Tag Archives: Episcopalian

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

The Trinity: A Sermon

Rublev, The Trinity

The readings for Trinity Sunday can be found here:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

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

You know, I’ve been doing that, and saying that, for a long, long time. I was probably one or two years old, back in Ector County, when my mother and father taught me to make the sign of the cross and to say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And in my family, you didn’t just do it several times during church. We did it at every meal and every night as we said our evening prayers. I’m not sure my parents knew exactly what they were doing as we followed that practice. You see, not only were they reminding us of our baptismal vows constantly, but they were also inviting us into that great mystery we call The Trinity.

And I remember when I was around six or seven, sitting in the pews there at Holy Redeemer  in Odessa, a little burr headed boy in short pants. And we got to that point in the Creed when we said, “We believe in one God.” And I thought to myself, One God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One plus one plus one equals One. And I scratched my little head. One plus one plus one equals One.

And years later, when I went to the University of Texas, my parents were surprised that I studied philosophy and poetry rather than engineering. And I thought to myself, really? Because for years, they had been preparing me to become accustomed to mystery, to make my home there, to abide there.

And when the poets of the Hebrew people confronted the great mystery of how we got here, the mystery of creation, they wrote that God spoke the universe into being. He spoke light and he spoke darkness. He spoke time into being. He spoke us into being as well. Genesis records, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Now, it’s worth noting that as God speaks humanity into being, Scripture records the Creator referring to himself in the plural, “according to our likeness.” We’ll circle back to that idea in just a bit.

And our modern poets, we call them physicists, have been studying some very old light, echoes from the dawn of the universe. They tell us that when time began, in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the universe began to expand to something that was about the size of a marble.All the stars, all the planets, the entire time space continuum, began to expand from a white-hot mass about the size of your fingertip.    When I think of that, I’m reminded of something Martin Luther once said. He said, “God is nothing but glowing love, and a burning oven full of love.” And that simmering cauldron of love exploded in creation.

Curiously, our scientists also tell us there are about as many atoms in your eyeball as there are stars in the universe. And we confess that God made all these things, visible and invisible — the God who creates, and redeems and forgives and comforts and sustains.

Love, even God’s love, does not exist in a vacuum. Love always arises in relationship, in community. We call that The Trinity.

Now theologians, they tell us that God created everything from nothing. In the Latin, they say ex nihilo. It’s impossible to imagine that: we don’t have a frame of reference for it. When I try to think of it, the closest I can get is the story of Beethoven, having gone deaf, creating symphonies when there was no longer any music for him to hear. But this was something much, much more — infinitely more. And while God didn’t create from any raw material, anything physical, I think he called the universe into being out of His love.

Divine love was the stuff out of which creation sprang into being. Divine love, which overflowed out of the Father, into the life of Son, who breathed out the Spirit onto the disciples and still breathes it into us. It was love that lit the fires of trillions and trillions of stars, love that crawled up that hill called Golgotha, and it was love that broke through the separation of our many languages on Pentecost.

As a friend of mine observed, we will not encounter the living God in doctrine, explanations or analysis. The Trinity is too wild, too beautiful, too expansive, and too intimate for that. God will not be contained in our thoughts or our language. Rather, we encounter the living God in unspeakable moments of awe and joy and wonder. One of the most profound thinkers I know of, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To confess our faith is to commit, not to any kind of understanding, but to an “endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

And when the book of Genesis records that we are made in the image of God, I think it means that we are made for love. Jesus told us as much, that we were made to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all of our strength, and to love each other as much as we love ourselves.

That’s why Saint Paul said to live in peace and greet each other with a holy kiss, because we are a holy people made from holy love and made to love. Because everyone we encounter, well, they were made in the image of God as well, even the gossips and the soreheads. Thus, C.S. Lewis observed that aside from the blessed Sacrament, there’s nothing more holy in this church today than the person sitting next to you in the pews.

We, all of us, were made for union with God. We came from God, and we’ll go back where we came from. We were made for union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the God who is both a plurality and a unity.

Now if the Father lives, and has always lived, in communion, in community, and if we were made in God’s image, that means that we were also made to live in community. Our lives, our salvation, must be worked out together. And that’s why, just two weeks ago, we heard Jesus praying that we would be one, just as He and the Father are one. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters prayed, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And just as we confess that “We believe in one God.”

We work out our salvation together, and the church acts like the church, when our caring for each other pours out, and God is revealed in this community. Our churches can be, must be, windows through which the world can see God’s love spilling out everywhere — down Pecan Street, through Travis Park, up and down Highway 281, reaching out into our homes and our workplaces, our hospitals and yes, even our prisons.

We were baptized into a community, to share in the life of the Trinity, marked as Christ’s own. And we aren’t called upon to love only our fellow believers, but to live our lives so that the whole world says, “See how they love.”

So, how do we get there, how do we achieve this union with God? Well, Jesus offered us a real good starting place. In a few minutes we’ll be invited up to the table, to take the life of Christ into us. He told us, “Take, eat.” And somehow, when we do, the life of Christ, the love of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit begin to take hold in us. And that’s what C.S. Lewis called The Deep Magic. Somehow, we begin to make our home in that wonderful mystery of the Trinity, to abide with God. And then, we find that Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.

Amen.

© 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

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: A Sermon

Therefore I prayed, and understanding
was given me;Aquinas

I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth. 
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth,
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction.
–Wisdom 7: 7-14

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas 

          Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
          I called for help, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.

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

Well good morning, good morning. And welcome to you as we celebrate the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

          It was a remarkable time in the history of Western culture. My brother Thomas was born in 1225 and died in 1274; he did not survive to see fifty years. But he lived during remarkable times. The Crusades had proven to be a miserable failure. The inquisition had begun recently in Toulouse, France, and Dante was writing his major works.  Gothic architecture was beginning to take root. The institution of universities had only just begun to arise. Within 100 years, a remarkable period in European history we call the Renaissance would begin to flourish.

          And coming largely from the east, a new wisdom began to spring up. The works of Aristotle, long lost in the West, had been recently translated into Latin. Many in the western Church had been openly hostile to this “new learning” because it was clearly pagan. And perhaps because people have “itchy ears” it was widely read and became a prominent philosophy of the time. And so, the notion began to swell that there were at least two kinds of truth. There was philosophical truth (or what we might call scientific truth), and then there was biblical truth. And it all depended on your point of view, you see, which you thought made more sense.

          Onto this scene strides my brother, St. Thomas Aquinas. He did not initially seem like he would have much to offer the world. His fellow schoolmates called him “the dumb ox.” And yet his biographer, Gugliemo di Tocco, describes him as a man consumed by the holy mysteries of the great sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrament in which we’ll soon share. The Italian term he used was divorato; Thomas was devoured by a sense of awe at this great mystery. But his intellect was also set aflame by the works of Aristotle.

          From within that huge frame, within that dumb ox, shone one of the finest minds of his time, perhaps one of the finest minds of any time. And he was absolutely and mercilessly committed to knowing the truth; he thought that was one of our highest purposes as humans. And one of his investigations, his searches for the truth, is still widely taught and used today in seminaries and schools of philosophy. We call it The Summa Theologica.

And Thomas knew, through his confrontation of and dwelling within the divine mysteries, that God’s truth would surpass and could not be contained by human speech or knowledge. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit Jesus called the Spirit of Truth.

And among his many invaluable contributions, Thomas laid waste to the notion that there were many separate inconsistent truths, that there was philosophical truth and sacred truth. You see, back then, not unlike our day, many folks saw a contradiction between faith and reason. And there arose something called the doctrine of double truth: for example, that something might be true scientifically and false scripturally, and both of them could be correct. Thomas wrote that the truth that “human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith.” The truth cannot be sequestered. Because all truth comes from God, who is Truth and in whom there is no deception, if there is an apparent contradiction between reason and faith we have either reasoned poorly or misunderstood the faith. But, he proclaimed adamantly, there is only one truth.

          Thomas understood that the Wisdom of God, another name for Jesus as our Advent hymns remind us, came into the world. The Logos broke into the world that Christmas morning. There is a story that Thomas had a vision of Jesus on the Cross, and that Jesus said “Thomas, you have written well of me. What can I give you as your reward? And Thomas replied, “Lord, nothing but yourself.”

          My brother Thomas wrote:

“Word made flesh, by Word He makes
True bread his flesh to be;
Man in wine Christ’s Blood partakes
And if his senses fail to see,
Faith alone the true heart wakes
To behold the mystery.”

           In today’s Gospel, the Logos asks us “Have you understood all this?” But this wisdom, this divine truth, is to be felt and not just known, to be studied with the heart and not only the mind. This is a Truth, a wisdom, that is not so much about a problem that we figure out or an argument we can win, as it is about a person with whom we fall in love.

          Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis


James of Jerusalem: A Homily

St. James

All the apostles and elders kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
`After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord– even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:12-22a.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you all this morning as we observe the Feast of James of Jerusalem, sometimes called James the Just and sometimes called the brother of our Lord.
When we look at the Gospel for this morning, we see James (along with the rest of Jesus’ family) being used as an argument against Jesus’ authority. Having heard Jesus teach and seen his deeds of power, Jesus’ family is used to make the argument that he’s nothing special. We know his mother, we know his brother, he’s the son of a working man. It’s so difficult for us to recognize holiness in our everyday lives. But that’s how God works: he makes the everyday holy. But it’s hard to see sometimes. Even James, we think, did not accept Jesus as messiah, as his Lord, until he witnessed the resurrection.
So, the reading this morning, from the Book of Acts, puts St. James in a place many of us know something about: he is smack dab in the middle of a church fight.  Very often in church fights, as is sometimes true in marriages, the fight isn’t really about what the fight is about. The fight isn’t about how messy and chaotic the drawers in the desk are; the fight is about how messy and chaotic our lives are. Or the fight isn’t about the style of worship; it’s about people feeling like they’re losing the church they grew up in. But sometimes a church fight can clarify doctrine, or can offer the Church what we now call a teaching moment.
One of my Jesuit brothers said, “Unity in the essential things, liberty in the nonessential things, and charity in all things.” This fight was about essential things—about the essentials of becoming a Christian and following Jesus and about salvation. So, James is caught up in a fight, and it’s a doozy.
Luke says, “certain individuals” were teaching that circumcision and following the law was necessary for salvation. Now, these folks were Pharisees. And they had heard what was happening with the Gentiles down in Antioch. And they were certainly right: they were correct about what had been the custom of the Jews in Jerusalem. But, like we so often do, they had confused those things that are customary with those things that are necessary.
And on the other side of this fight were Peter and Paul and Barnabas. And Peter, in the verse immediately before this passage we read today, argued that none of those things in the Mosaic law were necessary anymore. He said, “We believe that they will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will.”
It’s an important lesson for us today as well. Don’t try and out-God God. We so often underestimate the Holy Spirit—underestimate the power of grace. And when it comes time to make a decision, James (the head of the church in Jerusalem) speaks for the whole Church. He hears the voice of the prophet Amos in what’s been happening with the Gentiles. And he concludes, we shouldn’t trouble those who are turning to God. He knows that grace is enough; grace alone suffices to sustain us, to save us. Now, he does caution them about abstaining from food offered to idols, and otherwise acting like pagans. In other words, he advises them not to abuse their liberty.
So, the story of my namesake, St. James, is not a story about a guy who knows the truth in an instant. It’s a story about a guy who makes a couple of mistakes before he finally gets it right. We all need to hear the story of St. James, because it’s a story about the only necessary thing: God’s grace in our lives. And it’s a story about second chances. And, after all, ours is a religion of second chances.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis

The Feast of Mary Magdalene: A Sermon

Mary MagdaleneMary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  John 20:11-18.

It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning as we celebrate the Feast of a great saint of the Church, Mary Magdalene. Magdalene: the first witness to the resurrection, Mary, who had her heart broken and then restored.  So, I thought I’d borrow very liberally this morning from a sermon first preached by Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, around the thirteenth century.

“Mary stood at the sepulchre weeping ….”

A wonder that in such sore distress she was even able to weep. She stood there because she loved, she wept because she mourned. She approached and looked into the sepulchre. She was looking for a dead man: she found two living angels and the living son of God.

Origen says: “She stood – why did she stand when the Apostles had run away?’ Because she had nothing to lose. Everything she had was lost with Him. When He died, she died as well. When they buried Him, they buried her with Him. So she had nothing to lose.

She moved on. Then he met her. She thought it was the gardener, and said “Where have you put Him?’ Anxious for Him, she does not answer His question; just, ‘Where have you put Him?’ Those were her words. Then He showed her plainly Who He was. Had he announced Himself straight away while she was in the throes of longing, she would have died of joy.

If the soul knew when God would come to her, she would die of joy! – and if she knew when He would leave her, she would die of grief. She knows neither when He comes nor when He goes: she knows well when He is with her. It is said, “His comings and goings are hidden; His presence is no secret, for He is Light, and by its very nature Light is Manifestation.”

Mary sought God and only God. That is why she found Him, because she desired God and nothing else.

While we didn’t get to hear this part of the story, unlike the other gospels that begin the story of the resurrection at dawn, John begins this chapter “while it was still dark.” Of course, the opening phrase of John’s gospel is: “In the beginning.” John wants to take us back to the moment of creation, to another garden from which we were cast out. And the contrast of the darkness of a world without Jesus, and the light we encounter with Jesus: well, that’s quintessentially John.

It’s interesting to note that the very first words Jesus says in John’s gospel are a question directed to the followers of John the Baptist: “What are you looking for?” Here, Jesus repeats almost exactly the same question, asking “Who are you looking for?” It’s a question we should each consider. Who are we looking for? It’s also important that Mary does not recognize Jesus until he calls her by name. I’m wondering whether we can hear him calling our names as well.

In that moment as Jesus calls her name,”Mary”, she knows Him just as He knows his own. And she knows that death has not taken her teacher, her friend, that death has no claim on Him any longer, nor those who follow Him. And that morning, sadness had no more claim on her life, and I pray that it has no more claim on ours.

Mary saw it: the kingdom of God had broken into the world. The kingdom of God is coming into the world. The kingdom of God will come into the world. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis