Tag Archives: Jesus

Whom Are You Looking For? (An Easter Sermon)

Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)

In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us. Well, good morning, good morning. And, because we haven’t been able to say it during those long 40 days of Lent: Alleluia!

Don’t you hate it when you lose something? It’s very frustrating, it’s unsettling. Say, you have something very precious, or something terribly dangerous, and you lock it up and put it away where no one can get to it. You hide it, or seal it up, or bury it, and when you go back, it’s not there. You search and search, but it’s just not there anymore. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I want us to imagine the desperation of these disciples, particularly Mary Magdalene and the women who go to anoint Jesus’ body. They had lost just about everything you could lose. Some had betrayed him, some had denied him, many had run away, and almost none of them could bear to watch this horror show. They had lost their dreams of a life with God, their vision that finally someone was going to do something about the Romans and their brutal occupation. They had lost their hopes for a better world, and many of them lost their self-image, their idea of who they were. And so, these women come to anoint their dead friend, to honor their dead. As Henry Nouwen wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts…” Now, I don’t think those women went to the grave that morning out of a sense of religious obligation, or some concept of duty. I think they went there out of love for their friend.

Now, we humans have known something for a very long time. We have known it ever since we crawled or loped out of the savannah, ever since those prehistoric people left their handprints on the Cueva de los Manos in Spain. We have known that “dead is dead.” Science teaches it, our experience teaches it, and our feelings of loss teach it. Dead is dead. Our broken hearts have always instructed us about the finality of death. Death is the end of the story. Or, is it?

Today’s gospel calls that assumption into question. As these women go to mourn their losses, they find that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. Don’t you hate it when you’ve put something away for safekeeping and then it’s missing? And after the other disciples have confirmed that Jesus’ body is gone, Mary remains at the tomb weeping. And she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Grief is like that, clouding our vision and consuming our ability to focus on anything but loss. And it’s not until Jesus calls her by name that she recognizes him. My hope, no, my prayer for each of us is that we can hear God calling our names, calling us out of grief and loss and into new life.

Jesus then asks her a very pointed, and very important, question: “Whom are you looking for? In our world of heartache, loss, death, and empire, it takes a good deal of courage to go looking for Jesus. It takes a good deal of hope and strength to entertain the notion that death might not be the end of the story. Love is like that, you see. Love always goes looking for the beloved. Even when it’s scary, even when there are Roman guards there, even when it seems hopeless—love goes looking.

So, I want you to look here at the genius of John’s gospel. If you were with us for the Good Friday service, you’ll remember what John said. “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” Our story this morning is also set in that same garden.

If you were with us for the Vigil, you heard that story from Genesis of the very first day, the story of light coming into the world. So, I want us to look carefully at what that masterful poet John is telling us in his gospel this morning. John says these events took place “Early on the first day….” The first day. These events took place in a garden. The story of our creation takes place in a garden. This is no accident. There are no coincidences in John’s gospel. I think John is trying to tell us that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the story of God recreating the world.  It’s the story of Jesus “making all things new again.”

Now, the forces of empire knew exactly where they had put Jesus. He was sealed in a tomb, safely locked away where he could not cause them any trouble. In this story, the might of empire is represented by the soldiers guarding the tomb. Look at the reversal that takes place when they are confronted with the power of resurrection, the power of new life. John says, “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

God is in the business of creating life where there was no life before. St. Paul notes that the grave has lost its finality, writing: “O death, where is thy sting?” But I probably prefer the formulation of that fine mystic, the English poet John Donne, who said:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Death is not the end of the story. It’s not even a period, not even a semicolon. Death is nothing more than a comma, a brief pause. You see, when Jesus walked out of the tomb, he didn’t come out alone. God’s love escaped from the tomb, escaped from the grave where the forces of empire tried to contain it.

So, we come back to these stories, these same stories, year after year at about this same time. The church calls them the stories of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. But in a broader sense, they are something more: they are love stories. In fact, they are our love stories. They are stories of God’s love for you and me, of God’s love for humanity.

This is our theology of hope; this is why we call ourselves an Easter People. Our gospel this morning teaches us that the forces of empire do not win. The powers of fear and intimidation and violence do not prevail. Death and grief do not have the last word. Darkness and the forces of hell do not win. Love always wins. Always. And even though we go down to the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

In the Beginning Again (Homily for the Great Vigil)

He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. (The full readings for today can be found here.)

            Good evening, my friends, good evening. And welcome to the Great Vigil of Easter.

Did you notice that opening line of that very first reading? It’s such a fabulous first line, a cardinal statement: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”

But we might well wonder, Why is the Church giving us that story this evening, as we celebrate the great vigil? What does this have to do with Easter—with the empty tomb? It’s almost as if the Church were trying to tell us something, as if the Church were offering a glimpse into the nature of God through the lens of these readings. I think the Church is trying to give us some insight into God’s professional life, God’s business. You see, I think God is in the business of creating life where there was no life before. And there’s only one reason for that sort of creative impulse, that need to form and shape something new. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, I want us to imagine the state of mind of the disciples, particularly these women, going to anoint Jesus’ body for his burial. Not only have they witnessed the brutal horror of Jesus’ death, not only have they lost their friend and teacher, but they’ve also seen a dream die. They had dreamed of a life with Jesus, of a life filled with God’s love; they had dreamed of a better world. So they went to the tomb to honor their friend, to honor their loss, to honor the dead.

But they didn’t find any death there, because our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Our God, as we said earlier, is in the business of new life. Our God is in the business of calling light out of the darkness, of creating new life out of nothing more than His love.

We see that new life happening this evening, right before our eyes. God is on the loose again tonight at St. Christopher By the Sea, doing that God thing. God is about to make a new thing, another Genesis story, in the baptisms of Addison and Wayne. And, while we don’t know yet what paths they will walk down in their lives to come, we know who will always walk with them.

Looking back to the readings tonight, I’m pretty sure that the forces of empire were certain that the story of Jesus was over. In fact, they were certain he was not only dead, but buried. But God, like love, is never static; neither God nor love will be contained. And I want to suggest to you that something more than Jesus escaped from that grave—pure love rolled away the stone, unadulterated love walked out of that tomb, and love told those dear women that he would meet them again in Galilee.

Many of us have tried to keep God in a box. We try to create a spiritual ghetto—over here is where I keep my work life, and over here is where I keep my family stuff, and this box here is where I keep my religion. That box we try to keep God in, well, it’s nothing more than a grave, a tomb. And if today’s Gospel teaches us anything, it teaches us that God will not stay where we put Him. This is our hope; this is why we call ourselves Easter people, my friends. He is not dead; he is risen. Alleluia!

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022



What is Truth?(Good Friday)

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)

In the name of the living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.Good evening, good evening. It’s good to be back with you again.

 You know, sometimes, when I look at the readings for a given Sunday, my first thought as a preacher is “There’s just not much there to talk about.”  That is definitely not the case with the readings for tonight. Rather, this is like trying to get a drink from a firehose. So, I want to highlight just a few passages from this story of Jesus’ Passion. As we read the Gospel for today, we cannot help but wince as we recall Jesus’ words: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

 So, we talked yesterday about the wonderful observation of Jürgen Moltmann, who said that all of our thinking about God, especially our theology of hope, must be accomplished “within earshot of the dying Christ.” Well, tonight we can hear Christ all too clearly. In fact, we may want to plug our ears, but we mustn’t do that, or we’ll miss something very important.

Now, I love my friend John’s gospel. John is a poet, and everything is his Gospel is laden with layers of meaning. In this Gospel, there are no accidents, and there are no coincidences. So, we all remember the fabulous story of Moses on Mt. Horeb when he encounters the burning bush. God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he’s standing on holy ground and tells him that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses asks him his name, God replies, “I am that I am.” We call this the Great I Am, and it implies that everything that has existence, everything that is, exists because of and through God.

Now, let’s see what this poet John does with that idea. When the soldiers and Pharisees come to the Garden of Gethsemane asking for Jesus, he replies, “I am he.” As Jesus hangs on the cross, dying, he says, “I am thirsty.” Now let’s look at how John treats Peter, Jesus’ close friend. You’ll recall that Peter had sworn, “Even though they all fall away, I will not leave you.” And Peter does follow Jesus—right up to the courtyard of the high priest. But when a woman asks Peter if he’s one of Jesus’ disciples he replies, “ I am not.” I am….not. Again, as he tries to warms himself, the crowd asks if Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Peter again says, “I am not.” Peter’s repudiation is actually a denial of his association with God.

I don’t want to judge Peter too harshly. There have certainly been times in my life when I walked away from God, even pushed God away. Sometimes, we all find our fears to be overpowering. This is especially true when confronted with the power of empire, especially an empire as brutal as the Roman empire. You may recall we talked on Maundy Thursday about Jesus and the great commandment: the notion that people would know we follow Jesus by our love.

But a love like that will stick out like a sore thumb in a place like the Roman Empire. Whether it’s Pharoah or Caesar or Vladimir Putin, empire only wants one thing: more—more bricks, more oil, more guns, more land. Empire concerns itself with expansion and self-preservation. Love is concerned, fiercely, with the other.

We see this distinction exposed in the discussion between Pilate and Jesus. Revealing his primary concern with empire, Pilate begins by asking Jesus if he is a king. Jesus doesn’t answer the question, or rather, answers the question with a question of his own. Pilate then asks “What have you done?” And Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Rather, he now goes back to the first question, and says that he is a king in another place. Jesus tells Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Now, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Later, Pilate asks, “Where are you from?” And Jesus doesn’t answer. In frustration, Pilate then demands, “”Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Do you not know that I have the power to hang you up on a tree like a scarecrow?

Does it seem to you that these two men are having a failure to communicate? Although they may be speaking the same language, they don’t share a common vocabulary or a common point of reference. Pilate asks the question, “What is truth?” He doesn’t seem to know and I’m not sure he really cares. In reality, the Truth is standing right in front of him. The Truth is about to be beaten and crucified—because in a world dominated by empire, truth and love will stand out like a sore thumb. Empire doesn’t have any use for truth, but Pilate reveals his real concern. His concern, and his last question, is about power. That is the nature of empire.

Fear and violence are the principal tools, the fundamental weapons of empire. And the Cross was just such a tool. You know, it’s said that for the first century or so, the fish and not the cross, was the primary symbol of Christianity. And I think that’s because no one who had actually seen a crucifixion could bear to see the Cross used in that way, they could not yet imagine it as an avatar of faith. For them, the Cross marked only terror and brutality. Those forces can only be overcome through the strongest force known to humanity. Only love can overcome them.

We see that love demonstrated as Jesus hangs on the Cross, dying. He looks down upon his mother and the beloved disciple, the only ones who remained with him, or the only people who could bear to watch this horror show. And as he’s dying, he says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” He tells his disciple, “Here is your mother.” It is a moment of unbelievable tenderness, a moment of redefining family as a community of love and loss, an expression of God’s concern for those left behind even in these final moments of agony.

So, what does this story mean for us as Christians in the 21st century, some two thousand years after these events? Well, among other things, I think it means that God intended to share in the entire human experience: pain, hunger, thirst, weddings, joy, glory, sorrow and loss, and even shame and death. God reached into the entire human experience, knew it firsthand, touched it, and made it sacred. It means that there is no part of our lives that God does not understand and will not share with us.

I want to suggest to you that it was not iron nails that fastened Jesus to the Cross. Rather, Jesus was held there by the love of God for all of humanity. In a real sense, the Cross is God’s statement to the world: do your very worst. You can beat me, mock me, scorn me, betray me, deny me, hang me on a tree like a scarecrow, and even kill me. Do your very worst, and I will still love you. And thus, the Cross was changed, transubstantiated, from an instrument of torture and shame into a symbol of hope and love. God’s love overcomes empire, terror, and death. And that’s got to be “good news.”Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Seeing with Eyes of Blessing

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain . . . .Then he began to speak, and taught them. Matt. 5:1. (The full text for this morning’s readings can be found here.)

In the name of the Living God, who is making all things new. Good morning, good morning. I want to thank Father Holloway for asking me back again and thank you all once more for your generous hospitality.

You know, there’s an idea floating around in Christianity today, and it’s been around for a while. This notion still has a lot of adherents today, and you can hear many of them on television. But this doctrine is well summed up in a story that Oral Roberts used to tell. It goes back to a time in 1947 when Roberts was going through a time of crisis in his life and ministry.

Well, around this time, through a friend who owned a Buick dealership, Roberts was able to acquire a brand-new shiny Buick automobile. According to Roberts, the “new car became a symbol to me of what a man can do if he would believe God.” His first book on this topic was entitled “God’s Formula for Success and Prosperity.” Like I said, that notion is still running around today. And that idea, which suggests that God’s love for us can be measured by our financial well-being, is sometimes called the Prosperity Gospel.

And there’s a theological term for it. We call it poppycock. We call it gibberish; we call it balderdash. If you have any doubts about it, all you need to do is study today’s gospel—because that’s not what Jesus is saying. Not at all.

Now, this story appears very early in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is baptized, he calls his disciples and then begins teaching and healing and the crowds start following him. And this story describes Jesus’ very first sermon, the first teaching that Matthew records. And Matthew wants to place Jesus in a historical context and a spiritual context. Like Moses, Jesus ascends to the mountain. Matthew wants to point his readers—us—to the notion that Jesus is the new Moses.

Rather than a tablet of laws, however, Jesus offers us a set of descriptions or signposts that point the way to the kingdom of heaven. Rather than a set of rules, he describes the surprising people that God treasures, and along the way shows us what a life with God would look like. They describe a divine reality we already live in, but can’t always see.

When we look at the world, any fool can see that meek don’t look very blessed. They didn’t inherit the earth then, and they’re still not inheriting it. And the merciful, they don’t seem to get much mercy. I’ve known way too many who mourn and they are still looking for their comfort. I’ve seen too many peacemakers laughed at, scorned and called unpatriotic. And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, well, they’re still hungry and they’re still thirsty.

If we’re really honest as we look at the world today, we’d say something like blessed are the well-to-do, for they can send their kids to good schools. And blessed are the really attractive people in this world, because their road is going to be a lot easier. Or, too often, blessed are those without much of a conscience, because they will find a way to get it done even when it’s built on deception or hurting good people. If we’re honest, we have to admit that the world Jesus describes is not really the world we’ve made for ourselves.

But it can be. In one sense, I think these beatitudes are a daring protest against the world around us. Jesus is announcing: this is not how God meant for us to live. This is not how things have to be. God sees this world very differently than most people do. And if we want to share in this kingdom-vision, we can begin by reexamining our values and the people who are down on their luck. Because in God’s story, in God’s story, we find some very surprising heroes.

These beatitudes teach us that the people that God calls holy, the people that God cherishes, are those who are vulnerable. Not the spiritual whizkids, but the poor in spirit. This world admires those who are strong, follows those who are influential, and marvels at blustery braggarts. But those are not the people that God embraces.  

We can hear echoes of other parts of the gospel here. When Mary finds out she’s pregnant, she announces that God is going to scatter the proud and lift up the lowly. He will send the rich away empty and fill the bellies of the poor. He will pull the mighty from their seats and raise up the meek. Or maybe we hear the echo of Jesus saying that the first will be last and the last will be first. Or maybe we hear the resonance of Jesus telling us that the stone that the builder has rejected has become the cornerstone. All of us have experienced, at one time or another, that sort of rejection. We have all, at some time, been broken.

If we look at the people Jesus is talking about, the people this world rejects and calls losers, we find one common trait. They are vulnerable. The beatitudes teach us that the people God calls holy are broken people. And maybe that’s where we’ll find an insight into God’s mercy: it evades the appearance of perfection and reaches into the broken parts of the world to mend it. And maybe, just maybe, if we drink from the deep well of grace, we’ll learn to be like children, who show their scars like medals they’ve won.

I think that Jesus offered us these beatitudes, these blessings, to show us the world that God sees, to show us a vision that is too often clouded by the cataracts of sin and self-assurance.  The gospel text today begins with the idea that Jesus “saw” the crowds. There’s a world of difference between looking and seeing. I think Jesus turned his penetrating gaze right into the broken hearts and souls of those very ordinary people who were listening to him.

So maybe that’s the challenge of today’s gospel. Maybe we are called to look upon the broken people—the vulnerable people in this world—and see them as a blessing. Maybe this passage calls out to us to bless them, and be blessed by them. I think Jesus’ vision of the kingdom calls us to see the world through the lens of mercy, through the eyes of those with pure hearts, from the perspective of those who’ve experienced a terrible loss.

These blessings are a protest against the world-as-it-is, and a call for us to reshape our lives as a people who have experienced the gift of failure. Jesus teaches us that our full humanity lies along the road of loss and the messiness of want and longing. Our deep hope, as opposed to a superficial optimism, lies in learning to live with compassion.

Sometimes I look at God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and I think it is the light of the world. And sometimes, I look at it, and I think it’s the Island of Broken Toys. And on my best days, on my very best days, I can look at it and see that it is both. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Up to the Temple to Pray

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  Luke 18. (The full readings for today can be found here.)

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

Well good morning, good morning.

          You know, I love today’s gospel, and every time I think about it and about the spiritual danger of comparing ourselves to others, I remember a story my great grandfather used to tell.  It’s a story about two brothers, who like my great grandfather, came over from Ireland, from the old country. And the Flanagan brothers, well, they weren’t very nice men. In fact, they were terrible men. Although they were filthy rich, they were very stingy. They were terrible drunkards and beat their wives and children. Even the neighborhood dogs were afraid of the Flanagan brothers.

          Well, one day Tommy Flanagan died, and his brother Michael went to the parish priest. And Michael proposed a terrible bargain to the priest. He said, “Father, I know my brother wasn’t a good man, but I want people to think well of him. And I will give a million dollars to the church orphanage if you will tell people he was a saint at his funeral. But you must use those exact words, Father. You must tell them that Tommy was a saint.”

          Well, this caused a terrible crisis of conscience for the parish priest. He knew that the orphanage was deeply in debt and the children of the parish had a terrible need for that money. But he just couldn’t imagine lying about Tommy Flanagan and losing all moral authority with his parish. Well, the day of the funeral came, and the priest rose to the pulpit to give the homily.

          He said, “I knew Tommy Flanagan, I knew him all my life and I knew him well. He was a drunkard and a cruel man. He beat his children and his wife, and never came to Mass. He was stingy, and a bully, and a lout. But,” the priest said, “compared to his brother Michael, Tommy Flanagan was a saint.”

Like I said, I love this gospel because we find at least three aspects of this passage that are classic Luke. The first of these is the way in which Luke uses pairs to tell a story. Not long ago, we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and last week we heard the story of the widow and the unjust judge. Luke begins the story this week: “Two men went up to the temple to pray….” The opening echoes with the resonance of another story from Luke: “A certain man had two sons….” And just like in the story of the prodigal son, when we hear that these two men went up to pray, we suspect there’s going to be some trouble.

Another aspect of this story that is classic Luke is the notion of inclusion. Luke’s gospel is the gospel of radical inclusion. In Jesus’ time, it was clear that there was a circle of holiness and some people were inside that circle and some people were outside of that circle—including women, lepers, those who were sick, especially tax collectors.

Tax collectors were particularly despised because they did not simply collect the amount of tax owed. Because the position was unpaid, they had to collect more than was owed to support themselves. They often used violence and extortion to collect the taxes. And most importantly, they were seen as collaborators, working with the occupying Roman government to suppress the people of Israel. Tax collectors were dreaded, and they were despised. But in Luke’s gospel, everyone is invited into the circle of holiness, and that includes tax collectors. Jesus eats with them; he even calls them his friends.

The third aspect of this story that marks it as squarely fitting into Luke’s gospel is the way it upends our expectations. Luke constantly does that. Jesus constantly does that. This story is sort of like one of those mirrors at the circus where our reflections are distorted. They’re still recognizable, but not at all what we expect. We’ve already talked about one of these, and Jesus upends our expectation that the tax collector would be the villain of the story.

A second expectation that is frustrated is the place where this story occurs—the temple. For most good, devout Jews in first century Palestine, the temple was the holiest place on earth. It served as the fulcrum of the world, the place where heaven and earth intersected. And I suspect if you asked Jesus about how he felt about the temple his feelings would have been richly and profoundly ambivalent. While he knew of its scriptural importance, he also knew of the ways in which the temple system had been compromised and corrupted.

So, the temple was traditionally a place where sacrifice was offered. Yes, it was a place of prayer, but one could pray most anywhere. The temple system was built on sacrifice and a transactional approach to washing away one’s sins or having one’s prayers answered. In Jesus’ story, however, rather than a place of sacrifice, the temple becomes a place of mercy. And rather than a system of merit, mercy seems to rain down upon some shockingly undeserving people.

And then Jesus capsizes our expectations about the Pharisee. He’s a fine specimen of a faithful churchgoer. We get the feeling that he prays often, he fasts regularly, and he gives money to the church. Honestly, that’s a good, solid spiritual regimen. He’d probably fit in well over at St. Elsewhere Episcolopolus Church; he might even fit in well here with us.

I suspect he really was a good guy, a decent sort, and a fine churchman. But he was blind to two critical issues: the source of his blessing; and the purpose of his blessing. He cannot see that the source of his blessing was not his own good character. And he cannot understand that all of his blessings were to be used for God’s purposes. Luke offers us a sharp contrast: the tax collector’s focus is inward (on his own sins and his failure to live a holy life), but the Pharisee is focused on others, and how they live.

We so often attempt to summarize our brothers and sisters in one glance, as this Pharisee does. And therein we find ourselves mired in a spiritual quicksand: the sin of dismissal. It points us to one of the greatest risks to our spiritual lives—comparing ourselves to others. I want us to examine the many ways we might compare ourselves to others: the books we’ve read, what we do for a living, where we went to school, the car we drive, our exercise regime, who we vote for, the neighborhood we grew up in, and where we go to church.

The Pharisee is convinced that he’s in good shape with the Almighty. His claim to righteousness is based upon his own accomplishments while the tax collector realizes his only chance is God’s mercy. Without that, he hasn’t got a prayer. In a classic upheaval of expectations, Jesus says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s a close parallel to the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first.

          Jesus tells us that the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified. In the Greek, that word “justified” carries a lot of connotations, including the connotation of having gone through a judicial proceeding. It means having been acquitted, restored, forgiven, made right, or rebalanced. Here, we find another inversion of what we expect because the Pharisee offers a number of justifications for his life and his goodness. The tax collector offers no defense. He can rely upon nothing other than God’s mercy.

          In one sense, learning to live without self-justification is a terrible burden. It leaves us vulnerable to the judgment of others, and vulnerable to our harshest critic, ourselves. In another sense, it’s terribly liberating because we come to realize that our justification or our salvation depends upon God’s mercy rather than our merit. And one of the things we can let go of, one of the things we must let go of, is keeping score. We don’t need to keep score against our brothers or sisters, or against God, anymore. It’s a hard lesson, my friends.  But this parable teaches us that in the spiritual life if you are keeping score, you have already lost the game. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Unjust Judge

In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ Luke 18. (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)

In the name of the Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.  Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you again here at St. Michael’s. And many thanks to Brynn and all of you for your generous hospitality.

So, this morning in the lectionary, the Church offers us this story which is sometimes called the parable of the unjust judge. And this passage of the Gospel reminds me of one of my favorite stories about the religious life. Several years ago, there was a young woman who became a nun. And she made her vows and entered the convent. Now the rules of this particular Order required that she be cloistered and keep silence, although every ten years the sisters were allowed to say two words. So, for the first ten years, she was assigned to make the beds. And she changed the sheets, and washed them,  and made every bed throughout the monastery. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and said, “Bed hard.” Well, the next ten years, she was assigned to the kitchen. And she peeled the potatoes and cooked the oatmeal and cleaned every pot in that monastery. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and told her, “Kitchen hot.”

After ten long years she was next assigned to clean the bathrooms. And she washed every sink and bathtub and scrubbed every toilet they had. And at the end of that ten years, she went to the Mother Superior and said, “I quit.” And the elder nun looked at her and said, “Good. You haven’t done anything but nag me since you got here.” Contrary to that story, and today’s gospel, I don’t think prayer has much to do with nagging God.

And we may be a little confused by this parable, or by many of them. The Hebrew word for parable is mashal, which carries with it connotations of a story, or an allegory, or a riddle. And many of these parables may leave us scratching our heads, including the one this morning, but that’s their function. They’re kind of like a picture frame that is intentionally hung so that it’s not level, so that we’ll have to really think about and puzzle over what’s portrayed. These parables are meant to make us think, to examine, and to turn an idea over in our minds until we come to a deeper understanding of it. And the broader question that I think Luke wants us to look at is how do we think prayer operates, and what does faithful living look like in a fallen world?

So, let’s take a deeper look at this parable and see what it offers us. Jesus begins his story: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Oh, I’ve been to that city. And I’m pretty sure that I know that judge. I was a lawyer for a very long time, and on more than one occasion, I ran across that judge who did not fear God nor respect people. And without revealing too much about this judge, I can tell you that the county seat is Beaumont. Now, I should have known there was going to be a problem because in French the name Beaumont means “beautiful mountain.”  Have y’all ever been to Jefferson County? Well, it’s not beautiful, and there’s no mountain.

Seriously, if you’ve ever met someone like that—someone who doesn’t fear God and doesn’t respect people—you know how truly frightening a person that is. And I don’t think for a moment, Jesus is trying to tell us that God is like that. The God we worship loved and respected humanity, embraced all sorts of people, prayed regularly, and his blood watered the hill we call Golgotha. I want to circle back to the contrast between God and this unjust judge in just a moment, but first let’s look at one of the other characters in the story.

When we examine the widow in this parable, we remember the biblical direction about taking care of widows because in that world they were fragile and vulnerable. And yet this widow doesn’t seem vulnerable at all. She constantly goes to the unjust judge asking for justice against her opponent. Some translators tell us the better translation is “give me revenge.” And we might re-think our notion of her as fragile when we realize that the judge is actually being worn out by this woman.

So, is Jesus actually telling us that the real secret to a rich prayer life is becoming a bother to God, pestering the Almighty until He just gives in? Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point, especially since Jesus is on the receiving end of so many of our prayers. Now, there are some folks, and a few preachers, who will tell you that if you close your eyes real hard, and give money to the church, and believe just right, God will give you anything you ask for—as if the Almighty were some sort of a cross between a celestial ATM and a divine Santa Claus. We have a name for that sort of theology. We call it “heresy.”

I think Jesus is talking to us about two things. First, he’s telling us not to lose heart. And it’s so easy in this world to lose heart. There are unjust judges everywhere. Our political discourse has been reduced to the snarkiest common denominator. And in our prayer life, help never seems to come as quickly as we’d like, if it comes at all. And if we view prayer as a transaction, we might lose heart all the more quickly.  I don’t think our prayer life is like a Vegas slot machine, where if we just keeping putting in enough tokens, we’ll hit the jackpot.

            I do think, however, it’s like another bible story, one we didn’t hear today but I’ll bet you know it. I think our prayer life is a lot like the story of Jacob. And you’ll remember that Jacob was trying to come back home, knowing that his brother Esau was furious with him and he’s worried that his brother is coming to kill him. And that night a man comes to Jacob and wrestles with him. And the scripture is unclear about whether Jacob is wrestling with a man, or an angel, or with God himself. The two of them wrestle all night.  And although in the struggle Jacob’s hip is thrown out of joint, he tells his opponent, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Our prayer life is like holding onto God, struggling with God all night, even when we are injured in the struggle. It is a stubborn insistence on a blessing, oftentimes a blessing we do not yet understand. As Saint Paul says, we train ourselves to be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. We will wrestle all night, holding on for that blessing. We will lift up our eyes to the hills, knowing that our help can only come from the Lord. And if we remain obstinate, if we stubbornly cling to God even when our strength is failing, the Son of Man will return to find that we are a faithful people. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

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 Beginning of the Good News

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. (The full readings for this morning can be found here.)


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

Well, good morning, everybody, good morning. And welcome as we join together to celebrate the feast day of our patron saint, St. Mark. And I’ve been wondering….no, no, I’ll talk about that later.

So, today, we hear the opening of Mark’s gospel. And our friend Mark’s gospel is unique. There’s no fancy star in the sky, there’s no manger or shepherds, or wise men. There’s no trip into Egypt, or Jesus at the dawn of creation. He begins the story with a baptism. Jesus’ story, for Mark, begins with his baptism. And I wonder, I just wonder, if that doesn’t tell us something about Mark’s community. I think for his community, and maybe for ours, too, the story of who we are begins with our baptism. It is as though Mark sets aside genealogy, history, geography and political context, and tells us: “If you really want to know about a person, learn about their baptism.” Because for Mark and his community, that’s our real beginning. There, we’ll find the real origin of our lives.

We really don’t know all that much about Mark. By the way, I’ve been really trying…no, we’ll talk about that later. We don’t know much about Mark although we think his community may have lived somewhere around Rome. And we believe his community suffered under the early persecutions of the Christian Church.

So, I mentioned today was the feast of St. Mark. It is also the Sunday after Easter, which is sometimes called Low Sunday or if you really want to be arcane, Quasimodo Sunday. If you’ve read much Victor Hugo, you know that the famous hunchback named Quasimodo was left and found at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the Sunday after Easter. Now some people say it’s called Low Sunday because of the contrast to the High Holy Days of Easter. Some people will tell you that it’s because church attendance is generally low. So you see, I’ve been trying to convince myself…I’ve been working for the last several weeks to convince myself, that’s it’s just a coincidence that today is the day our clergy asked me to preach. But so far, I haven’t had any luck at all.

So, back to this Gospel passage. We think Mark’s community was a fairly small band of persecuted Christians. And certainly, the community of early followers of Jesus would have known hard times. They were occupied by the Roman empire, subjected to a harsh system of domination and taxation; the poor were everywhere, and their religious system was collaborating with these villains. And our patron Mark tells us: Now, hear the word of the Lord. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.”

Onto this stage, into this troubled setting, strides this eccentric, bizarre, maybe whimsical character. He is neither charming nor winsome. He rants. He is uncombed and indecorous and unkempt. He’s dressed in camel hair and eats honey and locusts. Now, I don’t care how much honey you cover a plate of locusts with; it still tastes like bugs. And he is amazing. He is amazing mostly because the people come from miles around to hear him preach baptism and the forgiveness of sins.

He seems so irrelevant to the problems people are facing. Their politics were a mess. John preached baptism. Poverty was everywhere. John preached the forgiveness of sins. And the amazing part is that the crowds were drawn to him. I think he’s still out there today, preaching like a madman. Vladimir Putin has ravaged Ukraine and committed terrible war crimes. John is preaching baptism. Look at our troubled economy, look at all this rising inflation. John is preaching the forgiveness of sins.  He’s still out there, preaching, as though the solution to our worldly problems lay in the spiritual realm.

And most of us, we don’t really like all that confession of sins part. We are a prideful people, and we cherish our self-esteem. We would much rather mount a good defense, or proclaim our denial, or offer a fine excuse rather make than a simple confession. The truth is, when I look back on my life, I have sinned some, I have sinned again, and I have sinned some more. It’s so hard to announce, as the old Prayer Book used to teach us, “There is no health in us.” We cannot avoid our shame; we cannot ignore it. But we can overcome it and find forgiveness. This is not comfortable, but it is the way to healing.

And there is John, calling to us, crying out in the wilderness, telling us this is the way to God. And that way always seems to lead through our baptism and our willingness to confess our failures—just as we will confess them before we come to this altar for communion.

Now, power is a dangerous thing, and perhaps spiritual authority is the most dangerous of all. It’s a strong temptation, but we can take note of John’s spiritual maturity in his recognition of his role. He knows he’s not the center of the story. It requires a lot to know that you’re the messenger and not the message. He tells the crowd that One “who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It’s hard to resist the limelight, but John’s humility speaks of the authenticity of his encounter with the divine. This is John’s confession: “I am not worthy. I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I’m not worthy.”

And then Jesus, the one who is worthy, comes to the river Jordan, to be baptized by John. We might wonder, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” We believe, and we’ll say so in just a few minutes, in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. So, why did Jesus, who was without sin, need a baptism? I think perhaps this was simply one of the many ways in which Jesus came to share with us in our humanity. He shared with us in the waters of baptism so that we might share with him in that Easter resurrection.,
And then, Jesus comes out of the water and a voice from the heavens announces that he is God’s beloved child, just as we are the beloved children of the Holy One. And as Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends upon him. Here, we have this remarkable collision of holiness, this intersection of the three members of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) at the river Jordan.  But it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert, into the wilderness for his time of trial and temptation.

And only after these events, after God’s affirmation of all that he is doing and all that he is, only after he is cajoled and tested in the desert, can Jesus announce to us all that it is time. This is the very time when God’s kingdom has come near. And it’s odd that we return to this story, the beginning of Mark’s gospel, right after we’ve heard the end of the story—Jesus’ passion and resurrection. But perhaps that displacement, that warp and weft of time, may remind us that we are no longer in ordinary, standard time. We are entering into sacred time here.


You see, Mark tells us, very carefully, I believe, that this is only the beginning of the good news. That story is still being written, in your life and mine. We who have been immersed in the water and the Spirit, we who have confessed, repented, and forgiven, we have our own story to tell about the good news of Jesus Christ. Tell that story out, my brothers and sisters, and tell them that the kingdom of God has come near. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Smell of Scandal in Bethany

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (The full readings for this morning can be found here).

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

Way back a very long time ago, back in the early twelfth century, I was a boy in Odessa, Texas. And I can tell you my very first memory. I was riding in a golf cart with my father, and I couldn’t have been older than three or four years old. And the sun was coming up, and I smelled the scent of freshly cut grass, and I thought I must have gone to heaven.

And I remember going to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, and the house was full of the most wonderful smells: ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, about 5 kinds of pie, and a pot of coffee on that old stove. Oh, I can still smell those thanksgivings.

      Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.” And Hellen Keller once observed, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Neuropsychologists tell us that smell is one of the most powerful gateways into our memories, in part because those two parts of the brain are very close to each other. Think about your first new car, or your favorite book, or your first trip to the library as a child, and you will almost automatically be drawn to the way they smelled. I think this is true in part because our sense of smell is so closely tied with the act of breathing—we don’t just detect a scent, we take it into our lungs and our bodies through our breath, which is another way of saying we take it into our spirit.

  So, this morning, the Church offers us this wonderful story of a dinner party. It takes place in Bethany, which is bordered by the Mount of Olives, and only about two miles from the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; in fact, it’s his last trip to that city. And nothing very good is going to happen there.

The story takes place, as John tells us, “six days before the Passover.” My friend John is a careful writer and a fine poet. There aren’t any accidents or coincidences in John’s Gospel. So when he says “six days before the Passover,” I think he wants us to think back to the book of Genesis, to the six days of creation. Because these six days we’re approaching, the days we now call Holy Week, are God’s re-creation: God is making all things new again.

Now, this is sort of an odd dinner party, for a number of reasons. It takes place at the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus—yes, that Lazarus. And just one chapter before this, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. And even Jesus, knowing all that he knew and was about to do, wept at that tomb. He wept over the death of his friend, and he wept over the grief he shared with his friend’s sisters. And when Jesus told them to roll away the stone, Martha voiced her concern: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” She was concerned about the stench of the grave, the odor of death and decay. But Jesus called Lazarus back from the grave and ordered them to unbind him from the strips of cloth in which he was entombed.

So, we have these two sisters at this dinner party, along with Lazarus (who was dead, but is alive) and Jesus (who is alive but will not be for much longer). And then, we have Judas. I’ll circle back around to him in a bit. And they are gathered at the table.

Then, one of the sisters (Mary) does something remarkable. She does something scandalous, something embarrassing, something shocking, something prodigal. (See, I told you last week we’d come back to that idea.) She takes a pound of perfume made from pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it and then she wipes them with her hair. Let’s break this down a bit.

     Nard was a very expensive perfume with a strong, distinctive aroma that clung to the skin. It is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, in the Song of Solomon, which is also a sensuous and erotic, and sometimes scandalous book of the bible. The value of the oil with which she anoints Jesus’ feet is approximately a year’s wages. So, this is a lavish, sensuous act of devotion. And women of that time did not loosen their hair, let alone wash a man’s feet with it. But just as her brother Lazarus was unbound from his death shroud, Mary unbinds her hair and begins to wash Jesus’ feet. Washing someone’s feet—well, that was dirty work for the servants or slaves. In fact, women of that time did not touch a man at all unless they were married.

So, all the good, proper ladies over at the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem would have been clutching their pearls at this scene.

And then Judas asks a question, “Why didn’t she do some good with this money? Why not give it to the poor?” Now Judas is the consummate cynic, right? You know what a cynic is—a cynic is someone who knows what everything costs but doesn’t know what anything is worth. The stench of betrayal and stinginess and violence clings to him. And he cannot recognize the worth of this moment as this woman pours out her wealth, pours out her life and her dignity, upon this man Jesus.

And Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” And I don’t want you to think that Jesus was unconcerned with the plight of the poor. The gospels tell us, rather, that he was profoundly concerned with the poor. But this is a special moment, a moment of lavish, unselfish tenderness, and I’m sure it strengthened Jesus for those horrifying days that lay ahead.

So, Mary had purchased this perfume for the time of Jesus’ death, but instead chooses to do so now. In a profound sense, she chooses life over death. This woman was willing to risk shame and embarrassment and ridicule— all for a reckless love. That kind of love always leads to the cross. Always. And maybe sometimes, every now and then, we might remember that loving God sometimes means a reckless refusal to consider the cost of love, and focus on what it’s worth. And maybe we might remember that God, as Isaiah tells us, is about to do a new thing.

Now, in just a few days we will celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It’s the very next chapter of John’s gospel, and again, it’s very intimate and embarrassing. But, when we get there, I want you to remember, it was this woman Mary who showed Jesus how to do that, who showed him what love looks like.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Breathe that in; breathe in her tender, reckless devotion and breathe in the life of Jesus. And then, exhale love.

     Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022