James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022
Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark
The Beginning of the Good News
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Tagged Anglican Dominicans, Baptism, Bible, Christianity, Episcipalian, Episcopalian, Gospel of Mark, Jesus, John the Baptist, Religion, Sacraments, Theology
Let Me See
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Tagged Anglican Dominicans, Bartimaeus, Bible, Disciple, Episcopalian, Gospel of Mark, Jesus, Spirituality, Theology, Vocation
Not One Stone
The full readings for today can be found here.
Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In the name of the living God: Who creates, redeems and sustains us.
I think it’s hard for most of us to imagine the Temple in Jesus’ day. It was a magnificent structure, with gleaming white marble pillars. Its exterior walls were about the height of a modern 20 story building. The central structure of the inner Temple glistened with white marble and gold and immense bronze entrance doors. Herod built it to rival the great religious structures around the world. Like all massive building projects, it was a source of economic growth.
But for the Jewish people, it was so much more. You came to the Temple to have your sins forgiven, to celebrate, to worship, to ask for a blessing. For the Jewish people, quite literally, the Temple was the place where God lived. It was the intersection of heaven and earth.
I think if you were to ask Jesus how he felt about that Temple he would have been stunningly ambiguous, fiercely equivocal. He could see the beauty of the place, and he knew that for many it was a place of prayer and devotion. And yet, it also was a place that took advantage of the poor, that betrayed widows and orphans, that collaborated with the occupying Romans, and it was also a monument to Herod’s narcissism.
Nevertheless, to predict its destruction, to even speculate about that sort of thing, was bad form. It’s not the kind of thing a nice Jewish boy would talk about. In fact, later in Mark’s gospel, that suggestion would be used as evidence against Jesus in his trial. You see, what Jesus said, well, that’s the kind of thing that could get you killed.
And yet, after one of the many Jewish revolts, around 70 A.D. (around the time Mark was writing his gospel), the Romans marched in and destroyed the Temple. The historian Josephus, who was admittedly prone to exaggeration, says that over a million people were killed. Many others were taken slaves. The Temple was levelled, and fire consumed much of the residential areas in Jerusalem. For the Jewish people, it was a catastrophe. I’m sure they wondered how God could let this happen, whether God cared about them anymore. And not one stone was left upon another.
You know several years ago, I was teaching a class on a Wednesday night at another church here in town. And when I got out of class and went to my car, I checked my phone and there 16 missed calls and several messages from my no-good brother Patrick. I immediately called Patrick and learned that my brother Sean Michael, had taken his own life.
Now my baby brother Sean Michael was one of the bright lights in this world. He was brilliant, with a PhD in environmental chemistry. He had worked as a chemist cleaning up toxic waste sites, and later became a high school chemistry teacher. He was funny, and bright and kind and warm, and had a nasty habit of breaking into show tunes for very little reason. In many ways, he was the best of what my family could offer to the world. And then, he was gone. And not one stone was left upon another. I’ll come back to this in just a moment.
I think many of us have had moments like that, times when our entire world comes crashing down around us, times when not one stone is left upon another. A soldier comes home from the Middle East after multiple deployments. And once the initial celebration ends, his family begins to notice that he’s just not the same person anymore. And their lives begin to unravel. Or a woman meets with the human resources director and learns that her job has been eliminated. And she doesn’t have any idea how she’ll feed her family. And not one stone is left upon another.
Or one more gunman walks into a church and plucks several lives away from a decent, gentle, holy congregation. Or a young couple travel to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston with their three year old daughter. While there, they receive a terrifying diagnosis. Or a marriage of two people who genuinely loved and cared about each other falls apart. And not one stone is left upon another. So, what are we to do about these events? How do we respond as a church? How do we carry on when not one stone is left upon another?
I think Jesus offers us a bit of a clue in today’s gospel, when he tells us these events, these tragedies, these famines, these moments of devastation, are the “beginnings of the birthpangs.” Something remains to be born out of our pain, out of our loss, out of our devastation, God will bring forth something new.
So, back to that night in 2007 when I learned about my brother’s death. I turned around and went into the church and knelt down in one of the chapels and began to pray. And I wept like a baby. And one of the priests there, to whom I will always be grateful, came into that chapel and knelt down beside me and I noticed that he was crying, too.
So I asked how we deal with those moments when our world falls apart, when not one stone is left upon another. The writer of Hebrews talks about “holding fast to the confession of hope.” We are called to defy terror and oppression and sorrow with hope. It may seem an insufficient weapon when confronted with the blunt force trauma of this world, but Scripture and the Cross assure us that hope is, in the end, insurmountable. The reading from Hebrews continues: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” That’s the Church, that’s the real church. Two men, praying and crying in the dark.
In this season of stewardship, we might well ask how we are going to be good stewards of the people God has placed in our lives. Our confession of hope lies in provoking each other to love more intensely, forgive more completely, and challenging each other to care for God’s children more deeply. As Saint Paul said, we can hold fast to what is good, care for each other with profound affection. And they’ll know we are Christians, not by our architecture or our programs or our average Sunday attendance. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018
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Tagged Anglican Dominicans, Christianity, Gospel of Mark, Love, Pastoral Care, Religion, Spirituality, Suicide, the Temple
Losing Our Lives
The full readings for today can be found here.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In the name of the Living God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
It’s an odd passage, our Gospel for this morning. And you know, it’s not unambiguously “good news.” So, it’s probably worth setting the scene for today’s reading.
The eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is pretty much bursting out–full of a lot of that Jesus stuff. Jesus feeds the four thousand, argues with the Pharisees, and restores sight to a blind man at Bethsaida. And, after all this, he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And more importantly, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a marvelous question. Who is Jesus? More importantly, who is Jesus to me? What has he got to do with my life? That question alone merits 40 days worth of contemplation.
In response to Jesus’ question, Peter offers an answer and it’s stunning. Peter: who is always full of enthusiasm if not wisdom. Peter: the kid in class who raises his hand regardless of whether he knows the answer or not. I love Peter. He is hopelessly earnest although a bit clumsy. This gives me hope. He and I are so much alike. Well, except for that sainthood thing. And I’m working on that.
Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God. And that gets us to the Gospel this morning, which is where everything begins to go haywire. Because while the disciples, and all of Israel, was waiting for a certain kind of Messiah, Jesus was busy being a different kind of Messiah. They were looking for a king, a godly king to be sure, but mostly the kind of king who would get rid of all those Romans around there. They were looking for someone to raise up a guerilla army and take back their country, to liberate them like Moses did, to fight for them like David did. They were looking for someone to make Israel great again. They were looking for someone to beat up the bullies who were beating up on them. And Jesus had no intention of doing that.
Jesus teaches his disciples about the cross—a cross that will ultimately stand at the center of the universe, binding it all together in an act of blessing and filling the world with his eucharist. Through the cross, Jesus will transform his life and ours into union and communion with God. The cross, this instrument of torture and shame, will become so bound up with our notion of blessing and hope and salvation that we can no longer separate them.
Jesus tells his disciples, “This Messiah thing isn’t what you think at all.” He tells them the Messiah will be rejected, will suffer, and be killed. Now, that’s not the worst part. Because then, Jesus tells them, if you want to be my followers, you have to deny yourselves and take up my cross and follow me. Let me rephrase that, Jesus tells us, you and me, that we have to pick up that cross.
So, I’m wondering, what exactly does your cross look like? What are the nails that bind you to that cross?
I’ll tell you a story about picking up the cross, and it’s a story that makes me proud, and it’s a story that makes me ashamed. It’s mostly a story about my baby brother, Sean Michael, and he’s been on my mind a lot lately because this week was the anniversary of his death.
You see, many years ago, out in West Texas, my mother lay in her home dying of cancer. And there came a time when the morphine just wasn’t working very well. And my mother, you see, she couldn’t stand to be touched at all. She would scream like the demons of hell were tormenting her. Well, the time came when my mother needed to be bathed, and her dressing needed to be changed. And I, well, I just couldn’t do it. I could not watch her suffer—this woman who taught me to walk, to read, to think for myself. I just couldn’t bear to hear my mother scream or cry; I couldn’t bear to see her in pain.
But my brother Sean could, and did. He would gently bathe her and change her dressing, while I remained outside. My baby brother, Sean Michael, picked up that cross and I did not. And I was ashamed of myself, but I was proud to call this strong, brave man my brother. And I want to suggest to you that the nails that bound my brother to that cross were the same nails that bound Jesus to his. They were not made of iron; they were made of love. You see, love is the only thing that ever really binds us to the cross.
Now, since that time, I have encountered other crosses. And some of them, I have been able to pick up and carry for a while. I think that’s how the Christian life works: we learn much more from our failures than from our successes. And slowly, bit by bit, we are changed. Bit by bit, the stuff in our lives that isn’t Jesus begins to fade away until more and more of the divine part of us begins to shine through.
And that’s the fundamental purpose of Lent: bit by bit, we are changed; we become more Christlike. Through grace, we grow in faith, we learn to deny ourselves and pick up the cross. We learn to give up our false selves, in order to save our true lives, the lives God meant for us to live. We learn to surrender our selfishness, until our true humanity shines through and we recover the Christ within us.
And that’s my prayer for you, and that’s my prayer for me. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018
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Tagged Anglican Dominicans, Asceticism, Christian ethics, Christianity, discipleship, Gospel of Mark, Jesus, Lent, The Cross, Theology
What Do You Want Me To Do For You?
This homily was preached at Chapter, the annual gathering of Anglican Dominicans, on Friday, August 14, 2015.
The text for this sermon can be found here:
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Good morning, my brothers and sisters, good morning. As the Psalmist says, how good it is when the brothers and sisters live together in unity. Well, close enough. And we come together this morning and find ourselves compelled to confront this text, this story of a blind man named Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. And I want us to try and view this story, and perhaps the readings today, in the light of our own vocations as Dominicans, our vocation as followers of St. Dominic and Jesus.
Jesus finds Bartimaeus in Jericho, a city where walls come down, a city that resonates with the deliverance of Israel and the promises of God. And all we know about Bartimaeus at the outset of the story is that he is blind, and he is a beggar. He is, as the Psalmist writes, “like an owl among the ruins.” But to be blind in those days didn’t just mean to be handicapped. Blindness was much more than an impediment. Blindness was a mark of being unclean, of being impure. Blindness meant that you would be ostracized from both God and his people. So, blindness carried with it a spiritual separation as well as a physical impairment.
And Mark often uses blindness to connote a spiritual impairment, an inability to see what’s going on around you. He contrasts those who are physically blind with those who are blind to the reality of Jesus. And that’s a theme carried forward in this Gospel reading today.
It is much the same notion that we find in one of the Church’s favorite hymns, which tells the story of John Newton, a slave trader who awakened to his participation in the industry of sin and bondage. Newton wrote, “I once was lost, but now I’m found; I was blind, but now I see.”
Hold that thought for a moment, while we meander back through the readings for today and look at the story of St. Paul in Acts. Paul tells us that in his former life he was “zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison….” He tells us that on the way to Damascus to engage in further persecutions of the early Church, he was confronted by a great light and the voice of Christ accused him of persecuting Jesus. And Paul was struck blind and could not see until Ananias spoke the word to him, because Paul had a special mission to see the Righteous One and bear witness. The confrontation with the light of Christ required Paul to set aside all that he thought he knew about God, joining those who trod the Way. So Paul, like John Newton, who had acted as an instrument of cruelty, bondage and spiritual blindness himself, found his way out of his own darkness only through the light of Christ.
So, let’s get back to the story of Bartimaeus the beggar sitting by the road. When he hears that Jesus is there, he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In his opening address, Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as God’s Messiah. In some ways, Bartimaeus reminds me a bit of my spiritual director, a retired Bishop. He often says of his own ministry, “I’m just a beggar myself, trying to show the other beggars where they keep the bread.” We don’t know how, but somehow Bartimaeus knew where the bread of life was.
If Jesus came to the world as part of God’s self-revelation, if he was God’s way of telling us “This is what I am like” then what do we make of the humble life He lived. This is a notion sometimes referred to as The Poverty of God. Bartimaeus could see the divine life in Jesus. But I think we should ask whether we can see the divine in the life of Bartimaeus. Because, as St. John Chrysostrom said, “If you cannot find God in the beggar on the street, you will never find him in the chalice.”
And Jesus asks him a really important question. He asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus was able to minister to this blind beggar because of two important factors: he cared, and he took the time to find out what the problem was. Too often, I think our fumbling efforts to fulfill the Christian life look like the missionary who shows up at a burning house with a stack of bibles, or the evangelist who goes to a land of famine with a handful of crucifixes. That’s all pretty, and interesting, but it’s not exactly what they need.
As Dominicans we are called to meet the needs of God’s world and God’s children, proclaiming and preaching the good news of God’s love. This world can be a very dark place. There are 60 million refugees in the world today, displaced by war and human hatred. In America alone, 5 million people suffer from Alzheimers. Worldwide, 3.5 million children die from hunger each year. We daily confront the horror of war, of genocide, of one natural disaster after another. Joseph Stalin once famously said that one death was a tragedy, but a million deaths were a statistic. We live in a world where pain and misery have been reduced to a statistic.
And this world groans, not only in pain, but also in exhaustion. Many people, many good people, suffer from compassion fatigue. They just don’t feel up to the challenge of another crisis, another story of misery in a very long collection of such stories. And yet, there is this blind beggar on the road. Lord, let us see him.
I want to suggest to you that on that day in Jericho, it was Bartimaeus who heard the same call we have heard: to proclaim and preach the rightful place of Jesus in the world and in God’s kingdom. Lord, let us listen to his message. Lord, let us hear and heed the call, as Dominicans, to testify to the light in a world that wanders in darkness. Amen.
© 2015 James R. Dennis
Who’s In Charge Around Here?
The full readings for this Sunday can be found here:
Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”
In the name of the Living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
Well, good morning, good morning. And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.
But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?
In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”
And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.
God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.
You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.
Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.
And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.
And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.
In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.
And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”
You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.
I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.
You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.
And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart. You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2015 James R. Dennis
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Anglican, Bible, Disciple, Bible, Christianity, Dominican, Epiphany, Episcipalian, exorcism, Gospel of Mark, Jesus, Love, Moses, Pastoral Care, Spirituality
Can You Drink From the Cup?
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45.
Today’s Gospel reading follows Jesus’ third announcement that He will go to Jerusalem and meet his death. Mark 10:32-34. As these teachings progress, Jesus and the disciples travel further and further south, toward Jerusalem.
We have the sense that the disciples are really having trouble understanding Jesus’ message. In response to Jesus’ teaching, they want to have some assurance of their primary role in Jesus’ kingdom. In some very real sense, they’re worrying about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You don’t have to spend very long in the Church to see this kind of behavior. They’re concerned about their own position, their own authority and welfare.
Jesus challenges them with a critical question, a question He asks you and me as well: “Can you drink from the cup from which I drink?” In other words, “Just exactly how much are you willing to share in my life?” How much are we willing to let go of our own self-image, our authority, and the stuff that makes up the content of our lives in following Jesus? In last week’s Gospel, we met a rich young man who just couldn’t let go. I wonder if we can. Letting go of our fears may be the hardest part.
Jesus introduces the disciples to the topsy-turvy hierarchy of Christianity. He tells them, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” I wonder how we’d impact the ranks of our church leadership if we used that particular job description. Think of how many terms in our language are associated with primacy: first-place, first-class, and first-rate. The Gospel is about the losers, about becoming a nobody.
In the world, the hierarchical structure achieves its goals through power and domination. In the Kingdom, we must learn to abandon these and accomplish through love, and love alone. Jesus’ call to become servants isn’t necessarily about the tasks we perform; it’s about the kind of people we are to become. Jesus radically redefines “greatness” as servanthood. That’s a hard road. It leads straight to the Cross.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Anglican, Bible, Disciple, Bible, Christianity, Death, discipleship, Dominican Order, Episcopalian, Gospel of Mark, Jesus, Moral Theology, Religion, Scripture, Spirituality, Theology
Shocked and Grieving (A Sermon)
“And when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
You know, if there’s someone in your life that you’d really like to get rid of, there are a number of ways to make them feel unwelcome. You could ask them to help you scrub the grout on your tile kitchen floors. Or, you could invite them out to dinner at the all you can eat liver buffet. Or, you could ask them to come to your parish and give a stewardship sermon. And so, when my good friend, your priest, the father of my godson, invited me here today, well, I took the hint. But we’ll get to that stewardship thing in just a bit.
For now, let’s look at that young man in today’s gospel. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was setting out on a journey, when a man runs up to him and kneels down. So, from the very beginning, we know that this story concerns an interruption, a profound interruption while Jesus was about to do something else. It’s interesting how many of the gospel stories work like that, and how our own spiritual lives work that way too. Woody Allen famously said, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”
So this young man comes to Jesus and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies with a stark statement: “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus begins by reminding him, and us, that God is the source of everything that is good. We acknowledge that in our liturgy every Sunday when we sing “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Or perhaps we say, “All things come from Thee, o Lord, and of Thine own have we given thee.” The point in all three is the same: all goodness, all that is, comes from God alone.
Jesus then tells this young man “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” And the young man tells Jesus, “Rabbi, I have kept all of these commandments since I was a child.” Of course, Jewish tradition held that no one other than Abraham and Moses had been able to keep the law.
But I want us to look at this man carefully. He’s not a bad guy, not a bad guy at all. In fact, I think he’s a lot like you and like me. When we get to that part of the service where we confess our sins, sometimes we’re kinda scratchin’ our heads and lookin’ at our shoes and thinking, “Surely there’s something bad, some minor infraction, I’ve committed this week.”
This young man comes to Jesus mostly for an affirmation. What he wants, like what we want, is for Jesus to tell him that everything’s okay, that he’s doing everything he’s supposed to, and when it comes to him, eternal life is pretty much a shoe-in. That’s what he wants, and I think that’s what we want, too. But that’s not exactly what’s going to happen.
The next line is often overlooked when we hear this story. “Mark tells us Jesus, looking at him, loved him and spoke.” Somehow, despite his self-assurance, despite his remarkable confidence in his own spiritual maturity, Jesus loves this young man. Just like He loves us. There’s only one authentic response to that kind of love: gratitude.
Our Savior tells him, “You lack one thing; get up, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” That phrase Jesus uses, “get up”, it’s a phrase often used in the stories of Jesus healing people. In Capernaum, when Jesus heals the paralytic, he tells him to “get up, take your mat and go home.” In the 5th Chapter of Mark, when he casts demons out of a man by the shore, he tells him to get up and go home and tell your friends what God has done for you. He uses the phrase again and again. And so, we begin to wonder, is Jesus trying to heal this man, too?
Yet, like so many of us, this man can’t take this teaching. Scripture tells us: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus often taught about the cloud that our possessions, our wealth, place over our spiritual lives. The only subject he talked about more was the Kingdom of God, and in today’s reading He talks about both.
I want to suggest to you that one reason that young man went away sad is that he had betrayed his own true nature. You know, it’s one of the first things we learn about God in Scripture. He gives us a world, he gives us a garden, he gives us freedom and gives us a promised land to live in, and then, he gives us a son. God is by nature a giver, a giver who teaches us again and again how to be generous. Each breath I draw, I draw because of God. The car I drove up here in this morning, very early this morning, that came from God.
Someone might say, “No, that car came from the money you made at your job. That didn’t come from God.” But the simple truth is, that job came from God, as did my education, which flowed out of the parents God gave me. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Everything, my family, my friends, and my godchildren: all of these things came from God.
You may remember that just last week, Jesus told us that to receive the kingdom of God, we must receive it as little children. Children, particularly little children, can’t make their own way in the world. Rather, most everything they have, they have gotten as a gift. Somehow, we’ve managed to forget that. In a culture that perpetuates the myth of the self-made man, we’ve forgotten that we are utterly dependent on God for our very lives.
And when the Book of Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, I think it means, in part, that we were made to be givers. We were created to be generous creatures. And that’s part of the reason why that wealthy young man went away so sad. He had betrayed his real nature, the purpose for which he was created. He had revealed that his heart was with his treasure, the things he owned. He had denied his real nature, revealing that his heart lay in a wealth he could not part with.
We might well ask ourselves, what are the things of which we are not willing to let go? What’s getting in the way of our relationship with the God who sustains our lives in every moment? This young man who came up to Jesus lived in a world of scarcity. Perhaps he wondered, who’ll take care of me when I’m old, or what happens if the economy takes another turn for the worse? You see, it’s largely a question of who we trust. Do we trust in our real estate holdings, our financial institutions, or our ability to make a living, or do we trust in the God who spun the world into existence? Learning to give is important for our spiritual lives, in part, because it’s a matter of learning to trust. Like many of us, this rich young man comes to Jesus with reverence, but without much trust.
On the other hand, most of us know that giving is in our very nature. We give to our children, our spouses, our friends, and this giving brings us joy. When we give to the Church, however, we also engage in a liturgical act. We know that our word liturgy means “the work of the people.” It is a private sacrifice for a public good. And so, when we write those checks on Sunday morning, it’s not the same thing as writing a check to the grocer, or the dentist, or the landlord. Our giving to God becomes a sacrament, just like the sacrament we’ll receive at the altar shortly. And we’ll gather those offerings together, and ask God to take them and make something holy out of them. And in that, I hope we also can find our joy.
As a congregation, our treasure reveals itself in all sorts of acts of liturgy, acts which are both spiritual and material. When we baptize a child or tend to the sick or serve food in a shelter, we are make an offering of a materialism of the sweat and tears of our days, not a materialism of furniture or jewelry or 401ks. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we have been adopted into this new life.
Our giving, our charity, is both a spiritual event and a denial of the materialism that the world embraces. We choose a radically different kind of materialism. In that sacramental moment, as we make our gifts to God, I hope we can hear Jesus’ voice, wondering if we might do just a little more, just as he asked that rich young man to do so long ago.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Have Salt in Yourselves
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:38-50.
Jesus had a funny habit. He often encountered those who would try to draw a boundary between the holy and the unholy, between the sacred and the profane, between the clean and the unclean. Whenever he ran into these boundaries, Jesus would step on the other side. He did it with lepers. He did it with tax collectors. He did it with prostitutes and those who were sick and lame and even the Gentiles. He even crossed the boundaries drawn around the Sabbath. He did it so often that we begin to wonder if there’s a message in there. And in today’s Gospel, He does it again.
In the first section of this passage, the disciples express their concern that someone outside their circle has also engaged in the healing ministry. It’s at least worth noting that this passage in Mark follows the scene in which the disciples were squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Mark 9:32-34. That story ended with Jesus taking a small child (another outsider in that society) into his arms and explaining that those who welcome such a child actually welcome Jesus and his Father. In today’s reading, Jesus continues teaching his disciples about letting go of their sense of self-importance and widening the circle of holiness far beyond themselves.
We hear the echoes of John’s criticism (he was “not following us”) too often as we hear Christians speak of other believers, other denominations, and other faiths. Jesus wants to “welcome” the children; John is concerned with those who are “not following us.” Jesus affirms even the simplest act of kindness, a cup of water, done in His name.
Jesus sharply contrasts those who offer kindness, who encourage, with those who get in the way of someone’s journey to the Father. Those who scandalize these little ones or cause them to stumble, Jesus teaches that Gehenna awaits them. (Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was a ravine south of Jerusalem where child sacrifices to Moloch had taken place. Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.) After King Josiah destroyed the altar to Moloch, it became a continuously burning trash, used as a metaphor for the torment of the wicked.
Jesus teaches that we must rid ourselves of whatever causes us to stumble, even if it’s our hand, our foot, or our eye. I don’t think Jesus is advocating self-mutilation. He’s telling His disciples to separate themselves from anything that interferes with their path to the Father. He advocates a clear focus on the things that bring us closer to the kingdom of God, even if we must shed ourselves of ourselves.
The closing paragraph may seem strange to our modern ears. At the time, however, both salt and fire were used medicinally. They were used to treat wounds; thus, Jesus is saying that everyone will find their healing, their wholeness. To “share salt” with someone, to share a meal, carried with it the implication of fellowship. The expression “have salt in yourself” meant “be at peace with yourself.” Salt was also used as a preservative and carried with it the implication of permanence. Jesus thus encourages His disciples (and us) to find our healing and reconciliation by making peace with ourselves, and with our brothers and sisters.
I pray we find that peace, not by excluding others from the circle of holiness, but my looking for God and His kingdom in all times and all places.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged Bible, Christianity, discipleship, Episcopalian, Gospel of Mark, Jesus, Love, Moral Theology, Peace, Religion, Salvation, Scripture, Spirituality, The Kingdom of God
Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Mark 7:24-37.
In today’s lectionary readings from Mark’s Gospel, we find a number of challenges. In the first passage, on our initial reading, Jesus seems a bit stingy, argumentative, and a little off His game. A few years ago, reading this passage, I was struck by the idea that it seemed like Jesus had to be coaxed into being charitable. At first, we may wonder if this is the same Jesus we know. I want to suggest that this passage presents exactly the Jesus we know.
We should begin with the observation that this first passage contains a number of unusual characteristics. First, it’s located in Tyre, which is not an ordinary place for Jesus to be roaming around. That’s Gentile country, and no place for a good Jewish boy to be. Secondly, he’s approached by a Syrophoenecian woman. At that time, it would be unusual for any woman to approach a Jewish rabbi, let alone a Gentile woman. (Further, the identification of this woman as “pheonician” implies an association with the Canaanites. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel describes this woman as a Canaanite.) Unlike many of the Gospel stories, in this story Jesus’ disciples (his regular companions) are absent. Finally, her daughter has a demon, and so we know we’re encountering a spiritual battle here.
I think part of the answer lies in the original Greek text. When the woman comes and asks Jesus to cast the demon from her “little daughter” (thygatrion in Greek), He replies that the children should be fed first before the “little dogs” (kynariois). In one sense, I think we can read this story, picturing Jesus with a twinkle in his eye as He draws from this woman an affirmation of the faith which He knew was present in her. In another sense, I think St. Mark uses this story to contrast Jesus with the Jewish authorities of the day, who would certainly have rejected this woman and her concerns.
Mark uses this as a narrative device. It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t tell the woman “no”; rather, he says, “not yet.” I don’t think Mark uses this story to portray Jesus as ambivalent or wishy-washy on the subject of ministering to the Gentiles. Rather, I think he’s telling this story to portray the difference between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day.
Jesus expels the demon from this woman’s child “because of this reasoning” (dia touton ton logon). We therefore ask, what was it that she said? She told Jesus that even the crumbs He had to offer would suffice to heal her daughter. We hear an echo of this in the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and I’m not so sure we shouldn’t still be praying this: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.” From this Gentile woman we hear a remarkable affirmation of trust, of need, and of faith.
Mark’s second story similarly challenges the traditional notion of holiness of that time. Jesus travels toward the region of the ten cities (the Decapolis). Again, He remains deep in the territory of the Gentiles. The crowd brings a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus. Jesus’ offers a deeply intimate act of healing this man. He thrusts his hands into the man’s ears, spits and then touches the man’s tongue. These things would have clearly violated the purity codes of that time, which viewed saliva as unclean.
As Jesus looks to heaven, he groans. (Groans offers a far better translation of the Greek word estenaxen than “sighs.”) In other words, this healing involves Jesus’ identification with the suffering and distress of this man. Mark tells the story of an earthy (incarnational) healing, rather than a purely metaphysical event. Mark reports Jesus speaking in the Aramaic language: Ephphatha (which means “be opened.”)
The passage rings with the echo of Isaiah’s promise: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….” Isaiah 35:5-6. In one sense, it’s the deaf man’s ears that are opened. In other sense, it’s the Gentile woman who is opened to the ministry of Jesus. Viewed in another light, it’s about Jesus being open to the pain of the world. In yet another sense, it’s the entire world (and not just the people of Israel) to whom Jesus opens a new way of holiness. I pray that we will be open to his healing ministry as well.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis