Tag Archives: discipleship

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

To an Immeasurable Extent

 Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith.  He must shake the yoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord.  He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.
Don’t hesitate to declare yourself sinners.  Thereby you will be put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error.  And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with the creator.

The regeneration of which I am speaking is not the rebirth of the body, but the second birth of the soul.  Bodies are procreated by the father and mother, but souls are recreated by means of faith, since the Spirit blows where it will. [John 3:8]
God is kind and he is kind to an immeasurable extent.
Don’t say: “I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offenses innumerable time.  Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them? Listen rather to the Psalmist: “How great is your love, O Lord.” [cf. Ps. 31:19]
Your sins piled up one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love.  Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.
There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” [Ps. 32:5] Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: “Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain).

We think St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived between 313 and 386 A.D. He has been venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. At a time of great strife and discord within the early Church, he worked for peace and reconciliation. He became the bishop of Jerusalem, and was loved there for his works of charity (which included feeding the poor at the expense of selling the church treasury).

I love this little piece of his, in part because it echoes one of the major themes of this blog: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s deep and abiding love. The Cross teaches us how much God cares for us. We will never be able to reason, or to behave, our way into God’s love, which He pours out like a steady rain onto all of us.  I hope we can all hear God’s voice calling to us, affirming us as His beloved.

We can never go so far down the road to ruin that we cannot turn back, and our Father who sees us from a long ways off, will come running to meet us. As Cyril said, our wounds are not too deep for the Doctor to heal.  Never.  Never ever.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

P.S.

I’m going to be taking a break from writing for  a while.  You will remain in my prayers, and in my heart.

“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.”

Can You Drink From the Cup?

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45.

Today’s Gospel reading follows Jesus’ third announcement that He will go to Jerusalem and meet his death.  Mark 10:32-34. As these teachings progress, Jesus and the disciples travel further and further south, toward Jerusalem.

We have the sense that the disciples are really having trouble understanding Jesus’ message.  In response to Jesus’ teaching, they want to have some assurance of their primary role in Jesus’ kingdom. In some very real sense, they’re worrying about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You don’t have to spend very long in the Church to see this kind of behavior. They’re concerned about their own position, their own authority and welfare.

Jesus challenges them with a critical question, a question He asks you and me as well:  “Can you drink from the cup from which I drink?”  In other words, “Just exactly how much are you willing to share in my life?”  How much are we willing to let go of our own self-image, our authority, and the stuff that makes up the content of our lives in following Jesus? In last week’s Gospel, we met a rich young man who just couldn’t let go.  I wonder if we can. Letting go of our fears may be the hardest part.

Jesus introduces the disciples to the topsy-turvy hierarchy of Christianity.  He tells them, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  I wonder how we’d impact the ranks of our church leadership if we used that particular job description.  Think of how many terms in our language are associated with primacy: first-place, first-class, and first-rate.  The Gospel is about the losers, about becoming a nobody.

In the world, the hierarchical structure achieves its goals through  power and domination.  In the Kingdom, we must learn to abandon these and accomplish through love, and love alone. Jesus’ call to become servants isn’t necessarily about the tasks we perform; it’s about the kind of people we are to become.  Jesus radically redefines “greatness” as servanthood. That’s a hard road. It leads straight to the Cross.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Becoming a Unity

All of you must become a unity.  Let there be no divisions in your hearts.  When I was among you I cried at the top of my voice, with the very voice of God: “Be united with the bishop, the priests and the deacons.”
Some people thought I cried like this because I foresaw a schism.  He for whose sake I am in chains is my witness that I did not speak in that way because anyone had given me such a warning.  I had simply been listening  to the Spirit proclaiming:
“Do nothing without the bishop!  Keep your body as a temple of God!  Love unity, avoid factions! Be imitators of Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ is of the Father! [cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 11:1]
With such an aim I have done all I could, as one destined to the service of unity.  God does not dwell where there are divisions and bad feeling.  I exhort you: never give way to a quarrelsome spirit, but always carry out the teaching of Christ.
Jesus Christ is my criterion.  Unassailable grounds of judgment for me are his cross, his death, his resurrection and the faith that comes from him. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Philadelphians (quoted in Drinking From the Hidden Fountain).

Today is the Feast of Ignatius of Antioch, who was born in modern day Syria in around 50 A.D., and died in Rome around 117 A.D. He was the third bishop of Antioch, which was then one of the centers of Christianity. He studied under John the Apostle. We don’t know a lot about him, because his ministry occurred so early in the history of the faith. We know about him principally through the seven letters he wrote that scholars consider to be authentic.

He wrote at a time when being a Christian was a dangerous choice, and was accused of treason by the Emperer himself. He was a bishop, an apostle and a martyr for the faith. As we can tell from today’s reading, the subject of the unity of the faithful was a common theme in his writings.

As I read this piece, I was struck by the notion that our divisions as Christians begin with our being divided as individuals.  Most often, our petty disagreements arise from our competing loyalties to Christ and the world. When we are truly focussed on Jesus, the cross, and our faith, most of our divisions fade away.  I pray we will someday learn to set aside our egos and live as the one body we are called to become.

Jesus knew how difficult this would be for us.  Thus he prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” I pray for the day when all God’s children become one in love.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Shocked and Grieving (A Sermon)

“And when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, if there’s someone in your life that you’d really like to get rid of, there are a number of ways to make them feel unwelcome. You could ask them to help you scrub the grout on your tile kitchen floors.  Or, you could invite them out to dinner at the all you can eat liver buffet.  Or, you could ask them to come to your parish and give a stewardship sermon.  And so, when my good friend, your priest, the father of my godson, invited me here today, well, I took the hint.  But we’ll get to that stewardship thing in just a bit.

For now, let’s look at that young man in today’s gospel. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was setting out on a journey, when a man runs up to him and kneels down. So, from the very beginning, we know that this story concerns an interruption, a profound interruption while Jesus was about to do something else.  It’s interesting how many of the gospel stories work like that, and how our own spiritual lives work that way too.  Woody Allen famously said, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

So this young man comes to Jesus and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies with a stark statement: “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus begins by reminding him, and us, that God is the source of everything that is good.  We acknowledge that in our liturgy every Sunday when we sing “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Or perhaps we say, “All things come from Thee, o Lord, and of Thine own have we given thee.”  The point in all three is the same: all goodness, all that is, comes from God alone.

Jesus then tells this young man “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” And the young man tells Jesus, “Rabbi, I have kept all of these commandments since I was a child.” Of course, Jewish tradition held that no one other than Abraham and Moses had been able to keep the law.

But I want us to look at this man carefully.  He’s not a bad guy, not a bad guy at all.  In fact, I think he’s a lot like you and like me.   When we get to that part of the service where we confess our sins, sometimes we’re kinda scratchin’ our heads and lookin’ at our shoes and thinking, “Surely there’s something bad, some minor infraction,  I’ve committed this week.”

This young man comes to Jesus mostly for an affirmation.  What he wants, like what we want, is for Jesus to tell him that everything’s okay, that he’s doing everything he’s supposed to, and when it comes to him, eternal life is pretty much a shoe-in. That’s what he wants, and I think that’s what we want, too.  But that’s not exactly what’s going to happen.

The next line is often overlooked when we hear this story.  “Mark tells us Jesus, looking at him, loved him and spoke.” Somehow, despite his self-assurance, despite his remarkable confidence in his own spiritual maturity, Jesus loves this young man. Just like He loves us. There’s only one authentic response to that kind of love:  gratitude.

Our Savior tells him, “You lack one thing; get up, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” That phrase Jesus uses, “get up”, it’s a phrase often used in the stories of Jesus healing people.  In Capernaum, when Jesus heals the paralytic, he tells him to “get up, take your mat and go home.” In the 5th Chapter of Mark, when he casts demons out of a man by the shore, he tells him to get up and go home and tell your friends what God has done for you. He uses the phrase again and again.  And so, we begin to wonder, is Jesus trying to heal this man, too?

Yet, like so many of us, this man can’t take this teaching.  Scripture tells us: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  Jesus often taught about the cloud that our possessions, our wealth, place over our spiritual lives.  The only subject he talked about more was the Kingdom of God, and in today’s reading He talks about both.

I want to suggest to you that one reason that young man went away sad is that he had betrayed his own true nature.  You know, it’s one of the first things we learn about God in Scripture.  He gives us a world, he gives us a garden, he gives us freedom and gives us a promised land to live in, and then, he gives us a son. God is by nature a giver, a giver who teaches us again and again how to be generous.  Each breath I draw, I draw because of God.  The car I drove up here in this morning, very early this morning, that came from God.

Someone might say, “No, that car came from the money you made at your job.  That didn’t come from God.” But the simple truth is, that job came from God, as did my education, which flowed out of the parents God gave me.  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Everything, my family, my friends, and my godchildren: all of these things came from God.

You may remember that just last week, Jesus told us that to receive the kingdom of God, we must receive it as little children. Children, particularly little children, can’t make their own way in the world.  Rather, most everything they have, they have gotten as a gift.  Somehow, we’ve managed to forget that.  In a culture that perpetuates the myth of the self-made man, we’ve forgotten that we are utterly dependent on God for our very lives.

And when the Book of Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, I think it means, in part, that we were made to be givers.  We were created to be generous creatures.  And that’s part of the reason why that wealthy young man went away so sad.  He had betrayed his real nature, the purpose for which he was created.  He had revealed that his heart was with his treasure, the things he owned. He had denied his real nature, revealing that his heart lay in a wealth he could not part with.

We might well ask ourselves, what are the things of which we are not willing to let go?  What’s getting in the way of our relationship with the God who sustains our lives in every moment? This young man who came up to Jesus lived in a world of scarcity.  Perhaps he wondered, who’ll take care of me when I’m old, or what happens if the economy takes another turn for the worse?  You see, it’s largely a question of who we trust.  Do we trust in our real estate holdings, our financial institutions, or our ability to make a living, or do we trust in the God who spun the world into existence?  Learning to give is important for our spiritual lives, in part, because it’s a matter of learning to trust. Like many of us, this rich young man comes to Jesus with reverence, but without much trust.

On the other hand, most of us know that giving is in our very nature.  We give to our children, our spouses, our friends, and this giving brings us joy.  When we give to the Church, however, we also engage in a liturgical act.  We know that our word liturgy means “the work of the people.”  It is a private sacrifice for a public good. And so, when we write those checks on Sunday morning, it’s not the same thing as writing a check to the grocer, or the dentist, or the landlord.  Our giving to God becomes a sacrament, just like the sacrament we’ll receive at the altar shortly. And we’ll gather those offerings together, and ask God to take them and make something holy out of them. And in that, I hope we also can find our joy.

As a congregation, our treasure reveals itself in all sorts of acts of liturgy, acts which are both spiritual and material. When we baptize a child or tend to the sick or serve food in a shelter, we are make an offering of a materialism of the sweat and tears of our days, not a materialism of furniture or jewelry or 401ks. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we have been adopted into this new life.

Our giving, our charity, is both a spiritual event and a denial of the materialism that the world embraces.  We choose a radically different kind of materialism.  In that sacramental moment, as we make our gifts to God, I hope we can hear Jesus’ voice, wondering if we might do just a little more, just as he asked that rich young man to do so long ago.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Keys We All Carry

When you hear the words: “Peter, do you love me?” [John 21:15] imagine you are in front of a mirror and looking at yourself.
Peter, surely, was a symbol of the Church.  Therefore the Lord in asking Peter is asking us too.  
To show that Peter was a symbol of the Church, remember the passage in the Gospel, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 16:18]
Has only one man received those keys?  Christ himself explains what they are for: “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matt. 18:18] If these words had been said only to Peter, now that he is dead who would ever be able to bind or loose?
I make bold to say that all of us have received the keys.  We bind and loose.  And you also bind and loose.
Whoever is bound is separated from your community; he is bound by you. When he is reconciled, however, he is loosed, thanks to you because you are praying for him. 

Augustine, Serm. Morin 16 (Miscellanea Agostiniana)

My travel schedule remains quite hectic, so once again this will be a short post.  I found this bit of wisdom in Thomas Spidlik’s wonderful little book, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain.

I think Augustine points out several things that matter a great deal for our spiritual lives.  As we read Scripture, we should read it as if Jesus were speaking to us personally.  Jesus wasn’t only explaining to the a first century audience about the kingdom of heaven: He was speaking to you and to me.

I think too often we think of the keys to the kingdom as something that Jesus left as an inheritance to Peter, or to the Twelve, and perhaps we might even go so far as to think our clergy have inherited it.  Augustine suggests, and I believe, that those keys are our inheritance, yours and mine. So, when I withhold forgiveness from my brother or sister, I hold that sin bound.  (I think one could seriously question exactly who is bound up when forgiveness is withheld, but perhaps we’ll talk about that another time.) On the other hand, each of us have the power to loose our brothers and sisters.

We can loose them by forgiving them; we can loose them from the burdens they carry; we can loose them by righting an old wrong or through our acts of charity and kindness.   Jesus left us these keys, left them to you and to me.  So, I wonder, what locks will we open today?

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

There Once Was a Man

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. Job 1:1; 2:1-10.

In the Old Testament reading, the Lectionary leads us to the Book of Job, a vastly rich and yet deeply challenging selection.  Virginia Woolf once famously said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” I have felt the same way on occasion, but we should remember a number of things as we reflect on this marvelous book.

First, the Book of Job offers us a parable, not a history.  Even the introductory line (“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job”) sounds a bit like a child’s fairy tale. We also get a hint that this is a parable in the notion the next line, with the notion that Job was “perfectly upright.” Thus, we’re dealing with an archetype here.  Job represents the best of our humanity in a narrative told to teach us a lesson. The parable muses on the theme “Why do the righteous suffer?”

Many of us have wondered why the wicked or the godless prosper, while good people sometimes seem to carry insurmountable burdens.  The Book of Job reflects on the latter issue. Jesus also addressed this issue when He said, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Matt: 5:44-45.

We should also remember that this book was written sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries before Christ.  By that time, the chosen people had already endured slavery under the Egyptians, the Assyrian exile and the Babylonian exile.  They had seen the destruction of the Temple, which for them constituted the intersection of heaven and earth.  Having suffered through slavery, famine, conquest and separation, they might rightly have wondered: chosen for what, exactly?

So, we have this text before us in which God appears to enter into a wager with Satan.  It’s also important to remember in Hebrew the word Satan isn’t a name; it’s a title or a function.  It meant something like the accuser, the prosecutor, or the adversary. If we read this work as a parable, rather than a history, it might have something to teach us about the kind of accusations that get tossed about when we (either as individuals or as a people) find ourselves engaged in spiritual warfare.  And we might take a little comfort from the idea that God seems to have a remarkable faith in Job’s (and perhaps our) ability to weather life’s storms.

When The Adversary strikes Job down with a hideous disease, and Job’s wife questions his “foolish” commitment to God, Job’s response resounds in our hearts.  He says “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” That question will echo throughout the rest of the book of Job. Job answers what some have called the Prosperity Gospel, the notion that “good things happen to good people” (and implicitly therefore, bad things happen to bad people).  We still hear the ruminations of that today in modern Christianity, and Job calls it what it is: balderdash.

I hope to come back to Job again soon.  I think the pearl is well worth the dive.  Despite it’s childlike opening, the Book of Job offers us anything but a fairy tale.  The book of Job sets out the struggle of faith, a struggle against faithlessness in the confrontation of pain and anguish. We find Jesus engaged in that same struggle on Golgotha as he cries out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me)? I think, at some time, most of us will find ourselves in that struggle, and we rightly pray to be saved from that time of trial.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis