Tag Archives: Moral Theology

Go, and Do Likewise





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Divine Risk and the Work of Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Homecoming

The full readings for this morning can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The Greatest

The full readings for today can be found here.


Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

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

You know, sometimes I read Mark’s Gospel and I just cringe at the disciples. That’s probably not the right kind of thing for a preacher to say about these men who the Church would later call “saints,” but these guys are the worst. I mean, here Jesus is, trying for the third time in this 9th Chapter of Mark, to tell them—that he will be betrayed, that he will suffer and be killed, that he will come back from the dead. And all they want to do is argue about which one of them is the greatest. These guys are numbskulls, they are narcissistic, self-absorbed mercenary chuckleheads who don’t understand anything about the Gospel or Jesus or the kingdom of God or anything. And what really infuriates me about them, the really exasperating part about them, is that they are so much like me.

And it makes me wonder, what is God trying to tell us as we bicker and argue on the way? What message are we missing as we struggle for success, power, or achievement?

Admittedly, the world teaches us to love these things from a very early age. We have to get the best grades, so we can go to the best colleges, so we can get the best jobs and make the most money. In sports, we are consumed with who’s the best of all time. And we want to know who won the best picture, to stay in the nicest hotels, to drive the best cars. And we want to name among our friends those who are powerful, influential, and important.

I’m reminded that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proudly announced to the world, “I am the greatest.” He said, “I am the greatest.” I think I’ll circle back to that idea in a bit.

Things weren’t so different back in Jesus’ time. Sociologists have described 1st Century Palestine as an honor/shame culture. In this sort of culture, you would find honor if a person of great wealth or great importance came to your home or became your associate. On the other hand, you would be shamed if a person of low social standing came to your home for dinner or befriended you.

Now, in that world, children were of no social standing or significance at all. They were completely dependent, and vulnerable in the world around them. And so, Jesus continues to try to teach the disciples when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And right after that, he takes a little child into his arms. You see, children didn’t have any social standing at all; they didn’t offer anything of value. Like Jesus, children were completely vulnerable. They had little to offer that the world considers precious. So, Jesus was telling his disciples, all those things that make you a success in the world (drive, ambition, power)—you’re going to have to let that go.

St. James picks up on this idea in the epistle this morning. He says, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s a wonderful notion, and as I look back on my own life, it’s amazing how disorderly and chaotic my own appetite for recognition is. Once you start down that road, it’s hard to find an end. But the gospel tells us something else about that day. While Jesus was trying to explain that he was giving up his life for the life of the world, the disciples couldn’t understand. In fact, Mark says that “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

James suggests that our selfish ambitions will lead us to chaos. This gospel story today sort of reminds me of the Tower of Babel. Jesus is trying to talk with the disciples about the work of the Cross, and they’re having a completely separate discussion about their ambitions. And even their language has failed the disciples, because they don’t even trust Jesus enough to ask him what he means. Jesus was trying to tell them that there are hard times ahead, and they were afraid.

I’m reminded of something one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, once wrote: “Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. That these two are related (that private loneliness, for instance, will necessarily accompany public confusion) is clear enough…. What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” 

So, I want to circle back to an idea I talked about earlier. I told you that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proclaimed “I am the greatest.” He said this as he was preparing to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. At that time, he had won the Olympic gold medal in boxing and had never lost a professional fight. Ali would defeat Liston and become the heavyweight champion.

But life would knock Ali around a bit. In 1967, as a result of his protest against the Vietnam War and refusal to serve, he was stripped of his title. He could not fight for three years, three of the prime years of his career. He fought again for the heavyweight title in 1971 against Joe Frazier and he lost. He would fight Frazier again in 1974 and regain the title. He would lose the heavyweight championship again in February of 1978 to Leon Spinks. And that year, Ali said something very different from the braggadocio of his youth when he proclaimed himself the greatest. That year, Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Ali had been knocked around by the world, and he kept getting up, but he had come to a deeper understanding. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Something very similar would happen with the disciples. They would get knocked around a bit. They would lose their rabbi, their teacher, and their Messianic dreams. Jesus would be hung on a tree like a scarecrow, and they would run away and betray him. They would look deeply into themselves and feel shame at their cowardice. And yet, they kept coming back. They would spread the gospel to Syria and India, to North Africa and Asia Minor, to Persia and Ethiopia, and even to Rome, the heart of the Empire. And Church tradition teaches that these same men, these knuckleheads I spoke of earlier, would each die a martyr’s death. They would become great—great Saints of the Church—but not in any way that they had imagined. They would come to realize that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

And I think most of us have learned the same lesson. This pandemic has knocked most of us around a bit. Most of us have been knocked around by life, sometimes knocked down. We’ve suffered losses, and we’ve had our hearts broken—maybe the loss of a loved one, a parent or a child, or we’ve seen our dreams dry up and blow away in the wind of disappointment. We wear those scars.

But you know, my father used to tell me, “Anybody who doesn’t have any scars, well, they never found anything worth fighting for.”  The question of who’s the greatest, or a life lived listening to the siren song of our own selfish ambitions, that’s not even a fight worth winning. But a life lived struggling against my own ego in service to others, a life lived so that our brothers and sisters might know a better life—as Jesus taught us, that’s a fight worth dying for.



Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021

Two Kinds of People

Anointing-His-Feet-2

The full readings for today can be found here. The Gospel reading follows below:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

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

It was back in my hometown, Odessa, Texas, in the mid-1990s. My father had retired, along with two of his closest friends, from the oilfield where they spent almost all their working lives, and I had gone home to visit my family. And Dad used to meet with these two friends at the bank every Tuesday morning for coffee, because the coffee was free and they were notorious cheapskates.

Now, these men became known as the Board of Directors, and each of them had a given area of responsibility. Luther Stewart was a worldly man, and so he was put in charge of politics. Homer Pittman was from Oklahoma, and he was in charge of weather because people from Oklahoma know a lot about weather. And because I was a lawyer, my father was in charge of the O.J. Simpson trial. And if something went wrong in their area of responsibility (the wind blew too much, or Judge Ito made a ruling no one could understand) the board member in charge of that area would catch nine different kinds of perdition.

So, one day I was with them, taking my coffee, and Homer Pittman opined that there were two kinds of people in this world: people who were just chasing money, and people who weren’t. Well, we discussed that for a while, and then Luther Stewart suggested that there were in fact two kinds of people in the world, but they were people who were happy by nature and people who weren’t. On the way home my father (a man of considerable wisdom) looked at me and said, “James, I think there are two kinds of people in this world. There’s people who think there’s two kinds of people, and people who don’t.”

So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending time with two kinds of people: sinners and Pharisees. And we come to realize that most of us fall into one or the other of these categories. And the extra-good news is that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Many of us are skilled enough that we can be both, sometimes at the same time.

You know, I love Luke’s Gospel. As I read it, I can’t wait to find out who Jesus is going to spend his time with next: blind people, the lame, lepers, Gentiles, Roman soldiers and prostitutes. It’s like he went around, looking for people no one else liked, people no one with good sense would pay any attention to, misfits and scoundrels. It’s like he didn’t care what other people thought about him. And just in case you missed that observation, Luke tells us at the end of the story that Jesus went and passed his time with people who had been possessed of evil spirits and diseases.

Jesus has a habit of doing this kind of thing. Whenever we draw a line in the sand and say “on this side of the line is where God happens,” Jesus walks across that line. And then, he hops back over to the other side, and then, he hops back. That’s especially true when people try to tell Jesus who is worthy of God’s love.

So, we have this woman, this woman of the city, this sinner. She’s the kind of woman most people avert their eyes from when they encounter her. She’s the kind of woman most people try to ignore. She has the invisibility of the forgotten. And Jesus has to ask the Pharisee Simon, “Do you see this woman?”

That’s just the kind of guy Jesus is. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once observed, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

And then, we have the story about a second kind of person, this Pharisee Simon. And the Pharisees weren’t bad people; they really weren’t. They wanted to get closer to God. They wanted to lead holy lives, and they wanted everyone else to lead holy lives, too. And they had one superpower: they were really good at looking at other people (including Jesus) and telling them what they were doing wrong. Just like Simon, who was convinced Jesus wasn’t really God’s messenger because Jesus apparently didn’t know what kind of woman this was. And Simon was disgusted by this scene, particularly by this woman’s touch. Jesus should have known what kind of woman this was touching him.

The Gospels portray the Pharisees as suffering from the sin of self-righteousness, which from a moral perspective isn’t necessarily worse than other sorts of sins. But the problem is, self-righteousness operates like a kind of spiritual cataract, clouding our vision of our own shortcomings. And that’s the problem from which this Pharisee Simon suffers. Simon is frozen is a wilderness of self-assured piety. And we might wonder, along with Lady Violet of Downton Abbey, “Does it ever get cold there on the moral high ground?”

You know, this Gospel reading reminds me of an old story I heard about a church not too far from here. We’ll call it St. Episcolopolis. And like us, it was a downtown church and they had a large homeless population in the area. And the rector convinced the vestry that they should begin feeding the homeless people around the church. So they did, and everything went swimmingly, until one week the rector invited all these homeless people to come to church after breakfast. And they came.

Well, the next vestry meeting, the senior warden spoke up. He said, “You know, Father, it was all well and good when you told us to feed these people. I mean, that’s what Jesus wanted us to do, and we’re okay with that. But when you invited them to church, well, I mean, I’m not sure they fit in well here. Some of them smell real bad, and they sit there and talk to themselves during the service. I think, Father, you’ve gone too far.”

And the Rector looked at his vestry, and noticed that they were all in agreement. And then he looked down and said, “I’m sorry. Maybe I did try and move too fast. You know, I was just trying to save a few souls.” And the room fell quiet and then the senior warden spoke up. “Father, I suppose you’re right. We didn’t really think about your efforts to save their souls.” And the priest said, “Oh, I wasn’t talking about them.”

So, in today’s Gospel, I think we learn about two other kinds of people. We learn about Jesus, who is always ready to give people a new start. We learn about his habit of looking around for those outside the circle of holiness, looking around the misfits.

And we learn about this woman, who loves him and knows that she needs what he has to offer, a woman whose tears bathe his feet. It’s an intimate event; in fact, it’s scandalous. I’ve often wondered about her: about this woman who found the courage to go into a house where she wasn’t welcome, about the source of those tears. Was she crying because she came to realize the cost of all those years she’d spent in her former life—a life of sin, doing degrading things she knew separated her from God, a life of pain, and humiliation? Or was she crying because she’d found something new in this man called Jesus, and wept for joy knowing she didn’t have to live that way anymore.

She must have been a rare woman—a woman with the courage to say “no” to the people who would push her aside, a woman willing to endure the sneers and shame of those who said she was too dirty, a woman willing to bear the laughter of those who would not accept her or this intimate expression of love for this man Jesus. She was profoundly….human. She was a woman whose courage told her that there was room for her at this table.
And she found that there was another way to walk through the world—a way that St. Paul describes: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This was woman who knew, somewhere in her heart, that love is always a terrible, scandalous risk. It is my hope, my prayer, that when we come to this table in a few minutes that we take that risk and that we find that new life. It is my prayer that we find that a faith that saves us, and that we go in peace. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

The Bread of Life

Bread of Life

The readings for today can be found here:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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

You know, we people, we the people of God, have a funny relationship with food. We have a biblical relationship with food. And it goes back a long, long way. When we were expelled from the garden of Eden, it was because we wanted to eat the food that God had not blessed for our use. Reaching far back into the Bible, both human and divine covenants were sealed with a ritual meal. The principle Old Testament story of deliverance, the Exodus, is celebrated in the ritual meal of the Passover.

Some of us really like to eat, some of us can’t stand to eat, and some of us are eating ourselves to death.  And when we don’t eat, even at the cellular level, our body sends us a message: “We are dying here.” Remember back in the book of Genesis, when Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright? Essau comes in from working in the field, and smells the red stew his brother has prepared.  He is famished and says, “I am dying.”

I have a confession to make to you. And it’s something of which I’m not very proud. I have never been hungry in my life. Oh sure, there’ve been moments when I wanted to eat. But there was always food there. Even when I’ve fasted for a day or so, there’s always been food there. I may have abstained from eating for a while, but I’ve never been more than a few steps away from a meal.

It was not so in Jesus’ time for most people. Most people not only knew real hunger; it was their constant companion. That’s what it means to live in a subsistence economy—never being more than a meal or two away from serious trouble. And that’s why the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of Jesus healing and teaching there had such a powerful appeal to the earliest Christians. And thus, all four gospel writers included that story in their attempts to explain who Jesus was. For people who lived their lives plagued by hunger, that’s a big deal. That’s…well, that’s dinner and a show. And today’s gospel takes place right after the feeding of the multitudes.

I have another confession to make to you. I think John’s gospel may well be my favorite among the four gospels. It’s the most poetic, it’s the most philosophical, and it’s the richest, with one layer of meaning piled onto another. And in John’s gospel, the conversation is never really about what the conversation is about.

So, when John tells the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus and this woman have a conversation about water, but it’s not. And today, although the conversation is about bread, that’s not really what Jesus is talking about. In today’s Gospel, as in last week’s, we find the people looking for Jesus. And I think many of us today are still looking for him. We look for him to come down and stop all this nonsense. We look for him to stop the church burnings, stop us from treating this fragile planet like a toilet, stop the demonizing of the poor. Lord, when are you going to stop us from shooting the lions? When are you going to stop us from shooting the people? And we wonder, “Lord, where are you?” And just like us, the people in this gospel have a lot of questions.

A good deal of today’s reading is about questions and answers. And often, the question Jesus answers is not the question they asked. I don’t think that arises because Jesus didn’t understand them. I think they, like us, were often asking the wrong questions. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and the people are still struggling to figure out what all this means. But as they ask questions, and Jesus answers, we get the feeling they aren’t really talking about the same thing.

For example, the people ask Jesus when he crossed the sea, when he got there. Jesus answers them, kind of. He says, you’re not looking for me because you saw signs of the Kingdom of God, but because you ate your fill of food. They’re following Jesus, but he invites them to examine why they’re doing that. He invites them to examine their motives. It calls to mind something the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral about the perpetual shortcoming of us religious people: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Jesus tells them, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that will endure forever.” I think we all spend a lot of our time working for the food that perishes. We work to pay for houses that will crumble, cars that will rust, clothes that will be packed away or thrown out. Like that crowd, we want security. Maybe that’s what we expect from our religion, too. But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus is offering us. How much of our work do we devote to eternity, to the life of the Spirit which we received at baptism?

And so the people want to know, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Again, Jesus’ answer suggests a conversational near-miss. He tells them, God’s work consists in believing in the one God sent. In other words, it’s not so much about what you have to do, it’s more about who you trust, who you’re willing to become.

And so, the people ask for a sign: if we’re going to believe in you, you need to show us a sign that you’re the one God sent. Now, it’s worth putting this request in context. By this point, Jesus has already changed the water into wine in Cana, healed a boy in Capernaum, healed a lame man at the pool near the Sheep Gate, fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and walked across the sea in a storm. We might wonder, “Exactly what kind of a sign are you looking for?” In John’s gospel, the signs largely go unseen. But that’s part of the richness of this gospel: people watch what Jesus is doing, but they don’t have any idea what it means. They look, but they don’t understand—they don’t really see.

And then the people suggest, you know, we’re looking for a real sign, something like Moses did. And Jesus reminds them about the manna in the desert: Moses didn’t do that at all. That came from God. Jesus tells them, “It is my father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” Everything we are, everything we have: it all comes from God. And until we get that, we’re never really going to understand Jesus.

Because then, just like now, the bread of God comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. And Jesus isn’t really talking about bread here at all. I don’t think we can understand this passage without reading it along with the 4th chapter of John.  You remember, the Samaritan woman who has a talk with Jesus about the water in the well.

And Jesus tells her, if you drink that, you’ll just be thirsty again later.  But he offers her something else, something  called “living water,” and says  “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

And remember what she says? She says “Sir, give me this water.” So, when Jesus tells the people in today’s gospel that the bread of God gives life to the world what do the people respond? “Sir, give us this bread always.” But, something tells me they still don’t get it. Something tells me they still want that bread they had up on the mountaintop. They might want the bread, and think he can give them the bread, but they’re not ready to accept that he is the bread.

Jesus tells them, “I am the bread of life.” And when he says that, it resonates with the echo of the God who told Moses, I am who I am. Just like that crowd that day, we might question why we’re seeking Jesus. What are we looking for? In what ways are we just using Jesus, rather than getting to know him and learning to love him. The Jesus of today’s gospel is a gift from God that offers us new life.

Too often, we live for security: the comfort of a full belly and a wallet flush with cash. But there’s another way to live, in which we turn toward a real home, a place to abide. The living God is the only response to our souls, which are not just a little peckish, not just hollow, not just hungry, but are starving for new way to live. There is a way to live that looks beyond wealth and power and taking care of ourselves. It’s amazing how many people have climbed to the top of that heap and found it to be profoundly empty. If we let him, God will take this emptiness and fill our lives. There is a way to live that values two things above all else: loving God and loving his children. That way lies life, and life in abundance.

There is a way to live that sets asides our own concerns and looks to the needs of others and the needs of the world. That was the way of Jesus, the way he taught. And if we share in that life, we have a real communion with our Lord. Then, we will find a real, holy communion.

So, when we’re called up to this altar in just a few moments, take and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

Let It Be

Annunciation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In the name of the living God: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          She was just a little Jewish girl, not from a particularly important family. Not especially well-educated, almost certainly not wealthy in any sense to which anyone would pay attention. And she didn’t live in an important place, or hang around with the “important” people. She was just a teenage girl, living on the corner of a dead end street, in an occupied country at the outer edge of the Roman empire. She came from Nowheresville, and she was a nobody.

          In this final week of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on something miraculous: a virgin being pregnant, God becoming human, the infinite becoming finite. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, this is the sort of thing that God’s been doing all along: creating life where there was nothing: women too old to give birth (like Sarah and Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), life springing up where there where it was barren, where it was dead.

          The angel tells Mary that she is favored by God, that she is full of grace. This nobody, this teenage girl on the edge of nowhere, mattered to God. And the angel Gabriel called her “full of grace.”  You see, Mary found a place where all of her, and all of God, could dwell. A place deep within her life where her life and God’s life would be joined together in a bond that neither time nor trouble could ever break. Love was coming to dwell in her: to make a home there, to abide there. And I wonder if we can hear Gabriel saying that to us, telling us that we are also favored. God chose a very ordinary girl, in a very ordinary place, because God sees the grace in ordinary people and ordinary places. For all of us, that’s got to be good news.

          And there’s something remarkable about God coming to dwell among us, making an appearance, not on a fiery chariot or with bolts of lightning descending in some really cool special effects, but coming to us as a baby. Babies offer the bright, shining hope of something new, something full of promise, something noisy. And most importantly, something vulnerable. And Mary, in that moment, was remarkably vulnerable. Because you see, in first century Palestine, being an unwed mother wasn’t just something a little embarrassing, a little shameful. That was the kind of thing that could get you killed. So, Mary, took a risk. The risk of embarrassment and shame, humiliation and scandal. Well, that would mark her Son’s life, too. And that day, just like this morning, God took a risk, too.

          A lot depended on her response to God. For thousands of years, we had been mired in sin, separated from God, wallowing in our disobedience. A great chasm had opened up, long ago, in that garden, and we couldn’t get back across to the other side. Something had to change. We needed a miracle.

         Back in the 12th century, an important Saint of the church, a French Cistercian monk named Bernard, gave a really important sermon on the Annunciation and Mary’s response. And he wrote that for that brief instant, while waiting on Mary’s reply, time itself stood still.

          For that brief moment, all creation waited on her answer. In heaven, the angels and seraphim and cherubim stopped their singing. And in hell, for a moment, the screeching stopped. The principalities and the powers came to a halt. And even God leaned over the banister, waiting to hear Mary’s reply. You could’ve heard a pin drop, and then she said, ” “Fiat mihi secúndum verbum tuum.” Let it be with me according to your word. And a great music arose and the angels and all the host of heaven broke into shouts of joy, and in hell all the demonic forces cried in anguish because Lucifer’s plans for this world had been overthrown and God’s creation would be restored. But in a very real sense, Mary’s “yes” to God was simply an echo of God’s “yes” to humankind, the God who said “yes” to us time and time again, and is still saying that to you and me today.

          And in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, asked a very important question. He noted, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. But what good is it to us if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within us? And, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace if we are not also full of grace? What good is it to us for the Creator to give birth to his Son if we do not also give birth to him in our time and our culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

          So, I think we have to confront the question, are we willing to carry the Christ child, and bring Him into the world? Are we willing to risk God coming alive in us, here and today? Are we willing to answer yes to God, and share in God’s dreams for the world? You see, Mary’s story teaches us that very ordinary people (people like us), can do extraordinary, miraculous things when they are vulnerable to God’s choices in the world.

          This life is not always easy, but during this Holy Season of Advent, we might reflect on the words of St. John of Liverpool, who said:

 When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

          Let us cut a path through the noise and chaos and pain of this world. Let us make straight the way of the Lord, let it be.

          Let us build a temple in our hearts and make room for the Christ child in a world that still says there’s no room for God’s children. Let it be.

          In a world that is obsessed be power and wealth and stuff, let us turn to a woman who risked everything and a God who risked everything for the life of the world. Let it be.

          Let the lame walk, let the blind see, let us feed the hungry, and let the captives go free. Let the whole world look through that beautiful window and let them see nothing less than the kingdom of God in our hearts.

         Let us set aside for the moment our commitment to human justice, and live lives full of mercy. And from the springs of that mercy, let God’s justice rain down like a mighty river. Let it be.

          Let us turn away from racism, from our disrespect for God’s people and his world, and from treating some lives as more important than others. Let it be.

          Let it be that we beat our swords, our aircraft carriers and our drones, into ploughshares, turning away from violence and struggle and war. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Let it be.

          Let it be that those who are hopeless, living in fear and those tormented by illness and darkness find the Light of the World, and come to know compassion in a world that’s simply tired of caring. Let it be.

         Let us turn in love to those who are forgotten, those who are broken, those who are down on their luck, and share the good news of God’s love with a world that’s forgotten what love looks like. Let us set aside our own ambitions and share in God’s dreams. Let it be.

Let it be with you, let it be with me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola: A Homily

Ignatius of Loyola

The readings for the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola can be found here:

 
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

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

          Good morning, and welcome as we come together to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, which most of us know as the Jesuit Order. I feel especially close to him, because many of my first teachers were Jesuits.

          You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the modern Christian Church, and it seems to me one of the central problems we have today is that many of us view our faith like a drunkard views a street lamp. We use it for support, rather than illumination.

          It was not always so. In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the brightest lights in the history of Christianity. He was born in 1491, and in his former life he was a Spanish knight from a Basque noble family. When he was seriously wounded in battle around the age of 30, however, he underwent a significant religious conversion. Ignatius became a mystic, spending many hours a day in prayer and also working in a hospice.

          During that time, he had a remarkable spiritual experience. He had a vision in which he said that he learned more than he did in the rest of his life. This vision seems to have involved a direct encounter with God, so that all creation was seen in a new light and took on a new meaning and relevance, an experience that allowed Ignatius to find God in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, serves as one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality.

          At the age of thirty-three, he began to study for the priesthood, although he was so poor at the time he found himself begging for food and shelter. He was also jailed by the Inquisition at this time. Around then, he and six companions made solemn vows to continue their lifelong work of following Christ. He founded what would become the Jesuit Order.

          While he was living as a hermit, Ignatius began to develop a set of exercises, designed to help believers discern the movement of the Spirit. One of the crucial notions in these exercises is the idea of “indifference,” of being indifferent to the concerns of the world—not in the sense of caring about people or things less, but in the sense of not letting our ego and our attachments get in the way of our relationship with God. As Christians, we are called to be indifferent to whether we’re well-known and influential or obscure, whether we’re rich or poor, or even healthy or sick. Our focus must be on whether God is present in our lives—and God is always present, is right there with us, closer than we are to ourselves.

          And I think that’s part of what Luke is trying to explain in today’s passage from the Gospel. It’s a harsh passage, a shocking thing: hearing Jesus tell a man to disregard the burial of his father, and it doesn’t give way to easy explanations. But sometimes we have to ignore a good thing to pursue a holy thing: our highest calling to follow God single-mindedly. I think Jesus is explaining that being a disciple sometimes requires us to make hard choices: to decide if we really do love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our strength. In the kingdom of God, traditional loyalties are going to be rearranged.

          If we want to follow Jesus, to be disciples, we’re going to have to learn to seek the kingdom of God first, and not let anything get in our way. Once our hand is on that plough, we cannot turn back. And we might find some help in this little prayer, the prayer of St. Ignatius:

“Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish, you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”

Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

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.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Becoming a Unity

All of you must become a unity.  Let there be no divisions in your hearts.  When I was among you I cried at the top of my voice, with the very voice of God: “Be united with the bishop, the priests and the deacons.”
Some people thought I cried like this because I foresaw a schism.  He for whose sake I am in chains is my witness that I did not speak in that way because anyone had given me such a warning.  I had simply been listening  to the Spirit proclaiming:
“Do nothing without the bishop!  Keep your body as a temple of God!  Love unity, avoid factions! Be imitators of Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ is of the Father! [cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 11:1]
With such an aim I have done all I could, as one destined to the service of unity.  God does not dwell where there are divisions and bad feeling.  I exhort you: never give way to a quarrelsome spirit, but always carry out the teaching of Christ.
Jesus Christ is my criterion.  Unassailable grounds of judgment for me are his cross, his death, his resurrection and the faith that comes from him. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Philadelphians (quoted in Drinking From the Hidden Fountain).

Today is the Feast of Ignatius of Antioch, who was born in modern day Syria in around 50 A.D., and died in Rome around 117 A.D. He was the third bishop of Antioch, which was then one of the centers of Christianity. He studied under John the Apostle. We don’t know a lot about him, because his ministry occurred so early in the history of the faith. We know about him principally through the seven letters he wrote that scholars consider to be authentic.

He wrote at a time when being a Christian was a dangerous choice, and was accused of treason by the Emperer himself. He was a bishop, an apostle and a martyr for the faith. As we can tell from today’s reading, the subject of the unity of the faithful was a common theme in his writings.

As I read this piece, I was struck by the notion that our divisions as Christians begin with our being divided as individuals.  Most often, our petty disagreements arise from our competing loyalties to Christ and the world. When we are truly focussed on Jesus, the cross, and our faith, most of our divisions fade away.  I pray we will someday learn to set aside our egos and live as the one body we are called to become.

Jesus knew how difficult this would be for us.  Thus he prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” I pray for the day when all God’s children become one in love.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis