Tag Archives: Church

There’s Going to Be Trouble


The full readings for today can be found here.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

Thoughts On the Church

We are “peculiar”.   We have chosen not to go with the majority.  We shall pray and reflect on the life of Christ:  most people don’t do this.  We shall worship and receive God’s gifts in His sacraments: most people don’t do this.  We shall be in a minority: we shall be odd. There will be no danger for us in that, as long as we don’t begin actually to like being odd.  We can see there, of course, the danger of wanting to withdraw into the small group of like-minded people, and to build the barricades to keep out those who are not sufficiently odd in our variety of oddness.  That is the way to create sects and divisions, in which each is sure of his own chosenness and pours scorn on that of the others.  In fact, we have to find a balance.  It is our faith that God loves all, and all to Him are welcome.  But there has probably never been a time in history when the majority of people were seriously seeking Him.
–Kate Tristam

I ran across this passage in Celtic Daily Prayer.  The author, Kate Tristam, was one of the first ordained women in the Anglican Church. She was the Deaconess of the Church on the island of Lindisfarne, one of the earliest Christian monastic communities  in the British isles.  (St. Aidan founded the monastery there in about 635 A.D.)

I think this passage contains two terribly important messages for the Church.  First, the Church must, of necessity, seem “odd” to the world.  Our values are not the same as the values of the world.  The Church values prayer, contemplation, and spiritual growth.  The world values power, and wealth, success. The world calls for clarity and certainty ; our faith calls us into mystery. Thus, St. Paul cautioned, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Romans 12:2.

The Church’s message must always remain counter-cultural.  Ever since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (in 380 A.D.), the Church has struggled with the lure of culture. The problem wasn’t that the Empire began to take on the attributes of Christianity; the problem was that the Church began to look a lot like the Empire.

Our church’s must recover their focus on spiritual growth and discipleship, rather than budgets and average Sunday attendance. The world compels us toward comfort; Christianity pushes us toward change.  The world calls us to love those who are good or kind or pretty; Christ calls us to love those who do evil, those who are cruel, and those who are scarred. Thus, C.W. Lewis wrote, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly wouldn’t recommend Christianity.” Conversely, when we’re feeling really very much at ease in our churches, and when our churches are feeling really comfortable with themselves, we need to question just how authentically Christian they are.

The passage then offers us another  admonition.  Amma Tristam cautions us against withdrawing into “small group of like-minded people, and to build the barricades to keep out those who are not sufficiently odd in our variety of oddness.” In other words, she rightly warns us against the schismatic impulse, teaching about the danger of dividing into ever-smaller groups until our churches become echo chambers where the only voice we can hear is our own.

The Church must constantly welcome new voices, new insights, and thus the ancient virtue of hospitality becomes so critical.  We need the constant reminder that our idea of sanctification, of holiness, does not offer the exclusive path to God.  The Spirit works through us, but can work through those who differ from us, too.  Here, we learn the virtues of patience and forbearance.

I welcome this wisdom, and hope you do, too.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Remade in the Likeness of the Son

We were made “in the likeness of God.”  But in course of time that image has become obscured, like a  face on a very old portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to  renew it is for the subject to come back to the studio and sit  for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came–to make  it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were  made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his  Son.

To bring about this re-creation, Christ still  comes to men and lives among them. In a special way he comes  to his Church, his “body”, to show us what the “image  of God” is really like.

What a responsibility the Church has, to be  Christ’s “body,” showing him to those who are unwilling  or unable to see him in providence, or in creation! Through the  Word of God lived out in the Body of Christ they can come to  the Father, and themselves be made again “in the likeness  of God.”

Last week we celebrated the feast day of St. Athanasius, who lived from around 296 A.D. until 373.  He was the 20th bishop of Alexandria, which was a center of the Christian faith at that time.  He fought against the Arian heresy, which suggested that God the Father created the Son (and thus called into question the co-equality of the Trinity) .

Athanasius defended traditional trinitarian doctrine even when it required him to stand against other powerful bishops and two emperors.  For a good while, he lived in exile, fleeing to seek shelter for a time with the Desert Fathers.  His steadfast devotion to the Trinity despite political and religious opposition led to his nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum (Athanasius Against the World).  The Roman Catholic Church considers him one of the four great Doctors of the Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church regards him as one of the Great Doctors also.

In the quotations above, St. Athanasius reminds us that although we were created in God’s image, that likeness had become marred over time.  (I find this formulation much more sound, and more palatable than Calvin’s notion that we had fallen into “total depravity”.)  He then suggests that the Incarnation of Jesus became necessary because we had strayed so far from God’s original likeness.  God sent his Son, he argues, to restore creation to His original intent.

But Athanasius argues the Incarnation didn’t end two thousand years ago, in fact he teaches that it hasn’t ended yet.  He says, “To bring about this re-creation, Christ still  comes to men and lives among them.”  In prayer, in the eucharist, and in our love for each other, we still encounter the Living Christ.  C.S. Lewis echoed this view when he wrote, “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.”  Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God calls his creation back to Himself.  I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when He talked about His sheep, who know His voice.

Athanasius then recognizes the wonderful and terrible burden on the Church.  As the mystical body of Christ, the Church must make the Incarnate Christ visible to a troubled world.  The Church must reveal Jesus and the Father to those who are “unwilling or unable” to recognize them otherwise.  By drawing everyone to the Father and the Son (through the power of the Spirit), the Church participates in the re-creation of the world.  Heaven help us if we’re not doing that.  Heaven help us indeed.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis