Tag Archives: Pastoral Care

Hurry Down!

zaccheaus

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

The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2016

The Lost and the Found

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The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 James R. Dennis

Setting Our Faces to Go to Jerusalem

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

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

The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

Two Kinds of People

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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

Who’s In Charge Around Here?

Jesus Casting out demon

The full readings for this Sunday can be found  here:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”

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

Well, good morning, good morning.  And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.

Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.

But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?

In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”

And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting  as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.

God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.

You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.

Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.

And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.

And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.

In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.

And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”

You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.

I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.

You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.

And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a  false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart.  You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2015 James R. Dennis

To an Immeasurable Extent

 Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith.  He must shake the yoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord.  He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.
Don’t hesitate to declare yourself sinners.  Thereby you will be put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error.  And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with the creator.

The regeneration of which I am speaking is not the rebirth of the body, but the second birth of the soul.  Bodies are procreated by the father and mother, but souls are recreated by means of faith, since the Spirit blows where it will. [John 3:8]
God is kind and he is kind to an immeasurable extent.
Don’t say: “I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offenses innumerable time.  Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them? Listen rather to the Psalmist: “How great is your love, O Lord.” [cf. Ps. 31:19]
Your sins piled up one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love.  Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.
There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” [Ps. 32:5] Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: “Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain).

We think St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived between 313 and 386 A.D. He has been venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. At a time of great strife and discord within the early Church, he worked for peace and reconciliation. He became the bishop of Jerusalem, and was loved there for his works of charity (which included feeding the poor at the expense of selling the church treasury).

I love this little piece of his, in part because it echoes one of the major themes of this blog: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s deep and abiding love. The Cross teaches us how much God cares for us. We will never be able to reason, or to behave, our way into God’s love, which He pours out like a steady rain onto all of us.  I hope we can all hear God’s voice calling to us, affirming us as His beloved.

We can never go so far down the road to ruin that we cannot turn back, and our Father who sees us from a long ways off, will come running to meet us. As Cyril said, our wounds are not too deep for the Doctor to heal.  Never.  Never ever.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

P.S.

I’m going to be taking a break from writing for  a while.  You will remain in my prayers, and in my heart.

“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.”

A Simple Prayer

“O Holy Christ,
bless me with Your presence
when my days are weary
and my friends few.”

From Celtic Daily Prayer.

I have been traveling, and so this will be a brief post.  It’s my hope to offer this prayer for  the intentions of “the sick, the friendless, and the needy.”