Tag Archives: Dominican Order

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

 

Teach Us to Pray

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The full readings for today can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

You Can’t Go Home Again

aThe full readings for today can be found here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

 

Advent Study, Part I

My friends,

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

You’ll find the link below:

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

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

Br. Jamesa

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

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

The text for this sermon can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Oh My Son Absalom

absalom

The readings for this morning can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

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