Tag Archives: Gospel of Luke

Go, and Do Likewise





Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” The full readings for this service can be found here.

In the name of our God, the One who creates, redeems and sustains us.

A long time ago, in medieval Europe, they used to have what they called mystery plays. These dramas were often accompanied by a procession or a parade, and would depict scenes or stories from the Bible, particularly from the Gospels. Now, I do something like that in my neighborhood. Anyone who knows me knows that I have two dogs, and they’re not very good dogs at all. In fact, they are terrible dogs. I take them for a long walk at least twice a day, but they are ill-behaved and are committed to that bad behavior. And every now and then, we run across an animal that’s been hit by a car or killed somehow—a squirrel or a cat or a bird.

And my dogs always insist that we stop. They insist that we investigate and consider these incidents very carefully. Now, I’m not sure that they want to bandage up the creature’s wounds, or to carry the poor animal to an innkeeper and pay for its lodging. But I’m always trying to get them to keep walking, to move along, because there’s nothing to see here. I don’t know if that makes me the priest or the Levite in the story, and I’m not sure I like where this analogy is going so let’s get back to the Gospel.

So, Luke begins this fabulous story with a lawyer, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus. And this lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I want us to look at the assumption in this question. The assumption is that eternal life is somehow linked to something we do. And I think Jesus’ response will unsettle that assumption. Initially, Jesus answers with a question, and then he answers with a story. Neither directly answers this lawyer’s question, by which I mean Jesus’ response calls us into a discussion that goes beyond a simple answer. It calls us to walk with our rabbi, rather than simply solving a puzzle.

So, this lawyer asks Jesus to give him the secret to eternal life, and I love Jesus’ response. He asks him two very important questions: what is written in scripture; and what do you read there? In other words, Jesus asks him: (1) what is the text; and (2) how do you interpret it? Sometimes, I hear people say that they just want the plain meaning of scripture without any interpretation. We have a theological term for that idea: we call it “poppycock.” Every reading of Scripture requires our interpretation, requires that we bring our understanding filtered through our lives to the work. Our Bible is less like an encyclopedia and more like a chess partner against whom we struggle and sharpen our wits and moral sensibilities. Or, as Bishop Hibbs used to say, biblical fundamentalism is fundamentally unbiblical. Jesus recognizes that principle in his questions to the lawyer.

The lawyer has an answer at the ready; he knows his scriptures. He tells Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer answers with a passage from Deuteronomy which is sometimes called the Shema, and a passage from Leviticus. Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” In other words, you already knew the answer. If you want to know what to do, do those things. And anybody would be happy with that answer. Anybody, that is, except a lawyer. So, now he wants to drill down, “But who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus answers this question with a story, a story about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, we know that Jericho is the place where God knocks down walls, and Jesus is going to knock a few down himself with this story. We may have lost a bit of the geography here: the story takes place on the long, downhill road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road also known at the time as the “Bloody Pass” or “The Way of Blood.”  The road meanders and the topography provides the perfect environment for an ambush:  a paradise for bandits and robbers.

So, I don’t think Jesus’ audience would have been surprised at all about the man being beaten, robbed, and left for dead on that road.  Nor would Jesus’ audience have been particularly surprised to hear Jesus tell them that the priest and the Levite both passed the man by, in fact, they walked by “on the other side” of the road.  (The laws of ritual purification at the time might actually have recommended this practice to devout Jews.)  We aren’t surprised by Jesus’ casting the priests and Levites in the role of the villains:  both Jesus and John the Baptist had been doing that for a while.

However, the notion that the Samaritan showed the quality of mercy, the notion of the Samaritan as the hero of the story, would have astonished and befuddled Jesus’ first-century audience.  The Samaritans and the Jews had despised each other for hundreds of years at the time Jesus told this story.  The Samaritans had desecrated the Temple with human bones.  The Jews reciprocated.  According to the Mishna (the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism), “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). So, hearing about a “good Samaritan” would have bewildered Jesus’ audience.  It would be the equivalent of a modern parable about the “good Klansman” or a “good member of the Sinaloa cartel,” or the “good fascist.”

The parable reports that the Samaritan came near to the man and was “moved with pity.” The Greek word here implies being moved to compassion at the deepest part of who we are. Thus, most of us assume the good Samaritan in the parable is like Jesus, or God, who loves inclusively with a kind of promiscuous empathy for everyone. But suppose for a moment that it’s actually God in the ditch, and the question is what are we going to do about it? And while the question the lawyer originally asked was about what we have to do for eternal life, suppose the real issue isn’t so much about what we do as it is about the kind of people we’re going to be. Are we going to be the kind of people who notice the suffering in the world around us and are moved by it, or are we going to walk on the other side of the road? I’m wondering who I didn’t notice? Who did I walk to the other side to avoid? Lord, spit on our eyes so that we can see.

In just a little while, we’re going to come up to this altar, and the priest will put a bit of bread into our mouths. And the Church spent a lot of time, and energy, and struggle, trying to figure out how the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. And I have to tell you, I’m not really that interested in that question. But I am profoundly interested in the question of how you and I become the body of Christ in the world, and I think this parable holds a good part of the key.

This world is so polarized today. We want to fight about guns, about abortion, about race, about money, and about who’s got the moral high ground. Like the Jews and the Samaritans, we have been carrying these grudges along for so very long. And it may turn out that we really are in for the fight of our lives. Suppose, just for a moment, that learning to love our neighbors, learning to care for God’s children recklessly, really is the fight for our lives. It’s a great irony: the fight of our lives is learning how to love. As Bishop Monterroso recently observed, there are thousands and thousands of ways for us love our neighbor. There is only one way to love God; and that’s to love our neighbor. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Divine Risk and the Work of Liberation

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (The full readings for today can be found here.)

In the name of the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.

So, it’s a special day today, and I want to begin by telling you a story, or a couple of stories actually. I don’t know if y’all have noticed this, but whenever I mention that I’m going to tell a story, our clergy have one of three different reactions: sometimes they wince a little bit (the way one might wince sitting in the dentist’s chair as the drill approaches), sometimes, they close their eyes and wish they were someplace else, and sometimes they just bow their heads to pray.

            Today is the nineteenth day of June, in the year of our Lord 2022. And it’s an important day in our history, but the story begins a bit before that. Way back on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. He announced that enslaved people held in the Confederate states were free. Now while that was a fine idea, for many of our enslaved brothers and sisters, it had very little meaning. Pronouncing our fellow countrymen free did not actually change their lives much, especially for those in the southern states. And here lies one of the great contradictions of our nation: we were born out of a yearning for liberty, conceived in language that exalted liberty, and built on the backs of men and women we kept in chains. It was, in short, our country’s original sin. And to proclaim it was over meant very little to the men and women who lived under the yoke of slavery.

            Here in Texas, that situation continued for another two and a half years. On June 19, 1865, just a few miles down the road in Galveston, General Gordon Granger finally arrived at the port of Galveston with Union troops. He delivered General Order No. 3 which provided: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” Many of our African American brothers and sisters would have to wait still longer for their freedom, wait until the harvest was completed.

          And I want you to imagine all those years following the Emancipation Proclamation. “They tell me that we’re free, but it don’t seem no different to me at all.”  Or maybe, “I have heard rumors of my liberation, but nothing in my life tells me that’s true.” And I have heard those voices in AA meetings, and I have heard those voices as various groups (women, the poor, those subjected to human trafficking, and those suffering from addiction and frightening diseases) struggle for their dignity. And many years ago, that first celebration we call Juneteenth led the people to the Reedy Chapel, which is an AME church in Galveston. Because those people know it was not their enslavers who had liberated them; they knew they had been freed by their God.

          And it’s a very old story, that struggle for human dignity and liberation. Our Scripture records Moses going to Pharaoh and telling him that he must set the captives free. It seems that the divine plan, God’s intention for humanity, is intricately tied up with our freedom. And that brings us to the gospel for today.

          The gospel story has Jesus wandering far from his home, in the country of the Gerasenes. So, if we look at this story, let’s examine where Jesus is, and what he’s doing. He’s in gentile country, he’s in the tombs (which means ritual impurity), and he’s talking with a demon. He’s in an unclean land, in an unclean place, talking with an unclean spirit. This is the last place a good Jewish boy should be.

That region was also the site of a horrifying event in Jewish history, a terrible war crime. According to the historian Josephus, during the late 60s CE, toward the end of the Jewish revolt, the Roman general Vespasian sent soldiers to retake Gerasa. The Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. So, many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.

           As soon as Jesus crosses the Lake of Galilee and steps on shore, he is met by this man who is the victim of demonic possession. The portrait of this man is truly horrifying. He goes about naked and does not live in a home, but rather in the tombs. Luke is telling us that this man is more dead than alive. Mark’s account adds to this man’s torment. He tells us: “He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:3-5.

          So, it is this man, this tortured fragment of a man, who raises one of the most important questions in the Bible: He asks, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  It’s a question most of us should ask, and ask regularly. What exactly is the role of Jesus in our lives? For this man, and I hope for many of us, Jesus has come to set us free. I’m wondering how well we know Jesus as liberator. This man, who is never named in the Gospels came to know Jesus as the man who set him free. And just as the Jewish homeland was occupied by Roman legions, this man was occupied by a legion of forces which robbed him of his full humanity.

          When Jesus asks the man to identify the spirits which had taken possession of him, he answers: “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. I don’t know about you, but I have heard the voices of those many demons. You see, the most dangerous message those satanic forces have for us is “This will never change. This will never get better.” I have heard those voices in those who struggle with addiction, and they are legion. We heard those voices as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and we saw thousands of refugees forced to leave their homes. And they are legion. We heard those voices use scripture, our holy book, to justify the chains on the enslaved people in the American South. And they are legion. We hear those voices every time there is another mass shooting, and we are paralyzed because some of us are committed to the notion that that’s just how things are. And those voices are legion. And we have heard the voices of anger and grievance in our political discourse, and they are legion.


            As was the case on that morning in Galveston in 1865, as was the case that morning in the country of the Gerasenes, the divine movement is always a movement of liberation. Let me say that again, the divine movement is always a movement of liberation. We should not confuse this movement as a license to do whatever we want. We know that the movement of liberation is of divine origin when it calls us, not as a charter or privilege for a disordered freedom from all constraint, but rather the liberty to become the people God intended for us to become, the freedom to become fully human. We find the intersection of the divine and the human impulse toward liberation when we hear the call toward becoming more deeply human and restoring our brothers and sisters to the imago dei, the image of God in which they were created.

            Jesus understood this was his mission—to release the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But we profoundly misunderstand our faith if we think that we should sit back and applaud this work of Jesus from a distance. Christianity, my brothers and sisters, is not a spectator sport. I’m always amazed when we give the newly baptized a candle. We should give them seat belts and a crash helmet. Because that work of casting out the demonic forces in the world, that work of setting the captives free and restoring men and women to God’s vision for them—that’s our work now.
            Amen

The Homecoming

The full readings for this morning can be found here:

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

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

Good morning. How’s your Lent going?  It’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, so we’re about knee deep in it. And you know, somewhere between the global pandemic, the Russian Invasion, and events in this parish, I think it’s about the lentiest Lent I’ve ever lented. But here we are, and this morning, the Church has offered us this magnificent story. We call this story the prodigal son. That word “prodigal” makes me wonder. It means extravagant, lavish, or sometimes wasteful spending and I promise you we’ll come back to that next week.

It’s one of my favorite stories, a story about how we should treat terrible sinners—you know, people like you and like me. So Jesus tells us this story that captures the essence of not only this season of repentance, but also of the heart of Christianity.

And he begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” Now, I think Jesus’ audience, when they heard this introduction, would have immediately thought, “Uh oh. There’s going to be trouble.” Because these people knew their Scripture, and they would have immediately thought of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Essau, and perhaps of Joseph and his brothers.

You see, I had several brothers, and I understand what kind of trouble younger brothers can be. But in this story, the younger son goes to his father and says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Now, we may miss the import of this request. In that world, at that time, that was in essence the younger son saying, “I wish you were dead” or at least, “You’re taking too long to die.” But the father complies and gives his younger son his inheritance early. So, the younger boy gathers all he has and goes off to a foreign country.

Oh, I know about that foreign country. I’ve spent time there. You see, there was a time in my life when, if you had asked me, I would have told you that I spent all my money on fine clothes, fast cars, good wine, and pretty women. The rest of it, I wasted. These are years when my father referred to me as Count No-Account. So, I’ve been in that foreign country where the younger brother went. And the boy spends everything he has on dissolute living and then trouble comes: a famine strikes the land. You see, there’s one thing about that foreign country: it’s a lot of fun—until it isn’t anymore.

And we know how far this younger son has fallen, because here’s this good Jewish boy in a gentile country feeding the pigs. Feeding the pigs! I mean, that’s no place for a good Jewish kid. And Luke tells us he would gladly have eaten the pig food, but “no one gave him anything.” “No one gave him anything.” That’s the way the world is sometimes, when you’re down on your luck. And it’s hard to find a way out.

But then, Luke tells us, something remarkable happens. The younger brother has what you might call an epiphany, or a moment of grace, or maybe he’s just desperate. But look at what Luke says: “when he came to himself.” Now, that phrase implies more than just a change of mind, it implies that for a while he had been lost to himself, he had wandered away, he had forgotten who he was. And while we may not have run off with daddy’s money, most of us have forgotten who we are at some point. And he decides to go home, even if that means being treated like one of his father’s hired hands.

And now the story gets really good. Luke tells us, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” That may be my favorite line in all of Scripture. Do you know why the father saw him from a long way off? Because he was looking for him. I suspect he’d been looking for him to come home ever since the boy left. And I take great comfort in that, in the idea of a God who is always anxious for us to come back home. Maybe I find that notion reassuring because…well, I’ve been a long way off myself.

The younger son tells his father, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He confronted his failures, and he recognized that the heavy cost of them. He recognized they might cost him his place in the family, just as our own failures carry a cost. We might add a pause here in the story, as the father weighs his response to the younger son’s words. But the father, in a moment of lavish generosity and forgiveness, tells the servants: Dress this boy up in something fancy and let’s have a party, “let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

And in a real sense, the younger son was dead to his father. He was gone; he was lost. Look at the father’s response: there’s no price to be paid for re-entry into the family; there’s no penance to be done. The father is full of nothing other than joy at his son’s return. Now, we call this parable the prodigal son, and remember that word prodigal means lavish or extravagant. But, I think we could just as easily call it “prodigal father,” because his response of love and forgiveness is just as extravagant as was his son’s spending.

And the family begins to celebrate the boy’s return—well, not everybody in the family joins in the party, the pachanga. The elder son, the good son, who never did a thing to take advantage of his father, can’t even bear to come into the house. Some of us may identify with that older son: he’s responsible; he does what’s expected of him; and he’s very good at keeping score. In fact, he is shacked and bound by his rage.

The older son tells his father: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” And in the world he lives in, he’s right. He lives in a world of the zero-sum game, where anytime someone gets ahead, you’re falling behind. We call that an economy of scarcity. He cannot even bring himself to recognize his brother. Look at what he says: not my brother has come back, but this son of yours came back.

The problem isn’t that he has a sense of right and wrong. The problem is that he is a prisoner of it, chained to his sense of injustice. He can’t even go into the house. That’s a hard way to live. He reminds me of something we used to say about my family. We said that we suffered from a genetic case of Irish Alzheimer’s—that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.

Let’s contrast his response to that of the father, who tells him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Contrast the older son, who says “this son of yours” with the father, who says “this brother of yours.” The father had to celebrate because the joy and forgiveness overflowed from him. The elder son lives in an economy of scarcity; the father lives in something much closer to what we call the economy of grace, or God’s economy. In the economy of grace, love and forgiveness are the currency, the coin of the realm. And that’s the world, the economy, in which the father has chosen to live.

Now, here’s the brilliance of this story, the genius of this tale: we don’t know the end of the story. We don’t know if the older brother accepted his father’s invitation to join in the celebration. We don’t even know if he ever came into the party, into the house. We don’t know if the younger brother really did change his ways, or if he fell back into his old lifestyle. And I think Jesus meant for that story to remain unfinished, because we get to write that ending every single day in our own lives. We can choose to live like the younger brother, the older brother, or the father. We get to write the ending of this wonderful story in the way we live. It’s your story. Make it a good one.            

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Looking for the Light

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (The full readings for today can be found here.)

            In the name of the Living God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Well, good morning, everyone, good morning. First, I need to thank you all for your generous hospitality. It has been a joy and an honor to walk with you through this season of Epiphany. And I’m glad we could all be here together for this great feast day of the Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration.

            And we’ll get to the gospel for today, but before we do, I thought we might spend a few moments reviewing the magnificent kaleidoscope of images the Church has offered us during this season of Epiphany. We began with a crowd of people gathered around this strange prophet John who baptized Jesus by the river. And the sky broke open, and the Holy Spirit came down upon them like a dove, and God spoke: “I am well pleased with my Son, my beloved.” And I’m wondering if you good folk can ever hear God’s voice saying that about you, because I’m pretty sure that’s how God feels. And we wonder if that’s what a life with the Spirit is like—like being the favorite child.

            Now, turn that kaleidoscope just a little bit, and we find ourselves at a wedding. And we overhear Jesus’ mother, nudging him to do that God thing even though he says it’s not time yet. And we see this remarkable image: six stone jars, filled to the brim with astonishing wine. And we wonder if that’s what life with Jesus is like.

            The Church paints in a rich palette of wonder during epiphany—images of God manifest, God becoming clear to us in bright moments. If you sometimes go to church in the middle of the week, you found yourselves in Caesarea Philippi, considered a holy place for centuries, at the base of Mount Hermon, a place where springs of living water flowed out of nearby caves. And it’s there that Jesus asks that remarkable question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers that he’s the Messiah, the son of the living God. But I think Epiphany is about each of us struggling to answer that question for ourselves. Who do you say that Jesus is? And we might wonder: Are we, too, the rocks upon which Jesus will build his church?

            And then, the next week we saw Jesus, back in his hometown, preaching his first sermon. And he told them about God setting the captives free, and blind people regaining their sight because this was the year of the Lord’s favor. And he rolled up the scroll, and he told them (and he’s still telling us): this is going on all around you. It’s happening now. And we ought to be looking around for it.

            And the next week, we heard the rest of that story. We heard how the congregation became angry because Jesus dared to suggest that God’s love wasn’t just for a select few, that it was available for everyone. And the people were so angry they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. And we might wonder about our place in that story.

            And then a week later, we saw these men out fishing on the lake, and they haven’t caught a thing all day until Jesus shows up and tells them to go out into the deep water. And when they do, they get so many fish that their nets are bursting with the catch. And I want you to try and imagine these boats, so full of fish that the boats are about to capsize. And when they return to shore, these men are compelled to follow Jesus wherever he goes, to follow him even to the Cross. And we begin to wonder if that’s what life with God is like—if it’s like going out into the deep water.

            And last week, we hear the story of a brother returning home and confronting his brothers who betrayed him, who almost killed him. And we heard how Joseph, the dreamer, and his brothers wept together. And many of us wept together. And we heard Jesus telling us that we had to forgive our enemies because that’s the kind of thing God does and we are God’s children. And we begin to understand what God is like and wonder if we too can act like that.

            All of this was kind of a long introduction to this morning’s Gospel, the story of the transfiguration. Now, transfiguration is a churchy word for change, but a particular kind of change: a change in which the light of God begins to shine through in a person’s life. And we began this morning with the story of Moses, coming down from the mountain having wandered for a long time in the desert, with the stone tablets. And the people saw that Moses’ encounter with God left his face shining because a genuine encounter with God will leave you changed.

            And we fast forward to the story of Jesus, who takes his friends up on the mountain to pray, and something remarkable happens. Suddenly, they see Jesus bathed in light, with Moses (who represents the law) and Elijah (who represents the prophets). And smack dab in the middle of them is Jesus, who’s about to make his last trip into Jerusalem. And a cloud comes over them and they’re terrified. You see, sometimes an encounter with the living God will do that: it’s not all unicorns and puppies and glitter.

And I want to make a suggestion. I’m not so sure that Jesus was changed at all. Maybe it was the disciples who had changed, and for the first time, they were able to see Jesus for who he really was. And we’ve come full circle, back to that first week of Epiphany, and we again hear God tell us that Jesus is God’s son, and we really need to listen to what he has to say.

            But the Church wants to leave us with one more image, one more tableau before we leave Epiphany. We see a father, begging Jesus for his help because his son is terribly ill with something like a seizure. And we think about those troubles in our own lives that will scarcely leave us. And we see the power of Jesus to heal us, even as he’s on his way to Jerusalem, even as he’s on his way to the Cross.

            Sometimes, we see God in these remarkable moments, like the Transfiguration. But more often, we see God in some very ordinary places and times: a crummy day of fishing, at a wedding, a troubled family reunion, a father frantically worried about a sick child, and yes, even a sermon that didn’t go so well. God has a funny habit of showing up when we don’t really expect it. God is kinda sneaky that way.

            Now, throughout this journey the Church has taken us on during the season of Epiphany, we’ve seen the stunning power of God, a light that enters into the darkness of our world. But in each of these passages, people saw the light of God because they were looking for it—sometimes, because they were desperate for it. It’s what one psychologist has referred to as the “scout mindset.”  Think of it like those puzzles you used to do when you were a child, where there were shapes of animals hidden in the trees or the landscape. And you could find them because you were looking carefully for them.

If we go looking for the problems or the trouble in this world, we will surely find thembecause they’re out there. On the other hand, if we are looking for the love of God and the ways it’s shown in the world, we’ll find that, too. Epiphany is about learning to look for the blinding incandescence of God in the world. We train our eyes to look for those moments in which the world is aglow with the burnished presence and love of Jesus. I have seen that light here, in this good Parish, and I know it’ll be here when I come back. Amen.



James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Just One Thing

Jesus_with_Mary_and_Martha_MG_3110_48-120-800-600-90

The full readings for today can be found here.

“You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

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

You know, it’s hard to be the oldest sibling, the oldest sister or brother. I was the oldest, and I promise you, I know how hard it can be. I was the eldest brother of four boys. And for reasons I still don’t really understand, my brothers (my no-good brothers) did not always really appreciate my leadership skills.

Now, growing up in West Texas, there was one thing we were absolutely certain of. It wasn’t spelling or astronomy or even mathematics

 

We knew for a fact that if a horned toad spit blood in your eye you would go blind. I’ll repeat that, because some of you may not be aware of this guiding principle of the universe: if a horned toad spit blood in your eye, you would go blind. And while they have since become endangered, back in those days they were everywhere, at least out in West Texas.

Now this story, however, isn’t really about horned toads. It’s about my no-good brothers. You see, one summer morning, while I was still asleep, my brothers decided to stage a revolt, a kind of coup d’état. So that morning I awoke to find that my no-good brothers, my no-good mutinous brothers, had tied me to the bed. So there I was, bound to the bed, like Gulliver surrounded by the Lilliputians, thinking it couldn’t get any worse. But I was wrong.

Just then, my no-good brother Patrick leered at me as he showed me a shoe box containing between one and two dozen horned toads. He shook them onto the bed and they began running up and down and, it seemed at the time, heading straight for my eyes.

So, I did what I always do when a situation calls for remarkable courage. I squealed like a little girl. I screamed like the banshees, like the demons of hell, were after me—because, well, they were. And when finally, after about a thousand years, my mother came into the room, she looked at me as though she were looking at Lazarus and said, “Unbind him.” Now, I’m not sure that my brothers intended to blind me, not exactly. But I do think they were at least…indifferent to the possibility. So, I know how hard it can be to be the older brother or sister.

Let’s turn our attention to the gospel for this morning. It’s a very short passage: in fact, it consists of only six sentences. There are several things to note. First, I don’t get the feeling that the day of Jesus’ visit was the first time these two sisters had this discussion. I think Jesus kind of walked into the middle of a long-running squabble between these two about their respective roles. We can sort of hear that in Martha’s request to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” This is sort of the first century equivalent of “Mom, make her stop!”

That leads me to one of the spiritual lessons we can draw from this passage: Jesus does not like tattletales. In fact, as a friend of mine has observed, “Tattletales make the baby Jesus cry.”

Secondly, when Jesus and the disciples come to this village, they come to Martha’s house. It’s her house. And Jesus has come with several of the disciples, so there’s a lot of work to be done. And in that culture, at that time, hospitality was a big deal—it was a cultural norm, and it was a religious norm. The task she busies herself with is the spiritually essential task of extending hospitality to strangers. So, I sadly don’t think the point of the story is that doing housework is sinful, or less valuable than studying. I only wish the point of the story was that housework is a sin. I could get behind that.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the point of the story isn’t that the practice of hospitality is less important than spending time with God. If you’ll remember back to just last week, earlier in that very same chapter of Luke, we heard the story of the Good Samaritan, a story which at its core, is a story about hospitality. Jesus says that we inherit eternal life by loving God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And when we do that, we come to learn that loving God and loving our neighbor (or, to put it another way, practicing hospitality) aren’t two things at all. They’re the same thing. In fact, they’re the “one thing.” But, more about that in a bit.

Now, unlike Martha, her sister Mary, sits listening to Jesus. In effect, she is studying the Torah with Jesus. She sits at his feet and calls him “Lord,” assuming the posture of a disciple. We might miss how odd that is, because in that culture at that time, men and women did not study Torah together.

I don’t think this story is about the false choice between action and contemplation. I say “false choice” because right Christian action is always the fruit of contemplation, and our contemplation should push us toward apostolic action.

Martha, actually, is doing a lot of things right. She recognizes Jesus as her Lord; that’s what she calls him. Moreover, she’s engaged in the holy task of serving her guests, in the Greek diakonia. That’s good and holy work; in fact, that’s the same Greek word root for our word “deacon.” So, where does she get off the track?

I think the key lies in what Jesus tells her: she was “worried and distracted by many things.” The word we translate as “distracted” (in the Greek periespato) carries with it the idea of being pulled, or dragged, or torn in several directions. She is consumed by her worry. So, while her sister Mary is feasting on the bread of life, Martha, is making a meal out of the bread of anxiety. This anxiety sabotages her hospitality and subverts the very essence of hospitality—the gracious attention to the care of others.

We can serve God through the practice of hospitality, preparing a meal for example. Or, we can just cook dinner. If we chose the latter, it’s easy to get distracted. But Jesus calls us into a life of unity—of seeing all our labors, the entirety of our lives, as joined in a single sacred task: the one thing. The great Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously said that, “A saint is someone who wills the one thing.” That’s the better part.

Like Martha, we are all so helplessly distracted. We need to remember the one thing: we are not defined by what we do, but by our relationship with the living God in whom we live and move and have our being. Now, we don’t know how this story ended—whether Martha was able to regain her focus and realize the joy of being with Jesus. I suspect Luke left that ending out intentionally, because we get to write the ending of that story for ourselves. How do we want to live, to spend this wild, beautiful, priceless time we have been given?

The great Spanish poet Pablo Neruda once said:

If we were not so single minded
about keeping our lives moving,
And for once could do nothing,
Perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves.

So, today, that’s my prayer for us, that we come to recognize the one thing, just one thing, that binds all the parts of our lives and all of us together. We only need one thing. Just one. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

That’s Crazy Talk

Mom

The full readings for today can be found here.

All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

In the name of the living God, who creates, redeems, and sustains us.

About 50 years ago, I was with my three younger brothers one Christmas morning in Odessa. One of us, I don’t remember who but I’m afraid it might have been me, didn’t get something he wanted for Christmas. Now I also don’t remember what it was that boy didn’t get: it could have been a Major Matt Mason Space Crawler or a utility belt for his Batman outfit. It could have been a “pop gun, pampoogas, pantookas, or drums!” It might have been a “checkerboard, bizilbigs, popcorn, or plums.”

But there we were, in our living room which was scattered with torn wrapping paper, stockings full of candy and our Christmas gifts, and one of us (again I’m afraid it might have been me), complained and grumbled about the unfairness of it all.

And without any explanation, my mother packed all four of us into the station wagon. And we drove for a good while, and as I remember the dawn was just beginning to break. And my mother drove us to the poor side of Odessa, where people literally lived in ramshackle houses built with discarded cinder blocks, two by fours, cardboard and black plastic lining the roofs. And my brothers and I stared out the window with wide eyes, because we didn’t know people actually lived like that. (It would be many years before I knew that people actually lived in much worse circumstances.) I saw people who surely didn’t have enough to eat, or clean water. And my mother didn’t say a word.

That morning, my mother gave me a beautiful, generous, terrible blessing. And I think of it every time Christmas rolls around, and often when I see a homeless person, or meet someone who’s down on their luck, or seems to be a little less kind or less educated than the people I like to consider my friends. My mother gave me a blessing; she opened my eyes to the world around me, to a world which is not always gentle or generous or fun. As John Newton wrote, I was blind and now I see. And I learned that a blessing is not always a happy event; it doesn’t always make you proud, and it doesn’t always feel like a kindness.

So, we should probably talk about this morning’s gospel, which scholars refer to as the Sermon on the Plain. It’s worth setting the scene. This story takes place fairly early in Luke’s gospel; Jesus has just called his twelve disciples. And he’s been up, praying on the mountain, and comes down to a level place, a plain, and a crowd has gathered.

So, one of the things we know about Luke’s gospel is that it is profoundly Greek. Luke’s Greek is the most elegant of the four gospels, and he often uses references to Greek literature. And in Greek literature, we know that the gods dwelt on Mount Olympus, and came down to the earth to interact with humanity. So, it’s probably not a coincidence that Luke’s Jesus goes to the mountain to be with God, and comes down to the plain to meet the people.

Luke’s gospel is also probably the most inclusive of the four Gospels. By this, I mean that everyone is within the circle of holiness. In Luke, Jesus reaches out to lepers, the lame, the blind, the tax collectors. Luke’s gospel pays particular attention to women, and to Gentiles. We find that in today’s text, because Luke notes that people came from “all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” So, when Luke says they came from Tyre and Sidon—that’s Gentile country.

As Jesus begins to preach he describes the poor, the hungry, the outcasts, and the broken-hearted as “blessed.” Now, in the original Greek that word is makarios. It was first used to describe the gods, the immortals who lived lives without worries, or work, or even fear of death. Later on, makarios came to encompass the elite, those whose riches and power put them beyond the everyday cares and the strife of most people’s lives.

Moreover, while Jesus announces that these people will share in a reward later, he says they are already “blessed.” That pronouncement is in the present tense. Most of us probably overlook just how radical and revolutionary Jesus’ sermon would have seemed. I think anyone looking at that rag-tag, dirty, collection of the detritus of the Roman empire would have found the suggestion that they were the “blessed” preposterous, irresponsible, and a little bit silly. Why, that’s crazy talk.

And then, in the second half of Jesus’ sermon, it gets even worse. You know, I sometimes hear people say they just love the sayings of Jesus, especially the Beatitudes. I don’t love them; they keep me awake at night. Because when I hear about the people that Jesus says are in trouble—the wealthy, those who aren’t hungry, those whom people speak well of, those who are laughing—well, I think I might be in that group. And all those characteristics—those are most of the things that most of us would think make up a happy life. And Jesus says those are the people who are in trouble. That’s crazy talk.

So, what’s going on here? Well, I think there are at least a couple of things. First, let’s look at the people Jesus calls “blessed”—the poor, the hungry, the outcasts, and the broken hearted. Now, I want you to remember back to the Gospel three weeks ago, when Jesus was preaching his first sermon back in his hometown of Nazareth. And he quoted from the prophet Isaiah and announced that he was there to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and break the chains of the captives and to free those who were oppressed. Well, those are the very people he’s talking about this morning, and calling them “blessed.”

Now, Jesus wasn’t romanticizing the poor. He knew these people; he knew that their lives were short, brutish and full of struggle and pain. But I think Jesus could see something that we can’t.

I think Jesus could see that beneath this world we live in, there’s an invisible structure that created it, that holds it up and sustains it. I think Jesus knew about this invisible architecture of God’s love that surrounds these people: the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And in that world, these people are the “blessed” ones.
And it was that unseen fabric that blest that petulant selfish boy one Christmas morning and put him in the car and took him for a drive and urged him: “Wake up! Look at the world around you! Pay attention here, because this is what’s important!”

So, this morning’s Gospel tells us that power came out of Jesus and healed everyone in the crowd that day. And maybe Jesus really laid hands on them and healed every one of them. Or maybe, just maybe, this sermon, this announcement of their blessedness is what actually healed them.

You know, the Church has told me that I can teach and preach, and I wear these robes and this Cross. But every now and then, I still run into that angry little boy from Odessa. And he’s still muttering and grumbling, mired in his self-centered little world. And I’m always surprised when he shows up because I thought he’d be smarter by now, that he’d be further along on his journey. But maybe someday this invisible current of God’s love and grace will heal him, too. God knows he needs it. God knows we all do. God knows.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

Hurry Down!

zaccheaus

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke 19: 1-10.

The full readings for today can be found here.

 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.

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

          Good morning, good morning. It is always a great pleasure to be with you, to be among my friends in my second church home.

          One of my favorite stories in our Anglican tradition is about a young man in England. His mother died of consumption, which we now call tuberculosis, and at age 11 he went to sea with his father. He worked on merchant ships and was later pressed into service with the Royal Navy, and thereafter became involved in the slave trade, acting as a first mate aboard a slave ship and later as an investor in the slave trade. Years later, he became a priest and an abolitionist and was forced to confront what he had done. He apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” His name, of course, was John Newton and he wrote one of our most famous hymns, Amazing Grace. I love the story of John Newton because it illustrates that we’re never too far gone for God’s love and mercy to break our hearts and change our lives.

          Speaking of that, this is the second week in a row that we’ve had a story about tax collectors. We get the feeling that Luke is trying to tell us something. You’ll remember that last week we studied the story of the proud Pharisee and the tax collector who begged for God’s mercy.

          It might help us to understand just why tax collectors were viewed as such a loathsome bunch of people. It went deeper than simply saying nobody likes to pay taxes, although it almost certainly included that. First, under the Roman system, tax collectors were paid very poorly. The only way one could make a living at that profession was to charge more than the taxes that were actually owed. Yes, acting as collector almost required that one would engage in fraud and oppression. Further, we remember that the Jewish people were under a Roman occupation. Anyone who collected taxes for the Roman was viewed as a collaborator.

          Now, the other thing we know about the man called Zaccheaus is that he was rich, which means that he was good at the job of collaboration with the Romans. To be a wealthy tax collector almost certainly meant that he was involved in corruption, extortion and embezzlement. And Zaccheaus wasn’t just any tax collector, he was the chief tax collector.

          So, there’s a certain irony already hidden in this story, because the name Zacchaeus means “the clean one” or “righteous.” But at first blush, he doesn’t seem all that righteous at all. But Luke loves to turn our expectations on their head, just like his rabbi Jesus did.

          Now we know two other things about Zacchaeus.  We know he was a little man, and thus was compelled to climb into a sycamore tree to see Jesus.  We also know that he was looking for Jesus, that he was seeking Jesus.  In fact, he runs ahead so that he can see the Lord.

          Now, climbing into a tree tells us something else about the man called Zacchaeus.  Very few grown men can climb into a tree and maintain their sense of dignity.  Thus we know that Zacchaeus was willing to humble himself in order to see this man called Jesus. Perhaps that’s because his past had separated Zacchaeus from both his community and from God. I suspect it took a good deal of courage to climb into that tree. I suspect it took a good deal more to come down and face Jesus.

          But we get the feeling that just as eagerly as Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus, Jesus was looking for Zaccheaus as well.  Scripture tells us that Jesus looked up and saw him. Now the Greek word there is anablepo, which often implies looking up to heaven. But when Jesus looks up, he finds the face of a man who needs the love of God in his life.  Jesus calls out to him, telling him to climb down and invited himself to Zaccheaus’ home.
Although Zaccheaus has been living a terribly sinful life, Jesus accepts him as he is, embracing this little man, this tax collection, unconditionally.  Perhaps it’s that acceptance that brings about the change in Zaccheaus. Love can do that sort of thing.

          The response of the crowd to Jesus’ acceptance is predictable. Once again, people are grumbling about the company that Jesus keeps. He just seems to delight in spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. I’m reminded of something that Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said. He said “God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are really quite low.” And that’s why we call these gospels “good news.”

          In that world, at that time, no self-respecting Jew would have spent any time with, let alone spent the night with, a tax collector. And yet this man Jesus was eager to do just that, offering Zaccheaus acceptance and rejecting the notion that he was an outsider, that he was unclean. Jesus liberates Zaccheaus from his past and from his shame. And in the final analysis, it’s not just Zaccheaus’ house where Jesus stays; he takes up residence in his soul.

          One of the overarching theme’s of Luke’s Gospel is the welcome that Jesus offers to sinners. We see that in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the woman of the city who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and the story of the prodigal son. Our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s capacity to love us and forgive us. That’s worth repeating: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s capacity to love and forgive. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Now we get to the linchpin of the story, and it’s an interesting and curious thing. This may be a moment of Zaccheaus’ conversion. Our text provides, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” But there are several good Greek scholars who think a better translation is something called the present progressive tense. In other words, they think it should read, “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.” In other words, rather than a sinner who promises he will repent, that reading presents Zacchaeus as a saint whose righteousness was known only to Jesus.

In one sense, it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus saw the goodness that was already there in Zaccheaus (a righteousness that no one else could see) or whether he saw a capacity for goodness to which the crowd was blind. Either way, Jesus recognizes Zaccheaus for what he really is: a son of Abraham, a beloved child of God.

            That, I think, leads us to the real challenge of this Gospel. Can we see the hidden goodness in God’s children? Can we see the capacity to repent? In this season of stewardship, can we learn to be good stewards of the people God has put into our lives? Just as we do with our money, can we use the gifts of the people that God brings to us for the kingdom? Can we encourage them to become their best selves, to live like sons and daughters of Abraham, to live into the image of God into which they were created? Can we call them down out of the trees in which they are observers, and invite them to join into the life of the kingdom? Or are we willing to crawl down out of the tree where we safely watch Jesus pass by, and invite the Son of Man into our homes? I invite you to hurry down, because He wants to stay with you. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2016

The Lost and the Found

christ-good-shepherd

The full readings for today can be found here.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

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

          Good morning, good morning. It’s such a grace to be back with you good people at Holy Spirit again.

When I was growing up, out in West Texas, my parents used to tell me that you could tell a lot about someone by the company he keeps. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending his time with tax collectors and sinners . . . again. It’s the kind of thing that he does. Jesus runs around with the wrong crowd. He does it so regularly we might get the impression that he likes spending his time with them. But we know that can’t be the case. Surely, the incarnate God would rather spend his time with decent folk, you know, church going people: people like you and me.

But here’s the funny thing (and when I say funny, I mean the kind of terrifying thing that keeps me awake at night), Luke tells us there were good church going people there that day. And Luke tells us what they were doing that day: they were grumbling.

Now I know that comes as a shock to you. When I read it, you could have knocked me over with a feather. You see, I’ve never heard good church going people grumbling about what’s happening around them: I’ve never heard them complain about the music they don’t like, or the reckless spending in the Church, or about another member of the congregation who has done them wrong, or about the family that always comes in late or children that just won’t behave. But somehow, Luke tells us that’s what the good church people were doing that day, those Pharisees and scribes.

And we’re told that Jesus welcomed the sinners and the tax collectors. This is the scandal of the Gospel, the scandal of God spending time with sinners, the scandal of an unwed mother, the scandal of a God hung on a tree like a scarecrow. Jesus welcomed these sinners. That word, however, that we translate as “welcomed” means a little something more. In the original Greek, the root word is dechomai, which can literally mean to bring into one’s arms. It’s hard to think of that idea without thinking about the parable of the prodigal son, which we find just a little later in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. And in that passage, we have the story of a son who is lost and found, and of a brother who stands around grumbling about the situation.

So, I think this story today compels us to think about what it means to be lost, about who is lost and about who is out looking for them. Jesus offers a couple of parables to help us understand this notion, but as is usual, the parables force us into a place where we spend easily as much time looking for an answer as we do finding one.

In the first of these, Jesus tells us about a shepherd with 100 sheep, but one of the sheep is lost. He leaves the other 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and look for the one sheep that he’s lost. Jesus asks, “Who of you would not do that?” The answer is simple: nobody would do that. No one would put the other 99 sheep at risk, leaving them without protection or shelter. That’s just not the smart play.

And then, he tells a story of about woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them and spent all night sweeping up and looking for the lost coin. Then, she found it and was so excited she threw a party for her friends and neighbors, a party which probably cost as much as the coin she lost. Again, it’s unimaginable: a ridiculous kind of celebration.

And yet Jesus tells us this is the response in the Kingdom of heaven when one sinner repents, when one sinner decides to turn toward God. In one sense, each of the images Luke uses for God in this chapter of his gospel would have been a bit offensive, or at the very least shocking, to His audience: a shepherd, an old woman, and a father who has no pride. Shepherds occupied a very low place in the social order, followed by women. And the father in the story of the prodigal son, well, it seems like he’s making a bit of a sucker bet on his wandering no-good child. None of these images of God would have appealed to a first century audience in Palestine.

I think Jesus was intentionally shocking his audience into new ways of thinking about God―thinking about God not much in the celestial or the abstract, but about a God who could be found in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things. And Jesus brought the good news of the Gospel, for people who were desperately looking for God in the world, good news that God was desperately looking for them, too.

But as we read this passage, I think Jesus is forcing us to rethink our ideas of who is really lost. You see, in this story, it’s neither the sinners nor the tax collectors (who were collaborators with the Romans) who are lost. Rather, it’s those sitting on the sidelines, frozen in their self-righteousness and judgment who are really lost.

We might ask ourselves who is lost in today’s world. Could it be the parents who wrap their whole lives into their children’s ball games and dance recitals, instilling a drive to succeed that crushes the joy out of those things? Could it be those who have struggled their whole lives to save for their retirement, only to find that there’s no meaning left in their remaining years? Could it be those whose addictions have taken over their lives until they can no longer find any peace in the world? Or maybe it’s the woman who’s trying to raise her family while taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s until there’s just nothing left of herself in her life. Or could it be those of us whose sense of our own piety and holiness compels us to look at those who are down on their luck with the smug assurance that such a thing could never happen to good people like us. You see, I think we’re all a little lost.

And I guess today we can’t help but think about the anniversary of those tragic events 15 years ago in New York.  And we all know about the sorrow of those days and the terrible losses that were suffered. But there’s another story about that day that I’ve heard recently. It’s the story of the man in the red bandana.

His real name was Welles Carothers, and he was 24 years old and worked as an equity trader on the 104th floor of the south tower. His building was struck at 9:03 in the morning, when United Flight 175 crashed into the tower. But he was alright and left a voicemail for his mother 9 minutes later in which he said, “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know that I’m okay.”

And there are lots of people who remember seeing him, a tall man in a red bandana, helping people get out of the building. One of the survivors, told this story: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief. He was looking for a fire extinguisher.” As a survivor named Judy Wein recalls, the man in the red bandana pointed to the stairs and made an announcement that saved lives: Anyone who can walk, get up and walk now. Anyone who can perhaps help others, find someone who needs help and then head down.”

He went back into the towers several times. He saved at least 12 people’s lives. And then, he never made it back out. That man, that man in the red bandana went looking for those who would be lost, he went looking regardless of the cost. And I think that’s kind of what God’s like. God goes looking for us in the rubble of our lives. And God tells us, “If you don’t need help, find someone who does.”

All these parables are about more than what’s been lost. They’re about the foolish, reckless ways in which God goes looking for us when we’re lost. They’re about a God who will bet on us, even when we’re not a smart bet. Right now, God is lighting a lamp and searching everywhere for us, even when we don’t want to be found. And if we want to be Christlike, if we want to be like Jesus, we’ll join in that search. Amen.

© 2016 James R. Dennis

Teach Us to Pray

a

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

Setting Our Faces to Go to Jerusalem

a

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

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

The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016