Tag Archives: Religion

Up to the Temple to Pray

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

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

Well good morning, good morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Go, and Do Likewise





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

Divine Risk and the Work of Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Beginning of the Good News

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022

The 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

Who Do You Say I Am?

ChapterThe text for today’s sermon (delivered for those taking vows on the Feast of St. Dominic) can be found here.

You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

In the name of the Living God, who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.

It may be the most important question in all of Scripture: “But who do you say that I am?” It’s a question that’s particularly potent for our brothers, Todd, Lee, Mike and Steve, but it’s one we must all face, and face regularly. It encompasses several other questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you doing?” “What do I mean to you?” At the same time the question inquires into Jesus’ identity, it implicitly wonders about our own sense of self, our coherence, our particularity.

Matthew is profoundly concerned with the issue of identity. He tells us that right from the outset. Remember, his gospel begins with a lengthy, complex, structured genealogy. In part, that’s Matthew’s answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” For Matthew, the question doesn’t simply call for some inner exploration, nor even who we spend our time with, but calls us to examine all those who have gone before us.

It’s a question I have to ask, sometimes several times a day, because my answer is often different. In a way, the question is a bit like a kaleidoscope….turn it just a bit, and you see something completely new. And perhaps that’s what’s happening with our brothers here this evening, a bit of a turn, and something very new emerges.

At the outset in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to engage in a sort of shift in perspectives. At first, he asks them who the people say the Son of Man is. And the answer is kind of predictable, although kind of telling: ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Each of these candidates for Jesus’ identity have a few things in common. Each of them was a prophet, each spoke as the voice of God and demonstrated the power of God. So, that’s the predictable part.

The telling part in that answer is that it reveals what the people, and perhaps we, expect of God. What they expected of God, what they expected of Jesus, was more of the same. They expected that Jesus was simply one more member of the Dead Prophets Society. And in so doing, they underestimated both Jesus and God—because God was doing something completely new.

So then Jesus asks the follow up question: who do you say that I am? This time, no one speaks up but Peter, Petros in the original Greek. It’s funny you know: how many of us can give the Church’s answer, or the answer we’ve heard about Jesus. But are we prepared to give an individual accounting for our understanding of Jesus?

In part, we can look at this story through the lens of the importance of names. This pericope offers us several to examine: Son of Man, John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets, Simon, Peter, Messiah, rock, church, Lord. These words all have layers of meaning: theological meaning, the meaning we learned in catechism, just more churchy talk, the meanings implicit in the Hebrew Bible, filtered through a new understanding and the Greek language. Turn the kaleidoscope just a little, and you see something completely different. And the crux of this lesson lies in our reaching an understanding: what does this all mean to me? How does this play out in my life?

Peter faced that moment in this passage we usually refer to as “Peter’s confession.” For Peter, that answer was: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Now, at the time Peter spoke these words, Messiah or Mashiach, didn’t necessary connote divinity. It encompassed several meanings: a religious and a political doyen, a great judge and military leader, and a good, observant Jew. So, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the anointed, the Christos, that name is laden with meaning and the hopes of political independence.

In both Mark and Matthew’s gospels, this story takes place in Caesarea Philippi; that’s not an accident. The story takes place in the shadow, and against the backdrop, of the city that Caesar built. Thus, Jesus’ identity will arise in the context of God’s relationship with the occupied land of Israel and the regnant empire. But Jesus will turn that kaleidoscope as well….

And there were all sorts of ideas suggested as far as when the Messiah might come: if Israel observed a single Sabbath properly; if a single person could keep all the law for a single day; if a generation were completely innocent; or if an entire generation lost hope. Perhaps the great mistake in all these theories lay in assumption that the Messiah’s arrival depended on human action rather than the impulse of divine love.
On the other hand, to call Jesus the Son of God, well, that’s something else. That’s an entirely different layer of meaning, inescapably implicating the divine, inescapably pointing toward the incarnation.

Brother Todd, Brother Lee, Brother Mike, and Brother Steve, you are all called to answer that question: “But who do you say that I am?” And, as Dominicans, we are all called not only to answer it for ourselves, but to walk with others as they struggle to answer it—from the pulpit, in the classroom, in our pastoral work, in a soup kitchen. Who do you say that Jesus is?

When Jesus asks the question, not surprisingly, Peter is the only one who speaks up. And Jesus offers a remarkable analysis of Peter’s answer: He says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus recognizes the divine voice speaking through Peter, recognizes that God is at work in Peter’s life. Now, Peter would screw up again. And again. And again, like most of us. In fact, Peter would go awry in the very next paragraph. And it takes a profound love to recognize that somewhere in that mess, there’s some God stuff, too.

In a movement that has echoed throughout the monastic tradition, Jesus then gives Simon a new name. He calls him Peter; Kephas in the Aramaic, or Petros in the Greek. And here comes the play on words. He tells him, “Upon this rock (petras in the Greek) I will build this church.

So, we might wonder, exactly which rock is that? Some have suggested it was the person of Peter himself. But we should at least consider the possibility that the rock upon which the church would be built was actually Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Perhaps the rock upon which the church stands is our own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” In our lifelong struggle with that question, as we turn the kaleidoscope over and over, we not only understand Jesus anew, we come to understand ourselves differently. Like Peter, we find a new identity in Christ. And so, the question remains crucially important; in fact, it’s definitive. Who do we say Jesus is?

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

Just One Thing

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The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Spanish poet Pablo Neruda once said:

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

That’s Crazy Talk

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The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2019

Not One Stone

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The full readings for today can be found here.

Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

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

I think it’s hard for most of us to imagine the Temple in Jesus’ day. It was a magnificent structure, with gleaming white marble pillars. Its exterior walls were about the height of a modern 20 story building. The central structure of the inner Temple glistened with white marble and gold and immense bronze entrance doors. Herod built it to rival the great religious structures around the world. Like all massive building projects, it was a source of economic growth.

But for the Jewish people, it was so much more. You came to the Temple to have your sins forgiven, to celebrate, to worship, to ask for a blessing. For the Jewish people, quite literally, the Temple was the place where God lived. It was the intersection of heaven and earth.

I think if you were to ask Jesus how he felt about that Temple he would have been stunningly ambiguous, fiercely equivocal. He could see the beauty of the place, and he knew that for many it was a place of prayer and devotion. And yet, it also was a place that took advantage of the poor, that betrayed widows and orphans, that collaborated with the occupying Romans, and it was also a monument to Herod’s narcissism.

Nevertheless, to predict its destruction, to even speculate about that sort of thing, was bad form. It’s not the kind of thing a nice Jewish boy would talk about. In fact, later in Mark’s gospel, that suggestion would be used as evidence against Jesus in his trial. You see, what Jesus said, well, that’s the kind of thing that could get you killed.

And yet, after one of the many Jewish revolts, around 70 A.D. (around the time Mark was writing his gospel), the Romans marched in and destroyed the Temple. The historian Josephus, who was admittedly prone to exaggeration, says that over a million people were killed. Many others were taken slaves. The Temple was levelled, and fire consumed much of the residential areas in Jerusalem. For the Jewish people, it was a catastrophe. I’m sure they wondered how God could let this happen, whether God cared about them anymore. And not one stone was left upon another.

You know several years ago, I was teaching a class on a Wednesday night at another church here in town. And when I got out of class and went to my car, I checked my phone and there 16 missed calls and several messages from my no-good brother Patrick. I immediately called Patrick and learned that my brother Sean Michael, had taken his own life.

Now my baby brother Sean Michael was one of the bright lights in this world. He was brilliant, with a PhD in environmental chemistry. He had worked as a chemist cleaning up toxic waste sites, and later became a high school chemistry teacher. He was funny, and bright and kind and warm, and had a nasty habit of breaking into show tunes for very little reason. In many ways, he was the best of what my family could offer to the world. And then, he was gone. And not one stone was left upon another. I’ll come back to this in just a moment.

I think many of us have had moments like that, times when our entire world comes crashing down around us, times when not one stone is left upon another. A soldier comes home from the Middle East after multiple deployments. And once the initial celebration ends, his family begins to notice that he’s just not the same person anymore. And their lives begin to unravel. Or a woman meets with the human resources director and learns that her job has been eliminated. And she doesn’t have any idea how she’ll feed her family. And not one stone is left upon another.

Or one more gunman walks into a church and plucks several lives away from a decent, gentle, holy congregation. Or a young couple travel to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston with their three year old daughter. While there, they receive a terrifying diagnosis. Or a marriage of two people who genuinely loved and cared about each other falls apart. And not one stone is left upon another. So, what are we to do about these events? How do we respond as a church? How do we carry on when not one stone is left upon another?

I think Jesus offers us a bit of a clue in today’s gospel, when he tells us these events, these tragedies, these famines, these moments of devastation, are the “beginnings of the birthpangs.” Something remains to be born out of our pain, out of our loss, out of our devastation, God will bring forth something new.

So, back to that night in 2007 when I learned about my brother’s death. I turned around and went into the church and knelt down in one of the chapels and began to pray. And I wept like a baby. And one of the priests there, to whom I will always be grateful, came into that chapel and knelt down beside me and I noticed that he was crying, too.

So I asked how we deal with those moments when our world falls apart, when not one stone is left upon another. The writer of Hebrews talks about “holding fast to the confession of hope.” We are called to defy terror and oppression and sorrow with hope. It may seem an insufficient weapon when confronted with the blunt force trauma of this world, but Scripture and the Cross assure us that hope is, in the end, insurmountable. The reading from Hebrews continues: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” That’s the Church, that’s the real church. Two men, praying and crying in the dark.

In this season of stewardship, we might well ask how we are going to be good stewards of the people God has placed in our lives. Our confession of hope lies in provoking each other to love more intensely, forgive more completely, and challenging each other to care for God’s children more deeply. As Saint Paul said, we can hold fast to what is good, care for each other with profound affection. And they’ll know we are Christians, not by our architecture or our programs or our average Sunday attendance. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

The Holiness of Remembering

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

I remember meeting Lea Courington over thirty years ago. We were both speaking at a legal seminar, and I recall that my first impression was that she was brilliant and very funny. That first impression survived a friendship of over thirty years, through a number of changes.
We had several things in common, besides the law. We both loved poetry, and music, and literature, and history. We were both Episcopalians, and shared similar politics, and we both loved to tell stories. Like me, Lea was convinced that the truth can always use a good stretch.
Through the years, Lea or I would call, always beginning with the introduction, “I just have a quick question.” Usually, we would hang up an hour or more later, having laughed loudly and recklessly throughout the conversation. And when I became a writer, Lea and Kris came to see me at book events. When my collection of poetry came out, Lea bought something like six copies, meaning that she was responsible for about one-third of the total sales of that book.
And about 10 years ago, I told Lea that I was joining a religious Order, the Dominicans. And several minutes later, after the laughter died down, we had a long talk about what that might mean. And about three years ago, our relationship and our discussions took on more of a spiritual nature. Through all these changes, our affection for each other remained. Genuine friendship and genuine love survive the odd curve ball’s life throws us, and I have every reason to believe that it survives death.
And if we look at the selection of Scripture that Lea chose for us today, they have a common theme: a theme of being recognized, of being known, of being in a family, of being loved. I know these were the things that drove Lea, that marked her life. These are the things that I will remember about her. If we look at the last reading, we find a theme of being bound together, to each other and to God. Paul wrote, and Lea believed: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God….” Our love binds us in bonds that our stronger than anything, stronger than death.
I know that many of you may have gotten, through the years, an email sent out by Lea on June 6. It was a memorial to the men who landed on the beach at Normandy on D Day. When Lea went to Normandy, she found it terribly moving and I know she loved that place. Lea was especially moved by those men, who knew as she knew that “none of us lives unto ourselves, and none of us dies to ourselves.” But there was something else going on in that email. Lea wanted us to remember, because she knew that there was something holy about our recollection, something sacred about our memories.
In fact, soon, we’ll all be invited to gather around this table, and we’ll hear the words of Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Our memories, particularly today our memories of Lea, bind us together in the sacred act of recollection. Oh my Lord, my Lord, my sweet Lord: I will miss that brilliant, funny, compassionate, fragile woman. I will miss Lea, but more importantly, I will remember her. I hope you will, too. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018