Tag Archives: Spirituality

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

 

 

The First and the Last

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The full readings for today can be found here.

Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

In the name of the Living God, who binds all of us together: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Good morning, good morning. It is a great pleasure to be with you again at St. Paul’s and I want to thank your rector for inviting me and you for your wonderful hospitality.

You know, I grew up out in West Texas, and was the eldest of four boys. And although my parents never said so, I’m sure they were terribly grateful for my finely attuned sense of fairness. Because whenever they made a mistake in the allocation of resources (whether it was Christmas presents, dolling out allowances or apportioning dessert), they could count on my keen sense of justice and willingness to speak up and tell them: “That’s not fair.”

I had a profound sense of justice and of the urgency to get my fair share, to get what’s coming to me. And so, for a long time, the story in today’s Gospel bothered me. But as I’ve gotten older and my focus has turned to the spiritual life and perhaps a broader awareness of just how lucky I’ve been, I have come to realize that the very last thing in the world I want from God is for God to give me what’s coming to me.

So, let’s take a look at this parable, this story that Jesus tells to his listeners. First, we need to note that the whole story is set in the context of Jesus trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like. And I don’t think Jesus was necessarily trying to give them a description of heaven, because elsewhere, he tells them, “The Kingdom of God is within you now.” So, Jesus is trying to explain how we can live into, how we can bring about the kingdom, here and now. This story isn’t about some rarefied, ethereal event that will happen in the sweet by and by: it’s about how we live our lives right here and right now.

So, the parable itself is not that complicated. It’s not a hard story to follow. Then again, as Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
A landowner needed people to work in his vineyards. He hires workers early in the morning, and again at nine, and noon, at three in the afternoon and again at five o’clock. And when it comes time to pay the workers, he pays those who showed up last first, and to compound things he pays those who only worked for an hour the same wage as those who worked all day. When the day ends, all of them (those who showed up early and those who showed up late) are all paid the same wage. And the workers who worked all day in the hot sun begin to do exactly what we would expect—exactly what most of us would do—they engage in one of the most ancient practices of Christians everywhere; they grumble.

Now, I love that word: grumble. It sounds like a cross between a grunt, a groan and mumble. We think it comes from the Middle French or Middle Dutch, and meant to “mutter between the teeth.” And if we look at the Old Testament lesson today from Exodus, that’s exactly what we find God’s people doing in the desert: they are grumbling, they are complaining. So, we have been doing this for a very long time, and have gotten pretty good at it by now.

If we think about Jesus’ parable, it’s probably helpful to think about those laborers. Day laborers probably weren’t all that different in the first century than they are today. The men who would have been hired first, early in the morning, would most likely be those who were young, strong, healthy and looked like they could do a hard day’s work. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the men left would probably have been the old, the weak and perhaps those who were lame. And yet, they had the same needs as those who were strong and healthy: they needed to feed themselves and those they cared for. So, maybe, part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that God is far more concerned with our needs than with our abilities. In other words, God’s economy may have a great deal more to do with generosity than with merit.

I know that will come as a great disappointment to many of us; our culture insists upon the importance of merit. Whether it’s athletic ability, intellectual capability, holiness and piety, wealth or beauty, we crave success: it’s the addiction of our age. So, whatever this kingdom of God is, I’m not sure it looks very much like our society today.

You see, it looks like God is much more concerned with mercy than with justice. Or at least, God’s justice looks a lot more like peace and mercy than some courtroom drama where the criminals get what’s coming to them. Which is kind of a shame, because we Americans really love justice. We love it when the billionaire is sent to prison for insider trading, or when the politician is caught perjuring himself before a senate committee, or when the sanctimonious preacher is exposed in a torrid sexual affair. Schadenfreude—the delight at watching another’s misfortune—may well be the emotion most characteristic of our age. As the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cogburn said, “Everybody loves to see justice done . . . on somebody else.”

But I’m beginning to think that God’s justice looks a lot more like what most of us would call mercy. And so, most of us can breathe a collective sigh of relief. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed, we may be quite surprised by the people who end up in heaven. “God has a soft spot in his heart for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

In the parable, Jesus points out something else that I think is really important for us today. It’s a curious phrase: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” In the original Greek it reads: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I think Jesus is pointing out one of the greatest spiritual dangers most of us face, the danger of envy, of thinking we deserve what someone else has. In the final analysis, when we feel that, we are saying God or the fates or life has treated us poorly, that we deserve what others have. And as Shakespeare once observed, “Comparisons are odious.” But they’re worse than smelly; they are dangerous in that they encourage us to continue the practice of keeping score. And in the spiritual life, that is a sure road to Nowheresville, a long, rocky path to unhappiness and bitterness.

Jesus talked about the same thing in the Gospel reading last week, when he spoke about forgiveness. If you’ll remember, Peter asked if he would need to extend forgiveness as many as seven times. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, you’re going to have to do it so often that you lose count, that you give up the practice of keeping score. You see, when I’m looking at whether someone else deserved an award, or a raise, or a new car, I’m avoiding examining at my own life and the choices that I’ve made and the kind of person that I’ve become.

Jesus contrasts that kind of life with a life of radical generosity and a life full of grace. Grace doesn’t have anything to do with what we deserve; it is by its very nature an undeserved gift, a gift given out of love rather than obligation or merit. When we learn to trust in the Lord of heaven, we find a God who will rain down bread on us, who sets a table for us as we wander through the desert. What does it mean for us if God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, doesn’t depend at all on our effort, our achievement, or our merit? I think following Jesus may mean that we have to give up keeping score and recognize that we have enough for today, enough for this day’s journey. And enough, as my parents told me so often, is enough.

So, I’m wondering what this passage might mean for us in really practical everyday terms. It might mean that we give a coworker a second, or even a third chance. It might mean that we give something to a street person, regardless of whether we think they deserve it or not. Or it might mean that we forgive someone who hasn’t really shown they’re sorry, or that we are kind to those who have been unkind to us in the past. It may not change them, it may not change them at all, but maybe if we’re really lucky and God rains down his mercy on us, it just might change us. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

The Wind Ceased

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The full readings for today can be found here.

And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

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

You know, every now and then, the stars align, the gears click into place, the dice roll reveals our hopes to be well founded and the Lectionary gives us just exactly what we need. So today, we hear the story of a man named Peter who is willing to leave relative comfort and security because he hears the call of Jesus. As Einstein used to say, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

So, we know that one of the consistent metaphors used throughout the Old and New Testaments is the image of the sea as representing trouble or difficulty. These waters represent the nothingness before creation: in the Hebrew, the tohu wa-bohu. The sea was perceived as the vortex around which danger and chaos and evil spun. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus calling the disciples, not away from the storm, but into it. In fact, Jesus sends the disciples into the boat while he dismisses the crowds and goes to pray. Jesus goes to the mountain, like Moses, to encounter the God of Abraham. Thus, while he retreats to the mountains, he compels the disciples to face the sea of chaos. Literally translated, they are being tormented by the waves. Jesus compels them to confront their own frailty, their own vulnerability.

This story reminds us of another story in Matthews Gospel, in the eighth chapter. If you’ll remember that passage, Jesus was sleeping through the storm while the disciples cried, “Save us, Lord, for we are perishing.” And if you’ll recall, that story ends with the disciples wondering what kind of man Jesus is, if even the wind and the water obey him.
So, in today’s reading, it’s worth noting that the disciples have been out in this storm, on the water, for a long time. They’re sent away before evening and they don’t see Jesus again until early in the morning. So, like many of us, they’ve been struggling to stay afloat for a good while. And I love the nonchalant way the Gospel writer reports, “he came walking toward them on the sea.” Mathew records it as matter-of-factly as if he were saying that Jesus then ate a ham sandwich. The disciples, as is so often the case, fail to recognize Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, it’s their fear that keeps them from knowing Jesus, just like our fear sometimes keeps us from seeing Jesus when he’s right beside us.
While the disciples are initially afraid that they are seeing a ghost, Jesus reassures them it’s him. And our translation really doesn’t do Jesus’ words of comfort justice. In the original Greek, Jesus’ announcement is more sparse, succinct, and significant: he tells them “I Am.” He harkens back all the way to the God of Abraham and Moses, reminding them of the presence of God even on this storm-rocked sea.

And then, we have this wonderful story of Peter. Now, if you’ve heard me preach before at all, you know I love Peter. Peter is full of confidence and bravado and a genuinely good heart which is regularly undone by his clumsy efforts to accomplish his tasks. Peter usually opens his mouth only to change feet, but he rushes in where angels fear to tread. He is full of well-intentioned, but impetuous folly.

And so, he sort of invites himself to join Jesus on the water. This is why I love Peter: he is so eager and yet, not quite ready. And he joins our Lord on the water and for a moment….the laws of nature and gravity are suspended. I suspect that, for just a moment, the angels stopped their singing and all heaven held its breath. And then, he began to notice the strong winds around him and he began to sink. And, whatever else you can say about Peter, at least he has the presence of mind to know where to turn in trouble. He turns to Jesus. He cries out, “Lord, save me.”

And when Jesus returns to the boat with Peter the wind dies down and the disciples all acknowledge that Jesus, the Jesus who walks across the storm and calms all our troubled seas, is the Son of God. And I don’t think we should judge St. Peter too harshly, in fact I don’t think we should judge him at all, because he embodies one of the fundamental principles of the Christian life: we are going to screw up. We fall down five times, we get up six.

Changing our lives is hard. It was hard for Peter and it’s hard for us. If we want to live for Christ, live whole-hearted lives, it’s going to take some time, and we’re going to make mistakes. In the religious life, that’s why we have a novitiate. Living with courage and hope and taking chances means we’re going to fail sometimes and we need to be prepared for that. And yet, God is always stronger than the sum of all our fears and failures.

Following Jesus is no assurance of smooth sailing. Following St. Dominic does not shield us from the hard knocks of life and death. In fact, the biblical witness would tell us something quite to the contrary: we are assured of the storm. You know, we clothe our new brothers and sisters with cowls and scapulars. I’m not sure we wouldn’t do better to give them life jackets and crash helmets.

I’m reminded of a poem by a fellow named Andrew King. He wrote:

 

Consider the wild wave, its wet tension,
tissues of torn foam in its curled fist;
contradiction of calm, enemy of evenness,
it says to the stormed soul: fear my strength.

Consider the flinty wind, its walled power,
shreds of white clouds in its biting teeth;
uncaring and unkind to brittle weakness,
it says to the scoured soul: fear my strength.

Consider the fragile flesh, its limitations,
gravity’s slave and tattered by time;
weak against wave and wind’s toughness,
it says to the struggling soul: I’ve little strength.

Consider Christ who walks through storm toward us,
who reaches out, compassion in his hands,
counters fearing with God’s loving faithfulness.
Who says to the yearning soul: here is strength.

You see, like St. Peter, God wants more from us than lives of safety and stability. God’s dreams for the world are bigger than that. God has called us to be explorers on an adventure: seeking God in unlikely places, and pointing out his presence when others cannot see it. And so it is with our brother Peter, who will make his life vows this evening. Like Joseph in the Old Testament reading today, he has come, seeking his brothers and his sisters.We have seen in him the love of God, reflected in his love and commitment to this Order and the path of St. Dominic. We have watched him grow in marvelous ways. God has wonderful dreams for our brother, and we do, too. And so, we join him in stepping out of the boat, sinking sometimes, but always proclaiming the presence of God in the storm. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

There’s Going to Be Trouble

 

The full readings for today can be found here.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 

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

You know, every now and then, my friend Father Chris calls me and asks me if I’d like to come down here and be with you good people and preach. And without fail, before looking at the readings, I always say “yes,” because I love him, and love my godchildren and love you all.

And then, a week or so later, I go look at the readings, and I see that my friend, my priest, my brother has invited me to preach about Jesus tearing families apart, and bringing trouble between children and their parents. And I scratch my head and wonder at the nature of my friendship with Father Chris. But here we are, and this is the Gospel we have, and so we might as well get on with it.

So, it’s worth putting this passage in context. In the 9th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been doing that Jesus stuff. He has healed the woman with the blood disorder, healed two blind men and a mute with a demon, and raised a girl from the dead. And now, in chapter 10, he’s sending his disciples out to do that very same work: to cast out unclean spirits and cure every disease and sickness.

That gets us to today’s Gospel. Before he sends the disciples out, he warns them: this isn’t going to be easy. There’s going to be trouble. He tells them, if they called me the devil, they’re not going to treat you any better. Those who follow Jesus can expect that sometimes they’ll be met with fear and smugness and slander.

One of the things Jesus is doing is inviting the disciples to face their fears. Jesus was sending the disciples out, alone. Traveling in the ancient world was a risky business, and most people didn’t venture far away from their homes or their families. But Jesus sent them out, without any money, without even a staff. He sent them out like sheep among the wolves, so they would learn to trust God and trust each other.

For them, like all of us, fear could be crippling, it could be paralyzing. Fear is a terrible thing to see in children, but it’s dreadful to watch the grip of fear take hold of adults. Many of you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to Germany to stand up against the Nazis. Now Nazi Germany was a petri dish in which the bacteria of fear flourished. And Bonhoeffer wrote:

Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.

Now fear leers that person in the face, saying: Here we are all by our­selves, you and I, now I’m showing you my true face. And anyone who has seen naked fear revealed, who has been its victim in terrifying loneliness— fear of an important decision; fear of a heavy stroke of fate, losing one’s job, an illness; fear of a vice that one can no longer resist, to which one is enslaved; fear of disgrace; fear of another person; fear of dying—that per­son knows that fear is only one of the faces of evil itself, one form by which the world, at enmity with God, grasps for someone. Nothing can make a human being so conscious of the reality of powers opposed to God in our lives as this loneliness, this helplessness, this fog spreading over everything, this sense that there is no way out, and this raving impulse to get oneself out of this hell of hopelessness.

Jesus calls upon the disciples, and by that I mean us, to confront every fear that stands between God and us.

Jesus warns his disciples that there’s going to be trouble, not peace, but a sword. He says that families will be set against each other. In the Old Testament, there were a number of false prophets who went around proclaiming “peace” and good times when that’s not at all what was happening. Jesus distances himself from those false prophets because he knows this isn’t going to be easy for the disciples, nor is following Jesus easy for us. There’s going to be trouble.

And Jesus talks about families turning against each other, and we know that did happen in the early Christian communities. Persecution of Christians and their families was common and still is in many places in the world. And that’s because, there’s going to be trouble.

I sometimes hear people say that bad news, or trouble, comes in threes. That’s not been my experience in my Christian walk: it comes in something closer to three hundred and thirty threes. Whether it’s broken families, illness, losing loved ones, or the God-awful ways that we’ve begun to speak to each other politically, we find ourselves sinking in the mire. And there’s going to be trouble.

Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, that if we want to be worthy of calling ourselves disciples, we need to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Now, picking up our cross doesn’t just mean that we bear troubles. It means that, like Jesus, we bear them in love, without letting our hearts become hardened, we bear them in forgiveness. It means that, when troubles come, we turn to God, we lean on God and we know that God is with us. Then, we will walk as children of light; then we will follow Jesus.

This is our proclamation as Christians. The great battle cry of the Gospels, of our faith and of the Church is the renunciation of the power of fear in our lives. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

And since we just celebrated the feast of Pentecost a couple weeks ago, it’s at least worth considering the possibility that our troubles may be one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. You see, our troubles can force us to abandon the illusion of our independence, and turn to each other for help and comfort. Our troubles can pull us out of our unreflective everydayness, and compel us to examine the things in life that really matter. Our troubles can turn us from a mean-spirited self-devotion to lives of compassion, lived in community and lived in the presence of the God who never abandons us, no matter how often we abandon God.

But here’s the linchpin of today’s reading, and the linchpin of our faith: we don’t have to go through our troubles alone. Jesus tells his disciples: look, sparrows are worth half a penny, but God watches every one of them when they fall. You don’t think God is watching over you? So, yes, there is going to be trouble, but you don’t have to be afraid. If we’re on Jesus’ side, God is on our side: the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who made all things, the God who makes all things new, the God who knows every single one of the hairs on our head. So, while we are going to walk through that dark land, Jesus reminds us that we aren’t going there alone. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

How Can These Things Be?

The full readings for this Sunday can be found here.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

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

          Back in 1975, my parents packed me up and loaded me onto an airplane bound for Lacombe, Louisiana. There, I would attend a minor seminary, which was a kind of a prep school for young men who wanted to become priests.  In addition to the regular courses, we would study Latin and theology. And we went to Mass every day.

          While I was there, I became close with three young men: Steve Delacroix, who taught me the benefits of being a rogue; Gerard Lascaux, who taught me how to play poker; and Jariet Randall, a young African-American man who taught me a great deal about courage.

          Well, every now and then, the four of us would sneak off from the seminary into the Louisiana night and go through the woods into the town of Lacombe. There was an old swimming pool there where the girls from town would go, and we would meet them for what my friend Gerard Lascaux called “general mischief.”

          So this one night, we snuck out of the dorm and went walking towards town, and it was way past dark-thirty. And I observed that if the priests caught us sneaking out, we would be in real trouble. And my friend Steve Delacroix said, “Oh no, chère.  They won’t be upset, cause we’re doing this for their benefit.” Well, I looked at him and said, “Delacroix, how do you figure we are doing this for their benefit?”

          Well, Steve, he looked at me and said, “You see, we’re living such holy lives here at the seminary that if we didn’t sneak out every now and then, we wouldn’t have no sins to confess, and the priests wouldn’t have nothing to forgive.”

          Well, it turns out that my friend Delacroix had misjudged the priests’ attitude about our late night adventures, and they weren’t nearly as grateful as we thought they might be.

          So, in today’s Gospel, we hear about another fellow who has been sneaking around at night, albeit for reasons somewhat more noble than were mine and my friends’.

          We meet this man Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, who Jesus calls “the teacher of Israel.” He comes to Jesus as one of the stewards of the religious traditions of his people. Now the Evangelist John is a very fine poet, and when he says Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, we need to recognize that John’s not just talking about events that took place after sunset. John means that Nicodemus was walking in a spiritual darkness. And he comes to Jesus at night, in secret.

          Now Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he had inherited a rich, long tradition and had devoted his life to it. And yet, he was drawn to this man Jesus, drawn to the signs he has seen, drawn to the miracles, and drawn to the clear presence of God in Jesus’ life.

          And then, their conversation takes a very strange turn. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above if he wants to see the kingdom. Now this is a moment that transcends Nicodemus’ initial curiosity. This is not just a minor adjustment in Nicodemus’ ideas about God. This is a completely new way of being, which will require Nicodemus to let go of most everything he thinks he understands.

          And understandably, Nicodemus is confused. He doesn’t get it; he takes Jesus literally. He wonders how an old man is supposed to be born again, to go back to the womb. And Jesus’ response doesn’t necessarily clear that confusion up. He tells Nicodemus that what is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. In essence, Jesus tells him, you’ve got to be born all over again; you’ve got to start from the very beginning.

          Jesus tells him that Spirit goes where it will; we don’t know where it comes from and we don’t know where it’s going. A life in the spirit of God, a life like that of Jesus, isn’t neat or calculable or predictable. The Spirit is holy and wild and unrestrained. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God will not remain in the box that we try to keep God in.

          And Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He is confused. He reveals his amazement when he says, “How can these things be?” There is a certain terror in his confusion. Because like every birth, being born in the spirit will involve a certain amount of pain as well as some chaos. But there is a certain grace in that bewilderment.

          God will not stay inside the box of our comprehension. As a friend noted, “God, as I understand Him, is not well understood.” Or, to paraphrase the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, Not only is God stranger than we think, God is stranger than we have the capacity to think.

          We all like our mountaintop experiences. We love those moments when we think we can grasp God, or the movement of God in our lives. But those aren’t the moments where growth happens. Spiritual growth arises more often from moments when we say, “I don’t understand this at all” or “What is this happening here?” or “How can these things be?” If we want to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, we need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

          We might call these moments of “holy confusion.” In times like these, God draws us closer. God calls us to change. God calls us into something completely new. In such moments, we feel like the rest of our lives don’t make sense anymore. We feel like new people; we feel reborn.

          One of my favorite theologians is a rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel, who prayed that God would give him the gift of wonder. He once said “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As Heschel knew, we are far closer to God when we are asking questions than when we are convinced of our answers.

          But we know a few more things about Nicodemus. We know that at the trial of Jesus, he was the only person who stood up for Christ. Nicodemus, who had initially come to Jesus in secret, spoke up for him in public. And we know that when Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus (along with Joseph of Aramethea) who took the body to be buried and anointed it. Somehow, the encounter with this man Jesus changed Nicodemus.

          And we want to know more, we want to know what happened to him. But I think that John’s Gospel intentionally leaves that story unfinished. Our story, too, is unfinished. But God wants to make something new of us; God draws us into a holy vortex where God is making all things new again.

          For Nicodemus, like many of us, faith had become a beautiful heirloom rather than a living fountain from which we drink and are refreshed. You see, I don’t think we need a little more God in our lives. I think we need to be born from above, into the life of God. Every now and then, if we’re really lucky, God will shake us to our core.

          And in this holy season of Lent, it’s my prayer that we all walk through a bit of that night, a bit of holy confusion. As we approach the nightfall of Holy Week, it is my prayer that we find ourselves wondering at the meaning of the Cross and Golgotha, awestruck by the mystery of God.

          If we do, we may find that we, too, have been reborn and we are a new creation. Let it be, Lord. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

 

Hurry Down!

zaccheaus

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

The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2016