Tag Archives: Religion

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

Hearing the Words

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Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’

The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’* Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. John 8: 47-59.

Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.

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

You know, sometimes, sometimes, I absolutely hate the lectionary. I’ve got a sermon, or I’ve got a theology, or I have an understanding, and it just won’t fit into the text that I’ve been given. Sometimes, the text just doesn’t have much to do with my idea of God, or Jesus, or holiness at all. But to paraphrase former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, we’ve got to deal with the lectionary we have, not the one we wish we had. In fact, as today’s gospel reminds us, we’ve got to deal with the Jesus we have rather than the one we wish we had.

If you ever find yourself infatuated with the kind, squishy, gooey caramel Jesus, I suggest that the eighth chapter of John is the best antidote for you. This is not a Jesus made for people who need puppies and unicorns and glitter: this is a Jesus in conflict. It’s a conflict that begins in the opening lines of the 8th chapter with the story of the woman caught in adultery, a conflict that will ultimate get Jesus killed.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know, back when I was just a kid, growing up in West Texas, some of the earliest questions I can remember people asking me were: “Where are you from? Who are your people? Are you any kin to those Dennis’ over in Scurry County?” We are fascinated with questions surrounding our origins. I think that’s based on the assumption that if we can know the origins of a thing or a person, we will then understand it, and know which box to put it in. These are the very questions that our gospel today centers upon.

So, we heard a bit about this conflict yesterday. And this morning, the conflict has accelerated. Jesus’ accusers go so far as to accuse him of being a Samaritan, or of having a demon. Now, in either instance, if he were a Samaritan or if a demon had driven him insane, the implication is that no one needs to listen to what Jesus had to say. Jesus turns away from the insult, returning to the notion of his origin, his source. The only authority Jesus claims for himself is the authority of the Father.

Jesus then makes a remarkable claim: those who keep his word will never see death. So, now we have the competing claims of authority. Those who oppose Jesus claim their authority arises from Abraham, the father of monotheism. They rest upon their link, their lineage, back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets. They ask Jesus, they mock Jesus: “Are you greater than our father Abraham, and all the prophets who died?” The question echoes with the question posed in the 4th chapter of John’s Gospel by the Samaritan woman at the well: “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?”
Jesus refuses to entertain the question of who’s greater. He says he’s not interested in his own glory (in the Greek doxa). Whatever glory Jesus has will come from the Father, and not from them. Jesus responds that they don’t even know the Father. Jesus argues that he knows both the Father and Abraham. Now the fight is joined: they know Jesus is crazy because he couldn’t know Abraham. Abraham has been dead for centuries.

And here’s the punch line: Jesus claims before Abraham was, I am. It’s an odd formulation. He doesn’t claim, I was before Abraham was. He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” I am. In the Greek, ego eimi. It is the same phrase Jesus uses when he says, “I am the bread of life, or “I am the true vine” or “I am the good shepherd.” It is the same phrase that answers Moses’ question, “Who are you?” I am who I am. It’s an origin story. Jesus’ origin lies at the beginning of creation: the Logos who was with God and was God from the beginning.

It’s a remarkable claim. It’s the sort of claim that’ll get you in a rock fight, get you killed, get you crucified up on a tree. So, I think there’s a lesson for us as Dominicans. Jesus, the truth, finds himself in conflict with those who cannot accept the truth. For those of us who follow Dominic, who belong to an Order whose motto is Veritas, this offers an important lesson. Our lives will not be free of conflict. We follow a man, a God, who was born and lived a good part of his life in conflict. You see, in a world full of comfortable lies, the truth will always fall under attack. Scripture teaches us that: we need only look to the stories of Amos, Elijah, the other prophets or Jesus.

The first weapon of our Ancient Enemy was the lie. Jesus told us, He was a liar from the very beginning. Our ancient enemy said, if you eat this fruit, you will not die, but you will become gods. Lies have a remarkable power. As my father used to say, a lie can travel three counties over while the truth is still tying its shoes.

In a land of lies, the truth will stand out like a sore thumb. And history teaches us that lies cannot bear the light of the truth. Modern history teaches us this as well. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King, lies and liars cannot suffer the presence of those who commit themselves to the Truth. They cannot, and I choose this word carefully, abide it. So, we should not expect our road to be easy. Ours is the road that leads to Jerusalem and to Golgotha.

So, as we leave this place, go home safely, go in peace and with our blessing and our love. But as you go, listen for God’s voice. Make that your home; abide there. But walk in truth, with the incarnate Truth, the Logos, the Christ. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

 

When Did You Get to Know Me?

NathanielThe full readings for today can be found here:

Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51.

When did you get to know me?

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

Several years ago, I travelled to Toronto with my Dominican brothers and sisters for Chapter, our annual gathering. While we were there, I was lucky enough to spend some time at L’Ache, the community founded by Henri Nowen, the great pastoral theologian.
L’Arche is a home for people who face profound mental challenges. While I was there, I met a man named Tom. Tom had Down’s syndrome, but that wasn’t the most important fact about him. You see, Tom was deeply concerned with, one might even argue obsessed with, superheroes. I mean, all of them: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Ironman, even the Green Lantern.

As I had the chance to talk more with him, I got to see some of his artwork. He showed me one piece that was a little confusing. It portrayed a bearded man wearing what appeared to be a Superman outfit, with his arm around someone who was obviously Tom. I asked him if the other man was Jesus, and he told me that it was. Now, Jesus (or SuperJesus) had his other arm dangling out into space. I asked Tom why Jesus’ arm was just hanging there, and he said, “That’s for you.”

I was gobsmacked. Here was this man, with supposed mental deficits, who had completely grasped a profound theological concept that I had been struggling to live into for years. I asked Tom if there was anything he needed us to pray for, and Tom told me, “I want to be a superhero.” I told him, “Tom, I think you already are, but I’ll pray anyway.”

God is like that. God is sneaky. The divine will jump up and grab you from behind when you weren’t expecting it.

So, in today’s Gospel, we have a wonderful story, a story of calling and wonder and awe. It’s the story of one of my favorite cynics, Nathaniel. But we’ll get to that in just a moment. It’s worth setting the stage.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the day after Jesus is baptized, two of John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus where he is staying, or where he abides. He answers them, “Come and see.” That day, Jesus calls Andrew and his brother Simon Peter.

Our reading today takes place the next day, as Jesus is returning from Bethany to Galilee. John tells us that Jesus “found” Phillip. Now, John is a fine poet, and he doesn’t use words lightly. While he regularly contrasts light and darkness, he also contrasts the notion of who is lost and who is found. And if you want an interesting spiritual exercise, try putting your own name in that sentence: Jesus found Nancy, or David, or Rilda or Brad, or James, and said, “Follow me.” Listen for Jesus calling your own name, saying “Follow me.”

Now, Phillip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and tells him about Jesus, describing Jesus in fairly glowing terms. He describes Jesus as fulfilling all the hopes of Israel, the man who Moses and the prophets wrote about: Jesus son of Joseph, of Nazareth. That’s a complex description, and we’ll try and unpack it a bit, but there’s something else worth noting. Phillip says “we found Jesus,” although the text says Jesus “found” Phillip. So I suspect that if Phillip did the finding, it was only in following Jesus that he found Him. And perhaps that’s true of us as well: if we want to find Jesus, we have to follow Him.

In response to Phillip’s assessment of Jesus, Nathaniel asks a poignant question: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? The question may reveal Nathaniel’s understanding of the biblical prophecies: the Messiah wasn’t supposed to come from Nazareth. Or his response may reveal a general disdain for that area. Nazareth was a poor, unimportant, hillside village, and it was no place special. We might as well ask whether anything good can come out of Haiti, or El Salvador, or the poverty-stricken countries of Africa. But I think Nathaniel’s question betrays something more troublesome. I think it’s a question born of cynicism, born of waiting for the Mashiach, the Messiah, waiting for God to make things right. I think that kind of cynicism is usually born out of many disappointments, out of hope that has been smothered, out of the rough tragedy of disappointment. Perhaps it’s a disappointment arising because the word of the Lord was rare in those days, too.

But Phillip answers his friend Nathaniel, echoing Jesus’ response the day before when John’s disciples asked Jesus where he was staying. Phillip tells him: “Come and see.” They are warm words, words of welcome and invitation. And as Nathaniel approaches Jesus, Jesus announces: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” There’s a bit of wordplay going on here. You see, before Israel was the name of a country, it was the name of a man, the name of one of Isaac’s two son’s. But Israel wasn’t the name he was born with; that name was given to him after he wrested with God at Peniel. His name at birth was Jacob, which means the deceiver, the usurper.

Now, in case you doubt that Jesus was directly referring to the story of Jacob and Israel, he returns to the story of Jacob at the end of this Gospel passage. When Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man, he’s alluding to the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob arose from his dream knowing that he was standing “at the gate of heaven,” the intersection of heaven and earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Nathaniel comes to recognize a new point where heaven and earth intersect: the person of Jesus. Jesus recognizes Nathaniel: tells him he saw him under the fig tree before Phillip called him. And then Nathaniel recognizes Jesus. He says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God and the King of Israel.” This is Nathaniel’s discovery, his epiphany, his confession. And he reveals himself as a true Israelite, one for whom God’s promises were intended.

Like Samuel in the Old Testament reading, Nathaniel didn’t recognize the divine initially. But God knew Samuel, just as Jesus knew Nathaniel. As the Psalmist says, God created their inmost parts; knit them together in their mother’s womb. And ultimately, they both came to recognize the call of the divine upon their lives.

I’m wondering if we can hear the God calling our names in the dark, calling us from under the fig tree. Because I believe each of us are called to be living icons in which God’s presence in the world is revealed. Regardless of what we do for a living, that’s our vocation. Regardless of how well we know God, God has searched us out and knows us. God “traces our journeys and our resting places.”

Sometimes, when the word of the Lord seems very rare, God sneaks up on us and asks us to share in God’s dreams for the world. God calls to us and says, “Come and see,” or “Follow me.” We may hear God calling to us in a sick friend, a neighbor who’s just lost a child, or a homeless person who’s down on their luck. Like I said, the Almighty is sneaky that way. And God can use many voices: dreams, visions, or a man with Down’s syndrome in a superman tee shirt. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018