, they were very good until….until they weren’t good anymore.

          You may recall that later on David committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and then a whole bunch of trouble began. Bathsheba’s husband was a man named Uriah, one of David’s soldiers. And when Bathsheba got pregnant, you’ll remember that David sent Uriah into battle to be sure that he’d be killed so David could take Bathsheba for his wife.

I think one of the things we learn from this story is that sin works a little like the science of forensics, particularly bullet wounds. As the bullet enters the body, the wound is often small and sometimes almost imperceptible. But as it travels through our lives, it tears through bone and tissue and flattens, and the exit wound is often much, much larger. Sin works like that: we cannot imagine the consequences for ourselves or for those we love. It was like that with David.

          So God sent his prophet Nathan to have a chat with David. And Nathan told him the consequences of what he’d done. Nathan said, “the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house….”

          Now that doesn’t end the family troubles for David. Not by a long shot. You see, his oldest son was a boy named Amnon.  Amnon raped his half-sister, a girl named Tamar. Her brother, Absalom, was David’s favorite son. But when David did nothing to punish Amnon, Absalom took matters into his own hands. He apparently believed in that old proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold, and he brooded and waited two years before setting a trap and having his servants kill Amnon at a feast.

          And after a few years in exile, and a few more years of a cold silence, Absalom lead a revolt against his father, against the King, against God’s chosen servant. So, as far as family values go, neither Paris Hilton, the Kennedys, the Jackson family, nor the Kardashians had anything on King David. Or, as Elvis Costello said, “There’s no such thing as an original sin.”

          The text this morning begins as David’s armies are prepared to smash the armies of his son, Absalom. And we hear tenderness in David’s voice as he asks his generals to deal gently with the man, Absalom. Now, notice that at this point, David calls him “the man” rather than “my son.” I suspect David felt a little conflict between his competing roles as king and father. I suspect that some of us here may have felt that conflict between our roles as father and salesman, or mother and doctor, or mother and priest. My friend Rabbi David Wolpe has observed that many times during this story of David and his son, we find not so much a lack of love as a refusal to love. Often David seems frozen, monstrous in his distance from his sons and daughters. He has riven an icy separation between himself and his children.

          And as the battle progresses, we find Absalom in a wooded area, in a forest, riding on a mule. And his head gets caught in the trees, and the text tells us that he was left hanging between heaven and earth. Hanging between heaven and earth. And every time I read that passage, I think of another son (this time, an obedient son) who also hung between heaven and earth. That son, our Lord Jesus, hung there not because of his rebellion, but because of ours.

          And then, despite David’s plea to the contrary, his soldiers surround Absalom and kill him. And when David hears of his son’s death, a death he had no small part in, he cries, “Oh my son, Absalom. Would that I could have died in your place.” Now, David had a complicated relationship with his favorite son. He sort of vacillated between spoiling him rotten and raking him over the coals. And the Bible tells us that Absalom was a beautiful boy, that he was “without blemish.” If we read scripture carefully, we’ll note that great beauty is almost always a bellwether of great trouble.

          You see, in one sense, I think we’re all Absalom. We’re all ungrateful children, all rebellious children. And in another sense, we’re all David. We’re all paralyzed by the consequences of our sins, watching them uncoil like snakes before us. We’re all frozen and withholding forgiveness, all demanding retribution rather than rushing toward reconciliation. This isn’t just the story of David and Absalom: this is our story.

          And David cries that if could have suffered these consequences instead of his son, he would gladly have done so. And there’s something deeply heartbreaking about that moment, when David should be celebrating his victory as king but is instead forced to confront his failure as a father, and as a man. I suspect every parent has felt that heartache. But David is telling us that he would have done this boy’s dying for him. But we know that even David, even a King, can’t do that.

          Only the living God can do that, dying for us, his son dying in our place so that we would live and have abundant life. It is that God who shows us a way out of rebellion, who rushes toward us in reconciliation. It is that God who calls us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” It is that God who calls to us, “Come to me.” It is that God who promises us that if we eat the bread of life, we will live forever. It is that God who invites us to this table. So take, and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

The Bread of Life

Bread of Life

The readings for today can be found here:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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

You know, we people, we the people of God, have a funny relationship with food. We have a biblical relationship with food. And it goes back a long, long way. When we were expelled from the garden of Eden, it was because we wanted to eat the food that God had not blessed for our use. Reaching far back into the Bible, both human and divine covenants were sealed with a ritual meal. The principle Old Testament story of deliverance, the Exodus, is celebrated in the ritual meal of the Passover.

Some of us really like to eat, some of us can’t stand to eat, and some of us are eating ourselves to death.  And when we don’t eat, even at the cellular level, our body sends us a message: “We are dying here.” Remember back in the book of Genesis, when Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright? Essau comes in from working in the field, and smells the red stew his brother has prepared.  He is famished and says, “I am dying.”

I have a confession to make to you. And it’s something of which I’m not very proud. I have never been hungry in my life. Oh sure, there’ve been moments when I wanted to eat. But there was always food there. Even when I’ve fasted for a day or so, there’s always been food there. I may have abstained from eating for a while, but I’ve never been more than a few steps away from a meal.

It was not so in Jesus’ time for most people. Most people not only knew real hunger; it was their constant companion. That’s what it means to live in a subsistence economy—never being more than a meal or two away from serious trouble. And that’s why the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of Jesus healing and teaching there had such a powerful appeal to the earliest Christians. And thus, all four gospel writers included that story in their attempts to explain who Jesus was. For people who lived their lives plagued by hunger, that’s a big deal. That’s…well, that’s dinner and a show. And today’s gospel takes place right after the feeding of the multitudes.

I have another confession to make to you. I think John’s gospel may well be my favorite among the four gospels. It’s the most poetic, it’s the most philosophical, and it’s the richest, with one layer of meaning piled onto another. And in John’s gospel, the conversation is never really about what the conversation is about.

So, when John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus and this woman have a conversation about water, but it’s not. And today, although the conversation is about bread, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. In today’s Gospel, as in last week’s, we find the people looking for Jesus. And I think many of us today are still looking for him. We look for him to come down and stop all this nonsense. We look for him to stop the church burnings, stop us from treating this fragile planet like a toilet, stop the demonizing of the poor. Lord, when are you going to stop us from shooting the lions? When are you going to stop us from shooting the people? And we wonder, “Lord, where are you?” And just like us, the people in this gospel have a lot of questions.

A good deal of today’s reading is about questions and answers. And often, the question Jesus answers is not the question they asked. I don’t think that arises because Jesus didn’t understand them. I think they, like us, were often asking the wrong questions. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and the people are still struggling to figure out what all this means. But as they ask questions, and Jesus answers, we get the feeling they aren’t really talking about the same thing.

For example, the people ask Jesus when he crossed the sea, when he got there. Jesus answers them, kind of. He says, you’re not looking for me because you saw signs of the Kingdom of God, but because you ate your fill of food. They’re following Jesus, but he invites them to examine why they’re doing that. He invites them to examine their motives. It calls to mind something the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral about the perpetual shortcoming of us religious people: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Jesus tells them, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that will endure forever.” I think we all spend a lot of our time working for the food that perishes. We work to pay for houses that will crumble, cars that will rust, clothes that will be packed away or thrown out. Like that crowd, we want security. Maybe that’s what we expect from our religion, too. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is offering us. How much of our work do we devote to eternity, to the life of the Spirit which we received at baptism?

And so the people want to know, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Again, Jesus’ answer suggests a conversational near-miss. He tells them, God’s work consists in believing in the one God sent. In other words, it’s not so much about what you have to do, it’s more about who you trust, who you’re willing to become.

And so, the people ask for a sign: if we’re going to believe in you, you need to show us a sign that you’re the one God sent. Now, it’s worth putting this request in context. By this point, Jesus has already changed the water into wine in Cana, healed a boy in Capernaum, healed a lame man at the pool near the Sheep Gate, fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and walked across the sea in a storm. We might wonder, “Exactly what kind of a sign are you looking for?” In John’s gospel, the signs largely go unseen. But that’s part of the richness of this gospel: people watch what Jesus is doing, but they don’t have any idea what it means. They look, but they don’t understand—they don’t really see.

And then the people suggest, you know, we’re looking for a real sign, something like Moses did. And Jesus reminds them about the manna in the desert: Moses didn’t do that at all. That came from God. Jesus tells them, “It is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Everything we are, everything we have: it all comes from God. And until we get that, we’re never really going to understand Jesus.

Because then, just like now, the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And Jesus isn’t really talking about bread here at all. I don’t think we can understand this passage without reading it along with the 4th chapter of John.  You remember, the Samaritan woman who has a talk with Jesus about the water in the well.

And Jesus tells her, if you drink that, you’ll just be thirsty again later.  But he offers her something else, something  called “living water,” and says  “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

And remember what she says? She says “Sir, give me this water.” So, when Jesus tells the people in today’s gospel that the bread of God gives life to the world what do the people respond? “Sir, give us this bread always.” But, something tells me they still don’t get it. Something tells me they still want that bread they had up on the mountaintop. They might want the bread, and think he can give them the bread, but they’re not ready to accept that he is the bread.

Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life.” And when he says that, it resonates with the echo of the God who told Moses, I am who I am. Just like that crowd that day, we might question why we’re seeking Jesus. What are we looking for? In what ways are we just using Jesus, rather than getting to know him and learning to love him. The Jesus of today’s gospel is a gift from God that offers us new life.

Too often, we live for security: the comfort of a full belly and a wallet flush with cash. But there’s another way to live, in which we turn toward a real home, a place to abide. The living God is the only response to our souls, which are not just a little peckish, not just hollow, not just hungry, but are starving for new way to live. There is a way to live that looks beyond wealth and power and taking care of ourselves. It’s amazing how many people have climbed to the top of that heap and found it to be profoundly empty. If we let him, God will take this emptiness and fill our lives. There is a way to live that values two things above all else: loving God and loving his children. That way lies life, and life in abundance.

There is a way to live that sets asides our own concerns and looks to the needs of others and the needs of the world. That was the way of Jesus, the way he taught. And if we share in that life, we have a real communion with our Lord. Then, we will find a real, holy communion.

So, when we’re called up to this altar in just a few moments, take and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

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