Tag Archives: Religion

Two Kinds of People

Anointing-His-Feet-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

You Can’t Go Home Again

aThe full readings for today can be found here.

 

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Luke 4:21-30.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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

          Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you today, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality these past few weeks. I’m going to tell you all something and some of you may find this a bit shocking. Think of it as my confession. Those of you who know me well may not find this surprising at all, but I’m not sure I have been saved. I’m not sure that accurately describes the situation at all.

          I’m going to tell y’all a story about me, back when I was just a wee little boy back in Odessa, Texas. My family raised me as an Irish Catholic and I attended kindergarten and first grade at a Catholic school. But when I was in the second grade, my folks decided I should go to the public school and I began attending Burnett Elementary School.

          And it was during the first week when I was there on the playground, at recess, when I was surrounded by a ring of my classmates.  And I’m pretty sure they were Baptists because I think most everyone in Odessa was. And my new friends began to interrogate me and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” And I honestly don’t know where this answer came from because I was not a thoughtful child. There were a lot of words used to describe me in my childhood, but “thoughtful” is not one of them. But I looked at them and said, “Kind of. I don’t think he came just to save me. I think he came to save the whole world.” But I’ll circle back to that idea of salvation here in a bit.

          Speaking of hometowns, in today’s gospel we find Jesus back in his hometown, Nazareth. Now, Nazareth wasn’t a particularly important place, and it was largely known as a poor region, a place populated by rabble rousers and troublemakers. So when folks there heard about the good things Jesus was doing in other cities, I’m sure they were full of expectations and curiosity, a little pride, and perhaps a little envy.

And Jesus stood up there in the synagogue and he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

          And then, he tells them, “Today this has happened, and you’ve been here to hear it.” It’s a startling announcement: it’s shocking. And in the most clear expression we can find in the Gospels, Jesus makes the claim: “I’m him. I’m the Messiah you’ve all been waiting for.” And while the people are initially impressed, it doesn’t take long until they’re asking themselves, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

          They’re suggesting: Wait a minute. We know this man, and there’s nothing particularly special about him, or perhaps they are alluding to his dubious parentage. I’ve got a feeling that Jesus knew this town, these people and their narrowness. Jesus had probably heard the whispers about his mother and her “virgin birth.” And these people were confident they knew all about Jesus. Of course, we know that familiarity breeds contempt. And that’s not unusual: we all get accustomed to thinking about people in a certain way. Neuropsychiatrists tell us that human thoughts and ideas travel along well-worn pathways in our brains. These people pretty sure they’ve got Jesus all figured out, and they also know what the Messiah should look like and this upstart . . . well, this isn’t him at all.

          And Jesus knows they want him to do the same stuff in his hometown that he did in Capernaum. You know, all that miracle stuff. As C.S. Lewis once observed, one of our great human weaknesses is to tell God “Encore! Do that again!” Because we want God to be predictable; we want a God we can do business with.

          But Jesus, he’s going to thwart their expectations. In essence, He tells them, “I didn’t come just for you people.” This is not what we’d call an “effective marketing strategy.” Jesus reminds them about Elijah, who was also rejected by His own people, and brought deliverance from sickness and hunger and death to a Gentile woman. He reminds them about Elisha, who cured the Gentile Naaman although there were plenty of lepers in Israel. This is a bitter pill to swallow; this is hard medicine for the hometown crowd, and the crowd has what modern doctors would call an “adverse reaction” to this medicine.

          Luke tells us they were filled with rage, and they ran him outside town and were going to throw him off a cliff, when Jesus somehow just slips away. And that seems a little strange, because it’s hard to get away from an angry mob. But maybe Luke is telling us that when we are full of self-assurance and when we’re filled with rage, it’s very hard to find Jesus.  Rage and fear and self-assurance act like God cataracts: we just can’t see God when we feel that way.

          Jesus is always upending the expectations of those who think they’ve got God figured out: they’ve got a God they understand, a God they can do business with. He does it again and again. It’s one of his character traits, and I think He got that from his Father. The minute we think we’ve got God all figured out, He up and does something we just didn’t see coming. And for those disappointments which prove to be our salvation, we should give thanks every day.

          So, I want to circle back to that concern I shared with you early on. I don’t think I can honestly say that I have been saved. I don’t think my salvation is my rear-view mirror. But I do think I’m being saved. My salvation began over two thousand years ago when God’s son was born into the stench and muck of a cow barn and walked and lived among us until he walked up that hill called Golgotha, the place of the skulls. I am being saved daily, working out my salvation with fear and trembling, through prayer, encounters with the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the love of Christ’s body, the Church. And I believe I will be saved at the last day through God’s love and mercy: through the mercy of a God who, despite my best efforts, simply will not stay in any of the boxes I try to fit Him into. This, I believe, and this, I give thanks for. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

 

Mary and Elizabeth

aThe full readings for today can be found here.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Luke 1:39-55.

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

          I have a sneaking suspicion most of you know what I’m going to preach about this morning, but before I get there, there’s something I need to say. It’s kind of sad, but there are no words in the English language to express how grateful I am to this good parish for your warm welcome and loving care these past few weeks. I have been coming here for several years, and am always filled with a startling, wild, staggering gratitude for your hospitality.

          I know it’s a little early, but I thought I’d tell you a Christmas story this morning. It was about 48 years ago, and I was back with my family on Melody Lane one Christmas morning. And I don’t remember what it was, but I was disappointed with something I didn’t get among my Christmas gifts. And one of my brothers must have joined me in the muttering, because my mother packed all four of us, four little boys with burr haircuts, into the car and we went for a drive.

          We drove through Odessa, past the bad side of town, all the way to the Ranchito, where the poorest of the poor lived. And my brothers and I stared at the places those good people called home: cardboard boxes and plywood covered in black plastic to keep the rain out and dwellings made out of what we’d call garbage. And my mother didn’t say a word, but I understood perfectly. And I was ashamed of myself. It’s 48 years later, and I’m still ashamed of myself. I’ll circle back to that in just a bit.

          So, on this final Sunday of Advent, the Church offers us this wonderful Gospel story of two Jewish women meeting in a town in Judea. We’re told they were cousins, although Elizabeth was much older than Mary, who was probably not much more than a girl. Each of them knew shame and disgrace. Elizabeth had been without a child for a long time, and in that culture that was a humiliating thing. Mary was an unwed mother, and in that time, that was not only a shameful thing: it was the kind of thing that could get a girl killed.

          And, as they met, there was a moment of recognition: recognizing someone both familiar and yet wonderfully strange. Elizabeth recognizes Mary (her own people would have called her Miriam) and yet calls her “the mother of my Lord.” Now, in the Hebrew, that would be Adonai, the word commonly used to refer to God. So, Elizabeth recognizes Mary, and yet there’s something unusual: she calls her the Mother of God. And even the unborn child Elizabeth carries, who will grow up to be John the Baptist, knows that something wonderful is coming; something wonderful has already happened.

      But whenever I hear this story, I’ve always imagined the two of them giggling as they meet each other. First, I suspect they were laughing because they loved each other and it had probably been a while since they had been together. And secondly, because they were both with child, and neither of them was supposed to be.

          Scripture teaches that Mary was a virgin: and virgins just don’t get pregnant. Elizabeth was an old woman, well past child bearing years. And yet, here they were. If we go back through the Bible, that’s just the kind of thing that God does: he creates life where there isn’t any. He did it in Genesis, in our story of creation, created life out of nothing. God did for Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was too old to have Isaac. He did for the mother of Samson, who was also childless. He did for Hannah, who was desperately barren until God intervened and she bore Samuel. And He did it again with Mary the Virgin and Elizabeth, an old woman. And in one sense, He does it again in the stories of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.

          If we listen to Scripture, we find God creating life all over the place where there isn’t any: in old women, in the barren places, where there is nothing but death. We find God creating life so often and in so many places that we might come to the conclusion that that’s His business: making new life.

          But the Gospel lesson today teaches us something else about God’s business. In the song of Mary, which we sometimes call the Magnificat, we hear Mary erupt into a song of hope. She sings about what’s coming into the world: overturning a system of violence and oppression and corruption and replacing them with mercy and justice and love. And if we hear this song of Mary as revolutionary, as radical, I don’t think we miss the mark. She announces that Jesus is coming into the world to challenge the structures of sin and death and oppression and fear. It is a song of defiant resistance, the song of a militant refusal to accept the way things are. Mary is so filled with hope that she sings as though all these things have already happened.

          If we read the story of the Exodus or the prophets and their concern with justice for the weak and the forgotten, or the story of the birth of Jesus, or almost any story about Jesus’ ministry, we begin to get the sense that that’s also part of God’s business. And if God is so desperately concerned with the lives of those the world has forgotten (the weak, the poor, the powerless), then I think we had better be concerned with their lives as well. If we really want to call ourselves Christians, I think we had better join God in the business of hope. Because I don’t think God is looking for a Church full of cheerleaders to sit on the sidelines and yell, “Yay, God.” I think God is looking for collaborators, partners in the business of hope.

          And that’s just one of the reasons I love the season of Advent. It is the season of hope: longing for a better world; hope of a world without fear; hope that God will dwell with us—in our lives and in our hearts. Christmas is about joy, and I’m a big fan of joy, but Advent teaches us the virtue of hope. And it offers that hope to those the world has forgotten, those on the margins: those people like these two Jewish women who were nobodies from nowhere. And yet God chose them to announce that he was breaking into this world and would walk among us. He chose these two Jewish women who hoped…against hope.

          We live in a world suffering from “compassion fatigue,” a world where hope has become a very rare commodity, where cynicism has become our currency. We live in a world where almost 13% of the globe’s population is hungry, and 3 ½ million children die of hunger every year. We live in a world where children are forced to become soldiers and are trained as killers in 20 countries around the world. We live in a world where every 30 seconds someone loses their freedom and finds themselves enslaved in the business of human trafficking. And together with the Psalmist, we wonder: “How long, oh Lord?” How long is this going to go on? And we are brokenhearted. And we are ground down. And we begin, bit by bit, to lose hope.

          George Santayana once observed, the world “has music for those who listen.” Somehow, from above the struggle and the pain, we can here that music sometimes. And I think Mary has a music for those who listen: she sings a song pregnant with promise, with new life, a song of God’s presence with us. Mary sings a song for those good people who live outside Odessa in the Ranchito, for those living in refugee camps, those in Detroit and in the Sudan, and for those good people who live on the outskirts of Dripping Springs.

          And so, it is my Advent prayer that we will all, like Mary, be ready to carry the Christ child into a world that is dying of hopelessness. It is my Advent prayer that we will lead lives filled with expectation, lives which announce to the world: Emmanuel, God is with us. That was Mary’s prayer, and I hope it’s ours, too. But the real measure of our prayer comes in how we act and the kind of lives we lead, after we say “Amen.”

Amen.

 

Advent Study, Part I

My friends,

I’m leading an advent study for several weeks. If you’re interested, there are both audio files and PowerPoint slides associated with the class.

You’ll find the link below:

http://christianformation-dwtx.org/middle-content-block-middle/mary-the-mother-of-god-overview/mary-mother-of-god/

Wishing you all a good and holy Advent as we await the coming of the Christ child. God’s peace,

Br. Jamesa

Let It Be

Annunciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Trinity: A Sermon

Rublev, The Trinity

The readings for Trinity Sunday can be found here:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

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

You know, I’ve been doing that, and saying that, for a long, long time. I was probably one or two years old, back in Ector County, when my mother and father taught me to make the sign of the cross and to say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And in my family, you didn’t just do it several times during church. We did it at every meal and every night as we said our evening prayers. I’m not sure my parents knew exactly what they were doing as we followed that practice. You see, not only were they reminding us of our baptismal vows constantly, but they were also inviting us into that great mystery we call The Trinity.

And I remember when I was around six or seven, sitting in the pews there at Holy Redeemer  in Odessa, a little burr headed boy in short pants. And we got to that point in the Creed when we said, “We believe in one God.” And I thought to myself, One God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One plus one plus one equals One. And I scratched my little head. One plus one plus one equals One.

And years later, when I went to the University of Texas, my parents were surprised that I studied philosophy and poetry rather than engineering. And I thought to myself, really? Because for years, they had been preparing me to become accustomed to mystery, to make my home there, to abide there.

And when the poets of the Hebrew people confronted the great mystery of how we got here, the mystery of creation, they wrote that God spoke the universe into being. He spoke light and he spoke darkness. He spoke time into being. He spoke us into being as well. Genesis records, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Now, it’s worth noting that as God speaks humanity into being, Scripture records the Creator referring to himself in the plural, “according to our likeness.” We’ll circle back to that idea in just a bit.

And our modern poets, we call them physicists, have been studying some very old light, echoes from the dawn of the universe. They tell us that when time began, in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the universe began to expand to something that was about the size of a marble.All the stars, all the planets, the entire time space continuum, began to expand from a white-hot mass about the size of your fingertip.    When I think of that, I’m reminded of something Martin Luther once said. He said, “God is nothing but glowing love, and a burning oven full of love.” And that simmering cauldron of love exploded in creation.

Curiously, our scientists also tell us there are about as many atoms in your eyeball as there are stars in the universe. And we confess that God made all these things, visible and invisible — the God who creates, and redeems and forgives and comforts and sustains.

Love, even God’s love, does not exist in a vacuum. Love always arises in relationship, in community. We call that The Trinity.

Now theologians, they tell us that God created everything from nothing. In the Latin, they say ex nihilo. It’s impossible to imagine that: we don’t have a frame of reference for it. When I try to think of it, the closest I can get is the story of Beethoven, having gone deaf, creating symphonies when there was no longer any music for him to hear. But this was something much, much more — infinitely more. And while God didn’t create from any raw material, anything physical, I think he called the universe into being out of His love.

Divine love was the stuff out of which creation sprang into being. Divine love, which overflowed out of the Father, into the life of Son, who breathed out the Spirit onto the disciples and still breathes it into us. It was love that lit the fires of trillions and trillions of stars, love that crawled up that hill called Golgotha, and it was love that broke through the separation of our many languages on Pentecost.

As a friend of mine observed, we will not encounter the living God in doctrine, explanations or analysis. The Trinity is too wild, too beautiful, too expansive, and too intimate for that. God will not be contained in our thoughts or our language. Rather, we encounter the living God in unspeakable moments of awe and joy and wonder. One of the most profound thinkers I know of, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To confess our faith is to commit, not to any kind of understanding, but to an “endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

And when the book of Genesis records that we are made in the image of God, I think it means that we are made for love. Jesus told us as much, that we were made to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all of our strength, and to love each other as much as we love ourselves.

That’s why Saint Paul said to live in peace and greet each other with a holy kiss, because we are a holy people made from holy love and made to love. Because everyone we encounter, well, they were made in the image of God as well, even the gossips and the soreheads. Thus, C.S. Lewis observed that aside from the blessed Sacrament, there’s nothing more holy in this church today than the person sitting next to you in the pews.

We, all of us, were made for union with God. We came from God, and we’ll go back where we came from. We were made for union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the God who is both a plurality and a unity.

Now if the Father lives, and has always lived, in communion, in community, and if we were made in God’s image, that means that we were also made to live in community. Our lives, our salvation, must be worked out together. And that’s why, just two weeks ago, we heard Jesus praying that we would be one, just as He and the Father are one. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters prayed, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And just as we confess that “We believe in one God.”

We work out our salvation together, and the church acts like the church, when our caring for each other pours out, and God is revealed in this community. Our churches can be, must be, windows through which the world can see God’s love spilling out everywhere — down Pecan Street, through Travis Park, up and down Highway 281, reaching out into our homes and our workplaces, our hospitals and yes, even our prisons.

We were baptized into a community, to share in the life of the Trinity, marked as Christ’s own. And we aren’t called upon to love only our fellow believers, but to live our lives so that the whole world says, “See how they love.”

So, how do we get there, how do we achieve this union with God? Well, Jesus offered us a real good starting place. In a few minutes we’ll be invited up to the table, to take the life of Christ into us. He told us, “Take, eat.” And somehow, when we do, the life of Christ, the love of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit begin to take hold in us. And that’s what C.S. Lewis called The Deep Magic. Somehow, we begin to make our home in that wonderful mystery of the Trinity, to abide with God. And then, we find that Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.

Amen.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: A Sermon

Therefore I prayed, and understanding
was given me;Aquinas

I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth. 
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth,
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction.
–Wisdom 7: 7-14

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas 

          Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
          I called for help, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.

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

Well good morning, good morning. And welcome to you as we celebrate the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

          It was a remarkable time in the history of Western culture. My brother Thomas was born in 1225 and died in 1274; he did not survive to see fifty years. But he lived during remarkable times. The Crusades had proven to be a miserable failure. The inquisition had begun recently in Toulouse, France, and Dante was writing his major works.  Gothic architecture was beginning to take root. The institution of universities had only just begun to arise. Within 100 years, a remarkable period in European history we call the Renaissance would begin to flourish.

          And coming largely from the east, a new wisdom began to spring up. The works of Aristotle, long lost in the West, had been recently translated into Latin. Many in the western Church had been openly hostile to this “new learning” because it was clearly pagan. And perhaps because people have “itchy ears” it was widely read and became a prominent philosophy of the time. And so, the notion began to swell that there were at least two kinds of truth. There was philosophical truth (or what we might call scientific truth), and then there was biblical truth. And it all depended on your point of view, you see, which you thought made more sense.

          Onto this scene strides my brother, St. Thomas Aquinas. He did not initially seem like he would have much to offer the world. His fellow schoolmates called him “the dumb ox.” And yet his biographer, Gugliemo di Tocco, describes him as a man consumed by the holy mysteries of the great sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrament in which we’ll soon share. The Italian term he used was divorato; Thomas was devoured by a sense of awe at this great mystery. But his intellect was also set aflame by the works of Aristotle.

          From within that huge frame, within that dumb ox, shone one of the finest minds of his time, perhaps one of the finest minds of any time. And he was absolutely and mercilessly committed to knowing the truth; he thought that was one of our highest purposes as humans. And one of his investigations, his searches for the truth, is still widely taught and used today in seminaries and schools of philosophy. We call it The Summa Theologica.

And Thomas knew, through his confrontation of and dwelling within the divine mysteries, that God’s truth would surpass and could not be contained by human speech or knowledge. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit Jesus called the Spirit of Truth.

And among his many invaluable contributions, Thomas laid waste to the notion that there were many separate inconsistent truths, that there was philosophical truth and sacred truth. You see, back then, not unlike our day, many folks saw a contradiction between faith and reason. And there arose something called the doctrine of double truth: for example, that something might be true scientifically and false scripturally, and both of them could be correct. Thomas wrote that the truth that “human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith.” The truth cannot be sequestered. Because all truth comes from God, who is Truth and in whom there is no deception, if there is an apparent contradiction between reason and faith we have either reasoned poorly or misunderstood the faith. But, he proclaimed adamantly, there is only one truth.

          Thomas understood that the Wisdom of God, another name for Jesus as our Advent hymns remind us, came into the world. The Logos broke into the world that Christmas morning. There is a story that Thomas had a vision of Jesus on the Cross, and that Jesus said “Thomas, you have written well of me. What can I give you as your reward? And Thomas replied, “Lord, nothing but yourself.”

          My brother Thomas wrote:

“Word made flesh, by Word He makes
True bread his flesh to be;
Man in wine Christ’s Blood partakes
And if his senses fail to see,
Faith alone the true heart wakes
To behold the mystery.”

           In today’s Gospel, the Logos asks us “Have you understood all this?” But this wisdom, this divine truth, is to be felt and not just known, to be studied with the heart and not only the mind. This is a Truth, a wisdom, that is not so much about a problem that we figure out or an argument we can win, as it is about a person with whom we fall in love.

          Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis