Tag Archives: discipleship

How Can These Things Be?

The full readings for this Sunday can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

 

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

Setting Our Faces to Go to Jerusalem

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When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:51-62.

The full readings for today can be found here.

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

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

Good morning. It’s good to be back at Holy Spirit, my spiritual second home.

Several years ago, my mother lay in our home dying. Her cancer had overcome her, and she was in hospice care. Despite the morphine, she could not stand to be touched. And when it came time to give her a sponge bath, she would scream as though the demons of hell themselves were tormenting her. None of us could bear to bathe her, with the exception of my youngest brother Sean, who was terminally himself. And my other brothers and I would go outside because we could not stand to hear my mother cry like that.

But Sean Michael knew it had to be done. There was hard work, a painful task, but it needed doing, and he was going to take care of my mother. And my brother Sean set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Years later, I began working in a ministry with people who are terminal and their families. I have spent a lot of time in oncology wards. And the thing about that sort of ministry is, you have to be prepared to have your heart broken every six months or so.

And I have a confession to make. I’m really not good at it. It’s hard and it’s painful, and I try to stumble and stutter my way through these really heartbreaking moments. Because the people I have come to love are going to die, and I can’t really help them, other than go on this final walk with them. And every time I walk onto an oncology ward or an ICU, I try to set my face to Jerusalem.

Following Jesus can be terribly hard, and when I look at my own circuitous, halting walk of faith, I come to realize that I have let Him down too often. When I look at my own life, I remind myself of the Civil War General George Steadman. Steadman spoke to his Confederate troops just before the battle of Second Manassas, also known as Bull Run. General Steadman apparently had a reasonably good idea as to the outcome of the battle. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I want you to fight vigorously and then run for your lives. As I am a bit lame, I’m going to begin running now.” Sometimes, when I’m called to follow Jesus, I just want to start running.

 So, this morning, we have this passage, this hard passage from Luke’s gospel. It’s the kind of reading that keeps me awake at night.

By the time we get to this part of the story, Jesus has already had a number of discussions with His disciples. He’s warned them that he’s going to Jerusalem, and will suffer there. They’ve seen him with Moses and Elijah, seen Him transfigured, and probably can’t imagine the horror that’s coming. And now, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. You may remember the suffering servant in the book of the prophet Isaiah, who sets his face “like flint.”  Whenever I hear that phrase, I think of a stony determination to do the work He came to do, of a steel-eyed Jesus, Jesus with a thousand yard stare, fixed on the walk that would lead to our salvation.

The Jesus of today’s Gospel seems a little impatient. He doesn’t seem to have time to deal with a perceived slight from the Samaritans, and declines the disciple’s recommendation that they call down a consuming fire on them. Happily, even with His intent fixed on Jerusalem, Jesus declined the suggestion that his disciples burn these people alive.

We find Jesus today on the move. He has no intention of taking a break or settling down, and so he tells us that foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that even the animals and birds have a home in this world, but he doesn’t and neither do those who want to follow Him. One of the things we often find is that while we want to follow Jesus, we also want to stay where we are. Following Jesus means that we, too, will be on the move. It sometimes means waiting to see where Jesus is going, and then scrambling to catch up with Him.

And even in this moment, Jesus wants to be sure that his disciples understand what it means to follow him. There’s an old Jewish saying from the rabbinic tradition: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It meant may you follow your rabbi, your teacher, so closely that the dust he leaves behind falls upon you. Jesus wants to tell us just how costly that dust can be.

We get a taste for that kind of discipleship in the Old Testament reading for today in the story of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah, the quintessential Old Testament prophet, has been hounded by the king and queen. They have sought his life. And as he walks toward the end of his life, he tells his disciple Elisha to stay behind. But Elisha continually responds, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” When asked what he wants, Elisha wants nothing more than a double measure of the spirit of his teacher, his rabbi Elijah. And when Elijah is taken up into the clouds, Elisha takes up his mantle and continues his rabbi’s journey. That’s what it looks like to be covered in the dust of your rabbi.

Jesus explains the price of our discipleship. And one of the things we may have to do is let go of our former lives. He tells us that no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. If you’ve ever plowed a field, you know that you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight. If you look backward, you will swerve one way or another. And when I hear this story, I can’t help but think about the story of Lot’s wife, who disobeyed God and looked back at her past life rather than the life God had prepared for her.

The Christian life can be so difficult. It’s not all kittens and unicorns and rainbows and glitter. Sometimes, it requires us to set our face toward Jerusalem, and walk in the way of the cross. In his wonderful work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of following Jesus. He said, this “grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Jesus understands that we follow Him, if at all, at a price. And there is little time to waste. Jesus doesn’t even seem to make time for a man to go and bury his father. There were few, if any, rules more important than attending to the burial of a parent in the ancient world, and in particular, in the Jewish world. By telling this man to “let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus seems particularly dismissive and perhaps insensitive.

Now, I’m not sure this really happened. Rather, I think Luke is trying to tell us that there’s always something that we need to do before we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem. It’s worth noting that two of those men say they’re willing to follow Jesus, and both use the same phrase: “but first.” And if you’ve ever been caught there, you know that those things you have to do before you follow Jesus have a way of multiplying. We have family obligations, work obligations, social obligations, and they always interfere with following Jesus.

“Let me do this one thing, Lord, and then I’ll get right back with you.” But the Jesus of today’s Gospel is telling us that every single moment matters, and there’s not a moment to waste if we want to walk with Jesus. There is an urgency about this walk.

Today, the Gospel gives us a hard passage. This isn’t the squishy, cuddly Jesus we sometimes want to remember. No, this passage is about a Jesus who is determined to walk toward our salvation. It is a hard love: as hard as the wood of the cross and this love bores into us like the nails that bound Him to that cross. This Jesus tells us to put the kingdom of God first, and worry about the other stuff later. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you.” None of us are strong enough to walk this way alone, but if you will walk with me, I will walk with you.

          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

 

Let It Be

Annunciation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In the name of the living God: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          She was just a little Jewish girl, not from a particularly important family. Not especially well-educated, almost certainly not wealthy in any sense to which anyone would pay attention. And she didn’t live in an important place, or hang around with the “important” people. She was just a teenage girl, living on the corner of a dead end street, in an occupied country at the outer edge of the Roman empire. She came from Nowheresville, and she was a nobody.

          In this final week of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on something miraculous: a virgin being pregnant, God becoming human, the infinite becoming finite. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, this is the sort of thing that God’s been doing all along: creating life where there was nothing: women too old to give birth (like Sarah and Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), life springing up where there where it was barren, where it was dead.

          The angel tells Mary that she is favored by God, that she is full of grace. This nobody, this teenage girl on the edge of nowhere, mattered to God. And the angel Gabriel called her “full of grace.”  You see, Mary found a place where all of her, and all of God, could dwell. A place deep within her life where her life and God’s life would be joined together in a bond that neither time nor trouble could ever break. Love was coming to dwell in her: to make a home there, to abide there. And I wonder if we can hear Gabriel saying that to us, telling us that we are also favored. God chose a very ordinary girl, in a very ordinary place, because God sees the grace in ordinary people and ordinary places. For all of us, that’s got to be good news.

          And there’s something remarkable about God coming to dwell among us, making an appearance, not on a fiery chariot or with bolts of lightning descending in some really cool special effects, but coming to us as a baby. Babies offer the bright, shining hope of something new, something full of promise, something noisy. And most importantly, something vulnerable. And Mary, in that moment, was remarkably vulnerable. Because you see, in first century Palestine, being an unwed mother wasn’t just something a little embarrassing, a little shameful. That was the kind of thing that could get you killed. So, Mary, took a risk. The risk of embarrassment and shame, humiliation and scandal. Well, that would mark her Son’s life, too. And that day, just like this morning, God took a risk, too.

          A lot depended on her response to God. For thousands of years, we had been mired in sin, separated from God, wallowing in our disobedience. A great chasm had opened up, long ago, in that garden, and we couldn’t get back across to the other side. Something had to change. We needed a miracle.

         Back in the 12th century, an important Saint of the church, a French Cistercian monk named Bernard, gave a really important sermon on the Annunciation and Mary’s response. And he wrote that for that brief instant, while waiting on Mary’s reply, time itself stood still.

          For that brief moment, all creation waited on her answer. In heaven, the angels and seraphim and cherubim stopped their singing. And in hell, for a moment, the screeching stopped. The principalities and the powers came to a halt. And even God leaned over the banister, waiting to hear Mary’s reply. You could’ve heard a pin drop, and then she said, ” “Fiat mihi secúndum verbum tuum.” Let it be with me according to your word. And a great music arose and the angels and all the host of heaven broke into shouts of joy, and in hell all the demonic forces cried in anguish because Lucifer’s plans for this world had been overthrown and God’s creation would be restored. But in a very real sense, Mary’s “yes” to God was simply an echo of God’s “yes” to humankind, the God who said “yes” to us time and time again, and is still saying that to you and me today.

          And in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, asked a very important question. He noted, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. But what good is it to us if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within us? And, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace if we are not also full of grace? What good is it to us for the Creator to give birth to his Son if we do not also give birth to him in our time and our culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

          So, I think we have to confront the question, are we willing to carry the Christ child, and bring Him into the world? Are we willing to risk God coming alive in us, here and today? Are we willing to answer yes to God, and share in God’s dreams for the world? You see, Mary’s story teaches us that very ordinary people (people like us), can do extraordinary, miraculous things when they are vulnerable to God’s choices in the world.

          This life is not always easy, but during this Holy Season of Advent, we might reflect on the words of St. John of Liverpool, who said:

 When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

          Let us cut a path through the noise and chaos and pain of this world. Let us make straight the way of the Lord, let it be.

          Let us build a temple in our hearts and make room for the Christ child in a world that still says there’s no room for God’s children. Let it be.

          In a world that is obsessed be power and wealth and stuff, let us turn to a woman who risked everything and a God who risked everything for the life of the world. Let it be.

          Let the lame walk, let the blind see, let us feed the hungry, and let the captives go free. Let the whole world look through that beautiful window and let them see nothing less than the kingdom of God in our hearts.

         Let us set aside for the moment our commitment to human justice, and live lives full of mercy. And from the springs of that mercy, let God’s justice rain down like a mighty river. Let it be.

          Let us turn away from racism, from our disrespect for God’s people and his world, and from treating some lives as more important than others. Let it be.

          Let it be that we beat our swords, our aircraft carriers and our drones, into ploughshares, turning away from violence and struggle and war. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Let it be.

          Let it be that those who are hopeless, living in fear and those tormented by illness and darkness find the Light of the World, and come to know compassion in a world that’s simply tired of caring. Let it be.

         Let us turn in love to those who are forgotten, those who are broken, those who are down on their luck, and share the good news of God’s love with a world that’s forgotten what love looks like. Let us set aside our own ambitions and share in God’s dreams. Let it be.

Let it be with you, let it be with me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola: A Homily

Ignatius of Loyola

The readings for the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola can be found here:

 
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

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

          Good morning, and welcome as we come together to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, which most of us know as the Jesuit Order. I feel especially close to him, because many of my first teachers were Jesuits.

          You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the modern Christian Church, and it seems to me one of the central problems we have today is that many of us view our faith like a drunkard views a street lamp. We use it for support, rather than illumination.

          It was not always so. In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the brightest lights in the history of Christianity. He was born in 1491, and in his former life he was a Spanish knight from a Basque noble family. When he was seriously wounded in battle around the age of 30, however, he underwent a significant religious conversion. Ignatius became a mystic, spending many hours a day in prayer and also working in a hospice.

          During that time, he had a remarkable spiritual experience. He had a vision in which he said that he learned more than he did in the rest of his life. This vision seems to have involved a direct encounter with God, so that all creation was seen in a new light and took on a new meaning and relevance, an experience that allowed Ignatius to find God in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, serves as one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality.

          At the age of thirty-three, he began to study for the priesthood, although he was so poor at the time he found himself begging for food and shelter. He was also jailed by the Inquisition at this time. Around then, he and six companions made solemn vows to continue their lifelong work of following Christ. He founded what would become the Jesuit Order.

          While he was living as a hermit, Ignatius began to develop a set of exercises, designed to help believers discern the movement of the Spirit. One of the crucial notions in these exercises is the idea of “indifference,” of being indifferent to the concerns of the world—not in the sense of caring about people or things less, but in the sense of not letting our ego and our attachments get in the way of our relationship with God. As Christians, we are called to be indifferent to whether we’re well-known and influential or obscure, whether we’re rich or poor, or even healthy or sick. Our focus must be on whether God is present in our lives—and God is always present, is right there with us, closer than we are to ourselves.

          And I think that’s part of what Luke is trying to explain in today’s passage from the Gospel. It’s a harsh passage, a shocking thing: hearing Jesus tell a man to disregard the burial of his father, and it doesn’t give way to easy explanations. But sometimes we have to ignore a good thing to pursue a holy thing: our highest calling to follow God single-mindedly. I think Jesus is explaining that being a disciple sometimes requires us to make hard choices: to decide if we really do love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our strength. In the kingdom of God, traditional loyalties are going to be rearranged.

          If we want to follow Jesus, to be disciples, we’re going to have to learn to seek the kingdom of God first, and not let anything get in our way. Once our hand is on that plough, we cannot turn back. And we might find some help in this little prayer, the prayer of St. Ignatius:

“Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish, you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”

Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

St. Boniface: A Homily

Boniface

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24: 44-53.

He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah* is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses* of these things.

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

          Good morning, good morning. And welcome to you all as we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface, a great saint of the Church. He was born somewhere around 675 A.D. in Wessex. At birth, he was given the name of Winfred, but later took the name of Boniface, probably when he was ordained a bishop. In 716, he set out as a missionary for Frisia, in modern-day Germany.

          There’s a wonderful old legend about St. Boniface. They say that one winter he came across some men who were about to offer up a child sacrifice to the pagan god Thor. Boniface stopped the murder of this child by going over to an oak tree and striking it. The tree fell to the ground. When all the snow, they saw a small fir-tree there. Boniface pointed to the tree, which was green in the dead of winter and announced, “That is the tree of life and this boy is to live not die.” He then pointed at the tree again and said, “This tree does not die in winter like others but lives and it symbolizes the eternal life offered to you through Jesus Christ.” He then noted that the shape of the fir-tree is triangular and thus represents the Trinity of God. Upon this declaration, the men repented and gave their hearts to Jesus and they spared the boy’s life.

          So, what’s the point of that story? You know, neuro-psychologists have described something called a perception bias. It’s sometimes called selective perception. It’s the tendency of the brain to seek out what it’s looking for, and to disregard all the other noise around it. It explains how we do those Where’s Waldo puzzles, and how the brain finds what it’s looking for and sets aside everything else. It explains why we see the good in people if we’re looking for it and why, if we go searching out the ways in which people can be selfish and cruel, we’ll find that, too.

          What does that have to do with the story about St. Boniface? I think it explains the reason St. Boniface saw eternal life in Christ when he looked at the evergreen fir-tree. And it explains why he saw the life of the Trinity when he noticed the triangular shape of the tree. He saw those things because he was looking for them. And that’s why St. Chrysostrom observed that unless you can see Christ in the face of the beggar on the street, you’ll never find Him in the chalice.

          And so, we come to today’s Gospel reading. This reading comes right after the story of the road to Emmaus. And we wonder, “Why didn’t the disciples recognize Jesus? How could they not see him, right beside them?” I think part of the answer is that they didn’t see Him because they weren’t looking for him. They thought he was dead; there was no reason to look for him. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, tells us, that we are to be his witnesses. We are to see and hear, and speak of what we’ve seen and heard: that Jesus is risen, that he preached repentance, and promised forgiveness. And that He’s still with us.

          So, what are we supposed to be looking for? He told us: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” If we follow Jesus, that’s our perception bias. I pray that we’ll look for it, because He promised that if we did, we’ll find it. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis